Tech Companies Threaten Democracy

Maia Nikoladze
Jul 30, 2020 02:10PM UTC
Foretell is CSET's crowd forecasting pilot project focused on technology and security policy. It connects historical and forecast data on near-term events with the big-picture questions that are most relevant to policymakers. This post is part of our Scenario series, where we break down a big-picture scenario into a collection of predictors and metrics we are monitoring on Foretell.

Naomi Klein, an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent for The Intercept, describes in her article “Screen New Deal” how pandemic-related trends might lead to a world in which the concentration of wealth and power in a few large tech companies threatens American democracy (republished in The Guardian). We can extract key predictors of this outcome and monitor and forecast them on Foretell to see whether we are moving toward this possible future.

Klein describes a scenario in which large tech companies have close ties with the government while the public has less influence over how technology is introduced into society, ultimately damaging the quality of American democracy. In this scenario, public opinion no longer constrains technological development and deployment. Technology is incorporated into every part of our daily lives and surveillance is widespread. It’s “a future in which our every move … is trackable and traceable,” she writes, and in which our homes have become our “schools, doctor’s offices, gyms, and even jails.” Although marketed by tech companies as an AI-run economy, the reality will be that “anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses”, often working in unhealthy conditions, will be propping up the economy.

How might this happen?

According to Klein, during the current pandemic-triggered state of emergency, the public is more accepting of technological solutions previously constrained by widespread skepticism. The use of technology for remote work and education, coupled with the government’s adoption of technology to track the virus, allows tech companies to rebrand themselves as “public health” protectors. Capitalizing on this favorable environment, large tech companies might strengthen their ties to the government and advocate for more aggressive adoption of technological solutions in education, healthcare, and daily life. Their influence might leave little room for public engagement in the decision-making process relating to tech adoption. Tech companies would then face few constraints when lobbying for greater government funding for tech adoption - beyond what is needed to address COVID-19 - leading to a rapid transition to a tech-driven world dictated by tech companies rather than the public.

How will we know if we're heading toward this scenario?

Based on the predictors from Klein’s argument, several metrics can serve as signposts for this scenario. We can monitor and forecast these metrics over the next three to 18 months on Foretell to see whether Klein’s forecast is becoming more or less probable.

Predictor Metric
Increasing U.S. government spending on AI R&D DoD spending on AI grants [1] and contracts [1]
Increasing use of surveillance technologies US government spending on surveillance technology [1]
Use of facial recognition technology in U.S. cities
Seeking suggestions: re use of facial recognition technology by non-U.S. governments
Money raised by facial recognition companies [1]
Large tech companies crowd out smaller tech companies and startups Revenue of big tech companies [1]
Money raised by tech startups [1] and private non-startups [1]
Decreasing civic engagement in how tech is introduced into society Seeking suggestions
Large tech companies have closer ties to U.S. defense agencies DoD contracts with big tech companies 

You can forecast these metrics at

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Maia Nikoladze

Author: Maia Nikoladze

Student, Georgetown School of Foreign Service
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