In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of books, movies and television shows set in dystopian futures. If you’ve ever read or watched one of them, you may have wondered, “How likely is it that the future will be so bleak?” That is, very likely – unless we do something about it.
In The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), author Jamie Bartlett explores some of the ways in which digital technology affects politics and economics. By digital technology, he refers to innovations like social media platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data – the collection and analysis of large sets of data.
What would happen if a democracy held a national election and no one bothered to debate the issues, inform themselves about policy proposals or even vote on the candidates? It would be as if you threw a party and no one showed up: hardly a party – or, in this case, a democracy – at all.
Like a party, democracy requires people’s active participation – and the more active the participation, the more robust the result. With democracy, active participation entails sifting through claims, weighing facts and making decisions on who or what is the best candidate or course of action. Active citizenship is the first of the six pillars on which democracy rests.
Now, let’s say people show up to your party and are actively participating. So far, so good – but what happens if they start getting rowdy? Well, eventually, the party might turn into a riot.
The same goes for democracy. For it to work, citizens must not only actively participate, but actively participate in certain ways – two of which are to engage in rational debate and compromise, which allow them to amicably work through their differences and move forward together. This shared democratic culture is the second pillar.
Now, let’s say you throw a party and a couple of loudmouthed attendees dominate all of the conversations, undermining other people’s abilities to participate in the process. That won’t work either – everyone needs to be able to participate more or less equally and freely. The same goes for democracy. For it to work, citizens must stand on more or less equal footing, talk to each other and vote on issues and candidates without interference. These are the third, fourth, and fifth pillars: equality, free association and free elections.
Finally, returning to the party analogy one last time, who’s going to look after the gathering to steer people in the right direction – encouraging them to participate actively, amicably, equally and freely? Well, you – the host. Similarly, the government’s job is to ensure that citizens participate in democracy. And to do this job, the government needs power. That’s the sixth pillar: governmental authority.
What are the foundations of active citizenship? An easy way of answering this question is by asking why all democracies have a minimum voting age. Well, the answer is simple: children aren’t mature, independent or wise enough to make political decisions – or so the thinking goes.
At the same time, active citizenship depends on citizens being politically mature, independent-minded and capable of making their own judgments. Unfortunately, technology weakens all three attributes of active citizenship.
One way it does this is by exposing people to constant public scrutiny on social media. This encourages self-censorship, which discourages political development. For example, on Twitter, many people are afraid to speak their minds because they fear facing angry mobs of respondents, data collection or employer scrutiny – especially since a single stupid thing they say today could come back to haunt them years from now.
The safer option? Keep quiet or never say anything controversial – just parrot the acceptable public responses on any given issue. In other words, don’t put yourself in a position to make mistakes in your opinions, be corrected on them, learn from them, change your mind and thereby develop your political thinking.
Meanwhile, the increasingly sophisticated data collection techniques and processing algorithms of big data are leading to an increasingly manipulated citizenry. This happens through the development of personalized ad delivery systems, which can target people’s precise interests and even moods. In the near future, for instance, someone could tweet about a bad encounter with a foreigner and get targeted by an anti-immigration ad from a nativist politician. Or she could tweet about recycling and get targeted by an ad from Greenpeace.
Fast forward further into the future, and we can also see a more existential threat to active citizenship – artificial intelligence (AI). As it becomes more powerful, AI will be able to make decisions that are increasingly better, wiser and shrewder than ours. As a result, we’ll increasingly doubt our abilities to make our own decisions and defer to AI to make them for us.
We already see glimpses of this future to come with apps like iSideWith, which tells you who to vote for based on your preferences. Millions of Brits used the app in the last few elections, effectively outsourcing their judgment to an algorithm.
In politics, as in life in general, human beings have a natural tendency to congregate into groups of like-minded individuals. What turns a group into a political tribe is a shared sense of grievances and struggle.
There have always been such tribes, but technology significantly facilitates their creation. By making it easier for people to find and create associations with each other, the internet makes it easier for them to cluster into smaller groups with specific grievances, fragmenting the population into more and more tribes. As a result, no matter your background or grievance, you’re likely to find your specific tribe online. If you’re on the far left, you can join Antifa. If you’re of the opposite persuasion, you can link up with the alt-right. And if your tribe doesn’t already exist, you can simply create it.
After facilitating the creation of tribes, technology then reinforces them by encouraging their members to consume a diet of information that fans the flames of their shared sense of grievances and struggle. The reason for this boils down to the sheer amount of content available online, which allows people to easily find like-minded sources of information that fuel their sense of oppression.
Algorithmic curation then amplifies people’s gravitation to like-minded sources. For example, YouTube provides myriad more options than mass television of the past. Once you start opening videos, the site’s algorithms begin analyzing your preferences, predicting what you’re most likely to watch next and offering suggestions that reflect and reinforce those preferences.
As a result, people become increasingly agitated and entrenched in their beliefs, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to communicate and cooperate, leading to political deadlock. Even worse, as tribal divisions deepen and people feel increasingly under attack from other tribes, they also come to view those tribes as enemies, and seek a leader who can protect them and fight their foes.
Imagine a science fiction scenario in which an evil genius gains mind control over all of the citizens of a democracy. Election day arrives, and – surprise – the evil genius wins in a landslide!
Would this election be free and fair? Of course not – and the reason is simple. To participate in free and fair elections, voters must be able to make up their own minds without undue influence. Unfortunately, technology is making this increasingly difficult. While mind control may still be the stuff of science fiction, political parties are gaining an unprecedented ability to influence voters’ decision-making processes by leveraging big data.
Using sophisticated techniques to collect and analyze large sets of data from people’s shopping data, web browsing histories and voting records, political parties have been able to gain increasingly perceptive understandings of their potential voters. This, in turn, allows them to target and communicate with sympathetic voters more and more precisely.
Going forward, each party will need to keep up with their rivals and outdo them in leveraging big data. This sets the stage for an ever-escalating technological arms race. Meanwhile, the parties’ consulting firms will be able to collect data from a host of new sources, such as networked refrigerators, monitoring your eating habits. To be continued…
Check out my related post: What is Superintelligence? – Part 1