Society is at a crossroads.
Down one path lies a tech-enhanced future where people all over the world are more efficient and knowledgeable, given an equal voice thanks to online platforms and connected via the humming, invisible web of the internet.
Down the other is a dark, undemocratic world where powerful algorithms dictate everything from our university admissions to jail sentences; where targeted, hyper-personalised advertisements drive political polarisation; and where tech giants command an increasing and unprecedented amount of power and influence over the public.
For author Jamie Bartlett, it’s up to us to decide who wins the war between digital technology and democracy.
Culture Trip: Why did you feel it was important to write The People Vs Tech now?
Jamie Bartlett: I wrote the book when I did because there have been a lot of isolated stories about different aspects of technology causing various problems for society, but they have never been pulled together as part of the same story and [depicted as] a clash between the old world and the new world.
We’ve had a lot of disruption of politics and the economy and society, but the sort of disruption that’s coming and the speed at which the technology is improving and embedding in our daily lives, makes it feel like we’re at a critical turning point. The direction tech is heading could take us somewhere quite dark if we don’t act quickly.
CT: In your book you argue that the internet and technology are killing democracy. How so?
JB: It’s not as if are these evil masterminds behind technology rubbing their hands together with glee saying they’re going to destroy democracy; it’s more that they’re building systems that don’t fit easily with our current democratic institutions.
There are different pillars that make our modern, representative democracies work: a vibrant, well-resourced free press; thoughtful, independently minded citizens who can act as agents; a sense of a common understanding that constitutes reality; the belief in free and fair elections that aren’t being manipulated; a strong middle class – and all of these things in slightly different ways are being slowly eroded by brand-new technology.
CT: Who is it up to to make sure those things are being looked after?
JB: The tech firms themselves need to take more responsibility over what they’re actually doing. For a long time they had a lot of power without much responsibility, and were hiding behind the idea that they were just platforms connecting people. But I think there’s a growing sense in the big companies at the moment that they’re responsible for a lot of the big changes, and with great power comes great responsibility – and all those other movie lines.
There’s also clearly a need for the government to push back harder and be more aggressive in designing regulations to control technology – whether it’s [Europe’s upcoming] General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or updating our election laws.
And more importantly than anyone, and who I was writing for, is citizens. We have collectively built these mega monopolies, we have created the big companies that are being used by politicians to target us – not always, but usually knowingly – and we need to take some responsibility ourselves for what we do online.
So, I see it as being lots of different people’s responsibility, but citizens above all. We’re not just passive recipients in this world; we’re builders, too. And they’re who I aimed the book at.
CT: In your view, is the free-for-all era of unregulated tech coming to an end, or is it just getting started?
JB: Six months ago I would have said it’s all getting started – but I think now citizens are quite clearly worried and interested and engaged. And they’re sending a message to politicians that they should do something.
CT: Other than regulation, what are some of the ways we can get a firm handle on digital disruption?
JB: An obvious one is updating our electoral law. At the moment [the UK] has laws about broadcast adverts, leaflets and an electoral commission in this country that monitor, regulate and check the accuracy of the adverts that are put out during elections by political parties. [In the US,] the Federal Election Commission has a similar function.
We need to insist that the same is true of online adverts. One way to do that is to demand that every political party makes public a register of every advert they put out during an election, who they targeted, on what basis they target them and what specific messages they show different people.
And that’s going to be a very long list – the world’s longest Excel spreadsheet ever. So we’re also going to need journalists who can look through it and make sense of it.
One of the things that’s happened over the last two years, with the Brexit vote and the US election, is just how many people don’t seem to trust in the results or who think that it’s flawed, or think it’s biased, or that someone’s cheated. It’s so damaging for the health of a democracy if large numbers of people don’t think that the election has been conducted fairly. And so it’s extremely important for us to establish more control over elections so people think they’ve been fairly conducted.
And the second half is on citizens owning our responsibility. We need to start realising that the things we click and share have an impact, and are being used by companies to build profiles and algorithms. We can decide how much we share, increase our privacy settings, spread our custom online across multiple companies and think about what social media platforms we use. Collectively, if lots of people do it, it will make a difference.
And I think those things together could at least keep a lid on the very worst excesses of tribalism and anger, though I don’t think we’ll ever be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
CT: How optimistic are you about the future?
JB: People tend to rebel and act when things get quite bad. And we can come up with solutions and ideas, and the last couple of months have made me more optimistic because people are engaged with these issues and talking about them, asking what we can do and how we can change it. It seems there’s an awakening in this subject.
The People Vs Tech is published by Ebury Press at £8.99.