Book review by David Beer
Is technology undermining democracy?
Do we ever really know how we arrive at our political views? The pixelated vision of the near future offered in Jamie Bartlett’s new book would suggest that, as we continue to submerge into evermore complex and determinate technological systems, knowing the answer to such questions will become even more difficult. As well as our concepts and theories, our democratic structures were, Bartlett points out, just not built for the types of technological shifts we are experiencing. Algorithms, cryptocurrency, data targeting, techno monopolies and the like, have changed the game. The result, he argues here, is that technology has now come to undermine a number of the ‘fundamental components of a functioning political system’. The tension between technology and democracy is reaching a new boiling point.
Where his previous book Radicals was about the extremes of politics, and how they sometimes worked their way into mainstream thought, this book by-passes the margins and deals directly with the center field. Following the recent debates around the use of social media data, it’s hard to imagine a timelier book. It zips along, covering the six pillars of democracy, as it is described, and imagining the tensions arising in each. Following a conclusion, the epilogue of the book moves from diagnosis to prescription, offering some potential ways of addressing the problems democracy faces. The magnitude and severity of the challenges outlined in the earlier chapters mean that the solutions have quite a hill to climb. The potential solutions are welcome and act as an antidote to the rising fear that the chapters provoke, yet despite their intended hopefulness they seem to underline the magnitude of the problems themselves. The suggestion around policing the algorithms seems to understate the problem and the suggestions around the taxation of robots seems unenforable. There remain though a number of ideas that seem to cut through; the ‘Universal Training Income’ is innovative, the focus on capital seems viable, and the more human and individual actions suggested are where the book offers its richest guide to the future.
In all of this Bartlett’s central concern is with growing inequality. By the end, you can see exactly why he is worried. The growing elite of techno capitalists are gaining unforeseen powers to determine online encounters and more. As Bartlett argues, when we consider these growing tech monopolies we should worry about the assumptions, ideas and futures upon which their victories are based. The destruction of jobs and of alternatives social structures leaves a field in which, as Bartlett notes, the few will achieve whatever they want and everyone else will be left to flounder. This power is couched in a more progressive type of rhetoric. As Bartlett adds, ‘the worse these companies behave and the richer they become, the more they spend on looking cool and talking about fairness and community’. This is why Bartlett turns to the classic concepts of hegemony and the panopticon in his book — they capture the advancing dominance of certain ideologies and the self-regulating surveillance that work in tandem in these power dynamics. Gramsci and Foucault don’t fully rear their heads, but there is enough to give some sense of the features that cut-across these platforms. Alongside this, the rise of what he calls ‘re-tribalistion’, where we are drawn towards those like us in online spaces, means that collective resistance to this power becomes difficult — we are too dispersed and distanced across these distributed networks.
Arriving at this volume, we could wonder what is really left to be said about technology and democracy. The combination of the changing ways in which technology is being used to intervene in democracy, which has found a new purpose with the increases in data, and the way that Bartlett is able to navigate through some wide ranging terrain, mean that this book still brings a freshness of perspective. Mixing together broader and sometimes familiar shifts in technologies with interviews and behind-the-curtain observations — made from visits to data campaign teams, silicon valley locations, venture capitalists and even Cambridge Analytica — the book offers plenty of moments of intrigue and insight. The way Bartlett weaves blockchain into the discussion of political disruption, for example, is typical of the type of unusual perspective that the book brings. From these provocations it becomes clear that there is still much more to be said about these long evolving relations. There is also a pressing need to reflect on the possible solutions.
The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett
Ebury Press, Penguin
This book review was orginally posted at Medium
David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. Metric Power is out in paperback. His next book, The Data Gaze, now available for pre-orders davidbeer.net