1. Political Representation
Government, and political representation in particular, are long overdue for modernization. Most of the systems in place for electing representatives are holdovers from the technological limitations of centuries past. For instance, the fact that individuals are restricted to choosing candidates for national legislatures from their geographical vicinity, rather than those that represent their views best, made sense when it was only realistic to run and consume local political campaigns. But with the advent of mass media and the internet, this has not been the case for the better part of the last century.
Although technology can, and must, play an integral part in this modernization, there is no doubt that it must be done carefully. Technology is clearly not an inevitable force for good, as can be seen clearly with how it has been used recently as a force for mass manipulation and propagation of false information.
How can technology improve and modernize the systems of political representation?
There are a number of different intervention points through which both civic engagement and political representation can be “coded” into new systems. Digitizing elements of conventional voting or moving to more “dynamic” methods would fall on the more ambitious side of the spectrum. However, there is also great potential in building on existing digital platforms to reduce the information asymmetry present between candidates and citizens. This could take the form of better systems to aggregate campaign promises, policy performance and legislative voting records on one side and collect and summarize more accurate and timely information on users’ political preferences and priorities on the other.
The fundamental challenge for market induced change, when it comes to the government or public sphere, is to create systemic incentives for non-financial social goods. There is a clear need and desire for this to happen as citizens are gaining awareness of the level of control profit motivated private organizations are having on their political futures.
More generally, there is a need for people to accept, and develop, new models that shoulder the monetary burden of sustaining civic technology that provides public goods such as fact-checking and political accountability.
In this case, legislation is the most direct obstacle to change. Any attempts to change some of the foundational structural aspects of government are likely to be met with extreme resistance from law-makers and citizens alike.
In the absence of pressure from citizens this is unlikely to happen in the short term. What is more likely is for legislators to start taking a more proactive role in reigning in big tech companies whose reach gives them an outsized influential role in public life. These will include establishing adaptable, but clear laws on issues such as removing bias in algorithms and mandating transparency in policies and incentives.
As stated above, a push for more modern interpretations of the political system will require a movement from citizens demanding such changes. Awareness on the potential benefits and risks of new systems needs to be generated by pushing these discussions out into public discourse. Additionally, making civic engagement and informed citizenship an important aspect of culture could be an important normative step. Perceptions that government and political figures are unreachable and accountability is not feasible need to be challenged with the demonstration of how modern tools can aid (and ideally not impede) this process.
2. Labor Rights in the Gig Economy
There has been a dramatic surge in labor marketplaces that allow workers to offer services without being tied to traditional employers; the emergence of the so-called gig economy. The trend has called into question the sustainability of the traditional system of benefits provision, where employers provide and heavily subsidize critical benefits such as health insurance. Freelance employees have not immediately been able to find comparable alternatives. Additionally, while the flexible hours offered by such jobs are attractive to many, they also introduce a distinct element of uncertainty and precarity into wages and long-term employment. Many workers end up being pushed to work longer hours and earning less in net terms than they initially planned.
How can we ensure that the rights of freelance workers are protected in the face of rapid technology driven changes?
One element that is often ignored in this discussion is the impact of some of the design elements in the apps that power these platforms. An obsession to continually optimize and maximize efficiency has resulted in seemingly beneficial innovations such as dynamic pricing and instant scheduling. However, the psychological toll of the consequences of these choices is not studied or considered. Many Uber drivers, for instance, feel drawn into the “game” of following surge pricing and completing streaks even when it might mean working outside of the limits they set for themselves to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Buffers built-in to the apps that show a greater respect for human limitations and psychological impulses could go a long way in countering the harmful effects of these tendencies. Just because something can be optimized, doesn’t mean it should.
Markets can step in by providing innovative products that can more adequately replace the employer-centric solutions of the past. For instance, models for insurance provision that target individuals but offer them rates as part of pools and groups could help reduce some of the financial burden on freelance workers.
A number of proactive laws are needed to govern the impact of labor marketplaces and protect workers. These include clearly delineating the role of platforms for workers providing services using their product and extending some of the basic rights of traditional workers to apply to contractors and freelance workers.
Consumers need to recognize the human cost of their transactions. In many cases, there is a need for them to reflect on whether, regardless of its economic feasibility, there is a sustainable and/or humane way for them to get a service. Do we really need one-hour delivery if it will mean workers on minimum wage needing to be on their feet for 16 hours at a time?
On the other hand, many workers themselves need to be educated on the implications of the trade-offs they are making by going freelance.
3. Equitable Provision of Education
There have been a number of technological false dawns in education delivery and quality over the last few decades. Two of the fundamental challenges that still remain are improving the quality of teaching and reducing the inequality in access to educational resources.
How can we leverage technology to improve the quality and accessibility of education?
A number of improved hardware and software solutions are needed to ensure more successful interventions than those of the past, even though the “code” aspect was not the primary reason for their failure. One challenge to address is merging the benefits of instant access to high-quality online content with the need for in-person tutoring, especially for younger students. There is also a need to ensure, where needed, more resilient and sustainable hardware solutions.
The main issue to resolve, in developing and developed countries alike, is creating incentives that can attract and motivate high-quality teachers. This is by no means an easy problem, but it might be possible to provide new ways for teachers to supplement their main incomes (e.g. through some technologically enabled services and hopefully reduce the income gap with other professions. Other aspects of education that inflate costs and reduce accessibility, such as textbooks, could also be partially addressed through market forces.
Legislation and budgeting can ensure a more equitable distribution of funds for schools. The disparity in funding and education outcomes for schools based on the demographics of their neighborhoods is concerning to say the least. Finding creative ways to balance out funding where local taxes are falling short could be an important first step.
In order for there to be political momentum to address some of the inequality in education there must also be a perceptual shift in how education and life outcomes are viewed, especially in the United States. The belief that some notional demonstration “merit” can dictate, or be the primary factor responsible for success or failure is problematic when there is such gross disparity in starting positions, largely driven by availability and quality of educational resources. Changing that mindset could help ensure a greater appetite for spreading out educational funding and resources to create a more level playing field.