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1 May 2024

The rise of playlist politics

How digital choice has deepened the crisis of democracy.

By Gillian Tett

There is a striking paradox today in how people feel about the Western world. On the one hand, if you look back over the sweep of history, in many ways we’ve never had it so good. Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently gave a speech at King’s College Cambridge, set against the writings of John Maynard Keynes (who was at King’s). She pointed out that over the last past 100 years the global economy has grown eightfold. Trade integration just in the past four decades has grown sixfold.

It’s not just about the burgeoning economy: we’ve had this extraordinary explosion of innovations that have made our lives dramatically better. We are connected digitally, we’ve got medical innovations that are extending our lifespans, and there have been many markers of social progress. When I joined the Financial Times 30 years ago, there were almost no senior female figures at the paper; today, we have a female editor, half the senior managers are women. Many other institutions are similar. We still have a very long way to go, particularly on racial issues. But historically speaking, we’re living in a world that has made enormous progress.

However, when you examine people’s attitudes towards the future in the West there is a mood of profound malaise. Almost all the opinion polls in the US and the UK show that people expect their children to have a worse future than they did, and if you look at whether people trust the system they live in, the answer is a resounding “no”. To cite just one example, a survey conducted by the Edelman public relations company found that 63 per cent of people do not trust government leaders to tell them the truth; 61 per cent do not trust business leaders; and 64 per cent do not trust journalists. As one of the latter, I blush.

So it’s worth pausing for a moment and asking: why? I suspect the answer partly reflects the current reality of people’s lives and because we tend to have short-term memories. The UK economy has stagnated in the past decade, and we’ve had a period of political upheaval. We’ve also had a lot of geopolitical upheaval: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, conflict in the Middle East, tensions with China. But I think there are two other factors: a paradigm shift in the global economy that, ironically, is taking us back to the days of Keynes a hundred years ago; and a cultural shift about how we imagine the relationship between an individual and society. Partly as a result of our mobile phones, we are shifting to what I call “Gen P”, standing for “Gen Pick ’n’ mix” or “Gen Playlist”, which is creating profound cognitive changes.

Let me start with the paradigm shift. From the late 1980s to about 2007 or so, there was a dominant assumption among much of the world’s elite – but also many ordinary, middle-class people in the West – that there were four things driving the global political economy, all of which were basically good.

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One was that the West was democratic and that democracy was being embraced around the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second was that free markets were, for the most part, good and spreading. The third was that globalisation was also good, and inexorably leading to more integration in the global economy. And the fourth was that innovation was good and accelerating.

The attack on and reverse of those four pillars of the modern global economy has been the story of the past decade. Take democracy. There’s a wonderful report that comes out each year called the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, which covers 130-plus countries. Until about 2004, more and more countries were becoming democratic and the majority of those tracked by the index were labelled as democracies. Then the trend stalled, and has recently sharply regressed: countries that were partially democratic have become autocratic and even countries that were supposed to be bastions of democracy are backsliding. America is a prime example of that. There are bright spots: Poland is one. But the picture is of democracy in retreat.

Or consider free markets. Since 2007, we have seen a series of events that have not only left capitalism under attack, but have led governments to intervene more in the economy, such as in the 2008 financial crisis when they and central banks introduced quantitative easing. During Covid there was more state intervention, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine this process played out again. Whether we believe it’s good or bad, it’s widespread: the IMF calculates there have been 2,500 industrial policies unleashed by governments in the past year alone, mostly in developed, not developing, countries. That was completely unimaginable a decade or two ago.

Or think about globalisation. The data here is complex. A survey by the shipping group DHL and New York University tracks globalisation on four metrics: movement of people, goods, money and information. Their data shows that the movement of people slowed down during Covid, but has since risen, while movement of goods surged in the early years of this century and has since basically stagnated, along with the globalisation of finance. The movement of information, courtesy of the internet, has exploded since the beginning of the century and while it has now slowed down, it’s still rising.

Globalisation is certainly not dead. But the rhetoric around it has dramatically changed: politics is infused with nationalism, trade protectionism, anti-immigration rhetoric, a cult of localisation – not globalisation – and, tragically, the rising threat of war.

Then there is the fourth pillar: innovation. Governments trumpet this. So do universities. But in 2007 we had an eruption of anger against financial innovation. Since then, there has been a backlash against a lot of tech innovation, social media innovation and AI innovation, and sometimes life sciences innovation too. Think of the anti-vaccination movement in the US and France.

The point is that all four of the pillars driving our sense of modernity in the 20th century have come under attack. This is deeply unsettling. Of course, it is not the first time this has occurred. Keynes described a similar paradigm shift almost exactly a century ago. In his treatise The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written in 1919, Keynes noted that in the decades before the First World War, the West also experienced a period of extraordinary globalisation, when the spread of free market capitalism and innovation was being celebrated. Back then, the key innovations weren’t AI and life sciences but the telegram and electricity. Before 1914, like today, the elite thought that life was good and that progress was going in one direction; so much so that the people of that era often paid little attention to geopolitical and social tensions – and failed to notice that for many ordinary workers, all of this innovation and globalisation was creating a lot of pain.

That complacency and arrogance was shattered dramatically by the First World War, and in 1919, Keynes urged elites to learn lessons. But when he realised they had not, he became utterly depressed and resigned from the conference that was discussing postwar reparations and economic policies. “I can do no more good,” he wrote, in a letter from Paris that sits in the King’s archives, warning of future calamities. “I’ve been utterly worn out… by depression at the evil around me.”

It’s not that we are in a new version of 1919: we haven’t had a new global war, though we have lots of rolling conflicts. But what Keynes wrote is salutary. In recent decades, most people assumed, as they did before 1914, that history was heading towards greater progress. Now we know it can also go into reverse.

There’s a second element driving our malaise, which is something that Keynes did not grapple with: how we imagine the relationship between individuals and society. As an anthropologist, I know that most of the societies that anthropologists have studied around the world, and in history, view the individual as essentially a derivative of the social group. More specifically, identities are essentially assigned at birth. As Joseph Henrich, the brilliant evolutionary anthropologist, notes: if you ask somebody “who are you?” in many non-Western societies, they will start by defining themselves in terms of their position within the family or social group: “I am the son of x, y and z”; “I am the wife of so-and-so”; “I am from this tribe”.

But from the Renaissance on, Europe and then America began to get “Weird”, to use Henrich’s tag, meaning “Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”. There was a Copernican shift in which human beings were seen as individuals that could exist separately from, or before, the social group; society was a derivative of people, not the other way round. This was reflected and reinforced by René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” philosophy, and the emergence of the concept of human “rights”. This trend intensified in the 20th century, producing the “Me” generation and Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women.”

In the 21st century, however, this took on another dimension: we have moved from “I’m the centre of my world” to “I have the right to try to customise the world according to my tastes”. Or “I have the right to use a pick ’n’ mix approach to life, or a ‘playlist’ frame in almost every aspect of my being”. We all want to live in our version of The Matrix.

Tech innovation lies at the heart of it. Think about music. A century ago, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to find out where a concert was happening and you were limited to someone else’s choice. Then came the radio: you could switch on the radio and listen to music when you wanted, but you could not choose what was played. Then there were cassettes and vinyl records, and later CDs, that you could listen to when and where you wanted – but most of the time someone else assembled the playlist. Today, courtesy of digitalisation, we have instant, personalised playlists and streaming: we can play anything we want, any time, anywhere, however we want.

Or think about media. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you switched on the television on someone else’s schedule, bought a paper where somebody else had decided how to put the articles together. Today, you can go on the internet and choose your news nuggets. Or think about food. Fifty years ago, school meals were take-it-or-leave-it single options. Today, kids usually choose from a buffet. In fact, trying to get everyone in a family to sit together and eat the same meal at the same time is becoming harder and harder. It’s a pick ’n’ mix world.

The same is true about work. One of the biggest generational conflicts that I see in most offices, post-Covid, is that the older generation grew up in a world where, essentially, if you had a career you had a standardised career ladder, and were expected to turn up between nine and five, five days a week. Since Covid, a whole generation expects a more customisable approach: they no longer think about career “ladders” but a complex pattern that is more like a jungle gym. They tell their bosses, “I don’t really feel like coming in and working on Fridays, I’m going to work from home, and I have to leave at three o’clock on other days.” That’s partly due to Covid, but also because these ideas which started online, with consumer culture, are spreading.

These ideas also affect politics. In the 20th century, politics was about political parties, which are the political equivalent of vinyl records: you get given a package that someone else has mostly selected. Today, it’s all about issues and brands: Brexit, green policies, women’s issues, Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, many of the divisions between right and left are breaking down.

On one level, this cognitive shift is great news. It is empowering and exciting that, courtesy of this digitalisation, we feel that we can customise our world to our tastes, and that we all have a voice. Choice is addictive. If I was to ask you, “Would you like to go back to a world where everything was handed to you – quite literally, in schools – on a plate, without choice?”, most would say no. For people under 30, a world without playlists is unimaginable.

But this change also brings dangers. In a society based around a principle of endless consumer choices, it is incredibly hard to organise policies or be strategic about trade-offs. It also, ironically, raises issues around identity and tribalism. In theory, rising digitalisation means that individualism should have risen too: in the 21st century, unlike every other era in history, people can go online and be whoever they want to be, untethered by geography, circumstances of birth, or anyone else. We can define ourselves as individuals, not just as a derivative of society. But in practice, our active choice of identity often makes us more passionate about these identities, and more determined to hang out with others like us. And today it’s possible, online, to inhabit a world that is entirely an echo chamber, while ignoring the parts of the world that you may not like. Pick ’n’ mix, coupled with digitalisation, can create more tribalism, not less.

What makes this doubly problematic is a shift in trust patterns. As the Edelman survey shows, trust in business leaders, government officials and journalists has collapsed. But that doesn’t mean that trust has entirely disappeared: on the contrary, what we’re seeing today is the rise of what anthropologists and sociologists call horizontal trust patterns. Their point is that there are two ways to create trust to bind a social group together: peer-to-peer, or horizontal trust; and vertical trust in institutions, leaders and systems. Historically, horizontal trust tended to dominate among small groups, where people knew each other and interacted face-to-face, and when groups got big vertical trust became more dominant as an organising principle.

But digitalisation has allowed, for the first time in history, societies and social groups to be built together around horizontal trust on a huge scale. Think about why you have enough trust to get into an Uber taxi: it’s partly because you trust Uber, but also because there’s a rating system that asks a crowd of peers how trustworthy a driver is. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to know which restaurant you could trust, you’d look for advice from an authority figure such as a restaurant critic; now you’re just as likely to look at peer ratings online.

This change in trust patterns is empowering in many ways. But when you put that horizontal trust pattern together with increasing cyber-tribalism and a culture of personalisation, you get a world of cyber-flash mobs – a topic goes viral among a peer group and then vanishes. You also get a world of political echo chambers, polarisation and tribes who don’t trust other tribes, or any authority figures. Yes, it is democratic in some senses; it is also chaotic and prone to manipulation.

This is not the world that Keynes was addressing a hundred years ago: he dedicated his desperate – and desperately gloomy – messages to the well-heeled citizens of London and other elites, since he assumed that they had the authority and power to shape society. Today, we are dealing with a paradigm shift and a cultural shift – and we have barely begun to recognise the implications for how these interact.

What does that mean for the future? A customisable world offers freedoms. It also delivers new dangers: a sense of malaise, when having a voice does not usually produce actual power; a rise in tribalism; an inability to produce policies that can be enacted. However, I think – or hope – that there are ways to counter this. For one thing, I believe that we need to start talking to the younger generation about tribalism. In schools we now have lessons about cyber-hygiene, cybersecurity, cyber-bullying, but not cyber-tribalism; that needs to change. We need to teach kids why it is critical to listen to a range of voices online and collide with other views. We also could and should be telling tech companies to do more to fight the creation of echo chambers and filter bubbles.

We need to spend more time talking not just about human rights, but our human responsibilities. Richard Haass, the former head of the Council of Foreign Relations in the US, recently wrote a trenchant book entitled The Bill of Obligations – a pun on the US Bill of Rights – in which he argued that, even if you believe a society is a derivative of you, the individual, you must think about your responsibilities to the group. Without that, it’s impossible to build a cohesive social framework.

Last but not least I think we need to start thinking about how to harness this cultural shift for good. We cannot put Gen P – the pick ’n’ mix generation – back in a box; nobody is going to uninvent digitalisation, or take us back to a one-size-fits-all and respect-your-leaders world any time soon. We are all devoted to the idea of individual choice.

What we need to do, however, is reflect on the warnings from Keynes in 1919. Gen P needs to actively fight for the political values it cares about via the ballot box, political campaigns, consumer choices and service. In my case, I believe that global integration is a good thing, as are markets (albeit within the framework of government oversight). I also believe in democracy and the power of scientific innovation. These are values that I personally would “pick” and fight for today, particularly in a world where they are all coming under attack. Others might put more emphasis on different values, and prefer localisation, say, or government intervention. Fair enough. But the key point is this: in a world where we are addicted to customisation, we need to expend the same passion on our political choices as our music playlists, coffee selections, online identities and anything else. Gen P needs to use its choices wisely.

A longer version of this essay was delivered as the State of the Nation lecture at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 21 April 2024

[See also: I hate Spotify Wrapped]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March