Digital politics: Why progressives need to shape rather than merely exploit the digital economy
The IT revolution is transforming politics and opening up a new dimension of inequality. The Labour party can be as technologically savvy as it likes, argues David Runciman, but it cannot become a vote-winning machine again until it sets out a role for the state in the political economy of the digital age.
On the day Labour launched its manifesto, I went to the party’s website with the hope of reading it. But before I could get to the text, I had to navigate my way past a portal that offered me the chance to ‘create my own manifesto’. What this meant in practice was that anyone could input the issues they cared about most, and the manifesto would then be reconfigured to flag up the policies that spoke to those concerns.
It’s hard to think of anything that better sums up what was wrong with the Labour campaign. It looked responsive, technologically savvy and consumer-friendly: politics as a menu of options for an increasingly distracted and diversified electorate. But in reality it was patronising, gimmicky and a monumental distraction. It simply confirmed the impression that the Labour strategy had reduced politics to a series of transactional offers that could be moved around at will to create an ersatz political philosophy. Labour hoped to harness the transformative power of the internet to further progressive politics. It ended up trivialising both.
Meanwhile, the Tories ran a much more old-fashioned campaign – including a simple core message, direct mailshots in the key marginals, and a manifesto in the familiar form of an indigestible slab of text – with what now looks like the predictable result. The 2015 election is already being heralded as evidence that digital politics is not all it’s cracked up to be. It may not have been ‘the Sun wot won it’, but it sure as hell wasn’t Twitter either. Old media looks to have played a much bigger role in the outcome than social media did, just as the power of money almost certainly had a far greater impact than the power of networks. Yet it would be a huge mistake to assume that digital politics is just another tech bubble that has been burst by what David Edgerton calls ‘the shock of the old’. The information technology revolution is transforming politics – just not in the ways that we have come to expect. Far too much time has been spent thinking about how politicians can utilise new technology to their own ends, and nowhere near enough time spent thinking about how this technology is changing the substance of what those ends should be. That’s where Labour should start its conversations about what to do next.
The new e-frontier of inequality
At the dawn of the tech revolution plenty of people expressed utopian hopes that we were on the brink of a new age of e-democracy, in which online popular participation and direct political engagement would become the norm. We were promised transparency, accessibility and nightly referenda on the issues that mattered.
It never happened. As those hopes faded – along with the misplaced hope that the free spread of information on the web would undermine autocratic governments around the world – attention turned to the more mundane business of using new technology to get the vote out and mobilise support. The era of tech politics 2.0 was initiated by the 2008 Obama campaign, which appeared to demonstrate the great potential of social media when used creatively, particularly in terms of reaching young or otherwise disengaged voters. Indeed, 2008 is roughly where the Labour party’s thinking seems to be stuck (the absurd decision to hire David Axelrod is the perfect illustration of this). How digital technology could change the way people vote and engage with politics still matters. But what matters far more is how it has already changed the way most people live. Many of these changes are happening under the radar, which means politicians often feel there is no need to address them, assuming they are aware of them at all. Yet all politicians, and especially those of the progressive left, ignore them at their peril.
For instance, no one is talking about the redistributive effects of the new political economy generated by social networks. We are by now so used to the fact that many of the services we consume online – from Facebook and Google to the Guardian and National Rail – are available for free that we barely notice it any more. Of course, these services are not really free: we don’t pay for them with cash, but we do pay for them with our data – all the personal information about our habits, preferences and plans that we reveal every time we use them – which can then be monetised through targeted advertising. The new economy exchanges information for information, which the middlemen can turn into cash. Yet if we are giving away our data for free in exchange for free services, it follows that some people are getting a better deal than others, because some people’s data is worth more than others’. Those with more money to spend – the relatively well-off groups that advertisers most want to reach – could charge more for their personal information, if this economy worked in that way. The fact that it doesn’t means that those on higher incomes are, in allowing these services to be available at zero cost, subsidising the less affluent. The utility of social networks is far from trivial – if Facebook disappeared tomorrow, people would definitely feel the impact. Likewise, the sums of money involved are not trivial either – if Facebook started charging for its services tomorrow, people would feel the impact of that as well. In the age of free, the politics of inequality is more complicated than it seems.
Redistribution and regressiveness in the digital economy
I am not suggesting that this is the fundamental reason why Labour’s message about an unequal society and a squeezed middle did not have the desired impact. However, it is likely to be part of the explanation, if only because the more squeezed parts of the middle are being helped by the somewhat less squeezed to lead what we now consider a decent life – a networked life. Nor am I suggesting that these redistributive effects are universal – some of the very poor, including significant numbers of the elderly, who are frozen out from the resources of the digital age altogether by their inability to access them, are the biggest losers of all. Likewise, it is hardly the case that the equalizing effects of new technology, welcome as they are, outweigh other growing inequalities. Free books on Kindle are nice, but they are poor compensation for a family struggling to cope with the rapidly rising cost of fresh fruit and vegetables.
A progressive political party needs to understand this complicated new terrain, and to think of ways to get on the right side of it. At the moment it is an economy being driven almost entirely by the vast corporate monoliths of the digital age. Google and Facebook set the terms for this market, and tweak the way it works every time they tweak their algorithms – leaving everyone else, including national governments, following in their wake. It is not clear whether governments, or even international organisations like the EU, have either the power or the expertise required to break up these new monopolies (although the market might do it for them). However, governments can work to channel some of the effects of their actions, to universalise as many of their benefits as possible, and to persuade their citizens that the advantages on which they have come to depend are not simply there for Facebook to grant and Facebook to take away. Progressive political parties need to have strategies for shaping this new economy, rather than holding to a narrow set of political tactics in order to merely exploit it.
This is especially important given that the emerging political economy of the digital revolution also has some strikingly regressive features. The most prominent of these – certainly the one that has attracted the most attention so far – centres on privacy. The information we surrender about ourselves is being hoovered up regardless of socio-economic status or income – the relatively disadvantaged are not being left alone simply because knowledge of their spending habits is less likely to be of value. This is big-data-driven machine learning, and big-data-driven machines are indiscriminate in what they want to know: we are all vulnerable to their insatiable appetites. But the wealthy – and particularly those with access to technological expertise and support – are far better able to protect themselves from invasions of privacy than anyone facing the problem without equivalent help. The most striking hypocrisy of the digital age is the extent to which tech billionaires are at pains to insulate themselves from the sort of intrusion that their business model inflicts on everyone else. Mark Zuckerberg bought all the houses surrounding his new house in Paolo Alto so that no one could spy on him. It is harder to access the personal email of anyone high up in Google than it is to get the email address of a head of state. In this world, money buys protection.
At present it is not clear how much political mileage there is in this issue, since most of us do not seem to mind a great deal being spied on (so long as it’s the online version: people who wouldn’t dream of letting anyone root through their physical possessions are happy to make their virtual belongings available to anyone who wants a look). ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ still appears to be a mantra that many are willing to live by online. However, it is not only in the domain of privacy that deep inequalities are emerging.
Bureaucracy vs techno-bureaucracy
The digital age has generated vast new amounts of time-sapping, energy-draining bureaucracy, which also seems skewed against the people who lack the resources to resist it. The sheer volume of work-related email is a bane of many people’s lives across the squeezed middle (the very rich can hire people to deal with it, and the very poor might not be engaged in the kinds of work that produce it). Time is an increasingly precious resource, especially since the promise of a paperless world has also turned out to be an illusion: in many workplaces (including mine, at a university) virtual paper trails are proliferating at an alarming rate, with physical paper trails continuing to trail along in their wake. Employees in government service – in hospitals, council offices, vehicle registration, tax collection – are especially vulnerable. This helps create the impression that government bureaucracy is part of the problem – and that represents a problem for parties of the left.
As David Graeber has pointed out, the right has somehow managed to monopolise the idea that it is on the side of the little man – or woman – against the bureaucratic machine. This is doubly unfortunate for social democracy. First, because it is absurd. The neoliberal order, with its premium on efficiency, is responsible for the exposure of workers to relentless pressures on their time; new technology has merely vastly accelerated that process. The political parties that act as cheerleaders for these market forces are not going to be the ones to protect ordinary people from their most deleterious consequences. Yet, because those same parties have co-opted the notion that they are against red tape and busybody politics, they continue to give the impression that they are the only ones sticking up for the harassed. The idea that a bit of health-and-safety-gone-mad sabre-rattling will rescue anyone from the remorseless march of techno-bureaucracy is laughable. But the Tory party somehow gets away with it.
This is the second problem for social democrats: they used to have a way of talking about these issues, but they have forgotten how to do it. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, various strands of socialism wanted to rescue people from work, not further enmesh them in it.
A just society was understood to be one in which leisure – what it means and what makes it possible – was a serious question for politics. The digital age has encouraged politicians to consider this question beyond their remit, since individuals now have so many leisure options available to them. But the technology that creates the options also squeezes the time in which we are able to make best use of them. While today’s politicians cannot intervene in traditional social democratic ways to correct for this, surely social democrats should be able to persuade people that they are at least worrying about it. After all, the parties of the right have shown that even appearing to care can get you quite a long way.
March of the machines
Behind the problem of steeply rising bureaucratic workloads is a deeper anxiety which almost no politicians are articulating, perhaps because none dare. That is the question of whether there will be many jobs left once the data-crunching machines really get into their stride. The forms of clerical and administrative employment in which new technology is creating the most extra work are also those in which it’s increasingly clear that the machines will soon be able to do the jobs themselves. Let them answer their own endless emails! Phrases like ‘the internet of things’ and ‘advanced robotics’ sound too much like geek-talk for most democratic politicians to want to have anything to do with them, but they describe a coming reality. Some notable recent studies suggest that nearly half of all current modes of employment are at risk of being replaced by machines in the short-to-medium term.
It is tempting to think of this as mere scaremongering, and that the digital revolution will end up creating as many jobs as it destroys, just as in every past technological revolution. However, there are good reasons for thinking that this time really is different. The pace of current technological change, coupled with the evidence that the new corporate tech giants (like Facebook) are far better at generating revenue than employment, suggests that we are on the brink of genuine social upheaval. Restaurant chains in the US have begun replacing waitresses with tablets on tables, which are cheaper, quicker and more reliable. My local Sainsbury’s in Cambridge now has 20 self-service tills, with two employees paid to keep the lines moving and the machines working. Not only are these jobs fewer than the ones they replaced, they are also more unpleasant: this work keeps the employees on their feet and interacting with customers only when the machines don’t function properly, which makes everyone tetchy. Of course, this is not the whole story. Unheralded new industries are arising too – ‘Zumba instructor’ is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the US – and human creative skills are not going to become redundant any time soon. That’s why politicians’ usual reaction is simply to insist on the need for more and better education. But as well as being easier said than done, that response is not adequate to address the looming social and economic disruption of the coming machine age.
Social security in the digital age
All of this might seem far-removed from the practical questions of what it would take to get Labour winning elections again. But the party – like all political parties – needs some fresh thinking about the uncharted future in which those elections are going to take place. Too much of the current post-election argument is fixated on the past – not just the immediate past of the Blair–Brown years but the longer Labour tradition of community action and engagement. This matters, but it needs to be adapted to a world in which ideas of both community and engagement are undergoing a radical technological shift. At the same time, the party needs to recalibrate its short-term strategy in the light of these emerging trends. The Tories’ claim to have turned Britain into the jobs factory of Europe is vulnerable not just to any future economic downturn but also to the political economy of the digital age, which creates and then destroys these short-term, vulnerable forms of employment. Zero-hours contracts may be a good way to compete with machines, but that’s a contest in which, in the end, there is only going to be one winner.
A genuine party of the workers would be thinking about how to change the terms of the contest in order to ensure that the economic benefits are not swamped by the human costs. The creeping hold of technological determinism – the sense that we are now in the grip of forces of progress that human agency can no longer control – makes it easy to believe the state no longer has much of a role to play. This too is absurd. Politics matters more than ever in determining the social environment in which these changes take place. Social democrats need to reconsider what social security means under these conditions, and what the state can still do to achieve it. None of this will be remotely easy, but Labour may be looking at 10 years of opposition at least, so at least it has the time. It has to stop thinking that digital politics is simply about using Twitter to get the vote out. In the age of the digital revolution, which is barely 40 years old, a decade is an epoch. The pace of change is only going to accelerate. The future does not belong to the party that tries to reverse or to second-guess those changes, because no one can. It belongs to the party that can make those changes work in the interests of more people than are benefitting from them at present.
David Runciman is professor of politics and head of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2014).
This article appears in edition 22.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.
1. Edgerton D (2007) The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, Oxford University Press ^back
2. See for example Isquith E and Graeber D (2015) ‘“I found myself turning into an idiot!”: David Graeber explains the life-sapping reality of bureaucratic life’, Salon.com, 5 March 2015 ^back
3. See for example Frey CB and Osborne MA (2013) ‘The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford ^back