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How do we govern our technology?

For weeks, Ottawa has been consumed with "robo-gate" – an unfolding probe of abuses of new voter outreach technology. Think of it as a question: How do we regulate these powerful new technologies and ensure that they do not subvert democracy?

The broader question – how we regulate technology as a whole – is popping up all over the political landscape. Here are a few examples:

Last month, Israeli scientists more or less discovered the fountain of youth. Researchers treating mice with a sirtuin protein found increased lifespans of up to 15 per cent – the first time this effect has been found in mammals. An anti-aging pill, enabling humans to live easily past 100, could be in the works within 20 years.

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The politics of this issue seem straightforward. The question is mainly one of access – will we simply allow the price of life-extending medicine to float, or will it be regulated in the name of equal access to life? It's easy to see a free-market conservative answer – let the market decide. A progressive suggestion involving price regulation seems likely as well. On the margins, some may refrain for spiritual reasons and choose death over "playing God." So far, nothing too earth-shaking.

Now, look at cloud computing – treating computing less like buying a fireplace, and more like paying for electricity on an as-needed basis. The issue is that, like the electricity grid a century ago, the computing cloud will rapidly become a vital public common whose stability simply must be maintained. Many of those hostile to government intervention – large corporations, libertarians and basement bloggers, to name a few, most identifying as conservatives – might find themselves pressing for public regulation to guarantee the cloud's integrity.

Similar dynamics will likely apply as headlong intervention by individual humans in the natural order continues to generate more unforeseen, negative consequences. Stockbrokers with homes on the outer banks of the southeastern United States will call for government buybacks of their land in the name of environmental good. Conservation activists will clamour for the commodification of water to permit the full-cost pricing needed to stop the resource's wholesale depletion. A lot of us are going to wake up and find we're in the wrong party.

And for a real coalition-buster, consider artificial intelligence. Unmanned drones are popular when it comes to hunting down al-Qaeda, but is everyone comfortable with robot airplanes that can land on moving aircraft carriers? That's happening now. So, who's in charge here? This is the basic question posed by the emerging politics of technology: Are we running the technology or is the technology running us? And what, if anything, do we want to do about it?

Attitudes toward technology cut right across existing partisan lines, which are essentially carved at present by views about the role of government. Thinking critically about technology changes all that: It puts free-market conservatives at odds with traditionalist evangelicals and pro-technology liberals against state regulators. Left-wingers are left seeking to impose democratic control on technological systems that are splintering and recombining at lightning speed.

The great question of the 20th century – How do we govern our economy? – is giving way to the great question of the 21st century – How do we govern our technology? All over the world, the challenges currently posed by our tech-enabled way of life – such as limiting climate change, maintaining the biosphere, containing pandemics and securing energy and water supplies – are running out ahead of our institutions' abilities to manage them. And a whole new crop of major changes are coming on fast. Parties and governments need to engage these issues in a serious way, and soon, or risk losing the ability to influence outcomes entirely.

Liberal adviser John Duffy spoke about technopolitics at the TVO/LRC Gardiner series. To watch it, go to www.tvo.org/bigideas.

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