By Max Sugarman,
The current political landscape doesn’t lend itself well to attempts at predicting the future.
In fact, Brexit – and the volatility it has brought – has meant many in politics now treat each day as it comes, and many of us have given up trying to make any effort at predicting the future at all.
Yet, away from the day-to-day twists and turns of Westminster, there are trends that are reshaping our society and our politics, and which, if left unconsidered, could lead down a dangerous path.
That’s the focus of Jamie Susskind’s new book, Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, which attempts to look at how the rapid advancement in digital technology is changing our political system. The book is fascinating – and a must-read for anyone interested in the development of our politics over the next few decades.
At its core, the book makes the case that the digital tech around us – like audio-enabled devices around the house, augmented and virtual reality and the increased use of cameras and recording equipment – will increasingly affect our politics. Susskind’s theory is that this ubiquitous tech, which we have often chosen to buy ourselves, will soon be influencing, coercing and controlling each of us, every day without us even knowing.
We’ve already had a taste of what this could look like with the scandal around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s involvement in elections, but Susskind’s Future Politics go much further – where perception of reality itself could be changed from person to person and lead to differences in our political outlook and choices.
As an example, Susskind uses the rather worrying thought experiment of someone attempting to join a protest, against the Government’s wishes.
To stop him, he first gets warned not to go by his smart device, then gets blocked from receiving directions to the protest, then gets locked in his own home by the smart devices he’s installed and finally, after overcoming all these barriers, gets targeted messaging that psychology plays at his fears.
As Susskind makes clear, all of this could be done without any further advancements in technology and would be seriously effective in stopping protestors of any political persuasion.
It’s all about control
Fundamentally, the book also begs the question of who has the control in this new world of political technology. In the past, the relationship of power has been one between the individual and the state, with countless treatise written on what the right balance of power should be. Susskind adds an additional element – the introduction of large technology companies that now have the same power over populations that was previously limited to Governments.
Scrutiny of these companies and, in particular, what they do with their newfound control seems very limited – and in fact is only a fraction of the accountability we hold governments to.
While there is increasing public awareness of these companies’ control, until we have a greater understanding of our relationship with them – and the power of the data we provide them – we will not be fully able to keep up with their activities.
Should we be worried?
If the idea of unscrutinised organisations makes you fearful of what the future holds, then you shouldn’t despair. Susskind does offer possible ways out of these conundrums, but highlights that first we must become more aware of the impact of the powerful forces around us.
For those of us working in PR and Public Affairs, we need to get to grips with these issues rather quickly. Otherwise, we could find ourselves wondering how we found got locked into a different political system that is able to control us – and that we didn’t even see coming. With technology becoming ever more prevalent, there is no time to waste.
Jamie Susskind will be speaking at an event organised by the CIPR Public Affairs Group in London on 3 December 2019. Tickets are available to buy here.
Max Sugarman is senior public affairs & PR manager at the Railway Industry Association, where he manages the organisations lobbying and communications. Max sits on the CIPR’s Public Affairs Group Committee as treasurer.