Against algorithmic control

Speech at the Democracy 21 conference, Glasgow, 23 June 2018

Democracy 21 is a good title. Because during the 21st century, support for what we think of as democracy will come under sustained attack. There may not be a Democracy 22.

When Trump attacks the institutions upholding the rule of law, abuses the executive power with personalised attacks on individual journalists, law enforcers and judges… that’s an attack on democracy.

When Xi Jin Ping proclaims the Seven Speak Nots on Chinese campuses — forbidding not just advocacy of, but discussion of, the concept of universal human rights, free speech and judicial independence … that’s an attack on democracy.

When Facebook hands over personally identifiable data of 87 million users so that firms like Cambridge Analytica can use them to manipulate elections, or when sells dark advertising to a Russian state controlled propaganda operation… that’s an attack on democracy.

Trump is motivated by economics: his project is to enrich the American rich, starting with the family of Donald J Trump.

Xi’s attack is framed culturally: democracy, human rights and the rule of law are alien concepts to a 3,000 year old Chinese culture that must reassert itself, via Communism, against Western values.

Facebook’s weaponisation of data against democracy is a function of the technology. Allowing dark forces to manipulate elections via opaque network data because that’s the only kind of business model that can support its 500 billion dollar market capitalisation. Information wants to be free. Corporations need it to be opaque, expensive and under elite control.

In case you haven’t noticed, these attacks work in synergy. Facebook doesn’t give a shit that Trump’s in power. Trump doesn’t give a shit that Xi is attacking human rights — and vice versa.

If you want a vision of the future Winston, says O’Brien in 1984, imagine a jackboot stamping on a human face forever. But that’ old hat.

The jackboot had to stamp on the human face because people resisted. Winston resists. Julia resists.

In the techno-authoritarian dystopia that’s being planned for us, nobody will resist. The mere idea of resisting will be algorithmed out; false resistances will be everywhere — designed for you by the state, only unlike in 1984, they won’t use it as a kind of trap to find and detain people; they’ll keep you resisting the way they want you to. The jail will be the simulacrum of resistance: the latest rapper, the latest rags to riches football player.

So how do we defend democracy?

I think we do so by defining it and then redefining it.

I’m not a big fan of Lenin. But Lenin at least did us a favour by proposing the most cynical definition of liberal democracy.

The state is a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie. Behind all the formal democratic rights, Lenin said, are the prison cells, the torture chambers, the gerrymandered and rigged elections, the billionaire owned press.

Trump’s America fits this bill. So does Erdogan’s Turkey. But most democracies in the developed world do not.


Because during the neoliberal era, when the market invaded every other aspect of life, the need for objective institutions, for the rule of law, for principles-based action by armies, security services and police forces, banking and competition regulators, environmental watchdogs etc created — I would argue — a peak rule of law.

If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour comes to power it may face an investment strike; a destabilisation campaign by the media, some blue-blooded Tories in the old City institutions and by foreign security services — but the British state has enough checks and balances inside it to make a Very British Coup scenario highly implausible.

But what’s really wrong with Lenin’s definition is — the bourgeoisie bit. It’s quite hard to discover what the “affairs of the bourgeoisie” actually are.

The neoliberal era effectively depoliticised business management. So the vast majority of British companies are against Brexit, and the majority of American companies anti-Trump. But the creation of a technocratic managerial layer, which gets rich under all circumstances, has — I think — hollowed out the bourgeoisie as a political force. It’s hard to know what they want.

So when you actually get someone like George Soros, who courageously stands up to Victor Orban in Hungary, they are often described as acting against the business interest of the company they own. The rational thing for Soros to do would be turn up at Davos and do a Theresa May style curtsy to all the Mafiosi and dictators who go there. By resisting he’s seen as irrational.

We shouldn’t’ be surprised by this. From 1792, through 1848, through the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras in America, Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933 — the era of industrial capitalism is one where the bourgeoisie constantly disappoints in terms of support for bourgeois democracy.

But today we’re facing something qualitatively different.

The executives of the firms I’ve seen lounging around in the Beijing nightclub Suzie Wong, entire executive teams of major brands… they are not characterised by too timorous support for democratic reforms in China. They are actively opposed to democracy and have to be.

If the workers of Foxconn got not just a fake company union but actual democratic rights to form parties, free trade unions, appeal to objective legal system — the business model of Apple would fall apart.

How, then, should we define democracy?

For most people there’s a functional definition: the rule of law, with an independent judiciary, a fairly elected legislature and a free press. An active citizenship with enshrined political rights. And a certain amount of sovereignty.

The problem is, neoliberal globalisation has already undermined many of these things, and unless we radically change things, the global tech corporations, combined with the emergent anti-democratic elites of India, Russia, China, Brasil…

… they will seize technological control of the granular reality that lies behind the institutions of parliament, the courts, the press, the rules-based executive powers.

Defending the institutions is necessary. Refilling them with an active democratic content, an engaged citizenry, citizens empowered to understand the hidden mechnanisms that are being used against them — that’s the more urgent task.

For me — as I’m exploring in my forthcoming book Clear Bright Future — everything comes down to a defence of humanism. The rights we’re accorded as human beings in the 1949 Charter are claimed as universal only on the basis of our species character. The people who drafted the Charter said, overtly: don’t ask us what the belief system is that underpins it.

Aristotle, in his discussion on democracy, assumes we want to live in orderly, predictable and lawful communities by nature. Though he thought democracies were dangerous, because the poor were ignorant and the middle classes wiser, he admitted the possibility that if all the knowledge of the poor were to be pooled together, they could, as a multitude act more wisely than the elites.

That — two and a half thousand years later — has to be the basis of hope. That our networked connectivity, the increased footprint of the individual human being, our access to a searchable and ever improving library of knowledge can allow the renewal of democracy based on enlightened and networked individualism.

Digital democracy for me is not about e-voting, or e-manifestos, or letting the population of a city pay their taxes on line.

It is about understanding where digital power lies and democratising it.

What Facebook did in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election should be studied carefully:

It created a space separate from the public realm, where not just legitimate actors but illegitimate ones could buy influence on a level playing field — meanwhile we, the citizens, are not even allowed on the playing field.

We used to say it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Now it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine Mark Zuckerberg allowing you to know, and understand, what the algorithm operating on you, vial the cellphone in your pocket, is designed to do.

We must call an end to that.

The principles outlined by Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institue are good ones: no AI may operate on me without me knowing that it exists; a computer operating on me must disclose that it is human; and an artificial intelligence has to obey the same laws as human beings.

But it’s not enough. I want to know what the algorithm is trying to do. I want information symmetry.

If a cop flags me down to check my car tax. Or if I am stop and searched for drugs. Or on a demo if I am kettled. Or if someone sues me for libel. These are transparent algorithmic processes.

Another word for these processes is the one Lenin used: the state has a monopoly of force and there are clear rules about when it is used.

But algorithmic control creates a duopoly of force: both Facebook, and the British state can force me to do things.

With the state I can at least say: I have a vote. I cannot vote for the boss of Facebook.

So what can we do?

The kind of democracy we need to construct is where, beneath the formal institutions there are clearly stated ethical principles which companies, citizens and states recognise.

Where they say “if we do this together we can achieve the good life — a stable and prosperous society, which people want to come to and which can welcome people — a model that other communities want to emulate”.

What’s the basis of that?

It think it has to be embodied in a social contract just as explicit as the US and French constutions, or the British Bill of Rights of 1689.

Collectively produced data is a public good — and can only be utilised by a private company or the state with the explicit and continuously revocable consent of the citizen.

No algorithm can be deployed against me as an individual, or against a group of human beings, without revealing this to be the case.

Where a human being is acting under the instructions of an automated process, they must state so.

The digital world can consist of real identifiable human beings and machines. It cannot consist of unidentifiable human beings.

The bot, if you think about it, is the ultimate signifier of anti-humanism, and the anti-human processes elites are using against us.

This has implications for anonymity.

The right to anonymity should exist — for people who don’t want to be part of the demos. But they have no vote, no public voice. There should be one ID registry and everybody should be on it, and it should be publicly controlled.

Elections have to consist of real voters and also real people influencing real voters. They cannot consist of real voters and fake fellow citizens, who are produced and controlled by machines, pretending to hold certain views. That’s not a demos.

Power consists of the ability to make choices. This is what together Trump, Xi and Facebook are stealing from all of us.