Economists frequently talk about technological innovations and their impact on the economy. Political scientists should do the same with politics.
Self-driving cars. Virtual Reality. Softwares diagnosing patients. What was once science fiction has become reality. The symptoms of an emerging technological revolution are everywhere. Daily, we are confronted with technological innovations and scientific breakthroughs. Economists have for some time been concerned with economic variables, as the ever-old Marxist argument concerned with machines replacing humans has begun to materialize at an uncontrollable pace.
A recent report warns that robots could replace six per cent of the US workforce by 2021. Economists are right to worry. However, these changes will not be limited to the economy. Culture will see new possibilities, human interaction has and will continue to be transformed, and above all, the Holy Grail for readers of this magazine, the world of politics will change.
Several transformations have already occurred
It is easy to underestimate how quickly technology changes society. Several transformations have already occurred. From the late 1990’s several countries such as Brazil, Belgium and Australia decided to adopt electronic voting machines. As a natural continuation, Switzerland and Estonia introduced online voting. After computers, Internet and programming, social medias were next to be conjured. Facebook launched in 2004.
From its origin as an online network connecting students at a few American universities, Facebook today operates as a de facto news editor, distributing news to one and a half billion people. The first official Twitter message was published on march 21st 2006. Four years later the microblog contributed to the Arab Spring, which affected the lives of millions of people. The internet has also opened doors for new types of crime. Cyber security is frequently debated, digital currencies possibly undermine the activities of the state, and a state-controlled Internet is the norm in several countries.
Political opportunities on social medias
Luckily, some scholars are already examining the technological revolution and its affect on politics. Electronic voting promises lowered election costs and improved voter turnout. These guarantees have been questioned by researchers who claim that E-elections might possibly depress voter turnouts, due to unbalanced distribution of Internet availability. Students in the Middle East have pinpointed the importance of social medias in order for the Arabic Spring to unfold. Facebook gradually receives more attention as its impact on politics evolves.
However, it is important to have in mind that these novelties are still young, indicating that there is more work to be done. Furthermore, there will likely be new ways through which politicians and institutions take advantage of these channels, and one might keep one’s eyes open for developments in order to construct meaningful and interesting research.
There have obviously been many changes to several societal components the last couple of decades. Nevertheless, one should also keep in mind that there are many innovations in the pipeline, several of which have the potential to affect political variables. For example, one of the key features for successful integration is the degree to which migrants learn the native language of the country they come to. Next year, an in-ear-device is to be introduced to the market. This device allegedly translates language in real time Whether or not this works as the producers promise remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it should spur several possible research questions.
Furthermore, artificial intelligence has and will see tremendous improvement in the coming years. This might be most visible by the forthcoming of social robots, functioning as some sort of answering-machine to easy requests, or it might materialize as internet services performing various tasks. Whichever it might be, they will likely be able to answer descriptive and normative questions, which in turn might affect thoughts and opinions. We will to a variable degree be exposed to information selected by algorithms into which few of us have any professional insight. Somewhat different, but definitely as a cause of improved technology, several companies offer more and more sophisticated software, specialized in so-called big data analysis.
Shortly put, this is a process in which computers analyse enormous amounts of data which is incomprehensible for the common man. This is normally targeted toward hard sciences and occasionally economics, but there is a potential for political scientists to be early in on adopting such software. Benefits of this could be to refine methodological instruments, and as such provide better answers to complex questions.
Political life and technological innovations
All of this is not an attempt to seduce political scientists to the dark side of neo-liberal economics where the future is supposedly predictable. The future will always be a cloudy mess where the unexpected usually prevails the expected. However, we should be aware of the changes happening around us and try to interpret them in light of our expertise. For technology already available, one should look for interesting research questions in order to uncover societal impacts. For technology to come, one should keep an eye open for devices, software and other innovations that might affect political variables.
One cannot predict how people will adapt to a new reality, but one can predict which innovations will be made, and perform a qualified guess as to how these innovations will affect our political life. It all boils down to being prepared and open for new research angles in order to contribute to both the academic field of political science and society as a whole. Social scientists played an important role in designing E-elections in Switzerland and Estonia. This should serve as an inspiration to the role of social scientists in a time of rapid technological changes.