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Review: “The People vs Tech”, the threat at the heart of the internet

Credit: Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images

Credit: Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images

May 30, 2018   4 mins

In The People vs Tech – a timely and pacey read, weighing in at just 224 pages – Bartlett, head of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the London-based think tank Demos, sets out six pillars of democracy, and how the internet and artificial intelligence threatens each of them.

The pillars, and the threats facing them, are:

  1. Having active, independent citizens – threatened by big data and online ‘nudges’
  2. A shared culture – threatened by online filter bubbles and echo chambers
  3. Free elections – threatened by micro-targeting and influence campaigns from ‘bots’
  4. “Stakeholder equality” (a sizeable middle class) – threatened by automation and AI
  5. A competitive economy – threatened by burgeoning tech monopolies like Google and Facebook
  6. Trust in the state itself – threatened by the dark web and the rise of crypto-currencies

It would be all too easy for a book tackling such a wide range of potential threats from new technology to fall into knee-jerk moral panic, or Luddism, given that every new wave of technology spurs such backlashes. Bartlett’s thesis is generally cleverer than that – though not totally immune from it. Noting his own conflicted relationship with the subject he focuses on, he says “I simultaneously rely on, love and detest all the technologies I write about”.

Facebook’s initiative to allow its users to flag “I voted” in the 2012 US elections may have increased turnout by around 340,000

Given its breadth and timeliness, it should not be a surprise that Bartlett’s book is explanatory more than it is revelatory: those who haven’t followed this year’s backlash against technology closely will learn much, while those who have may find much of the book serves as a recap on the status of the technological world as it is.

Nonetheless, the thesis of the internet’s six simultaneous threats to democracy is well-argued, if sometimes exaggerated. Bartlett notes, for example, that Facebook’s initiative to allow its users to flag “I voted” in the 2012 US elections may have increased turnout by around 340,000 (because users who saw their friends’ “I voted” posts were slightly more likely to vote themselves), before arguing that if these were shown selectively to supporters of one party or the other – which he recognises has not happened – this could swing an election.

On Trump’s presidential win, Bartlett argues that given the fact that if 55,000 people across three states had voted differently, Clinton would be president now, the business mogul’s Cambridge Analytica-powered online campaign could have made the decisive leap.

This is certainly arguable, but perhaps a stretch given the huge array of other factors (traditional media, WikiLeaks, Trump’s strategy of convincing Clinton she needed a huge win to have an uncontested election, the left-behind population of the US, and more) – and that Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to help Trump’s opponent Ted Cruz in the primaries proved wildly ineffective.

Barlett convincingly sets out the pervasive links between technology and politics of all stripes – he notes Google’s chairman was an advisor to Obama’s presidential campaign, and recalls Uber paging all of its London users when the city threatened to revoke its license, with the petition against revocation becoming, he says, the fastest-growing petition in the country that year.

“I don’t ever recall receiving emails or phone calls from BP asking me to lobby or campaign on fuel duties, and nor has the automated checkout machine at Morrisons told me that, in addition to moving the unexpected item from the bagging area, I might like to tell my MP that I’d like corporation tax lowered,” he wryly notes.

However, on this the speed of the public and political backlash against tech have slightly overtaken the book: it seems harder to suggest tech’s position is unassailable given the mood now, compared to six months ago – though time and under-the-radar lobbying may vindicate his view.

It is less a portrait of the internet as it is today than a warning of what we should not allow it to become

Elsewhere, Bartlett suggests the dark web and cryptocurrencies could make law enforcement difficult and thus reduce faith in the state – a tough sell when he simultaneously argues against the huge big data and surveillance capabilities of the ‘net, which have seen most major dark web drugs platforms shut down in rapid succession.

These are not so much failings of a book as indicators of the context in which to read it: Bartlett has savvily identified potential threats and set out the extreme possibilities of each if they are allowed to continue untrammelled: it is less a portrait of the internet as it is today than a warning of what we should not allow it to become.

It’s in the calls to action for how this could be prevented that The People vs Tech is at its best, which is fitting for someone with such an extensive think tank background. These are convincing proposals, ranging from individual action (“smash your echo chamber”) to building regulators for algorithms, updating election law, and more.

One specific proposal would be easy to enact: “Political parties should be required to publish databases of every data point, advert and targeting technique they use during an election,” Bartlett suggests – meaning that we shouldn’t only be shown all the adverts, but also how parties are targeting them.

These proposals together serve to elevate the book from a “whine” – a risk the book acknowledges – or cry of despair, into something more: a call for action.

Ultimately, Bartlett concludes, the challenges facing democracy from the internet are much the same as those it has ever faced. Using an analogy from the Greek classics, Bartlett characterises democracy as a ship travelling through the Strait of Messina, facing a deadly whirlpool on one side and a rampaging sea monster on the other.

“Democracy somehow needs to hold a course, as it always has done, between control and freedom,” he concludes. On this, he is exactly right.

James Ball is the global editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. His latest book is “The System: Who Owns The Internet And How It Owns Us”.


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