The People Vs Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It)
There is presently a glut of books being published on the threats to liberal democracy: post-truth demagoguery, populism, self-serving elites, identity politics, globalisation, growing inequality, etc. Bartlett’s argument is that it is digital technology, if it should continue on its current trajectory, which is one of the major culprits.
Social media is based on the model of a free service in exchange for advertising. To maximise their pay-off, adverts are ever more individually targeted, by collecting ever more data about users and analysing them with ever more sophisticated software. But the same knowledge, which increasingly outstrips our self-knowledge, can also be used to manipulate us with political messages. Driven into echo-chambers and aggressively tribal, we are undermining a crucial pillar of democracy: a common forum of debate, where a diversity of views is heard, others are respected, and compromise is possible.
As for the tech firms themselves, they are likely to gain in power. The specific characteristic of network effects (the bigger the network, the better it is) encourages the formation of monopolies – Google for searches, Facebook for social networks, Amazon for buying things, and so on. This means more than just economic power, to crush competitors or else buy them out. And it means more than money to lobby governments and influence legislation. It increasingly also means ideological power: to make people and politicians see the world as they do - with the possible result of a few companies ending up controlling the technology for a totally networked planet, an artificial intelligence platform governing everything from manufacturing to healthcare to functions of government itself – and everyone being happy with it.
Increasingly intelligent technology grows productivity. But the spoils are more likely to accrue to its owners: This will further exacerbate inequality, with a large number of low-paid workers serving a rich technology elite. Which, in turn, will lower the tax base, since the poor cannot pay tax and the rich can often avoid paying it. Such inequality, and the consequent inability to fund public services, could have grave political consequences. Many may come to conclude that liberal democracy, or even democracy itself, is incapable of solving our social problems, and opt instead for authoritarians to re-impose control. If there is the threat of illiberal democracy or worse, there is also, however, the threat of undemocratic liberty. Encryption and block-chain technology in particular have made possible currencies, markets and networks that are anonymous and beyond state control. Crypto-anarchists envision a world with no states and individuals with no social obligations; even if this extreme should not come to pass, the severe weakening of state power could lead to a dystopian breakdown of civil society.
How likely is all this? As Bartlett remarks, new technologies bring with them a set of values all of their own. The technically possible becomes the desirable, then the inevitable. Technologies do nothing less than transform culture. So it was with the information revolution brought about by the printing press, the shrinking not only of physical but also psychological space by the railways, and the building of so much of our lives around the motorcar. And all too often, technological development has outrun our ability to harness it as a means for human betterment, dominating and threatening us instead. (The H-bomb is perhaps the most egregious example.) Digital dependency is already widespread – one need only witness countless smartphone addicts – and a life off-line already next to impossible. How else now could we communicate, shop, travel, or bank?
The author ends with twenty recommendations to make digital technology serve the public good and thus give liberal democracy a chance to survive. He has written a well-informed and very timely book, one that deserves to be read by every citizen concerned with not sleep-walking into a digital disaster.
(A note on production: The cover of the paperback is a sort of rough white cardboard. After just one read, it was dirty and considerably worse for wear. I hope future print-runs will fix this problem and choose a better-suited material.)