Technology is not damaging Democracy

Few days ago, James Harding delivered Hugh Cudlipp lecture. Mr. Harding was BBC boss for around five years. So when he delivers a lecture, it carries a weight. It carries a weight because of who it can reach to.

Link here: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/mar/22/james-hardings-hugh-cudlipp-lecture-in-full

He summed up the lecture at the beginning – “the damage technology is doing to democracy.” He cannot be more wrong.

Here’s why.

On August 18, 1933, Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech on his thoughts on Radio.

He said:

“It goes without saying that the National Socialist revolution, which is modern and intent on action, as well as the popular upheaval we have led, must change abstract and lifeless methods in the radio.”

Having read extensively about German propaganda, it is indisputable that Radio was used to manipulate people and further the agenda of the people who controlled it. In 1930s Germany’s instance, it was the Nazis. We do not complain about good old radio, because in many places, it has gone politically irrelevant.

Daniel Kahneman, in his book, “Thinking fast and slow,” states that “The reliance on the

heuristic caused predictable biases (systematic errors) in their predictions.” Ultimately, all of data, algorithm, micro-targeting and the like will rely only on our individual bias.

In the lecture, James Harding has four distinct points (or if I may call, charges) against technology. Those are battle for attention, filter bubbles, exploitation of data and virality aka clickbait.

It is argued that to get the attention of masses, because technology has exponentially increased the available information and surrounding noise, politicians are showy and shrill. Recent examples of Trump, Modi and the like may make us think that this is true. But is it? They are showy and shrill because people, many people like ‘showy and shrill’ politicians. Good oration and rhetoric are valuable weapons in a politician’s arsenal. On the other hand, the same technology which supposedly ‘enabled’ these ‘shrill and showy’ politicians are realising that substance matters and not bluster. That the approval rating of Trump is down can also be attributed to technology and fence sitters who supported Modi virulently are slowly realising the follies. (There will always be core supporters of any argument or issue or opinion or political party. They must not be considered in the argument because, they are beyond impact of technology.) If this is the case, can we attribute the reversal in trend to technology as well?

On filter bubbles, he states that algorithms do not feed opposing opinions or a balanced point of view. It begs the question, what is balanced point of view? Is there a print media or agency or television network which can be called as ‘balanced’? This cannot be. Because, the media house, inevitably is made of group of people, who, like everyone of us have their own biases. These biases manifest in the form of opinion pieces. No media house presents ‘for’ and ‘against’ argument for each of it’s opinion. If a person continuously watches one particular news channel or reads one particular newspaper, he/she will be reinforced with the same message. To the credit of algorithms, they can atleast be changed or discarded. Can human biases be discarded?

On exploitation of data, it is stated that data is abused for political ends. It is hardly surprising. Cambridge Analytica may not be the only example of abuse of data. Neither Facebook nor Google. A form of data was always available to people who sought it. Yes, the scale has become larger, storage easier and processing much easier. However, a quantum jump of data availability doesn’t guarantee an outcome. Ask Ted Cruz, who used Cambridge Analytica as well.

On virality aka clickbait, it is stated that Trump campaign “posted provocative content that created buzz, drove likes and shares, that went viral,” thereby attracting more people. Provocation has been used since time immemorial by any leader. How different is today’s technology promoting a Trump Wall, different from Reagan’s “Tear down this wall”? Of the entire speech that Reagan made, we remember only this. Not because of it being any voice of reason, but because of it being provocative.

But the scariest part is his advocacy of regulation of internet. To quote him, “Let’s not underestimate the power of the state. If it wants to require companies to behave in the public interest and sustain our system of democracy, it can.” Anyone who loves freedom must realise that in the history of man, the state has been the biggest abuser of freedom expression, under one pretext or the other. Whether it is Catholic Church, with its “Index Librorum Prohibitorum” or Soviet Russia or Joe McCarthy, the state has always been the biggest enemy of freedom of speech.

Just because James Harding doesn’t like Trump or Brexit, doesn’t mean that technology has aided these developments. In a country where technology penetration is abysmally poor, it had given rise to Modi, who can also be accused of such authoritarianism.

In all, he has targeted just a tool, attributed wrong cause and exaggerated the ability of technology to bend a democracy.

Technology or not, the mind sees what it wishes to see.

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