Let's Create a Social Contract Between Tech Companies and Citizens

The social contract is broken – at least the one between government and citizens. The recurring citizen protests against political leaders in recent years pretty much everywhere are proof that citizens’ expectations of their governments have often not been met. Maybe this critical relationship will improve in 2018? Let’s see. But as we wait for governments to regain some legitimacy in the eyes of their jaded citizenry, it may be time to consider another critical relationship – the one developing between tech companies and citizens. Technology is shaping our lives – politically, economically and socially – every day in positive and negative ways, perhaps having a more immediate impact on us than weak governments; this Fourth Industrial Revolution, as the World Economic Founder Klaus Schwab termed it, will likely only deepen in 2018. Perhaps now is the time to create a new type of social contract – not necessarily between government and citizens, but between tech companies and citizens?

First, tech companies are notably impacting our politics, at times creating political change. Social media has allowed for the average citizen to be more activist against government (e.g. in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia), even bringing down entire governments (e.g. in South Korea, Brazil) and regimes (e.g. in MENA). Tech leaders are also speaking out about policy issues like climate change (e.g. after the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement) and even trying to shape policy (e.g. Elon Musk’s solar power effort in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria). But we have to remind ourselves these tech leaders are not elected and cannot be held accountable if their words or actions don’t deliver the desired result. Plus, we cannot deny tech’s role in politics isn’t always positive – there was after all some form of Russian interference online in the US election. A social contract would help us know what to expect of technology’s political role, or at least set some guidelines for the positive role it can play.

Second, tech companies are changing our economies. Yes, some jobs are being wiped out due to automation but new jobs will also be created. Google is even devoting $1 billion to train workers in these new jobs. Plus tech billionaires (e.g. Bill Gates) are debating Universal Basic Income (UBI) for those displaced, testing UBI’s viability (e.g. Sam Altman) and suggesting how the funds might come from AI-created wealth, (according to Richard Branson). Then again, not everyone will necessarily be open to these new jobs or have access to UBI, potentially becoming precariats with no real “occupational identity”, as Schwab put it. Tech can also be leveraged to launch global cyber attacks – NATO revealed it thwarted 500 attacks monthly in 2016. One study suggests a major cyber attack could cause $120 billion in economic damage which is as much as 0.2% of global GDP. A social contract might clarify what we as citizens should expect of technology’s impact on our economy – again, let’s set some guidelines for the positive role it can play.

Third, tech companies are part of our daily lives. It is how we connect with families and friends globally and learn about the world to make ourselves and our kids “smarter than ever” (at least this was before the dawn of fake news). Social media has become a tool in human rights, for instance exposing injustices like sexual harassment in Hollywood, media and politics. But we also know the pitfalls like social media addiction that leads to depression and even suicide (e.g. Japan’s recent Twitter killer). It has led to more hate groups especially a stronger social media presence according to some reports that has contributed to our growing identity crisis (are we globalists or nationalists?) And of course it has led to more extremist recruitment and calls for tech companies to do even more to stop this trend. A social contract might help us understand what role technology should play in society – or what we hope its positive impact should be.

Whether we like it or not, tech companies’ influence on our lives is growing every day. Governments, especially in the US and Europe, will keep calling for some kind of regulation, just as certain think tanks and commentators will keep calling for more consideration of the ethics of such tech. This is necessary and important. But for the moment, there is still no clarity about what we as citizens really expect from tech companies, despite their notable impact on our lives. In 2018, it may be prudent to have a group of tech leaders, technologists and citizens get together in a G7-like setting to define this new social contract – that deepening relationship between tech companies and citizens. There is much uncertainty ahead that we may not be fully prepared for, from possible wars to terrorist attacks and more climate change disasters, but perhaps with a social contract we can at least try to get a handle on how tech will – or should – shape our lives?

Dr Aziz is a professor in the NYU GSAS Program in International Relations. Brynnan Parish received her MA in International Relations from NYU.

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