For a brief moment in 2011, standing among thousands of people occupying Syntagma, the central square in Athens, it looked as though social media would change the world. A row of laptops set up next to the subway entrance became the beating heart of an anti-austerity movement that promised to go well beyond simple protest politics, up to perhaps reshaping the political culture of a stale Greek parliament.
From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring and the streets of Europe, a demand for such new politics and more democracy made itself known to the wider world through tweets and Facebook posts. Truly it appeared that if you gave people the tools to connect and actually meet each other in the digital commons, a demand for progress and change would arise almost naturally.
It’s strange to think about those days now. Regardless of ones political leanings, the breakdown in communication, civility and nuance are in ample evidence. These same tools and technologies, once brandished as weapons of democracy and progress in the face of tyranny, now appear almost sinister. And they’re only the more visible end of a huge wave of change, that includes automation and self-driving cars, which will drastically change the way we work and live. In the end, the question is no longer if technological advances will reshape democracy. The real question is if democracy can survive these changes at all.
In a journey that started with his debut The Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett — of this parish and the think-tank Demos, where he has been writing on these issues for years — took us through the hidden wonders and horrors of the fringe communities active in the Dark (and Open) Web, before following their graduation to IRL politics with The Radicals (the title of his second book). And his outlook is somewhat less than positive. ‘Over the years,’ Bartlett admits, ‘my optimism drifted into realism, then morphed into nervousness. Now it’s approaching mild panic.’
With each chapter, The People vs Tech pushes deeper through the ways in which technology will be affecting our lives in the very (very) near future. From our daily routines to the world of work, the health of our economies and finally the aforementioned survival of democracy itself, nothing seems to be beyond the scope of companies and politicians using the latest in data-harvesting (as seen during a visit to the former HQ of Trump’s digital operation) and machine learning technologies to influence the way we think and conduct most parts of our lives, outer and — most importantly — inner. It isn’t pretty.
Bartlett remarks: ‘Secretly designed algorithms are already creating data-led bias and invisible injustices, and we urgently need a democratic mechanism to hold them to account.’ But as we have witnessed over the past two years at the very least, the democratic process is not invulnerable to these new tools. And, as the book aptly shows, it’s not limited to pivotal moments. The platforms that host us become monopolies in that way, monopolies ‘of not just economics or politics, but of culture and ideas’.
Bartlett’s vibrant writing is at odds with his message, in that its vivid imagery and deep reporting at times lull us into a somewhat false sense of security. And I say false because what is made clear is that — to borrow from John Gray’s The Immortalisation Commission, which also deals with the intrinsic problems of technological utopianism — ‘Science is a tool for problem-solving — the best that humans possess. But it has this peculiarity, that when it is most successful it creates new problems, some of which are insoluble.’ This book is an urgent warning about such potentially insoluble problems.
In his epilogue, Bartlett leaves us with ‘20 Ideas to Save Democracy’. No one should think that these urgent actions can be undertaken without our active engagement with them. It brings to mind something from the Republic, where Plato speaks of sailors who ‘know nothing about navigation’ trying to deceive a shipowner into naming one of them captain through the ‘use of brute force and clever tricks’. That is only possible because the ship-owner himself is ‘hard of hearing, poor of vision, and lacks sea-faring skills’. The People vs Tech is a vital guide and a call addressed to those who are unwilling to play the part of the hapless shipowner in the coming war for our minds and democracy itself.