'We Might Not Get To Choose Which Future We Live In' | A Q&A with Carl Miller

10 October 2017

We caught up with Carl Miller, who is the Research Director for the Centre of Analysis of Social Media for Demos, to hear about the politics of power, the future of society as we know it and why he can’t live without Citymapper.

Although he has a more formal and more wordy title, Carl is essentially an investigative journalist, author and researcher. Mainly based at Demos, he describes this place as the main  political  think tank for looking at how the digital world affects politics, policy and decision-making. Carl and keynote speaker  Jamie Bartlett  set up the Centre of Analysis of Social Media for Demos together and work on a daily basis to crunch huge amounts of data in order to understand how society as we know it is changing.

Carl’s recent research focuses heavily on the understanding of power and how to challenge concentrations of it, as he’s working on a new book of the same theme. He’s been tracking down various groups and communities in society to work out how their influence and messages shape the world we live in. Looking at when power has been lost or gained, captured or challenged, Carl has taken a snapshot of the lives of real people and exposed their fractured visions of the future.

"I lived in a political-technology commune in East London with people for whom technology is their way of making their mark on the world."

“The trail I’ve been following has been a winding and strange one. It has taken me to Mexico, to a colourful jamboree of inventors, merchants, architects, and activists that mingle, drink and argue about how the Internet should really work. Through freezing courtyards in Berlin I met techno-activists, hackers, and cyber-pranksters. In South Korea I visited the most digital city on earth; a city full of screaming e-sports fans and invisible hikkikomori - ‘the departed’. They never leave their room and only live their lives online. I lived in a political-technology commune in East London with people for whom technology is their way of making their mark on the world. In Boston I found the deserted model railway club where the hacker ethic began, and in Las Vegas I went to a huge annual gathering of the best hackers in the world. And to Silicon Valley, in the middle of a second gold rush, I went into heart of the digital revolution, a place far stranger than most people suspect, where ‘cool’ ideas collide with bundles of money, and where the assumption is that the world is changing in their image. I built a ‘bot’ to become my spokesman on Twitter. I have peered into the mechanics and architectures of algorithms. I’ve tried to craft viral messages to infect conversations online.

My aim throughout has been a simple one: to learn about the changing complexion of power through the people who use it, capture or challenge it, have held or lost it. Former Presidents and Digital Ministers, spies, soldiers, criminals, investigative journalists, guerrilla viral artists and hackers have all been my guides and interpreters into the worlds and stories that expose how power is changing around us. The story of power is really a story about people, and their visions, grand projects, fears, vanities and humours to change the world we live in.”

So, in the summer of next year we can expect to follow real peoples’ stories and understand how power has influenced them. But before the big book launch, we asked Carl to give us a sneak preview on his initial thoughts on power, he said:

“Power can very scary and unsettling – it infiltrates everything, is as much about burning cars as it about dry academic theory. In today’s society, we are seeing more control and more liberation happening than ever before. Power is becoming both fractured and thrown out to society. For example, we have all become more powerful today through our ability to become and be experts on anything and self-journalists – breaking the latest news stories. While tools such as social media platforms provide us with this opportunity, they also can heavily influence us. People are manipulating what we see every day. When I say people, I don’t just mean the average person, but huge organisations too, often ones that have become accidental perpetrators of power.

"Our ability to change bots, bytes and form new pieces of code is increasing at an exponential rate."

Two prime examples of this are Google and Facebook, they are now unbelievably powerful that we don’t even realise how much they influence our lives. Take Google autocomplete for example – it is practically finishing your sentences and, in turn, our thoughts. Or Google beauty which soaks our subconscious in images of what should be typically perceived as ‘beautiful’.

This sounds like quite a dystopian environment already, but what sort of changes can we expect to see in the world in 10 years time?

That is a very big question. Well, to start with of course technology will rapidly change, but the thing is we literally have no idea what we can expect to see, and that is quite important. Our ability to change bots, bytes and form new pieces of code is increasing at an exponential rate. On top of this, the pace we are getting better at things is increasing so quickly too, so we honestly have a giant series of surprises waiting for us.

In all these surprises, can you tell us roughly what the society will we live in might look like?

The question here is, will all the institutions that we value, be able to keep up? And will they even still be the institutions that we value? Tech is moving so quickly, that right now nothing else is keeping time with it – we can’t draft law quickly enough, politicians don’t understand what is going on, and law enforcement institutions can’t battle technology they don’t understand. So, this basically means there are a series of possible futures we could live in.

"Tech is moving so quickly, that right now nothing else is keeping time with it."

Another important thing to remember is that we might not get to choose which future it is that we live in. Right now, I don’t think the digital revolution is anyone’s choice, it is being driven forward by a small number of people. The pendulum of early noughties tech has swung the other way, and now we are witnessing endless articles bashing tech. Despite the fact that we never asked for a lot of what we have now in the first place, I’m still remaining optimistic. Tech is a massive part of why our lives are better now than they ever have been.

So, despite feeling optimistic, which part of the digital revolution are you most afraid of?

The idea that machine intelligence will start improving itself.

Yeah, us too. What are you most excited about?

Excited is a hard one as I said earlier, we don’t know what is coming. But, I would say Citymapper is what I’m most grateful for.

We also adore Citymapper, how did anyone travel before it! Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, we look forward to reading the book next year.

For further information call us on   or email  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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