Ethical Tech

Why the pessimists are winning, for now

The editor’s letter in the 2018 politics issue of MIT Technology Review.

Aug 22, 2018

“Big Data Will Save Politics.” When we put those words on the cover of MIT Technology Review in 2013, Barack Obama had just won reelection with the help of a crack team of data scientists and engineers. The Arab Spring had already cooled into a grim Arab Winter, but the social-media platforms that had powered the uprisings were still basking in the afterglow. Silicon Valley was full of hope and hubris about its power to democratize the world.

nephi niven

Today, with Cambridge Analytica, fake news, election hacking, and the shrill cacophony that dominates social media, technology feels as likely to destroy politics as to save it. The tech firms and their boosters either didn’t imagine that “democratizing” technologies would be used by anti-­democrats too, or else believed that truth and freedom would inevitably defeat misinformation and repression.

Those aren’t the only reasons to worry that tech is threatening democracy. One can wonder if voters are even capable of making free choices anymore, as political campaigns microtarget citizens in key districts with increasingly surgical precision (see Alex Howard’s story) and “neuropolitical” consultants use cognitive science to identify preferences people didn’t even know they had (Elizabeth Svoboda). Convincing video “deepfakes” are becoming easy to create, as Will Knight found by making one himself. Twitter bots that currently spew cookie-­cutter propaganda on autopilot will soon be smart enough to engage individual users in simulated conversation, as bot expert Lisa-Maria Neudert explains. Big data is disrupting the cozy world of political lobbying, as Andrew Zaleski shows in his profile of FiscalNote founder Tim Hwang—but, not surprisingly, it may be deep-pocketed companies that benefit the most. And with November’s midterms approaching, the US’s election systems are still woefully insecure, as Martin Giles reports.

Our cover in January 2013

In this issue we also take a close look at the famed “filter bubble” effect that’s blamed for political polarization. The striking data visualizations from John Kelly and Camille François show that the effect is real: like-minded people band together online, and extremism shouts loudest. Yet contrary to popular belief, you encounter more opposing views on the internet, not fewer, Adam Piore reports. What happens, as Zeynep Tufekci explains in the opening essay, is that online communities create a tribal mind-set that makes people less receptive to these views.

Finally, as Tufekci also argues, it would be as much of a mistake to simply blame technology for democracy’s ills as it was to hail technology as democracy’s savior. The turmoil of the past few years is of our societies’ own making. We need to pay more attention to how technology exacerbates those problems, but fixing them is not solely, or even mainly, a technological challenge.

Yet while tech isn’t the solution, it can be part of it. We end this issue on two hopeful notes. Chris Horton reports from Taiwan on an experiment in digital democracy that shows how simple design rules for an online platform can lead people toward consensus instead of division. And in Karl Schroeder’s science fiction story ... but I won’t give away the plot. I hope this issue gives you plenty to chew on. Let me know what you think at [email protected].