The future belongs to outsiders
History proves again and again that nothing stays the same, and that the fringes of society often become the mainstream, says social media analyst and author Jamie Bartlett. The speed of these transformations is often startling, as what sounds weird quickly becomes normal
“Every single idea you now accept as obvious was once the preserve of a fringe group,” says Jamie Bartlett when I ask him about which fringe groups had been proved “right” by history. “It's not necessarily a question of ‘right’, it's a question of what is made normal. For example: the 19th century Chartists, the suffragettes, the antislavery movement, proponents of universal health care.
And what about Donald Trump? His line of thinking was considered outrageous and impossible just five years ago. Or the Five Star Movement in Italy – now governing – was only set up in 2009. There are too many examples to list.”
Bartlett is a writer and thinker who is making a name for himself as something of a social media sage. Like Charlie Brooker, whose science fiction series “Black Mirror” predicts a near future of bleak human relationships dominated by artificial intelligence (not to mention prime ministers debasing pigs), Bartlett forensically analyzes technology and society like a detective with a magnifying glass – to see where the trails lead and what the road ahead might look like.
Technology as a dividing line
In his recent book Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World (2017), Bartlett looked at a variety of fringe groups and how ideas from left field ended up driving change, from the Anonymous hacktivist group to the alt-right. “It was obvious that there was an appetite for political change, even three or four years ago when I started it. I wanted to explore the fringe ideas that were out there, partly on the assumption that it would be fringe ideas that might one day become mainstream.”
Suffragettes parade in Washington, D.C., May 1914. Their idea that women should be allowed to vote was once considered lunacy.
Which of the groups he describes might have a lasting effect on life in the future? “[That's] very hard to predict of course. Radical groups affect life in different ways. Some plant seeds for the future, others take over, and some nudge the mainstream a little. And others disappear of course! But those which I documented are the ones I thought important. In the next 10 years or so, I think radical environmentalism will become a major political movement. In the longer term, I believe that technology – especially AI [Artificial Intelligence] – will become the major political dividing line. There will be radical anti-tech movements – Luddites essentially – and radical pro-tech movements that want to transcend human capabilities using life extension technology.”
With temperatures and sea levels rising, the “Waterworld” scenario (Kevin Costner drinking his own urine, anyone?) could become a reality. Indeed, in many parts of West Africa, it already is – slums float, resources are scarce. Natural resources, and our fight to secure them, have been at the root of many wars. Perhaps future conflict will be over not access to oil wells, but access to fresh water and arable land. Or perhaps floating cities fed by seaweed farms, as proposed by several architects, will emerge?
Smart machines and the end of work
This sort of future would be a very rough ride, one that rewards the nimble and the flexible. It would also favor the young. The populist movements and leaders that have been ascendant lately – Brexit, Trump, Poland’s Law and Justice, Hungary’s Jobbik – are supported overwhelmingly by the old. They’ve been driven by a retrograde promise of a return to something older and better, by a desire to prevent or even reverse progress.
One of the rebels of the Dark Web is Julian Assange, once a young hacker sought by the Australian police, now the head of Wikileaks
The journalist Paul Mason's book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015) discusses about how robots could be programmed to perform almost any job, from accountancy to surgery. How would the old with their traditional careers and conservative expectations cope in a world without work? His suggestions include a universal basic income. People could then pursue creative opportunities, charitable undertakings, caring, inventing... anything except going to the office for the 9-to-5 grind. In January 2017, Finland started a pilot program that gave 2,000 unemployed people a flat monthly payment of 560 euros, but recently decided not to extend it beyond 2018.
Bartlett agrees that “the biggest two drivers of change in politics I see are undoubtedly the rise of smart machines and climate change. Both will have enormous consequences [that] we've not really thought through.”
Bitcoin was conceived as a citizens’ currency outside of government control. It has become a weapon of rebels and outsiders, because it allows web-based financial transactions that can’t be traced
Work is constantly in flux. Today’s workplace is becoming more tightly controlled, with human employees being treated like robots and robots that ever more closely approximate humans knocking at the door. Literally. If you want sleepless nights, check out Boston Dynamics' latest range of humanoid and animal robots. It's no surprise that the YouTube comments always reference the movie “Terminator” and the rise of machines. Amazon is attempting to monitor and guide every second of its employees' days using vibrating wristbands, blurring the border between person and machine.
Microchips and a new era of control
That border is also blurred by microchips. Human employees have been implanted with them – the U.S. tech firm Three Square put rice-sized microchips into the hands of 50 workers last year. Three thousand Swedes have voluntarily undergone similar implants to avoid having to carry gym membership cards, train tickets and photo IDs – everything can be stored electronically under the skin. Does this usher in a new era of control?
Control comes up a lot in Bartlett's work. In addition to writing for such outlets as The Guardian and The Telegraph, he also deals with politics as director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, a London-based cross-party think tank. This is apt as elections and referenda have been hugely influenced by social media over the past several years. We have a U.S. president who seemingly only communicates in Tweets and fake news stories fabricated in small Macedonian towns spreading like wildfire on Facebook, tricking millions of potential voters into odd decisions. How will democratic states survive a future of selfies and Twitter spats? “I think there will be great strain on the nation state, with its controlled borders, centralized taxation and monopoly of legitimate violence,” Bartlett says. “There will be increasing demands, I suspect, for more powerful governments.”
Edward Snowden has become a poster child for protest in many countries, such as this demonstration in Germany. This former CIA analysts stole millions of documents from the National Security Administration (NSA) before fleeing to Hong Kong, where he revealed to the world extensive U.S. surveillance of its own citizens and foreigners. Facing charges of espionage and theft of government documents, he was granted political asylum in Russia.
And with stronger governments, surely the corollary will be a proliferation of groups and movements agitating against this centralization. Does Bartlett sympathize more with one particular outsider group than others? “I'd rather not answer that if you don't mind!” Speculating about which outsider groups will become normalized is a fascinating guessing game. In Radicals, Bartlett talks about the “Grinders” – a subculture of people who “biohack” their own bodies to improve them. For Grinders, inserting microchips – like the ones we heard about earlier – is a popular lifestyle choice. Technology becomes a part of your body, changing it as it changes the world.
Tech and democracy – an incompatibility problem
Technology is now perhaps the greatest driver of social change, but its benefits don't come for free. In his latest book, The People Vs Tech (2018), Bartlett summarizes the problems with technology and its interactions with politics. “There is an incompatibility problem between modern tech (a new tech) and representative democracies (an old tech). In exchange for the undeniable benefits of technological progress and greater personal freedom, we have allowed too many other fundamental components of a functioning political system to be undermined: control, parliamentary sovereignty, economic equality, civic society and an informed citizenry.”
This microchip, about the size of a grain of rice, was implanted by Wisconsin-based Three Square Market into its employees. It replaces ID cards and allows workers to make purchases in the company store, open doors, log on to their computer accounts and print documents
Can these problems be solved? “I'm not sure we can. I have 20 ideas in my book, but I'm not sure if they're up to the job. Democracy itself will have to change as well. Above all it's down to people to understand that their online decisions make a difference, and act accordingly. But there will also need to be government regulation, too, especially on updating election law and antitrust law.”
Artists create what is not yet there, developers write code to bring ideas to life, outsiders theorize how life can be different. The future is built on the thoughts we've not yet had. The one thing we can't truly know is what is going to happen. But as writers and journalists we have a role – to place some of the puzzle pieces on the board, to suggest solutions, to describe and analyze.
Forty years ago, we had another visionary, the novelist J.G. Ballard – “the sage of Shepperton” – who predicted the invention of the Internet, film star politicians and a society saturated by sex, selfishness, robots and neuroses. We need people to stare into the crystal ball – even if we're troubled by what they see. Just how pessimistic is Jamie Bartlett? Does he see the future like a Black Mirror episode? “I'm more optimistic than Black Mirror... but there are certainly a lot of similarities. As ever, science fiction has very often proved a better guide to the future than nonfiction.”