10 May 2018

Does the internet really spell doom for liberal democracy?


Debates about the role of tech in our democracy have never been more vibrant or polarised.

Amid a sea of Russian bots, nefarious analytics companies and mighty Californian internet giants, where does Joe Public sit – and what are the dangers for the future of liberal democracy?

That is the question posed in People vs Tech the new book by Jamie Bartlett, who works on social media at the think tank Demos.

Bartlett’s book is both thesis and polemic. His argument is multi-faceted, but boil downs to a warning that the “contradictions between democracy and technology will exhaust themselves” over the coming decades, weakening liberal democracies and turning people towards authoritarianism.

Chief among his concerns is the seemingly inexorable rush for companies to collect more and more data about our every waking thought and habit – what the historian Yuval Noah Harari has referred to as “dataism”.

The corollary of that data mining is – as we may have begun to see with Cambridge Analytica (CA) – that unaccountable companies will be able to use that data to influence the political process, turning elections into little more than “software wars”.

We are by no means there yet. As Bartlett pointed out when he spoke at a CapX event recently, it is “ridiculous and patronising” to claim Donald Trump won because of some kind of “psychological warfare” orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica.

The ensuing row, he argued, smacked more of “liberals desperately trying to find an excuse” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat than a reasoned analysis of what actually happened in 2016.  And it’s not as though the Clinton or Obama campaigns didn’t have access to a host of high-end digital tools of their own.

And while there is no harm in being wary, last year’s general election made clear that the data wizards have not come up with a way of distracting people from the basics – a poorly thought out manifesto, a charmless leader and a campaign the public didn’t really want in the first place. Equally, Labour’s performance was bolstered not just by punchy viral videos, but by good old-fashioned boots on the ground.

This is not saying digital campaigning is not important, but nor is it a magic switch that can sweep away those other factors.

Where Cambridge Analytica did succeed was using data points to pinpoint the voters they needed and channel their campaign’s resources into Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – the three states which ultimately got Trump over the line in the ludicrously outdated electoral college system.

This ability to hone a specific message to a specific voter is one of Bartlett’s main concerns – he argues that if politicians can fire off innumerable different messages, how can they ever be held accountable?

It’s a reasonable enough point, but there is an equal risk for campaigns that engage that they will permanently damage their candidate’s brand if he or she makes unsustainable or perhaps even contradictory promises to different groups of voters.

Bartlett is worried too about the way tech may impact on our ability to make decisions. He posits a scenario where the increasing use of artificial intelligence will see us reach a “moral singularity” in which voters start outsourcing their own decisions to machines – just plug in your priorities and values and bingo, here’s the candidate you should vote for.

Quizzes and apps of this kind already exist, but Bartlett says their spread could potentially “condemn us to losing the ability to think freely”.  Perhaps – but one can’t help feel this underplays the extent to which politics is an emotional, rather than a purely transactional exercise.

It’s not just the mechanics of decision-making, however. Bartlett fears that the advent of ever more automation could hollow out the middle classes whose support is so essential for liberal democracy to function.

This is not a “jobless future” where machines have taken all our jobs, but a “barbell” type economy, with very rich tech elites at the top and a mass of low-skilled workers at the bottom. Whatever the shape of our automated future, we are apparently looking at “a hugely turbulent 25 years ahead of us” – a view shared by the likes of Mark Carney and Google’s Sergei Brin, no less.

The “barbell” scenario Bartlett posits sounds plausible, but that doesn’t necessarily make it likely. As we’ve pointed out on many occasions on CapX, technological change always creates new jobs as well as making old ones redundant. We might just as plausibly forecast that the rise of the machines will mean an expansion in highly-skilled tech-related jobs.

While Bartlett’s book emphasises the risks, we ought also to recognise the potential digital technology has for people to engage more fully in civic life.

As Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson point out in The Digital Ape, another new book looking at the relationship between man and machine, technology offers “a whole host of new techniques for democratic engagement and participation”.

Rather than small groups deciding things behind closed doors, they argue that the digital age should herald a “complex democracy” where millions of people are able to contribute to the laws that affect them.

While critics of our tech revolution often focus on how absorbed people are with pointless games and flicking through photos, it’s worth remembering just how vast, quick and accessible information has become.

There’s certainly an argument that far from being misinformed and easily swayed, today’s electorate have far more tools at their disposal to find out about the issues that matter to them and make a decision accordingly.

At times The People vs Tech unfairly points the finger of blame at new media. For instance, Bartlett asserts that Silicon Valley has “let tribalism back out of the cage that modern representative democracy built for it”. It’s true that social media amplifies disagreement and allows people to speak in ways they would never dream of doing offline. But there’s a risk that we conflate a minority of loud and frequent communicators with an overarching trend.

Especially in the US, the traditional media have long done a fine job of perpetuating the culture war over guns, God and government. We ought also to bear in mind the well-documented tendency of Americans to move to areas populated with people who share their political views. If anything, the online world exposes people to a multiplicity of viewpoints they would not necessarily find in the real world, particularly given that tendency to be less outspoken about their beliefs in person than online.

There’s also a broader epistemological point here about our predilection for prediction, despite all the evidence that we are no good at it. The history of science and letters is littered with totally duff prognoses about where society is headed.

For instance, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich’s dire forecast that the planet faced mass starvation as population began to outstrip food supply.

As CapX’s editor-in-chief Robert Colvile observed at our event with Jamie Bartlett, the record of predicting dystopia is “very long and generally quite shabby”.

The fact such predictions persist is partly down to the fact that gloom and hyperbole sells. People are simply more likely to react to and buy a book that warns of a threat to their livelihood than one saying everything in hunky-dory. It is to Bartlett’s credit that The People vs Tech is not a screed against the evils of big tech, or a far-flung sci-fi vision of robot overlords. Rather, it is a rallying cry to democrats all over the Western world to be vigilant in defence of their values.

It’s also a worthwhile rejoinder to the “Don’t Be Evil” sloganeering beloved of the Silicon Valley tech gurus who are, for all their glibly progressive aphorisms, still just businesspeople trying to sell stuff.

And Bartlett is acute in pointing out potential dangers we may not have fully considered. Online crime is one such area; so too is the brain drain of IT experts away from government into highly-paid private sector jobs, a trend that will only widen the gap between the world of politics and tech.

One of the biggest risks is that digitally savvy citizens will lose faith in governments who are slow and unresponsive where the private sector is slick and quick.

Above all, when considering how the future looks, we need to remember that the use of technology remains rooted in our choices – as individual citizens, voters and societies.

John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX.