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Book review: ‘The People Vs. Tech’ by Jamie Bartlett

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Jamie Bartlett’s book covers familiar territory, but its scope, coherence and measured tone make it well worth reading.

Criticism of technology predates the internet, computers and other digital technologies. Since 2016, however, tech criticism has gained a new urgency and new converts, including many former Silicon Valley insiders. Alarming stories about troll factories, fake news, social media addiction and technological employment are rarely out of the news.

In The People Vs. Tech (Penguin, £8.99, ISBN 9781524744373) Bartlett - head of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos - does not uncover any momentous new threats posed by digital technologies. Instead, he does an admirable job of tying together a handful of much-discussed problems and arguing that they undermine the fabric of society and, in turn, kill democracy.

Bartlett begins by defining six ‘pillars’ of democracy: active citizens, a shared culture, free elections, stakeholder equality, a competitive economy and civic freedom, and trust in authority. He then goes on to explain how each in turn is being eroded by digital technologies, which are advancing faster than humans can handle.

Anyone who reads the news will be familiar with the issues that Bartlett explores. Technological unemployment – and the inequality it amplifies – has been a fear for well over a century. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke earlier this year, we cannot fail to be aware of how the dodgy collection of personal data from social networks enables highly targeted and influential political ads.

Much of Bartlett’s writing still feels fresh, however. In a chapter about political polarisation, he leapfrogs the zeitgeisty issue of fake news and instead takes aim at the far larger problem of “re-tribalisation”. While acknowledging that the internet has allowed some supportive communities to form, he argues that communities are - for the most part - being fragmented by these hostile groups (which, incidentally, are found all across the political spectrum).

“Online, anyone can find any type of community they wish (or invent their own) and with it thousands of like-minded people with whom they can mobilise,” he writes. “Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’. I’m calling it re-tribalisation.”

“Tribalism is understandable, but ultimately it is damaging to democracy, because it has the effect of magnifying the small differences between us and transforming them into enormous, unsurpassable gulfs,” he adds.

Unlike many other tech critical writers, Bartlett is not a doomsayer. He acknowledges that there is no easy fix for the problems he describes and instead offers a range of realistic suggestions for individuals, tech companies and governments for helping protect the fabric of society against erosion by the internet.

Despite the well-trodden subjects it examines, The People Vs. Tech is a worthwhile read. No earths have been shattered, but this is a fair, sincere and well-informed book that creates a coherent narrative from the mass of tech-related fears we now hear about in the news every day.

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