I’m grateful to a number of people (Dan Barrett, Richard Pope, Mevan Babakar & Sym Roe) who’ve helped to shape my thinking on this question over the past few months (although, don’t blame them for where it ended up) and especially thankful to Irina for giving me some space and free beer to talk about it at Citizen Beta. Video link at the end.
Politics feels conceptually polluted. It might not do for everyone, but many people lack trust in politicians, institutions and civic society.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that we analyse power in technology, and how it doesn’t quite match up with the reality around us. I’m also going to paraphrase massively and probably elide some important nuances of both theorists’ positions.
We often talk about power in the same way that Karl Marx did. Before I get the Daily Mail write ins, it is very much worth pointing out that through the course of his life, Marx wrote some really interesting work that very clearly diagnosed the economic and social issues of his time. Those framing devices, especially around power, made their way into the popular conversation and have often been a dominant way of understanding power, even when they’re not necessarily the best way of understanding a problem.
This could broadly be called top-down power and it’s the idea that power flows down a structure that looks a bit like an organogram. You have a king or whatever at the top, and everyone underneath gets oppressed (or at least has power enacted on them) by the people above.
This doesn’t fit with the world we live in though. Your boss can be a bully, sure, but so can your co-workers. Homophobic people don’t tend to consult against a strict rank structure booklet to make sure they’re only undermining people of their own level or below. Explicit violent racists (ignoring the constancy of structural racism from the general population) are racist to everyone, even if the way that they do it changes a bit. The way that power and violence are distributed and play out looks much more like the internet that we’ve created. It looks like nodes.
Which leaves us in territory more like Foucault. The darling of the social science crowd, Foucault talks a pessimistic game. Power is pervasive, it is bound up in permissions and reinforcements from everybody playing the game. And it is impossible to extricate yourself from the game. Power acts on you from above, below, sideways and from within yourself. So: everyone has power and they use it to create/reinforce/destroy/whatever structures around us (e.g. The Law, homophobia, ettiquette, the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence). The more people that choose to act to reinforce a particular formation of power, the more effective and pervasive that formation becomes.
Which brings us to the internet, and civic/government tech in particular.
We’ve become accustomed to talking about design as political, but I worry that we haven’t been explicit enough as to what that means, because it feels like it is too big to deal with.
I’m going to make some assertions to underpin my argument.
- The rise in social media as a context-collapsed massive town hall for issues has made things political that were not previously political. For example: flat-earther/anti-vax/conspiracy theories. The metaphor of contagion is useful. These views might have lived just fine in their own weird tin foil hat corner of the internet, but now that they’re out and about mingling with normies, it’s harder to quarantine the ideas.
- The post-Chilcott inquiry BBC has used balance in a way that has meant that settled issues, or ones with only fringe disagreement feel as though they are in play. See: climate change.
- The internet is designed around the social norms of the USA. This means that we get caught up in the continuing culture wars of porn/art pro-choice/anti-women free speech/censorship. This imports fights and political practices that are either irrelevant in the UK context (your right to free speech is not absolute, it is balanced), or things we haven’t developed immune responses to (Bannonite low-fact campaign styles). On a side note, this also is supported by Facebook’s approach of dealing with political transparency in advertising. The time periods you can review archives of ads match US election cadences. The conceptualisation of who might run an ad and what kind of organisation you are working for or against is based on the US notion of PACs, not the election laws of the UK.
As the space around us creates more moments of contestation, there has been a retreat towards “neutrality”. Ok, people don’t agree that anthropogenic climate change is a thing? We won’t talk about it. LGBT people being beaten up, discriminated against, made to disappear? We can’t take a stand, people disagree that this is a problem.
This isn’t going to get better. In the same way as the people who wish for a borderline eugenicist approach to immigration are never going to be satisfied with anything but what they want (no watered down middle-to-hard-right approach is going to be enough). And the idea that not participating is apolitical is equally false. Your lack of position is a position. Silence is speech.
The way that information happens, spreads, is ingested and is processed is changing. Our institutions are not managing their own positions well enough. Compare the civil service code, a document whose application during the 2016 referrendum deemed that “encouraging people to register to vote or vote” was too political and could not be done by civil servants with a newer organisation like Full Fact’s statement on Boris Johnson’s issues around charges of misconduct in a public office. Or the BBC’s insistence on “balance” compared to challengers online who don’t sacrifice checking information to make every news report have to sit square in the centre of the overton window.
It’s a well worn space to talk about newer institutions having the ability and agility to respond in a way that older ones don’t. A lot of the reason that organisations in civic technology have sprung up is that pre-existing civic institutions have been too slowed by inertia to try new things or re-organise their business to take advantage of the internet.
What do we even do with that?
If we agree enough that every step (even a deliberate lack of movement) is political, then we can perhaps start to analyse the problems facing us in different ways.
We can understand these problems that face us: inaction on climate change, inaction on political rights, inaction on civic space and infrastructure, etc etc as things that are mediated by every player. We can also try to think about how to work within explicit and implicit power structures.
Sometimes the implicit structures feel a bit like the Word of God. People interpret it, but rarely do you see the source material. If we can agree that both the structure of the rules, the interpretation of the rules and the political space within which power is exercised have changed, then we are suddenly faced with the problem that many technology activists are at least implicitly challenging: it’s really hard to change the actions and organs of the state.
I often lean on the old aphorism that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, and I think that sort of disaster thinking translates to our civic and governmental institutions. We can imagine the deserts after climate change, but not how to organise political change to prevent it. We can imagine sci-fi futures where gender is an irrelevance, but not how to protect people now. So, my bad advice is to start now. Imagine and think and talk about it. Not just the end point, but how to get there. We have become terrified of political speech, but the need is greater than ever.
Anyway, as promised: a video of me half explaining this concept. Includes typos.