The 2019 Cumberland Lodge Debate moved in central London for the first time - to Goodenough College, home to international students from all over the world - to explore the future of democracy in a digital world.
The panel of speakers included Lord Howell of Guildford (life peer and Chair of the House of Lords International Relations Committee), Dr Katharine Dommett (Senior Lecturer and Director of the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield), and Marnie Howlett (PhD candidate at the London School of Economics). It was chaired by Baroness Prashar of Runnymede, Chair of Trustees at Cumberland Lodge.
'Look where we're going'
This year’s debate revolved around the arguments in Lord Howell’s recently published book, Look Where We’re Going: Escaping the Prism of Past Politics, on how digital technology is transforming our beliefs, values and expectations.
For panellists and audience alike, this discussion seemed to happen at a perfectly timed moment in history. As Lord Howell argues, we are at ‘a point of no return’, where we need to deal with the challenges posed by technology and harness what it offers, to make our democracies more open, direct and participative.
Almost 60 years since the outset of the digital revolution, technology has deeply affected the social, economic and political aspects of our lives. Some argue that these trends have improved inclusion and broadened popular participation in democracy, as technology allows more people to be reached and potentially amplifies their voices. It has made people more aware of local issues and empowered them to co-operate with others towards common goals.
However, recent years have also uncovered a darker side of this digital age. Recent scandals on the use of data to manipulate and control people have alienated many from the idea of digital democracy, and triggered pessimism and distrust about the future of society.
As Dr Dommett claimed, in these days of disorder and disruption, around the world, there is a greater need than ever for new leaderships that embrace digital culture, encourage greater transparency and create a framework for using technology for the benefit of democracy. Digital literacy is key and people need effective leaders to guide them in these rapidly changing times.
Another key point of the debate – raised by Lord Howell and Marnie Howlett – focused on the duality of digital technology, regarding connectivity and co-operation. For some people, developments in technology offer new networks and greater opportunities for public dialogue. For others, however, the way technology absorbs us has only meant greater isolation and loneliness. Governments need to become more responsive to these concerns, and also encourage the creation of new networks that can engage people, whatever their perspectives on digital technologies.
What were my key take-aways from this debate? We all – including the ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ amongst us - require, more than ever, the support of governments and leaders to help us navigate the new digital landscape. We need to involve as broad a spectrum of people as possible in working towards evolving technology into an ally of democracy, rather than continuing to view it as a threat. By enhancing the role of technology in democracy, we will be helping to improve public dialogue, increase fairer representation, broaden participation and support democratic values.
Despite all these challenges, and after this thought-provoking debate, I feel hopeful that these discussions will trigger changes to our current views of technology and its role in the future of democracy.