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A Wake-Up Call

Manipulative technologies, products of a digital dystopia, could destroy ideological strengths even in advanced democracies.

The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett is an intriguing revelation because of the harsh reality of modern technocracy and its impact. Going through the initial pages, I came across this interesting observation, "Democracy is analogue rather than digital. And any vision of the future that runs contrary to the reality of people's lives and wishes can only end in disaster." Bartlett says he is referring to western democracies, but many of his observations resonate with the Indian context.

The book is a quick, light read with a dark message. It talks about the dangers posed by so much of data controlling our lives and how the mighty technology behemoths, having full access to this data (as the saying goes, Google knows much more about you than you know about yourself), try to influence the way we think and react. The author argues that the people behind these companies have the power to shape the future of any democracy sitting in their large corporate offices. Unless we go back to the six key pillars of democracy - active citizens, shared culture, free elections, stakeholder equality, competitive and civic freedom, and trust in sovereign authority - we are headed for the apocalypse. In other words, "the machinery of democracy" could be obliterated by data-driven, machine-nudged systems because, "at a deep level these two grand systems - technology and democracy - are locked in a bitter conflict. They are products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles," writes Bartlett.

If we look at these conditions in the Indian context, the picture is not rosy. We have had our fair share of Big Data companies working with political parties (Cambridge Analytica's association with them has already hit the headlines) and using social media platforms to dish out political messages that might help certain ideologies to flourish. And the more you read or watch, the more you get served. The divide is quite evident in the discourse around us. In fact, it is so extreme that people who believe in remaining objective have no place to express their opinions. We have also seen election narratives being shaped by WhatsApp 'forwards' and Twitter trends.

Of course, the Internet penetration in India is low compared to other democracies, but our political awareness is quite high, and people here have nurtured democracy for more than seven decades. Although we live in a society that thrives on relationships and not too transactional in nature, the all-pervading social media is adding a new dimension to this complex, humanised ecosystem. At one end, we do not like to trust whatever is dished out of those platforms, but at the same time, we believe in a 'forward' or a message shared by a neighbour or a friend. It is an irony of sorts, but in spite of knowing that data-driven social media tools are manipulating us, we allow them to do so. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a vast number of people from all over the world left Facebook, but in India, the impact was negligible. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is much stronger here than that of FOMP (fear of my privacy).

Another interesting point made by Bartlett is that artificial intelligence and automation are creating a new work segment dominated by the wealthy and the tech-savvy. Baring a few jobs requiring a lot of manual labour, most of the current jobs, held by the middle classes, will disappear. It will result in inequality and ultimately harm democracy.

What the future holds cannot be predicted. But for a healthy democracy to survive, we need to be more aware of our surroundings and our rights and responsibilities as citizens. We should judge political parties and political leaders based on the impact of their work on our lives, our society, and our nation instead of falling victim to the propaganda machinery. People Vs Tech is a must-read for everyone who has direct or indirect responsibility towards democracy and civil society.

The reviewer is a political communication consultant and founder of WarRoom Strategies