This is the second time we have devoted an entire edition of Demos Quarterly to technology. The first was in March 2016, and to introduce it then, we wrote that ‘immensely powerful technological storms are brewing’. Whether in politics, the economy or society, it was clear, we argued, that many of our settled ways of going about things could be swept away.
I don’t need to mention Trump or Brexit: that the world has become a very different place over the past 18 months goes without saying. We wrote in the future tense then, but now only the present tense will do. The social furniture is tumbled over, our ways of life are being knocked askance, and will continue to be so. We need to understand technology’s highest heights and lowest lows in order to rearrange it, and the essays in this issue seek to shine some light on both ends of the spectrum.
Baroness Lane-Fox takes the broadest view. The first step is to pull our heads out of the sand and stop thinking about tech as a niche topic. We all need to learn how tech is shaping us, because that’s the only way that we can begin shaping it. Education is also key for Jamie Bartlett. The only real answer to online hate is the long slog: the task of teaching society to be decent and tackling the thorny, deep-rooted problems of anti-social behaviour, digital or not. Fake news, says Charlie Beckett, likewise, is at least partly about separating the signal from the noise; media literacy is as much a question of integrity as insight.
A better understanding of tech is crucial for our policymakers, argues Bruce Schneier. Encryption might help the bad guys, but it protects everyone else as well, and politicians need to resist the temptation to weaken it. Maggie Philbin and Leigh Smyth’s pieces focus on the problem of who is allowed to have a stake in our digital future. Maggie Philbin writes about challenging the idea that ‘tech isn’t for me’, particularly in low socio-economic groups, and Leigh Smyth points out how much talent is currently lost whilst women remain under-represented – from STEM education through to jobs in tech.
If the first piece of the furniture is education, the second is security, and it’s pleasing to see a contribution here from GCHQ – proof itself of how far intelligence has moved since the days of neither confirm nor deny. Dr Paul Killworth reflects on how GCHQ has embraced the Internet throughout his career, and calls for a collective consensus as the basis for collective security – ‘at least amongst democracies’. That call is made more urgent when read alongside Ed Lucas’ searing piece. A New Cold War is happening, he argues, fought on online battlefields. Russian trolls, smear-campaigns, propaganda, cyber-warfare are all rampant, he warns, and have been met only weakly by a divided and incoherent West.
But as Lucas charts the rise of one adversary, Maura Conway signals the nascent decline – at least online – of another. In 2014 and 2015, ISIS was in full voice on social media, using it as their recruiting sergeant and mouthpiece. But pressure from Western intelligence and the tech giants has pushed them off social media and back into the darker corners of the Internet. Proof of what can be achieved even in somewhere as staggeringly vast and ungovernable as social media. Max Hill QC also tackles the problem of how the spectacle of terrorist attacks become the ‘wallpaper of fear’ online, but concludes that further legislation probably isn’t the answer.
The scale of online child sexual abuse confronted by the Internet Watch Foundation is laid out in Susie Hargreaves’ piece, a grave reminder of how much there is left to do, even where the problem is one that most of the world has agreed to cooperate to end.
The world may have changed since March 2016, but one general concern – explicit in some pieces, implicit in others – has endured: we need to change as a society, but can we change quickly enough? Technology is in hyperdrive, so how does everything else – be it the understanding of politicians, citizens’ knowledge, collective consensus on security, the law, international treaties, or anything else – keep up?
I’m sure the future will see another edition of Demos Quarterly reflecting again on how different the world has become. But the kind of world we will see depends greatly on whether we can answer these complex questions.