The digital revolution has changed the way the world works, communicates, and plays. It is also quickly challenging the ability of open societies to monitor and regulate the downside of electronic interconnection, as two accomplished magazine reports show this week.
In its piece, “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence,” Scientific American examines how governments may use the ability to monitor citizen activity on the internet to control their citizens. The article is long and nuanced, and so I hesitate to summarize, for fear of oversimplification. One quote from the piece does, however, give a general sense of its overall scope: “Of course, manipulative technologies are only partly effective. Nevertheless, our freedom is disappearing slowly, but surely—in fact, slowly enough that there has been little resistance from the population, so far.” The article is worth reading from start to end; it lays out the possibility that a creeping ability to collect and process personal data may undermine democracy in fundamental ways that are not obvious, because advances in collection and analysis are gradual.
The New Yorker, meanwhile, has come out with a tour-de-force look at the history and current reality of Russian attempts to influence US politics via “active measures”—efforts at subversion that include propaganda efforts magnified in the age of digital communications and exemplified by the digital hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta during the 2016 US presidential election. The article—“Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War”—is context- and history-heavy, again to a degree that makes summarization difficult. The import of the piece is, however, unmistakable: “To me, the question might finally come down to this,” Celeste Wallander, President Obama’s senior adviser on Russia, said. “Will Putin expose the failings of American democracy, or will he inadvertently expose the strength of American democracy?”