Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech
Oxford University Press, $27.95 (cloth)
When we consider the future that technological change will bring about, it is tempting to envision a world taken over by robots, where the singularity has given way to superintelligent agents and human extinction. This is the image of our future we have grown accustomed to seeing in cinematic depictions, but it is not the future that British barrister Jamie Susskind wants us to worry about. Instead, in Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, Susskind focuses on how digital technologies control human life rather than eliminate it.
We must upgrade the political theory canon for the tech age.
All digital systems, after all, have their origin in code, and code, Susskind contends, does not merely direct the actions of machines or algorithmic platforms, it also directs our behavior and thought. For example, code can force us to do things we would not otherwise do. A self-driving car engineered to operate below the speed limit ensures its users obey the law. Code can also scrutinize our choices and persuade us to change our behavior. A smart fridge that monitors our eating habits, shaming our guilty pleasures, might lead us to abandon our late-night snacking routine. And code, of course, can shape our perception of the world. Search engines and algorithmic newsfeeds control the flow of information, determining what we see and know.
Susskind’s remarkably comprehensive book explores the challenges new digital technologies create, asking what the power and potential of digital systems means for human liberty, democracy, justice, and politics. Most importantly, he argues that the political ideas we have held for centuries are ill-equipped to respond to the challenges posed by current and future technological innovations. As such, we must upgrade the political theory canon for the tech age.
And we ought not delay. From Russian hackers’ successful penetration of major social media platforms ahead of the 2016 election to greater awareness of addictive product design and newfound privacy concerns in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, tech anxiety has become mainstream in the last couple of years. There is a growing sense that today’s tech behemoths have created technologies that even they cannot control—let alone the state or individual users.
The problems tech forces us to confront do not concern the innovations themselves, but how those innovations reflect and perpetuate the injustices of the human world.
This has emboldened the “technology run amok” narrative. But Susskind’s intervention is to note that recent events should force us to look in the mirror instead. Susskind observes that while today’s technological innovations have the capacity to learn on their own, they primarily learn to learn from the humans who design and use them. Facial recognition software accustomed to viewing white faces invalidated an Asian man’s passport photo because it believed his eyes were closed, for example. Similarly, Google at one point autocompleted the search query “why do gay guys…” with “why do gay guys have weird voices?” “Lurking behind all the technology,” Susskind writes, “most algorithmic injustice can actually be traced back to the actions and decisions of people.”
In other words, many of the problems tech forces us to confront do not concern the innovations themselves, but how those innovations reflect back to us and perpetuate the injustices of our own human world. “At its heart,” Susskind writes, “this is not a book about technology. . . . It is a book about people. Many of the problems referred to in these pages, past and future, can be attributed to the choices of individuals. . . . These aren’t problems with technology. They’re problems with us.” Responding to Russian election meddling through digital advertisements, former president Barack Obama made a similar argument. He warned that “our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is.”
In this sense, what sets apart today’s technological developments from those of prior eras is not necessarily their pace of innovation or their integration into our daily lives, but their unique capacity to amplify the bad behavior and choices of humans. Through this important observation, Susskind seizes the terrain that still belongs—and can only belong—to humans. “The digital lifeworld will demand more of us all,” Susskind argues. “From the shiniest CEO to the most junior programmer, those who work in tech will assume a role of particular influence.”
Some individuals who work in tech are already sensitive to this growing responsibility. Google employees recently wrote their CEO to condemn “Dragonfly,” a project that would create a search engine to censor whatever content the Chinese government demands. Some Silicon Valley employees have reportedly asked themselves, “What have we done?” But other revelations are less comforting. Following Trump’s travel ban, for example, Google employees considered ways to modify search functions, leading users to donation pages for pro-immigration organizations and setting up a forum for users to contact lawmakers and government agencies. While such actions may comport with a worldview and political impulse shared by many (including my own), the fact that a single company—and its employees—have such concentrated influence undeniably presents a new challenge for our democracy. The power private tech companies wield over our public and private lives represents an increasingly precarious arrangement.
The perception of tech-as-civic-actor obscures which political and economic outcomes originate from flawed business strategies and which are inherent components of technological innovations.
Susskind’s book concerns how we should think about this new reality, not what we should do about it. “This is a book about principles and ideas. It isn’t intended to offer specific regulatory proposals,” he concedes. But in order to formulate the policy actions needed to confront the challenges posed by today’s technological innovations, Susskind argues that we must begin to understand that “the digital is political.” The major debate of our time is no longer “about how much of our collective life should be determined by the state and what should be left to market forces and civil society.” Instead, the question we must grapple with is “how much of our collective life should be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems—and on what terms.”
Because tech companies affect our political systems, sense of justice, and economic lives, Susskind argues that our current regulatory and antitrust regimes are ill-equipped to sufficiently monitor tech’s power. We need new and bold regulatory proposals because, as Susskind says, “some of the power accruing to tech firms . . . is so extraordinary that it rivals or exceeds the power of any corporate entity of the past.” We need an alternative to antitrust, for example, because “its regulatory domain is structured by reference to markets, not forms of power.” With tech’s reach extending beyond the economic realm, the relationship between technology companies and those who use their products no longer constitutes a traditional relationship between consumer and company. Susskind pleads, “We have to stop seeing [technology] just as consumers.” This will be a tall task, he warns, since, “big tech companies will characterize themselves first and foremost as corporate entities pursuing private profit.”
But this is far from the image that tech companies have worked hard to create for themselves. Indeed, Susskind underappreciates how, in many ways, today’s tech behemoths enjoy portraying themselves as playing an indispensable civic role. Mark Zuckerberg has described Facebook as “more like a government than a traditional company” and has said, “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.” Airbnb’s head of policy argues that the platform is “democratizing capitalism” and has said it provides a new resource for the middle class. Responding to New York City’s recent cap on ride-hailing services, Lyft’s vice president of policy stated, “These sweeping cuts to transportation will bring New Yorkers back to an era of struggling to get a ride, particularly for communities of color and in the outer boroughs.”
Disrupting our political and economic lives seems to be an inherent part of today's innovations, but it is also the tack tech companies have taken in their quest for profits.
Each of these statements enjoys a kernel of truth, but the civic role tech companies have carved out seems to have obscured which political and economic outcomes originate from their flawed business strategies and which are inherent components of their technological innovations. Indeed, I would argue that it is this perception of tech-as-civic-actor that has largely insulated tech companies from greater scrutiny thus far. The gig economy, for example, depicts itself as a flexible and empowering way to “get your side hustle on.” But underpaying and under-protecting their users-cum-workers is not inherently part of their technology; it is part of their business model—a model that has evaded greater responsibility towards its independent contractor workforce by posing as a social safety net for workers left behind by the global economy. Similarly, in an attempt to sustain users’ attention, YouTube's autoplay function leads viewers to extremist video content knowing such content will keep users glued to their screens. The deleterious impact this has on civic discourse is a result of a business model that trades user attention for advertising dollars and not the inevitable result of using an algorithm to filter and curate content on the video platform.
So while acknowledging that “the digital is political” might be an important step in reining in tech’s power, we might go too far by buying into the concept of tech companies as non-traditional economic actors. Disrupting our political and economic lives often seems to be an inherent part of the innovations put forward by today’s leading tech companies, but it is also simply the tack tech companies have taken in their quest for profits. While the ability of today’s tech to exert control over our behavior and thought is cause for concern, digital technologies have, in many ways, simply enabled new ways of doing old things, from running political campaigns to organizing protests to driving taxis. Human history is one long story of adapting to this kind of disruptive change, and it is premature to say what will or won’t work when it comes to managing our current period of transition. But as Susskind reminds us, “we have more control over [the future] than we realize.”