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People vs Tech | Jamie Bartlett

13 mins read

Book Review

The People vs Tech is a racy 250 pages single sitting read. The single line pitch that summarises the book is that our fragile political system is being threatened by the digital revolution. The Internet was supposed to set us free and aid democracy. The author however shows that exactly the opposite is happening. He offers at most places in the book compelling arguments to support his thesis. Through interviews with key individuals, including employees from Cambridge Analytica, ex-Facebook executives and artificial intelligence start-up founders, Bartlett is able to complement his broad knowledge with first-hand experience of some of the most exciting areas emerging within the fields of technology and politics.

Comprising six concise chapters Bartlett provides a perspective of our current trajectory both as a civilisation and as a society, skilfully combining politics and technology. In these chapters he logically reveals the designs of big tech giants, who though they call for freedom of expression, are actually ones who believe in suppression or stealing of information. Chapter-wise broad issues dealt in the book are: –

  • Chapter One – talks about how free will is getting affected by the power of data.
  • Chapter Two – focuses on the effect of information overload.
  • Chapter Three – shows us the effect of digital analytics on elections – in ways we do not yet fully comprehend.
  • Chapter Four – provides a realistic view on an artificial intelligence driven jobless future.
  • Last Two Chapters – he addresses
    • the modern difficulty in assigning monopoly status to technology firms.
    • the risks of a ‘crypto-anarchy’ future, where crypto-currency is able to circumvent governments on a large scale.

The author highlights six pillars of democracy and shows how unrestricted technology corporations might weaken each of them. These pillars as per him are:

  1. ACTIVE CITIZENS: Alert, independent-minded citizens who are capable of making important moral judgements
  2. SHARED CULTURE: A democratic culture which rests on a commonly agreed reality, a shared identity, and a spirit of compromise.
  3. FREE ELECTIONS: Elections that are free, fair, and trusted.
  4. STAKEHOLDER EQUALITY: Manageable levels of equality, including a sizeable middle class.
  5. COMPETITIVE ECONOMY AND CIVIC FREEDOM: competitive economy and an independent civil society.
  6. TRUST IN AUTHORITY: A sovereign authority that can enforce the people’s will, but remains trustworthy and accountable to them

The key idea in the book is that in near future either technology will destroy democracy and the current social order, or politics will engrave its authority over the digital ecosystem. “Futurists often talk about …. ‘technological singularity’ … the point at which machine self-improvement sparks a runaway, self-replicating cycle.” Bartlett, however, feels what is more likely to happen in the near future is “moral singularity” – “the point at which we will start to delegate substantial moral and political reasoning to machines.”

Social media is offered to the people as a free service in exchange for advertising. Sophisticated software and data analytics are created and used for collecting a huge amount of personal data to make individually targeted advertisements. This immense and voluminous data about us gathered by these social media giants outstrips our own knowledge about ourselves and is used to manipulate us with political messages.

The network effect – the bigger the network, the better it is – creates monopolies – Google for searches, Facebook for social networks, Amazon for buying things, and so on. As a result, only a few companies end up controlling the technology for the networked planet. This simply implies enhanced economic power to crush competitors or buy them out which in turn means more money to lobby governments and influence legislation in their favour. In addition to enhanced economic power, these giants wield ideological power, to make people and politicians see the world as they do. As Bartlett remarks, “new technologies bring with them a set of values all of their own.” The technically possible becomes the desirable, then the inevitable.

The author feels that social media has fostered “tribalism” where the Internet has opened new ways of forming, finding and joining ever-smaller tribes (groups) that we never even knew we belonged to, and stuffing ourselves full of evidence to harden the conviction and raise grievances. Social media permits rapid sharing of unvetted, emotional, and fake content. This unwarranted airing of perceived tribal grievances, Bartlett believes is likely to be used by populist, autocratic leaders who can claim to help alleviate their grievances. It also allows big technology companies who have made these weaknesses a structural feature of how they make money.

Bartlett illustrates lucidly, how Google and Facebook have moved away from advertising to becoming a key tool for political campaigns. Personal data was harvested without consent by Cambridge Analytica to be predominantly used for political advertising. The same has been witnessed across the world. The use/misuse of the digital social networks by political entities is bound to change the political/ democratic landscape of our society if it remains unchecked. With respect to data gathering, the author’s concern is that personalised targeted advertising eliminates the possibility of common discourse in political elections. Since each person receives their own segmented message. The US elections brought to the fore the role of Russian bots who were injecting disinformation on both sides of the argument reveals the negative effects of digital marketing on election campaigns.

Jamie also shares his views about societal inequality due to impact of artificial intelligence on the job market. He argues that inequality in society will lead to loss of trust amongst individuals thereby reducing innovation and entrepreneurship. He also speaks of ‘crypto-anarchy’ – a movement that promises to rid the individual of government and provide freedom in one’s activities. The potential political implications of crypto currency might appeal to libertarians.

The book ends with the epilogue giving out various ideas to be implemented to reverse these trends. There are a total twenty recommendations to include: –

  • Through regulation – over algorithms, bitcoin, political campaigning.
  • Through personal responsibility and action like smashing our own echo chambers’ by seeking alternative sources and viewpoints.
  • Through education – teaching critical thinking.
  • Through new responsibilities for tech companies by creating ‘new digital ethics’ with services designed to ‘aid human well-being rather than maximise clicks.’
  • Transparency measures where political parties should be required to publish databases of every point, advert and targeting technique they use during an election

It also includes many ideas for mitigating the impact of AI and automation and addressing inequality (e.g. taxing robots and creating new platforms for unionisation in the gig economy).

The author’s writing style allows a reader with no background in technology or politics to rapidly understand the most challenging and complex issues in the field. Bartlett effectively manages to condense the political challenges of technology into his six-pillar framework.

This book can therefore serve as both a foundational introduction to the current technological and political landscape, whilst also providing much-needed clarity to even the seasoned reader of such issues. In my view it is a timely, insightful, and interesting book which was a pleasure to read.

Quotes from the Book

“We live in a giant advertising panopticon which keeps us addicted to devices; this system of data collection and prediction is merely the most recent iteration in a long history of efforts to control us; it is getting more advanced by the day, which has serious ramifications for potential manipulation, endless distraction and the slow diminishing of free choice and autonomy.”

“Information overload and connectivity has encouraged a divisive form of emotional tribal politics, in which loyalty to the group and anger outrank reason and compromise. While partisanship is necessary in politics, too much of it is dangerous. Political leaders are evolving to the new medium of information – hence the rise of populists who promise emotional, immediate, and total answers. But warring tribes of anchorless, confused citizens is a precursor to totalitarianism.”

“Donald Trump’s digital campaigning in the 2016 presidential election showed how big data and micro-targeting can win votes. The continuing evolution of these digital techniques will change the type and style of politicians we elect – and more importantly, it will mean more power for rich groups to influence elections in ways we don’t understand.”

“The basics of what this is doing to politics is now fairly well-trodden stuff: the splintering of established mainstream news and a surge of misinformation allows people to personalise their sources in ways that play to their pre-existing biases. Faced with infinite connection, we find the like-minded people and ideas, and huddle together. Brand new phrases have entered the lexicon to describe all this: filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news. It’s no coincidence that ‘post-truth’ was the word of the year in 2016.”

“Just as Netflix and YouTube replaced traditional mass-audience television with an increasingly personalised choice, so total connection and information overload offers up an infinite array of possible political options. The result is a fragmentation of singular, stable identities – like membership of a political party – and its replacement by ever-smaller units of like-minded people.”

About the Author

At the think tank Demos, Jamie Bartlett is the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. A journalist and author of repute, he has authored three books namely The People Vs Tech (2018), Radicals (2017), and The Dark Net (2014). A TED talk on Dark Web is interesting and has been widely viewed. He has also presented “The Secrets of Silicon Valley”, a BBC documentary. Jamie is a regular commentator on various topics like online social movements, Internet subcultures (like social media racists, cam girls, self-harm communities, darknet drug markets, crypto anarchists and transhumanists), impact of tech on society at large, online extremism, free speech etc.

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