The latest treatise on technology taking over our lives suggests democratic systems are incompatible with the digital age, but the theory lacks coherence
Mon 16 Apr 2018 02.00 EDT Last modified on Mon 16 Apr 2018 03.21 EDT
There is a clear, algorithmic formula for writing books about technology and society in 2018. Authors are generally required to be male, their documented personal journey must have been from that of techno-optimist to techno-sceptic to techno-panicker. There must be an urgent existential threat to either democracy or humanity lurking in the code base of Silicon Valley companies. The intractable crisis is not so profound, however, that it cannot be solved by a hail of partially thought-through remedies tacked on in the appendix.
This recipe is producing a growing body of what might be termed “techlash” literature: the backlash against Silicon Valley and its seemingly unstoppable accretion of wealth, data and cultural and political capital. Where once we might have read expansive works of science fiction creating vivid and ambiguous alternative realities to help us navigate the future, now we have worrisome documentaries of threats so present they have often played out by the time the galley hits the review pile. In the last year several notable techlash titles have appeared, including Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things. (106) add
Jamie Bartlett, a technology journalist and the head of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the thinktank Demos, brings another title to the genre, his book having all the requisites of an apocalyptic techno-driven scenario, this time with a promise to solve it. The People vs Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It) is a lively read, which attempts to pull a grand theory out of the current political crises surrounding the surprise victories of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the unauthorised laundering of millions of personal data profiles. Although Bartlett’s tone is unusually upbeat for someone facing an imminent democalypse, his meta-thesis is far darker than those of authors who simply moan that the internet has ruined everything. Bartlett lays out an argument that democracy is being rendered obsolete by an increasingly quantified society, nudged gently toward surrendering its political agency to smarterdecision-making machines. The public sphere is obscure and corrupted, the middle classes are facing robotic unemployment, and authoritarians are stepping into the void left by our declining institutions. (184) add
His depiction of the general population as dazed and confused by Silicon Valley’s trickery does not feel grounded in fact
Bartlett argues that a series of threats, including automation and artificial intelligence applications, and the algorithmic remaking of publics by data aggregators such as Facebook, will erode the conditions necessary for democracy to thrive.
“At a deep level these two grand systems – technology and democracy – are locked in a bitter conflict,” writes Bartlett. “They are products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles.” At one point Bartlett makes the unsubstantiated assertion that “democracy is analogue rather than digital” – in other words, slow, deliberative and grounded in physical space. Each of Bartlett’s six conditions for functioning democracy – active citizens, shared culture, free elections, stakeholder equality, competitive and civic freedom, and trust in authority – he argues, are either already subsumed in bots and distraction or are about to be worn away by a combination of self-driving cars and programmatic advertising. (113) add
The theory that modern democracy is unfit for the digital age is a fascinating provocation, as the opacity of our political communications systems and asymmetry of social media platforms allow for autocratic and populist messages to thrive. The evidence stretches beyond Trump and Brexit and into both large countries such as Russia and China and aggressively authoritarian leaders in smaller countries from the Philippines to Hungary. After decades of western-style democracy being in the ascendancy it is suddenly in retreat.
Bartlett could have mined a fascinating book from just one subject on his laundry list of threats to democracy. But for all six he struggles to lash the billowing themes together into a coherent whole. And often his arguments are just infuriatingly inconsistent. On one page, for instance, he describes algorithms as running autonomously of any human control, yet he later refers to the implicit human bias baked into the same systems. He is convinced that the powerful narcotic of smartphone apps will somehow anaesthetise the general population, isolating them from civic engagement. However, instances of collective action and protest, particularly in the US, are higher than they have been for decades. His major criticisms revolve largely around the supply side of the equation – monopolistic institutions hoarding our data – but he rarely acknowledges that the demand side has a role to play, too. His depiction of the population as dazed, confused and addicted by Silicon Valley’s psychological trickery just does not feel grounded in fact. (167) add
He rightly characterises journalism as a weakened element of the public commons and worries that questions such as “What new injustices are tech creating?” are extremely difficult to answer, and that the complexity of investigating platform power will just be too expensive or difficult: “We are therefore in the unenviable position where the tech companies could become even less subject to the investigations that could keep their growing power in check.”
This might become true. However, Mark Zuckerberg sweated through two hearings on Capitol Hill only because he was dragged there by the work of journalists and academics unearthing the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We owe our entire knowledge of the current dog’s breakfast of failures in the information ecosystem to independent academic researchers and investigative journalists.
As a policy wonk and journalist, Bartlett has more insight when writing about election processes and political communications than when he ranges further into the technical landscape. The details of the dynamics during the Trump campaign are particularly compelling. Although not new, and written about at exhaustive length in the US press, the alchemy of micro-targeting in close campaigns such as the 2016 presidential election is the strongest evidence he has to support his overarching claim that democracy is, in fact, screwed.
Unfortunately, the book itself falls foul of the dynamics of the very systems Bartlett critiques. Book deadlines, like democracy, are analogue, slow and deliberative, while the subject matter of this book changes every day. Early on, Bartlett writes extensively about the use of targeting data in the Trump campaign and interviews Alexander Nix, the chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, but he is missing the final and most exciting part of the story. He was clearly pressed by an anxious editor to retrofit events into footnotes and updated mentions (so the Parkland shootings in Florida make an awkward appearance but Cambridge Analytica’s exposure and disgrace is left undone). (108) add
This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the profusion of treatises inviting us to peer into the techno-abyss: they could have arrived a little earlier. All the evidence for supporting arguments of technological overreach, a muddied public sphere and a communications ecosystem it is impossible to parse has been available for years. And yet were it not for Donald Trump’s presidency I seriously doubt we would be having these discussions even now.
The original techlash authors, such as Evgeny Morozov (The Net Delusion) or Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), were ahead of their time in terms of one set of white men complaining about the empowerment of another set of white men. For the women and minorities who never enjoyed the full advantages of a free press, functioning democracies and elite positions in society, the ongoing oppression of an out-of-control technocracy seems less of a surprise.
• The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett is published by Ebury Press (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.64 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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