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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Trapped in The Digital Square

How technology is chipping away at the very fabric of socio-political exchange.

Written by Seema Chishti |
January 5, 2019 2:21:18 am

The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it)
By Jamie Bartlett
Ebury Press (Penguin books)
256 pages; Rs 499

JAMIE BARTLETT is a technology reporter and currently associated with the UK-based think-tank Demos. He says that democracy is by its very nature analogue and at odds with the world the Silicon Valley-digital tech is rapidly creating. His core argument in this book, hence, is provocative — politics is at risk from technology.

Events in Tunisia, and then in Egypt in 2011, seemed to convince people that social media was a boon for political mobilisation. But the praise that Google and Facebook gathered was limited to their role in countries not seen as liberal democracies — injecting elements of connectivity and political discussion not possible otherwise, and, providing a forum which could generate agitation and be put to political use. It is another matter that no spark might have been kindled at all but for the old-fashioned and hard-nosed trade-union activity with cotton farmers in Luxor city in southern Egypt, and around. But seven years down the line — in the context of Brexit, the US elections, the “missed call” political party memberships, the use of WhatsApp as a political pamphlet in countries like India, or more recently, how the gilets jauns in France started as an online campaign — even argumentative and democratic societies are fully experiencing the deep influence of technology in their socio-political expression.

The big question is whether technology is an enabler or a crucial backdrop in the way the printing press, the radio-set, the telegraph or the motor car were. Or, is it doing things at a different pace now, endangering the very democratic space that made Silicon Valley possible? Bartlett writes that the nature and pace of such change is fundamentally altering society and taking away basic essentials that make democracy, arguments or the resolution of disputes and co-existence possible. Two documentaries on Facebook made by PBS Frontline were aired last month. Based on a detailed examination of the evolution of the company and its formula for revenues, they shone light on a disturbing thought: polarisation of public opinion is the model of how Facebook succeeds.

The People vs Tech propels that argument forward. While he is careful not to allow himself to be panned as just another Luddite or a prophet of doom, Bartlett cannot help but paint an alarming picture of what is happening. Jack Dorsey has termed Twitter a “digital public square” while testifying before the US Senate Intelligence Committee in September this year. But is it just that?

Bartlett’s proposition is similar to those who unveiled the idea of “hidden persuaders” — people behind advertisement campaigns of various products. The idea that the digital tech pushed by companies claiming to connect you to a world “beyond yourself” or broadening public debate are, instead, doing the opposite. They are shutting down minds and creating a citizenry incapable of critically or patiently debating anything of value. Showing how micro-targeting of voters or allowing “lists” to political parties via the scraping of big data could end up destroying democracy, the author argues that feeding its consumers more of what they want, is like offering more cocaine to an addict. Bartlett further says that by allowing each citizen’s information bubble to be opened up to political parties, and allowing a political aspirant to offer what s/he knows people want leads to the basic essence of democratic functioning being impeded. Once public debate is confined to the glowing screens on different phones with different messages, the essence of diverse democracies are eroded dramatically.
The fact that citizens, for the sake of convenience (discounts or just free WiFi) can give away so much of their information, may not be about loss to the said individual in an immediate sense. But, eventually, it imperils democracy. The central proposition of this polemic is that the middle-class in any society — the people who “buy newspapers, join political parties, sponsor charities, vote and participate in community projects” — forms the backbone of a democracy. With that category of people being eroded, and with new tech exacerbating income inequalities, the slow and deliberate idea of not seeking quick solutions — central to democracy — is also going away.

The book ends with a set of 20 things-we-can-do to arrest the slide. The most meaningful takeaway is of resurrecting the idea of the public good, and to constantly ensure that “powerful democratic systems… also accountable to people” are able to hold rapid technological change to account. At a time when Google’s Sundar Pichai is facing the House of Representatives, as the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter did, reading The People vs Tech is a hair-raising but rewarding experience.

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