Stick it to the man

Two new books out, one just yesterday (Bartlett) and the other (Peterson) now a couple of months in.

Ostensibly, they tackle different subjects. Bartlett is a Demos think tank journalist who investigates tech and his book follows on from his excellent BBC documentary a year or so ago, The Secrets of Silicon Valley, in which he cautioned about the increasingly anti-democratic outcomes of the tech revolution. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who has some renown now as a Sam Shepherd-lookalike eloquent exponent of the necessity of personal responsibility and civic duty.

Bartlett’s is a brief and breezy whizz through a central argument: that the practices of the new tech economy – from Facebook through to Uber – have an underlying authoritarian impulse which do not consider the notion of democratic participation to be either particularly useful or even valid. He’s a good journalist: when he unearths that Trump’s election-winning victories in Michigan and Wisconsin were on the back of intensive social media activity in those two areas which combined heavy Facebook advertising, Cambridge Analytica consumer identification and carefully crafted daily messages aimed at real individuals, he doesn’t wail and cry, Not Fair. Instead, he points out how successive Democrat politicians have increasingly used consumer marketing techniques to identify and persuade voters. The only difference this time is that Trump’s team did it better.

That they were able to do it better points to the central core of his argument: tech structures including Big Data both provide the tools for the tech owners to interfere forensically in the daily lives of individuals and simultaneously provide sufficient diversionary environments to ensure those individuals become increasingly placid about being poked at in this way.

The only solution, he suggests, is for citizens to remember that they are citizens and should use old-fashioned concepts such as politics and debate to protect themselves from the encroaching power of the digital autocrat, perhaps perfectly encapsulated in the character of Eldon Tyrell in Bladerunner 2049. Let’s get to it, says Bartlett, before we find Dr Tyrell has already won.

Peterson’s book is a more personal and psychoanalytic volume which, at heart, has a similar concern: society is becoming increasingly fractured and fragile the more that we as individuals refuse to accept personal responsibility for our actions. For Peterson, the contemporary tendency to identify reasons outside of ourselves for the pattern and outcome of our lives – what my daughter very smartly calls the insistence upon an external locus of control – is leading to widespread depression, social conflict and a tinderbox environment of potential catastrophes.

Both books are thoughtful, challenging, excellent researched and meditated, and provide a strong canvas against which to think and discuss our contemporary world. In their very different approaches to the same plea – do not give up your personal and political responsibility to shape the world around you – they strangely do have echoes of those chants from 50 years ago: the personal is political, stick it to the man. Both writers, I suspect, would agree that the Counter Culture of the ’60s failed to do anything to halt the decline in civic values and finally morphed into the post-Hippy authoritarianism of Silicon Valley. Now it’s our turn.

It’s winter
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save

Gil Scott-Heron