Technology has made some wonderful advances, it looks like we will fairly soon have self driving cars, just tell it where you want to go and it will take you there. Your fridge will know when things were bought and when they are likely to go off, it may also give you dietary advice. You might have a personal assistant on your desk listening to your every word you say and controlling your connected home, remembering all of your appointments so you don’t have to and answering any question you ask it. There are many technologies which are ‘just around the corner’ so the next few years could see some interesting changes.
So how is it that with all the incredible advances in technology we have today and with increasing automation the rewards have not been spread more evenly ?
It seems to me that there is something very wrong about how technology is benefiting the world today. There is also a fundamental threat to democracy which few people seem to be aware of.
It is said that we have entered a new ‘Information Age’ but the information economy seems to be about endless austerity, jobless recoveries, lack of social mobility, and intense concentration of wealth and power for the few whilst most people struggle to make ends meet.
One of the principles of the information age seems to be the spread of free information and services. For example social media, Wikipedia, free software, free ‘Cloud’ storage (which is just your data stored on someone else’s server), free online education and many variations of the above.
Most people would think that this is a good thing. It spreads the power of information to the many. Control of this information has passed out of the hands of a few elites and into the hands of anyone who cares to download it.
But there is a problem. There are consequences which nobody seems to have anticipated.
Revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica came as a shock to many people but this should be a wake up call! I think that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that Cambridge Analytica was not unique among companies.
The actual problem runs far deeper and this is just one example of a struggle which is going on between technology and democracy. There are some benefits to free stuff online but this has blinded us to the fundamental ways technology is eroding our democracies.
A typical server, many racks each containing many computers all linked together.
A server is a group of computers linked together to perform a particular function. The computers in a server are linked to a network and provide services to other computers on that network. Computer programs can be split up to run on many computers in parallel and get results much faster than if the program was running on just one computer. A server may consist of a few tens of computers up to many thousands of computers.
All the servers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites in anonymous buildings and have lots of security. Because they are very valuable.
When people share information freely, those who own the biggest and fastest servers benefit in ways that ordinary people can’t even imagine let alone emulate. Companies with large servers can simply calculate wealth and power out of free information.
While the free and open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the biggest servers to such an extreme that it is weakening democracy. The uses to which some of this data is put is also weakening democracy, I’m talking about micro-targeting here.
It doesn’t matter if the servers run social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines. What they are all doing in the background is remarkably similar.
All these servers gather data about people and then process that data to find out all they can about the people the data is about. This data might include emails and tweets or social media likes and sharing, private documents on ‘cloud’ storage, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers. There are no limits to the snooping.
All these sites (apart from the national intelligence agencies) need a ‘hook’ something to entice people into this asymmetrical information relationship.
The hook might be free Internet services or music, or easy-to-get mortgages. But there is a price to be paid for these ‘free’ services.
Ordinary people are the sole providers of the information that makes the big servers so powerful and valuable, and ordinary people do get some benefit for providing their data.
They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world, like reputation and access to barter. The real monetary benefits are given to those who own the servers.
More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-takes-all economy. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful.
In most cases there was no evil plot, it is just a result of human nature. Many of the people who own the servers are genuinely nice people. But a lot of the people who use the data they harvest have their own agendas. And the people who have wealth and power want what almost all people with wealth and power want … more wealth and more power.
In a world of free information, the economy will shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.
The threats to democracy come from the uses to which the data is put.
Our democracies evolved for an analogue age and they developed alongside institutions which support them like a free press and citizens who all have access to the same information. There are rules to follow like the secret ballot and expenditure limits. These institutions and rules keep the whole thing fair and equitable.
But in the past few years things have changed drastically and things are still changing. Most people don’t realise how much things have changed already.
Digital technology works by a different set of rules to those which evolved alongside democracy. It is de-centralised and difficult to control and it is improving at an incredible rate.
Western democracies have rules to make sure that all their voters have access to the same set of information for an election. The statements which a candidate makes are on the whole accurate because they know that if they make a false statement this will be picked up by news organisations and the media and they will be found out. Issues are debated in the media with representations being made from both sides of each argument.
But now we have ‘Big Data’ and micro targeted messaging and the rules which ensure free and fair elections don’t apply anymore.
Using Big Data analysis servers can build up very accurate and detailed psychological profiles of millions of individuals and politicians who pay for the services of companies like Cambridge Analytica can target each one of them with a highly personalised message. They can exploit our psychological vulnerabilities and prejudices on a vast scale and in a way that no regulator has access to.
It is out with the old shared frame of reference against which new information can be judged and in with millions of private frames of reference which may or may not bear any resemblance to the shared frame of reference.
How can we hope to hold politicians to account for their statements if everyone gets a different message and nobody knows what anyone else was told?
But it gets even worse.
Facebook have algorithms which can build up a very accurate psychological profile from what seems like innocent, unconnected and irrelevant pieces of information. The original purpose of these algorithms was to give you more content that you like in order to keep you on the Facebook website longer and therefore expose you to more targeted advertising.
But it didn’t stop there when Facebook amassed all this data about its users the next question was “How can we make more money out of all this data?”
It isn’t just Facebook who are tracking their users, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are doing much the same thing along with a host of other companies and national security agencies of many countries.
The more data they get about you the more accurate their psychological profile becomes, they can make predictions about your political and religious beliefs, how likely you are to take risks, how introverted or extrovert you are and many other aspects of your character which you might not have wanted to share with others.
Pretty soon your car will know about every journey you take, where you started from, where you went to and what time you set off and arrived, your fridge will know everything about your diet and if you like to buy the yellow label discount items from the supermarket and your personal assistant will know how you feel because of your tone of voice and all this information about you will be correlated and cross referenced against all the other sources of information about you.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All this information will reveal more than you ever wanted to share with the rest of the world. In such a world as I describe there will be no such thing as privacy.
You will be constantly bombarded with messages based on all this information and that will open up a whole new level of manipulation targeted at you personally.
But there is another aspect to this which is fracturing society. In the social media realm we create our own reality which alienates us from one another. This is a result of the algorithms whose purpose it is to keep us hooked to Facebook and other social media platforms.
Democracies need informed citizens who all have access to the same shared base of information but in the social media realm we create our own reality. Social media gives us more of what we want so if we ‘like’ a post with a particular political leaning the AI on the server takes note and makes it more likely that we will see more posts from that particular political leaning in order to keep us looking at the social media platform longer and be exposed to more targeted advertising.
On social media we create our own reality, our own mix of opinion, information, misinformation, real news and fake news. This creates our own bubble in which we only see what we want to see and only hear the views of those people who agree with us.
This is making people more angry and more extreme in their views and it makes it much less likely that we will compromise with each other.
In the end there will only be one winner in the struggle. Either technology will destroy democracy and the existing social order will be destroyed or the current political system will exert its authority and control over the digital revolution.
As things stand at the moment technology is winning and unless things change dramatically democracy will be washed away just like communism, feudalism and absolute monarchies have been.
It will be regarded as a system which persisted for a while but could not adapt to the new technology.
If democracy is washed away what would replace it ?
I think it will be authoritarianism, but not like anything which has gone before !
Corporatocracy. Huge multinational corporations too big to fail will dominate the global landscape and a very few people in the world will, and already do, hold the vast majority of wealth and power.
Their wealth and influence being the key to influence global politics to favour their own needs. They will have and feel no responsibility to the rest of humanity.
Big business has already had such a tight grip on politics that for a long time now people have just accepted that you can’t budge big business and that the worker is in no position to fight back or negotiate.
They monitor us with advanced technology and have built a consumer society which seeps into our cultural psyche. We slowly, through globalisation, will become homogenous until all there are only two classes. The consumer, alienated and kept down by the exploiting classes and the capitalist, who demands a homogenous class of downtrodden and subdued consumers to keep themselves rich, and who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing !
Even now the ruling elites are plotting behind the backs of millions to set up trade deals and line their own pockets and have been doing so since the rise of neoliberalism – oligarchs are pulling the strings of our ‘democratic’ nations. In effect, these past few decades have simply been a restoration of power back to private industry and history is once again repeating itself. Over and over again it is the same struggle between humanity (the working people), and the ruling elites.
In such a world ruled by big business they would probably keep governments and elections just to keep a sham of democracy but government would be under the control of big business. Corporate interests, profits, growth, and returns would come before all else !