The issue: Diverging views on the role of the state, the rights and responsibilities of individuals, and what we expect from each other could transform the social contract.
As trust in institutions declines in certain communities, attitudes toward democratic norms and citizenship could become engines of social conflict in the short term.
Disagreements about basic democratic norms and values, such as losers’ consent,[i] the extent of free speech, or the definition of acceptable protest are key factors in existing social challenges around polarization, intolerance, and incivility. Should divides on these basic principles widen, movements that deny government authority or seek to undermine democratic processes could become more popular. Such disagreements could leave others so frustrated or confused that they tune out. Coupled with polarization, this disengagement could drive electoral participation down to levels that raise questions about the legitimacy of democratically elected governments. Alternatively, after a period of disruption, conflicts surrounding democratic values and norms could produce a new majority consensus on the best relationship between the people and the state.
If trust in experts and research institutions continues to weaken, their advice may be disregarded and public support for research funding may fade.
Conspiracy theories, disinformation, anti-science, and anti-elite agendas are undermining trust in experts and research institutions in some sectors of society. A future of declining trust in research and researchers might involve even more widespread rejection of evidence-based policy and programs. It might also witness crashing levels of public compliance with official instructions when such advice is explicitly based on research or expert advice. Those who disagree with policies on these grounds could easily find themselves on a slippery slope that ends in the rejection of all state authority. Declining popular support for research and researchers could make an instant controversy of any policy or program involving research. Subsequent debates about the state’s role in research funding could produce a range of outcomes. It could reinforce the status quo, lead public institutions to pull back from such funding, or lead them to expand public research support.
As metaverses enable new experiences and expressions, new forms of activism, protest, and crime may appear, potentially shifting views on rights.
Metaverses may enable new kinds of activism and protest—like virtual flash mobs at political events in the metaverse or persistent digital graffiti on public monuments. Similarly, these new spaces could become playgrounds for criminal elements using AI disguised as humans to run scams; or for hate groups that use biased but deeply immersive simulations of historical events to recruit new members. It is impossible to know whether people will be more or less tolerant of disruptive or dangerous activity in metaverses than they are in real spaces, or whether their views of rights will be the same in both spaces. Some people may want new digital spaces to share standards rooted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and very much tied to the real world. Others may not, preferring to let social pressure or corporate moderators keep behaviour within acceptable limits. Foreign ownership of such spaces could present another complication, making it difficult to use proactive regulation or retroactive enforcement to protect the rights and safety of people living in Canada.
As the gap between the data power of governments and firms widens, more people may look to the private sector for leadership in areas traditionally reserved for government.
Private tech firms have built unprecedented data collection and processing power, giving them access to more information about private individuals than most governments have. Governments that fall further behind private firms could appear inefficient, untrustworthy, or even irrelevant in the future. More people may start looking to large tech firms and their charismatic CEOs for leadership on major problems because they are seen to be “better informed” about the people, the economy, or the environment. While this kind of leadership might not necessarily undermine the legitimacy of governments, it could make it easier for some private-sector actors to sway public opinion and mobilize action. Private big data firms could provide many benefits to individuals and society, including solutions to problems like sustainability and public health crises. But it is not clear whether firms would prioritize such benefits in the absence of a profit motive.
[i] James Piazza, “The ‘sore loser effect’: Rejecting election results can destabilize democracy and drive terrorism,” The Conversation, last modified Jan. 23, 2022, https://theconversation.com/the-sore-loser-effect-rejecting-election-results-can-destabilize-democracy-and-drive-terrorism-171571.