Written by Philip Boucher, Naja Bentzen, Tania Lațici, Tambiama Madiega, Leopold Schmertzing and Marcin Szczepański,
Technological development has long been considered as a disruptive force, provoking change at many levels, from the routine daily activities of individuals to dramatic competition between global superpowers. This analysis examines disruption caused by technologies in a series of key areas of politics, economics and society. It focuses on seven fields: the economic system, the military and defence, democratic debates and the ‘infosphere’, social norms, values and identities, international relations, and the legal and regulatory system. It also presents surveillance as an example of how technological disruption across these domains can converge to propel other phenomena. The key disruptive force of 2020 is non-technological, namely coronavirus. The pandemic is used here as an opportunity to examine how technological disruption interacts with other forms of disruption.
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Rapid and dramatic change
Disruption is a specific form of change which occurs relatively quickly or dramatically. Technology has long been seen as a source of disruption to our lives, communities and civilisations, provoking disruptive change at all scales, from individuals’ routine daily activities to dramatic competition between global superpowers. This disruption can have both positive and negative effects, although they are often unevenly distributed across different groups.
In the current wave of data-driven internet technologies, the disruptive force of innovation has become a central feature of many firms’ business models. However, the key disruptive force of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, is non-technological. In this context, technologies have been deployed as an antidote to disruption, not least in enabling some social and economic activities to continue while maintaining physical distance.
Disruption by technology
Technology development disrupts the economic system by creating (and destroying) certain business models, supply chains and patterns of employment. In defence, technological innovation has a disruptive effect on all aspects of military activity, from logistics and training to strategic decision-making and physical combat.
Democratic debates have been disrupted by technology developments such as social media. Many of these online platforms benefit from emotional, polarising content and sometimes promote disinformation that can increase rifts in society and undermine democratic processes, whereas facts and information rarely go viral. Social norms, values and identities have also been disrupted by technologies, affecting our most profound understanding of ourselves, our activities and relationships with others.
Disruption to international relations has also been attributed to technology development, adjusting the global balance of power, and even transforming the international system itself. In response to these disruptions, laws and regulations are changing towards a more flexible approach to policy-making, with the emergence of smart regulatory tools.
Disruptions in these different domains converge, along with other disruptive forces such as the coronavirus, to propel other phenomena such as extended state and commercial surveillance.
Often, technology disruption can provoke the same kind of tensions at different scales. For example, access to information that informs citizens’ voting and purchasing decisions is unevenly distributed, in the same way as it is for company directors and world leaders making strategic choices. Likewise, households, small businesses, large multinationals and nation states all need to find a means of working together with digital tools to make good decisions while maintaining their autonomy.
It is not clear where these tensions will lead us, but our path in this increasingly technology-dependent world will be decided to a great extent by the social, political, and economic choices we make now.
Read the complete ‘in-depth analysis’ on ‘Disruption by technology: Impacts on politics, economics and society‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.