What democracy’s future shouldn’t be

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As William Gibson has famously pointed out, the job of the science fiction writer is not to predict the future but to construct one plausible version of it from the pieces already laying around.  I assume that Malka Older was trying to do this deliberately low key Gibsonian thing with her novel Infomacracy, but given the bizarre nature of this current election cycle she instead, and remarkably, ended up anticipating not merely many of its real or feared events, but even ended her novel on the same note of exhaustion and exasperation and even dread resulting from the perceived failures of representative democracy now expressed by many among the elites, and from another the other angle, the young.

In terms of setting and plot, Infomacracy takes place in an imagined near future when democracy, with some notable exceptions, has gone global. As a consequence of some never quite explained crisis, the major powers we associate with political power today- The US, China, the EU, and Japan are no more. The world’s governments have been replaced by a global democratic order in which a variety of corporate and NGO based political groups compete with one another for electorally generated power. Given the absurd, and disturbing shape of current politics, and not just in the US but globally, one would be forgiven for thinking Older is out to describe a Utopian vision of the future, but you would be wrong.

Instead she describes global democracy dying almost the moment it is born. Sabotaged by an almost successful attempt to hijack a world election by the ruling party which is likely to lose called Heritage, or to ride to the majority through the resurrection of historical hatreds- the intent of the corporatist party named Liberty. I shouldn’t have to mention that there’s a party called Philip- Morris, to convey that Older is not describing a political order any small d democrat would look forward to. And all of this takes place within a world where it appears that the vast majority of media and knowledge are mediated by a sort of super-Google known simply, and perhaps as a shoutout to James Gleick, as Information.

Within the midst of this story Older ends up anticipating a number of the actual and potential cyber assaults on the democratic process during the current election. In Older’s imagined world computer hacks are a political weapon, challenges to democratic legitimacy are a trump card (pun intended), and an internet behemoth has become the arbiter of truth.

Whatever complaints I might have about the believability or depth of the novel’s characters, it did manage to make explicit something I hadn’t really thought through before. Few of us living in prosperous, liberal- democratic societies wouldn’t hope that at some point in the future the kinds of rights and capacities we take for granted will not be extended to all of the world’s peoples. And we think this even if we’ve finally learned the tragic foolishness of freedom compelled from the barrel of a gun.

Yet such faith and hope in the world’s democratic future probably should seem strange given how exhausted many of us have become with the sophistry and theater that defines electoral politics. It’s not just the exhaustion of being ruled by ad men, it’s ad men who don’t care what we want and are corrupt and incompetent besides. That American political consultants find it so easy to move between our system and that of deeply corrupt or authoritarian societies should be a troubling sign.

Older manages to capture this, but rather than imagining some truly democratic alternative ends up giving us the view of Plato refracted through the lens of the information age. After all, the heroes of her novel aren’t really in pursuit of political freedom, but are chasing an ideal world where the right course of action arises from an honest wrestling with the facts themselves, rather than, as in any democratic order worth its salt, emerging from conflicting human values.

One of these characters, Ken, is a high ranking member of the PolicyFirst party whose platform is about reasoned solutions along with a deliberate avoidance of the politics of personality and persuasion. Whereas the protagonist of the novel, Mishima, works for Information whose role it seems is not just to bring under one roof all the world’s knowledge and communication but to actively rid the world of falsehood and propaganda.

Whatever the outcome in the novel its underlying message seems to be one of resignation. With this pessimism Older seems to have joined the growing chorus of thinkers who think the way the internet’s democratic promise has imploded since the year zero of 2011 proves Plato was onto something. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that there are alternative versions of digital democracy waiting in the wings, but things don’t look good. 

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Is the internet killing democracy?

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Standing as we are with our nose so tightly pressed against the glass, it’s impossible to know what exactly the current, crazy presidential election will mean, not just for American, democracy, but for the future of democracy itself. Of course, much of this depends on the actual outcome of the election, when the American public will either chose to cling to a system full of malware,  corrupted and buggy, yet still functional, or risk everything on a hard reboot. This would include the risk that we might never be able to reset the clock to the time before we had plunged over the abyss and restore an order that while outdated, ill-designed, and running up against the limits of both still managed to do the job.

Then again, even if Americans don’t go for a hard reboot, that we is avoid electing Trump, it might not be the end of the sort of virus, or even Trojan Horse, his near election had represented. Perhaps instead we’re only at the beginning of the process where the internet breaks democracy.

In less than six weeks we’ll learn a number of very important things about the impact of the 21st century communications technologies on democracy, including how such technologies are likely to be used in elections. For one, we’ll learn whether the centralized, data driven and highly targeted type of voter mobilization pioneered by the Obama reelection campaign in 2012- and now being replicated by Hillary Clinton- is more effective than the kind of shoestring budget, crowd-seeding strategy of Trump which has been technological in the sense that it takes advantage of the major weakness of our age of balkanized media, namely its inability to hold our attention, and thus its over reliance on scandalous behavior to capture our eyes and ears. Trump has also deftly used platforms such as Twitter to do an end run around established media and political institutions. His campaign is a kind of tabloid-addicted media, Twitter enabled coup against the dominant elites, first, of the GOP, and ultimately of the country itself. And neither the elites nor the rest of us non-elites praying for a Trump defeat would necessarily be completely out of the woods should Clinton actually win the election.

A few months back, in the small city of Altoona Pennsylvania, not far from where I live, Trump gave a speech in which he said that the only way Clinton could win the election was if it was “rigged”. From the perspective of those located in the post-industrial wasteland that comprises much of Pennsylvania  the idea that a Clinton victory is only possible through some type of conspiracy will make a great deal of sense. On the street I live on, perhaps one out of every four homes sprouts a Trump sign. The rest of the town is like that as are many of the small communities between here and Schuylkill county, where Trump’s usual catchphrase “Make America Great Again”, is often replaced with “Trump digs coal”.

Once while driving home from work my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I thought I had spotted a Hillary sign on a local lawn. It ended up being a poster that read “Hillary for Prison.” In all of my travels throughout the state I have seen only two actual “Vote Hillary” signs, and both of them were in the progressive, prosperous bubble of State College. If I didn’t actually trust in much of what the media tells me, and never traveled beyond the Pennsylvania rust belt, I’d guess Trump would beat Clinton in a landslide. I wonder what many of my neighbors will think when he doesn’t.

A replay of the election fiasco of Bush vs Gore might be very different sixteen years later given the fact that Trump has shown such willingness to step outside political norms, and has at least suggested that he might violate the most deeply held norm, that US elections are essentially fair and therefore should not be contested. Unlike the Bush vs Gore election, Trump vs Clinton occurs in an environment where the mainstream media and the leadership of the major political parties face competition from internet (and radio) enabled alternative media, and political actors are able to connect directly with the base of the party. And none of this takes into account the possibility that the election could be disrupted in such a way as to call into question its actual outcome even among those who appear to have gotten the result they were hoping for.

Such doubts might come from a domestic source bent on disrupting the election for political ends, or even the prospect of financial gain, by, for instance, short selling the markets before the vote takes place. Then again, such interference seems much more likely to come from a foreign source, most notably Russia, which has already, it appears, collaborated with Wikileaks to discredit Hillary Clinton. Russia’s real intention here seems less to help Trump and harm Clinton than to spread a pall of suspicion over American elections themselves. Though, given Trump’s ties and affection for the Kremlin a Trump win would be the sour cream on Putin’s smetannik.

Our digital communications architecture might also play a role in this disruption. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out our electronic voting systems are alarmingly vulnerable to being hacked. And unlike when I order an MTO at Sheetz, my vote doesn’t generate a paper receipt. Even an unfounded rumor that widespread electronic tampering had taken place might give an otherwise fair election the taint of illegitimacy. A belief that would be fostered and inflamed by those in alternative media for whom conspiracy theories and the revolt against elites has become their bread and butter.

None of this is to suggest that civil war would be the outcome of a Clinton victory. Rather, it is to wonder out loud whether the internet, and above the balkanization media and erosion of political parties it brings, might just end up killing democracy, whether through a sudden heart attack, which is what an actual Trump victory (or widespread violence in the face of his defeat, or even such violence as a response to his victory) would mean, or, as seems more likely, the kind of slow terminal cancer a Clinton victory lacking traditional legitimacy might come to represent where one- by- one the necessary components of the system decay and ultimately fail in the face of a constantly mutating and spreading enemy that emerged from our own cells.