Book Review ;Technology And Democracy: Toward A Critical Theory Of Digital Technologies, Technopolitics, And Technocapitalism
The technology did not just allow people to connect to their dear ones virtually; it was even the primary medium through which business was conducted- during and even after the pandemic. Teaching also relied heavily on technology during the pandemic, as human mobility was highly restricted. In short, the world experienced a digital transformation. From business to education to shopping, everything went online. However, at the same time, the pandemic also made some of the dormant socio-economic fault lines prominent. One such fault line is the digital divide. Unlike in European countries, in India, due to the digital divide, many students had to drop out of school during the pandemic. Thus, technology has become a force to reckon with in the post-pandemic world even as it engenders a broad and profound impact.
The pandemic provides us with a case study to analyze the role of digital technology in contemporary times and how it has impacted society. Interestingly, the pandemic also provides two pictures of technology. The book under review examines technology's role and argues how it has transformed society and impacted democracy. However, Douglas Kellner, the author of the book, does not confine himself to interrogating the question of the interplay between society and technology. Instead, his enterprise in the book is to develop a critical theory of digital technology. This enterprise is not without context. Often two contrasting images of technology are shown. One is those, whom Kellner calls technophilic- who believe in the inherent goodness of technology and innovation. While the other is those whom Kellner calls technophobic- who underscores technology's dehumanizing and alienating aspect. However, modern technology and innovations in the form of Facebook and Artificial Intelligence, among others, defy the above categorization because there is a contest over whether it is enhancing human life and democracy or facilitating its degradation. According to a report by Amnesty International, Facebook promoted violence against the minority Rohingya in Myanmar, which claimed thousands of lives. When this incident is compared to the promise of Facebook- that is, giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together- the mismatch between the promise and reality of the technology is demonstrated.
Interestingly, while laying out the negative sides of the technology, Kellner acknowledges its empowering potential. There appears to be confusion, or the picture needs to be clearer on what this modern technology entails and how it can be used to improve the human condition. The failure of the cultural and media studies to capture, by way of theorization, the recent phenomenon wherein how information and technology have impacted society is one of the complex tasks which Kellner takes up in this book. Thus Kellner states, "we need to develop a critical theory of technology in order to sort out positive and negative features, the upside and downside, the benefits and the losses in the development and trajectory of the new technologies" because technology is embedded in society . Doing this- that is, theorizing critical digital technology, Kellner argued, would help in "giv[ing] direction to research work in explaining, organizing, analyzing, and predicting phenomena and showing their relationships to enhance understanding."
The book is divided into ten chapters, where each chapter explores what technology has unleashed and how it can be used to further interest of the people and how their democratic and citizenship rights could be further improved. Differently put, Kellner follows a diagnosis–prognosis framework in this book. First, the author identifies an issue triggered by technological change. Secondly, the author explains how to address that issue using technology.
While reading the book, one gets a strong sense of it being a manifesto, where the author calls the readers to recalibrate their strategy because, unlike the industrial society, we are living in an information society. This transformation, Kellner underlines, "… poses tremendous challenges to critical social theorists, citizens, and educators to rethink their basic tenets, to deploy the proliferation of digital technology and media in creative and productive ways, and to restructure the workplace, social institutions, schooling, and our democratic institutions to respond constructively and progressively to the technological and social changes that we are now experiencing." Rhetorically, Kellner asks whether our devices are sufficient to address the challenges of the information society. If not, what needs to be done?
The recent upsurge in authoritarianism- whose manifestation we saw in Donald Trump becoming President of the US- was facilitated by information technology. It won't be wrong to state that digital technology has restructured global capital, and conglomerates are capitalizing on this emergent technology to consolidate power. Kellner also coined the term infotainment, meaning that information and entertainment have coalesced. Kellner states this phenomenon has restructured labor and leisure, which was not the case a couple of decades ago. These developments have not facilitated techno-capitalism- the source of profit, but of social power, too.
Post-pandemic, one has witnessed the issue of the digital divide due to which many students have dropped out of school. However, the following picture has also emerged during the same time: the top 1% owns 33% of the country's wealth. This shows the dual and contrasting role technology and information is playing. Even in the domain of politics, the phenomenon called techno politics, Keller shows that the boom or information has undermined democracy as the ecosystem was bombarded with misinformation and disinformation. Due to this, the voters were not able to make informed choices. This essentially has served a blow to the idea of democracy.
It is against the above backdrop that Kellner asks us to revisit the basic normative and rework and redesign it so that technology not just remains an oppressive tool, but rather it becomes an instrument of empowerment. Kellner provides the template by giving contemporary examples of how technology can be used to fight oppression when authoritarianism is facing the world. Kellner examines the Arab Spring (2011) and states that technology can be used to fight oppressive regimes. He even cites the example of BlackLivesMatter to drive home the point that technology can be used to mobilize and organize masses in the face of oppression. These examples suggest that technology and information boom, if used strategically, hold the promise of providing alternative avenues to contain the deleterious effect of technology. In India, in the wake of the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which introduced religious criteria to India's secular citizenship law, social media played an enabling role in mobilizing and organizing people. The protestor, through social media, provided an alternative understanding of citizenship which challenged the government's conception of citizenship. The force of the protest was such that the government could not implement the law.
Technology and information have taken giant strides in recent times. The traditional idea, methods, and modes of education cannot match the pace of the technological changes we are witnessing. Books have been rendered into digital format, and instruction has gone online. Given this, can we think of a traditional teaching method by reading printed books, or do we need to recalibrate the techniques? Kellner believes that we need to update ourselves, given that we live in an information society where information is the new currency. We need to learn what Kellner calls techno literacy. Techno literacy means that people must learn the game according to which technology works. Doing this would provide them with the tool they can use to contain the harmful effects of technology. In this, people must learn to use computers, and they even are able to learn how AI functions. Kellner even makes a case for the reconstruction of education as technology has upended the traditional setup of education, and its normative has been reconfigured. Those who will not learn new skills will be at their peril.
History is replete with examples that whenever new technology or invention has been introduced or made, respectively, society has witnessed a re-ordering. For instance, take wheels, or for that matter, steam engines. Steam engines played a pivotal role in the industrial revolution. Though the industrial revolution brought a significant change in the life of the masses, it even had an ugly side. The novel of Charles Dicken beautifully captures the dark side of the industrial revolution in England, where people were subjected to inhuman work hours and how used to live in dingy apartments.
Kellner dedicates a chapter providing a framework for the role of intellectuals in this informational age. Dicken might have informed his audience about the nasty aspect of industrial society by writing novels and pamphlets. However, in an information society, the question is whether writing books would be sufficient to inform people, or for that matter, to expose capitalism that works on the logic of raw profit without having any regard for the welfare of the people. The answer would be perhaps no. Intellectuals in information society have a very challenging role because they must deal with many issues – misinformation and disinformation are just the tips of the iceberg. Intellectuals must arm themselves with the understanding of new technologies and educate themselves about how it could be used to improve the condition of the masses. Another big task that intellectuals should commit to is how to use technology to enrich democracy, which lately is backsliding at an unprecedented rate, as captured by V Dem and Freedom House Report (2022). Liberal democracy, Kellner notes, needs to march with participatory democracy, for the dominant current of individualism of liberal democracy has given sustenance to capitalism, which also endorses capitalism but sans any safeguard. Participatory democracy, however, is much more egalitarian and upholds the dignity of individuals. Intellectuals should use technology and informational boom to educate the masses about the benefits of participatory democracy- both by hitting the streets and through webinars.
Kellner's book is essential reading because the time in which we live provides us with a template to understand the challenges and prescribe ways to navigate them. The book is a sort of imploration, where the author asks the citizens of the information society to incorporate the essence of democracy in the design of the technology. This, however, the author says, will come naturally, provided people must organize social movements and protests and devise novel methods. Doing this would not just improve their condition, and it would even enhance democracy, in which lies their redemption- as democracy is not just about electoral politics, it is even about citizens' dignity and human worth. Technology needs to be laced with the spirit of democracy and doing this will help realize the promise of technology. As a result of this transformation, for example, Facebook would not just claim to give agency to people, but the agency would become a reality of the Facebook experience.