Social, political, and ethical dimensions of digital transformation
This course investigates how digital transformation relates to democracy and governance in an increasingly connected yet potentially polarised world.
There are widespread concerns that social and political divisions are being exacerbated by information technology, and that this is having a profound impact on the capabilities and quality of both global and local institutions. In a similar way to how the advent of the printing press prompted the rise of democracy and the nation state, perhaps digital transformation is contributing to a similar disruption in governance.
Such trends are particularly relevant in regimes where statehood was not an internal process, and was adopted either through colonial or international activity. Rising populism and authoritarianism provides the social and political backdrop to our analysis of the broad impact of technology, and we will consider whether pluralist approaches may help to combat some of the emerging threats to liberal democracy.
- 40% Group report [download here]
- 30% One pager [see here for instructions]
- 30% Individual MCQ final exam – this relates to all lecture content and the readings from the content section
For a good example of a subject matter for the group report I highly recommend reading The Story of VaccineCA. In particular, consider how the following elements coincide: the type of organisation chosen to pursue this objective (initially volunteers but then a Delaware corporation; the institutional context (i.e. liberal market democracy where sharing such information wasn’t illegal); and the cultural attitude toward problem solving and tech optimism.
Students should have already taken my 6 hour component of the Business Frontier Technologies course. This includes the following content:
Mandatory pre-course readings
- von Neumann, J., 1955, “Can we survive technology” Science and Society
- Ostrom, E., “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” Nobel Prize Lecture, December 8th 2009
- “Face recognition and AI ethics”, Benedict Evans, September 9th 2019
- Mergel, I., Edelmann, N., and Haug, N., 2019, “Defining digital transformation: Results from expert interviews” Government Information Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 4
- Study on the impact of digital transformation on democracy and good governance, European Committee on Democracy and Governance (CDDG), September 6th 2021
- Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation, Federal Reserve, January 2022
- “Pausing AI Developments Isn’t Enough. We Need to Shut it All Down“, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Time magazine, March 29th 2023 or “AGI Ruin: A List of Lethalities“, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Less Wrong, June 5th 2022
For a 50 point quiz to test your knowledge of the pre-readings see here.
Group workbooks [download here]
- Addiction [lecture handouts]
- Small change: Why the revolution won’t be tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, September 27th 2010
- The Facebook data breach wasn’t a hack. It was a wake-up call, Aja Romano, Vox.com, May 2018
- Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid, Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, April 11th 2022
- No, social media are not destroying democracy, by Matthew Lesh, Spiked, June 20th 2022 or Don’t panic about social media harming your child’s mental health – the evidence is weak, by Stuart Ritchie, The i, March 25th 2023
- What next for Wordle and its fans?, by Jane Wakefield, BBC News, February 2nd 2022
- Democracy [lecture handouts]
- The end of the long boom, Will Dunn, New Statesman, July 1st 2022 (also see the original article, “The Long Boom: A History of the Future 1980-2020“)
- The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked, Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer, May 17th 2017
- A Global Political Realignment? Cato Unbound, Steve Davies, December 10th 2018
- Days of rage, David Zhines, Status 451, January 20th 2017
- Ethics [lecture handouts]
- Beard, S., Deep ethics: the long-term quest to decide right from wrong, 18th June 2019
- Blackman, R., and Ammanath, B., Ethics and AI: 3 Conversations Companies Need to Have, Harvard Business Review, March 2022
- Governance [lecture handouts]
- The beginning of history, William MacAskill, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2022, Vol. 101, Issue 5, pp. 10-24
- The myth of panic, Tanner Green, July 15th 2021
- Why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, Tom Chivers, unherd, September 9th 2020
- Do you believe in sharing? Tim Harford, Financial Times, August 13th 2013
- Dorsch, M.J., Flachsland, C., 2017, “A Polycentric Approach to Global Climate Governance”, Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 17, No. 2.
- Central banks and digital transformation [lecture handouts]
- The Bullish Case for Bitcoin, Vijay Boyapati, March 2nd 2018 (for a nice pdf see here)
- How crypto enables economic freedom, Brian Armstrong, The Coinbase Blog, September 23rd 2021
Optional background preparation
To understand some of the context for my construction of this course I recommend:
- Beware the Jabberwock, This American Life, March 15th 2019 (a single episode that provides a detailed look at the origins of the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory and one parents attempt to fight misinformation. The second half of this episode is an interesting, but less relevant profile and interview with Alex Jones).
- Four Hours at the Capitol, BBC (a documentary about the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6th 2021)
- The Coming Storm, BBC Sounds (7 part podcast documentary on the rise of QAnon)
- Death by Conspiracy, BBC Sounds (an 11 part podcast documentary on Gary Matthews, who died from covid in January 2021 having been drawn to social media claims that it was a hoax. I listened to this as a parallel to The Coming Storm but it strayed too far into covid, media ethics, and psychology for me to incorporate it more fully in this course, which attempts to avoid those areas. I didn’t learn much about conspiracy theories aside from episode 9 which provided a good attempt to understand why our common conception is often misplaced. Ultimately I just found this sad.)
- Things Fell Apart, BBC Sounds (a documentary that looks at the different origins of the culture wars, which are defined as “the battle for dominance over conflicting values”, or the things we shout about on social media)
- Command and Control, PBS (a documentary looking at how close we came to a major nuclear accident)
Famous documentaries about Facebook include:
Here is the Brexit movie mentioned in class:
Here are US political strategists talking about micro targeting:
Here is David Rand’s talk on misinformation:
This documentary looks at the Arab spring:
Here is Patri Friedman arguing that we should be able to start new countries as easily as starting a new country:
“I spent 10 years at Google… I think we should be able to start new countries as easily as we start companies today.” pic.twitter.com/IcsOgRJH9z
— Freethink (@freethinkmedia) August 11, 2022
- Can Facebook Survive?, Seriously, August 13th 2019
- Tyler and Daniel Gross Talk Talent, Conversations with Tyler, Episode 150, May 18th 2022
- #291 – Jonathan Haidt: The Case Against Social Media, Lex Fridman podcast
- Chris Blattman on War and Centralized Power, Conversations with Tyler, Episode 149, May 4th 2022 – this is a fascinating interview with a global expert on war (Blattman’s core thesis is that violence occurs when centralised groups have no check on their ability to indulge their narrow preferences). It doesn’t have direct relevance to this course but it is very interesting and touches upon the concept of polycentricity (which is the notion of multiple centres of power).
- #365 – Sam Harris: Trump, Pandemic, Twitter, Elon, Bret, IDW, Kanye, AI & UFOs, Lex Fridman podcast – a good overview of the ethics of public vs. private conservation (i.e. platforming); the weaponization of social media (i.e. why Harris deleted his Twitter account); the health of democracy and our capacity to deal with social problems such as a potential future pandemic. Also relevant to future AI prospects.
- #367 – Sam Altman: OpenAI CEO on GPT-4, ChatGPT, and the Future of AI, Lex Fridman podcast – Altman defends OpenAI’s strategy of transparency and iterative progress that gets tested on a wide scale. He believes that AI alignment can keep pace with its capabilities. A good counterexample is nuclear weapons.
- #371 – Max Tegmark: The Case for Halting AI Development – Lex Fridman podcast – Tegmark claims that AI development is a suicide race not an arms race, and it’s not obvious that other countries, who might have more to lose from cutting edge technology, will continue regardless. The open letter than he organised was specifically intended to deal with the collective action problem whereby AI developers want everyone else to slow down but can’t do so unilaterally.
- Ep. 126: Stephen Davies – What Is Global Catastrophic Risk?, – Steve Davies defines global catastrophic risk and discusses potential for AI to destroy humanity.
Recommended movie night
This is not massively related to this course, but I really enjoyed watching Top Gun: Maverick (you may need to watch the original Top Gun first to get the full benefit). It reminded me of how Rocky IV contrasted American individualism, authenticity, and heart against superior Soviet technology. I saw Maverick as a rumination on automation, and the continued role for human emotion, and decision making that is instinctive, impulsive, and emotive, and how that gets managed. The subtext is that unmanned drones and algorithms are the future. In the film, US technology is deemed inferior but it is all about who is in the plane and not the plane itself. Traditional pilots needs to eat, sleep and piss but remain the driving force of future success, and whatever is is that ensures a future is worth achieving.
Here’s an absorbing and fascinating explanation of how the Mach 10 scene resembles a perfect pop song:
The best 3 movies related to AI and our conception of reality (in my opinion) are:
- Play Moderator Mayhem, a game that helps understand more about internet safety
- Take the Political Compass test
- Take the Take Machine test
- Create AI images with DALL-E (and improve them with these tools) or with MidJourney (see here)
- Use ChatGPT to generate insightful text based on prompts (see here for some implications, and here for a tool to check whether students use it to cheat).
Further academic reading
- Giraudo, M., 2022, “On legal bubbles: Some thoughts on legal shockwaves at the core of the digital economy“. Journal of Institutional Economics, 18(4), 587-604 – an account of how changes in expectations around how data gets protected as private property has influenced Big Tech. I found the article badly written but conceptual and therefore reasonably accessible to a non academic audience.
Priyanka Dalotra (LinkedIn)
Resources for the public sector
If you wish to work in the public sector I recommend the following resources:
- Machine learning: An introduction for public servants – a free online bootcamp
- Ethics, transparency and accountability framework for automated decision making – a 7 point framework to help UK government departments with the safe, sustainable and ethical use of automated or algorithmic decision-making systems
- Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., and Tinkler, J., 2006, New Public Management Is Dead—Long Live Digital-Era Governance Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Volume 16, Issue 3, Pages 467–494
- Clarke, Amanda, Digital Government Units: Origins, Orthodoxy and Critical Considerations for Public Management Theory and Practice
The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series contains a number of titles that are relevant for this course. I particularly recommend: