Jun 18, 2022
The power of tech corporations is a threat to democracy, yet governments are reluctant to take action. This refreshing book picks apart the ideology that holds them back
As Marx might have put it, a spectre is haunting the world’s democracies: the spectre of tech power. For more than two decades those democracies slept peacefully while a small number of global corporations acquired a stranglehold on the most powerful communications technology since the invention of printing. The political earthquakes of 2016 provided a rough wake-up call as these slumbering giants suddenly realised that “the technological was political”, that unaccountable power was loose in their world, and that if they didn’t rein it in they may wind up as democracies in name only.
The years since that rough awakening have seen a frenzy of legislative and regulatory activity: antitrust suits, draft bills in the US, the EU and the UK (among others), congressional and parliamentary inquiries and so on. Whether any of this leads to effective curbs on tech power remains to be seen, and this reviewer isn’t holding his breath. The question is not whether tech giants can be brought under control: we know that they can because Xi Jinping’s regime has been conducting masterclasses in how to do it. The question for us is: can liberal democracies do it?
The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century by Jamie Susskind is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jul 17, 2021
Russian hacking, smear campaigns and livestreamed massacres are the price of Mark Zuckerberg’s quest for connectivity, grippingly probed by two New York Times journalists
How many books are there about Facebook? I’ve lost count. Many of them belong to the genre of the “insider” story – by an early investor in the company, perhaps; or by a supposed intimate of its founder and Supreme Leader; or by an ex-employee with a bad conscience for the societal damage for which he (and it’s always a he, by the way) has been responsible; or (occasionally) by a vigorous critic of social media such as Siva Vaidhyanathan or Franklin Foer.
I’ve read most of these and so approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre. Continue reading...
Nov 23, 2020
The former Guardian editor’s insights into journalism and how it must regain the public’s trust are perceptive and reflect a chaotic and messy business
“Mummy, what is that man for?” was the question famously asked by a young girl at a rally addressed (at great length) by Gladstone. An analogous question occurred to me as I opened this book by the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian: what is this book for? Also: what is it, exactly?
The title suggests that it’s a user’s guide to news. But, in fact, it’s nothing like that. Instead, it’s a compendium of jottings and mini-essays organised alphabetically from A (for Accuracy) to Z (Zoomers). The motivation for writing it was Alan Rusbridger’s concern at the decline in trust in news organisations during the pandemic. Four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, he writes, he wanted to bring “an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also to look at it from the outside. [Rusbridger is now head of an Oxford college.] How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical – which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be?” Continue reading...
Oct 18, 2020
The climate crisis, gender, populism, big tech, pandemics, race… our experts recommend titles to illuminate the issues of the day
A distinguished climatologist and geophysicist, Michael Mann is director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications tagias well as four books, including 2012’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars and his forthcoming The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, due out in January 2021 (Public Affairs Books). Continue reading...
Aug 15, 2020
The openDemocracy journalist delves into the web of power, money and data manipulation that is bringing our electoral system to its knees
As we try to face the future, we are usually fighting the last war, not the one that’s coming next. One of the most striking points the political philosopher David Runciman made in his seminal book How Democracy Ends was that democracies don’t fail backwards: they fail forward. That’s why those who see in the current difficulties of liberal democracies the stirrings of past monsters – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, to name just three – are always looking in the wrong place. And if that’s true, the key question for us at this moment in history is: how might our current system fail? What will bring it down?
The answer, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight for years. It has three components. The first is the massive concentration of corporate power and private wealth that’s been under way since the 1970s, together with a corresponding increase in inequality, social exclusion and polarisation in most western societies; the second is the astonishing penetration of “dark money” into democratic politics; and the third is the revolutionary transformation of the information ecosystem in which democratic politics is conducted – a transformation that has rendered the laws that supposedly regulated elections entirely irrelevant to modern conditions. Continue reading...