Casper Klynge is a Danish professional diplomat, with a career that encompassed some very challenging positions. He had held a function for 18 months in Afghanistan at a time when the country was recovering from the civil war and has spent two years leading crisis management missions in Kosovo. All of this, however, has not stopped this 46-year-old from claiming that the position he is currently in, is the most challenging one to date. The realization hit him after two years spent on the function, after he was appointed to the position of the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark to the Silicon Valley in 2017. No, he is not the Ambassador to the United States of America, or even to the State of California; he is the Ambassador to the wider San Francisco area where the major tech companies are seated.
In an interview he gave this summer, Klynge said: “What has the biggest impact on daily society? A country in southern Europe, or in Southeast Asia, or Latin America, or would it be the big technology platforms?”. And then he added: “Our values, our institutions, democracy, human rights, in my view, are being challenged right now because of the emergence of new technologies. These companies have moved from being companies with commercial interests to actually becoming de facto foreign policy actors.”
To be completely honest, the Danish Ambassador has not necessarily said anything that can be regarded as novel. The novelty lies in the fact that one sovereign country, by appointing a diplomat, recognized and verified this new reality.
With the appointment of Casper Klynge as an ambassador, Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeppe Kofod stated that this position is part of an effort to ensure that democratic governments set the boundaries for the tech industry and not the other way around.
Tech platforms that were created and that are now run by the global corporate giants, are not just the tools that provide for a faster and better connectivity, making our everyday lives easier, but their existence and operation bring into question the existing social models, including the current concept of the state that underpins the global political system.
The fact is that politics are far from ignoring the existence of the new tech platforms. On the contrary, they use the platforms actively. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become the dominant communication instruments in the political marketing. One of the main characteristics of the platforms being utilized is to turn the user into a media channel. Due to a personalized way of communicating, these channels have a better influence than the traditional media. The way we communicate is also different, as it appears that we have a direct 1-on-1 communication, so that every tweet, or a Facebook post from a politician appears as a message that was aimed directly at each of the recipients. Aside from this, everyone who receives the message is given an opportunity to reply, comment and support or criticize the presented opinion. This in turn creates a sense of self-importance with the recipient, which results in the additional need to fit in and belong. The mechanism corresponds to the ones that are present in sports and pop culture industries – turning the widest possible audience into fans.
This is exactly what turned politics into the entertainment industry where playing the emotional card seems to trump the rational course of discussing crucial societal topics. The politicians act the part as well, turning into celebrities during the election periods, partaking in reality-TV-like meet-and-greets, performing and taking photos with the fans and publish all of that on social media, practically doing everything the rest of the world does. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the number of political figures coming from the show-business is on the rise. Because, that is what the fans want and that is what these people know how to do best.
At the same time, methods and techniques of collecting and analyzing all the data and digital traces we daily leave behind, using all the new platforms offered, become increasingly better providing for more efficient mechanisms for manipulation. This also increases the effect that influences coming from different sides have on us, without us even noticing.
These are all the reasons for the rise of populism and derogatory downward slope for the state institutions and legal order, where the alternative to the system is a decisive leader who appears to know what he is doing, in direct contact with the people who adore him, like him and support him, while hating on everything and everyone who thinks or acts differently. Representative democracy systems are then slowly being eroded into empty formats that people start to distrust.
And this where the key question arises. If technology has so profoundly changed our lives, allowing us to access the entire world database of knowledge in a global digital library with a single click, being one tap away from the world atlas of all the geographical maps of the world, that all the information we need can be accessed in real time, that we are in constant contact with our friends no matter where we are and so on, how is it possible that tech revolution has failed to affect the political system, even the one that labels itself as democratic? Can we not expand the “rule of the people” in the time of hyperconnected tech platforms over the mere voting system for elected representatives in national parliaments every few years? Why is it taboo to put certain issues to vote, directly to the people using modern IT channels, allowing for direct democracy on specific issues, proposals or legislative amendments? It is beyond clear that today we possess the tech foundations to develop certain forms of direct democracy. It only begs the questions of “why” then is there no palpable movement on this front just yet?
It is clear that there is no actual interest to do so. Those who are part of the political elite today see the direct democracy as a threat to their status and power. The citizens are needed as voters to every so often provide mandates for representation in the old and outdated system, supporting obediently. They wouldn’t change it for the world.
Global corporate giants that are running the platforms are in the end there to increase profits and don’t consider themselves as spearheads of change in the system of politics. They are doing amazing and they also wouldn’t change the way things are, not even for the world.
Citizens, seen only as voters by the first group and consumers by the second, are apparently still satisfied with being the mute audience entertained by both of these groups. So no true intention to change things here either. It seems everyone is happy, as long as the music is playing.
Let’s see how long this will last. I have a feeling that the end is coming, soon. What happens after is really hard to anticipate. We either lose the need to have this transparent, illusion-like façade of political scenery, with capital running the show, or the fundamental shift will occur in the very structure of the political system and introduce the direct democracy features in the society. We’ll see…
Instead of concluding remarks:
Caspar Klynge will continue to represent the interests of its country in the Silicon Valley. Despite the fact that since taking on the function in 2017, Mr Klynge is yet to meet Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pitchai of Google or Tim Cook of Apple, the Ambassador managed to establish official contact with the management teams in each of these companies, who said they were pleased that one sovereign country is interested in their line of work.
Klynge himself, in the interview for the NY Times, describes a visit to one of the companies he opted not to name. One of the directors who was supposed to meet him was running late, so the Ambassador was offered to be taken on a tour of the company in the meantime. When the meeting finally happened, after a short time the director apologized for having to leave, as he had other pending commitments lined up. The meeting ended with a handshake and a corporate gift with a logo on the t-shirt and a baseball hat. So nice of them to do that, right? For a long-lasting memory of the visit.
Just my two cents…