Perspectives September 7, 2023
Four Books Exploring the Intersection of Technology, Democracy, and AI
The latest installment of our ongoing series features books that delve into the connection between technology and democracy, each providing a different perspective on the evolving relationship between the two—and its impacts—in our increasingly digital world.
We are in our artificial intelligence (AI) era, where the Pope wears a Moncler-style puffy cassock, Johnny Cash posthumously sings Barbie Girl, and few people can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake.
X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, is in its Elon Musk era, and even fewer people can decide if rumors about its demise are real or fake. What we know is that the platform, which has amplified the voices and needs of human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and democracy’s advocates for well over a decade, is more threatened than ever by the spread of misinformation and demands for censorship by authoritarian leaders. Musk’s platform isn’t alone in navigating these issues (Meta’s Facebook and Microsoft’s LinkedIn are similarly threatened), but he is rather unapo about it.
The era of internet fragmentation is, sadly, just beginning. Authoritarians are continuing to exert their control over the World Wide Web, blocking sites and platforms, throttling bandwidth, censoring content, and increasing surveillance.
These topics and more will be explored in the 2023 edition of our annual Freedom on the Net report (coming October 4). To prepare for the report’s release, we invite you to explore many of its themes through these four insightful books. Three of them are works of nonfiction that effectively document and examine technology’s oversized impact on democracy and fundamental rights. The fourth, a classic novel, imagines a future tug of war between machines and their human minders.
2017, Yale University Press
The internet, specifically social media, can be both a boon and a liability for movements based on free expression. However, authoritarians and their governments are learning how to successfully curb the medium’s capacity to democratize information.
Those are the broad strokes painted by author Zeynep Tufekci in her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Tufekci, a Turkish-American academic and journalist, uses examples of recent protest movements in Turkey, Egypt, and the United States to examine the promise and limitations of social media.
The promise: social media has the extraordinary power to scale these movements with minimal effort, giving leaders the ability to quickly amass large groups of supporters. The limitation: this rapid scaling often comes at the expense of both the leadership development and the supportive infrastructure that movements need to adapt, evolve, and negotiate as they mature.
Those challenges notwithstanding, Tufekci compellingly illustrates how these digital-forward protest movements have had a remarkable impact worldwide. In spite of onerous restrictions to internet and press freedom, groups in both Egypt and Turkey were able to organize and execute large-scale protests in the early 2010s. Yet, just as authoritarians have managed to exert control over more traditional forms of media in recent years, Tufekci explains how they are doing the same with digital platforms today.
Predictive analytics, process automation, and other emerging technologies play an increasingly important role in poverty management, promising streamlined processes and improved accessibility. But for many poor and working-class people in the United States, these tools function as a barrier to life-saving assistance.
From Indiana, where automation is denying life-saving medical treatment to the poor and marginalized, to California, where the unhoused encounter an unyielding algorithm between them and safe shelter, Virginia Eubanks documents how these tools evolved from facilitators to gatekeepers by substituting human discretion and empathy with 1s and 0s. While her book’s focus is trained on those vulnerable populations, Eubanks reminds us that they are only serving as the beta testers of this new technology.
“While welfare recipients, the unhoused, and poor families face the heaviest burdens of high-tech scrutiny, they aren’t the only ones affected by the growth of automated decision-making,” Eubanks writes. “The widespread use of these systems impacts the quality of democracy for us all.”
2019, Columbia Global Reports
In Speech Police, author David Kaye notes that the early internet was difficult to rein in: “As Bill Clinton famously said about China’s hope to control the internet, ‘Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.’”
In fairness to the former US president, the nascent internet of 2000 looks nothing like the internet of today, largely as a consequence of social media’s advent and rise. These new communications platforms may have been the logical next step toward the democratization of information, but they are also a force accelerator for harmful content and misinformation.
What’s more, the responsibility for regulating content—essentially, moderating speech—is shifting from governments to the platforms themselves, where decisions are heavily influenced by black box algorithms and profit-and-loss statements.
In his former role as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, Kaye has both witnessed and responded to these worrisome developments and trends, which he outlines in this information-packed primer on internet governance. Speech Police is built around the key questions of who polices online content, how they do so, and what this means for our individual and collective freedoms. Helpfully, Kaye offers solutions for how companies and governments can better ensure citizens’ rights to free speech and expression, while still honoring democratic norms and countering authoritarian pressure.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Player Piano
If a 71-year-old novel is featured in a blog on modern-day technology, chances are good it’s a prescient work of science fiction. So it goes with Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 debut novel that follows the reluctant protagonist Dr. Paul Proteus as he, his wife, and his colleagues navigate a post–World War III American society rebuilt around the concept of near-total automation. With machines performing most of the work, the meaningful and lucrative jobs belong to a small group of engineers and managers (including Proteus) who tend the machines and develop new ones. Everyone else is relegated to a life saturated with ennui, placated by salaries and resources just adequate enough to keep the peace.
Proteus, himself descended from a generation of privilege, begins to have second thoughts about the state of the world and his place within it. He must eventually decide between accepting an even more lucrative and dazzling job or fomenting a revolution against the machines.
No spoilers, of course.
Vonnegut’s automated future, built upon his sparse writing style, is something of a low-key dystopia. Machines are not vindictive, but dominant. People are adequately fed and employed, but segregated by income and purpose. Creativity doesn’t exist for its own sake, but as a means of fostering productivity.
With the present-day advent of ChatGPT and DALL-E—the merging of AI and liberal arts in the service of productivity—we’ve edged a step closer to Vonnegut’s vision. One hopes that vision is less prescient than it might seem.