Ma­nip­u­la­tive tech­nol­ogy just the lat­est threat to democ­racy, our hu­man­ity

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - ED­I­TOR'S NOTES

BE­YOND BE­ING FILLED WITH real fake news and ma­nip­u­la­tive ef­forts, some more bla­tant that oth­ers, the In­ter­net is gen­er­ally a fairly hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for po­lit­i­cal and other forms of so­cial in­ter­course. The anonymity of the tech­nol­ogy made it so long be­fore the in­trigues of wide­spread Rus­sian med­dling, so­cial me­dia pro­pa­ganda and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare tech­niques.

As in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers, most of us are gen­er­ally po­lite. We don’t in­ten­tion­ally do great harm to those around us. We might be in­dif­fer­ent to those we en­counter, but we’re not of­ten hos­tile in per­son. Col­lec­tively, how­ever, we’re ca­pa­ble of some un­think­able things.

That’s very ev­i­dent on­line, where the dis­course can be hate­ful, and of­ten is.

As a whole, we’ve con­trived a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tem that in essence en­cour­ages us to be self­ish and not to take into con­sid­er­a­tion what we can do for each other as a com­mu­nity – to forego our hu­man­ity. The po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tems we live un­der are both man­made con­structs. We de­vised them, and they’ve evolved into some­thing that no longer meets the needs of the ma­jor­ity of us.

We’re all some­what com­plicit in a sys­tem that we’ve al­lowed to be hi­jacked by a small group who make the most gains, the very group that bought and paid for politi­cians ever ea­ger to de­stroy our rights while bol­ster­ing po­lice-state pow­ers that they hope will en­sure their con­tin­ued grip on power – a model that’s played out through his­tory’s worst dic­ta­tors and their de­scen­dants at the helm to­day.

Only the most naive still ad­here to the no­tion that our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment – our democ­racy – is based on the con­sent of the gov­erned. Gov­ern­ment poli­cies that run con­trary to the pub­lic in­ter­est – an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of its ac­tions – surely are the op­po­site of what we’d con­sent to. Who is re­spon­si­ble for that? Cer­tainly those who’ve ben­e­fited have fos­tered an un­end­ing pro­pa­ganda cam­paign that’s been every bit as ef­fec­tive in sweep­ing aside cit­i­zen­ship as the cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing has been in turn­ing us into con­sumers. We’ve hap­pily ab­di­cated power and re­spon­si­bil­ity for the com­forts of our lives. Ex­cuses about be­ing busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the dis­trac­tions, and can’t even be both­ered to show up at the vot­ing booth for five min­utes every four years. As a re­sult, we’ve got the gov­ern­ment we de­serve, one that acts against our in­ter­ests and against the com­mon good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into con­sumerism and the ideal of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism while en­joy­ing the fruits of what years of com­mu­nity-minded spirit and poli­cies brought us.

To­day, it’s our dif­fer­ences that politi­cians and those pulling their strings play on. It’s a di­vide-and­con­quer strat­egy. In the short-term, politi­cians buy votes with prom­ises (most of which will be bro­ken), tai­lored poli­cies and bou­tique tax cred­its. That these moves have drained gov­ern­ment cof­fers and helped erode the na­tional ethos is sec­ondary to their only goal: re­tain power at all costs.

The same sell-out men­tal­ity and short-term re­elec­tion strat­egy is on dis­play at Queen’s Park, where profli­gacy and con­flat­ing pub­lic sec­tor de­mands with the pub­lic in­ter­est is the norm – the op­po­site is true, as the goals of that spe­cial in­ter­est group erode the pub­lic good.

But that’s a global trend, as gov­ern­ments and the cor­po­rate state be­come more au­thor­i­tar­ian, us­ing tech­nol­ogy to bol­ster their po­si­tion and weaken democ­racy.

Such is the the­sis of Yale his­to­rian Ti­mothy Sny­der, who stud­ies to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes, in his lat­est book, The Road to Un­free­dom: Rus­sia, Europe and Amer­ica. In it, he looks at how on­line pro­pa­ganda in par­tic­u­lar is be­ing used by au­thor­i­tar­i­ans do­mes­ti­cally and abroad.

“As seen by what’s on Twit­ter [faked pro­files, robot driven shares] I think that more and more the in­ter­net is a realm where hu­mans are in the mi­nor­ity and they’re get­ting over­whelmed,” he says in a re­cent in­ter­view. “There was this old idea in science fic­tion about ... not just in science fic­tion, the Tur­ing Test in com­puter science. When are com­put­ers go­ing to ac­tu­ally be ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent? The test was, ‘will they be able to per­suade us that they’re hu­man?’ What’s ac­tu­ally hap­pened is it’s not that the com­put­ers are com­pet­ing with us to be more hu­man, it’s that the com­put­ers are mak­ing us less hu­man. That’s how they’re win­ning. They’re break­ing us down into lit­tle pieces so that we’re less hu­man and more tribal, and more an­gry and more emo­tional. That’s the way this com­pe­ti­tion is ac­tu­ally shak­ing down.”

The In­ter­net and other tech­nol­ogy is be­ing used to ma­nip­u­late us by break­ing things down in small pieces and tasks, the way ma­chines do, rather than as an aid to our hu­man­ity. And that’s be­ing done by a few to ben­e­fit not the many, but the few – the same ones do­ing the ma­nip­u­lat­ing.

The long game is to pro­mote self-in­ter­est ahead of all else, a course that not only al­lows for ever-grasp­ing power to go unchecked – why should we care what’s hap­pen­ing when the TV is on? – but keeps us iso­lated lest we ever com­pare notes. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that one of the first steps taken by gov­ern­ments ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any push­back from the pub­lic is to im­ple­ment con­trols over how and where peo­ple may get to­gether as a group.

Di­vided and dis­tracted, we are con­quered. And we’re re­peat­edly told it’s a dog-eat-dog world, so we’ve got to get ours be­fore some­one else grabs it, as if life is a zero-sum game. It’s not, of course. You find­ing hap­pi­ness in life in no way di­min­ishes my hap­pi­ness, or your neigh­bour’s ... or any­one else’s, for that mat­ter.

There are, how­ever, some un­der­ly­ing el­e­ments to our shared hu­man­ity – there’s that word again – that

“Pope Fran­cis is clearly un­com­fort­able with this idea of God as the Eter­nal Tor­turer ...” Gwynne Dyer | 6

make it much eas­ier for each of us to find that hap­pi­ness. It’s that foun­da­tion that’s crum­bling from the on­slaught of cor­po­ratism, poor gov­er­nance and se­cu­rity para­noia we’re see­ing in ever-grow­ing abun­dance. That’s in­ten­tional, and a big threat to our way of life, an­a­lysts such as Sny­der ar­gue.

“We’re never go­ing to have a democ­racy that way. We’re never go­ing to have the rule of law that way. We’re not go­ing to have happy pop­u­la­tions that way. When peo­ple end up vot­ing be­cause they’re mo­ti­vated by mes­sages that are false, that means that they’re ba­si­cally un­happy be­cause A) their vote can­not lead to a pro­duc­tive re­sult be­cause they’re vot­ing in un­re­al­ity; and B) they then have to come up with hu­man rea­sons to ex­plain why they did this thing, even if the rea­son why they did it, the cause wasn’t hu­man. Then they use their hu­man in­tel­li­gence to ra­tio­nal­ize what they did be­fore. That also makes them un­happy, and it makes other peo­ple un­happy as well,” he says.

What we need is an open, par­tic­i­pa­tory sys­tem, just the op­po­site of what is be­ing built to­day, prin­ci­pally through the worst el­e­ments of the on­line world. The lack of trans­parency is a real dan­ger.

“That’s one of the things that the Greeks had right. They thought that democ­racy was pub­lic. Democ­racy is pub­lic. If we all end up sit­ting in our base­ments lik­ing and un­lik­ing [things on­line], we’re def­i­nitely not go­ing to have democ­racy.”

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