Firmin DeBrabander

 

On his book Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

Lastly

Many have observed in 2020 that democracy is endangered, largely by the lure and power of populist autocracy, which is ascendant worldwide—even in the United States, the largest and oldest democracy. Early internet evangelizers believed digital media would be a boon for democracy, enabling different people from across society, even all over the world, to communicate with one another, and build bridges. It did not work out this way: online, people flock to their own kind; they do not want their worldview challenged, but affirmed. They migrate to echo chambers, where they are hardened in their views, and vilify the opposition. Thus, digital media have made for greater political division and partisanship, especially in the United States.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, it looked like digital media would be a wellspring of democratic revolution; now, autocratic regimes have fully coopted said media. They have learned it is easy to isolate and influence people online, confuse them and splinter them, and prevent popular power from coalescing.

I hope Life After Privacy might make people aware of the dangers and shortcomings of digital technology. We are wrongly urged to put our hopes in protecting privacy, as if that were the way to salvage liberty and democracy. But online privacy is worth little—it amounts to little political power—even if it were possible to achieve, or preserve.

Democratic citizens must reach across the digital divide. They must step outside their solipsistic digital bubbles, which give the illusion of privacy and solitude, encourage all manner of asocial behavior, and sunder communal ties. This is not to say we must abandon digital technology. That is hardly possible—never more so than in the age of Covid-19, when we rely on digital media to get anything done. Rather, the digital revolution must be balanced by a return to the public square, where we convene and encounter one another in non-transactional, non-commercial relationships, and see people in their full complexity.

Democracy requires that citizens relearn the art of politics, the art of conversing and deliberating with fully rounded peers, who are respected and recognized. This is how we truly see one another in all our nuances; this is where we construct bonds that overcome partisan divides, enable us to live together in peace and security, and preserve and expand freedom.