Book of the Week: The People vs. Tech

24 Apr|Jamie Bartlett

A plan of the panopticon, as envisaged by Jeremy Bentham

Social media, big data and smartphone addiction are killing democracy, writes Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, in his new book The People vs. Tech. In it, he offers timely and bold advice for taking back control of our political lives in the digital age.

Back in 1890, in a landmark – and still highly relevant – article for the Harvard Business Review, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (who would both later become Supreme Court Justices) questioned whether the arrival of the camera would put citizens at risk from constant surveillance. They realised that new technology often shifts delicate social norms, and therefore new laws are sometimes needed to keep up. The intensity and complexity of the early nineteenth century, thought Warren and Brandeis, meant that ‘solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual’. They argued that citizens needed a right ‘to be let alone’.

Since then, the legal right of privacy has been enshrined in law and various measures put in place to protect citizens from both the overbearing state and unscrupulous companies, both of whom have reason to invade our private sphere. Without privacy laws – which vary greatly in force from country to country – we would today live in a world of total surveillance at all times. In countries where such laws don’t exist, I fear it’s almost certain that wearable tech, ‘smart homes’ and AI will create unprecedented levels of government surveillance and control. This is not only a worry in oligarchies or autocracies. In free societies we’re never ‘let alone’ either; the data gold rush has opened up new forms of potential surveillance from democratic governments, too, and most civil liberty groups worry what that means for legitimate political debate and activism. I, like many others, read with increasing alarm stories of people being arrested and prosecuted for saying things that are offensive and nasty, but no worse. In some cases intelligence agencies don’t need to spy on you anymore; they can simply go to the technology companies and prise out of them what they need.

Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched

There is another more subtle threat from Little Brother’s constant surveillance and data sharing. Back in the eighteenth century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a new type of prison, which he called a ‘panopticon’. It was designed so that all the inmates could potentially be observed by a single watchman – without any knowledge of when they were being watched. The possibility alone was enough, thought Bentham, to ensure that everyone behaved. 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. It might not feel like that when people are screaming abuse on Twitter – but for every angry troll there are hundreds of quiet users, lurkers who watch but don’t post, for fear of the angry Twitter mob, the data collectors, a nosy employer or the hordes of professional offence-takers who shark around the net waiting to be upset.

This is damaging to the citizen’s ability to exercise moral judgement in their lives. Developing the faculties to think for oneself requires that people say controversial things, make mistakes and learn from them. But social media creates a strange form of performative politics, where we all act out certain roles and acceptable public responses (this idea is bad! This person is good!), which limits the room for genuine personal growth. For example, the ability to forget is an important part of self- development, because changing one’s mind is how we are able to mature and grow. As an increasing number of people – both famous and not – have found to their cost, digital technology never forgets. Sometimes that has the benefit of uncovering powerful people’s motives and prejudices. But when one idiotic remark made on a forum when you were young and ill-informed exists forever, and can be dug up and republished exactly as it was, more and more people will conclude it is safer just to never say anything. This is not a good environment for the development of healthy, thinking adults.

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