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Democracy in the age of technology

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Have you ever wondered whether your phone listens to you? If it did, what would that mean? Its grasp on how to manipulate you for profit would be unthinkably draining on your pocket. Whoever it is listening: unknown, unaccountable, untraceable. Perhaps more frightening would be its access to your innermost secrets. Yet put yourself aside for a moment, and ask yourself, what is the bigger picture?

 This is one of the questions which provided the impetus for The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), writer Jamie Bartlett’s 2018 treatise on what the digital age means for democracy. 

As a premise goes, it is fairly simple: the archaic, ‘analogue’ processes of creating legislation in parliament are rapidly outpaced by the digital revolution, creating a growing chasm in which unaccountable and uncontrollable forces can operate. The insolvency of Cambridge Analytica in May of last year marked a turning point in how the public understood this conflict. And it is this which forms the starting point for Bartlett’s enquiry.

So far, so good. The book delivers what those who take a trivial interest in the topic might expect. But it is in the following chapters that the book opens the door on the innumerable complexities of the central conflict. Bartlett reveals perhaps the largest peculiarity of Trump’s path to the Whitehouse; that it was not Trump, but Theresa Hong, a digital communications specialist, who wrote many of his uniquely Trump-esque tweets. Chapters four and five deal respectively with how artificial intelligence affects the workplace and the new economic monopolies caused and reinforced by technology. Yet the most rewarding, revealing and disturbing chapter is the final one, about crypto-anarchy.

Due critical success followed, being shortlisted for an Orwell and taking the 2019 Transmission prize. This owed in large part to the lively sense of voice in the book; upbeat and curious in equal parts. The reader is left sceptical and glum about democracy’s chances – ‘Cambridge Analytica was just one company of several’.

Throughout it all, a growing sense of rage is compounded with admiration for the criminal ingenuity of Silicon Valley technocrats. The reader marvels and fears at what the future will bring, should this chasm continue growing. You grow frustrated at yourself. We have all helped contribute to this conflict, and this de facto makes us negligent or even self-destructive.

Authors who write on technology probably wonder about the posterity of their work, as by their very nature, they become outdated within years. Below is a recording of a phone call in which I interviewed Bartlett on his views of what has changed in the past year since his book was published.

Interview with Jamie Bartlett, author of The People vs Tech

Toby: Could you tell me a bit about your background, and how you got into your line of work?

Jamie:  Well, I graduated from university with a degree in History, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I floated around for a while. It’s difficult in your twenties, as you have all these ideas and ambitions, but it’s hard to actually get a foot on the ladder. I ended up doing a couple of masters degrees, one at the London School of Economics which I paid for on a credit card because I was so desperate to get something going. I was paying that off until only a few years ago. The masters was in International Development, and this got me into a research job at a think-tank. I still wasn’t quite sure, but I started getting interested in extremist terrorist groups and radical movements and how they use technology. They are usually very good with technology compared to the rest of us, so that got me into the Dark Net, which was the subject of my first book. I felt that there were so many interesting ways to research online trends that people weren’t doing yet, so I set up a research centre within Demos which started using machine learning to try to understand social trends. It really all went from there.

Toby: Could you explain a little more about Demos? How did your research centre fit within the broader aims of Demos?

Jamie: Demos is a research think tank which has been around since 1993. It started as a sort-of Blairite, reform the Labour Party, centrist type thinktank that always claimed to be run separately from formal politics. All think tanks try to take academic work and try to make it make sense for people who write policies, and for journalists too. 

Toby: And out of this came the book?

Jamie: Well, not really. They’re actually quite independent. I wrote the Dark Net in 2014, which is probably my most well-known. But the books have always been a little bit independent. I still cover both areas, and I have an interest in researching how life is online, but they are technically separate. The People Vs Tech came more out of the BBC series I did, The Secrets of Silicon Valley.

Toby: I was interested that your book was, well, not apolitical, but that it didn’t particularly align to one party-political agenda. I wondered if you had a sense of what types of people had been most receptive to your message. 

Jamie: That I don’t know, but that the book is non-party-political is important, because I don’t feel like this is a left or right-wing problem. I think there is something a lot deeper going on about how society and democracy is structured, so I try to go out of my way to avoid making it about party positioning. 

Toby: I suppose it strengthens the message.

Jamie: Well, I hope it does! At the moment, actually, it’s really quite difficult to stay as someone who is neutral or objective about these issues. 

Toby: Have you found that you have been lampooned as someone of the liberal establishment? I suppose if you are talking about democracy in a theoretical way, you might risk being accused of over-intellectualising the topic.

Jamie: Again, I try to make it as clear and simple as possible. I try to avoid any funny jargon or too many theories. But when you write these books, it always goes to a particular audience. For my last book, I followed a lot of radical movements around, one of whom was Tommy Robinson. I did my absolute best to be as neutral as possible, simply describing the events which I saw, the things which happened. I tried to highlight times when he was treated badly by the authorities, and other times when he was being a pain in the arse and a nuisance. I really tried to be neutral, because that’s my job: I am a writer and researcher, not a politician. But I still got criticised from both sides. ’s side said that I’m an elite and a snob, asking ‘why can’t you see that he is right?’. Then, I would say the majority of people who dislike Tommy Robinson, said that I was far too easy and sympathetic.

Toby: Since the book’s publication in April of last year, I wondered what your assessment is of how the world has changed since then? If you were to write the book again, would you do anything differently now? Have the questions which you were asking changed at all?

I really try to be neutral, because that’s my job: I am a writer and researcher, not a politician

Jamie: The thing is about any and every book I have written, is that I have always ended up feeling the same way. When you write a book, you get a reaction from people, you speak at events, people email you and give you ideas and feedback about what you should have included, even if you don’t ask for it. There are always things which make me think ‘I wish I’d have put that in! I should have analysed it slightly differently.’ For example, I should have focused more on facial recognition technology, because that was obviously going to become a big question, and would have been easy to incorporate, yet I barely touched it at all. Interestingly, though, public awareness about this stuff is way higher now than when the book came out. Although the book came out in April, I was writing it a year before that, and thinking about it a year before that. The ideas that I was toying over in my head were in 2016.

Toby: That would have been when Cambridge Analytica was at the height of its criminal operation?

Jamie: Well, most of what they did I don’t think was criminal. It was mostly perfectly legal, but they were just using the system in the way it’s supposed to be used. People have since then realised that they don’t like the way in which the system is meant to be used. If you just think of it as a criminal act, it is easy to say ‘it’s just a bad actor using the system’, rather than thinking it’s a systematic problem. So when the book came out, people rightly said that attitudes were changing, but arguably in 2016 this was a really niche issue. I am really glad that they are now thinking about it, and I’m more optimistic now than when the book came out because of how much people are thinking about these issues. 

NB: Since our interview, Bartlett has begun a new series on BBC sounds, The Missing Cryptoqueen. It centres around Dr Ruja, who, in 2016, promised a financial revolution akin to Bitcoin. She is described as a cross between Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Steve Jobs. Armed with legions of devoted believers, her company made billions from global investors before she abruptly disappeared.

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