How Do Digital Technologies Impact Political Inequality?

A robot drawing with a pen on a piece of paper, signifying the connection between robots and human technology, i.e. digital technology

This post discusses the relationship between digital technologies — the internet and its hardware — and political inequality. This is part of the POLINQ project. In this project, we have understood that political inequality has many definitions.

Thesis: Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many.

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Table of Contents

  1. Thesis: Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many.
  2. Let’s First define politics as both political voice and political response
  3. Next, let’s understand that we are politically unequal
  4. Our Digital Dawn Is Our Political Dusk
  5. Politics Exists in an Era of Endless Information
  6. Big Data is a Big Part of Political Inequality and Endless Information
  7. Intersectionality and Inequality in Politics is a Reflection of Endless Segmentation
  8. Political Inequality is a Consequence of Digital Technologies
  9. The Way Forward

Let’s First define politics as both political voice and political response

Politics is a tool used to gain power over important decisions that impact our lives. This tool has two parts: Voice and Response.

Political 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 through representation, that is, 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 via representation 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.

Next, let’s understand that we are politically unequal

Political inequality characterizes modern societies. 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.

Our 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.

Politics Exists in an Era of Endless Information

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.

Big Data is a Big Part of Political Inequality and Endless Information

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.

Photo by Voice + Video on Unsplash Digital Technology and Political Inequality
Who is recording you?

Intersectionality and Inequality in Politics is a Reflection of Endless Segmentation

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:

If, Then.

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.

The Way Forward

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.

This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2017

The dawn of digital inequality

When Local Governments Protested the USA Patriot Act

Mass Protests over Federal Government Policy

The US Presidential of 2016 election sparked protests across the nation. There were mass demonstrations over immigration and refugee policies, pro-Trump rallies, town hall debates over health care, the Women’s March on Washington, and declarations of support for sanctuary cities, to name just a few. We have not seen such mass protests since the Tea Party in 2009.

The US has a long history of protests. Yet, local government protest (this is when city, town, or village governments vote on resolutions to symbolically denounce a federal policy) has not occurred on a large scale.

What Is Local Government Protest over federal policy?

In an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, we investigated local gov’t protest over the USA PATRIOT Act (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). The Patriot Act came as a direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and signed into law a little over a month later.

Patriotactsigning
President Bush signing the Patriot Act into law (photo by Eric Draper)

The scale of local government protest of the USA Patriot Act after 9/11

On January 7, 2002, the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution condemning aspects of the Patriot Act and, among other things, urged local law enforcement officials to not enforce parts of the law that seemed in violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The resolution stipulated that a copy be distributed to President Bush, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Michigan’s members of Congress.

Two and a half months later, the city council of Denver, Colorado passed a similar resolution.

Within four months of Denver, seven local governments from a diverse group of states, including Massachusetts and North Carolina, took similar actions. As of March 2005, close to 300 places (as defined by the US Census), 45 counties, and four states passed some form of resolution regarding perceived negative aspects of the Patriot Act.

This was one of the largest-scale local government protests against a singular federal action in US history.

What is Contentious Policy?

The intergovernmental relations literature discusses how relationships within the governmental system functions under particular conditions. These relationships can be characterized as conflict or cooperation. The nature of the relationship depends on what policy is being discussed and the social, political, and economic conditions of the discussion.

Protests performed by governments within the federal system is rare. Local government resolutions express, in a symbolic manner, policy stances. As a nexus of protest and policy, local government protest invites social scientists to extend the research on protest behavior, traditionally defined in terms of open conflict with state structures, to conflict within the state.

The practical impact of local government action on federal policy is debatable. At its core, this action is mostly symbolic; it expresses public displeasure and a sense of political efficacy with respect to a contentious policy.

A History of Local Government Protest over federal policy in the USA

The last three decades has witnessed profound instances of local government protest.

—  In the 1980s, 368 city and county councils, 444 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures endorsed principles of the Nuclear Freeze Movement (see Zinn 2003, p. 604); over 40 local governments across the United States, helped along by the religion-inspired Sanctuary Movement, passed ordinances and resolutions opposing federal immigration law.

—  During the 1990s, in direct opposition to the federal government’s refusal of the Kyoto Protocol treaty, over 950 cities endorsed resolutions affirming their desire to reduce greenhouse gases (see Krause 2010).

—  There were several in the 2000s. In 2003, the city of Pittsburgh condemned the Gun Industry Immunity Bill being debated in the U.S. Senate (the bill was later defeated). In April 2007, the state of Vermont passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush because of his foreign policies. With regard to the War on Terror, in 2002–2003 over 150 local governments passed resolutions that criticized the federal government’s policy of pre-emptive war in Iraq and called for diplomatic solutions.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee Data

To investigate the conditions of protest, we need good data. And information on protests depend on individuals and organizations who spend the time to carefully document them.

In our Patriot Act study, we focused on the resolutions about the Patriot Act between 2002 and 2007. Our data came from the website of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC).

The BORDC was born out of opposition to the Patriot Act, and is still around today as a social movement organization concerned with the state of civil liberties in the United States. The BORDC provided free, public, and continually updated information on the list of places, counties, and states that opposed the Patriot Act. Without the BORDC, we would not have the crucial data on the who, what, when, and where of these local government actions.

Who protests? Urban places, with greater than average proportions of the college-educated and located within liberal-leaning states were the most likely. After state governments protested, the local cities, towns, and villages within that state’s borders were less likely to protest (the ‘state-suppressor effect’).

The BORDC is now now Rights and Dissent, and they are still providing data on local protest and bill passages across the USA.

Does local government protest over federal policy matter?

There isn’t much research on the effects of local government protest against federal policy, or for the protesters, for that matter. At best, we can say that this protest is a political symbol. It signals solidarity with a limited band of constituents and like-minded local governments.

Thus far, there have been few such large scale protests, and none since the early 2000s. With renewed anger toward the federal government by urban, college-educated liberals, the conditions may be ripe for another round of local government protest on a large scale.

This article is based on, Tomescu-Dubrow, Irina, Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2014. “Ecological Determinants of Local Government Opposition to Federal Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. 3: 401-419

Do Newspapers Write about Democracy and Equality?

What is political inequality?

Political inequality is both unequal influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions. Political equality is “a fundamental premise of democracy” (quoting celebrated political theorist Robert Dahl).

The news media has long reflected and shaped modern societies. In their pages we should expect that they present the news about democracy and equality and, in doing so, help shape national conversations about these issues.

Do they, much?

How do newspapers report on democracy and equality?

As part of the book on political inequality, I observed how often news items about democracy and equality appear in six English language newspapers in the UK, USA and Canada from 1988 to 2013 (methodology) The newspapers are: The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today, the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

Here’s what I found:

Its Small

Overall, the level of coverage is small, especially the combination of democracy and equality, of which one can say that it hardly ever appears in major Western newspapers.

Its inconsistent

Democracy and equality each have their different trends. Democracy coverage rises and falls by major world event: after the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989 – 1991) and in the beginning of the Iraq War (2003 – 2005).

Equality upswing after 2008

After the global economic crisis of 2008, there has been an upswing in equality coverage.

Weak connection between democracy and equality

Since 2008, in three major newspapers (one each for the UK, US and Canada) there has been a marginal yet visible upswing in news media interest in how democracy connects with equality.

What is more fundamental to democracy than political equality?

To help educate citizens, the news media should promote national conversations about democracy and equality.

Imagine if every major newspaper in the world devoted a couple of columns every week to discussions about the connection between democracy and equality.  Imagine the good this would do.