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Tech, Democracy, and Authoritarianism: Round 2

Tech, Democracy, and Authoritarianism: Round 2

Last week, with the US paralyzed by a government shutdown and the UK wracked by indecision over Brexit, my colleague Alex Kliment asked whether developments in communications technology and big data might ultimately favor authoritarianism over democracy.

Could the combination of big data, computing power, and artificial intelligence create a perfectly efficient form of authoritarianism by enabling China's rulers to deliver the better quality of life demanded by their population while simultaneously suppressing dissent and keeping people in line?



None of us has the answer, but it's a question worth raising. Here's another: Is authoritarianism vs. democracy even the right way to look at the problem? Or rather than favoring one over the other, is technological disruption creating something new that we don't really have a name for yet?

Consider these other dimensions of political power that are being reshaped by technology:

  1. Technology mega-corporations vs the state. Every day, around 1.5 billion people around the world exchange information, express their preferences, and form political views on Facebook. In countries that allow free expression, the social network and other large internet platforms exercise huge influence over how information flows through society. But in authoritarian China the ruling Communist Party also counts on influential mega-corporations that it doesn't fully control to stay on the cutting edge of advanced technologies like AI – and ultimately to stay in power. What if the real question isn't whether technology favors democracy or authoritarianism, but how the rise of this new kind of geopolitical actor is disrupting both models?
  2. Cities vs national governments. We've written before in Signal about our hunch that technology may eventually promote the re-emergence of cities as important actors in global affairs after a long period of dominance by nation-states. Urban areas already account for 80 percent of global economic output, and game-changing innovations like ultra-fast 5G mobile networks, a technology that some observers (including me) think could be more revolutionary than the original internet, will almost certainly be rolled out in major cities first. As national governments struggle to manage the resulting political, social, and economic tensions, cities will continue to outperform economically – and may even eclipse national governments in political importance.

The bottom line: As technology continues to evolve, and governments, citizens, and corporations respond to the political disruption that it creates, the question might not be so much the relative strength of democracy vs authoritarianism as what new systems of governance emerge to take their place.

Signal readers, what do you think?

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Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

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Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

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