Digital is Destroying Everything (and That May Include Rational Discourse and Democracy)

When I got started “in computers” about thirty years ago, there was a scent of revolution in the air. There was a heady sense that you were in the vanguard of a force that would bring about enormous changes. Even before the World Wide Web, it was exciting to create things using these clever machines. Then came the Internet and for a while, it still seemed pretty scrappy. “This won’t last”, said many who ought to have known better.

Then, in a fit of naivete on a global scale, every media company that had up to that point jealously guarded their copyrights, loaded all their stuff up onto the web and made it available for free. Later, they lamented that no one wanted to pay for content any more. I guess they had not noticed that no one has ever wanted to pay for anything — and that as soon as they could get it free, they would take it.

And now digital has gotten weird and kind of scary.

So I wrote a book called “Digital is Destroying Everything: What the Tech Giants Won’t Tell You About How Robots, Big Data and Algorithms are Radically Remaking Your Future”. It comes out June 10.

Digital has changed the world, but contrary to what digital touts want us to believe, it has not all been for the greater good. Never mind that folks coming up with silly apps want to believe they are making the world a better place. More important is that the global impact of digital may leave us with lots of ways to look at free movies but also with a world where we are isolated, tracked by governments, and increasingly, out of work (thanks to robots and artificial intelligence).

We’ve seen seismic changes in almost every human endeavor, thanks to digital, and we can do lots of cool things we could never do before. But there are significant downsides for which we seem quite unprepared.

Take democracy and voting — for instance.

Using digital technology, everyone becomes their own information curator. Digital allows the extremist (of any stripe) to construct an information cocoon that seems multi-dimensional, well-populated, interconnected and convincing; even as it might be utterly unconnected to discourse not conducive to the presumed belief-system. It creates eddies in the information flow where self-replicating nonsense takes on the appearance of grass-roots belief. Using fake “original sources”, these eddies can become whirlpools, and entire courses of inquiry get sucked down into a roaring swirl of disinformation and discontent. And, via a process I call bottom-up propaganda, distorts the body politic.

Worse, the actual voting systems, now gone mostly digital, are becoming more opaque, and much more easy to manipulate. Most likely you will vote on a touch screen or on a sheet of paper that gets scanned. And if you are lucky, you might get a receipt. But what happens to your vote?

Typically it goes into a closed system that is run by a “vote-counting” company. What goes on behind the scenes at such places is not overseen directly by the government, or democracy watchdogs. Instead, it is run through a proprietary vote-counting software module that may be impossible to test. And it becomes all too easy for someone to hit the wrong button and make a mistake that then becomes untraceable. It also becomes rather a simple task for someone inside these companies to decide they want to alter the algorithm to create a favored outcome.

In too many cases, there is no record of the original voter intent outside “the code” and no way for a citizen to be assured by common sense nor physical evidence that votes were properly counted. The voting public must rely on the honesty and integrity of every person associated with building and delivering these systems. Many of these folks have no qualification other than that they work at a software company.

With software, vote mistabulation can be planned in advance, and such manipulation can be near-invisible to those not intimately involved in creating the code associated with that particular piece of software. Often there are millions of lines of code, and finding the corrupting article could become an impossible task.

We had voter irregularities in the Presidential election of 2000 and 2004 — and if we had them again, now that digital is many times more powerful than it was then — we might find ourselves in a political landscape entirely not representative of the will of the voters.

There are many other ways that digital is driving us into new, uncertain places — in finance, education, law, medicine, and of course media of every type. Voting is just one of these impacts that deserves further study.

I’m not saying we can “put the brakes” on digital even if we wanted to. But it’s time to to take a close look at digital’s effect on our lives. And come up with reasonable solutions that will ensure a world that is not worse than the one digital found.

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