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article imageReview: Is technology threatening democracy? Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 1, 2018 in Technology
A new book raises concerns about the current direction that technology is taking, particularly the threat this trajectory poses for democratic structures and institutions. Part of the problem is our unquestioning embrace of big tech.
The book is titled The People vs Tech and it is written by James Bartlett. The tag line for the book gives away it's central conceit: "How the internet is killing democracy (and how we can save it)." Bartlett has previously written a book about the dark web. He works as the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media for the public policy think tank Demos.
Bartlett is concerned about the increasing and prevalent rise of technology and an overall lack of transparency. This extends to the high volumes of data that people provide to technology companies and how this information, as it leaves the hands of the consumer, becomes harder to disentangle, being hidden behind a wall of code.
Due to the nascent power of major technology companies, Bartlett is concerned with the challenges that technology poses to public institutions. At the outset he admits that this creates a dilemma as he simultaneously relies on, enjoys and detests technology.
Bartett's major concern is the ever present net of advertising, which entraps most online content, and the multiple requests to collect our data that appear fairly often with each click. He notes how the collected data is used to pump information back at us based in our supposed preferences or, in more nefarious cases, to seek to change our minds, as with some of the more Trump-era examples of individuals and organizations seeking to change voting preferences. To assist in this process, we also need to become active citizens and uphold a shared democratic culture.
In terms if challenge from the ever growing digitalization of society, Bartlett contends that existing democratic pillars must be supported. This includes seeking to minimize the impact of technology firms in interfering with elections and safeguarding civic freedoms.
Other advice he gives is with resisting curated content, seeing it as fundamentally important that people continue to think for themselves and avoid being fed what search engines or social media sites tell them. Here he draws upon John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century liberal philosopher, who spoke if "the freedom of the mind." Here schools should be reaching students to assess the Internet and search engines critically and to help students to develop a degree of skepticism about what is presented before them.
He also seeks the development of more online content that is about enhancing human well-being rather than simply seeking repetitive clicks. This not only seeks to avoid social media ventures offering endless 'click bait', he calls users of digital media to step out of echo chambers so that a range of views can be accessed. Plurality is seen by the author as vital for a healthy democracy.
Bartlett recommends that steps also made to remove bias from algorithms, especially those that perpetuate social class, gender and ethnicity divisions.
The book presents an interesting polemic and it raises key questions for consideration, especially the role of the state in legislating for greater fairness and transparency with technology. This is a classical liberal take on the digital world and one fears that global society is being propelled along a trajectory of democratic decline. However, Bartlett also thinks that liberalism can offer a road-map for improvement - provided sufficient numbers of people take notice and governments start to regulate how technology companies operate.
In a related area, another book of interest is Andrew Keen's The Internet is Not the Answer. Starting with tracing the history of the Internet, from its founding in the 1960s to the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, through the waves of start-ups and the rise of the big data companies, this book also expresses concerns that 90 percent of content is advertising. Keen laments that this saturation of advertising seeks to monetize as much human activity as possible. This process, Keen argues, a negative impact in our culture, economy, and society. He also makes the case for interventionist policies to correct the way technology companies operate.
More about digital technology, Democracy, Internet, Political