An undeniable change is afoot. No country is spared from the forces of digital disruption. Experts are sounding dire warnings of a near-future that will be profoundly disrupted by digitization, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), industrial automation, the internet of things (IoT) and rampant cyber threats, which have already undermined the cornerstones of democracy and trust in institutions. In response to these relentless changes the world needs a new breed of civic engagement that goes beyond Facebook activism, true political compromise, and, perhaps most importantly, the emergence of a new breed of elected leader who can champion people’s rights in a time when all lines are blurred. These leaders are veritable Digital Democrats and their numbers are scarce in the U.S. and around the world.
A Digital Democrat is a progressive leader prepared for the technical and technological challenges of the 21st century. These include the prospects of wide scale job loss due to industrial automation, combating hidden biases built into AI, while fostering a policy and security environment that cares for the people behind the binary code. Few if any leaders in office are adequately harnessing the risks and rewards of our time or our form of government. Any talk of government accountability, efficiency, or greater stewardship of scarce taxpayer resources that does not contemplate digital transformation, is simply not serious and will produce the very waste that is emblematic of a dysfunctional Washington.
Just as the workforce needs to reinvent itself to adapt to an increasingly digital world, our political class needs to confront the reality that so few of them are well-equipped to make sense of the 21st century. As with all organizations, the best decisions are made in an environment that prizes diversity. For this the U.S. Congress and Senate not only lack adequate representation of women, minorities, and other groups, they are decidedly light in their technological bench, with most elected officials coming from a legal pedigree. Looking at the current roster of elected officials, few have the technical background to properly lead a cyber risk inquiry, let alone formulate a balanced regulatory approach to digital innovation. For us to retain this economic miracle, while managing its blowback, our elected officials need to not only reflect our times in the knowledge they bring to the job, they need to understand technology and how to at once harness and guard against it at granular level.
Consider the seeds of doubt that were watered in the 2016 presidential election by cyber misinformation warfare and fertilized by myopic political goals of victory at any cost. Indeed, if Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google’s Eric Schmidt are correct that the very future of humanity is at risk and that the world will go to war over data, we are woefully unprepared and the majority of our political leaders are not conversant in these emerging trends. As the birthplace of the Internet age and the midwife of digital transformation, the U.S. bears a special obligation to lead the world in responsibly harnessing technology as a force for good.
Looking then at the field of candidates vying for elected office, few have the skill set to be a future-proof leader for the 21st century. Brian Forde, the congressional candidate in California’s 45th District not only has the right balance of political experience at the highest levels of government, he brings the right technical virtuosity when it comes to confronting the many challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Forde may very well emerge as the country’s first Digital Democrat, and his candidacy in a largely Republican district, hearkens to the type of bipartisanship and consensus that is desperately needed in Washington. Indeed, his campaign is breaking new ground by accepting a digital currency, acknowledging Bitcoin’s legitimate role as a part of our economic thrift.
Digital citizenship and the emergence of Digital Democrats are not necessarily zero-sum propositions where one party or person wins at the expense of another. The emergence of this new class of political leadership augurs well for a future in which party lines matter much less than outcomes. Indeed, looking around the world at the scorecard for how eGovernance has taken shape, few bright lights emerge, with Estonia being among the brightest. Estonia, a country that might have been forgotten 10 years ago, has quickly vaulted to the top of the list of countries embracing technology and digital transformation for greater stewardship of public trust and greater efficiency in citizen services.
The only reason it is hard for the U.S. to conceive of a similar transformation, despite our large population and advanced economy, is because of the lack of political leadership that can comprehend the opportunities and rewards of embracing digital transformation. If we are to face the type of job loss in the millions that experts are forecasting, does it not make sense to have elected officials who can properly regulate and manage this change reducing the impact on people's lives, while at the same time future-proofing the country? A Digital Democrat can at once understand the national security implications of a hyper-connected world, one in which a cyber threat can spread to 150 countries over a weekend, where trust can evaporate in an instant and the White House can be taken with a tweet. In this new era, the only way to restore public trust is a democracy that can thrive in sunlight.