Digital technology is developing rapidly – in some respects exponentially – and the consequences are set to transform the way we live together. Jamie Susskind anticipates a future of ‘increasingly capable systems’ (including artificial intelligence), ‘increasingly integrated technology’ (where the distinction between online and offline fades away), and ‘increasingly quantified society’ – where more and more human conduct is recorded in the form of data.
Elena: What is it about the current technological shift that makes it so different? How is it challenging such fundamental concepts as power, democracy, justice and freedom?
Jamie: Digital technology has a threefold effect on power. Firstly, they constrain us when we use them, through the rules contained in their code. As more and more of our important freedoms are exercised through technology (freedom of speech via online platforms, freedom of movement through driverless vehicles, and so on, each with their own rules and limits), we become rule-takers, constrained by digital technology. I think that’s profoundly different from anything that’s come before.
Secondly, the way these technologies scrutinise us, through the gathering of data, is itself a form of power. For the first time in history, almost everything about our lives can be captured, processed and stored. And the more data governments and tech firms hold about us, the more easily they can influence us with tailor-made carrots and sticks. Plus, the mere act of data-gathering functions as a deterrent to certain types of behaviour – if we know we’re being watched, we’re more likely to discipline ourselves.
Thirdly, technologies control our perception of the world. We rely on them to gather and filter information. Which slice of reality we are presented with – and mine might be quite different from yours – will determine our political priorities, and what goes on the agenda.
What new tech might mean for our political future
Elena: It sounds completely dystopian, and yet when power shifts there’s always the chance of a more positive outcome. What is the utopian version, the outcome we should strive for?
Jamie: The thesis I lay out in Future Politics is that the state and big tech firms that control digital technologies will increasingly determine questions of freedom, democracy, and social justice. And in each of those areas, there are opportunities for gains – and opportunities for disaster. For example, benefits such as job and credit card applications are increasingly determined by algorithms. If you get those algorithms right, they can be fair and unbiased and non-discriminatory, and can enhance and create opportunity for people. If you get them wrong, they can be bigoted and blind to, or reflective of, injustices that already exist – by blocking out particular social groups inadvertently or deliberately.
Technologies can also enhance human liberty in remarkable ways. Machines can help blind people to see, or deaf people to hear, or the rest of us to organise our lives more efficiently and find new ways of creating, of dating, of learning, of exploring the world beyond our immediate home. But at the same time, we’re always going to be subject to the rules of those who control those technologies.
I’m reluctant to give you a definitive blueprint as to what the ideal future is. My point is that technology is opening up a whole host of new arguments and new debates which we all need to be prepared to have.
Elena: At the dawn of the internet age, there was a great deal of optimism about the democratisation of information and what that might mean for society. Many of us still feel this, but there’s more fear now. How can we respond to the challenges of technological change in an active as opposed to simply a reactive way?
Jamie: One key difference now is that these capacities – the capacity to set rules the rest of us have to follow, to gather and use data, and to filter our perception of the world – are largely held, at least initially, by tech firms. These are private bodies, and their rules and policies are not always clear to outsiders, unlike a rule that is embedded in law and is open to public scrutiny and change over time. In modern politics, we’ve grown used to the idea of the state holding power, and we have developed a language, a vocabulary, to examine and challenge that. The power of the corporation is still relatively new to us.
We have slipped into the habit of looking at technologies, digital technologies, purely as consumers. Consumption is essentially passive. Crucially, now we need to start properly interrogating them as citizens.
There’s some catching up involved. Technological change perhaps necessarily precedes ideological change, which in turn precedes regulatory change. So regulators and philosophers are always playing catch-up to scientists and technologists. And our ideas haven’t evolved as fast as our technology. For instance, people struggle to define what a modern tech firm is. Is it like a state? Like a public utility? What is it, in political terms?
How can we talk about the future of tech?
Danny: So clearly there’s an urgent need for debate, and for active, questioning citizens to become engaged around the interconnections of technology and power. What steps can we take to reframe the issues and move away from a consumerist model of acceptance?
Jamie: Of course the trite answer is that we should write books and articles, and hopefully people will read them and become engaged. In an ideal world, politicians will want to lead from the front, and the tech firms will be encouraged to respond to people’s changing mindsets. And to an extent that is already happening.
But it is complex. As tech firms have begun to adopt a kind of civic role, they are placing themselves in the political sphere. I think they’d be well advised to start taking their responsibilities seriously and making an effort to do things in the same way political bodies do – with transparency, accountability and in accordance with recognised principles of justice, and so forth.
We are not naïve in the way we were a decade ago about the power of platforms like Facebook. And I think the more writers bang the drum about the political consequences of technology, the more likely people and governments are to wake up to the challenges that technology poses, as well as the extraordinary opportunities with which I think we’re all more familiar.
Danny: So yes, we’re learning, but as you said, there’s an almost inevitable time-lag with what technology can achieve and how we can talk about it and perhaps regulate its use. How far ahead are you thinking in your book?
Jamie: I try to focus on what might happen 10 years hence, so it’s not just a conversation about Facebook, Google or Twitter. One question we might ask is – how is technology going to change? I’d suggest that the next 10 or 20 years will see us living alongside systems of almost unimaginable capacity, surrounded by increasingly integrated technology – in our architecture, our appliances, clothes, and even our bodies – so that the distinction between reality and virtual reality will become far less meaningful. These changes, in combination with an increasingly quantified society, will take us into a very different stage of human politics.
Shaping the debate
Danny: You’re saying that the big political question for our generation will be quite different from the questions we’ve asked in the past. If the twentieth century was about the political tensions between the free market and state intervention, what should we be debating now?
Jamie: For me, the major political debate of our lifetime is about the extent to which our lives should be governed by powerful digital systems – and on what terms. In the book I try to sketch out not one vision but rather the different arguments that various sides might employ – and the different ideologies, ideas and philosophies I expect to emerge in the next few decades – as we respond to these new political questions.
It’s not just about the tech firms, of course. The state is a prime beneficiary of the power of technology, and as technologies are co-opted by the state, we are likely to see an enormous growth in state power. And as we know, states are not always benevolent. So we need to be aware of challenges posed by both the supercharged state and the power of tech firms.
The whole point in my book is that this stuff is up for grabs.
Elena: At CPI we are currently debating the ideal government of the future. We see government that embraces small and local solutions to local problems as being one of the most desirable models. Is that in conflict with your vision, which seems to predict greater centralisation?
Jamie: I don’t think that the future economic or technological structure of society is necessarily geared towards either centralisation or decentralisation. I would be reluctant to argue that any particular model of centralisation or decentralisation is made possible or impossible by technology. All I would say is it can be a bit of a fallacy to think that because a particular technology is geared towards a particular social structure, that that social structure will immediately follow.
It was thought that the internet would lead to a radical decentralisation of power because of its network structure. Actually, because of the economic system into which the internet was born, it ended up being a way for power to be concentrated further – over networks – into the hands of those who already had influential positions within the network. And these might be governments or big tech firms or the owners of hardware and the like.
This goes to show once again that we can shape our technologies just as they shape us. If your vision is to promote a decentralised system that gives more decision-making power to communities and lower levels of government, then you should be trying to find the technologies and the systems – some would say Blockchain – that can help you implement that. And no doubt they’re going to exist, just as there will be technologies that can take you in the other direction.
Jamie Susskind’s book ‘Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech’ is out now.
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