The digital revolution is shifting how societies are structured, and may lead to greater public oversight of government. But it could also have the opposite effect.
CARACAS — The world has changed quickly in the early years of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as the exponential growth of disruptive technologies shift traditional routines in all aspects of our lives, reshape the productive process, and reinvent the way we socialize.
Total automation of production and the singular situation expected to emerge after 2030, when artificial intelligence may supersede human intelligence, are expected to completely transform the work market, productivity, income distribution, how nations are organized, and even people's ethical framework.
Most governments, with their limited and decentralized intervening role in society, are inevitably obliged to adapt to the requirements of the digital economy to provide services, optimize the lives of citizens, and boost workforce competitiveness. Digital government plays an important role here as a means of efficiently managing public expenditures and ensuring transparency in resource allocation.
Innovation must be at the center of public policy.
And yet, advances in the digital economy can either boost the power of civil society by encouraging economic freedom and civic welfare, or enhance state power over citizens. It all depends on a given country's political situation,
New technologies can give civil society leverage opportunities in recovering freedom of action. They can limit the role of government through direct supervision by citizens, and provide the means for demanding more transparency in how the government handles public resources. But every advantage carries an intrinsic risk.
Simply put, the shifts can lead toward one of two opposite extremes: democracy or totalitarianism. In a democracy, countries must adapt to changes imposed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution if they wish to improve people's living conditions or ensure efficient and transparent public spending. A lot of that spending would be on education and technology. Civil society would have more autonomy and economic freedoms, and greater influence on major national decisions.
In the totalitarian setting, however, there would be gaps and delays in public access to technological advances even as people's lives are under digital control. There would also be expansive but opaque public spending to serve populist ends. The state would accumulate power and threaten economic liberties. Venezuela, where the government controls telecommunications and advances in the digital economy, is a prime example of this possibility.
In Carobobo, Venezuela, on May 7 — Photo: Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA
Innovation must be at the center of public policy with the aim of serving the public interest. When citizens discover and exercise their civil liberties, they become more demanding of government. The opposite happens when they are deprived of those liberties. In that case, they become slaves to a state that feeds, controls and instructs them.
The digital government can thus be a double-edged sword and offer as many advantages as disadvantages, depending on the political system and levels of existing freedom. In the democratic scenario, the Inter-American Development Bank has cited some evident advantages of a government backed by new technologies: transparency in the allocation of public monies, and the central role given to citizens and their needs when providing services and creating procedures.
A question of control
A digital government in a democracy allows the use of new technologies to improve everyone's lives, including in remote or difficult locations. It aims to simplify procedures, reduce public spending and make taxation more efficient and transparent. In a democracy, the advantages of a digital government are for citizens. The challenges, on the other hand, tend to be for the government, which is subject to greater civic oversight.
The government uses new technologies not to benefit, but control the population.
In the totalitarian setting, digital governments hold all the cards. They can easily obtain private data, which are then used for control or extortion, while control of telecommunications allows the state to intervene in all areas of civil life.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution threatens to impose changes on the work market and social relations and comes with technologies that concentrate efforts in the applied sciences. Thus, in Latin America's less developed countries, the state must focus on first-rate education, science, and technology to train a workforce adapted to the global digital economy.
But in countries like Venezuela, the deterioration of democracy has allowed the government to use new technologies not to benefit, but control the population. It expects transparency in people's data while its own accounts and processes remain hidden from view. The lesson is this: When it comes to the benefits or harm done by the digital government, it all depends on how a society is configured, and who holds economic power.