Michael Den Tandt suggested recently in a CIGI blog post that the international moment called for a high-level mobilization of the best minds in a multilateral venture aimed at guaranteeing a stable information regime at a global level. The parallel Den Tandt mentioned historically is the Bretton Woods conference that set up the postwar international economic order at the end of the Second World War. It is interesting, it should be observed in passing, that contemporary discussions of bold internationalist projects tend to use economic regime creation as an archetype, rather than the arguably more universalist political settlements that bracketed them (you rarely hear calls for a new Dumbarton Oaks…).
There are, prima facie, two fundamental problems with the proposal. The first is that the call for a new round of regime building fundamentally misinterprets the historical moment: Bretton Woods was made possible by the imminence of Allied victory in WWII, while our own time is seeing the rise, not (yet) the dénouement, of fundamental antagonisms and Great Power rivalries. The type of lasting settlement Den Tandt envisions will be up to the victor in these struggles. The second problem concerns the balance of power not among States but between the public and the private sector. The framework of international economic development that was set up by the Bretton Woods system –which has been described by John Gerard Ruggie as embedded liberalism– was decisively smashed by the currency crises of the early 1970s. Many see that passage as the birth of neoliberalism, a new paradigm of public policy that has become hegemonic in the past half century. Under this current dispensation, the State, even the internationally hegemonic State, does not possess the ability to guide macroeconomic development, or to steer technological innovation decisively. Even if the political will for an international consensus at the highest level could be found, it is highly improbable that it could be implemented on a recalcitrant global market.
The disfunctions in the information sphere that Den Tandt decries are undeniable; such problems, however, will not be resolved by simply conjuring into existence a global regulatory regime for which the historical preconditions do not currently exist.
A review by Paul Dicken published online a week ago in The New Atlantis is representative of a certain kind of argument in contemporary social critiques of high tech. The piece discusses a book by Ben Schneiderman entitled Human-Centered AI, which came out earlier this year for Oxford UP, and mainly reads as an exposé of a benighted scientism that at best is hopelessly naïve about its potential to effect meaningful emancipatory social change and at worst is disingenuous about the extractive and exploitative agendas that underwrite its deployment.
One would not wish to deny that Schneiderman makes for a good target: computer scientists as a sociological class are hardly more self-reflexive or engagé than any other similarly-defined professional group, and divulgative AI-and-management texts seldom present incisive and counterintuitive social commentary. Nonetheless, it is hard to miss a certain symmetry between the attacks on the political self-awareness of the author in question (how could he have missed the damning social implications??) and the peans to progress through techno-solutionism which characterized public debate on Web2.0 before the techlash.
The fact itself that Dicken refers back to Charles Babbage as a precursor of contemporary AI research and its dark side should suggest that the entwinement of technological advancement with political economy might be a long-run phenomenon. What is different is that in the present conjuncture would-be social critics seem to harbor absolutely no faith that the political and social ills upstream from technological development can be righted, and no plan to do so. New technology changes affordances, and this shift makes certain social dynamics more visible. But in the absence of specifically political work, such visibility is ephemeral, irrelevant. Hence, the exposé of political cluelessness risks becoming the master trope of the techlash, essentially a declaration of social impotence.
Belatedly finished reading James Bridle’s book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2018). As the title suggests, the text is systemically pessimist about the effect of new technologies on the sustainability of human wellbeing. Although the overall structure of the argument is at times clouded over by sudden twists in narrative and the sheer variety of anecdotes, there are many hidden gems. I very much enjoyed the idea, borrowed from Timothy Morton, of a hyperobject:
a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety. Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things […] Because they are so close and yet so hard to see, they defy our ability to describe them rationally, and to master or overcome them in any traditional sense. Climate change is a hyperobject, but so is nuclear radiation, evolution, and the internet.
One of the main characteristics of hyperobjects is that we only ever perceive their imprints on other things, and thus to model the hyperobject requires vast amounts of computation. It can only be appreciated at the network level, made sensible through vast distributed systems of sensors, exabytes of data and computation, performed in time as well as space. Scientific record keeping thus becomes a form of extrasensory perception: a networked, communal, time-travelling knowledge making. (73)
Bridle has some thought-provoking ideas about possible responses to the dehumanizing forces of automation and algorithmic sorting, as well. Particularly captivating was his description of Gary Kasparov’s reaction to defeat at the hands of AI Deep Blue in 1997: the grandmaster proposed ‘Advanced Chess’ tournaments, pitting pairs of human and computer players, since such a pairing is superior to both human and machine players on their own. This type of ‘centaur strategy’ is not simply a winning one: it may, Bridle suggests, hold ethical insights on patways of human adaptation to an era of ubiquitous computation.
An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.
Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).
Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.
Long, thoughtful essay by David Brooks in The Atlantic on the evolution of mistrust in the American body politic. The angle taken is that of the long span of the history of mentalities: Brooks couches his analysis of the current crisis in the recurrence of moral convulsions, which once every sixty years or so fundamentally reshape the terms of American social discourse. What we are witnessing today, therefore, is the final crisis of a regime of liberal individualism whose heyday was in the globalizing 1990s, but whose origin may be traced to the previous moral convulsion, the anti-authoritarian revolt against the status quo of the late 1960s.
The most interesting part of Brooks’ analysis is the linking of data on the decline in generic societal trust with the social-psychological dimension, namely the precipitous –and frankly shocking– decline in reported psychological well-being in America, especially among children and young adults. Where his argument is less persuasive is in the prognosis of a more security-oriented paradigm for the future, based on egalitarianism and communitarian tribalism. It is not clear to me that the country possesses either the means or the will to roll back the atomizing tendencies of globalization.