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Jamie Bartlett: 'every click and swipe builds the machine'

Jamie Bartlett

Jamie Bartlett  

Tech blogger Jamie Bartlett shares the mechanics of his latest book ‘People Vs Tech’ and how it’s a mirror of a near dystopia

If the name Jamie Bartlett sounds familiar to you, it’s probably for two reasons: one being the excitement building around his third and latest book The People Vs Tech, and the second being his popular two-part documentary Secrets of Silicon Valley in which a poster of India’s Congress Party made a sly appearance, making the whole film viral across the country.

Book cover

Book cover  

Speaking over the phone, London-based Jamie, the tech-blogger, who is a director for Centre for the Analysis of Social Media for think tank Demos and whose work frequents The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times, extrapolates the ongoing troubles of emerging technologies post-Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s scandal, and how that draws a timely parallel with his book, whose starkly minimal cover in black and white mirrors the jarring truths in its pages.

“Anytime you write a technology book,” he starts, “You’re constantly worried that things are moving so fast that your book is obsolete before it’s even published. And in a strange way, this Cambridge Analytica story is an example of how quickly things have changed. The struggle you end up having is trying to make it ‘big picture and broad’ while being topical without getting outdated six weeks before being published.” When the collective focus of masses is continually shifting, whether it’s to do with unemployment, conflict or something newer, Jamie found that no one was really putting all these issues under one title with a comprehensive narrative, showing how they’re all related. “We have one set of laws and regulations and systems we’ve built up of how democracy should work in an analogue age before the Internet. The Internet turned up, which shows a completely different way of organising information, and at the core, the two things are clashing with each other with constant tension. In the book I’m trying to explain, this isn’t just about Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk going teeth to teeth with an eagle investor, but more about the underlying goings-on, beyond these people.”

Facebook’s naivete

Jamie Bartlett: 'every click and swipe builds the machine'

So while dealing with the various themes of software wars across democracies, the Cambridge Analytica crisis has had millions of people dropping off Facebook. But what are Jamie’s thoughts and how does he see the company’s stance in the scandal of data harvesting? “I think Facebook has been slightly surprised themselves about everything,” he ponders, “I’m not sure that they expected all of this; they were probably quite naive in thinking ‘oh, we’re just a cool tech company, connecting people – what could possibly go wrong?’ It’s because they’re such firm believers in just being a free service that offers connectivity that is such an obvious universal good that ‘we don’t really need to worry about consequences.’ So they were slightly naive about the extent to which they would be held responsible for the consequences of what they’ve built. It’s an adolescent attitude to the world, which a lot of these companies have; a lot of people are still young; literally adolescents. I’m not trying to excuse those companies but am trying to explain how and why the situation is how it is.”

So the debate, which comes up a lot in The People Vs Tech, umbrellas itself over the netizens’ responsibilities largely too. Do we need government intervention or less tech and smarter people? With machines emerging more powerful in our day to day lives, Jamie sheds light on the way people need to be more conscious of the influences bearing down upon them, adding, “Surely, we will start outsourcing our moral responsibilities as citizens, who should think for ourselves, to machines. We’ll lose the habit of being thoughtful and actively moral agents, and that gets a bigger risk the smarter machines become. I really do think that in coming years, we will be able to ask machines for the morally right thing to do in any circumstance.” He references India’s own voter app where people often look to an algorithm to assist them in voting — a move he considered brilliant five years ago but now considers it to be a concern.

Alternate realities?

Jamie Bartlett: 'every click and swipe builds the machine'

All this does make a reader feel a sense of heaviness, as one does when watching Black Mirror, a show Jamie chuckles about when looking at the comparison with the dystopian science-fiction subcultures. “In the UK, saying something is like Black Mirror has become one of the most popular sayings,” he explains, “It’s interesting because science-fiction is a much more valuable predictor than futurology or academic study. The show has done more to get people thinking about technology than all the serious books I’ve read about it. There are several things that have happened in Black Mirror that have subsequently come true so in a weird way was like the show on purpose, sort of the near future and dystopia we can reach without realising. So trying to mirror that style based on research and reality.”

So what does Jamie hope for Indian readers, who live right in the crux of data privacy debates and other technological uproars, to take away from The People Vs Tech? He puts it quite simply, “The recognition that we have all been complicit in creating the problem about which we are worried; we have built the algorithms through things we’ve shared and we’ve traded consistently convenience for ethics, without really thinking about the consequences. Every click, swipe and interaction is building the machine, so you need to take great care and thought with everything you do online. The book is a call to people to be more sceptical and discerning of what’s happening online. Governments and regulators must see the existential crisis around the mortality of democracy.”

The People Vs Tech (Penguin India) releases in India on April 19

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This article has been corrected for a factual error.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2020 3:08:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/author-jamie-bartlett-the-people-vs-tech-book-interview-2018-facebook-internet-democracy/article23433824.ece

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