Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

A prize to find out if digital tech is fundamentally changing how people behave.
The Nine Dots Prize question, 'Are digital technologies making politics impossible?' is even more relevant following Brexit and the American election as people wrestle with the influence of data analytics, social media and fake online news on those election results. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Nine Dots Prize offers $100,000 for a book that hasn't been written yet. That book will tackle the question: Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

David Runciman is a professor of politics at Cambridge University and one of the judges

Professor David Runciman. (The Nine Dots Prize)

"There's been a lot of stuff about how digital technology might be transforming politics, making a difference, changing the ways that political parties behave. But we wanted to get to the really big issue, which is: Is it fundamentally changing how people behave? And that might make democracy harder, maybe even impossible," Runciman says.

It's an issue of identity politics, says Runciman. He says that instead of bridging gaps, digital technology has been polarizing. Social media makes it easier for people to choose and then reinforce the identities they want to have and the communities they want to belong to.

The spread of fake news affects politics, and it isn't unique to the Facebook age, Runciman says, referencing old-fashioned political pamphlets distributed during past populist movements.

"It's not so much that people are treating fake news as though it were real, it's that we treat real news as though it was fake, in that we take all the news that we get – real, unreal – but we filter it through our preconceived identities."


However, he says, the reach of modern social networks is far beyond that of any traditional news medium.

"For them simply to say that they are neutral, they are just a kind of machine that conveys whatever people want them to convey, is nonsense. We know that their algorhithms shape how people experience news… So they can't just wash their hands of this."

Runciman says technology is also disrupting traditional politics in another way, too. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seem to be trying to use the technology at their fingertips "to bypass politics altogether."

I think there will be an acceleration of people experimenting with things that don't look like politics at all, that look like alternative structures of social organization.David Runciman

He says we can't say now if societies will still be organized in a traditionally political way in a few decades, as new healthcare and educational solutions, for instance, are developed through technology.

"I still think the things that [tech giants] want to do, that they need to do, probably do pull them back to Washington, but 20 to 30 years down the line, it could be different."


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