How do we learn to be citizens of a smart info-state?
“THE man who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” So said the American philosopher John Dewey, defining something of an ideal relationship between government and citizen – or for that matter, company and consumer. The ideal? Listen carefully to what people want, and then expertly fashion policies (and products) to service those appetites well.
The grandees of state and the CEOs of corporate life think they have been “smart” in that way for at least a century. The historical record of both can, at the very least, somewhat dent their professional confidence.
Recently, however, enabled by the internet, the people have raised their game. Hands-on expertise is everywhere. The makers and DIY-ers are on the march. How should mandarins and moguls respond to newly smart consumers and citizens?
Though they come from radically opposed positions, Smart Citizens by Beth Simone Noveck and Exposed by Bernard Harcourt shed much light on the balance of state, market and social power in the network age.
As an academic who was an early member of Obama’s 2008 back-room staff, Noveck has a sharp take on the current sclerosis of policy-making. She faced a White House bureaucracy that took a year to allow a software upgrade. The Obama newbies might have been “on top of the world”, recalled Noveck, “but we were running Windows 2000″.
Scarred by this, and by her few sputtering attempts to open the White House to public input, she is now an evangelist for breaking open the circles of jargonised expertise that shape policy. Inspired by Wikipedia, she wants citizens with practical expertise of all sorts to sign up to a networked, searchable “Brains Trust” – named after a group of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisers who forged the 1930s’ New Deal.
Participants will receive points, sometimes prizes, but mostly just the status of being identified by their government as useful to the policy development of the nation. “And who would refuse the White House?” asks Noveck, like the former staffer she is.
There are millions of Americans who already come together to improve their communities. They would be all too eager to bring their practical smarts to what sounds like the Huffington Post for politically active citizens, as Noveck tells it. Beneath the ephemeral Snapchattery of digital living, she assumes that the civil society of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century account of American democracy still pulses away.
But if her Brains Trust were to be embraced, government would get a piece of the action that the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix enjoy. That is, the ability to mine the data interactions of their users, identifying them (and their interests) exactly. “If we can develop the algorithms and platforms to target consumers,” asks Noveck breathlessly, “can we not also target citizens for the far worthier purpose of undertaking public service?”
Many would answer: no, we can’t, and shouldn’t. This is a book with only one passing mention of Edward Snowden’s revelations (yes, the US’s reputation for “open government” was “lambasted for what many perceived to be duplicity and hypocrisy”). In the light of this, Noveck’s wider ambitions here are remarkably naive. Isn’t the way the state “targets the citizen” exactly the problem that Snowden raises?
Exposed begins where Noveck’s imagination falters – at the point where Harcourt writes that “the technologies that end up facilitating surveillance are the very technologies we crave”.
With the UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s newly announced Investigatory Powers Bill set to pressure service providers to wire in a state-accessible “back door” to all our digital interactions, Harcourt’s accounts of recent US revelations will enlighten. But the book’s power comes from a readiness to grapple with not just the structure of our super-surveillant, public-private system, but the desires that keep us compulsively interacting with it (as opposed to Noveck’s bloodless, implausibly dutiful citizenry).
Harcourt’s big claim is that we live in an “expository” society. Not only are we exposed to the state and corporations (while they are opaque to us), we also relentlessly expose ourselves to each other, through psyche-tickling devices and social tools. He lays out the emotional landscape of our entanglement in digital culture. Networks can offer the illusion of transparency (which Snowden shatters), or an all-too-real seduction – such as the sonorous lulling of an Apple Watch advert promoting a GPS device that can monitor you as easily as a police-issued ankle bracelet.
Our bodily health can be turned into a usable stream of data, the basis for a new “authenticity” built on a highly competitive model of the self. Life narratives spin out easily on Facebook or Tumblr: revelations of our passions and commitments can be precisely tailored there, too. Creating the “brand called Me” becomes an expected daily task.
It’s not just that this is now all part of an unimaginably vast data stream (in a single day, says Noveck, the world’s data generation is bigger than the entire US Library of Congress). Nor just that it is accessible and searchable by spooks and marketeers. It’s that we now live with what Harcourt calls virtual “doppelgängers” – digital versions of ourselves, assembled in the clouds of state and commerce, communicating back to us via adverts or stories that increasingly (and weirdly) anticipate our every desire.
“In a single day, the world’s data generation is bigger than the entire Library of Congress”
For Noveck, this “matching” of real and digital selves is what enables smarter government, letting officials locate those constructive, energetic citizens that reformers have been waiting for: “less statecraft, more Minecraft,” she quips.
Harcourt’s political response moves in the opposite, indeed anarchist, direction. He wants us to reclaim some genuine human privacy, eroded by the infinite desire machines of the info-corporations whose capture of our interactive behaviour is increasingly utilised by the state. Harcourt wants a “leaderless” form of social resistance, using open-source, encryption and small-group meetings, which he hopes will eventually destroy these doppelgängers.
As terror strikes burst across European cities, organised to some degree by “leaderless”, network-enabled cells, it’s a brave call to invoke such techniques to protect us against the all-seeing eyes of state and commerce.
You couldn’t imagine two responses to a smarter state more at odds conceptually. Yet each is plausible in its way. Together, they leave us smarter and sharper about being a digital citizen.
By Pat Kane
(Source: newscientist.com; December 2, 2015; http://tinyurl.com/o8z5ywd)