books democracy technology

Book review: The People vs Tech, by Jamie Bartlett

Remember the heady days when social media was hailed for its role in kicking off the Arab Spring? How it had given ordinary people the tools to organise and overcome oppression? Fast forward a few years, and social media’s role in democracy is an altogether different proposition, as Jamie Bartlett explains in his book The People vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we can save it.)

Bartlett describes “six key pillars that make democracy work, not just as an abstract idea, but also as a workable system of collective self-government that people believe in and support.” They are:

  • Active, independent-minded citizens
  • A shared democratic culture
  • free and trustworthy elections
  • Manageable levels of equality
  • A competitive economy and civic freedom
  • Trust in authority

New technologies, Bartlett argues, are undermining every one of them. Social media algorithms assess and categorise us, filter the news and opinions we receive, and deprive us of the debate that helps us to mature as citizens. Apps and websites tell us which party matches our views and deserves our vote, bypassing the need to think about it. The internet has allowed us to make connections with like-minded people – an incredible opportunity, but one that can lead to new forms of tribalism.

Some of the book’s topics might be familiar. It touches on Trump’s use of social media, or Russian meddling. We read about Bitcoin and AI, how automation drives inequality, big data and the power of internet monopolies. There are lots of details and observations that I hadn’t encountered before. For example, the Trump campaign spent $70 million on Facebook ads. It was such a valued customer that Facebook sent staff to work as embedded members of his team, helping them to get the best value from their ads. Google did the same.

Bartlett knows this because he went to interview the head of Trump’s online campaign, toured the office with her and saw where they had all worked. He also talks to the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, or Sam Altman of Y Combinator, and this journalistic instinct brings balance and an industry perspective that is often absent from similar books.

There’s also a certain bravery to the book, a willingness to make predictions and hazard a guess at how things might unfold. It warns without scaremongering, and is wise to the downsides of technologies without setting itself against them. It’s clear, easy to read, and rather important.

“This is not democracy collapsing,” says Bartlett, “but straining at the seams.” Democracy is an analogue process of debate and compromise. It is badly served by digital technologies. What should we do about it? The book argues that democracy is a ‘general use technology’ and should be more adaptable. “Each phase of democracy should be a product of its time”, and we should reform and update to keep our democratic processes. There’s a list of ideas at the very end, including updating campaign rules so that parties have to declare their voter-targeting algorithms; ethical or user-owned web services including browsers and search engines; and updating tax rules to account for cryptocurrencies.

As I read The People vs Tech, I thought of parliament voting on Brexit amendments, one by one, in a process unchanged in hundreds of years, while the media reported and dissected it all instantly on Twitter. Britain’s democracy is floundering, and it’s not the only one. Where is the political leadership to change and adapt, and breathe new life into democracy in the 21st century?

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