What will our sense of "government" be in 2050?

A speculative look at how tech could influence the way we govern and are governed in the future.

There may be no need for traditional or state governments

How will technology influence the way we govern and are governed in 2050? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

If wondering how government will look in the future seems like an odd question, it's hardly surprising.

As humans, we tend to believe that the way things are, are generally the way they've always been. And that particularly applies to the idea of "government."

Sure, we know there used to be kingdoms and fiefdoms and bloody succession battles, but outside of Netflix, those hardly seem relevant today.

If you live in a stable democracy it's easy to assume that government is like a slow moving ship — difficult to change or turn around.

But a short glance through history shows that's not the case at all. Governments change. Democracies come and go. Empires rise and fall — sometimes overnight.

So what does that mean when we look into the far future of our own governments? Or even just a few decades? 

This is something that Malka Older has considered more than most. She's a sociologist at Arizona State University and the author of the award-winning Centenal Cycle trilogy. Beginning with the book Infomocracy, the speculative fiction series imagines a world in the not-too-distant future where governments are elected by collectives of a hundred thousand people. These collectives could be corporations, interest groups, or even fans of Hello Kitty.

"A system that was much more granular in terms of how people get to choose, that was much less tied to geography and particularly much less tied to the history of colonialism," she told Spark host Nora Young.

Malka Older is a speculative fiction author and innovation expert. (Allana Taranto, Ars Magna)

Older said she doesn't necessarily foresee a need for traditional or state governments in the future.

"I've really come to the idea through writing this book, and thinking about it and talking about it a lot, that if we want to have a democracy worth the name, then both information and education need to be considered fundamental parts of democracy," she said.

"These 'Centenals', as they're called, these groups of a hundred thousand people, can vote for any government that they want out of all the governments that exist in the world. There's nothing saying, 'because you're located here, you have to choose between these two political parties'. And so you get this scattering of different kinds of governments all over the world and you have governments that have their constituents similarly scattered all over the world. And so it's a very different approach to the way we can think about government."

We're still learning how to govern

Information is also central to Susan Aaronson's sense of the evolution of government. Aaronson is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

She points out that governments, since at least the 18th century, have been generally trusted to hold data and information about citizens. However, today, governments are often "miniscule" compared with corporate titans like Google in terms of the data they possess about individuals.

Susan Aaronson studies the role of technology and AI in government. (CIGI)

Governments need to be doing much more to educate their citizens about data-driven technology, especially artificial intelligence, she said.

In Finland, for example, the government offered everyone a free course on AI to give people a better general understanding of how machine learning and data-driven algorithms work.

Governments are often behind the curve when it comes to regulating the large companies like Facebook or Google, in terms of the data they collect and how they use it, and the degree of transparency they offer.

Then there is the fact that many governments are dependent on these companies for data they need. "The U.S. relies very heavily on firms such as Google and Facebook and Amazon to provide services, whether it's cloud services, or AI services, or even Microsoft on training, using immersive tools to train people in the virtual world. And so we're dependent on these companies for our national security," she said.

Obviously, there is a wide disparity in the world when it comes to protecting the data rights of citizens, which is tied to wealth. And unfortunately, Aaronson sees the large tech companies getting bigger and bigger as more data is accumulated. "That's why I hope that we will get more information about the information they have on us and how they can use it," she said.

Despite this, she's optimistic for the future. "We're just learning how to govern, and we're going to make a ton of mistakes, but we're going to learn, and that will make things better."

Written and Produced by Adam Killick.