Technology and Governance: Making Technology Work for Society
Casper Jaspers’ new book sets out to do three things: explain new, powerful technologies; warn the public of their dangers; and finally to set out a proposed new model of governance in which governments take a leading role in directing technological progress.
Jaspers, a tech entrepreneur and corporate lawyer, covers five main groups of technologies: AI and robotics; the internet of things and brain-machine interfaces; cybersecurity and the dangers of a hyper-connected world; blockchain and distributed ledgers; and social media and online advertising.
Jaspers’ writing is clear and fluent. He is able to distil complex concepts into easily digestible summaries – the more technical of which are helpfully contained in grey boxes which less committed readers are invited to skip over if they choose. His descriptions of the technologies involved in AI and blockchain are particularly effective. As a primer on these new technologies, for businesspeople, lawyers and policy-makers Jaspers’ book works very well.
Wading through the intricacies of technology and its faults could be a dull task, but Jaspers enlivens the exercise by punctuating his discussion with stories and examples, ranging from classical antiquity (he cites the story of Prometheus as an early example of technology gone wrong) to modern-day issues arising from Covid and other recent events.
Jaspers’ engaging writing style is complemented by well-chosen illustrations and diagrams throughout the book, as well as the novel and clever use of QR codes, which readers are invited to scan with their smartphones in order to be able to watch videos referenced in the book.
One difficulty with Jaspers’ approach is that there seems little to unite the five technology groups which he charts. As Jaspers notes at the outset, there were other technologies such as the gene editing mechanism CRISPR, which he could have included. This is not a problem for the bulk of the book, which the author has written with a view to each chapter operating as a standalone section that could be read independently of the others. However, the lack of commonalities between the technologies covered becomes more of an issue in the final two chapters where Jaspers seeks to sketch out wider lessons for society.
After an enjoyable canter in the penultimate chapter through highlights of western philosophy, from Aristotle to Sandel, Jaspers concludes by arguing that governments should regulate new technologies using a combination of principles and soft law. It is possible that these rather high-level conclusions were necessitated by the fact that there is little more one can say to unite an approach to the new technologies discussed in the book, since the reality is that they each require varying political and legal responses. Indeed, some of the topics Jaspers covers, such as social networks and online advertising, are not distinct technologies at all but rather business ideas.
The book’s conclusion is limited also by is its western-centric focus. At times in the earlier chapters Jaspers refers to the growing role of China as a leader in the development of new technologies as well as the threats from Russian actors in terms of cybersecurity and deepfakes, but his final chapters are restricted to a discussion of western philosophical ideas, which are to be implemented (in his words) by ‘democracies’. It feels like a missed opportunity not to have addressed the arguably different motivations and approach of non-democratic governments.
To adopt the distinction popularised by Isaiah Berlin in an essay on Tolstoy, in his new book Jaspers triumphs as a fox, but is less successful as a hedgehog. In other words, this book sets out lots of ‘little’ ideas with aplomb, but the central ‘big’ idea is slightly lacking in force.
Jacob Turner is a barrister at Fountain Court Chambers and the author of Robot Rules: Regulating Artificial Intelligence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)