Surviving in a world of sharper technological competition
22 Jan 2020|

Discussions on technology and strategy in Canberra typically lead down one of three paths.

The first is military implications and applications, usually in the context of our relations with the United States.

The second is around trade and economics, recognising that our economy and prosperity are heavily dependent on the ideas, products and services of others.

The last is darker, involving arcane sources, secret places and foreign influence, and is focused on shutting doors and barring windows.

Along each of those paths, technology is understood as something external, ‘done’ or given to Australia by others. There’s no real sense of initiation or ownership. We’ve allowed ourselves to think of Australia essentially as a spectator rather than a participant in technological innovation.

While myopic, that approach was relatively harmless when technological development was strategically neutral. But it is no longer so.

Digital technologies, in particular, are a key arena of an accelerating great-power competition. That’s important, because digital technologies are deeply intertwined with our economies, our communities, our daily lives and even our identities. Our choice and use of these technologies will increasingly shape our social interactions and constrain our political decisions.

What are the choices before us? At present there are two Western models—the American and the Western European models—and an authoritarian model, increasingly dominated by China. Other nations generally fall into the category of ‘takers’.

Takers are characterised by technological weakness, with little industry and few platforms on which to build their own technological sphere—and low levels of interest in doing so. And, because of the increasing integration of technology, society and economy, they tend to assume the world view and governance habits of others.

Australia has only a fragile technology ecosystem of its own, and government is evincing little interest in supporting it to the extent needed for it to establish its own critical mass. Indeed, the overall trend for research and development expenditure is towards stasis, if not decline.

It’s interesting to consider Australia’s decision to exclude Huawei from the nation’s 5G network through that lens. Like the Assistance and Access Bill, it reflects the growing influence of internal security concerns among the Five Eyes partners. Yet neither decision motivated the Australian government to invest significantly in a technology industry or public sector capability to develop alternatives and provide greater autonomy over future options.

In short, Australia is a technology taker.

So, what options does Australia have to secure its future in a world of increasing technological determinism?

Well, old habits are hard to break. Following the American model—a focus on the technological, leaving people to sort out the consequences of new products and services—follows old, well-worn paths in national security, business and society.

However, Silicon Valley has come under sustained criticism from a wide section of the Australian community and government, on issues ranging from taxation to social media to national security. US defence technology is increasingly expensive and burdensome. We’ve accepted that in the past as a part of being an ally and a technology taker, but doing so may become more precarious, especially with volatility generated by President Donald Trump in the relationship.

What of the European model? Europeans tend to pay more attention to the social aspects of technology and the protection of personal data, and have a more inclusive decision-making process. In terms of personal liberties, that model probably has more to offer for strengthening Australian democracy in a digital age.

But Western Europeans are increasingly concerned with internal stability and coherence. Europe’s demographics and economies fall short of the social, economic and technical dynamism present in our own larger neighbourhood. Australia cannot rely on it shaping the future of the intersection of technology and society in our favour.

The Chinese model—aggressive use of technology for authoritarian purposes—is characterised by surveillance, behaviour modification, a denial of privacy or secrets for anyone other than the state, and the subservience of all industry, research, institutions, communities, people and data to the Chinese Communist Party.

Needless to say, that is fundamentally antithetical to Western concepts of democracy. And yet, it’s notable that those who are free with their criticism of American platforms, including Western governments, are hesitant to criticise the increasingly large and powerful—and CCP-supported—Chinese platforms.

Western companies have benefited from Chinese state control, for example, through ‘programmable labour’, the development of technologies facilitating surveillance or simply access to its market. And China offers a number of self-interested parties, whether governments, police forces or companies in competitive markets, a range of incentives, such as Belt and Road Initiative loans, state-subsidised technology and the means of monitoring and controlling citizenry.

Australians have not yet started to consider what a future liberal, Western digital democracy might look like in a world of technologically driven competition. So far, the dominant government policies on technology and society have been shaped by fear.

But security concerns alone should not dictate our future. Nor should national security be conflated with strategy and statecraft. Doing so makes it harder to resist increasingly authoritarian practices and mindsets, whether in response to internal or external threats.

Instead, Australia needs to establish its own counterweight.

We need a restatement of democratic values and norms, ones appropriate to a Western digital democracy. That cannot be left to the national security community. The debate has to be broad and inclusive, not least to build the mutual trust between government and citizen needed for functioning digital societies and economies.

We need to invest in research and development and in establishing a technological industry base in this country. If Finland and Estonia can do it, we surely can. We’ll need a different approach to government decision-making, to drive investment, outcomes and long-term accountabilities rather than focusing on simply short-term expenditure and efficiencies.

It also means investing more, not less, in public sector capabilities—deepening knowledge, and not just in defence and security—while supporting private sector opportunities.

Australia shares a common heritage and ideals with its Western counterparts. Facilitating links with European and US institutions and companies would help Australia bridge the technological divide, build capability, strengthen democracy and develop its own ethos.

Establishing a determined technology outreach effort into our immediate region, in ASEAN and in fellow democracies, would help to build a community of the like-minded. Here, Australia has much, if not more, to learn from its neighbours than it has to offer.

Australia should seek to offer a strengthened vision of the future, preferably among like-minded nations, in counterpoint to that offered by China and other authoritarian regimes, and one that reflects our own liberal democratic ideals.

Building a plausible counterweight will be hard: the hour is late and we’ve been dreadfully slow out of the starting gate. But the sooner Australia comes to grips with this new shaping of the world, the better we will be able to adapt, act and secure our future.