The state we’re in

In thinking about the state we’re in, I sometimes gloomily conclude that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves. Last night I participated in an interesting discussion about whether perspectives from network theory might be useful in improving public making. As the conversation proceeded over dinner I kept my mouth shut and made some notes in an attempt to sort out the jumble in my head. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Why are democratic states like Britain struggling to cope with the challenges that now face them?

Some relevant factors:

  • A dysfunctional electoral cycle that makes it impossible to do long-term strategy. Exacerbated by rolling news cycle and tabloid media which make deliberative democracy more or less impossible.
  • The accelerating gap between the speed of technological advance and the pace of legislative and regulatory adaptation.
  • The fact that we have a world that is increasingly dominated by networking and related technologies that few people understand. (“The Internet is the first thing that humans have built that humans do not understand.” – Eric Schmidt)
  • This is exacerbated by the fact that the technology has affordances that make it different from earlier general-purpose technologies. These are: zero marginal costs; powerful network effects; the dominance of power-law distributions; and the possibility of technological lock-in.
  • The tensions between democracy’s need for openness, oversight and accountability and the security state’s need for surveillance and secrecy.
  • The apparent inability of legislatures to devise credible methods of democratic oversight of security services. Analog mindsets trying to cope with digital realities.
  • Law-making that is unduly influenced by corporate (or, in the case of surveillance laws, security agency) interests.
  • Enfeebled or corrupted democratic institutions at all levels: policy and political elites captured by neoliberal ideology and corporate interests; hollowed-out legislatures unable to impose effective control over the executive; apathetic, cynical and disaffected electorates.

Path dependency

  • The options available to us at any given moment are determined by decisions and choices we made (explicitly or implicitly) at earlier points in time. An example: we now live in a networked world the business model of which is intensive surveillance by both state agencies and corporations. The state does it because (supposedly) it is necessary to protect society from terrorism, crime etc. Corporations do it because it enables advertising-funded business models. But those business models were a response to (i) the fact that Internet users from the beginning were implacably opposed to paying for online services; and (ii) that since the key to online success was to get quickly to the point where network effects kicked in, the quickest way to get to that point was to provide ‘free’ services. So we are now coping with the consequences of choices that Internet users made in the 1990s.

Ideological capture

  • Governing elites in most democracies appear to have been captured by neoliberal philosophies which devalue public services and over-value private enterprise. This leads to a failure to appreciate the importance of the state in fostering and enabling long-term technological innovation and development. (All of the prosperity of our current Internet companies is built on a network that was built by the state. The history of most general purpose technologies shows the importance of state funding in various stages in the evolution of the technology.) Yet the idea of “the entrepreneurial state” (to use Mazzucato’s term) is regarded by governing elites as an oxymoron. (Like “military intelligence”?)

How democracies change

  • Reluctantly, slowly and generally only in response to serious crises, of which the most common historically has been the trauma of war. In general (cf David Runciman’s books) they muddle through. But muddling through takes time. The big questions about our current challenges (climate change, managing the networked society) is whether we will have enough time to muddle through.