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Technology is transforming where, when, and with whom we work and play. Cities are becoming “smart,” robots are finding jobs, and digital platforms aren’t just replacing, but redefining how individuals, businesses, and communities interact.

Nobody has voted for these changes, let alone fully understands their implications, as every positive outcome usually comes with a cost…like privacy, the nature of employment, and even our ability to talk to one another.

Much of the technology transformation is happening at the infrastructure level, and is noted publicly only when it yields a consumer or workplace benefit, so the full story is never shared. Sometimes, the tech is so complex that not even its proponents fully understand its implications, let alone know how to communicate them.

And here and there, the advocates for technological transformation hide or ignore the truth, whether from ignorance or willful disregard, and its outcomes are presented as a fait accompli.

This situation presents two major challenges:

  • First, it risks prompting populist opposition. Trust in elites has never been lower, and just as organized movements have toppled governments, we’re seeing Michel Foucault’s “micro-level actions” practiced by consumers, especially Millennials, in order to challenge corporate policies. It’s estimated that cities could spend $41 trillion on smart tech over the next 20 years, and some workers are already teaching robots how to do their jobs. So it’s not unreasonable to think that people may start demanding far more visibility into those decisions (and technologies themselves), if not more agency over them.
  • Second, it risks simply leaving people behind. Various “off the grid” movements are thriving (water, for instance and, in the Global South, decentralized power is a model for electrification). Already, car drivers often don’t use existing driver assistance technologies because they don’t understand or trust them (according to auto supplier Autoliv). Millions may be put out of work due to automation, despite rosy predictions of new job creation; ultimately, we may be watching a new “digital divide” emerge, between people who benefit from smart technology, and those who reject it voluntarily or inevitably.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan closed his populist speech at the Democratic National Convention attacking monetary policy as a symbol of oppression, and said:

“You shall not press down on the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

Can public engagement today avert populist opposition to a Cross of Silicon?