The digital is inescapably political: it’s time to accept that

The digital evangelists of the 1990s saw cyberspace as a haven safe from the politics of the “real” world. They could not have been more wrong — and we're still paying for their mistake.

There was a time when all the press coverage of new websites was indifference. And then it was followed by breathless excitement. Are you feeling nostalgic for those days yet?

These days, any reporting of such site tends to be of some new, terrible and unexpected societal harm done by a mega-internet platform. Politicians seeking an electoral platform make promises — or threats — about how they’ll curtail the power of the digital colossuses. The mockery of a decade ago — “bedroom bloggers”, “photos of people’s lunch” — has swag wildly into the direction of faceless political operatives skewing the debates of nations. A clear and present danger, indeed.

It all feels like a very long way away from the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, doesn’t it? That was an ethos born of a different time, though. A time when “cyberspace”, that terribly dated term for the digital world, was only home to a tiny minority of us, and where we could be, to a large extent, self-policing.

The last 20 years have not been kind to that view of digital, though, and we have to acknowledge that the worlds of the physical and the digital are not as separate as we’d like to have imagined. And that means that digital has to be political because it is intertwined with our lives. Our failure to acknowledge that the digital and the political are, and always will be, deeply connected has opened the gateways for the abuses and errors that have defined the past five years.

The cyber hippies of Silicon Valley aren’t the only ones to blame, here, though. The cynical media were just as bad, classifying “virtual” relationships or “ebusinesses” as somehow inferior to ones without an online component. This deep assumption that the digital was less real, and therefor less consequent led to a society-wide underestimation of the likely price we would pay.

Paying the price at the digital/physical interface

Fundamentally, the digital world is a space made up of data, emotions and ideas. And what is politics if not the intersection of those three? Professor Richard Dawkins, best known these days as the grumpy high secular priest of the New Atheists, was once better known for writing books about science, and in one of them he actually coined the term “meme” — the sense that ideas could travel and spread in exactly the same way that viruses do — virally, if you will.

Now, the idea was not universally popular. Dawkins was and is a biologist, and the sense that he is trying to slave all other fields to his area of expertise is a criticism that has been levelled at him many times. But undoubtedly his ideas took on new life when they intersected with digital — and we use those very words “meme” and “viral” to explain what happens online to this day.

What was once amusing — and most of the early memes spread because they were just plain funny — is now being harnessed for political ends. Political organisations all over the world are harnessing memes and social videos in the causes of community building, propaganda and misinformation. As the role of partisan organisations and state-sponsored propagandists in the elections of the past five years or so becomes ever more clear, we’ve been made brutally aware of how effectively the digital has been rendered political.

Earlier this week, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report that has consequences for how we think about the intersection of digital and politics. The report analyses three news publications — in India, South Africa and the Philippines — and characterises how they have built audience engagement around their brand. (I’ve written about it more extensively elsewhere.) But it is clear that all three have suffered from what the authors term “platform capture” — the combination of their own businesses being trapped on platforms they don’t control — often Facebook-owned ones — and their own platforms for community engagement being captured by hostile forces. Political and ideological wars are being fought online with equal or greater ferocity than in the real world.

The opinionated algorithm

Taking a step beyond that, beyond what we might characterise as the misuse of platforms, we also have to acknowledge that the platforms themselves are not neutral. A page of Google search results is an opinion. The composition of your newsfeed on Facebook is another. The idea of an algorithmically-generated opinion might seem like a strange or even unlikely one until you recall that algorithms (even machine learning-based ones) are still set in motion by humans. They determine the core process, and the data the algorithms work from.

If you start from a biased start state, you get those biases magnified by the algorithms. And when these are starting to be entrenched into things like job applications, then you can have bias utterly entwined with a system in a way that it’s very hard to see.

This is a symptom of the Dark Ages that James Bridle talked about; the technology is making it harder to see the harm being done, even as it makes it easier for that harm to propagate. The digital is political because politics is built into the very code that we write.

The digital is created by humans. We are political animals, and all our work is tainted with it. To call for an unpolitical internet is as naive as the calls some fans have for media that “just has good stories, without politics”. Even a cursory glance at the context and meaning of many nursery rhymes will tell you how imbecilic that it is. It’s a cry that they don’t like the politics the creator is putting in, but they’re hiding that behind the thin veil of apolitical art.

Even simple art can be deeply political, as this display I saw at the NEXT speakers reception makes clear:


Smurf that in your smurf and surf it. 😉

Navigating the political internet

The only way we can move forward is by creating manoeuvres (to borrow Bridle’s word) to adapt to the landscape we’re in.

And, for once, we’re actually beginning to see effective political oversight of the new digital power players. The last time Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was dragged in from a hearing in the US government, he was lobbed softball questions by politicians who clearly barely — if at all — understood the technology at play. Last week, he was taken apart methodically and ruthlessly by legislators with a real understanding of the issues at stake — and how the political and the digital intersect.

Political regulation of the internet is now all-but inevitable. It’s better to engage with that, and shape it to healthy ends, rather than pine for some utopian dream of an unregulated digital space. After all, when have humans every managed to successfully coexist without some form of regulation?

We also need to acknowledge that the digital can have a profound impact on the physical. The New York Times published a piece over the weekend, pointing out that digital shopping is having a profound impact on the congestion in our physical streets, especially in compact towns and cities, while the traditional town centres struggle for life, as fewer and fewer people head out shopping.

Accepting the reality of the impact of the digital on our own world is critical to formulating the correct responses — and planning for them. These are not Parallelwelten. They are manifestations of the same world.

Connecting the parallels

But digital has quite genuinely created some very real Parallelwelten. And perhaps the biggest challenge for us is in reversing this; in connecting our polarised societies up again. My fellow blogger here dragged up the issue that’s dividing the UK at the moment: Brexit. As it drags its interminable way towards an uncertain conclusion (yet another extension, I see), the country remains ever more riven in two, with the most passionate gathering in self-isolated groups on Facebook or Twitter, Remoaners or Brextremists only encountering each other in digital combat on the internet. These are not the conversations envisaged by another of the early, idealistic internet’s seminal works, the Cluetrain Manifesto. These are just tribal clashes, with any attempt to listen to the other side seen as treachery.

This is not entirely a symptom of the digital — it has manifestation in physical space, too. There are leave areas of Britain, just as there are remain areas. But digital has allowed those problems to both entrench themselves, and become defined as an identity.

The web is 25 years old. It’s an adult now, even if it’s still a young adult. We try to shield our human children from politics in their early years.  But, as they coming into their own as adults, they realise strongly that they need to engage with politics, because it directly affects them. So, too, our attitude to digital needs to mature. It’s time for us as a society to understand that the internet is inherently a political place, and that we cannot avoid that. Indeed, by trying to avoid that, we have created spaces for dark and terrible things to grow.

Adults accept politics and complexity. It’s time for a truly adult approach to the digital world, before we inflict as much damage on our electronic commons as we have on the environment of the planet, and take our societies into a more literal dark age than even Mr Bridle predicted.

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash