Future Politics by Jamie Susskind

The Blurb On The Back:

Politics in the twentieth century was dominated by a single question:

how much of our collective life should be determined by the state, and what should be left to the market and civil society?

Now the debate is different:

to what extent should our lives be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems – and on what terms?

Digital technologies – from artificial intelligence to blockchain, from robotics to virtual reality – are transforming the way we live together.  Those who control the most powerful technologies are increasingly able to control the rest of us.  As time goes on, these powerful entities – usually big tech firms and the state – will set the limit of our liberty, decreeing what may be done and what is forbidden.  Their algorithms will determine vital questions of social justice.  In their hands, democracy will flourish or decay.

A landmark work of political theory, Future Politics challenges readers to rethink what it means to be free or equal, what it means to have power or property, and what it means for a political system to be just or democratic.  In a time of rapid and relentless changes, it is a book about how we can – and must – regain control. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Jamie Susskind is an author, speaker and barrister and in this accessible, thought-provoking and timely book (that has comprehensive footnotes) he sets out the threats and benefits that rapidly advancing technology bring to the political arena and what it means for democracy and society but while the book is strong on explaining the political theory and technology and the issues and options they throw up, it’s light on solutions.

If you follow politics and tech in the news, then you’ll be familiar with many of the examples covered here (e.g. Facebook’s algorithms and impact on the US Presidential election in 2016) although I enjoyed how Susskind combines the two.  Also, while Susskind includes some academic wonkery with his terminology (an inevitable consequence of including all the political theory), for the most part it’s easy for non-academics to follow and I understood his points.  The book is divided into 6 sections, with each section building on or linking to the ideas expressed in the previous section.

Part I looks at what Susskind (unnecessarily) terms The Digital Life World, setting out and exploring technological development and extrapolating from that to identify potential issues.  I found this section a really useful summary of where we are, what technology is being used to do and where those uses could go in the future.

Part II moves on to looking at power and the different ways in which technology can be used to exercise force, perform scrutiny or control perception.  Particularly interesting was the section on perception control but I wished that there had been a bit more depth here – especially given that China’s WeChat monitoring gets a mention, the social credit scheme (which does get mentioned previously) doesn’t get explored much, even though some cities are proposing to use it to control access to services.

Part III examines liberty and specifically law enforcement, which I found one of the most interesting – and also the most frightening – section of the book.  This is partly because I thought the way Susskind weaves the political theory in with the technological capabilities (most notably on The Harm Principle).

In Part IV the focus is on the future of democracy, which sees Susskind examine what he terms Direct Democracy, Deliberative Democracy, Wiki Democracy, Data Democracy and AI Democracy.  Again, I found this a fascinating read (notwithstanding the redundant terminology) as Susskind sets out what each involves and how each could be managed, although I would have liked to have seen some more analysis about how each could be hacked and manipulated – essentially the security behind each method of democracy is kind of taken as read and I’m not convinced that it should have been.

Part V hones in on technology and social justice, which for me is the meat of the book in terms of modern concerns about income disparity, concentration of power and misuse and abuse of privilege.  If you’re left of centre, many of the arguments and principles surrounding social justice will be familiar to you (and writers such as Piketty get name-checked) and as someone of that political bent anyway, I found a lot of this resonated with me and I therefore really engaged with the examples Susskind gives of how injustice can be perpetrated or rectified.

The book concludes with Part VI in which Susskind riffs on the ideas of greater transparency and separation of powers to counter the power of tech to influence our lives.  Some of this is interesting (notably his suggestion of an FDA for algorithms) and there is hope given the EU’s willingness to counter competition and act against the tech giants and the fact that it seems that tech monopolies may well figure on the policy agenda for the 2020 US presidential elections. However I felt that there was insufficient consideration here of the way in which tech companies themselves campaign and lobby against action that could be taken against them and indeed, use some of the techniques set out in the book to help lobby against proposed changes (e.g. Google’s campaign against the 2019 EU new IP directives, which it actively claimed would prohibit memes and limit creativity – a campaign that was seen everywhere on social media and Facebook).

Ultimately – and notwithstanding my criticisms – I did find this to be an engrossing read and one that sets out many of the issues that society as a whole needs to consider with regard to the changes generated by technology and technology companies.  As such, I think anyone with a passing interest in the subject would do well to check this out this book and I will definitely be reading more of Susskind’s work.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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