Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?

This was an essay I wrote for the inaugural Nine Dots prize. It didn’t win – interestingly, the winning entry argued that, yes, digital technologies ARE making politics impossible, which I suspect was what the organisers wanted to hear, a suspicion I’d had from the beginning, thanks to the wording of the question – but I could be wrong.  Anyway, I didn’t get the very significant amount of money, that would have been incredibly helpful, so I’m posting the essay here, for free, because discussions are always worth having.

Digital technologies – from the smartphone to social media – have changed the social, cultural, and political landscape drastically, and in a very short span of time. For many people, digital technology, and particularly social media, is the “beginning of the end”; people no longer have genuine interactions with one another, they are more isolated, less aware of how “the real world” works.

And that’s where problems in correctly addressing the impact of digital technology, and properly equipping everyone, of any rank, age, or background, to deal appropriately with it, and the inevitable changes it has wrought on both culture and the individual person, begins: in the belief that digital technology and the “real world” are two separate and distinct things. From as long ago as the time of Plato’s Phaedrus (circa 370 BC), which recounts Socrates’ objections to the “new technology” of the day – writing – the real world, and the emergent technologies that are developed, almost all of which still rely on that first, despised technology of the written word, have been one and the same, or at the very least partners in enterprise. We cannot pretend that digital technology – technology of any kind – is an opt-in system. If we are part of the common, shared reality of daily existence in a developed country, then technology, and especially digital technology, is our “real world”, as much a part of our background and understanding as the pavements we walk on and the houses we live in. We expect internet access the way we expect running water – and we feel just as frustrated and panicky if we are denied it.

Digital technology has massive potential to completely change the landscape of democracy, and to genuinely improve it. The reason why, at present, it seems to be having the effect, instead, of rendering true democracy impossible is not because of an inherent fault of technology itself, but because of a fault in how different people are expected and encouraged to engage with it. Politicians, business people, the media, all fall into a category which, for the purposes of this essay, I will refer to as “professional users” of digital technology. Professional users approach technology the way they approach their jobs, their companies, their interests and responsibilities: that is, they acknowledge it as something in which they need to be competent and proficient, and they hire experts to help them achieve that competency and proficiency. Professional users are taught to engage with digital technologies the same way they are taught how to excel in business, how to develop a strong, charismatic leadership style that sees them succeed again and again, often at the very times when it seems almost certain that, because of some indiscretion or lack of attention, or simply their inherent personality, they will fail. And, just as they do with business, finance, national governance, professional users make maximising and manipulating the capabilities of digital technology look effortless. They don’t appear to be doing anything different to what the average, general-population digital technology user is doing. And yet their approach to, and interaction with, digital technology couldn’t be more different.

And that’s where the problems start. Just as Socrates bemoaned the fact that, with the advent of writing, “…your disciples…will (have) the show of wisdom without the reality” (Phaedrus Plato, circa 370BC, via Out Of The Jungle (outofthejungle.blogspot.co.uk), so today we see general-population users of digital technologies believing that they understand how those technologies work, while professional users spend time, and money, learning the truth behind how they really work – and how those truths can be used to further the agendas of said professional users.

Digital technologies offer two particularly compelling methods of improving and fostering democracy: the ability to fact-check claims quickly and easily, and the opportunity for people with widely differing views and experiences to debate openly and transparently, including with people they may otherwise never have a chance of interacting with.

Unfortunately, owing to the enduring, erroneous belief in the separate identities of digital technology and the “real world”, general-population users are never taught how to identify, and verify, trustworthy sources in the digital sphere. The soaring grace and reeking gutter aspects of digital technology are one and the same: the ability of anyone, no matter what their qualification, to write something, post it in public view, and make it accessible to many millions of people in literally minutes, sometimes seconds. Much of the core belief underlying the development of digital technology is that “experts” don’t know as much as they claim, information shouldn’t be restricted to the few, and the wisdom of the crowd is the ultimate form of knowledge. As such, digital technology frequently dispenses with the academic rigours of peer-review, quality control, or even basic background checks. In the digital age, opinions are merely alternative facts, and can be made to seem more credible than the actual facts of a situation, if you know what you’re doing. And professional users have paid a lot of money, and spent a lot of time, to learn exactly what they need to be doing. General-population users, on the other hand, have pretty much been left to their own devices as far as engaging with digital technologies goes. The digital sphere has been viewed by those who should be shepherding its users – teachers, parents, elders – as simply a playground, a place where people pointlessly waste time. The first mistake of the general population was to not take digital technology seriously. To see Facebook as Millennials posting selfies, Twitter as self-involved nonsense with a ridiculous name, YouTube as a narcissists’ fantasy, where everyone, no matter how little talent they had, could snatch their fifteen minutes of fame for the price of internet access for the time it took to upload a video shot on their smartphone, or via a webcam.

Professional users learn quickly how to make a source look reliable on the surface. Most of the time, that’s all you need – the majority of general-population users never go beyond surface appearances. Many professional users, however, are careful to ensure a credible depth is also created for the sources they choose to publish, promote, and use. And they are lethal in knowing how to use each of the various platforms digital technology affords to identify and connect with those who will share their sources without question, and how to use those same platforms to discredit their detractors.

There’s an old saying, that “a rumour will be halfway round the world before the truth has even got its boots on.” In the digital sphere, the actual, verifiable, reliable facts and sources can be thoroughly discredited before those responsible for their promotion are even aware someone is saying something different. And general-population users, untrained and naïve in the ways of the digital sphere, will take the unreliable, biased, and outright false stories at the face value their professional user creators have carefully constructed for them.

The differences between how professionals and the general population approach debates – the hallmark and lynchpin of a functional democracy – are markedly obvious, even to the most casual of observers, and they become painfully obvious when played out in the digital arena, in plain view, open and transparent for anyone to observe.

General-population users of digital technologies very rarely know even the basics of how to debate. They know their opinion on a matter, and they know how to make a lot of noise about that opinion, and how to insult and bully those who dissent from that opinion. That’s not a debate: it’s an argument, and one that people will flounce out of the moment their feelings are hurt.

The professional users, on the other hand, never get emotional. They don’t start with “I feel…” or “I think…” – they present their opinion as undeniable fact, calmly, and completely rationally. They back up their assertions with what, at least on the surface, appear to be facts. They present photographic evidence – but never a continuous, contemporaneous sequence of photographs or video. When they insult their detractors, it is not with the childish language of the general population, but by the far more subtle, and more damaging, method of casting aspersions as to the motivations and sympathies of those detractors. These people who disagree with us, who are trying to convince you that we are wrong, the professional user says to their audience, hold such-and-such objectionable views. They support such-and-such appalling organisation or practice. They engage in such-and-such activities, that, naturally, right-thinking people consider reprehensible. You’re not like that, are you?, the professional user whispers to their audience. No, of course you’re not. I know that. You think they’re scum, traitors,utterly appalling excuses for human beings – just like I do. Professional users have often spent at least half a lifetime being well-schooled in the subtle arts of debate and character assassination. And, if digital technologies are ever going to fulfil their potential as inspiring instruments of genuine democracy, it is well past time we started schooling general-population users to the same standards.

For over a generation, politicians have ensured that the education systems of Western nations focus on the individual – individual achievement, individual effort, individual attention – ensuring a fostering of belief in the overall importance of the self, rather than the whole. Whether this was a deliberate and intentional manipulation we cannot know, but it is worth noting that it has resulted in general-population users who are “perfectly incompetent” in the arena of digital technologies, and thus ready to accept the pseudo-politics presented by professional users, which plays to the ingrained belief that the individual and their needs are important, and deserving of notice, attention, and accommodation. As digital technologies themselves naturally foster this belief in the importance of self over others – more and more app-style games are being developed which are single-player, selfies are everywhere, and digital technology, by its very nature, grants one individual a potential audience of millions, no matter what their content, intelligence, or qualifications – general-population users are entering the digital sphere ready to be played by professional politicians and professional digital technology users, who will focus attention on how a particular political agenda will benefit “You, as an important, vital, valued individual.” General-population users, used to a focus on, and promotion of, the individual which has, certainly for the “digital native” Millennials, been encouraged from their earliest infancy, right through into their independent adulthood, never stop to consider that politics should, in fact, focus on what is best for society as a whole – from the richest to the poorest, the least to the most able, sometimes to the necessary detriment of individual preference and success. Of course, this prioritising of the individual did not emerge as a result of digital technologies. In fact, the prioritisation of the individual can be traced back to ancient Greece ( “Greek Pride in the Individual.” 123HelpMe.com. 26 Jan 2017 ), and was perhaps most memorably encapsulated, for the Western world at least, by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There is no such thing as ‘society’: there are individual men and women.” (Margaret Thatcher, 1987)

Digital technologies, when used by well-informed, educated, knowledgable individuals, operating at the level, and with the expertise, of the professional user, far from having made politics impossible, have opened up unlimited potential for politics to engage people who have historically felt disenfranchised, shut out of the system, people who believed their lives and passions and knowledge and experience would never be thought relevant to anything wider than their own immediate circle. Digital technologies, with informed, astute users, have paved the way for politics, and democracy, to be their very best selves, and achieve their most laudable and honourable aims. Digital technologies have taken politics out of the closed chamber, out of the boardroom, out of the land of the funny handshake and archaic language, and brought it, blinking, into the light of the high school, the community centre, the council estate. Digital technologies have put politics into the language of the refugee, the teenage single mother, the individual with a lifelong disability, the drug-addict dropout. And the more voices that are heard, the more experiences that are put on display, the more vibrant and functional democracy becomes. But only if those voices and experiences are being placed in the public sphere by people with the knowledge and nous of the professional user of digital technology, people who know how to check and verify facts, and how to calmly rebuff challenges to their credibility, and eloquently and successfully debate those aspects of their lives and identities which will only ever be opinions and feelings.

What makes politics into the ludicrous shadow of its potential today is not the rise of digital technologies. Indeed, the accountability and transparency afforded by smartphones and social media is a key ingredient in establishing a true and functional democracy. Individual private citizens should be able to use their leaders’ words against them, where necessary. Tax payers should be as easily able to see what their money is being spent on by politicians as they can check their own spending on a personal bank statement. We, the people, should be able to freely and readily put our points of view, our challenges, our questions, our criticisms, to those best placed to answer them, in an arena that demands a prompt, relatively unfiltered reply. All of this is available at our finger tips, thanks entirely to digital technology, and the rise in its accessibility and affordability. But all of this potential is rendered null and void when the general population are competing against, and seeking to hold accountable, professional users. When those who only know how to argue at the level of hormonal teenagers are sent to spar with those whose very expensive education, and very expensive professional development, spent a lot of time discussing the practice of skilful debate, and explaining the importance of presentation and personality, whilst outlining how, exactly, one should manage – and manipulate – the media. As we are seeing from Donald Trump, the newly-established President of the United States of America, a professional user of digital technologies – for that is most certainly what Donald Trump is – can be as badly behaved, as childish, as downright offensive, as they like, and still maintain a loyal base of active supporters who will go to bat for them over and over and over again, without even being asked. They can do whatever they like, certainly in the digital arena, and in how they choose to engage with more traditional media outlets, because they are a consummate professional playing, for the most part, with rank amateurs.

Digital technologies are not making politics impossible. Rather, they are providing the means by which politics can once again become truly great, and a practice and institution deserving of respect, and welcoming of ambition, whatever its background. What is getting in the way of this progress, and making politics impossible, in the more traditional spheres as well as the digital arena, is the discrepancy between the abilities of professional users, both of digital technologies and the traditional media, and the general population who believe they are competing on an equal playing field. And those discrepancies can only be addressed by lifelong education, which, in turn, can only take place once we realise that digital technology is the “real world”, or at the very least a significant aspect of it. What is making politics impossible is our refusal to take a new form of a very old technology, the written word as presented on digital platforms, seriously. By this refusal, we view general-population users of digital technology as nothing more than immature children, messing about at a pointless game – and so condemn them to a form of perpetual adolescence, where they will always be just slightly short of the ability to effectively challenge the “adults.”

The ultimate and purest intention of politics should be to create a framework which both fosters a cohesive, compassionate, stable and economically successful society, free, for the most part, from internal strife and external aggression, and enables the advancement and achievement of potential of individuals within that society, whatever their personal backgrounds, qualities, and limitations. Digital technologies, by virtue of opening up opportunities for learning, entrepreneurship, social engagement, and political observation and engagement, and by facilitating the meeting of like minds, and enabling real-time debate and discussion, offer the best platform yet from which to achieve that aim – if we, as a society, respect both digital technologies, and those who use them, and invest in educating people on digital technologies with the same rigour and focus as we educate them in mathematics and literacy.

Digital technologies and politics should go hand in hand, because digital technologies are the future, and the job of politics is to lead a cohesive, compassionate, stable and successful society into the future, with a sense of positive anticipation, purpose, and confidence. We do both politics and digital technologies, as well as the potential of our society, a massive disservice when we try and separate politics and the digital sphere, when we promote the erroneous belief that the former is the “real world”, while the latter is merely a trivial, narcissistic indulgence and diversion. For many people belonging to socially marginalised groups – the disabled, the LGBTQ+ community, the unemployed – the spaces of digital technology, from social media sites to blogging platforms, are the only true experience of genuine society they know. Digital technology is the real world, and has the capacity to revolutionise politics and political engagement in a positive way: the rest of the world needs to wake up, and educate people in their engagement with and use of technology in ways that view the latter as an important part of the shared, societal reality.

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