[Editorial Analysis] The techno dystopia

Mains Paper 2: Polity

Prelims level: Electronic voting machine

Mains level: Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure

Context

• Two former chief election commissioners (CECs) and the current CEC have verbally, and in writing, rebutted the suggestion that the electronic voting machine (EVM) is hackable and that the Commission should safeguard public franchise by reverting to a form of paper balloting.

• This controversy is about the electoral process in India. It bears, however, upon a deeper issue. The tension between technocracy and democracy.

Background

• The disclosure that Facebook had allowed the consultant firm Cambridge Analytica to access the private data of its users which was then passed onto the Donald Trump election campaign raised concerns about data privacy and, more fundamentally, the power of the owners of data to abridge democratic rights.

• The most eloquent votary of this concern has been the historian, Yuval Noah Harari. In a talk at Davos in 2018 followed by other lectures and his latest book, 21 lessons for the 21st century, Harari has spelt out the potential consequences of an algorithmic world.

• He acknowledged the huge benefits of the digital age but forewarned of a scenario in which human beings acquire the potential to “hack into the bodies, minds and brains of other human beings” and where algorithms “know individuals better than the individual knows himself”.

Digital system vs. Old system

• This scenario is imaginable because of the advancement in computing power (info tech) and the agglomeration of biometric and biological data (biotech).

• When the two “tech” revolutions merge, the handful of companies that own data will fashion the greatest revolution ever overturning the laws of Darwinian selection with the “laws of intelligent design”.

• Democracy could be replaced by “digital dictatorship” .

• Fascinating, science fiction, alarmist one may use any one or a combination of these words to describe Harari’s prognostications.

• But there is no ignoring the many questions that his description of an alternative future has raised. Practical questions:

• What regulatory checks and balances should be imposed on the companies that monopolise data — Amazon, Google, Tencent, Alibaba, Facebook?

• Should these companies be broken up?

• If so, who should be given the authority to keep data and to decide how and in what manner this asset should be given away? Surely not the politicians.

Philosophical questions:

• How does one control phenomena (technology and data) that is “everywhere but nowhere,” that recognises no physical or political barriers and is universal in scope and impact?

• Can an algorithmic world be managed through institutional structures of governance built on the bedrock of Westphalian principles?

• (The treaties of Westphalia, between 1644 and 1648, brought to an end the religious wars in Europe. They established three principles that still define the nature of international affairs today — the principle of state sovereignty, non interference in the affairs of other states, and the principle of the legal equality of states)

Way forward

• EVMs have reduced the incidence of voter fraud, double counting and strong arm tactics.

• But that does not mean it has assuaged the concerns of the techno illiterate that perhaps their votes might be misappropriated by an electronic intermediary.

• We must not, therefore, duck the question.

• What institutional structures must be created and what regulatory checks imposed to ensure the algorithmic world does not abridge our democratic rights?

• It’s the same question that Harari and others are asking in the context of the impact of the digital age on humanity.

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Prelims Questions:

Q.1) With regard to Universal adult franchise, consider the following

1. It enhances the self-respect and prestige of the common people and opens up new hopes and vistas
for weaker sections.

2. The 61st Constitutional Amendment Act provided for Universal adult franchise.

Which of the above statement(s) is/are correct?

a) 1 only

b) 2 only

c) Both 1 and 2

d) None of the above

Correct Answer: A

Mains Questions:

Q.1) What institutional structures must be created and what regulatory checks imposed to ensure the algorithmic world does not abridge our democratic rights?

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