NUCLEAR bombs can destroy us. Facebook undermines our privacy. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots can enslave us (or, worse, take our jobs). Synthetic biology and gene-editing have humans playing God. Social media make us depressed: we’ve never been so connected yet never so alone. 

Those are just a few of the complaints levelled against technology. For most of human history, however, technology was mostly seen as a force for good. More people would live because of technical progress, from refrigeration to vaccination, than perish because of it, despite lethal inventions such as gunpowder. Technology was viewed as the fruit of open inquiry and debate, and its advance was broadly welcomed. More was better.

Today a “techlash” is under way. It comes in many forms, but two stand out. First, a belief that web titans such as Facebook, Amazon and Google have grown too dominant; and, second, a view that AI and algorithms are not transparent or accountable. Both concerns pit the individual against potentially overwhelming power—of the company, the platform, the algorithm.

Take the web giants. They collect a vast amount of data on their users. Much of this is sensitive, from medical matters to political views. So protecting privacy is vital—yet many people have been shocked at revelations about the extent of the information Facebook holds, and the company’s relaxed approach to safeguarding it. That has further fuelled fears about the platform’s growing influence on society and politics. 

Facebook’s mantra, “move fast and break things” (an injunction to software developers not to rely on legacy code), has the ring of not caring about the consequences. The motto echoes the narrator’s words in "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written in a previous period of misgivings over the accumulation of power: “They were careless people,” he laments. “They smashed up things ... and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.” 

China’s web giants, such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, face less of a “techlash”. The Chinese state is hardly a champion of  privacy protection. Yet even there the extraordinary extent of data-gathering by the web companies is starting to raise eyebrows.

The second concern—over AI, algorithms and robotics—involves a fear that the technologies may one day start to work beyond human control. Might such systems become so sophisticated that they surpass the ability of people and institutions to manage them? And could that even threaten humanity? 

A more immediate threat is that the algos and bots may replace human labour, creating a jobs apocalypse. Economists are divided on this. Optimists point out that technology always displaces labour, but that new jobs are created around the new methods. Pessimists counter that never before have so many jobs been threatened at once.

A further worry is that such technologies might operate outside the transparency and accountability that democracy requires. For example, in many court systems in America, bail, sentencing and parole are influenced by computer systems that inform the judge and other decision-makers about the likelihood that a person will miss their court date or reoffend. But the systems, supplied by private companies, are not open to outside inspection, usually on security or intellectual-property grounds. In some cases, even the jurisdictions that have licensed the software are unable to inspect it because of the commercial terms of use.

To critics, this is the canary in the coalmine for how the algorithmic society may unfold more broadly. If safeguards are lacking in the legal system, a domain inherently designed to have them, how can we be confident that adequate protection of rights will prevail anywhere else?

The struggle for liberalism in the 19th century involved the individual versus the state. In the 20th century it added a new dimension: the individual against the bureaucracy and the company. In the 21st century it has widened again: man versus algorithm. 

In Open Progress, the aim is to examine these issues in depth. It will also consider the controversies and consequences flowing from other emerging technologies, such as brain-computer interfaces and self-driving cars. And it will look at the environment and potential responses to climate change. Technology seems destined to touch and transform just about everything: the case for understanding it within the framework of liberal values is essential.