In their recent series “Automating poverty,” The Guardian explored implications of technology adoption in nations with substantial digital divide, such as India, and countries with the most developed E-Government facilities, including the United Kingdom. Examples showed how mistakenly written algorithms and digital illiteracy prevented the most vulnerable people from receiving social security payments. The British Universal Credit excluded people who could not correctly navigate its digital system from the service. In India, the distribution of rations for low-incomers, which was once administered using paperwork, now requires claimers to find their way through an online biometric identification system. Technology brings us new power today to achieve what was impossible in the past. But, just like other forms of power, it can increase one’s opportunities, while restricting those of others.
Industrial and technological policies today are redefining relationships between governments and the people they serve, both inside and outside their territory. As governments around the world vigorously embrace technologies to generate higher economic growth and compete globally, this growing digital supremacy may stealthily entrench inequalities and power structures in unintended and unexpected ways.
For the UK, top rankings in global e-government development indexes and a national strategy to make the UK a “world-leading digital economy” represent positive efforts to improve the administration and cost-efficiency management of “vital public services on which we all rely.” Nevertheless, the implementation of frontline market-driven tools exposes a governmental cognitive gap between social problems and technological solutions, resulting in policy outcomes that burden the most marginalized individuals.
Apart from national development strategies, the British government has also sought plans to implement digitalisation globally. Managed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the DFID Digital Strategy 2018 to 2020: doing development in a digital world aims to achieve “a bigger, faster and more cost-effective impact on the lives of poor people.” Here, the British government explores the “inclusive power” of digital technology to “leave no one behind.”
When expanded globally, we can see another challenge when industrial and technological policies are at play. While the DFID developed its Digital Strategy with compassion and a sense of responsibility, not leaving anyone behind in a digitalised world assumes that every person will need to be documented and processed. Cases where companies harvested online profiles to ‘optimise’ political and economic activities highlighted concerns of cybersecurity, privacy and the erosion of individual autonomy. That is, we need to question the assumption that people around the world accept a foreign government utilizing personal data in the name of ‘development.’
Vulnerability is not only experienced through the lack of material resources, but also through the absence of the knowledge to protect oneself in an advanced technological environment. Industry and technology are evolving at different speeds around the world. While digital systems continue to integrate individuals, the gap in digital literacy also grows. This systematic knowledge disparity can put us at risk of generating new power structures that operate under the disguise of ‘inclusive international development.’
Technology has existed to support human activities and bring prosperity. However, today, countries must either embrace big data, artificial intelligence and the future implementation of 5G broadband or fail to keep up in the global competition. This pressure can easily trap us in a mindset of digital supremacy, where ‘technology makes things work’ becomes the guiding principle. Remembering that new technologies are developing ever more rapidly, adapting societies to innovations will only become increasingly difficult with the next fancy tool. To bring out the true sustainability that technology can give us, we must put greater effort into spotting unwanted consequences. Without denying the positive impact of technology, I welcome everyone to keep an eye on the digital engulfment that is happening around us now.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.