Los Altos High School, California, U.S.A.
As I walk between classes in my Silicon Valley high school, situated within a 10 mile radius of Google, Facebook, and Apple corporate headquarters as well as Sand Hill Road (the venture capital industry’s metonym) and Stanford University, I am bombarded by endless advertisements for startup boot camps, coding classes, hack-a-thons, and business plan competitions. While I have grown used to the achievement chatter that characterizes normal life in my Californian community, I notice a dramatic absence of any dialogue, discussion, or reflection about the impact that the new technologies created here may have on our society, system of government, or civil rights.
As the extent of social media’s influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election has come to light, along with the growing importance of new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), that have the potential to displace millions of jobs and threaten to affect all aspects of our lives, my initial sense of hope and admiration for these innovations is replaced with dread. I begin to wonder to myself ‘Am I living at a time and place that will be seen as ground zero for the downfall of modern democracy?’
In order to understand this potential threat, we must first define democracy and decide on its importance. Democracy is a system of government in which each citizen has the power to influence political decisions, generally through voting to elect representatives. This leads to a connection between the power of the government and the consent of the people being governed. Democracy relies on the participation of its citizens in its institutions and systems to uphold its values and allow it to remain viable.
A simple way to analyze the importance of contemporary democracy is to compare it to other current forms of government. In the cases of the United States and China, both are global superpowers, yet have very different governments and freedoms.
China is a socialist state under the control of a communist party, in which the government has all but limitless power and control over its citizens. The Chinese government shows a complete disregard for civil liberties, as every aspect of people’s lives are constantly monitored through security cameras and private companies that analyze social media. This is done in the name of crime prevention and improving public well being, but the extensive censoring of anything possibly harmful to the government’s power tells another story. No political opposition is tolerated, and many popular internet websites are censored. An extreme example of China’s adamant policy of absolute control was shown in the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1989, hundreds of protestors were killed and thousands wounded by the government as the military ensured that there would be no possibility of government reform. Twenty years later, the event is still widely censored.
Another blatant act to retain governmental control was the recent altering by President Xi Jinping of the Chinese constitution in order to remove presidential term limits. Despite these types of actions, or maybe because of them, Chinese government approval ratings are quite high. But will they stay high in the future when people's social credit scores prevent them from traveling because they bought video games and junk food instead of diapers and vegetables? One thing is for sure, the Chinese people are almost politically powerless.
In contrast, the U.S. seems like a paradise of liberty. While there are certainly problems that need to be addressed, such as the flawed Electoral College, at least Americans have the ability to change their country for better or worse. In each election, they influence who gets to make decisions. They are also allowed to discuss their concerns with others and peacefully protest without fear of government retaliation. Countless times in the past, and even today, Americans have used democracy and its corresponding freedoms to change their country, whether it be the fight for Women’s Suffrage or Civil Rights. While there have been situations where its application has not been fully realized, in theory, democracy promotes the equality of all citizens by providing equal rights, justice, and political power. While democracy is certainly not perfect, it is definitely important to ensure individual freedoms and self-determination.
While recognizing democracy’s importance is necessary, it is even more crucial for citizens to actively participate in their democracy, to be vigilant in protecting their democratic rights and values, and to always be on the lookout for attempts to undermine democracy. These responsibilities are vividly apparent in Silicon Valley. The world’s democratic systems are being threatened by unchecked entrepreneurs whose actions can potentially negatively impact countless people in the name of progress. Mark Zuckerberg’s (the CEO of Facebook) actions illustrate the drastic consequences of ethical negligence. Throughout the course of the 2016 election, Russian hackers used the Facebook social media platform to influence American voters and in turn possibly change the course of American history. This could have been averted if Zuckerberg had realized the possible implications of his creation, and then put safeguards in place to prevent them from occurring. However, we should not solely rely on the behavior of individual CEO’s. For this reason, ethical regulations need to be in place to prevent companies from compromising democracy. Low levels of government regulation within a capitalist system can be beneficial, but when the legitimacy of an entire political system is threatened because there is nothing in the way of the expansion of massive tech companies, actions need to be taken.
Ethical challenges are not limited only to social media. The increasingly powerful and revolutionary world of AI promises to pose many problems for democracy. AI is certain to be incredibly useful in the years to come, but it must be used with caution. Its massive power and unpredictability must be monitored and fully understood by more than just its creators in order to ensure that new technologies do not surreptitiously undermine or otherwise violate democratic values and rights. Applications such as online search algorithms and predictive police data models could easily corrupt the democratic process without necessary oversight. Search engine queries that promote political biases and racial profiling could be hidden in the complex enigma of crime prediction algorithms. For at least these reasons, such breakthrough technologies must be made transparent to the public. Additionally, steps also need to be taken either by representatives or referendums to increase ethics education and discussion so that regular voters understand the consequences of new technologies and can make informed decisions. As the world evolves and technology improves, current democratic systems must always be taken into consideration. Individual freedoms should always have higher priority than mere technological advancement. Each person should consider how their actions affect everyone else and should strive to protect rights as much as possible, regardless of how easy their Amazon Echo makes their life.
While I agree that it is important to live in a democracy to benefit from its many advantages as an individual citizen, I argue that it is even more imperative to participate in a democracy rather than risk losing it to the plethora of ways that it can be destroyed.
As a kid living in Silicon Valley whose whole life has been in the shadow of historic advancement, I hope these will not be the times that I look back on and realize our democracy was being crippled. I hope everyone will understand that it is not sufficient to live in a democracy, but instead to maintain one.