The question how modern technology affects modern democracy has always been a popular one among writers of fiction, and the answer usually has a hint of dystopia to it. To me there is something irresistible about these ominous scenarios, probably because they speak to my fears about our inability to control what we create.
The latest bit of doom fiction I devoured was Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (2013). It pictures a social media company – The Circle – that has superseded and incorporated all the current Internet giants and their services, most notably Google, Facebook and Twitter. As it grows, it inevitably turns its interest to politics, and soon enough politicians are coerced into needing The Circle to assert their credibility. The novel cleverly depicts this as a step-by-step process, where it is difficult to determine which of these steps might raise sufficient alarm for an independent authority to intervene. By the end of the story, it is all but inevitable that signing up to The Circle becomes mandatory for all citizens, and that their democratic participation will be channelled through the social network.
All the while The Circle profiles itself, very successfully, as a benign enterprise, a movement that changes the world for the better by making all information available, phasing out uncertainty – or in the lingo of The Circle, ‘secrets’. Full and total transparency, according to the company’s philosophy, will benefit every citizen, facilitating decision-making and exposing risks. In return for all this help, citizens only need to open themselves up to The Circle, sharing all that can be known about them so that the network can provide them with tailored services, offers and suggestions, resulting in better and more efficient lives.
This, of course, is the crux of the power relationship: in the end The Circle, just as its likes in the real world, provides programmes and algorithms – its users provide the data that enables it to dominate the Internet. The more information people supply – by posting on a social network, making an online purchase, or sending an email – the greater The Circle’s ability to aggregate relevant information, and the greater the draw to others to join the network. And true enough, virtually everyone will at some point succumb, as the vastness of the information and services offered will seem worth giving up a bit of one’s privacy.
“…today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities.”
Of the many thoughts provoked by The Circle, the most salient one to me is the question how our existing democratic mechanisms will fare as the digital symbiosis of Internet companies and citizens continues to thrive. While society moves in a direction that sees us rely ever more on Google, Facebook and others, we have little or no formal ways to influence their behaviour, with the only alternative to ‘Agree’ usually being ‘Cancel’.
I would argue that today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities. Such a dual citizenship indeed suggests that the significance of our offline citizenship is eroding, and that the democratic control that we have over our decision-makers covers only part of our existence. With the balance shifting towards online life, and with politicians gratefully embracing social media to comment, engage and campaign, I wonder how long it will take for elections to be replaced by a pop-up asking us whether we agree with the proposals or choose to be excluded.