Can Democracy Survive Big Tech?

The People vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and How to Save It)
by Jamie Bartlett

Ebury Press, 242 pages, 2018, £8.99

At the beginning of the decade, social media and the big tech companies were in public favour. During the 2011 Arab Spring, blogging and online networks were viewed as a weapon that the masses could wield against dictatorships. The new platforms of Facebook and Twitter were lauded for furthering human communication; seen as exciting tools allowing distant family members and friends to connect. How times change.

Now technology is perceived as the enemy of not only personal health, but civil society as well. The past five years especially have witnessed steadily increasing attacks, from all sides of politics, on the role that technology plays in our lives.

Now it also appears that the very cornerstone of Western society, modern liberal representative democracy, is under threat. At least that is the view of Jamie Bartlett, technology writer for the Spectator and Telegraph and Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the UK think-tank Demos. His latest book, The People vs Tech, is an urgent and well-argued polemic exploring how the menacing forces of Silicon Valley are undermining Western polities.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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In order to demonstrate the book’s central premise, Bartlett first sets out what he regards as the six pillars of democracy, and then proceeds to show how each is threatened by technological advancements. The six pillars are: independent-minded and active citizens; a shared democratic culture; free elections; a manageable level of social inequality; a competitive economy; civic freedom; trust in authority. To Bartlett, technology is undermining all of them, although his definition of technology in this context is important. He is not insinuating that inventions such as the car and the fighter jet are threatening democracy, but is referring to the “digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley—social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence”. While this central argument may sound far-fetched on first inspection, Bartlett’s analysis is sound, and his book is written to make complex technological concepts accessible to the layman.

Bartlett’s first qualm is with the extensive personal-data collection operations conducted by large private companies. He demonstrates how this practice leads to a frightening level of accuracy in personality predictions, which can be used to target a specific individual with advertisements for anything from a snack to a politician. To Bartlett, this allows tech companies to “manipulate, distract and influence us in ways that are not in our best interest”, and threatens the concept of independent-minded and active citizens. Indeed, if people are constantly manipulated by the wishes of data collection companies and those that employ them, then it is the next logical step to see how members of society will no longer be able to come to important conclusions on matters of politics and culture that have not been influenced by the highest bidder.

This matter is especially alarming considering the tender age that today’s youth begin to access social media sites where they are at the mercy of targeted advertising and the sophisticated messaging that big data can achieve. Brainwashed and manipulated before they have fully developed, such individuals may never be independent-minded enough to think critically on the pressing issues of the time.

Bartlett also identifies the negatives associated with social media’s very public nature. He states that if people are in constant fear of the “Twitter mob, the data collectors, a nosy employer or the hordes of professional offence-takers” then they are unlikely to put ideas, especially those considered politically incorrect, out into the public sphere. This leads to a narrowing of the public discussion on contentious topics, and does not allow ideas to be disputed and debated openly and without fear of reprisal. This inhibits an individual’s development into full political maturity; something that a lack of free-speech protections in a society can similarly lead to.

Bartlett’s second argument is that social media has led to the rise of tribalism, and “echo chambers” of political and cultural groupthink. This, he says, is destroying the shared democratic culture that is required for democracy to work. As Roger Scruton has emphasised in countless articles and works such as How to Be a Conservative, pre-political unity is essential for a democracy to function. For a person who voted for an opposing candidate to accept the decisions made by a lawfully elected leader is crucial in the avoidance of social disunity, and requires a pre-political “we”. While Scruton based his discussion of pre-political unity on the defence of the nation-state, it is clear to see how true political tribes, who turn “division and disagreement into existential opposition”, are a threat to this unity and our shared democratic culture.

While I’m therefore inclined to agree with Bartlett, and believe that certain “tribal” identities are utilising the internet to stoke division and erode pre-political unity, I am nevertheless uncomfortable with where this argument can be taken. For example, Bartlett castigates President Donald Trump for being “the leading act in a new cast of populists”, alongside the likes of Nigel Farage and Beppe Grillo. Regardless of whether Trump is a “tribal” politician or not, and I’m inclined to believe he is far more so in rhetoric than in action, what this view of “tech causing tribalism” can overlook are the real issues that lie behind divisive figures such as Trump. Far from social media alone creating political tribalism, the very real destruction of the industrial West, and the disdain for the “deplorables” by the liberal elite, are considerably greater springboards for any eruption of tribal politics.

Free elections are the next democratic pillar supposedly being eroded by the treacherous brainchildren of Californian whiz-kids. “Micro-targeting” of potential swing voters in key regions is supposedly diminishing political accountability and destroying the concept of a public sphere. Again here most of Bartlett’s ire falls upon the forty-fifth president. Lambasted for his legal but ethically questionable utilisation of Cambridge Analytica, Trump is portrayed as having been able to use social media and technology to gain the upper hand in key marginal states during the 2016 election.

While I’m inclined to follow Bartlett’s apprehension at what the Trump campaign’s use of digital technologies means for democracy in the future, I feel that this discussion again misses voters’ real concerns. By focusing entirely on Trump’s supposed use of social media messaging, which was similar to that of Obama in 2012, the reader’s attention is drawn away from the underlying social and cultural problems that led to Trump’s election. This rationalising also provides members of the out-of-touch political establishment with a useful way to explain away the defeat. So while Bartlett’s analysis is reasonable, and probably to be expected in a book that focuses primarily on technology, it is worth bearing this in mind when reading The People vs Tech.

While Bartlett accepts that inequality is “inevitable and necessary in a free-market economy”, he also states that “too much is bad for democracy”, and says, “a healthy democracy depends on a vibrant, sizable middle class”, and that the modern tech revolution, especially artificial intelligence and job automation, is leading to a dangerously large divide between the haves and the have-nots. What is most illuminating in this chapter is an interview Bartlett has with Silicon Valley entrepreneur and figurehead Sam Altman.

Faced with the prospect of extensive wealth polarisation and mass unemployment, Altman is one of the growing many in Silicon Valley who support the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI); a no-strings-attached government payment to all citizens. However, there are obvious problems associated with the costing of the proposal, which Altman dismisses as being accounted for by increased productivity resulting from technological advancement. Presumably, Altman plans for large sums of money to be taxed from tech companies in order for UBI to be a success, but given Apple’s and Facebook’s records on tax avoidance, I hold little faith that any wealth redistribution service would be funded well enough to be effective.

Pressed about the society he thought that new technological advancement might lead to, Altman is dismissive of any criticisms, and then disparaging of manual labour, before ending the interview after essentially accusing the probing Bartlett of being “anti-progress”. This vital insight shows just how out of touch the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley are with the rest of society, and that they adhere to fanciful schemes that have little grounding in reality. It is truly frightening that the immense power of the tech companies they control gives these arrogant utopians the ability to take the world in directions that most people would simply reject outright if they were offered them at an election. Bartlett is scathing of such Silicon Valley entrepreneurs throughout the book, stating in the introduction:

just like the eighteenth-century French revolutionaries, who believed they could construct a world on abstract principles like equality, these latter-day utopians are busily dreaming up a society predicated on connectivity, networks, platforms and data.

Realism isn’t Silicon Valley’s strong point, and one can only hope that research is not currently under way for the digital guillotine.

In chapter five Bartlett identifies the predilection of technological spheres to tend towards monopolies. People only want to use the social media site with the most other users, shop on the site that consistently has the lowest prices, and use the search engine that always gives the best results. Because of this monopolistic control, a select few tech firms now have immense power to shape public opinion. Bartlett sees how the economic dominance of these companies can lead to their cultural dominance; and the promotion of the so-called “Californian Ideology” of rampant free-market libertarianism coupled with social progressivism, where “disruption” is admired. To Bartlett, this is destroying the competitive economy and the independent civil society needed for democracy to work effectively.

This is perhaps Bartlett’s most pertinent observation in the book. In an age of declining print publications, and with independent media largely relying on tech companies for the dissemination of their content, the likes of Facebook and Twitter, by methods such as algorithm manipulation, have the potential to wield huge cultural power over an internet-addicted populace. It is this power that gives the likes of Sam Altman the cultural force they have. Those who disagree with the Californian Ideology, and who are more conservative in their opinions of social matters, are instantly one step behind the groupthink of the Silicon Valley bubble, as that powerful bubble now controls what information and viewpoints reach the population at large.

The distribution of new technology such as iPads around the globe is also an implicit promotion of the Silicon Valley mindset, “that disruption is liberation, that total individualism is empowerment and gadgets equal progress”. And as Bartlett germanely notes, to question this view is to be thought of as a Luddite who “doesn’t get it”. Such power in the hands of such a small number of similarly-minded tech entrepreneurs is surely one of the greatest threats to an independent civil society, one of the central elements of a democratic tradition reliant on compromise, which Western civilisation faces today.

Bartlett sees trust in authority as the final key pillar of democracy that is being weakened by the forces of modern technology. The focus of this chapter is on the radical philosophy of “crypto-anarchy”, and how cryptocurrencies and encryption threaten the ability of the state to perform its vital functions—such as collecting taxes. Bartlett’s analysis of the potential threat that cryptocurrencies and encryption hold for the state as we know it reads well, and it’s not as strange a notion as it appears on first examination. He describes the Czech “Institute of Cryptoanarchy”, which relishes the idea of cryptocurrencies’ government-crippling potential. Dominic Frisby, the libertarian author of Bitcoin: The Future of Money? and The End of the State, and contributor to Moneyweek and the Guardian, expressed his excitement at the prospect of cryptocurrencies destroying government tax revenue during a 2017 podcast with fellow journalist James Delingpole—who likewise mirrored Frisby’s enthusiasm.

However, I do feel that the fear of this actually occurring, and cryptoanarchy reigning, is overblown—at least in the short term. This is because the tools that Bartlett discusses, “blockchain” technology and Bitcoin for instance, are concepts that only a very small number of people understand, let alone engage with. However, if Bitcoin and encrypted technologies are really as dangerous to the state as Bartlett makes out, and they happen to grow in popularity due to their largely untraceable, untaxable nature, then it is reasonable to fear the deterioration of national exchequers. Such a consequence has a democracy-destroying potential.

Far from being a polemic consisting of purely problem diagnoses, the epilogue of The People vs Tech contains “20 ideas to save democracy”. Considering that only a paragraph is given to each suggestion, it is best to take this section as intending to promote discussion and thought, rather than being packed full of implementable policy proposals.

Bartlett’s recommendations themselves also differ in quality. Some, like the publishing of spending on social media during election campaigns, personal technology distraction fighting plans, and the teaching of critical thinking have some merit. Others do not, like the “Robot Tax”, which raises more questions than it answers. Bartlett’s suggestion of taxing a company the value of the income tax it would have paid for a worker whose job has been replaced by a machine is simply not realistic. For one, the amount of tax is incalculable in complex working environments, where it is not the case that a robot simply replaces a set number of workers. This proposal is also flawed due to the loss of the worker’s job to a robot also destroying the “wage signal” from which the tax to be paid for the redundant worker is presumably determined. Indeed, many years after the robot is installed, it is hard to see how a realistic tax value would be calculated, considering the unknowable changes in worker wages over the given period when there has been no worker. In fairness to Bartlett, he admits that “measurement and compliance will be difficult”.

The People vs Tech is an insightful and worthwhile read. While it does contain some oversights in its analysis and some gaps in its reasoning, none of that is fatal to the quality of the book. Overall, The People vs Tech is a punchy, informative and easy-to-read commentary on one of the most pertinent issues of the modern age, namely the role of technology within mature democracies. Realistic and sobering in its conclusions and judgments, Bartlett’s book is important reading for all who value democracy.

Oliver Friendship lives in Queensland.

2 thoughts on “Can Democracy Survive Big Tech?

  • johanna says:

    Well, the book author’s ideological bent was clearly apparent upfront, viz:

    To Bartlett, this allows tech companies to “manipulate, distract and influence us in ways that are not in our best interest”

    So apparently it would be OK if we were being manipulated in ways that he considers to be in our best interest (sic).

    No surprise then that he hates Trump. He’s just a statist Democrat who frets about inequality, and I see no mention at all of the systematic censorship of conservative opinions which is one of the most pernicious features of our tech overlords.

    I’m not suggesting that the book is completely without merit, but it is tainted with the author’s obvious political bias.

  • ianl says:

    Further to johanna’s comment:

    It had occurred to me a while ago, perhaps wrongly, that despite early wrangles with various governments over “monopolies” or whatever, the spectacle of Lucky Zucky in private tete-a-tete with Merkel followed by a gradual disappearance of said wrangles, was probably significant. Similarly with Google and Microsoft with Chinese authorities.

    In short, government desire to control net content – especially to dampen and delete opposition – found a way through using Silicon Valley hubris and greed.

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