This book was recommended to me by Amir, and to be honest at the end of it I don’t know entirely whether to thank him or throw the book at him (in the literal sense). Not because it’s not good and fascinating, but because it is, at points, so troubling and concerning. It concerns the effect of technology on the foundations of our society and life: particularly democracy, as well as the things that underpin it: the rule of law, a not-entirely-unequal society, and meaningful work.
I feel that Bartlett’s book is strongest when it is looking at elections & politics: even though it’s been covered much more since the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum, his analysis and investigation into micro-targeting and what it means for the future is fascinating and insightful. Aside from the revelation that there were Facebook employees embedded in the Trump campaign (and I’m guessing the Clinton one too), it was the prospect of a personalised targeting of political views, buttressed by algorithmic choices, and peppered with untruths (because who’s going to hold every single micro-targeted piece to account?) that stayed with me.
Other aspects felt more familiar: the potential for AI / automation to hollow out the middle-classes, leaving us with a bar-bell economy of stark inequality – but this doesn’t feel like his comfort zone, and the universal basic income sections pale in depth next to Utopia for Realists, for example. I also thought there might be more on ownership of platforms, representation of gig economy workers, and on the positive aspects of technology and democracy (for example, the ability to build and create and mobilise movements).
Nevertheless, it’s an enlightening and interesting read, even if the author often feels more optimistic in outlook personally than his own arguments. This becomes evident with his positive actions for bolstering democracy that we can all take: a welcome breath of practical ideas that can strengthen civil society in an age in which we consistently feel like we are being out-paced by change. Monitor your screen time, delve outside your echo chamber, use non-usual sites for the usual things, don’t click the thing that’s recommended….and then you’ll think less about the killer drone coming over the hill, vaporising itself after its work is done.