03 October 2012

Former President of Chile: Technology Will Drive Democracy and Accountability

The spread of technology is taking the world back in time, argues former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. More specifically it takes us to Greece, “but not Greece of today,” he stresses to point out. “3,000 years ago people would gather in the public square,” explains Lagos. “They had the opportunity to speak to each other on an equal level. You could talk, I would talk, he would talk and we all would have to listen.” 

For Lagos, technologies are bringing back the public square that fostered the early developments of democracy. He explained his excitement for this reversion at today’s Beyond Access conference in Washington DC. “I sense sometimes that we are in the process of forming a new wave,” he told me. “New political institutions are forming through public participation thanks to technological advances.” 

Former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos; Credit
He explained that the printing press was an important development for democracy, but it was not until newspapers were printed that presses reached their true potential. It took 200 years to go from the printing press to the democratic revolutions in the United States and France. The new political institutions that are supported by technologies, he believes, will develop much sooner.

Technology brings about a glut of information. Lagos was careful to point out that the use matters. “In the future the question is how do you deal with the mass of information,” he said. “Citizens will feel more empowered because it amplifies the aspect of representation that is a part of democracy.” 

Beyond accountability and governance, technology increases access to the world. The size of Chile means that it must look outward, said Lagos. Connectivity changes the center of the world by increasing access. It radically changes the former centrality of international relations. “What is the meaning of a frontier anymore when you can click and have access?” posed Lagos.

During his talk and afterwards, Lagos told the story of a group of fishermen that lived on the small island of Melinka. He visited the location as president and saw that the fishermen were using the internet to access market prices for Chilean Sea Bass in Spain. They were then able to determine where to ship their catches based on where they could get the best price. He punctuated the story saying, “This is the kind of thing that makes a tremendous difference.”

Technology is at the core of Lagos and is evident in the progress of Chile. The country requires citizens to pay their taxes online and the Chile Compra dashboard allows citizens to track programs and expenditures. “Literacy was the big issue of the 20th Century. The big issue in this century is that everyone is able to use digital instruments,” said Lagos. Chile is making this effort through a 10 year plan to reduce the digital divide.

It is governance and transparency that got Lagos most excited. He explained that he hopes to use his foundation to empower citizens to hold politicians accountable by making information available in regards to progress of their campaign promises. To Lagos, technology is a way to engender democratization at all levels.

The former president grew more excited as he spoke about supporting transparency and accountability for the government. “Citizens will feel more empowered when they have more access,” he asserted.