The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett, Review

This book is a summary of the recent news, research, non-fiction bestsellers and popular science relating to tech, in a political context. The author tries hard to maintain objectivity, but he ends up sitting on the fence and stating the non-offensive obvious rather than creating new insights. Perhaps, there is a certain irony in that: serious journalism doesn’t hit as hard as divisive tripe we’ve gotten used to on Facebook. Overall, it’s an entry level book for people who want to learn about tech vs politics.

On a personal note, I recently attended a conference on digital health where an IBM Watson guy described how it could make decisions that are 93% congruent with health professionals (source). That’s impressive. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it will. Ireland has decent IT in healthcare compared to most countries. Yet I still fax things a lot (welcome to the 80s). As a doctor, I often serve as a photocopying machine. I’ve seen radiology software pick some cool stuff up using algorithms, but it will be a long time before AI is on the front line of medicine, in my view anyway.

My highlights below (this is not to say I highlight things I agree with!)

…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. It’s clear that these technologies have, on balance, made us more informed, wealthier and, in some ways, happier. After all, technology tends to expand human capabilities, produce new opportunities, and increase productivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for democracy.

While there are certainly contradictions in minimising tax while claiming to empower people, doing so doesn’t necessarily betray insincerity.

The machinery of democracy was built during a time of nation-states, hierarchies, deference and industrialised economies. The fundamental features of digital tech are at odds with this model: non-geographical, decentralised, data-driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth.

We won’t witness a repeat of the 1930s, everyone’s favourite analogy. Rather, I believe that democracy will fail in new and unexpected ways. The looming dystopia to fear is a shell democracy run by smart machines and a new elite of ‘progressive’ but authoritarian technocrats.

Chapter 1: The New Panopticon

Social media platforms are the latest iteration of the behaviourist desire to manage society through scientific observation of the mind, via a complete information loop: testing products on people, getting feedback and redesigning the model.

The notion that with enough data the mysteries of the human mind can be understood and influenced is perhaps the dominant philosophy in Silicon Valley today.

Scientific theories were unnecessary, he [Chris Anderson, editor of Wired] said, now that we have big data.

Google engineers don’t speculate and theorise about why people visit one site over another –they just try things and see what works.

Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched. This kind of permanent visibility and monitoring is a way to enforce conformity and docility.

Being always under surveillance and knowing that the things you say are collected and shared creates a soft but constant self-censorship.

Diagnosis by AI will outperform professional doctors within a few years (it already does in many areas, but regulation is slower than tech).

Deny it if you want, but we already rely on the machine for moral choices.

I can imagine this kind of utilitarian thinking will take over the world, because it’s amenable to data and AI.

Chapter 2: The Global Village

We are living, as McLuhan predicted, through a great re-tribalisation of politics.

Humans were perfectly good at killing each other because of politics long before the iPhone turned up. But Silicon Valley, in its optimistic quest for a global village of total information and connectivity, has inadvertently let tribalism back out of the cage that modern representative democracy built for it.

At times ‘post-truth’ has become a convenient way to explain complicated events with a simple single phrase. In some circles it has become a slightly patronising new orthodoxy to say that stupid proles have been duped by misinformation on the internet into voting for things like Brexit or Trump.

Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

The point is that every individual now has a truckload of reasons to feel legitimately aggrieved, outraged, oppressed or threatened, even if their own life is going just fine.

Note how, for example, so many people who disagree with Brexit use the language of a small child that has yet to develop a theory of mind: why should I accept the result, I didn’t vote for it and I want my country back.

The liberals’ hopeful theory about the role of debate is that coming into contact with opposing views and opinions can help resolve difference.

Several inconvenient studies have found that if two groups of people debate with each other they often consequently hold more extreme views than when they started. 15

I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

But being apparently neutral is itself a kind of editorial decision. Everything on social media is still curated, usually by some mysterious algorithm rather than a human editor.

But the problem is that no one is intentionally programming it to be sensationalistic –it’s just a mathematical response to our general preference for edgy and outrageous videos. This is both a mirror and a multiplier: a giant feedback loop powered by big data. You feed data in, and you get results that replicate themselves. Newspapers have always traded on outrage and sensationalism, because they’ve long known what algorithms have recently discovered about our predilections. However, the difference is that newspapers are legally responsible for what they print, and citizens generally understand the editorial positions of various outlets. Algorithms, however, give the impression of being neutral and can’t held to account –even though the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what 1.5 billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined.

In her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt warned that if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues.

If the medium is the message, is there a way to escape the drift toward ever more extreme ‘system one’ tribal politics? Of course. Laws, regulations or education can help.

The qualities we associate with human greatness –such as sensitivity, empathy, compassion, kindness, and honesty –are also keys to political success.

At a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016, Trump told his supporters that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and … wouldn’t lose voters’. There is a distinct and terrifying possibility that, in an era in which emotion outranks truth, bias outranks objectivity and tribe outranks compromise, he was right.

Chapter 3: Software Wars

Every election now is a mini arms race.

Just like Brad [Trump’s digital campaign guy], Cummings set up Vote Leave like a Silicon Valley start-up, with physicists, data, innovation and constant testing of ads or messages. One especially smart move involved inviting people to guess the results of all 51 matches in the Euro 2016 football tournament with the chance of winning £ 50 million, in exchange for their phone number, email, home address and a score of 1–5 in respect of how likely they were to vote for staying in the EU.

I was surprised when Theresa [Trump’s digital campaign figure] told me that social media employees –and ones who shared the campaign’s political views –were working directly with the Trump team, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

We used to call this sort of thing propaganda. Now we call it ‘a behavioral approach to persuasive communication with quantifiable results’, and give awards to the people who are best at it.

It is important that everyone receives the same message –or at least knows what others are receiving. That’s how we are able to thrash out the issues of the day. If everyone receives personalised messages, there is no common public debate –just millions of private ones.

When I was at Alamo, Theresa told me that she wrote many of Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. That was odd. I’d always assumed Trump wrote his own posts. I’d read many of them, and they certainly sounded like him. Nope, it was Theresa, sitting in her San Antonio office. ‘I channelled Mr Trump,’ she told me, smiling. ‘How do you channel someone like Donald Trump?’ I asked. ‘A lot of believe mes, a lot of alsos, a lot of verys … he was really wonderful to write for. It was so refreshing. It was so authentic.’ She seemed unaware of the irony.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to have had a Damascene moment towards the end of 2017, when he acknowledged that the company needed to behave more like a responsible publisher that takes editorial decisions, rather than as a neutral platform that treats all information equally. This will certainly help.

Far too many otherwise-intelligent people, unable to comprehend Trump’s popularity, believe that voters were duped by Brad or Theresa, or even by Vladimir Putin, into ticking the box for Trump. Those involved are happy to propagate this myth, because it’s good for business.

I don’t recall similar levels of outrage when it was revealed in 2012 that President Obama’s team had placed voters into 30 buckets and ranked them according to persuadability, and that Google’s Eric Schmidt advised the campaign. Liberals were apparently extremely comfortable with the idea when it was their guy doing it. That was a mistake.

Chapter 4: Driverless Democracy

When AI techniques transform medical diagnosis –within the next few years –it won’t mean fewer doctors, but better patient care because our busy doctors won’t need to spend hours staring at scans.

A specialist in machine learning at Starsky Robotics or Google performs a non-routine job, since it involves a lot of intuition, creativity and independent thinking in unpredictable situations. So does a gardener, carer or Deliveroo cyclist. It’s the jobs in the middle –what you might call ‘routine cognitive’ jobs –that will be most at risk. If you are a train operator, a mortgage adviser, a stock analyst, a paralegal, a credit analyst, a loan officer, a bookkeeper, a tax accountant or a radiologist, you might consider retraining.

High levels of inequality also wear away the fabric of society. The more unequal life gets, the less we spend time with people not like ourselves, and the less we trust each other.

‘There are40 million people in the US that live in poverty,’ he [Sam Altman, Y Combinator] said. ‘If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that; if technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute it better, we should do that.’ There was no hint that tech has played some role in creating the problem that tech is now supposed to fix.

Chapter 5: The Everything Monopoly

Back in the 1990s many predicted that the internet would slay monopolies, not create them. The popular thinking of the time –repeated over and over by the era’s digital gurus and futurists –was that the net was decentralised and connected, and so would automatically lead to a competitive and distributed marketplace.

Market leaders in AI like Google, with the data, the geniuses, the experience and the computing power, won’t be limited to just search and information retrieval. They will also be able to leap ahead in almost anything where AI is important: logistics, driverless cars, medical research, television, factory production, city planning, agriculture, energy use, storage, clerical work, education and who knows what else.

At some terrible point, these tech giants could become so important to the health and well-being of the nation that they are, like large banks, too big to fail. Armed with the best tech and the most skilled engineers, maybe Google or Facebook could be the only ones who could solve sophisticated cybercrime (perhaps committed by a powerful AI from a hostile country?), fix computer bugs, predict and pre-empt economic shocks, run the National Grid or protect the cyber defences of the big banks –cyber security in the public sector is predictably understaffed and under-skilled.

Every politician, with only a few exceptions, values the support of business. But politicians need tech platforms to reach voters in a manner that they don’t need other businesses, and these companies own and run the platforms on which so much of our political debate occurs.

Chapter 6: Crypto-Anarchy

(Public key) encryption is the crypto-anarchist’s barbed wire. It allows people to communicate, browse and transact beyond the reach of government, making it significantly harder for the state to control information, and subsequently, its citizens. This is because of a simple-but-magic rule: due to some arcane properties of prime numbers, it takes far more computing power to decrypt something than to encrypt it. 3 It’s like an egg: a lot easier to crack than to put back in its shell. Julian Assange, who was an active contributor to Timothy May’s email list, puts it this way: ‘the universe believes in encryption’.

In the well-intentioned pursuit of privacy and freedom, we might risk undermining the entire edifice on which these rights are based. Most liberals have been very short-sighted about this, because they want total freedom and equality, without realising that the two are sometimes in tension. This is why the issue of encryption and privacy throws up peculiar political alliances. (The most notable of recent years is surely the idiotic social democratic love affair with crypto-anarchist Julian Assange.)

Democracy is about individual liberty of course, but that’s only half the picture. It is also a system of coercion because your liberty must sometimes be taken away too. The state must be able to force you to pay tax, remove your passport, restrict your right to assemble and back it up with the use of force if it needs to by arresting you and throwing you in prison.

A blockchain social media platform would be untouchable – no government would be able to edit or remove hate-speech, illegal images or terror propaganda, unless the whole network was somehow vaporised. Blockchain advocates hate ‘middle men’.

For reasons still not entirely clear to me, humanity is currently embarked on a quixotic quest to connect everything to everything else.

A recent survey in the Journal of Democracy found that only 30 per cent of US millennials (the demographic made up of those born since 1980) agree that ‘it’s essential to live in a democracy’, compared to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s, and results in most other democracies demonstrate a similar pattern.

Conclusion: Say Hello to the Future

In the hands of a techno-authoritarian, all the digital tools of liberation could easily become powerful tools of subtle coercion that might make society run more smoothly but wouldn’t make us more free or hold the powerful to account.

Digital technology is behind the slow unravelling of power and control in democracies. The obvious monster is Scylla – turbo-charged inequality and social breakdown. But in trying to avoid it, democracies could end up in the thrall of Charybdis, a digitally powered techno-authoritarian, and wind up with China and Russia undermining democracy in the name of order and harmony.

Infinite appetite for distractions

“…reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays….”

Brave New World is one hell of a book. I am so impressed with it, I barely know where to start. This book made me understand why people write fiction. Until now, fiction always seemed lyrical – and only accessible to those with a particularly creative rather than an analytical mind. For example, poetry always made more sense to me than fictional prose – because it doesn’t usually require one to conjure up things that have never happened, but rather seeing things that others mightn’t see in what did happen. Huxley strikes me as analytical – but well able to articulate his analysis through an elaborate metaphor that is Brave New World. The story line didn’t flow and felt contrived to me. However, the descriptions and the dialogue more than made up for it.

The book came out in 1931. Interestingly, it was banned in Ireland “for being anti-family and anti-religion.”

The beauty of the book is that we aren’t strongly drawn to side with one side over the other. While one side is infinitely more familiar and natural, the other eerily makes a lot of sense. Hence, it isn’t just a praise of our “old” values, but an insightful examination. I don’t know that Huxley meant it that way – but that’s how it reads to me today. Consider this, for example. Opposing the brave new world, we have John, a boy who grew up in a close-knit tribe and whose morals are deeply aligned with those of Shakespeare’s heroes. So far – so good. However, he had a troubled mother and grew up without a father. This clearly left a mark on him – and would never have happened in the brave new world. He also self-flagellates. Minutes after confessing his endless love to a woman, he violently disowns her – for wanting to have sex with him. He ultimately commits suicide. Not so good. John is implicitly compared to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, nearly all of them – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Romeo as he is pensive, ambitious, proud and impulsive.

While there are lots of insights to be derived from this book, I am not convinced of how new this brave new world really is. Is this regime really much different to what we have had before?

Most of all, for me, this book is a distilled vision of how human nature shows up when people are put into a very particular set of circumstances.

Brave New World meaning


The biggest highlight is Chapter 16. The Controller, the man who runs this new world, is a tyrannical yet highly intelligent and calm person. He is the one who makes the rules of the brave new world. He reveals how he made his decisions. Ironically, it reminds me of the last chapter of every Harry Potter book – where we always find out the real behind-the-scenes from Dumbledore.

/I really need to read more. But while we’re here, could the fact that Dumbledore’s first name is Albus be an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s first name – as J.K.R. took on some of the structure, (even though it’s not necessarily unique to Huxley)?/

What’s interesting is that, on a certain level, the arguments presented by the Controller seem both logical and humanitarian. Here are some highlights:

On the subjected of happiness versus grand feats:

“Civilisation has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism.These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organised society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic […] [In this society] People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. […] The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. […] you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist.”

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

On the subject of social order:

John asks: Why don’t you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus while you’re about it? For those who haven’t read the book, Alpha Double Plus is a genetically superior person who is educated (“conditioned” – and I believe that’s a fair word) to be aware of their individuality.

“We believe in happiness and stability. A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable. Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities… An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work – go mad, or start smashing things up.

Alphas can be completely socialised – but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.”

The Controller cites the Cyprus experiment, where Cyprus was cleared and populated with Alphas – resulting in civil war. While this is obviously not a real reason to substantiate Huxley’s assertion that a caste system – whether deliberate or not – makes society more stable, it shows that the Controller didn’t make this decision out of pure tyranny – but instead out of a rather unethical overuse of science. Yes, we usually say it is unethical to experiment on humans – at least in a social way, but perhaps it is also unethical to live in ignorance. Plus, in our real new world, it happens. Notably, Facebook experimented with our moods by adjusting our feeds – without letting us know, of course.

Brave New World philosophyOn the subject of the necessity of stupid work:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?”

… This reminds me terribly of the life of the graduate intake of a corporation. Soma, “a holiday from the facts”, is described as alcohol without a hangover – I think most people wished for that at some point. The feelies are terribly reminiscent of VR. Earlier on in the book there was a reference to conditioning people to love expensive outdoor sports (rather than simply loving nature – as this alone doesn’t generate economic activity). Fancy sports is also a corporate favourite. There are reasons why that is besides a Huxley-themed conspiracy theory, but it’s interesting to note.

Another (thought)-experiment to back this:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them… We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability.”

On the subject of the natural instinct to believe there is a god: 

“You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to.”

Indeed, the premise of effective “hypnopaedia” (repeating statements to children in their sleep for the purpose of teaching them) is that one doesn’t need to understand ethical statements to be able to use them (unlike science – where hypnopaedia fails). It seems that that’s true to me: groups of people tend to have similar values because everyone around them has those values. Most people’s values aren’t derived from first principles, they are adopted through repetition. There are, of course, many reasons for this, e.g. it is a survival strategy and the basis of any community, but… it’s still a dangerous instrument. A particular aspect of hypnopedia seems quite realistic: people are convinced that their caste (a proxy for position in life) is the happiest place they could be. While gratitude is a virtue, it has gotten quite compulsive these days, much like in the book. Every self-respecting Instagram user reminds us of it daily. Then again, before Instagram & co., we had other sources who told us to be grateful – they know who they are. The author also talked about god in Chapter 17, very elaborately with lots of references to philosophy. I don’t think I can dissect that even to the same standard as above. I did very much enjoy his look at Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son from King Lear. The Edmund of the brave new world would have been chilling with the ladies and “looking at the feelies” – not being killed off by the gods as in Shakespeare. Huxley’s argument that this mindless chilling is as good (as bad?) as death – it just depends what standard one holds themselves to.

brave new world analysis

On the subject of truth:

“I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger.” … We […] carefully limit the scope of researches. […] We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment.”

This applies today. The usual argument is economic necessity determines whether research should be carried out. Indeed, Huxley believes so too, but in a rather twisted way: he says that truth and beauty don’t lead to economic growth. Economic growth, however, is the ultimate value: the goal is to be a “happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen”. Brrr.

Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate… Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t… Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.”

Huxley also points out that there is real science – and then there are applications of that knowledge for the good of society – that may have little to do with the bona fide scientific method. Indeed, the fact that Ford is a god in the brave new world is scary. While in the real world, we don’t have a conveyor belt mania to the extent that Huxley feared, we have indeed sanctified phenomenally successful people. While countless people still look to god for guidance, we have seen humongous growth in these business school types (or just, types) who “study successful people.”

On the subject of love:

The indoctrination concerning love is particularly chilling. Perhaps the most likeable character, Helmholtz, who belongs in the brave new world explains what he thought of Romeo and Juliet:

The mother and father […] forcing the daughter to have some one she didn’t want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred!

It’s chilling because it’s not wrong. It is robotic. Helmholtz acknowledges that Shakespeare wrote in a way that provokes strong emotions and admired his craft, but Helmholtz wasn’t able for any empathy. Lenina, John’s romantic interest, however, seemed to have some real feelings for him. Her friends though thought that she was unwell.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman said:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

I think this has happened even during my own lifetime. Even among the most educated people I know, coming out with interest and knowledge in some obscure subject often provokes the question why do you know this?  Was your primary degree in X?  I am pretty certain that knowledge acquisition has lost a lot of its perceived value during my lifetime – now that we have Google. The deeper layer, of course, is that the process of acquiring knowledge yields much more than just the knowledge. At the same time, I wonder, has it ever been different? At the end of the day, if nobody wanted to read books or write down their thoughts, why is blogging such a big thing these days? I wonder if back when this book was written – writing – and especially reaching an audience – was primarily the province of those who had gone to Oxford and could afford to not have a day job?

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Welcome to social media. This, I think, is quite unique to our age. Furthermore, in the brave new world, people are never alone – leading to the distractions that perpetuate lack of insight.

Brave New World Revisited

Huxley later wrote in a non-fiction reflection of where the world is now in relation to his Brave New World that we “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Indeed, he even sees religion as part of this distraction:

“’The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”

As a concluding remark, if I could, I would definitely make this mainstream in schools. I know in some places it is, but not everywhere. 1984 is a much bigger deal in most places -perhaps as it served a political purpose. This book deserves more attention, I feel. Most school kids struggle to understand Hamlet and King Lear through generating their own insights, but I think they would be able to relate to this much more.

And Happy Christmas, of course.

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