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Opinion: Is today's digital society democratic or authoritarian?

The digital revolution and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing not only the economy — but also societies. Not all political systems can deal with this equally well, writes Alexander Görlach.

Half a century ago, future researcher Alvin Toffler wrote in his book The Future Shock that a time would come when technological progress would be so rapid that even elites would no longer be able to comprehend and explain it. Who could deny that we have long since arrived at this point?

New industries are challenging old ones, social models and role models are being questioned. This creates an uneasiness that goes hand in hand with the question of whether, in the future, we will still be able to live the way we are used to. This phenomenon applies equally to democratic and non-democratic societies — and the disruptions are equally noticeable in both. What does this change mean for governance, in democratic or non-democratic societies? Does this shift promote one form of rule or another?

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Dr. Alexander Görlach

Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge

Political systems are networks

Let us take these two examples: the dispute over the new "Stuttgart 21" railway station in the state capital of Baden-Württemberg on the one hand, and the protests in Hong Kong on the other. In earlier times, systems were strictly hierarchical. The state, the church, the party, the trade union, the military — they all operated from top to bottom: Information flowed in this direction, decisions were made and communicated only in this way.

Today, however, systems are made up of networks. There is no top and no bottom. There is a fluid cohesion in these networks that is made by the common goals of all those who belong to them. There are no longer leaders, like in hierarchical systems.

Until about 10 years ago, everything in Stuttgart was done correctly according to the old system: planning approval procedures, public consultations. But resistance arose after all this had been completed and construction was about to begin. The politicians could not believe it: weekly demonstrations took place. In one case, police reacted brutally by using water cannons, while in another a school class was targeted by officials. The handling of the station project led many voters to break with traditional party ties in this state. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which had ruled for decades, was punished, and since then Baden-Württemberg has had a Green premier minister.

In Hong Kong, up to 2 million of the 7 million inhabitants are demonstrating for the rights they are guaranteed by their constitution, which the communist regime in Beijing under Xi Jinping wants to take away from them bit by bit. The reason for the escalation of these protests is the same as in Stuttgart: hierarchical Beijing does not understand how new non-hierarchical networks function.

Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam probably told Beijing that she would get the protests against her extradition law under control. The recipe seemed to work: Simply lock up the leaders of the 2014 democracy movement and, as a result, the protests will dissolve! That's exactly what Carrie Lam did shortly afterward — but the protests just became louder and more rigid. Now even schoolchildren and public servants are demonstrating. Hong Kong's head of government has caused massive damage to her public image through her own error of judgment and after weeks of protest, she gave up and finally shelved the controversial law.

Adaptation or struggle against modernity

Democracies have the potential to adapt in this phase of epochal change. How people today participate in democracy, how they are represented, differs from what was possible in the past. An electoral college for the election of the president in the US was necessary when stagecoaches were still in use and horsemen were used as messengers. Today this system is obsolete. Democratic institutions have the capability to adapt to this change — and they must.

But such moments are deadly for autocracies because in the long run the old forces cannot keep down the next generation. The Middle Kingdom is ready to take up the struggle between the new and old hierarchies. China's leadership is investing everything in monitoring its citizens. This effort is fuelled by the belief that the ideas of these decentralized forces can be nipped in the bud by surveillance. 

Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge as well as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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