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19 December 2016

Why technology is no longer the left’s great hope

The first serious election of the social media age, and what we got wasn’t scrutiny and scientific precision: it was misplaced confidence and mass falsehood.

By Sarah Ditum

Do you remember when it wasn’t going to be like this? Technology was the left’s great hope. It was going to enable rapid, low-cost organising and people power. There would be revolutions because of it. Through it, huge volumes of information could finally be gathered into analysable silos for better decision-making. Governments could no longer rely on secrecy to maintain their power: a new era of transparency was upon us, and Wikileaks would lead us there. News would be open. Paywalls were the enemy. Everything was going to get better.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in 2008 was a cheery welcome for the wisdom of crowds. Yes, expertise was going to suffer – now anyone could be a journalist, journalists could no longer claim any special status or privileges – but this was just something to be accepted. And in any case, the same year saw Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which suggested that journalists hadn’t been doing so much to deserve their esteemed social position anyway.

There was a rash of panels about that time asking: “Is blogging journalism?” I was on some of them, and sat next to people for whom the obvious answer was: “No – it’s better.”

Now, the US Democrats have lost the most important presidential election in living memory to a self-enriching populist flanked by ethno-nationalists and climate-change deniers who honed their message and formed their community in the merry free-for-all of the online world.

Fake news fed the Trump campaign, largely disseminated through Facebook. Clinton’s fine website and honed social game was not enough to make up for her campaign’s alleged reliance on an algorithm that missed key battlegrounds. And transparency? Wikileaks threw itself into the US election, but its disclosures went in one direction only, dumping vast amounts of material, possibly acquired by Russian state hackers, all of which embarrassed Clinton and bolstered Trump.

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The first serious election of the social media age, and what we got wasn’t scrutiny and scientific precision: it was misplaced confidence and mass falsehood. When, post-election, buying a subscription to a newspaper or political magazine was suggested as a form of useful activism, the paywall complainers who usually pop up to bemoan the elitism of expecting readers to pay for news were pleasantly silent. The truth seemed worth investing in after all.

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But the left didn’t invent the idea that technology would make us good. We just listened to the industry’s own claims for itself, sandwiched them between our prejudices and swallowed them greedily. Essayist Emily Witt talks about the culture of Silicon Valley in the early 21st century being one of “hyperbolic optimism”: “a genuine commitment to the idea that all things were possible.”

If you were minded to believe that people are basically good, and technology is basically neutral, then the stimulating effects of technology could only be a good thing. As recently as 2011, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature seemed like a reasonable hypothesis to put forward: humans had been getting more rational and less violent, therefore, all things being equal, we would continue to get more rational and less violent. If you believed that history had a right side and a wrong side, these were seductive times. All you had to do was strap in, hold tight, and wait for the hairpin bends and loop-the-loops of progress to deliver us, thrillingly, to our destination.

We got the revolutions. Arab Spring turned into civil wars. There is no right side of history. There is only complacency or action, and a slack-jawed belief in the inevitable perfection of our culture is definitely the former. The Whig version of history, which held that society is in a state of ongoing enlightenment, took a kicking when the early 20th century stepped back sharply into unenlightened bloodletting. Electro-whiggism – which thought a libertarian marketplace of ideas would see good rise to the top via 38 Degrees campaigns – needs to go the same way.

Time’s great narrative is not on your side. Winning means fighting, and fighting means letting go of the idea that humanity has a secret plan and the plan will see you right. Such self-congratulatory pap is poison, and we stuffed ourselves on it like ducks gorging on breadcrumbs. You need intent as well as ideals. You need to recognise that sometimes the creative destruction that follows invention is actually just destruction, and “it gets better” is only true if you make things better. Technology is not our saviour. The terrifying truth is, only we can deliver ourselves.