You, The Product

The internet was meant to set us free, author Jamie Bartlett argues in The People vs Tech, while technology is currently winning the battle against democracy in a struggle between two incompatible systems. So, how can we turn that around before it is too late, he asks?

Democracy theorists from Aristotle onwards have realized the importance of healthy and independent citizen-led bodies – charities, conservation groups, sports teams and so on – that are neither business nor government. (…) Alexis de Tocqueville (…) wrote in Democracy in America that private associations are ‘school for democracy’. Autocrats and dictators – who read more about democratic theory than democrats – always dismantle independent civic society, including those that have nothing to do with politics.

In a short but effective book, the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank Demos, focuses on how technology changed the way we live our lives pointing out that while the middle class has been eroded, both sovereign authority and civil society are weakened as we are losing our critical thinking abilities.

The central argument of the book is that there are six key pillars that make democracy works:

1. Active citizens: “Alert, independent-mided citizens who are capable of making important moral judgements.”

2. A shared culture: “A democratic culture which rests on a commonly agreed reality, a shared identity and a spirit of compromise.”

3. Free elections: ” Elections that are free, fair and trusted.”

4. Stakeholder equality: “Manageable levels of equality, including a sizeable middle class.”

5. Competitive economy and civic freedom: “A competitive economy and an indipendent civil society.”

6. Trust in authority: “A sovereign authority that can enforce the people’s will, but remains trustworthy and accountable to them.”



The risk of a failure in such a system means to end up living in a panopticon, in that sort of self-proclaimed global Facebook community, which is a contradiction in terms, he points out, “as a community is always local.”

Therefore, unless we alter this course, the writer goes, democracy will join feudalism, supreme monarchies and communism in the graveyard of the failed political experiments. In other words:

Rapid technological change can empower, liberate and enrich us, but only if it is subject to powerful democratic systems which have the authority and power to act – but are also accountable to people and the public interest.

Hence, he suggests some ideas which can help to save democracy by focusing on both a personal level and a government level. With regard to the former, for example, Bartlett suggests to:

1. Think in the long-term as what seems to be helpful in the short-term will enfeeble you;

2. Plan your time online and have switch-off periods to gain concentration and focus;

3. Contribute to create a new ethic where the attention economy is replaced by an economy of human values;

4. Listen more than blame others and look for additional sources of information to critically evaluate;

5. Be aware of the ad model on which algorithms are created.

Regarding the latter, he stresses-out that:

6. As times change, it is important to create new ways of wealth distribution and social security;

7. Enforcement on minimum wages in the gig economy is derisory and need to be toughened up as workers, helped by governments, have to stand-up together to defend their rights;

8. Economy has to be competitive to contribute creating an independent society;

9. Artificial intelligence must not become a proprietary operating system owned;

10. New technologies like blockchain and new currencies like bitcoin have to be regulated as to better citizens’ safety and tax collection for the common good.

Find out more here.

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