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Reclaiming Democracy

John Fanning

The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), by Jamie Bartlett, Ebury Press, 256 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1785039065

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, by James Bridle, Verso Books, 304 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1786635471

The birth of the twenty-first century coincided with the introduction of the digital age. The internet had emerged in its current form in the early 1990s and was followed by Amazon in 1994, Google in 1998 and Facebook in 2004. After an initial period of sniffing around, the new strange-sounding names were enthusiastically adopted and authors vied with each other to extol their potential. US academic Clay Shirky was an early convert with two books, Here Comes Everybody (2008) and Cognitive Surplus (2010), celebrating the new dawn and highlighting the possibilities for improving the quality of our democracies by enabling and encouraging greater citizen participation. He also foresaw a new creative dawn: we are living in the middle of the greatest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race. Another assumption of the cyber-optimists, shared by Shirky, was that digital tools would rouse people from their televisions and obsession with consumer goods to contribute more to society: the harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous public and social ways relative to their old status of consumers and couch potatoes.

The cyber-optimists believed that the new technology would lead to more open democratic societies and that we were all going to be smarter, happier and lead more fulfilled lives.

But not everyone was convinced that we were living in the best of all possible worlds. Cyber-sceptics began to emerge in the “noughties” and initially concentrated their attention on the possible negative effects of the new digital devices on how we live our lives. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010) made a powerful case for the threat posed by prolonged exposure to the internet on our capacity for deep understanding and creative thinking. He noted that students were losing their ability for “close reading” and the ability to concentrate, analyse and reflect as they scrolled, scanned and skittered across the surface of things. Continuous reliance on the web has also made us less reliant on memory and “when we outsource our memory we also outsource an important part of our intellect, even our identity”. The end result is the much quoted line “continuous partial attention”; we are living our lives in a perpetual present in which society loses its ability to retain its own past.

If Carr concentrated his criticism on shallow thinking Sherry Turkle, a US clinical psychologist, alerted us to the dangers of shallow relationships. In Alone Together (2014) and Reclaiming the Conversation (2015) she reported on surveys of US teenagers showing that technology dominated their lives and was isolating them from real human interaction. She noted that conversation demands self-reflection but increasingly young people can’t cope with this: they are more comfortable texting than talking as you can formulate your answers in your own time whereas conversation takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say. Turkle concludes that technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and that it represents an “assault on empathy”.

Then came the growing realisation that all our online interactions, searches, emails, texts and any other aspect of our web presence were being hijacked by the tech giants, subjected to highly complex analysis and eventually, on the instructions of fiendishly clever algorithms, sold to the highest bidder in the form of commercial messages targeted at precisely the moment the maths predicted we would be most susceptible. It began to dawn on us that our need for “free” stuff online had blinded us to the fact that if the product appeared to be free then we were the product and advertisers the true customers.

None of these criticisms seemed to make the slightest impression on the tech companies but two seismic political upheavals in 2016; the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, changed everything. Following these electoral upsets it was widely believed that one of the reasons for the surprise victory of the Leave campaign in the UK and the Trump campaign in the US was the more sophisticated use of social media data. With data obtained, sometimes legally and sometimes less so, the two campaigns were able to press the right emotional buttons to nudge voters’ actions in the desired direction. Artificial intelligence, algorithms and unaccountable money sources were shown to have overwhelmed democratic norms and their use was a significant but invisible element in the two campaigns. There was even an evil Mr Big lurking in the background; shy retiring multi-billionaire Robert Mercer and his not so shy daughter Rebecca, who had reputedly funded Cambridge Analytica, the mysterious company whose analytics team had organised the data.

Added spice to this rich cocktail was the fact that the Russians, who had their own mischievous reasons for supporting Trump and Leave, were also using sophisticated analytics to influence voters without their knowledge. Following the two electoral earthquakes mainstream politicians and media became conscious of the extent of the digital threat. (The question why it took them so long might be asked here but sin scéal eile.) Even The Economist, a stout defender of business interests, ran two editorials within the space of a few months in 2017: “Big Tech: Big Trouble” and “Taming the Titans”. Now it wasn’t just a question of what effect the new digital devices and platforms were having on our lives; it was what they were doing to society and to the planet. Two books dealing with these wider issues appeared in 2018; The People Vs Tech and The New Dark Age. In this essay, I will also take a brief look at some figures from the past whose names keep reappearing in the growing literature on this subject.

The People Vs Tech is written by Jamie Bartlett, a director of the London-based think-tank Demos, who believes that the giant tech businesses represent a serious threat to democracy. In the beginning it was believed that the new technology would be beneficial, offering new information and ideas and enabling greater opportunities for civic participation. But Bartlett argues that there is actually a basic conflict between democracy and the digital age. Democracies developed in an era of nation states and require an effective bureaucracy, committed citizens who believe in compromise and informed debate and a free and vigilant media. The fundamental features of digital tech, he argues, which are non-geographic and informed by a libertarian anti-government philosophy, are deeply at odds with liberal democracy. He quotes from the infamous 1994 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace: “Governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. You do not know us nor do you know our world. Your concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us.”

Reading this you begin to realise that Silicon Valley’s aversion to paying taxes is not just a matter of greed: it’s a fundamental conviction. Bartlett argues that if you scratch below the simplistic pieties about connecting global communities you will find that our ability to function in a democratic society is being undermined in a variety of ways. The first is that our free will is being interfered with by being under constant surveillance with the resulting data being used to determine everything from your Facebook news feed, to whatever pops up when you search on Google, to your Amazon recommendations; the logical goal of datism is for each of us to be reduced to a unique, predictable and targetable data point. Second, because of data overload we are continually being split into tribes by the tech companies. Like-minded people huddle together in filter bubbles and echo chambers sharing a sense of grievance and, as Bartlett points out; the internet is the largest and most abundantly stocked pantry of grievance in the history of mankind.

As people are grouped together into narrow segments and are under continual surveillance, the resulting data can be used by political activists to test the most effective messages to bring about the desired voting behaviour. The more politics becomes a question of sophisticated statistical analysis and precisely targeted messages rather than ideas and argument the more power will move away from those with good ideas to those with the best data and the most money. Meanwhile these developments are exacerbated by another consequence of the digital age; increasing inequality. This has been well-documented by recent studies like Piketty’s Capital, but the tech businesses have been major contributors to the problem with their creation of the so-called “gig” economy  and the resulting “precariat”, where an increasing proportion of the workforce is existing on low pay, uncertain hours and no rights, security or pensions. The resulting hollowing out of the middle class leaves a shrinking tax base, a reduced welfare state and a disgruntled electorate all the more likely after being “nudged” by targeted messages on social media platforms to succumb to the dubious charms of political strongmen who promise the “take back control”.

The final threat to democracy is what the author calls crypto-anarchy, which he defines as “a philosophy that aims to undermine the power of the state through encryption”. This involves setting up systems on the dark web completely outside the control of governments. The crypto-anarchists believe that our rights and freedoms should not be determined by democratically elected governments but by “immutable technology”. Bitcoin, a medium of exchange that is international, pseudonymous and not controlled by government, is an example. Although the crypto-anarchists are not part of big tech they do share the extreme libertarian values that permeate Silicon Valley.

Bartlett concludes with twenty ideas to save democracy. Essentially they boil down to the urgent need to renew our democratic vows. Previous generations around the world fought long and hard for democracy; we take it too much for granted. It was also created for an analogue age and now needs a digital upgrade. It cannot survive with excessively high levels of inequality and too many businesses playing off governments against each other. We need new ideas to improve decision-making in a new age. The Citizens’ Assembly that played such a key role in Ireland’s civilised abortion referendum is perhaps a case in point. We also need a powerful anti-trust movement to curb the freedoms obtained by business in the neo-conservative era but above all we need to re-educate everyone about why so many people fought and died to bring about democracy in the first place and to defend it.

If Bartlett worries about the effects of big tech and the digital age on democracy James Bridle worries about their effect on just about everything. The New Dark Age is probably the most apocalyptic survey of the effects of the digital age, warning not only of the threat to democracy but of catastrophic climate change, child pornography, increased stock market turbulence, plane crashes and serious social unrest caused by over-zealous austerity policies and a rise in inequality, populism, violence and fundamentalism. Bridle’s background, as well as his vision, is different. He’s a conceptual artist and computer scientist whose artwork has been exhibited around the world and who has written for leading international journals. His central thesis is that since the Enlightenment there has been an assumption that the more we understand about the world the more we can control it. This belief reaches its apotheosis in the digital age, where everything can be reduced to data and modelled so that we have perfect understanding of how the world works. Bridle disputes this, arguing that the computational thinking which is at the heart of the digital age is an illusion. Why, he asks, if we have all this data is the world riven with fundamentalism, tribalism, rancour and division? We face a future where we have ever more data about the world and yet we seem to know less and less about it.

Of particular concern to the author is climate change and his prediction of a “new dark age” is heavily influenced by the increase in extreme weather patterns, from more heatwaves to more flooding. He believes that the digital age is partly responsible because our consumption of energy is rising as a result of the growth in the digital infrastructure; using a tablet or phone to watch an hour of video consumes more electricity in remote networks than two new fridges use in a year. He also discusses the conspiracy theorists’ view that chemtrails, the trail of chemicals left by airplanes at high altitude, are being deliberately sprayed by governments for a variety of purposes that are being kept secret. Although he doesn’t accept that there is a global conspiracy “to reengineer the climate for naïve or nefarious purposes” he does suggest that “something strange is afoot”. On a more ominous note he recalls the huge eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 which caused a chain of events culminating in 1816 becoming known as “The Year Without a Summer”, when crops failed across North America and Europe and snow and frost appeared in July and August.

But it’s not just the weather that is becoming more unpredictable: we are also witnessing unprecedented instances of systems failures, from serious aircraft accidents to sudden stock market meltdowns. Airlines are encountering increasing problems from “clear air turbulence”, which occurs when bodies of air moving at wildly different speeds meet, creating chaotic movements that are not predictable. The book details a startling number of such occurrences over the last twenty years. Figures from the US Federal Aviation Administration show that the frequency of turbulence accidents has increased from 0.3 accidents per million departures in 1989 to 1.7 in 2003 and he suggests it has been increasing steadily since then.

Stock market fluctuations are not as serious, but the crash of May 10th, 2010 saw the Dow Jones index falling six hundred points in five minutes, representing billions of dollars in value. Twenty-five minutes later the market recovered almost all of its value and while this “flash crash” is still being investigated and argued over the most likely explanation is different sets of algorithms acting in a way that no human trader could either understand or influence. Since 2010 flash crashes have become more common in stock exchanges around the world. The introduction of Bitcoin, with its capacity to disrupt hierarchical and centralised financial systems and which also requires the energy of nine US homes to perform a single transaction, is another worrying foretaste of future financial instability.

Underlying all of the concerns raised in this book is the vast amount of data being collected about each and every one of us by the devices of the digital age. We are living in an age of big data: one of the great clichés of our time is that ‘data is the new oil’. When this line is often trotted out in management presentations, TED talks and business school lectures it is rarely accompanied by the more pertinent connection Bridle makes, that “our thirst for data, like our thirst for oil, is historically imperialist and colonialist and tightly tied to capitalist networks of exploitation”.

One of the most sinister uses of data is in the construction of algorithms designed to hold people’s attention on YouTube. If you are looking for support for your views online you will have no trouble finding it, but you will also find what Bridle refers to as a “constant stream of validation” and before long you will be receiving more and more extreme views. This is how men’s rights activists graduate to white nationalism and disaffected Muslim youths fall into violent jihadism. The disturbing nature of the way our views are being manipulated by the hidden algorithms is even more worrying when it comes to children. Bridle devotes a whole chapter to some fairly worrying developments in YouTube, whose algorithms are even more effective in figuring out how to keep children glued to their screens. Children generate recommendations very quickly and Bridle claims that parents are reporting behaviour changes in their children after watching disturbing videos.

Like Bartlett, Bridle also writes about how the political system can be hijacked by shadowy interest groups, especially the Russians; the current “go-to” bad guys, whose Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg employs hundreds of hackers whose job is to disrupt democracy in Europe and the US. Bridle concludes that there is something rotten in a democracy when huge numbers of those participating in its debates are unaccountable and untraceable, when we cannot know who or even what they are. He is also critical of the tech companies for the creation of an economy operating outside national taxation structures employing a precariat working under Dickensian conditions.

It isn’t always easy to follow the logic of Bridle’s book: disturbing assertions and conspiracy theories come thick and fast and often strain credibility; the supporting evidence is thin and unconvincing, yet the core argument weaving its way from beginning to end, that digital technology acceleration has transformed our planet and our society but has failed to transform our understanding of these things, rings true. It is also worth remembering that is the role of the artist to alert us to the “vibrations in the ether”. Bridle is surely right to remind us that the brief history of the digital age “reveals an ever increasing opacity combined with a concentration of power” and that power has been captured by selfish elites. He offers no easy solution. Instead he offers a difficult one, expressed in the penultimate sentence of the book: we all need a more thoughtful engagement with technology; we only have to think, and think again and keep thinking.

Bridle refers to cyber science fiction writer William Gibson’s notion of “steam engine time”, when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. I want to consider a variation of this concept which might help in our thinking in coping with the threat posed to our lives and our societies by the tech menace. The growing literature on the subject, including the two books under review here, regularly enlist help from a variety of authors stretching back some two hundred years to illuminate their arguments. Five of the most frequently cited names are Mary Shelley, Louis Brandeis, Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan and Hannah Arendt. No one mentions all five but one or two of these names are invariably featured and I believe that a brief look at why they are currently surfacing might throw some light not only on our current predicament.

The reason for Mary Shelley’s inclusion is obvious but revealing. This year is the two-hundredth anniversary on the publication of her masterpiece Frankenstein, a tale of the consequences of being a monster. Like many of the founders of the tech giants Victor Frankenstein was a star pupil at university in science subjects and he developed a technique to implant life in non-humans, eventually creating a giant monstrous humanoid who escapes into the world. Frankenstein follows in a desperate attempt to prevent possible havoc but ends up dying in the Arctic; his last word of advice to a friend who tries to rescue him are to “avoid ambition”. Fiona Sampson’s recent biography of Mary Shelley summarises the Frankenstein idea as “the notion that if humans play god with the instruments of life they will produce something monstrous”. Two hundred years later the parallels are uncanny. Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated assertions that he is “really sorry” and will “really try” to do better suggest a man not entirely in control of the monster he has created.

Controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger is often cited because of his famous 1954 lecture “Questions Concerning Technology”, an attempt to define the essence of technology which involved fairly impenetrable (to me at any rate) philosophical discourse. However his main conclusion, that technology is not neutral, makes him critical to the current debate. Heidegger believed it a dangerous delusion to imagine that the use of technology is merely a tool, a means to an end, and that it doesn’t affect us. Rather it has a life of its own and is a way of revealing the world we live in: “modern technology is as much about something happening to us as it is something we ourselves institute or carry out”; the way out of the danger of technology is not simply to undo it, or break the machines, or retreat into a pre-digital age; our proper response is to pay attention to things and let them reveal themselves to us. Heidegger also suggests that in taking on a life of its own technology is preoccupied with means as opposed to ends: “progress has become a process automated and divested of purpose, a self-regulating mechanism from which human beings have become totally deaf and it is the disappearance of ends in the interests of the overriding logic of means that constitute the victory of technology”. He seems to suggest that technology entices us onto a treadmill from which we find it next to impossible to escape. The deliberately addictive nature of social media is a case in point, but I suspect that some of the tech giants are also feeling they too are on some kind of treadmill.

The communications theorist and “high guru” of media studies Marshall McLuhan, known for phrases like “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, was present at the birth of digital culture on the west coast of America in the late 1960s and is credited with some accurate forecasts of the effects of the new communications age. McLuhan’s main thesis is that the medium itself exerts a significant influence on how we perceive content and that each new medium therefore profoundly changes society: “if a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture; it is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody, and when the sense ratios alters in any culture what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent”. In an interview in Playboy in 1969 he prophesied: “the days of political democracy as we know it are over ‑ as man is tribally metamorphosed by the electronic media we all become ‘chicken littles’, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities and in the process could unleash great violence”. His solution was not to pass sentence but to make a greater effort to understand the effects and implications of new technology.

All three of these thinkers warn of the dangers of failing to understand the inherent nature of communications technology but there are two public intellectuals whose names are frequently called into play because their example offers the possibility of more direct action to combat some of the problems identified in the two books under review. The first is Louis Brandeis, a prominent US Supreme Court judge from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the first Jewish justice of that court. Brandeis set up a law firm in Boston, and became independently wealthy but was best known for his work on progressive causes, becoming known as “the people’s lawyer”. His nomination to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 was bitterly contested because he was a militant crusader for social justice. He was also a special adviser to President Roosevelt. Brandeis was regarded as especially dangerous by political opponents on the right not just because of his brilliance but because of his courage and incorruptibility. He was dedicated to breaking up large corporations in railways and finance and fought bitter legal battles with leading capitalists of the Gilded Age, notably JP Morgan. He was widely quoted as saying: “We must make a choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” His resonance today, eighty years after his death, is mainly due to his determination to break up large business corporations but there are two other equally apposite connections. In the 1880s he helped to develop the “right to privacy” concept in American law and in 1914 he published a book titled Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It.

The final exemplar we might consult for guidance in our digital dilemma is Hannah Arendt, the German-born philosopher who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s and who had a long career as a public intellectual in the US. Arendt wrote on a wide variety of philosophical and political subjects but is considered to be broadly in the civic republican tradition. Dating back to Aristotle, this branch of philosophy is based on the idea of recognising our interdependence with our fellow citizens and taking an active role in public life. Iseult Holohan, an Irish philosopher who has written widely in this subject defines it as a philosophy proposing that “that political and personal freedom is best realised through membership of a political community in which those who are mutually vulnerable and share a common fate may jointly be able to exercise some collective direction over their lives”. Arendt believed that our need for individual freedom and recognition was best achieved through participation in public politics and wanted to restore public space and free political activity; she was against the devaluation of politics to mere “national housekeeping”. The determination of political outcomes by public relations lobbyists would have been anathema to her.

One of the most important principles of civic republicanism is that citizens should be concerned for the common good and take some responsibility for it, the vita activa. The reason why this philosophical tradition and Arendt are attracting attention at present is partly because the ascendancy of a more individualist philosophical mood since the 1970s may be coming to an end and partly because the nature of the threat posed by the digital monopolies means that greater collective action will be required to curb their excesses. Arendt believed that “democracy is only strong when education is prevalent, the media is a prominent and honest check and the citizens are active”.

Thomas Bartlett has written a clear-eyed account of how our democracy is threatened by Silicon Valley and he provides an equally clear strategy for overcoming the threat. James Bridle’s artistic sensitivity has led him to contemplate a potentially more dystopian future but five wise counsellors from the past offer a potential lifeline. We have been warned.

1/10/2018

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.

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