Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many. The way out is a variant on Timothy Leary’s life advice with a Luddite twist: Turn off the machines, tune out the information noise, and drop in to the homes of family and friends. The way forward is to pop the information bubble, re-connect with human beings, boycott the segmenters, and dare to be brave.
Please allow me to explain.
Voice & Response
Politics is a tool used to gain power over important decisions that impact our lives. This tool has two parts: Voice and Response.
Voice is how we express our political complaints, desires, demands, and interests to our fellow human beings across nations, to our fellow citizens within nations, and to government. Voice activates directly through what social scientists call “political participation,” such as public marches, writing letters to our representatives or to the media, boycotting products, and voluntarily organizing the political interests of particular groups, to name a few. We also activate our political voice indirectly via people and organizations that claim to carry our voice into government, such as parliamentarians, political parties, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and special independent arms of the government (the ombudsperson or special envoy, for example).
Response is what the decision-makers do with our voice. They can respond with mere symbols, such as declaring Black History Month to address institutional racism. They can respond with formal and informal policy initiatives.
We Are Politically Unequal
Today’s modern societies in which digital technology plays a starring role is characterized by political inequality. Political equality is the assumed foundation of modern democracy. Yet, everywhere there is democracy – indeed, everywhere there is politics – there is political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in influence over government decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. It is inequality of voice and it is inequality of response.
Inequality always emerges, and will use all available tools to do so. In hunter gatherer societies, even with communal ownership of the means of production (weapons and other tools) that lowered economic inequality, the best hunters were awarded greater status (much more than the gatherers, whose contribution to daily caloric intake is greater and more stable than that of the hunters). When Communism in Eastern Europe tried to reduce economic inequality by the government lowering everyone’s incomes and controlling the labor market, political connections to the regime became the new currency, and a special and pernicious form of political inequality was born.
Inequality is an ever-adapting cockroach.
Digital Dawn Is Our Political Dusk
Digital technologies are tools for the storing and sharing of information. Since the dawn of the digital age (ca. 1950s), these technologies are of two main parts: computers (software and hardware) as the storage bin and the internet as the sharer-in-chief. To understand the interaction chains that bind us to computers, there are three possible: human-to-human, human-to-computer, and computer-to-computer.
Only human-to-human is without computer intrusion. Digital technology can allow humans to talk more efficiently to other humans, or computers to talk to one another: “Take the professor in the back and plug him into the hyperdrive,” Han Solo snarled.
Digital technologies enabled globalization by being the most efficient way to store and share information; it moves money and makes people money; it transfers knowledge and culture (Tweets are worthless, in and of themselves; but tweets from the right persona can cause havoc).
The ubiquitous and portable availability of digital hardware make strong the bonds between human-to-computer, and computer-to-computer interaction, at the expense of human-to-human interaction.
Spying with computers – that humans are unaware that a computer intervenes into the relationship – robs humans of genuine human-to-human interaction. Bots are everywhere.
The unnatural environment that gave rise to digital technologies unleashed two infinite forces that brought out humanity’s worst: endless information and endless segmentation.
Our desire for information is rooted in our desire to reduce choice complexity. We prefer simple: when faced with a too-large array, we aggregate and categorize; we segment. When faced with new information, we look for how it fits into old segmentation. Then, we look for ways to house this information.
When faced with accumulating important knowledge too big for any one person to remember, we created libraries to house the information and we created schools to pass the information on to the next generation.
Interlude: Big Data
Big Data is an unusually large dataset drawn from diverse sources of information. Some Big Data contain customer data, based on where they are, what internet portal they opened, what they clicked in that portal, when they clicked on it, and where they went afterwards. The Big Data sets can be millions of cases long. They can be few cases and millions of variables wide. Big Data is built on you, and it uses you to get more people inside it, and will follow you wherever you go.
Endless segmentation is the logical conclusion of endless information.
This is how the chain begins and ends: The new internet companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter — depend on advertisers, and advertisers need data on their potential customers, and advertising agencies need data on the potential customers. Digital technology corporations that specialize in such data sell data to media-buying and advertising agencies. Let’s call all of them, “the marketeers.” The marketeers harness the power of endless information they collect on customers to create Big Data on those customers. To make sense of this endless information, they segment.
Within Big Data, endless information became endless segmentation.
Intersections of race, class, and gender are not enough; the marketeers need what they like.
Endless segmentation feeds the algorithms. Algorithms are ways of making sense via clarifying & simplifying of data. It does so by creating a series of rules:
The algorithms deliver what advertisers want and what they think customers want: they think customers want more of the same things they clicked, tapped, pressed, and swiped on. Liked Fox News on Facebook? You’ll like Gun Shows in Your Area. Liked Cannabis? You’ll like a t-shirt with a pot-leaf on it. Like both? You’ll get ads for Napoleon Dynamite.
Political Inequality is a Consequence of Digital Technologies
Digital technologies have led us to the uncanny valley of politics: there is the recognizable outline of the political process, but the details are disturbingly off.
The new digital political divide is not a gap in access or skills; there is inequality whether you opt in or opt out of our digital dystopia.
The divide is because there is universal access and skills to a digital world that is run by Silicon Valley corporations whose promote efficiency of computer-to-computer interaction and information sharing and demote human-to-human interaction and emotion sharing.
Autocrats take advantage of digital technologies to spread misinformation, hack opponents and share secrets online, find and eliminate protest and protesters, sow discord. It’s what Morozov called, The Net Delusion.
This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).