Social, political, and ethical dimensions of digital transformation – 2023/24

Course introduction

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.

This course investigates how digital transformation relates to democracy and governance in an increasingly connected yet potentially polarised world.

  • 40% Group report [download here]
  • 60% Final exam (MCQ) – 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. For a great interview with Patrick McKenzie about his background and advice listen to his Conversation with Tyler.


Students should have already taken my 6 hour component of the Business Frontier Technologies course. This includes some of the following content:

Mandatory pre-course readings

For a 50 point quiz to test your knowledge of the pre-readings see here.

  1. Addiction [lecture handouts]
  2. Democracy [lecture handouts]
  3. Ethics [lecture handouts]
  4. Humans [lecture handouts]
  5. Governance [lecture handouts]

Optional background preparation

To understand some of the context for my construction of this course I recommend:

  • Matthew Perry on BBC Newsnight, (yes, one can make the contrarian and pedantic point that humans exercise “choice” in every decision we make, but this interview demonstrates the importance of acknowledging the human cost of not being in full/partial/any control of things that are harmful to your well being. Particularly poignant given Perry’s death in 2023).
  • 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)
  • The Last Podcast on the Left (Episodes 400-405) – this series was recommended as a deep dive into the original and most important conspiracy theory of all time, but I found it so irritating and juvenile in presentation that I didn’t get past the first episode. I did like the claim that conspiracy theories require a conspiracy vacuum, however.
Recommended video

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 Coltan Scrivner’s explaining the evolutionary purpose of paying attention to true crime:

Here is Patri Friedman arguing that we should be able to start new countries as easily as starting a new country:

Recommended audio
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:


Recommended activity
Recommended case studies on digital transformation

Perhaps the best case study of the importance of an effective digital transformation is the UK Post Office Horizon scandal (Wikipedia). There is an excellent podcast about it produced by BBC Sounds and in January 2024 ITV aired a documentary.

Further academic reading

Student reflections

Priyanka Dalotra (LinkedIn)

On design
Resources for the public sector

If you wish to work in the public sector I recommend the following resources:

Recommended books

The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series contains a number of titles that are relevant for this course. I particularly recommend: