Is digital technology leading us into a new dark age?

News about regimes hacking journalists, election meddling, and robots eliminating jobs raises the question of whether technology and democracy are compatible, says Jamie Bartlett

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A hacker in action. (BeeBright; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A hacker in action. (BeeBright; iStock by Getty Images)

Recent news exposés about the dark side of high-tech — including online fraud, social media manipulation of elections, and the use of cyber-surveillance tools to target human-rights activists — have shocked many of us out of our sanguine view that technology is entirely a force for good. Here in Israel, a recent chilling report in Ha’aretz on the cyber-surveillance industry revealed that some of the country’s best and brightest, young graduates of the prestigious 8200 IDF intelligence unit, have helped officials in authoritarian countries target homosexuals and dissidents through hacking and digital surveillance.

The Times of Israel asked Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media for Demos think tank, and one of the world’s foremost experts on societal change caused by digital technology, how to account for increasingly dark phenomena associated with high-tech and why technological progress and authoritarianism appear to be marching forward in lockstep.

In his 2018 book, “The People vs. Tech, how the Internet is Killing Democracy,” Bartlett argues that digital technology may in fact be incompatible with democracy.

“In the coming few years either tech will destroy democracy and the social order as we know it, or politics will stamp its authority over the digital world,” he writes, in the introduction to his book. “It is becoming increasingly clear that technology is currently winning this battle, crushing a diminished and enfeebled opponent.”

By technology, Bartlett says he is referring to “the digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley – social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence – that are increasingly dominating economic, political and social life.”

In the book, Bartlett describes six pillars that make democracy work and how he believes technology is undermining all of them. The first pillar is active, independent-minded citizens, which is undermined by the advertising model of the Internet, which collects huge amounts of data about us and keeps us addicted to our devices. The second problem is the divisive tribal politics online that undermine a shared democratic culture. Free and fair elections, equality, competitive economies, and sovereignty are all also being undermined by technological trends, he writes.

Bartlett spoke to The Times of Israel from his home in London to explain why this is so.

The Times of Israel: It seems as though your thinking has evolved in the past year. In the past, you’ve said things like, “On the one hand there are some dangers in technology but on the other hand we shouldn’t become Luddites.” But this book strikes a much more alarmed tone.

Jamie Bartlett: Yes, I’d say I still don’t think we should smash all the machines up or anything like that. But I think it’s fair to say that I have become more pessimistic in the last year.

What triggered your pessimism?

It’s been a combination of stories that just keep coming out. It’s like a relentless bombardment. First, it’s automation and the middle class, then it’s declining media revenue, then it’s Russian interference in elections, then it’s hate crimes, then it’s Cambridge Analytica. It’s story after story, and after a certain amount of time you begin to think — are these just isolated stories or is there actually something bigger going on?

I did a TV series a while back for the BBC called “Secrets of Silicon Valley.” I interviewed a bunch of technologists in Silicon Valley and they would often talk in the same way, they would say things like, “We have dramatic technological changes coming. No doubt about it. But you know what, we’ve had them before, like the Industrial Revolution, and we were better off afterwards.”

The thing is, I studied history and I’ve read a lot about the Industrial Revolution. Anyone who’s read a lot about the Industrial Revolution knows that while things might have gotten better after a hundred years, for the first 30 years, it was a disaster for nearly everybody.

But if in the long run if it all works out, maybe technological disruption is worthwhile?

Well, in the long run, we’re all dead aren’t we? Yes, in a hundred years’ time, possibly things are going to be so much better, and we’ll be healthier and live longer. But if you look at the hundred years after the invention of the printing press, yes, we’re all much better off today, but not before millions of people were killed. I just think that there can be great suffering in the short-term even if in the long-term it is good. We still should try and worry about the short-term.

Do you think that’s where we could be going, entering a new dark age?

I think there is a possibility that from the mid-1950s onwards, we just happened to live through a period of almost unprecedented stability, wealth formation, economic growth, and individual rights for certain groups in Western liberal democracies.

I’m not certain that what we will return to is a rerun of the 1930s, or a return to fascism and Communism — because they may have been products of their time. I’m sure the threats to democracy now will be new and a specific reflection of our technology. This is why I say I’m kind of worried about techno-dystopian authoritarianism — a shell democracy run by smart machines, and a new elite of progressive but authoritarian technocrats.

People often ask which of the British dystopian author was most prescient, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. Orwell described a very violent surveillance state and Huxley’s world was gentle.

“We’re all drugged. We’re all relaxed. No one is thinking. Everyone is just having a good time — but we’re also not really free and we totally prefer security and safety and ease to any sort of meaningful freedoms.”

Jamie Bartlett (Facebook screenshot)

The weird thing is that, at the moment, authoritarian countries might be heading towards Orwell and good democratic ones towards Huxley.

The potential of surveillance in the coming years with Internet-enabled devices, facial recognition technology, and speech recognition technology is enormous. It’s going to be incredible the degree of surveillance that China will be able to conduct on its citizens. This is going to be really unprecedented.

In the West, we seem to be drifting into a kind of lazy addiction to smartphones and gadgets. It’s as if Orwell and Huxley might have both been right.

Do will still have a chance to avert this?

The reason I wrote the book saying there’s a great crisis and a great threat to our democracy is because if you wait until it’s already happened, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. So I’m trying to take the current situation and roll it forward 10 or 20 years, and say that if we carry on with the same trends, these are the great threats to democracy we will be facing.

You mention six threats to democracy in the book. Which of these are you most worried about?

At the moment everyone’s obsessing over the threat to free and fair elections. But I don’t think that is the most important one. I think that’s just the most topical one. I would say that, in the medium term, what worries me the most is the possible collapse of the middle classes due to automation, as well as the dramatically increased levels of inequality — because inequality tends to result in all sorts of other problems.

Is there proof that inequality is growing due to technology?

I think there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the causes of various forms of inequality over the last 30 to 40 years have been at least significantly driven and caused by technological change. The best book on that topic is a book called “The Second Machine Age” by McAfee and Brynjolfsson. They made a pretty compelling argument that technological change has led to increased inequality over the last 30 years or so. So if you increase the power of the technology further, then you’re going to, I think, increase the tendency towards inequality too.

Look at the growth of the precariat; the number of jobs that are now insecure, platform-based, or gig-based; the fact that a tiny proportion of people are now richer than billions of people, and a significant number of those are tech entrepreneurs.

I mean, as you piece it all together, I think a picture emerges of a worrying dystopia of incredibly wealthy people who take advantage of the technology, and a lot of poor people who can’t take advantage of the technology.

Can you have democracy without a middle class?

I don’t really know how that would look because middle classes have always been so important to democracy. Even the idea that we could have one without a middle class, without a tax-paying base who support the rule of law, who support the institutions of democracy, I really don’t know how it would even work.

People are talking a lot about the prospects of mass technological unemployment. Millions of people might be out of work. What will that do to our economy? I’m worried about what that would do to our political system. I mean you look at the levels of inequality that are reached in Latin America. Let’s see how their democracies are — not very.

Because rich people end up starting to buy democracy. That’s how it happens. Again, maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that is the correct thing to be worried about.

I don’t know what the atmosphere is like in Britain, but here in Israel we are still in the phase of technology boosterism. Everyone loves technology, and startup entrepreneurs are feted and venerated. It’s hard to find someone who would speak ill of high-tech.

Isn’t that itself a bit of a problem? One thing I talk about in the book is that technology has become immune from criticism. For so long, we’ve assumed it’s all brilliant and progressive and a force for good in the world. All the bad things that come with it kind of went unnoticed.

Also, I think the mood around technology has changed a lot in the last year. Bear in mind, I was quite careful to define my terms. This book is not about whether your life is better with technology. It’s not about whether you are better-informed or happier or wealthier. It’s about democracy and whether technology is compatible with it.

Some people will ask why is democracy the highest value?

That’s a whole other question. But I think that is the question that people will start to ask of themselves. If democracy no longer seems to be working for people — they may say, why do we want to live in a democracy? We’re richer, better off, happier, and safer if we live in a benevolent dictatorship run by a group of technicians and technologists. That’s the worry.

In Israel, the prime minister is a suspect in three corruption cases and he has not lost popularity at all. You have a chapter in the book about how this type of thing is a direct consequence of the Internet. Can you explain?

I’m not knowledgeable about Israeli politics, but we saw with Donald Trump that the constant proof in the Washington Post that he was lying did absolutely nothing to dent his popularity.

Politics has become far more emotional, as a result of our total immersion in information. When you are completely overwhelmed with data and facts and stories and propaganda, as we are, naturally you start seeing politics far more emotionally at the cost of a more rational view of things. It becomes about — is the president my guy? Is he on my side? Is he part of my tribe? What you’re suggesting in Israel is happening all over.

It doesn’t surprise me at all when you tell me that. If you had told me a year ago Netanyahu’s popularity will decrease as a result of these suspicions against him, I would have said absolutely not. It would make no difference whatsoever. Because that is the way a lot of politics seems to be going. Twenty years ago, claims about a politician’s behavior would almost certainly have massively harmed someone, but they no longer seem to be as important as they once were.

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