In 1993, CERN made the World Wide Web available to the public for free, accelerating the shift from an analog to a digital information ecosystem. The decade that followed was marked by a sense of optimism that Internet applications such as the Web offered novel opportunities to overcome old bottlenecks and democratize the production, access, and creative use of information. In 2023, thirty years later, the sentiment that digital technology might drive the “democratization of everything” on autopilot has long faded. How do emerging technologies intersect with democracy in the age of AI?
On 12 October, an event featuring a keynote lecture by Urs Gasser, Professor at the Technical University of Munich and Member of the Board of Directors, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, sought to answer this question.
In introductory remarks, Graziella Moraes Silva, Co-Director, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (AHCD) noted this event inscribed itself in its yearly Democracy Week programme. Olivier Leclère, Deputy Director, Directorate of Support and Voting Operations, Chancellery of State, Republic and Canton of Geneva, warned that “democracy is under threat” and described the transition from analog to digital ecosystem in the city of Geneva’s democratic processes. The event was moderated by Jérôme Duberry, Managing Director, Tech Hub, and Senior Researcher, AHCD.
In his keynote, Urs Gasser highlighted the waning enthusiasm about digital technologies over the last 30 years, which culminates in warnings about manipulation and threats to democracy. He then described evidence on the links between digital technologies and democracy stemming from research noting among others that, counter-intuitively, research suggests that social media does not create echo chambers and polarization. Positive developments can be found around more participatory and commons-related experiences, such as Wikipedia. The story, he continued, is not so much about technology itself but “mostly about how human beings are using technologies:” ontological divisions between society and technology are not useful as technologies are born out of our existing power structures, ranging from innovation ecosystems and how wealth is distributed.
Discussant Alexander Barclay, Delegate for Digital Policy, Canton of Geneva, agreed that the digital and real world are not separate and that there is an interplay between policymakers and society. Caitlin Buchman, CEO/Founder of Women at the Table, warned that we should spend more time reflecting on technologies as they are developed rather than course correcting, highlighting the gender bias in new technologies.
On differences between the EU and the US, Urs Gasser said that, while they have much in common, the US may feature a greater inclination towards creativity and innovation. AI regulations are enabling rather than constricting.
Professor Gasser’s visit to the Graduate Institute was made possible thanks to a generous grant by the US Mission to the UN in Geneva.