It’s time to face the facts about our digital world

‘Managed by an algorithm in a merciless world’: Jaime Christley’s recent essay tells a different story than proclaimed on this New York billboard. Photograph: Alamy
‘Managed by an algorithm in a merciless world’: Jaime Christley’s recent essay tells a different story than proclaimed on this New York billboard. Photograph: Alamy

For me, the tech stories of 2017 turned out not to be really tech stories at all. Mostly they were about politics, as the non-tech world woke up to the fact that this digital stuff really affected them. As, for example, when they realised that for a mere $30,000 the Russians could beam subtle political messages to as many as 126 million US voters in an election year without anyone (including Facebook) apparently noticing. Or when big consumer brands suddenly realised that it wasn’t a good idea to have their ads running on YouTube alongside beheading or white supremacist videos. Or when parents woke up to the fact that not everything running on the YouTube Kids channel was wholesome or harmless.

That people were so surprised by these discoveries suggests that the perceptual time lag between technological change and public awareness is longer than we had supposed. The internet, after all, is more than four decades old. For the first 20 years of its existence, cyberspace and the physical world were parallel universes. One was a virtual space with no crime, warfare, violence, politics, espionage or government regulation; the other was exactly the opposite. But from about 1993 onwards (when the web began to take off) things changed, and the two universes merged to produce the networked world we now inhabit – a place where it no longer makes sense to distinguish between offline and online activity. It’s all just stuff that happens. The technical has become social.

Given that, we would expect to see new kinds of literature emerging, composed not by techies celebrating the wonders of digital technology but by writers puzzled or disturbed by what it’s doing to society, or by people who are on the receiving end of the disruption. We need something like Humphrey Jennings’s wonderful compendium Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1885, which gave us such a vivid impression of how people experienced the first industrial revolution.

Two marvellous essays appeared this year that suggest promising stirrings in our own literary undergrowth. Both are by workers in the so-called gig economy. Jaime Christley is an Uber driver in New York and his A Day in the Uber Life provides a riveting insight into what it’s like to be managed by an algorithm in a merciless world. He’s a former yellow cab driver who switched to Uber, and his account of the coming of the Silicon Valley barbarians has echoes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson in their heydays.

“Management panicked because we were all independents, and could walk away with absolutely no advance notice. Handmade signs and photocopied news articles, taped up by the management, started to appear around the office and waiting areas, bad-mouthing Uber for unfair practices. The morning dispatcher who glared at you every day, just for living, suddenly was all smiles, cracking jokes. You started getting newer cars with low miles, not the junkers that had fun features like ripped seat belts and trunks that don’t open. There were two or three other employees around the garage, hard guys from the bad old days who’d rather be framed for murder than treat hacks with an iota of human respect. Because they wouldn’t change their ways, well, one day you noticed you hadn’t seen so-and-so for a couple of weeks. They vanished like political dissidents under an authoritarian regime.”

The other writer, Sam Riches, is a bike courier in Toronto working for a Deliveroo-type algorithm. Like Christley, he writes taut conversational prose in which the humiliation of gig employment hisses like a firehose forced through a very narrow aperture. Here he is, for example, in What Being a Bike Courier Taught Me About Our Broken Economy: “I wonder what happens when someone orders a pizza. A pizza won’t fit in the delivery bag. I figure there has to be something in the algorithm, something built into the app, that funnels pizza orders to those with vehicles. Then I get a call. It’s a pizza delivery. At the restaurant, a server hands me two bags of food and a cartoonishly large pizza box. ‘I’ll let you figure that out,’ he says.
“I push my bike along the busy sidewalk, trying to get back on to the road. I keep the pizza balanced across my handlebars. An older woman glares at me and shakes her head and clicks her tongue, tsk-tsking. I’m trying. I want to tell her, I’m trying.”

We need more of this, more challenges to the Orwellian cant of an industry in which renting out your spare bedroom makes you a part of the “sharing economy”, intrusive messages are described as “reaching out”, and humans getting paid two cents a time for vetting possibly pornographic images are called “Mechanical Turks”.

As Wittgenstein once put it, anything that can be said can be said clearly. So how about this as a New Year resolution: call a spade a spade, even when it’s digital?

John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. He is the author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet.

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