Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet

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My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.

 

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The death of our Republic is inevitable, but what should replace it?

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Happy two hundred and thirty ninth birthday, America! Although it’s more accurate to claim the country is younger and date the current republic’s birth from the adoption of the constitution in 1787. Amazingly, it’s a constitution that in most respects remains essentially the same despite all the enormous changes that have happened in the centuries since it was written.

Americans are constantly claiming that their country is “exceptional” which has to bug the hell out of non-Americans and is only really true if exceptional is taken to mean something like weird. What makes us so weird is that we’re a country whose identity is based not on some real or imagined ethnicity, religion, or ancient civilization, but on allegiance to a set of political documents and the system of government those documents sanction. What unites a gun toting bible-belter and an atheist card carrying member of the ACLU is adherence to the same document, though their interpretations of it are radically different. Lately, it seems, this tug of war over the constitution is about to tear the document in two.

The tension of  mutually contradictory interpretations was on full display in the recent fight over marriage equality where both sides, in all sincerity, believed their case justified by the very same document. The constitution considered by members of the right as a “Christian document” and one that enshrined authority over the question of marriage to the states, or that same constitution, and much more so the Declaration of Independence that came before it, considered by those on the left fighting for equal rights as what Martin Luther King Jr called a “promissory note” that held within itself the extension of the rights implicit in the Declaration and their extension to all citizens.

This dispute over the constitution’s meaning is at the root of the current fight over the Confederate flag, a debate which otherwise appears so superficial that seen in this light makes much more sense. What I think very few white Americans, myself included, have understood is to what extent the Confederate States of America claimed for itself the mantle of the constitution and its “true” meaning and turned what most of us have seen as the nation’s greatest hypocrisy and sin- the existence of slavery in a country supposedly founded on the principles of freedom and equality- as its’ justification.

For African Americans, the Confederate flag represents not just the brutality of slavery, but a claim of possession to a narrative of American history that claims freedom and equality is a privilege of whites alone. Something that is radically different than romantic ideas of the Confederacy as a tragic lost cause and rebellion against authority that we’re so prevalent in my youth. At a bare minimum the state capitals of governments whose insurrection against the Union resulted in deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers should never have been flown such a flag.

Full throated affection for the Confederacy when combined, as seems to often be the case, with strong American nationalism or patriotism always seemed contradictory to me as a Yankee. How could one worship the Confederacy while at the same time loving the Union that crushed it? What was lost on me was that such a view was not contradictory in so far as one thought that it was the Confederacy that had fought to defend the “real” and “legitimate” constitution. In other words that there was this dark and inegalitarian interpretation of the constitution and the American story that existed side-by side with the progressive (if far less than radical) understanding that I had always been taught. Since its beginnings and for a long time to come the greatest internal danger to the republic (in terms of violence) will continue to emerge from this ancient dispute over the constitution’s meaning and come from those who think they are acting in defense of some lost and ultimately inegalitarian version of it.

Yet such a conflict as a danger to the Republic itself, a sort of replay of the Civil War, seems very unlikely to be the way the Republic will ultimately end, and end it must just as every other system of government and civilization has eventually passed from the scene. On that score, the political scientists Francis Fukuyama and David Runciman recently held a fascinating public discussion that grappled with the question of not just American democracy’s future, but the future of democracy itself.

Fukuyama is of course famous for his 1989 essay and subsequent book “The End of History and the Last Man” which argued that history seemed to have a direction moving politics ever closer to what we would consider democratic forms. After 9-11 that view has taken a shellacking as trends towards democratization have gone into reverse. Fukuyama still thinks that democracy holds the greatest attraction as a system of government globally, though the process of democratization will likely be very slow and move forward in fits and starts. His biggest concern isn’t the arrival of some real alternative system of government out of a place like China, Russia or the Middle East to rival democracy in its attractiveness. Rather, his concern is with what he calls political decay-  a phenomenon he finds particularly troubling in the United States.

Fukuyama is not some kind of anarchist outsider but an essentially a conservative thinker which makes his view that the financial crisis essentially enable political capture by elites who stymied any efforts at real reform all the more troubling. What he considers the archaic system of American government enables a “vetocracy” in which any special interest with deep enough pockets can initiate legal action to block or delay indefinitely policies regardless of such vetoes impacts on the public good. The system is therefore both hobbled and weak while at the same time being open to capture to manipulation and gaming on account of its monetized elections and revolving door. It is perhaps the worst mixture government for the long term health of society- too weak to make difficult decisions in the nation’s long term interests and too corrupt to make good ones.

David Runciman is much less well known than Fukuyama but he shouldn’t be having written one of the most thought provoking tracks on democracy in recent years- The Confidence Trap. Runciman’s point in his discussion with Fukuyama build off of the argument he had presented in that book. That argument basically is that the greatest danger to democracy is its success. Runciman points out that the public sense of democracy has always been that it is failing miserably, which in a sense it is.

Yet it is that system’s very fickleness that gives rise to its sense of lacking direction and failure that allow democracies during periods of extreme crisis to respond with a flexibility its more stable rivals do not possess.  The problem Runciman sees and adds to the fear of decay identified by Fukuyama is that democracy’s technocrats have become extremely adept and preventing crises from getting to the point that the public is jarred into pushing forward systemic change, and the system and society therefore rots over time.

A possibility that troubles Runciman is that the time scales of the potential crises facing democracy seem to have decoupled from the elections that remain the primary route through which democratic change is effected. Potential crises are either now too extended in time – like global warming, or possess the lightning speed of technology in comparison to which electoral cycles can seem almost testudine. Are we superficially preventing the full onset of crises only to face much more systemic ones we will not have the wherewithal to respond to in the future?

Some had hoped that if politics would not change itself, technology would end up changing the way we did politics. Yet the promise of technology to transform democracy in the early days of the internet have also proven to be false- technology is convenient and immediate – like an app- whereas politics  seemingly by its nature is anything but.

Another point Runciman mentions but does not elaborate upon to this degree which seems particularly relevant today is the extension of democracy’s concerns not merely in terms of time but of space. Many of the most important issues facing us are global in scope. Thus the great hope of some democracy advocates that the European Union offered was as an emerging model for how democracy could be extended into the international sphere. It is a hope now dashed by the crisis in Greece. The EU is not a nascent new form of transnational democracy, but appears to be a new form of technocratic hegemony exercised in the interest of the strongests states.

The public at large has become exhausted with politics to the extent that some have argued we turn our decision making over to our increasing intelligent machines.  Perhaps the ultimate end of not just the American Republic but democracy itself will come when our current systems of electoral competition are replaced by bureaucratic mechanism administered rationally and impartially by AI- an aloocracy. Or we’ll rule the world from our smart phones and their descendants deciding everything by means of constant referendum.  The problem here is that most of the questions that face us can’t be algorithmically decided because they are questions of values, nor is it clear transforming decision making into something like referendum represents real freedom rather than surrendering our ability to think and debate to the equivalent of an electronic mob. Which leaves me with the questions: what system might replace our Republic that would actually be better than a reformed version of it that actually lives up to our more just and egalitarian aspirations for it?