‘The People Vs Tech’: Bitter battle between democracy and technology 

The most pressing concern about Digital technology is regarding question of ‘privacy’, and if we let our imaginations run a bit wild, we think about Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over humanity

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
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Harshvardhan

It was widely held belief in the last decades of previous century that the advent of technology or what has been called the Information age or digital age will usher us in a more democratic, egalitarian and freer world. In the initial years this Silicon Valley promise did ensure more democratization of society and empowerment of common citizens, but as digital technology advanced and became an intrinsic part of our everyday life, the benevolent ‘promise’ turned into a Faustian one as the entire world is facing the spectre of authoritarianism powered by digital technology.

The latest updated privacy policy of popular instant messaging platform WhatsApp created much furore among its users and reinvigorated the concerns over privacy of users’ data in virtual space. Generally, when it comes to the question of Digital technology and its detrimental impact upon society, the most pressing concern that comes to our mind is regarding the question of ‘privacy’, and if we let our imaginations run a bit wild, we think about Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over humanity. But, these are just few directly observable consequences of the great technological revolution and that too most of them are propelled by Hollywood movies and popular outrages around the question of ‘privacy’. The real impact of which privacy is just one part, remains obscured from the public eye as any form of Digital technology comes to us via fancy gadgets or seemingly helpful applications, which is enough to put a curtain over its anti-democratic and anti-human impulse.

If one seeks to understand the broader and actual detrimental impacts of technology upon contemporary society, The People Vs Tech: How internet is killing Democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett is a good entry point. It is a quick read textbook that gives you a general understanding on threats to democracy and civic participation posed by the much celebrated digital revolution.

The book which is organized into six chapters, opens with a warning: “In the coming few years either tech will destroy democracy and the social order as we know it...as within a generation or two the contradictions between democracy and technology will exhaust themselves”. This threat, according to Bartlett, specifically comes from the ‘digital technologies associated with Silicon valley- social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence’, as they are ‘increasingly dominating economic political and social life’. Bartlett then proceeds to discuss how this bitter battle between democracy and technology aka Silicon Valley is actually building up. Each of the six chapters deal with six bases or pillars on which a vibrant Democracy is built and sustains itself, and how they are being systematically eroded by exponential advances in digital technology. After discussing these challenges, the author also proposes 20 Ideas to rescue Democracy from the Faustian promise of Silicon Valley.

Bartlett identifies six pillars that make democracy work. These are a) Active Citizens: Alert, independent-minded citizens who are capable of making important moral judgements; b) A democratic culture which rests on a commonly agreed reality, a share identity and a spirit of compromise; c) Free, fair and trusted elections; d) Stakeholder Equality: Manageable levels of equality, including a sizeable middle class; e) Competitive economy and civic freedom, and, f) Trust in Authority: A sovereign authority that can enforce the people’s will, but remains trustworthy and accountable to them.

The threat to first pillar of democracy comes from reduction of Human beings to mere data points. What may come as both surprising and atrocious to readers, several data analysis companies have been able to gather around 5000 data points around a single individual! The objective of all the Data collected by various Social media platforms along and applications is to reduce Human beings to a unique, predictable and targetable data point. This hampers decision making capacity of Human beings as every choice one makes can be manipulated with carefully planned advertisements and campaigns of any kind.

The second threat comes from what Bartlett calls ‘information overload’, a phenomenon resulting from proliferation of websites, media channels, blogs etc. who keep bombarding the user/s with massive and often contradictory information. Information overload leads to confusion among citizens, which in turn leads to formation of small collectives- both online and offline- based on what one chooses to belief. These small collectives then makes dialogue and conversation between citizens difficult, as each ‘tribe’ chooses to stick with their group and often see others as ‘enemy’.

The third threat to democracy, holding Free and fair elections comes from data analytics, which has changed the way elections were hold. Bartlett cites the examples of Cambridge Analytica, the Vote Leave campaign in Britain and Project Alamo (the Social Media campaign of former US President Donald Trump) to bring home how tech giants powered by Data successfully manipulated people into making detrimental political decisions. The source of fourth threat comes from the advances in Artificial Intelligence and automation of work. Bartlett asserts that the real threat from AI is not about some computer overtaking the world, but from creating massive inequality as machines are posed to replace Humans. As high end jobs get transferred to machines, Humans will be increasingly left with low end and precarious jobs situation, which will create resentment thus making them susceptible to rhetorical politics of demagogues.

The fifth threat comes from tech companies becoming monopolies as they either drive out competition or buyoff any challenge. As Silicon Valley companies keep becoming bigger and bigger, they will become indispensable for political class in matters of funding, which will only increase their lobbying power, which in turn will lead into policy making in favour of tech giants often going against the interest of majority population. The last threat to Democracy posed by technology comes in the form of Crypto-Anarchy, a concept which is directly related to the recent developments in Cryptocurrency. The rise of Digital currency poses a serious threat to the moral and legal authority of Governments as it falls completely out of their ambit. As more and more people choose to do transactions through Digital currency, it will become increasingly difficult for Governments to generate revenues in order to sustain itself including the essential security apparatus. Cryptocurrency are a serious threat to the social contract.

Bartlett has covered all these themes succinctly and in doing so has also raised a lot of interesting points worth further thought. The book also discusses how the entire logic of Silicon Valley technology is based on the Utilitarian philosophy and contrary to its promise of creating a more open and connected world, the Global Village, digital technology has created a world-wide panopticon in which everybody is watching everybody. There is also a discussion of how disciplines of Psychology and Behaviourism has been put into the service of Market through the concept of consumer research. Complex and Invisible algorithms are always comparing what we buy on Amazon, with what we write on Facebook or Twitter with what sites we are browsing and Googling. Based on those comparisons, our social media timelines suggests us what we ‘would’ or ‘need’ or ‘want’ to buy.

The book articulates many of our fears and worries about both personal life and political developments. Though the book largely focuses and is based upon the developments in the United States and Britain, the conclusions it draws are equally applicable in the Indian context, as India too, is going through the same processes and developments.

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