Populism vs. Algorithm


In 1985, Terry Gilliam released his brilliant film Brazil, which explores a future dystopia wherein some key plot elements look and feel, upon reflection, a lot like the present day. The protagonist, Sam Foley, finds himself thrust into a world in which technology doesn’t empower, it ensnares. In Foley’s world, technology is a weapon, strangling Everyman in a tangle of wires and tubes, replete with a soul-crushing tech support bureaucracy, errors of identity and an ever-watching, lidless eye of surveillance. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, Brazil’s main threat isn’t so much a well-honed, lethal government machine, as it is a poorly controlled claptrap Rube Goldberg device driven by institutional dysfunction and apathy. The powers-that-be are equally dangerous and incompetent.

Over a quarter of a century later, we have increasingly seen technology become a key component of social, economic and political disorder, inequality and abuse of power. Surveillance and government oppression are not new forces—these are sadly timeless—but conflict over the role of technology itself is moving to center stage in debates about equality, freedom, rights and values.

Political protest over the last few years show how technology has become such a pivotal feature. The international antiwar movement stirred up by Wikileaks, Iran’s abortive Green Revolution, the Arab Spring, the Tea Party, Anonymous and the Occupy movement have all been running battles of top-down, centralized use of technology for control and suppression, versus  bottom-up, distributed use of technology for protection and presence. See the Wall Street Journal’s sensationalist feature on vendors of surveillance equipment for the cartoon version of the former.

These groups span the political spectrum. One could argue the Tea Party was the most quickly co-opted. The American Right has made very effective use of technology for coordination in the last decade and in doing so got a jump on the progressive left, but technology has become a weapon of choice, and perhaps an equalizer of sorts, though none of these games has yet been played out entirely.

Both the Tea Party and Occupy are in large part battles against economic inequality brought about or exacerbated by technology—populism versus algorithm, so to speak. The acceleration of economic inequality has been computer-aided. The wealth gap has opened so destructively and so quickly, in part because of the ability of those with capital to very quickly turn it into yet more capital. This, in turn, spawns investment in better algorithms that multiply the effect even further.

The so-called one percent can accelerate beyond the horizon, in other words, and the result is economic, social and political whiplash. Iceland can go from fishing economy to financial hub back to fishing economy in under a decade. Google can go from dorm room to dominance at a similar rate because it is first a hyper-efficient analytics company, second a search and freemail provider.

This current phase is likely to be an attenuated, running battle between people and formulae. A recent McKinsey piece on the emergence of a “second economy,” powered by data rather than physical manufacturing, forecasts this shift as a long-term one. The major Wall Street firms, big banks and credit card companies, Facebook and Google have one important thing in common: they are the early players in the coming era of so-called “Big Data.” Our current economic, political and technological conflicts center around the amassing of enormous amounts of data, which fuel computer perceptions and projections for how the real world is behaving. The TSA, the PRC, American Express, Wal-Mart, Bank of America—the list of organizations converting human behavior and needs into data points for modeling, upselling or interdiction continues to grow. The weight of all this analysis, the codification and commodification of daily life, continuously tracking attitudes and beliefs, actions and interactions, is in part what drives the discontented onto the streets. We’ve only just begun to see the society-wide impacts of algorithms gone wild. Data spillages, robo-signing, and flash crashes are just the start.

Don’t assume the opposition is embracing old-fashioned Luddism, though. The populist side is just as pro-technology, fed by a new generation as enamoured of all things data as its predecessors. Just look to the rise of the Pirate Party in Northern Europe as a leading indicator. Born just five years ago, after a popular Swedish torrent site found itself in a legal dispute over intellectual property and technology, the Pirate Party has emerged as an international political movement, winning seats in several European legislatures including the European Parliament. It also holds seats on municipal councils in a handful of cities, and broke 10% in national polling at the end of October in Germany, landing the group in fourth place nationally among German political parties. At the beginning of this year, a Pirate Party member even took an appointment in the Tunisian government. A central plank in the Pirate Party agenda is the freedom to respect different values regarding how technology should be used.

Similarly aligned social and economic values have turned the Pirate Party’s views into a broader ideological platform, and even created a place for it as a potential power-broker in national politics. Considering the issues the German government is dealing with at the moment — primarily the technology-fueled banking crisis — this is an important moment. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, described the movement this way: “We are not just a party for the free exchange of TICKS [tools, ideas, culture, knowledge, and sentiments]. We are a lifestyle party for the entire younger generation, starting somewhere at 35-40 years of age. This lifestyle—digital natives, as some have called it, or the connected generation, which I prefer—is being actively condemned and demonized by the old parties.” These old parties, he claims, are using their position to turn “ free market mechanisms into mercantilism and corruption.”

Their position, which is not completely dissimilar to that of the Occupy movement, marks an important turning point in the emergence of a strain of populism that isn’t just social, political, economic, or environmental. It is technological as well. In effect, it argues something like this: "you gave us the cheap, accessible tools, now we will use them." It embraces the hack as well as the vote, shifting away from decades of harmful, stagnant sameness among political movements, to political strategies that can evolve and flow in unpredictable ways—symmetry to asymmetry.

Several decades of political positioning among conservatives have been based on the premise that overgrown government is the biggest potential threat to the individual. What the corporatist right and increasingly corporate-captured left have failed to see coming was the extent to which a citizenry would object to being parsed, sorted, or, in Brazil-like fashion, deleted from their own lives. The new strains of techno-libertarianism are less about freedom from responsibility than they are about equalisation and democratisation of access.

Generational changes in political power and action are driving an interesting shift in libertarianism. It has been a right-leaning philosophy flavored by a desire to use one’s property free from government dictat. It is becoming more technologically progressive, for which a key desire is to use digital tools free from both government and corporate control. Free, in other words, to boot up wherever one wants. It's a shift decades in the making. Occupy may be the first time its digital face fuses with its physical one.

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Scott Smith is the author of Discontinuities, CI's monthly analysis of disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder and principal of Changeist, LLC, a foresight and strategic design consultants advising organizations as they navigating complex futures.