We stand on the cusp of a new machine age. If current trends and predictions are anything to go by, the next few decades will see a fundamental transformation of economy and society on a scale not seen since the first industrial revolution as artificial intelligence, autonomous machines, and big data revolutionize how things are produced, consumed, and even understood. Some estimates suggest that within this century, much of the work that is currently performed by humans will be done by complex technological systems that will be more efficient and, indeed, cost-effective than the labour they will be replacing, even as increases in computing power allow for the collection and use of data on an unprecedented scale, with significant implications for how human behaviour is understood and, more importantly, influenced.

A lot of the debate and discussion surrounding these developments is enthusiastically optimistic, with tech firms and their champions leading the charge in heralding a new era of prosperity and participation in which individuals will have access to better and cheaper goods and services more tailored towards their individual preferences. Techno-utopians also claim that the ‘disruptive’ technologies currently emerging around the world will revolutionise everything, from how we order food and use cars to how parties campaign for votes and scientists collaborate to understand climate change. Much like the discourse around the internet in the 1990s, contemporary technological advancements are celebrated as being a means through which to wrest power away from states and corporations, placing it in the hands of individuals who will benefit from greater transparency, greater choice, and a greater role in the decision-making processes governing their lives. Following from this, it seems as if there is no problem big or small for which there is not a technological solution that can remedy it; regardless of what it may be, if the problem exists there is likely to be some technological fix for it that, if implemented, will solve it.

The effects of this kind of thinking can already be seen around the world, sometimes in the most incongruous of places. Take, for example, recent initiatives taken in Pakistan in the fields of ‘e-governance’. In Lahore, ‘smart’ cameras installed across the city have been credited with introducing a semblance of order to the city’s chaotic traffic, automatically fining drivers for violations without the need to bring in humans likely to be corrupt, incompetent, and indifferent. A similar logic seems to underpin the recent launch of an online portal where citizens can lodge complaints against local functionaries, with the idea being that providing individuals with a direct line to the government can allow for issues to be acknowledged and addressed without having to involve the myriad layers of rent-seeking bureaucracy that have hitherto been responsible for the country’s dismal governance. Since 2013, there has also been a continued emphasis on the need to introduce electronic voting machines to Pakistan, with the argument being that introducing these devices will go a long way towards eliminating electoral fraud.

All of this sounds good, and the truth is that there is some merit to many of these initiatives. Indeed, evidence from around the world shows many instances in which technology can be harnessed to make governance and other processes more efficient. What is often not acknowledged, however, is that the benefits that accrue from the introduction technology depend a lot on the context in which they are applied, and that solutions that may work under one set of circumstances may prove to be completely ineffectual or even disastrous when applied under different conditions. E-governance initiatives of the type seen in Pakistan are a case in point; while it would be correct to suggest that there is a disconnect between the state and citizens in Pakistan, leading to the former’s lack of accountability and responsiveness, the assumption that streamlining the process through which individuals complain about the government will somehow address the state-citizen divide simply fails to address the underlying structural factors that underpin this divide in the first place. Put more simply, if the problem in Pakistan is the presence of state machinery that remains beholden to elite interests, is indifferent to democratic pressures, and lacks the capacity to effectively implement policy even when the will to do so might exist, it is difficult to see how opening a web portal for complaints can do much to address these concerns. More often than not, techno-utopianism relies on the oversimplification of complex problems, with rhetoric about ‘smart’ machines and ‘big data’ existing in a space detached from the messy material realities that characterise life.

Another area of concern is the potential for technology to be misused. For example, the same tools that can be successfully deployed to regulate traffic – ‘smart’ cameras – can also be used for more insidious purposes, such as mass surveillance and data collection. China is a trailblazer in this regard, with the introduction of its new ‘social credit system’, which ranks citizens on the basis of whether or not they possess characteristics deemed desirable by the state, making use of data gained through surveillance and electronic network analysis to determine whether or not citizens can be denied certain rights and privileges based on their social ‘score’. It is perhaps not coincidental that the technologies used for this purpose are essentially the same as those currently being used by the Pakistani state as part of the various ‘safe cities’ projects being piloted in the country (with Lahore being the epicenter of these interventions). Given the government’s track record with regards to the use of technology to monitor and even silence dissent and opposition, its unquestioned rollout of devices for surveillance and data collection should be cause for concern.

As we enter this new digital age, it is vital that questions be asked about the frameworks under which new technologies are being introduced and used. The very same tech firms that promise to radically change production and consumption by smashing the power of states and older corporations are well-placed to become this century’s new overlords, just as tools promising to empower citizens can be deployed against them by states benefitting from a lack of regulation. In the rush to embrace the new, it would be wise to look past the shiny gadgets and breathless statements and simply ask: who does this really benefit, and how can we control it?

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS. 

More often than not, techno-utopianism relies on the oversimplification of complex problems, with rhetoric about ‘smart’ machines and ‘big data’ existing in a space detached from the messy material realities that characterise life.