Digital Society

Book review: ‘The Digital Republic’ by Jamie Susskind

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In his second book, barrister and author Jamie Susskind draws on the classical concept of republicanism to propose a framework for governing the technology that is reshaping every aspect of our lives.

By now, we are familiar with the weekly news stories about tech companies messing up; from algorithms that amplify hate speech to unscrupulous data-harvesting companies which seem impossible to halt. According to Jamie Susskind, these problems are the result of a systemic failure of governance.

In his first book, ‘Future Politics’, Susskind examined how political debate is being reshaped by the powerful digital systems that increasingly control our lives. With ‘The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century’ (Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781526625489, £25), he proposes a framework for governance better equipped for holding these powerful actors to account.

To do so, Susskind draws on the concept of republicanism – not as it is commonly discussed in the UK or the US, but in the classical sense of the word. To be a republican is to oppose social structures that enable groups to hold and exercise unaccountable power (domination) over others; not only kings and emperors, but tech executives too. So far, tech companies have existed in a culture of market individualism. This approach is insufficient, Susskind argues, because there are serious limits as to what individuals can to do protect their digital freedoms in the face of Big Tech companies that have come to hold unaccountable power.

This approach is by no means natural or inevitable, he continues, and should be set aside for a new model of governance – the digital republic. Under this system: “the law’s purpose should be to keep the awesome power of digital technology from escaping acceptable bounds of control, and to ensure that tech is not allowed (by design or by accident) to undermine the values of a free and democratic society”.

‘The Digital Republic’ is part of a larger shift in discussion about the social, economic, and political impacts of digital technology which asserts that self-regulation and ethical codes are insufficient for protecting human interest against Big Tech, and that only strong legal frameworks will protect us. However, it sets itself aside from many other books in this space by putting practical suggestions at its heart, rather than including them as something of an afterthought. Susskind’s proposals are refreshingly sensible and unsexy; they include new legal standards, codes of conduct for software engineers, and new regulatory bodies. He also proposes a larger role for ‘deliberative mini publics’, including assemblies convened by companies to work through complex value-based problems.

‘The Digital Republic’ might have been more impactful as a shorter text in the form of the philosophical essays it resembles (fewer than 200 pages, such that most people could read it in a single sitting). However, it is never baggy or overlong; it is a practical and well-argued book which lawmakers, the tech industry and ordinary citizens could all benefit from reading.

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