Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech
by Jamie Susskind
Oxford University Press, 2018
Nightmarish dystopias lurk just offstage during every scene of Jamie Susskind’s debut Future Politics. He tracks the inroads technological advances have made into social, cultural, and political life and then hazards trying to project those inroads forward in time, to extrapolate the future from a present none of us could even remotely have imagined 15 years ago. It’s a project doomed to failure, but carefully reading enough of the failures might, so the optimistic reasoning goes, help to prevent the worst of the alternate futures on offer.
Susskind’s inquiry into the future of digital technology’s impact on the world is bogglingly wide-ranging (and refreshingly literate - it’s a rare tech-wonk who can quote Aristotle and Karl Marx without lapsing into tedium, but Susskind manages it on more than one occasion), but there are three central concepts at the heart of his book: force, particularly “the rise in power of private entities able to use force against us, and the emergence of autonomous digital systems without human oversight and control,” scrutiny, including not only the eradication of the last vestiges of traditionally-understood privacy but also “the capacity of third parties to rate and predict our behaviour and then remember everything about us for a long time,” and perception, which Susskind refers to somewhat vaguely as “the capacity to control with ever-increasing precision what we know, what we feel, what we want, and therefore what we do.”
“Can we bring these powerful and complex new technologies to heel?” he asks. “What hope is there for ordinary people to have a share in the powers that govern them?”
Future Politics does its nerdy best to answer that question with hope instead of despair (something about blockchains), but nevertheless, its portrait of those ordinary people increasingly crushed between tiny superrich oligarchies, overreaching interventionist governments and, essentially, the Borg Collective, is as dark as something out of The Matrix. “I’ve deliberately avoided devoting many pages in this book to how all-powerful AI systems might come to destroy the world,” he writes, “not because such a scenario is impossible, but because it’s already a popular topic of writing and one which can (unhelpfully) obscure the more immediate problems that we’ll have to face in the digital lifeworld.”
“The digital lifeworld” is our author’s term for the unholy hi-tech futurity he’s invoking in these pages, and if the term sounds vaguely barren to you, you’re not hearing it wrong. When Susskind insists that “We can learn from Montesquieu,” readers of a certain age will feel certain he writes perhaps more truly than he knows.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.