How powerful will technology become? While much of the concern about technology integrating into every area of our lives has focused on humans being replaced by artificial intelligence, Jamie Susskind, barrister, speaker and author, examines in his book Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, the power technology might wield in politics. As humans, we need to consider our responsibilities for developing and monitoring the influence of technology in our lives and society and what we expect from our elected leadership. Jamie and I recently had a chance to delve into some of the considerations regarding the future of politics within a high-tech world.
“The Digital is Political”
“I did my fellowship at Harvard in 2016/2017, and that actually marked a bit of a turning point in the way people thought about and wrote about these issues. After Trump and Brexit, when a lot of people sat up and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, perhaps these systems are maligned forces in society,’ a lot of politicians were keen to distance themselves from Silicon Valley,” Susskind said.
You can watch my conversion with Jamie Susskind here:
When we look at the interaction between tech and politics, it’s important not just to think about politics as we’voe traditionally imagined it within the conventional organs of political life such as parliaments, executive, civil service and the judiciary. The internet has enabled certain forms of political communication, which are vastly beneficial. Most political organising is now done using digital means. In fact, movements such as the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring wouldn’t have been possible without the digital revolution.
“Actually, the consequences of digital technology in the way that we live are much more diffuse, much more dispersed but could still easily be categorised as problems of freedom, justice, democracy. Even if they aren’t immediately filtered through the prism of parliamentary democracy,” Susskind said.
He continued, “For instance, it used to be that we thought the main mechanism of distribution in society was the market with the states intervening. Now overlaid on both, we have a lot of influence from algorithms that are embedded in both systems. Your access to things of social value—job, credit, insurance—these are heavily influenced by algorithms. And, in a sense, the state might not be getting involved in that. But whether you have access to those things could determine whether you have a good life or a bad life, a prosperous life or poor life, a meaningful life or a meaningless one. I see that as a first-order political problem. That is something that affects the community as a whole.”
Power of Technology
This reality is why large tech companies have extraordinary power today. Current regulatory mandates were built for corporations in the past where the market was the consideration, not forms of power. Susskind argues that we need to see technology not just as consumers, but as citizens.
At the same time, social media can affect one of the most fundamental aspects of democracy, which is deliberation and the way we talk to each other. We’ve seen people become polarised because through their own personal choices, algorithms are making choices for them, and they are fed information that reinforces their own world view. We’ve seen people become more entrenched in those views because the more time you spend around people and information that agree with you, the more deeply you come to hold those views. There’s also a significant problem with the spread of fake news and misinformation.
In a sense, it isn’t surprising that this has happened. These social media platforms have not been developed according to the principles of the forum or of healthy public debate. If that was so, they would funnel information to you that was balanced, fair, and rigorously checked or otherwise engineered to make you a better citizen.
Instead, you’re more likely to receive stuff that is scintillating or scandalous. It doesn’t matter if it is wrong or biased or partial. As consumers, that’s what appeals to us. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when you develop these systems according to the logic of the market rather than the logic of the forum that they don’t serve the common good, the public good. They serve the private good.
While lobbying and concern regarding the strange, undemocratic power large corporations have the ability to wield aren’t new, there are some really interesting questions being raised by new technologies and what tech companies and individuals using the tech should and shouldn’t be permitted to do with it.
Virtual reality systems are about to explode in importance. There are all kinds of things you could or might want to do in a virtual reality system that would be unlawful to do in real life. This fact presents some interesting moral questions.
Should you be able to participate in a war game? What about sexual activity that would be unlawful if done in real life? Is it OK to render an avatar of your next-door neighbour and have sex in virtual reality with that person, or should that be prohibited and why? What would the legal basis of that be?
People are going to have reasonable disagreements about questions like these, but they’re political questions. This is where a lot of politics is happening now. Susskind believes it’s time for the old school institutions to reassert themselves in a way that enables the technologists to develop more in line with the public good.
How Do We Solve These Political Questions?
Susskind asserts these are problems that should be solved collectively. When society has to decide on matters of moral importance, they should come together and deliberate on them to see if they can reach a view and determine a set of principles.
This concept is often viewed as an anti-capitalist view. When you’re marketing technology, what you really want to say to people is that you can make this technology do whatever they want it to. However, market values embedded in technology, perhaps conflict with the public importance they now have. We look at questions of justice, liberty, and questions of democracy. And the questions are vexing:
- How do we regulate powerful tech corporations and balance their capital interest with the public interest?
- How do we prevent and respond to injustices made by algorithms that were trained by humans with their own biases?
- What is proper surveillance and use of private information, and what crosses the line?
Globally, there are three models taking shape. This will be an area of massive political confrontation in the next half-century.
In China, there’s a very close relationship between commercial entities and the political interests of the state. In Europe, governments seek to protect individuals with regulations such as GDPR and while that law might be flawed, it definitely protects citizens more than other models. In the United States, while there is still a close relationship between tech companies and the government, the emphasis is on maximum economic liberty.
Which model we choose based on decisions about to the extent our lives should be governed is the fundamental political question of our time.
“This stuff isn’t the next unicorn; it’s about how we live together,” Susskind said.