Why Democracies Die: The Reason Privacy Is the Source of Power in the 21st Century
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If you watch the news lately, you’ll see that there are a lot of manifestations around the world of how modern autocrats are hijacking democracies. From Poland’s Law and Justice Party trying to forcefully retire judges. To Matteo Salvini’s plans for mass deportations of migrants. To Trump’s attacks on the free press.
At a first glance, this might not seem like it comes from modern autocrats actions, but if you go deep enough, what you’ll see proves otherwise.
These are very legitimate problems. Problems that are making democracies die around the world little by little. But, these are symptoms of a bigger problem. And no one talks about the source of it. There’s not enough talk about why democracies die. And the thing you see when you go deep enough is that, there’s a global race to rule artificial intelligence. And every country is on it, whether they want it or not.
Today democracies die because modern autocrats kill privacy.
Will there be a fourth democratic wave?
Samuel P. Huntington, an American professor at Harvard, wrote an article for the Journal of Democracy published in 1991 called Democracy’s Third Wave. He said that democracies have been formed through waves — that means, every time there’s been a liberal revolution that established a democracy, other countries tend to follow the pioneer and adopt a democratic process as well.
The first wave happened with all the liberal revolutions across Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries — where countries dethroned absolutist monarchies. The second wave happened right after WWII, starting a decolonization process where colonies gained independence. And the third wave took place in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, which could be the most important one. Most countries that were in the USSR democratized themselves. And then it widespread through some countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Now, Huntington also said that every time there’s a wave, there’s another counter-wave that follows. A “reverse wave”. That’s the wave that creates a setback in the world. And those setbacks have terrible consequences. Just consider how after WWII and the decolonization process — military dictatorships spread throughout Latin America.
And the thing is, when a country adopts a democratic system, other countries tend to follow. There’s a snowball effect. But it works both ways. When a country shows autocratic tendencies, others follow too.
And today it seems that the snowball is getting so big and powerful that maybe there won’t be a fourth democratic wave.
So, we know there’s a third reverse wave going on. But we need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) How far and how long is this reverse wave going to last? And (2) Will there be a fourth democratic wave, or is it today’s landscape so handy for modern autocrats that we won’t be able to move forward ever again?
At what stage are we within the third reverse wave? At the early stages of a long wave, or at the end of a short one? And if this third reverse wave doesn’t come to a halt, how far is it gonna go? Will it eliminate most democracies — which aren’t that many— around the world? Will it force other countries, even if they don’t want to, to adopt a data dictatorship state just to keep up?
We’re clearly seeing the snowballing with the US today, along with other countries — like Poland, or Hungary. In fact, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said: “the new State that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal State, a non-liberal State.”
Are they igniting an inevitable shift in the world?
In a previous article, we saw how politics is the struggle of controlling the flows of data, and how the AI race and data centralization is making dictatorships more efficient. And that’s giving birth to global modern dictatorships where “imperialists” are not the governments as we know them, but whoever controls data.
Now, we’re going to get practical and see how these players want to accelerate that process — they don’t know for how long the golden hour is going to last, so they need to find ways to make the transition smooth and get public’s approval on the change. They need a crisis.
First, in order to understand any change we need to start with why. It always starts with why. Then, we work our way backwards — otherwise we could miss some fundamental pieces of the puzzle. Pieces that explain the whole thing.
Where does the third reverse wave end? Will there be a fourth democratic wave? Are modern autocrats going to get so powerful that we won’t have a chance of having a fourth wave?
Why Democracies Die.
Last week I read a book called How Democracies Die. It has very good points, but it got me thinking a lot about modern dictatorships. So I’d like to take these thoughts one step further and link everything so we understand what’s the shift we’re seeing in society.
In last week’s article I really wanted to hit home that, today, whoever controls data has the power. Politics is about controlling the flows of data. And one of the things the authors of How Democracies Die miss is that, they don’t provide enough context on why today democracies could fail in the first place.
In the book the authors relate the presidency of Donald Trump with other previous historical experiences, where democracy has been eroded by democratically elected leaders. The authors analyzed the strategies these leaders used to establish authoritarian regimes — which draw parallelisms with Trump’s trajectory. (And Trump is going further than anyone else.)
But instead of saying How Democracies Die, I’d like to show you Why Democracies Die. Because once we understand that, we can really see what’s going on and, then, it gets easier to see how democracies are going to die today.
Understanding the why it’s critical. And there are two answers for this question. The first one is the pure and logical one: because they want total control and power. That’s a given. The second answer to this question depends on where the battle takes place. And that’s exactly where we need to talk about the artificial intelligence race. That’s why democracies die today, because democracies as we know them are not suitable to win that race —they’re not efficient. They’re not efficient just because they don’t allow massive data processing. And having access to lots of data points is the key to win this race.
Maybe we have problems seeing this third reverse wave. In the first and second reverse waves, transitions from democracy happened through a mixed executive-military coup. Today that’s not the case. As the authors of How Democracies Die say, modern autocrats are not conspicuous. They’re Trojan horses. They start with a democratic form, but as soon as they can, they replace it with some form of an authoritarian system. In today’s world? Those are data dictatorships.
The key to the 21st century: Privacy.
I’ll repeat this as many times as I have to: today politics is the struggle of controlling the flows of data.
The reason data matters so much today is because there’s an artificial intelligence race going on. If you control data you control everything, because data fuels AI. But going one step further in the logical process, what provides massive data extraction is the idea of “openness” and kill privacy in the way. That’s the only thing standing between us and them sucking every piece of data from us, relentlessly.
Today democracies die because modern autocrats kill privacy. Then, and only then, they’re able to control massive amounts of data. And once they get to that point, turning into a modern dictatorship is an effective way to rule the world.
Privacy → Data → AI → Power and Control.
It’s clear that privacy is the key to win this race. That’s why countries that are ahead in the AI race — like the US or China — are killing privacy. And those who don’t, are falling behind — especially in the developing world. And wait for it, entire economies and political systems will crash. Just wait for it…
Countries with an AI advantage will quickly become extreme global powers — extreme global dictatorships.
And when you’re able to hack humans — we saw how Cambridge Analytica did hack American voters with just Facebook’s data — then it gets really easy to make people vote for things that are not in their best interest. Like allowing extraction of data, or sharing biometric information.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a two-horse race, we’re all in it to the end. As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in his article Who Will Win the Race for AI?, “China and the United States are leading the pack — and the laggards face grave dangers.”
Every single country will feel this race — it doesn’t matter whether a country is a tech superpower or not, it will suffer the consequences. “But there’s an added challenge for those left behind in the race.” Harari says. “To hack humans, governments and corporations need access to enormous amounts of information about real-life human behavior, which makes data perhaps the most important resource in the world. But most of the world’s data is mined by the United States, China, and companies based there.”
Have you already connected the dots?
This race is global. You’re in it whether you want it or not. This third reverse wave plays at a global scale. We’re witnessing global data dictatorships — we can’t just picture it because we can’t imagine a new kind of colonialism taking place in the digital world.
Whoever wins this war will become the main imperial hub. A hub that rules them all.
Harari continues in his article:
“Those who control the data could eventually reshape not only the world’s economic and political future but also the future of life itself. The combination of AI and biotechnology will be critical for any future attempts to redesign bodies, brains, and minds. Elites in the United States and China who have access to those technologies could determine the course of evolution for everyone, according to their particular values and interests. Abilities they deem useful, such as discipline and rote intelligence, might be enhanced at the cost of attributes believed to be superfluous, such as spirituality.”
This is the snowball effect Samuel P. Huntington talked about in his article. Most countries won’t be able to escape this — maybe not even through regulations — so they’ll have to join the data imperialists, and serve the main hub. This wave is a global one, this time, literally.
How does privacy relate to this? What do modern autocrats need to establish a modern dictatorship? Kill privacy so they can gather more data? That’s the key: Whoever controls data, has the power. They key is to protect privacy. And let’s remember that privacy isn’t just a nice thing to have, it is the right to own your own thoughts — your own value.
But just like climate change, no country can solve this problem on its own. This is a privacy problem. Privacy is a global problem.
In a developed country, experiments that violate privacy will raise red flags, because that country would have some solid regulations in place. But what about developing countries? They don’t have regulations in place. Data dictatorships could be testing new technologies and doing whatever they want to. If you’re a mad scientist and start to edit genetically babies in China, that’ll get some attention. But if you do it in any developing country, nobody will notice.
Here’s the punchline: the privacy problem isn’t just about individuals in particular, it’s about individuals collectively — that’s where you can gather information. Because information is the end result of data plus context. So in order to get information you need tons of data. Quantity matters.
Privacy is the key in this battle.
Killing privacy is the only thing that enables a country to have a shot at ruling AI. It’s not coincidence that the two most powerful countries in the world want to kill privacy. China’s got no problems with that — I had a first-hand experience in fact. We know it. But the US is doing everything they can to keep up with the Chinese. That’s why they’re trying to kill net neutrality. So, one way or another, they’re going to make that happen.
Okay, now we know why democracies die in the 21st century. Now, how can they make it happen?
Killing privacy is a way to speed up the process. But if you kill it too soon, you’ll get a huge backlash . You need to make the transition smooth. And the smoothest way is to leverage it with a crisis.
The tricky thing is that, if they force that change the wrong way, they could get a dangerous backlash. So, in order to force that change towards a privacy-free nation, the only thing they need is an excuse. They need a crisis.
Where’s the next crisis?
There’s a lot of power at stake, and the window of opportunity is small. You may happen to be the president of a country, but new elections will come soon. Or you might be the CEO of a hot tech company ruling everyone’s lives, but you don’t know for how long the golden hour is gonna last. And that’s where a crisis comes in handy. Because as we’ve seen again and again throughout history, they’re used as an excuse to violate our rights and make a change inevitable — while people blindly approve it, due the circumstances (!)
A crisis is the best route to accelerate the process — it’s the best way to kill a democracy.
There are tons of examples, but I guess the most relevant one here is what happened after 9/11. That terrifying event that took place in New York City was used as an excuse to increase NSA’s mass surveillance programs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say in their book How Democracies Die:
“Citizens are also more likely to tolerate — and even support — authoritarian measures during security crises, especially when they fear for their own safety. In the aftermath of 9/11, 55 percent of surveyed Americans said they believed it was necessary to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism, up from 29 percent in 1997.”
It’s clear that, given the option, people choose safety every single time. It doesn’t matter whether authoritarian measures end up making people safer. Safety is a basic human motivation that works at a subconscious level, so citizens are more likely to tolerate and support authoritarian measures whenever they feel that that basic human need might be threatened.
A crisis is the perfect leverage to make people support authoritarian measures. Sometimes you can ignite these crisis. Sometimes you can force them. But if you want a smooth transition, they’re your best option.
And now let’s take a step back and analyze what’s happening right now. Because it seems that a crisis is gonna come soon. I’m not trying to be dramatic here. As you can see in a lot of countries (US, UK, I’m seeing that in Spain right now) there’s a strong political opposition. And I don’t mean the classic opposition we’ve always seen. I mean extremist oppositions.
We’re noticing a strong duality in politics. This isn’t just about America’s strong opposition between democrats and republicans. But we’re seeing how the world is becoming a race against two ideologies. And while duopolies have always been there, today they’re turning into an extreme version.
In How Democracies Die, there’s an entire section in the book about this saying: “When oppositions fight dirty, it provides the government with justification for cracking down.”
This is exactly what happened with Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. Interestingly, Chávez’s presidency started out as a democracy, however, opponents found out that his populist discourse could take the nation to a terrifying path. So they tried, by all means, to remove him from his position.
They didn’t succeed in removing Chávez. And by that point the situation was even worse, because the opposition destroyed their image as democrats. And when that happened, they gave Chávez the perfect excuse to deploy his regime, turning what seemed democratic at the beginning to authoritarian.
Where’s the next crisis?
Unless something unexpected happens, this strong duality in politics could be used as an excuse to force radical measures, and kill privacy once and for all. So we should be very careful on how we fight this battle. We’ve got a lot to lose and they’ve got a lot to gain. Because if we fight for our rights the wrong way, we might lose them forever. We need to be very strategic and be smart about it.
This is just one way this could go wrong, but it’s certainly not the only one. So we need to constantly ask ourselves: What kind of crisis are we going through, or will go through, that’s going to allow them to kill democracy and establish a modern dictatorship in place?
That’s what we need to answer now.
But also we need to set our focus on the US. Because as I’ve just said, this is a change that matters to all of us.
China’s got no problems, but how’s Trump’s administration going to pull this off?
We shouldn’t worry that much about new players coming in. We should worry about Trojan horses, because most democratic breakdowns has been caused by elected governments.
So, what can we do about it?
How can we create friction, so the transition they look for is no longer smooth?
We need regulations. That’s the only thing that’ll force a fourth democratic wave. A wave suitable for today’s landscape. Otherwise we won’t we able to get out of this non-sense third reverse wave.
Join or regulate.
Countries just have two choices: (1) Join the revolution, or (2) Regulate. Now, I love the idea of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but this time is not that simple. It’s either one choice or the other. There’s not f*cking middle ground. You either go to one extreme, or the other.
Now, I believe this is just a two-horse race — other countries can’t even attempt to join. So that leaves us with the option to regulate. And if we do nothing, we’re going to be left behind — for good. We do need regulations. Regulations built for today’s landscape.
I like to compare today’s situation with what happened with the Titanic. In the early 20th century the law makers decided that the best way to decide how many lifeboats a ship needed was to pick the largest ship. And then, figure out the right number of lifeboats. Well, it turns out, the Titanic was four times bigger than the largest ship at the time. So regulations weren’t updated for such a boat.
The Titanic just carried 20 lifeboats. They had space for more lifeboats, but since they weren’t “technically” breaking the law, they just bought a few. They had the space in the ship for those lifeboats though. They just waited for regulations to catch up, and then, buy more lifeboats. I don’t have to tell you how it ended…
When it comes to the challenges we’re facing in the 21st century, I believe regulations are just measuring “the largest known ship”, not noticing that they’re building ships 100 times larger than we imagine. And these corporations (and governments) building these ships, know they’re doing something disgustingly unethical. But, “technically”, they’re not breaking any law.
The difference from a hundred years ago and today is that, we easily saw those consequences right away — we saw how the Titanic sunk and all the deaths it caused. However, in today’s technological disruption, we wouldn’t be able to notice what goes on, because when they’re able to operate on such an unconscious level, you can’t tell.
We urgently need regulations. Without them, there won’t be a fourth democratic wave. It is a timely issue. The dangers of the scope the AI race’s put us in place, are so beyond our thinking that by the time we notice something’s wrong, it’s going to be too late. That’s if we notice it altogether. We do need to protect our privacy. That’s our last line of defense.