Has The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of books, movies and television shows set in dystopian futures. If you’ve ever read or watched one of them, you may have wondered, “How likely is it that the future will be so bleak?” Well, after reading this book summary, you’ll come away with a rather unsettling answer. That is, very likely – unless we do something about it.
In this book summary, we’ll be looking at some of the ways in which digital technology affects politics and economics. By digital technology, we refer to innovations like social media platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data – the collection and analysis of large sets of data. For convenience, we’ll often refer to these innovations as simply “technology,” even though that term usually has a broader meaning.
Technology, in this sense, has brought many undeniable benefits to the world. However, as we’ll see in the following book summarys, it also poses equally undeniable dangers to the very underpinnings of democracy – threats that could destroy it unless we acknowledge and address them in time.
In this summary of The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett, you will learn
- how encryption and cryptocurrencies pose threats to democratic governments;
- how AI may destroy the middle class; and
- how governments and citizens can take steps to head off these and many other dangers facing democracy.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #1: Democracy requires active, amicable, equal and free participation from its citizens.
What would happen if a democracy held a national election and no one bothered to debate the issues, inform themselves about policy proposals or even vote on the candidates? It would be as if you threw a party and no one showed up: hardly a party – or, in this case, a democracy – at all.
Like a party, democracy requires people’s active participation – and the more active the participation, the more robust the result. With democracy, active participation entails sifting through claims, weighing facts and making decisions on who or what is the best candidate or course of action. Active citizenship is the first of the six pillars on which democracy rests.
Now, let’s say people show up to your party and are actively participating. So far, so good – but what happens if they start getting rowdy? Well, eventually, the party might turn into a riot.
The same goes for democracy. For it to work, citizens must not only actively participate, but actively participate in certain ways – two of which are to engage in rational debate and compromise, which allow them to amicably work through their differences and move forward together. This shared democratic culture is the second pillar.
Now, let’s say you throw a party and a couple of loudmouthed attendees dominate all of the conversations, undermining other people’s abilities to participate in the process. That won’t work either – everyone needs to be able to participate more or less equally and freely. The same goes for democracy. For it to work, citizens must stand on more or less equal footing, talk to each other and vote on issues and candidates without interference. These are the third, fourth, and fifth pillars: equality, free association and free elections.
Finally, returning to the party analogy one last time, who’s going to look after the gathering to steer people in the right direction – encouraging them to participate actively, amicably, equally and freely? Well, you – the host. Similarly, the government’s job is to ensure that citizens participate in democracy. And to do this job, the government needs power. That’s the sixth pillar: governmental authority.
Unfortunately, modern technology poses a threat to all six of these pillars of democracy. In the following book summarys, we’ll see how it’s doing that. Then, we’ll look at what might happen if they collapse and how this can be avoided.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #2: The rise of social media, big data and artificial intelligence makes citizens less active.
What are the foundations of active citizenship? An easy way of answering this question is by asking why all democracies have a minimum voting age. Well, the answer is simple: children aren’t mature, independent or wise enough to make political decisions – or so the thinking goes.
At the same time, active citizenship depends on citizens being politically mature, independent-minded and capable of making their own judgments. Unfortunately, technology weakens all three attributes of active citizenship.
One way it does this is by exposing people to constant public scrutiny on social media. This encourages self-censorship, which discourages political development. For example, on Twitter, many people are afraid to speak their minds because they fear facing angry mobs of respondents, data collection or employer scrutiny – especially since a single stupid thing they say today could come back to haunt them years from now.
The safer option? Keep quiet or never say anything controversial – just parrot the acceptable public responses on any given issue. In other words, don’t put yourself in a position to make mistakes in your opinions, be corrected on them, learn from them, change your mind and thereby develop your political thinking.
Meanwhile, the increasingly sophisticated data collection techniques and processing algorithms of big data are leading to an increasingly manipulated citizenry. This happens through the development of personalized ad delivery systems, which can target people’s precise interests and even moods. In the near future, for instance, someone could tweet about a bad encounter with a foreigner and get targeted by an anti-immigration ad from a nativist politician. Or she could tweet about recycling and get targeted by an ad from Greenpeace.
Fast forward further into the future, and we can also see a more existential threat to active citizenship – artificial intelligence (AI). As it becomes more powerful, AI will be able to make decisions that are increasingly better, wiser and shrewder than ours. As a result, we’ll increasingly doubt our abilities to make our own decisions and defer to AI to make them for us.
We already see glimpses of this future to come with apps like iSideWith, which tells you who to vote for based on your preferences. Millions of Brits used the app in the last few elections, effectively outsourcing their judgment to an algorithm.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #3: Information overload and social media connectivity encourage tribalism, divisiveness and demagoguery.
In politics, as in life in general, human beings have a natural tendency to congregate into groups of like-minded individuals. What turns a group into a political tribe is a shared sense of grievances and struggle.
There have always been such tribes, but technology significantly facilitates their creation. By making it easier for people to find and create associations with each other, the internet makes it easier for them to cluster into smaller groups with specific grievances, fragmenting the population into more and more tribes. As a result, no matter your background or grievance, you’re likely to find your specific tribe online. If you’re on the far left, you can join Antifa. If you’re of the opposite persuasion, you can link up with the alt-right. And if your tribe doesn’t already exist, you can simply create it.
After facilitating the creation of tribes, technology then reinforces them by encouraging their members to consume a diet of information that fans the flames of their shared sense of grievances and struggle. The reason for this boils down to the sheer amount of content available online, which allows people to easily find like-minded sources of information that fuel their sense of oppression.
Algorithmic curation then amplifies people’s gravitation to like-minded sources. For example, YouTube provides myriad more options than mass television of the past. Once you start opening videos, the site’s algorithms begin analyzing your preferences, predicting what you’re most likely to watch next and offering suggestions that reflect and reinforce those preferences.
As a result, people become increasingly agitated and entrenched in their beliefs, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to communicate and cooperate, leading to political deadlock. Even worse, as tribal divisions deepen and people feel increasingly under attack from other tribes, they also come to view those tribes as enemies, and seek a leader who can protect them and fight their foes.
For example, from 1992 to 2014, the number of Americans with very negative views of supporters of the opposing political party more than doubled. Then, in 2016, many Trump supporters flocked to him because they saw him as a leader who would save them from enemy tribes: Mexicans, Muslims, liberals and the mainstream media.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #4: Technology undermines free and fair elections by enabling political parties to influence voting behavior.
Imagine a science fiction scenario in which an evil genius gains mind control over all of the citizens of a democracy. Election day arrives, and – surprise – the evil genius wins in a landslide!
Would this election be free and fair? Of course not – and the reason is simple. To participate in free and fair elections, voters must be able to make up their own minds without undue influence. Unfortunately, technology is making this increasingly difficult. While mind control may still be the stuff of science fiction, political parties are gaining an unprecedented ability to influence voters’ decision-making processes by leveraging big data.
Using sophisticated techniques to collect and analyze large sets of data from people’s shopping data, web browsing histories and voting records, political parties have been able to gain increasingly perceptive understandings of their potential voters. This, in turn, allows them to target and communicate with sympathetic voters more and more precisely.
For example, in 2016, while teaming with the Trump campaign, the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica determined that a preference for US-made automobiles strongly indicated a potential Trump voter. Thus, if someone had recently bought a Ford but hadn’t voted in years, the campaign could tell that he was a promising target. In this manner, Cambridge Analytica was able to help the campaign identify 13.5 million persuadable voters in 16 battleground states – thereby creating a roadmap of where to have rallies, knock on doors and advertise on television. Given the decisiveness of these voters and these states, Cambridge Analytica played a major role in electing Trump.
If that seems like a worrisome precedent, well, buckle your seat belt, because the influence of big data is only going to grow in the years ahead. Going forward, each party will need to keep up with their rivals and outdo them in leveraging big data. This sets the stage for an ever-escalating technological arms race.
Meanwhile, the parties’ consulting firms will be able to collect data from a host of new sources, such as networked refrigerators, monitoring your eating habits. As big data becomes gargantuan data, the sort of correlations that Cambridge Analytica was able to draw in 2016 may come to seem like child’s play.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #5: AI will decrease the demand for workers, which will increase inequality.
AI has long been a boogie man of science fiction stories and economic doomsayers alike, leading to fears of machines taking over the world – or at least taking over everyone’s jobs.
These fears may be overblown, since they assume a level of AI that’s much more advanced than is likely to develop in the next 50 to 100 years. However, there’s a more realistic fear to have in the meantime: AI will reduce the number of people employed in a large swath of jobs – those involving routine tasks.
AI is already good at performing these tasks. It’s not so good at dealing with unpredictable situations, especially if they require creative thought or sensorimotor skills. For example, driving on a highway is a pretty routine task that AI can handle. Truck drivers are therefore likely to be replaced by AI. Being a machine learning specialist or a gardener, in contrast, involves doing creative, non-routine and sensorimotor-heavy tasks that AI can’t handle for the foreseeable future. These workers will be safe.
Thus, routine jobs will be eliminated, leaving mostly non-routine jobs behind. The problem with this is that non-routine jobs tend to be either very well paid (think Google employee) or very poorly paid (think delivery cyclist). The in-between, routine jobs tend to be those of the middle class – paralegals, accountants and radiologists, for example. With these jobs eliminated, the result will be a barbell-like economy with high-end, non-routine jobs on one end and low-end, non-routine jobs on the other.
The gulf between the post-AI haves and have-nots will then grow even worse. As AI becomes increasingly important to the economy, AI specialists will be in demand and therefore better paid. Meanwhile, the laid-off workers from the routine jobs will compete for the low-end, non-routine jobs, putting a downward pressure on their wages.
Democracy will suffer from the resulting inequality and destruction of the middle class, as these developments will deepen the divisions that are already beginning to tear it apart. That’s because inequality literally separates people – dividing the rich into one set of lives, jobs and neighborhoods and the poor into another. Meanwhile, the more the economy resembles a barbell, the more problems arise, such as a shrinking tax base and higher levels of crime, depression and addiction, which further exacerbate the social divisions.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #6: Tech companies are uniquely well positioned to become monopolies with unprecedented degrees of power.
To turn an old saying upside down, as the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. The flipside of AI-powered technology taking over large swaths of the economy, eliminating many jobs, eviscerating the middle class and increasing inequality is that the companies pushing that technology are also going to become increasingly rich and powerful. Indeed, tech companies have an inherent tendency to become all-powerful monopolies. The very nature of their economic activity paves the way for them to achieve exponential growth that crowds out their competitors.
There are two factors behind this. The first involves a phenomenon called the network effect. Essentially, if you’re a company providing a service that connects people into a network, your service becomes more desirable each time you connect another person to it. This entices more people to join it, which makes it even more desirable, which leads to even more people joining it, etc. For example, the more passengers that join Uber, the more drivers it attracts, so that Uber can provide better service – which leads to even more passengers joining Uber, and so on.
The second factor involves the low-cost and high-speed at which tech companies can scale up their networks. For instance, it takes barely any time or money for Airbnb to add a new host to its network of lodgings, whereas it takes a lot of time and money for a hotel company to construct a new building.
Now, the factors leading to the creation of tech monopolies may be novel, but monopolies themselves are nothing new. Like monopolies of the past, tech companies are using their power to buy influence with politicians. However, compared to monopolies of the past, tech companies can command an unprecedented amount of influence, for two reasons.
First, political parties are uniquely dependent on tech companies, given how much they need digital platforms to reach potential voters. Second, owning those platforms gives tech companies unprecedented power to influence public debate and opinion. Indeed, they’re already starting to flex their muscles. For example, in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012, Google added a link to a petition on its front page, which led to millions of signatures and helped kill the bill.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #7: Encryption and anonymity allow private actors to evade and thereby undermine governmental authority.
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the term “democracy?” For many people, it would probably be “freedom.” After all, individual liberty is an undeniably vital component of democracy.
However, an equally vital component is the opposite of freedom: state coercion. To enforce laws that express the will of the people, the government must have a system of coercion in place to be able to do things like make people pay taxes. And to justify and organize this system, the state needs to control information like taxation records.
However, the rise of a movement called crypto-anarchy is threatening the government’s ability to control information and thus its authority to coerce its citizens. What is crypto-anarchy? The short answer is that it’s a movement that seeks to undermine the authority of the state through encryption, which allows people to communicate, store and retrieve information beyond the reach of the government.
A salient example is Bitcoin – an encrypted digital currency, or cryptocurrency, that enables people to make secure, quasi-anonymous transactions without a central government backing or controlling the currency's value or supply. Such a currency poses a threat to governments because it challenges their abilities to exercise state monopolies on money, monitor transactions and therefore collect taxes and pay themselves.
Bitcoin, in turn, is just one example of blockchain technology, which stores information in an immense, disbursed and tamper-proof database. In the case of Bitcoin, independent records of each transaction are kept by thousands of computers linked together into a decentralized network. You can’t delete or edit one record without deleting or editing them all, which is virtually impossible.
Further applications of this technology are already proliferating and will continue to spread, resulting in blockchain-based marketplaces and social media platforms that are impervious to government surveillance and interference. These marketplaces will allow the free flow of illegal products like drugs, personal data and child pornography.
Meanwhile, social media platforms enable users to spread hate speech, illegal images and terrorist propaganda. Thus, the government would be powerless to remove from the blockchain network or even trace, let alone prosecute the users behind them.
The result? The government’s laws – and by extension, the government itself – will become increasingly toothless, as malefactors become able to break them with impunity.
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #8: If the challenges of technology are left unchecked, democracy could descend into dystopia or techno-authoritarianism.
What if humanity doesn’t correct its course from the path it’s currently on, which leads to growing citizen-disengagement, tribalism, electoral manipulation, inequality, monopoly power and crypto-anarchy? Well, there are two possibilities: a grim future – and an even grimmer future.
Let’s start with the worst-case scenario. This would be an age of dystopian chaos in which governments lose their ability to function. Meanwhile, inequality increases until a tiny group of people ends up with all of the technology, wealth and power, while everyone else is forced to eke out a livelihood by serving the elite. As disorder grows and society eventually collapses, the rich retreat to heavily defended compounds, which are already being built by some of today’s tech elites, like Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, who recently purchased a 477-acre safe house in New Zealand.
Now let’s look at the more likely, slightly less worse, alternative. This would be a form of techno-authoritarianism, which could unfold as follows. First, growing inequality leads to growing social problems, like depression, alcoholism and crime. This, in turn, leads to an increasing demand for big government services like police, healthcare, prisons and social service.
However, because of its falling tax base due to inequality, the destruction of the middle class and the use of cryptocurrencies, the government is unable to meet the demand for these services. This leads to citizens being more distrustful of the government, which in turn leads them to withhold their compliance and resources from it. This further undermines its ability to meet their demands, and so forth and so on, leading to a downward spiral.
Meanwhile, because of growing inequality, society becomes increasingly fractured, especially between the tech-haves and have-nots. The elites enjoy lives of technological luxury, while the burgeoning underclass struggles to make a living through jobs that are increasingly precarious and poorly paid.
At some point, people will naturally conclude that democracy can no longer solve their social problems. Where will they turn? Here’s one sobering possibility: a techno-authoritarian riding a wave of enthusiasm for technological solutions to problems like crime, climate change and hunger.
The tech-elite could easily slide into this role as well, buoyed by a belief that they and the technology they wield are better able to run society than "the rabble."
The People Vs Tech Key Idea #9: With the right changes, democracy can be updated to withstand and benefit from the advancement of technology.
Once upon a time, ancient Greeks living in small cities were able to practice democracy on a face-to-face level. As society became too large and complex for that to work, representative democracy emerged to carry on the torch, which was then kept aloft by the mass party and taxation systems that materialized when industrialism and mass suffrage arrived.
For some reason, however, democracy stopped evolving at that point. As a result, democracy is no longer in sync with social reality, and it’s unable to keep up with the massive, rapid, technology-driven changes taking place.
To survive, democracy needs updates to combat the tendencies that are undermining it. Some of these updates involve governments reasserting their authority over the tech industry. For example, to limit the influence of big data, governments can exercise more oversight on the use of algorithms and data collection.
To break up monopolies, they can enact antitrust legislation. To regulate cryptocurrencies, they can issue their own. And to ensure they and their citizens benefit from the gains of technology, rather than just tech companies, governments can develop publicly owned and operated versions of services and infrastructure projects like Uber and driverless car networks.
Other updates involve governments protecting and supporting their citizens. For example, to help citizens become less susceptible to manipulation, the education system can be redesigned to better teach the critical thinking and digital literacy skills that they need to understand how to verify sources, how psychological biases work and how the main components of the digital world, such as targeting algorithms, function.
To provide them with enough time and space to exercise those sharpened critical thinking skills, which they could use to sift through politicians' claims and promises, governments could also make election day a public holiday, replete with hustings, debates and meet-up groups.
To combat inequality, the government can enforce minimum wage laws on employers who take advantage of the precarious freelance and short-term-contract labor that characterizes the so-called gig economy, make it easier for workers to unionize, invest in job creation in emerging industries such as climate change adaptation and biotech, and pay for training programs to help workers retool for the changing economy.
Finally, to fund these new programs, the government will need to find new sources of tax revenue, since corporate and income tax revenues are likely to decrease. One way to do this would be to levy taxes on the robots that replace human workers. By implementing reforms like these, democracies can reassert their power over technology, which will help ensure it empowers, liberates and enriches us, rather than the opposite.
In Review: The People Vs Tech Book Summary
The key message in this book summary:
Digital technology has brought undeniable benefits to humanity, but it also poses equally undeniable challenges to democracy. These challenges stem from certain tendencies of technologically driven social changes that are unfolding before our eyes – tendencies that are already eroding the essential pillars of democracy. If left unchecked, these pillars may eventually crumble, leaving a dystopian or totalitarian state in the rubble. Fortunately, there are steps that governments can take to sync up with the internet era and thereby withstand the winds of change. There are also steps that individuals can take to aid these renovation efforts in their personal lives.
Take control of your internet usage.
By taking control of how you use the internet, you can also take back some control of your life from the encroachments of digital technologies and the tech companies pushing them. For example, you can prevent advertisers from manipulating you by downloading ad blockers. You can escape the echo chambers that encourage tribalism by seeking out alternative sources of information and listening to opposing voices with an open mind. And you can escape the clutches of monopolies by seeking out smaller, more ethical companies that provide search engines, social media platforms and taxi services.