Book review: ‘Future Politics’ by Jamie Susskind

Living together in a world transformed by technology

The world isn’t short of political controversies, and even if not all of them are rooted in the alleged abuse of technology, it’s tech that’s almost always responsible for keeping them going. Even ignoring the pervasive influence of social media, politics is just one of the areas where rapid and relentless developments in everything from artificial intelligence to virtual reality are changing society in ways that were not widely anticipated even a few years ago.

At the heart of these changes is the fundamental issue of how the great political debate of previous ages – the extent to which collective life should be determined by the state and what should be left to the market – is turning into a question of achieving a balance between liberty and decisions made by powerful digital systems.

How should we feel, for example, about the ability of governments to force drivers to stick to speed limits by implementing restrictions on self-driving cars rather than relying on them to obey laws? And what if systems can be adapted so that instead of offering faster journeys on toll roads, those who can afford it can pay for their vehicles to simply drive faster?

In ‘Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech’ (Oxford University Press, £20, ISBN 9780198825616), Jamie Susskind comes at this from the direction of political science, which he believes already offers answers to many questions that will be new to the tech pioneers who are enabling and controlling digital platforms.

‘Future Politics’ is a call for nothing less than a fundamental change in response to what he believes is a worrying trend for influence to be delegated to a tiny group of tech pioneers who could potentially set the limits of our liberty, decreeing what we may do and what is forbidden, often based on opaque algorithms. As Tim Berners-Lee has put it, these people aren’t experimental philosophers, they’re ‘philosophical engineers’.

The consequences could make the industrial revolution look like a minor blip in comparison, not least as machines become as good as or better than humans at some tasks and become embedded in daily life so seamlessly that we won’t even be aware of it. With big data techniques allowing more and more activity to be monitored, captured and quantified, there’s a risk of subjugation without us even noticing it.

Susskind neatly sums up why this book isn’t aimed purely at scientists on one hand and political theorists on the other by evoking the possibly apocryphal story of an encounter between Michael Faraday and the Victorian statesman William Gladstone. Failing to understand Faraday’s explanation of his groundbreaking work on electricity, Gladstone asked in exasperation, “What use is it?” “Why, sir,” an equally frustrated Faraday replied, “there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it.”

This book, he says, is for modern-day Gladstones and Faradays, but mostly it’s for members of the public who need to be reminded that technology increasingly affects us not just as consumers, as it has done in the past, but as citizens of our country and the world.

‘Future Politics’ challenges readers to rethink what it means to be free or equal, what it means to have power or property, what it means for a political system to be just or democratic, and proposes ways in which we can – and must – regain control. This is no less than a call for a fundamental change in the way we think about politics.

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