Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791.Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.
The net has the potential to revolutionize democracy with an informed citizenry empowered to deliberate and decide on key issues. Yet current trends strengthen anti-democratic forces. In addition to concerns over privacy, there is an urgent need to address how the public realm is being hollowed out by corporate interests and advertisers. The ideal of democracy presupposes a shared public sphere in which citizens can construct, debate and decide on collective projects. This requires access to quality information and while the net has certainly increased the quantity of information available, its reliability is debatable. This is compounded by the fact a few key players, such as Facebook and Google, now act as powerful gatekeepers to who sees what.
The traditional news media is in terminal decline and the online world increasingly dominated by a few large conglomerates. Established papers, such as the Telegraph, debase their content and engage in corrupt deals to protect revenues, blurring the line between editorial and advertising. Outlets such as the MailOnline chase readers with soft porn, celebrity gossip and sensationalist stories invented or stolen (their preferred word is “aggregated”) from other sites. Large content farms specialise in ‘churnalism’, selling readers directly to advertisers on demand in real-time. There is plenty of ‘comment’, but fewer trained journalists with the skills and resources to follow stories of incompetence and corruption, most worryingly at the level of local government.
There is also the phenomenon of ‘filter bubbles’, which describes how tracking technologies usher us into cultural and political ghettoes by monitoring what our online preferences are and feeding us more of the same. As a result, we get lots of what we ‘like’ and little of what we need with even Google search pointing us to information that echoes back our own biases. The tendency to immediate gratification and on-demand viewing mitigates against a deliberative political culture. The accountability made possible by the net is often of the trivial, superficial sort (as with Emily Thornberry MP’s resignation from cabinet for tweeting a picture of a van), while the major deceptions (over the NHS, foreign wars, tax havens) have not resulted in anyone being held to account. At a time when the technology exists for radical new forms of decentralised democracy, the Westminster system looks even more sclerotic and indefensible.
Evgeny Morozov, one of the most interesting commentators on Silicon Valley, has warned that big data is being used to dispense with politics itself, substituting ideological conflict about law and policy with a technocratic approach based on the micro-management of individual behavior. The data-driven utopia of Silicon Valley treats free markets as a background structure beyond contestation and sees the solution to social ills in terms of the optimal distribution of relevant information and incentives (‘nudges’). ‘Algorithmic regulation’, Morozov warns, ‘will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots’.
If we are to strengthen democratic control, a new approach is needed. How can we secure a deliberative political culture that empowers citizens, especially marginal voices? How can the net support positive rights of political participation? How can we integrate technology to extend popular control over decision-making into new spheres? We invite reflection on these questions.
There is a huge chasm between the utopian world of abundance and free-time that technological improvements make possible and the grinding future of scarcity and hard work that the current epoch of capitalism has prepared for us.
The explosion in automation and technological capability has taken place during a period of huge unemployment, a decline in wages and the cutting back of social provision. Artificial Intelligence, drones, driverless cars, 3D printers and other innovations have the potential to replace much of the work currently done by humans. This is either a threat or an opportunity depending on whether work is organised hierarchically for profit or in a democratic fashion to support human flourishing.
In contrast to exuberant predictions about a networked ‘knowledge‘ economy, the reality of most work in the UK is not like this. In many areas, the net has only enhanced our exploitation. Many of the jobs created in the digital age are of the dull, menial sort, whether it be assembling parts in an Apple factory or robot-like ‘picking’ in an Amazon warehouse. The net has contributed to a ‘flexible’ culture of insecurity and zero hours with the smart phone keeping us permanently tethered to the workplace. Now human resources departments hope to exploit the big data bosses have on their workers, mining calendars and inboxes to predict employee behaviour and engineer the exact routines to craft ‘high performing’ employees.
As the sociologist Will Davies notes, the earlier age of industrial production at least had a clear demarcation between rest and leisure, whereas we are now always switched on, dragged away from each moment by the urge to capture and compare it as the full-time under-labourers of advertisers. The booming industry of retreats and gurus that has arisen in response suggests we are not entirely relaxed about these developments. The practice of mindfulness is apparently popular among those at the forefront of tech-driven predatory capitalism. In Buddhism, mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of universal empathy and kindness and yet today it has been secularised and co-opted to help capitalism sustain its productivity.
What protections are needed against surveillance in the workplace? Do we need a right to ‘switch off’? Or perhaps automation demands a bolder vision along the lines of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ called for by techno-utopian radicals?
The net offers opportunities to create and enjoy culture like never before, yet this openness and creativity risks being undone by corporate monopolists backed by bullying states. Alongside legislative campaigns for powers of censorship and punitive sanctions for file-sharers, corporations have sought, through Digital Rights Management, to usher us into gated worlds, selling us ‘tethered’ devices, like Kindles, and the exclusive products that go with them. They then harvest our information to market us more products.
There is a strong argument that the cultural resources made available online should be treated as a global cultural ‘commons’ that supports the self-development of the individual and the artistic and intellectual development of human society at large. As it stands, human development and creativity is being held back.
For example, much of human knowledge is locked up behind paywalls controlled by multi-national publishing conglomerates that have bought up the rights to academic journals and charge eye-watering fees for access. The majority of this research is publicly funded and relies on the free labour of academics. Society is denied the benefits of scientific and cultural discovery that would result from liberating this work. And in another sign of the tech-state nexus, law enforcement officers are acting as aggressive enforcers. In the US, the coder and activist Aaron Swartz was harassed to the point of suicide by the federal government after he downloaded too many journals from JSTOR. In the US, the coder and activist Aaron Swartz was harassed to the point of suicide by the federal government after he downloaded too many journals from JSTOR. The current monopoly system risks being entrenched by the new TTIP agreement between the EU and the US that would potentially allow companies to take governments to court if new laws hurt their profit lines.
There is no reason to treat earlier regimes of property rights as sacrosanct given the possibilities offered by free and open cultural access. An example of just how quickly earlier pieties can crumble is offered by John Naughton who discusses our predicament by analogy with a Supreme Court ruling in the US in the 1940‘s that ushered in the era of mass aviation. Landowners had complained to the Court about planes flying over their fields, appealing to a conception of property rights that said they owned all the air space above their plot of land stretching into the heavens. At one stroke, the Court made redundant this centuries-old paradigm of property on the basis of the strong interest society had in aviation without the cost and complexity of compensating every individual landowner.
Is it time for a new conception of cultural rights? So, how can we broaden access and participation, while ensuring artists, musicians, directors, academics and other cultural producers are adequately compensated for their work? How useful is the concept of a global online commons and what would it entail?
Underlying these political and legal challenges are a set of profound questions about what the internet is doing to our sense of selves, our relationships and our experience of the world. It appears to be affecting our ability to focus and process and store information, with large parts of our memory now outsourced to our devices. When it comes to friendship, we have more 'connections' but are they of more questionable quality? Under the new paradigm of advertising, you are the brand, and you and your friends are the audience. When it comes to friendship, we have more 'connections' but are they of more questionable quality? Under the new paradigm of advertising, you are the brand, and you and your friends are the audience.
The digital world is encroaching ever-more into the domains of our lives with its underlying logic of profit-seeking. We are steered to behave in routine and predictable ways the better to mould us into reliable consumers with the rise of the ‘quantifiable self’ that calculates every life experience in a cold, hard metric through devices like the Apple watch. Take the new market trend in exercise and healthy living. A run must no longer be a mere pleasurable gallivant in the fresh air, but a competitive exercise in number-crunching with distance, speed, time, calories, and other stats recorded and share online. After the run, we might be offered a new pair of trainers to buy to make us faster next time.
Perhaps our modern condition is best described as a low level gnawing discomfort like background static. It is the sense that something somewhere has to be checked and updated. The logic of this is not to enhance human connection. Indeed, there is much evidence that suggests we are becoming more anxious and alienated. The instrumentalisation of everything comes at a cost. Fundamentally, it is our desire for human connection and participation that is being exploited, but as it stands this impulse is being harnessed for the enrichment of tax-dodging tech giants. Fundamentally, it is our desire for human connection and participation that is being exploited, but as it stands this impulse is being harnessed for the enrichment of tax-dodging tech giants.
Children especially need special protection from a commercial cultural that can seriously consider a creepy new ‘eavesdropping’ Barbie that feeds children’s conversations to The Cloud. Children are more vulnerable to cyber-bullying, which reflects the wider toxic culture of sexist, racist and homophobic bullying on the internet. Perhaps we need to re-assert the concept of ‘play’, to denote a protected space for totally unregulated and spontaneous bouts of fun as an end in itself.
There are also signs of human compassion and altruism online, as with new tools that allow rapid mobilization in response to natural disasters. There are online projects that offer a compelling vision of what can be achieved when human co-operation is harnessed in a participatory fashion around non-market principles. This is the case with projects such as Wikipedia and the open source software movement, which scholars have analysed as ‘commons-based peer production’.
It is notable however that recent years have seen this open and co-operative spirit monetised, with volunteer-based networks like Couchshare, based around trust and giving, being overtaken by AirBnB – an outfit that converts its users into small-scale landlords and capitalists with the firm’s private equity owners making a killing.
There is a great deal of convenience to this new tech, but whose interests does it serve? And what type of human being is being created? What protections are needed for especially vulnerable groups, like children? What are the types of online project that deserve to be further and how can this be achieved?
Are rights the right tool?
It has been suggested that with the net we are seeing the acceleration of a new type of society based on forms of power that the traditional liberal paradigms of rights is ill-equipped to deal with. A more comprehensive view of power is needed across the field of social relations, it is argued, as found in Foucault’s account of a disciplinary society.
According to this view, the liberal idea of a rationally purposive right-holder who is sovereign over their sphere of freedom is misleading. The rights-based view is said to see power merely as an external force, arising from state institutions, to be checked and constrained. It therefore cannot account for power relations in a panoptical society in which our thoughts, feelings and actions are all closely monitored.
Here, power operates through the normalizing gaze of the prison guard: it is not a mere external restraint on our conduct but has a productive role in shaping our inner world and identity to make us obedient and manageable. Power operates through the normalizing gaze of the prison guard: it is not a mere external restraint on our conduct but has a productive role in shaping our inner world and identity to make us obedient and manageable. Under this picture, human freedom is threatened not so much by the crushing boot of 1984’s Big Brother, but the passive intoxication of a Brave New World. A set of formal legal rights against intrusion from the state may provide no more than an illusion of freedom that glosses over the pervasive relations of domination that shape our choices and identities.
Certainly, it is true that whereas the discourse of rights serves us well as a defensive language against abuses, it is less useful when it comes to imagining the kinds of institution and structure that support the technological infrastructure we want to see. Here, more than rights, a set of guiding principles is needed to counterpose to the reigning ideals of ‘security’, ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’. Alternative ideals, perhaps, such as democracy, health and environmental sustainability? This means seeing the net not as a purely private domain of sociability and consumption, to be kept free from state snooping; but rather as a terrain of political struggle with a profound impact on the character of society at large.
Here, the language of rights does not establish the content of the system. Instead, it comes to define the equal access that citizens - and eventually all human beings - have to an online world that exists to secure and promote the common good, as defined by digital citizens themselves.
What kind of principles should guide the development of the net? Is this discourse of individual rights a sufficient defence against new types of power? If not, what kind of alternative ethics is needed? These are some of the questions we will be addressing.
This article is part of the Great Charter Convention series.