When fridges tell you off for be­ing un­healthy … how lib­erty and jus­tice are be­ing en­dan­gered by tech

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Rafael Behr

Is it pos­si­ble to have mild tyranny? It sounds like an oxy­moron, and cer­tainly not the kind of thing cit­i­zens in a democ­racy might choose. But when you con­sider the re­la­tion­ship many of us have with tech­nol­ogy there is some­thing gen­tly tyran­ni­cal in­volved. In the­ory we are free to aban­don our com­puter screens, at lib­erty not to check our phones. In prac­tice we are en­snared in dig­i­tal net­works for most of our wak­ing hours (and longer, for those with smart watches that mon­i­tor sleep).

In sub­mis­sion to de­vices, we sur­ren­der vast quan­ti­ties of per­sonal data. Some­where in the in­for­ma­tion har­vested by pow­er­ful tech com­pa­nies – Ama­zon, Ap­ple, Face­book and Google – there is a re­li­able ac­count of where you are, where you are go­ing and who you will see. With a bit of al­go­rith­mic ex­trap­o­la­tion, it is pos­si­ble also to pre­dict how you feel.

This knowl­edge goes be­yond any mon­i­tor­ing ap­pa­ra­tus es­tab­lished by an au­thor­i­tar­ian state. Jamie Susskind writes about a new era of mass “scrutabil­ity”, a de­gree of pen­e­tra­tion into our pri­vate realms more pro­found than old-fash­ioned sur­veil­lance. And we sign up for it. We tick the box con­firm­ing we have read the terms and con­di­tions, al­though, of course, we haven’t, be­cause the im­me­di­ate util­ity out­weighs any ab­stract cost. Susskind de­fines this as the “data deal” – a new form of so­cial con­tract, in­suf­fi­ciently un­der­stood by most who en­ter into it, that en­trenches an im­bal­ance of power be­tween the givers of in­for­ma­tion and those who ben­e­fit from it. He quotes the le­gal scholar Tim Wu: “Con­sumers on the whole seem con­tent to bear a lit­tle to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism for con­ve­nience.”

If Fu­ture Pol­i­tics fo­cused only on the power of tech gi­ants it would be a use­ful book cover­ing fa­mil­iar ground. But Susskind’s am­bi­tion is far greater. His sub­ject is the full spec­trum of dis­rup­tion to the way hu­mans have or­gan­ised them­selves since an­tiq­uity. It is an at­tempt to dis­as­sem­ble the fun­da­men­tal con­cepts that un­der­pin po­lit­i­cal life – jus­tice, lib­erty, democ­racy, equal­ity, prop­erty – and put them back to­gether in the con­text of a tech-driven rev­o­lu­tion. At the very least, it is an im­pres­sive feat of in­tel­lec­tual or­gan­i­sa­tion.

That a rev­o­lu­tion is hap­pen­ing is be­yond doubt. The first chap­ter de­scribes the de­gree to which dig­i­tal sys­tems of in­creas­ing ca­pa­bil­ity – quasi-in­tel­li­gent by Jamie Susskind, Ox­ford, £20 and au­ton­o­mous – are in­te­grated into our lives. Ama­zon’s Alexa, the ro­botic as­sis­tant that has al­ready in­vei­gled her way into mil­lions of house­holds, is barely the start. Our fridges will soon be or­der­ing our gro­ceries. Our cars will drive us around – or con­ceiv­ably refuse to go where they have been pro­grammed to think we should not be go­ing.

Susskind calls this seam­less fu­sion of tech­nol­ogy and the ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment our “dig­i­tal life­world”, from the Ger­man Lebenswelt. Hav­ing demon­strated the scale of the so­cial trans­for­ma­tion un­der way, he steps right back to de­fine a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work for un­der­stand­ing the po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. He in­ter­ro­gates what it means for one per­son or en­tity to have power over an­other and con­cludes that it is “a sta­ble and wide-rang­ing ca­pac­ity to get oth­ers to do things of sig­nif­i­cance that they would not other­wise do, or not to do things they might other­wise have done”. This might sound ob­vi­ous, but it is a nec­es­sary preface to the sys­tem­atic ex­plo­ration of dif­fer­ent ways in which po­lit­i­cal power is frag­mented through the dig­i­tal net­work, ap­plied force­fully or per­sua­sively, con­spic­u­ously or in­vis­i­bly, with or with­out con­sent. How do you know if your vot­ing be­hav­iour has been in­flu­enced by a cam­paign fed with data skimmed from Face­book? Or, look­ing into the fu­ture, how much lee­way should your ro­bot sur­geon have in mak­ing life-and-death de­ci­sions while you are un­con­scious, un­der the scalpel?

Susskind’s metic­u­lous method owes some­thing, per­haps, to his back­ground as a bar­ris­ter, de­ter­mined to as­sem­ble a wa­ter­tight case. The rigour pays off be­cause it ex­poses the con­cep­tual mag­ni­tude of the change fac­ing politi­cians and cit­i­zens. No as­pect of pub­lic or pri­vate life will be undis­turbed by sys­tems that are evolv­ing faster than most peo­ple re­alise, and writ­ten in codes that very few can de­ci­pher. The era is fore­see­able when life-chang­ing de­ci­sions, such as le­gal judg­ments, med­i­cal di­ag­noses, hir­ing and fir­ing, are rou­tinely made by in­tel­li­gent ma­chines op­er­at­ing to in­struc­tions writ­ten by other ma­chines with no hu­man pro­gram­ming in­put. Where in that chain does po­lit­i­cal ac­count­abil­ity lie?

The the­ory is mer­ci­fully leav­ened with self­dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour. The au­thor has a reper­toire of cul­tural ref­er­ences, quotes and a knack for il­lus­tra­tion of what would other­wise be arid philo­soph­i­cal quan­daries: the ethics of a bossy fridge that re­bukes its owner for its un­healthy con­tents; the dig­i­tal night­club door that turns away peo­ple deemed too un­ap­peal­ing by its face-recognition soft­ware. With­out the colour­ful in­ter­ludes Fu­ture Pol­i­tics would be a harder book to read, but still an im­por­tant one. It doesn’t con­tain many pre­scrip­tions. Susskind re­cuses him­self from the task of de­vis­ing reg­u­la­tions for the “dig­i­tal life­world”. Who can blame him? It is mind-bog­gling enough just to con­tem­plate the vast­ness of the chal­lenge. To have writ­ten it all down so lu­cidly, en­gag­ingly and suc­cinctly is a for­mi­da­ble achieve­ment.

To buy Fu­ture Pol­i­tics for £17.60 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Fu­ture Pol­i­tics: Liv­ing To­gether in a World Trans­formed by Tech

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