AAs Marx might have said, a specter haunts the democracies of the world: the specter of technological power. For more than two decades, these democracies slept peacefully as a handful of global corporations gained a stranglehold on the most powerful communications technology since the invention of the printing press. The political earthquakes of 2016 rudely awakened these sleeping giants who suddenly realized that “technology was political”, that irresponsible power was loose in their world, and if they didn’t hold it back, they could find themselves as democracies in name only.
The years following this rude awakening saw a frenzy of legislative and regulatory activity: antitrust lawsuits, bills in the US, EU and UK (among others), congressional and parliamentary investigations , etc. Whether any of this leads to effective restraints on tech power remains to be seen, and this reviewer isn’t holding his breath. The question is not whether tech giants can be mastered: we know they can because Xi Jinping’s regime has held masterclasses in how to do it. The question for us is: can we liberal democracies do it?
All this to explain why Jamie Susskind’s big book is a welcome arrival on the scene. Its focus is unexplainable technological power and how it could be tamed. But unlike the many other works that criticize, for example, machine learning technology because of racial or gender bias or its environmental impact, Susskind raises the deeper question of why such powerful discriminatory technologies can be deployed. Why are democracies so intimidated by digital technology that almost anything goes?
He is struck, for example, by the way Joe Biden, when he was running for president, “started a petition ask Facebook to stop “paid misinformation” from influencing the election,” while on Capitol Hill, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi “plaintively asked advertisers to tell tech companies to curtail misinformation online.”
How did we get here – where public servants must advocate with businesses to protect the integrity of the democratic system? The answer is that for 50 years, liberal democracies have built a political system where the interests of corporations are systematically prioritized over those of citizens. The result is a world in which tech companies are allowed to wreak their “creative destruction” while government and civil society are expected to clean up the rubble, much like those Indian servants of the Raj who plodded after the elephants of ceremony have swept up their excrement.
The name Susskind gives to this servile mindset is “market individualism”, an ideology that sees society “as the product of a great contractual market between each of its members, a vehicle for the pursuit of individual advantage, without an overall pursuit of the common good”. This is what I would call neoliberalism, in the sense that Gary Gerstle uses it in his new book, The rise and fall of the neoliberal orderand Susskind no doubt had his own reasons for avoiding such an incendiary term.
But it’s a small downside. What matters is Susskind’s assertion that a society ruled by such an ideology can never bring the tech giants to heel. We need something better, and he knows what that is: a Republican mindset. Note the small r: this has nothing to do with the GOP, or even the IRA, but with a more venerable way of thinking about governance. To be a republican in this sense is, according to Susskind, to oppose all social structures that allow one social group to exercise inexplicable power (i.e. dominance) over others. Republicans “reject the institution of absolute monarchy, not just the flaws of certain kings. They fight for tenants’ rights, not just for more benevolent landlords. They demand legal protections at work, not just nicer bosses. And they oppose the very idea from someone with the power of Mark Zuckerberg, not Zuckerberg himself.
Susskind’s book is essentially an exposition of how anyone who subscribes to these principles would approach the task of curbing the power of the tech companies that now dominate our networked world. It begins with a succinct overview of how republicanism differs from market individualism and follows with a diagnosis of how digital technologies control our behavior, frame our perception of the world and increase the intrusions of markets in all aspects. of our lives. But he also points out that there is nothing divine about the political and economic system that allowed all of this to happen. It can – and should – be changed.
The rest of the book is about what we should do differently if we don’t want to live as slaves to technological power. It is about taking seriously the Republican principles of not tolerating irresponsible power, after which it presents a prospectus for a new system of Republican governance of industry. Accordingly, much of the second half of the book is about data governance, challenging the legitimacy of impenetrable machine learning algorithms, antitrust issues, the difference between free speech and algorithmic amplification, and related topics.
In other words, it may sound like a to-do list for political buffs, but Susskind’s gift for exposition means the reader rarely loses the will to live as he heads into the (extensive) bibliography. It also helps that he has a knack for the tell-tale phrase: the surveillance capitalists are the “Great Brotherhood,” for example; TikTok has “subtly marginalized unattractive and poor people”; we need “a market of ideals”; etc
But really, the most refreshing thing about this beautiful book is its ideological stance. The reason most current attempts to rein in technological power are doomed to failure is that its critics implicitly accept its legitimacy rather than be outraged by its arrogant brashness. It’s because they’ve been drinking neoliberal Kool-Aid for nearly half a century. Ideology, after all, is what determines how you think when you don’t know you think. It’s time to change, and The Digital Republic is a good starting point.
John Naughton is a columnist for Observer and chairs the advisory board of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at Cambridge University
The Digital Republic: Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century by Jamie Susskind is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply