Technology’s Impact This Week February 20th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses information technology’s impact with artificial intelligence, the reports this week of the detail of the Russian’s online activities, more on the impact of cryptocurrencies and a host of other areas.

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Technology’s Impact This Week February 13th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses information technology’s impact with cyberwarfare, children, blockchain and cryptocurrencies as well as the passing of John Perry Barlow and a new book from Steven Pinker.

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Interview with Pamela Robinson on The Sidewalk Toronto Waterfront Development and Smart Cities

Interview on the Sidewalk Toronto Waterfront development and the future of smart cities with Pamela Robinson, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives in the Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University. Pamela is also an Associate Professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson.

The interview discussed the impact of the Sidewalk Toronto Waterfront development on the lives of people in the new neighbourhood. The impact of information technology in cities was also discussed with a focus on the environment, privacy and governance.

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Technology’s Impact This Week February 6th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses information technology’s impact with the digital economy, healthcare, the techlash, education and cryptocurrencies.

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Technology’s Impact This Week January 30th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses information technology’s impact with artificial intelligence and modern warfare, privacy and concerns about social media and some of the positive contributions that technology makes in our lives.

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Technology’s Impact This Week January 23rd 2018

This week’s podcast discusses information technology’s impact on democracy, education, automation and the city of Toronto.

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Technology’s Impact This Week January 16th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses President Obama’s comments on the impact of social media along with automation, the Consumer Electronics Show and technology’s role in the growth of populism.

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Technology’s Role in the Rise of Populism – Why The World Has Trump and Might Get Oprah

Many experienced North American participants in the political process were confident that Donald Trump’s election wouldn’t happen. Many in Europe were confident that Britain would vote to remain in the European Community. Many in Scotland were confident that support for independence would remain a minority view (so far it has, but its close). In many parts of the world established political parties have seen their representation decline in national parliaments while previously fringe or new political organisations and parties have seen their influence increase as a result of changed citizen voting behaviours.

Seasoned commentators on the political arena have expressed concern that the populist policies that are being supported by voters are often unrealistic and inadequate to deal with the problems that they face. Leaders of countries with little or no democratic aspect of their own political processes have argued that these developments indicate that democracy itself is flawed and that more authoritarian approaches are more effective at national governance.

These developments are often attributed to the rise of “populism” – the pursuance of political agendas that are based on popular appeal, that are usually argued to be more connected to the needs of ‘ordinary people’ than the policies of the ‘establishment’ political class. Established politicians are said to be out of touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ and uninterested in, or sinisterly wish to reduce, the quality of their lives.

Until recently populist politicians existed largely on the fringes of western democracies. Relatively small numbers of voters supported the views of the populists, finding the appeal of establishment, usually less radical, political parties and policies more attractive. While politicians and political institutions were not necessarily enthusiastically supported, those casting their votes in elections provided their support for politicians from established political parties who proposed policies based on economic safety with a greater or lesser degree of government provided support for citizens (education, healthcare, military, police, etc.)

In recent years the political establishment has been disrupted by the growth in support for populist politicians. This week Oprah Winfrey indicated that she was considering challenging Donald Trump in 2020, raising the prospect of no candidate with significant political experience on the ballot in the election for president of the most powerful country in the world.

Why Has Populism Grown? The Influence of Social and Economic Factors

Populism has grown because ‘ordinary people’ have become increasingly disillusioned with establishment politicians and attracted by the message of the populists. Some believe that this is due to the influence of information technology, arguing that it has changed the way that people get political information and changed their voting behaviour (fake news, Russian interference). Others argue that the populism has arisen due to more physical social and economic factors. The influence of information technology is discussed in the next section of this article – social and economic factors are considered here.

Statistics indicate that the economic position of large sections of the populations of most western democracies has been stagnant or declining in recent times. Following a period of growth from the 1950’s, steadily rising incomes and living standards have more recently levelled off or declined. Stable, secure, well paying middle and working class jobs have been replaced by low paid jobs with little security for many. Personal expectations and hopes that hard work will result in a better life have receded and been replaced by feelings of powerlessness. At the same time, many have felt that those with wealth and power have seen their situations improve. The wealth of corporations, including banks and the technology sector, has increased and the personal fortunes of those who own and control them have grown, increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Beliefs that ‘establishment’ politicians are unable to address these issues, don’t care or are colluding with powerful interests to further exploit the poor are common. Disillusion has led to mistrust of establishment politicians and a willingness to consider and support populist policies and politicians.

The two major factors that are usually thought to have influenced increasing job insecurity and changes in people’s living standards are globalisation and information technology. Globalisation has meant that companies have faced increasing international competition, leading to pressure to improve performance, often by cutting costs. Many have moved their activities to lower wage countries. Information technology has led to job automation and reductions in the need for more skilled, higher paid workers and declines in job numbers in traditional occupations. The combination of globalisation and information technology has substantially influenced the quality of life of ‘ordinary people’.

While people have expected that establishment politicians would act to help them as they have struggled with the consequences of globalisation and information technology influenced change, the politicians have often struggled with developing policy responses that would make a significant impact on the problems that their voters face. Globalisation and information technology have made it easier for companies to move their activities around the world to nations that best suit their interests. as companies have grown, as more nations have developed skilled workforces and as communications and logistics have improved individual nations have become less able to influence corporate behaviour in favour of their citizens.

As a result, support for populist politicians, offering new solutions and untied to the perceived inaction of established politicians, has grown.

The Role of Information Technology in Populism

Discussion on the impact that information technology has had on the growth of populism often includes its influence in globalisation and automation. It also often includes the influence that information technology has had on the creation, dissemination and reinforcement of populist political views. It is argued that information technology, especially through social media, has contributed to a lack of confidence in establishment politicians by making their activities more publically visible and made it easier for previously fringe views to be promoted. It is also argued that international political influence is easier to exercise for state and non state actors.

Examples abound of widely visible incidents that have undermined confidence in establishment politicians through the application of information technology. Wikileaks’ release of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the US presidential election campaign is one. When this occurs alongside reduced confidence in politicians’ ability or willingness to deal with the problems that ordinary people face, confidence in the establishment politicians is significantly undermined.

Openness to populist politicians and policies grew as a result of this undermining of confidence. The ability to promote these views has also been increased by social media. It has enabled people with views that are initially shared by few in their physical community to connect with others with similar views who may be some distance away. Using online chat rooms and other communication tools they can collaborate to reinforce their views and promote them to others.

The combination of the impact that globalisation and information technology are having on ordinary people, combined with the decline in confidence in establishment politicians and the arrival of social media that enabled alternative political views to develop and spread more easily than in the past, led to the growth of populism.

Is Populism a Problem?

Populism is impacting the world in many areas today. It is resulting in real changes in people’s lives, some of which may be positive and some negative. Concerns about growth in support for populist policies centre on the likelihood of them achieving the real world results that the populist politicians promise. Populist politicians who win power have usually promised to address the very real concerns that ordinary people face. In many cases their policies are unlikely to achieve the high expectations that have been created. There are many examples of this.

In Britain, Brexit campaigners said that Britain’s departure from the European Community would lead to greater control for Britain over its own affairs. In an increasingly globalised world it is more likely that Britain will find itself at the mercy of international economic forces. Donald Trump’s promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to rustbelt communities are unlikely to be met due to automation and the benefits that would be foregone by withdrawing significantly from international trading arrangements. Many jobs in America depend on trading relationships with other countries. Unsavoury groups that have gained influence in many countries by exploiting concerns about immigration are encouraging increased restrictions that will be economically damaging.

The problem with populism is that many of the policies, while popular, will not address the concerns of the people who are encouraged to vote for them and in many cases may make them worse.

Oprah vs. Donald?

The growth of populism has led to the prospect of no experienced politician in the 2020 US election. Much of the discussion on this has been about whether Oprah will join the race and whether she would win if she did. Some have also commented that the absence of an establishment politician in the election may be a cause for some concern. While past establishment politicians have provided an insufficient response to the changes caused by globalisation and information technology in many countries, it would probably be wrong to wholly dismiss the importance of political knowledge and experience in tackling the very real challenges that ordinary people now face.

The possibility of an Oprah vs. Donald election highlights the extent to which populism is now influencing politics in many countries. It also illustrates how much those who are involved actively in politics today, who believe that a more thoughtful and scientifically based approach to developing solutions to improving the lives of ordinary people is needed, have to do.

A Future for Populism?

Populist policies will often not work. Sometimes they will, but in many cases the high hopes and expectations of ordinary people who vote for them will be disappointed. Turmoil in the Trump camp currently is evidence of this. As realisation that commitments won’t be met grows, conflict results. The economic and social factors that are impacting the lives of ordinary people are unlikely to be significantly improved and technology driven changes will continue and probably accelerate. Policies that encourage growth of jobs in new industries and sectors and which enable people to retrain and adapt to them are urgently needed. Technological advance offers the possibility of many improvements in people’s lives but we also need to deal effectively with the major challenges that it poses for people at work and in other areas where negative impacts are possible.

It is unclear what the future beyond populism will hold. There could be a return to traditional political models, with a desire for stable, experienced political management. In Toronto, Rob Ford was followed by the stable John Tory as mayor. Or there could be a desire to pursue other alternatives. Russia and China are using the populist turmoil in democratic countries to justify authoritarian rule in their own support for that approach could grow in the West. Information technology is also being argued to have a role to play in revitalising democracy and allowing it to function more effectively, enabling government to more better involve citizens and more effectively respond to their needs. While information technology has contributed to decline in support for traditional politics it may also provide functionality that will strengthen democracy in the future.

Information technology has significantly influenced the political situation that the democratic world faces today. Western democracies are in the midst of extensive social change, much of it technologically driven. Politics in most countries is being influenced by technological advance and that is leading to significant challenges. It is argued here that the populist period that is currently being experienced is unsustainable and that what follows is uncertain, especially as technological change will accelerate. Negative and positive possibilities exist. Positive possibilities will require an understanding of the influence that information technology is having, and can have, on ordinary peoples’ lives and on political processes today and in the future.

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Technology’s Impact This Week January 9th 2018

This week’s podcast discusses Ontario’s minimum wage, automation, Tatsuro Toyoda, the importance of science to government, Amazon and the future of universities.

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Technology’s Impact This Week: January 2nd 2018

My weekly summary of developments in information technology. All sources can be found in my Twitter feed: @impactofinfo The podcast is developed for the public and University of Waterloo students in MSci 442, The Impact of Information Systems on Society.

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