Technology and democracy

I went to Oxford last week to interview Philip Howard for the Talking Politics podcast. Since June last year he has been Professor of Internet Studies at the University and Director of Research in the Oxford Internet Institute where his current project is on Computational Propaganda, which he elegantly defines as “algorithms + lies”.

I’ve been keen to interview Philip for ages, because his work illuminates the question that currently preoccupies me: what is the Internet doing to our politics, and thereby to democracy? He’s a sociologist by background, and he first came to this question in 2000, when he worked as an intern (but really as an ethnographer) on both the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns. What he saw, close-up, was a small group of techies who had already sussed the potential of the Net for political campaigning, and were experimenting with data-driven strategies which, among other things, played fast and loose with people’s privacy. From this came his first book on technology and democracy — New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen.

After observing how the technology operated in a liberal democracy, Philip then moved to ask what does the technology mean for societies where the culture of use is greatly constrained. In the end, this produced a book — The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam which covers a large number of predominately-Muslim countries. What he found was that while authoritarian rulers gradually became attuned to the potential of digital technology for social control, nevertheless availability of the Internet also brought noticeable changes in what politics meant for their populations. These changes were in areas like gender politics and in the places where ordinary people would go to learn about religious texts. The Net, he found for example, was where young Muslim women learned to talk about love in cultures where marriages were arranged; the place where people with questions about their lives and faith could go to mullahs and imams who were not necessarily those in their locality. In this work he found what in retrospect looks like “a very clear arc to the Arab Spring”.

The third book of his that I wanted to talk about was his latest — *Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up — in which, instead of looking back at recent history of the impact of digital technology, he tries to look forward. This is always a dangerous thing for an academic to do, and he has experienced much more pushback from critics than he had from his earlier books. I can see why. What he’s trying to do is to figure out how the ‘Internet of Things’ juggernaut that is currently heading our way will change societies, and that’s a really big question.

I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it’s bold: for example, he thinks that a comprehensively networked world will have some of the uneasy stability that the era of the Cold War had: states will be wary of engaging in cyberwarfare simply because the consequences are so incalculable. (A kind of virtual Mutual Assured Destruction.) The Pax Technica of the title is a play on the Pax Britannica of history — a world order imposed by the dominance of a particular global power. That’s an interesting idea, if only because discussions about digital technology rarely wind up in the realms of geopolitics. Another — less speculative IMHO — idea is that a major determinant of our networked future will be the technical standards that emerge as the dominant ones (much as TCP/IP emerged as dominant in the 1980s). There are echoes here of Ross Anderson’s pathbreaking paper “Privacy versus government surveillance: where network effects meet public choice”.

What’s frustrating is that there’s a whiff of technological determinism about Pax Technica. I was reminded at times of Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World is Flat. Friedman really does seem to believe that technology drives history. And I guess that a criticism of Pax Technica is that its author does too. (Which is a bit odd for a sociologist.) The difference between him and Friedman, though, is that Philip thinks that we might be able to divert the path of the juggernaut, whereas Friedman believes that we just have to grin and bear it.

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed that conversation in Oxford. As with all good conversations we had to break off long before we had exhausted the subject. It’ll be on the Net soon after this is posted. Hope you enjoy it.

If you do, then Philip’s Inaugural Lecture is also thought-provoking and interesting. His question: Is Social Media Killing Democracy?

And his answer? … well, tune in and find out…

Oh — and about the photograph: Philip is a Professorial Fellow of Balliol College. Which means that, among other things, he has a secure place to keep his bike.

Republicans: always in favour of small government — until the hurricane strikes

Nice point by Joe Stiglitz:

In responding to the hurricane – and in funding some of the repair – everyone turns to government, just as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Again, it is ironic that this is now occurring in a part of the country where government and collective action are so frequently rebuked. It was no less ironic when the titans of US banking, having preached the neoliberal gospel of downsizing government and eliminating regulations that proscribed some of their most dangerous and anti-social activities, turned to government in their moment of need.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from such episodes: markets on their own are incapable of providing the protection that societies need. When markets fail, as they often do, collective action becomes imperative…

The new Democrats who hate Trump — but also hate trade unions

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the stranger sights of June was watching the titans of Silicon Valley meekly obeying Trump’s summons to a tech summit (dubbed his American Technology Council) at the White House… Some attendees looked pretty sheepish, as well they might. Many, if not most of them, abhor everything the president stands for. The meeting, as with many of Trump’s other round-table assemblies, brought to mind footage of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet in session. But while it was clear that many of those present would have preferred to have been elsewhere, they were also chary of being seen to snub a populist hero. So the aphrodisiac effect of power was much in evidence.

For politically-savvy observers, the delicious irony was that many of the tech crowd were known Democrat supporters and donors. We’ve known this for a while…

Read on

An existential threat for the digital giants?

This morning’s Observer column:

So now we find ourselves in a strange place where huge corporations are in a position to determine what is published and what is not. In a working democracy, this kind of decision should be the prerogative of the courts. It’s as if society has outsourced a critical public responsibility to a pair of secretive, privately owned outfits. And it raises a really interesting question: why have two companies that have hitherto always maintained that they are mere conduits for free expression suddenly become conscientious censors?

The answer is that they fear that if they are not seen to be doing something about it, then the lawmakers will act. Until recently, this didn’t seem very likely. But things have changed…

Read on.

Discharging Trump: medics should be on tap, not on top.

As readers of this blog know only too well, I think that Trump has psychiatric and personality problems that make him unfit for the office that he holds. But reaching that conclusion is the easy bit. The really problematic part is what to do about it. There are at least three questions. 1. Who decides that the President has to be relieved of power? 2. What kind of process is required? And 3. How is all this to be squared with democracy?

There’s a thoughtful piece by Peter Kramer and Sally Satel (two psychiatrists with opposing political affiliations) about these questions in today’s New York Times.

The peg for their opinion piece is the fact that 28 Democrats in Congress have put forward a Bill which could lead to a formal assessment of Trump’s mental fitness.

The bill seeks to set in motion a part of the 25th Amendment that empowers Congress to establish a body to assess the president’s ability to govern. The commission created by the bill would have 11 members, at least eight of whom would be doctors, including four psychiatrists. If the commission doctors found Mr. Trump unfit to govern and the vice president agreed, the vice president would become acting president. Since the 25th Amendment was written to address temporary disability, it allows the president to announce that he has recovered — presumably Mr. Trump would do so immediately — and force a congressional vote on the finding of unfitness.

Their view is that the role of professional psychiatrists in all this is problematic. That’s a polite way of saying that it’s bonkers. Having a majority of professionals on the commission is totally inappropriate. Removing a president in a democracy is a political, not a medical, matter.

Kramer and Satel conclude, sensibly:

If the time comes that Congress finds Mr. Trump unable to discharge his duties, its members should appoint a bipartisan commission dominated by respected statesmen to set the removal process in motion. Obviously, if a president’s health deteriorates drastically, medical consultants should be called in. But when the problem is longstanding personality traits, a doctor-dominated commission simply provides cover for Congress — allowing legislators, presumably including those in the majority, to arrange for the replacement of the president while minimizing their responsibility for doing so.

Spot on. Medics should be on tap, not on top.

The Republicans’ dilemma

Peter Wehner, writing in the New York Times:

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll illustrates the dilemma Republican politicians face. It found that 28 percent of polled voters say they approved of Mr. Trump’s response to Charlottesville. But among Republican voters, the figure was 62 percent, while 72 percent of conservative Republicans approved.

The more offensive Mr. Trump is to the rest of America, the more popular he becomes with his core supporters. One policy example: At a recent rally in Phoenix, the president said he was willing to shut down the government over the question of funding for a border wall, which most of his base favors but only about a third of all Americans want.

Implication: anyone hoping for impeachment from a Republican Congress is engaging in magical thinking.

Russia, Trump and the election

As ever, Jack Shafer’s ‘Swamp Diary’ has useful insights into the tangled web in Washington. This for example:

If the Russian operations don’t add up to a single rational number, that’s to be expected. The Russian playbook teaches its operatives to “create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is,” British journalist Ben Macintyre told novelist John le Carré in a recent conversation. “It’s called maskirovka—little masquerade.”

Peering into the wilderness of mirrors, Macintyre offered this about the Russians:

“They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.”

Nice metaphor, that.

What to do when the president is, er, off his rocker

Basically, at the moment, nothing — even though the guy has his finger on the nuclear button.

The New Yorker has a piece by Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard law professor, asking the question “Will Trump be the death of the Goldwater rule?”

“The class of professionals best equipped to answer these questions”, she writes,

has largely abstained from speaking publicly about the President’s mental health. The principle known as the “Goldwater rule” prohibits psychiatrists from giving professional opinions about public figures without personally conducting an examination, as Jane Mayer wrote in this magazine in May. After losing the 1964 Presidential election, Senator Barry Goldwater successfully sued Fact magazine for defamation after it published a special issue in which psychiatrists declared him “severely paranoid” and “unfit” for the Presidency. For a public figure to prevail in a defamation suit, he must demonstrate that the defendant acted with “actual malice”; a key piece of evidence in the Goldwater case was Fact’s disregard of a letter from the American Psychiatric Association warning that any survey of psychiatrists who hadn’t clinically examined Goldwater was invalid.

There’s something comical about this, in the sense that if any of these august professionals did indeed conduct an examination of the president, then they would be bound by patient confidentiality and so would be unable to contribute to a public discussion on his mental state.

Not being a psychiatrist, I am unfettered by these considerations and indeed performed my own examination of the question some time ago. I dug out the Mayo Clinic’s list of the symptoms and causes of ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’ (aka sociopathy) and concluded that Trump ticked most of the boxes. I also quoted the only commentator I could find who openly approached the question of whether Trump is unhinged — Andrew Sullivan — and who had also concluded in the affirmative.