Democracy and Technology

Alexis Madrigal has written a long and thoughtful piece on Facebook’s role in the last election. He calls the emergence of social media, Facebook especially, “the most significant shift in the technology of politics since the television.” Madrigal is pointed in his estimation of the situation as it now consequently stands.

Early on, describing the widespread (but not total) failure to understand the effect Facebook could have on an election, Madrigal writes, “The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded, and no one has explained precisely how.”

Near the end of the piece, he concludes, “The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”

Madrigal’s piece brought to mind, not surprisingly, two important observations by Neil Postman that I’ve cited before.

My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content–in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.


Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis.

In these two passages, I find the crux of Postman’s enduring insights, the insights, more generally, of the media ecology school of tech criticism. It seems to me that this is more or less where we are: a culture in crisis, as Madrigal’s comments suggest. Read what he has to say.

On Twitter, replying to a tweet from Christopher Mims endorsing Madrigal’s work, Zeynep Tufekci took issue with Madrigal’s framing. Madrigal, in fact, cited Tufekci as one of the few people who understood a good deal of what was happening and, indeed, saw it coming years ago. But Tufekci nonetheless challenged Madrigal’s point of departure, which is that the entirety of Facebook’s role caught nearly everyone by surprise and couldn’t have been foreseen.

Tufekci has done excellent work exploring the political consequences of Big Data, algorithms, etc. This 2014 article, for example, is superb. But in reading Tufekci’s complaint that her work and the work of many other academics was basically ignored, my first thought was that the similarly prescient work of technology critics has been more or less ignored for much longer. I’m thinking of Mumford, Jaspers, Ellul, Jonas, Grant, Winner, Mander, Postman and a host of others. They have been dismissed as too pessimistic, too gloomy, too conservative, too radical, too broad in their criticism and too narrow, as Luddites and reactionaries, etc. Yet here we are.

In a 1992 article about democracy and technology, Ellul wrote, “In my view, our Western political institutions are no longer in any sense democratic. We see the concept of democracy called into question by the manipulation of the media, the falsification of political discourse, and the establishment of a political class that, in all countries where it is found, simply negates democracy.”

Writing in the same special issue of the journal Philosophy and Technology edited by Langdon Winner, Albert Borgmann wrote, “Modern technology is the acknowledged ruler of the advanced industrial democracies. Its rule is not absolute. It rests on the complicity of its subjects, the citizens of the democracies. Emancipation from this complicity requires first of alI an explicit and shared consideration of the rule of technology.”

It is precisely such an “explicit and shared consideration of the rule of technology” that we have failed to seriously undertake. Again, Tufekci and her colleagues are hardly the first to have their warnings, measured, cogent, urgent as they may be, ignored.

Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, recently drew attention to a commencement speech given by John F. Kennedy at Yale in 1962. Kennedy noted the many questions that America had faced throughout her history, from slavery to the New Deal. These were questions “on which the Nation was sharply and emotionally divided.” But now, Kennedy believed we were ready to move on:

Today these old sweeping issues very largely have disappeared. The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals — to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.

These issues were “administrative and executive” in nature. They were issues “for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided,” Kennedy concluded. You should read the rest of Berkowitz reflections on the prejudices exposed by our current crisis, but I want to take Kennedy’s technocratic faith as a point of departure for some observations.

Kennedy’s faith in the technocratic management of society was just the latest iteration of modernity’s political project, the quest for a neutral and rational mode of politics for a pluralistic society.

I will put it this way: liberal democracy is a “machine” for the adjudication of political differences and conflicts, independently of any faith, creed, or otherwise substantive account of the human good.

It was machine-like in its promised objectivity and efficiency. But, of course, it would work only to the degree that it generated the subjects it required for its own operation. (A characteristic it shares with all machines.) Human beings have been, on this score, rather recalcitrant, much to the chagrin of the administrators of the machine.

Kennedy’s own hopes were just a renewed version of this vision, only they had become more explicitly a-political and technocratic in nature. It was not enough that citizens check certain aspects of their person at the door to the public sphere, now it would seem that citizens would do well to entrust the political order to experts, engineers, and technicians.

Leo Marx recounts an important part of this story, unfolding throughout the 19th to early 20th century, in an article accounting for what he calls “postmodern pessimism” about technology. Marx outlines how “the simple [small r] republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.” I would also include the emergence of bureaucratic and scientific management in the telling of this story.

Presently we are witnessing a further elaboration of this same project along the same trajectory. It is the rise of governance by algorithm, a further, apparent distancing of the human from the political. I say apparent because, of course, the human is never fully out of the picture, we just create more elaborate technical illusions to mask the irreducibly human element. We buy into these illusions, in part, because of the initial trajectory set for the liberal democratic order, that of machine-like objectivity, rationality, and efficiency. It is on this ideal that Western society staked its hopes for peace and prosperity. At every turn, when the human element, in its complexity and messiness, broke through the facade, we doubled-down on the ideal rather than question the premises. Initially, at least the idea was that the “machine” would facilitate the deliberation of citizens by establishing rules and procedures to govern their engagement. When it became apparent that this would no longer work, we explicitly turned to technique as the common frame by which we would proceed. Now that technique has failed because again the human manifested itself, we overtly turn to machines.

This new digital technocracy takes two, seemingly paradoxical paths. One of these paths is the increasing reliance on Big Data and computing power in the actual work of governing. The other, however, is the deployment of these same tools for the manipulation of the governed. It is darkly ironic that this latter deployment of digital technology is intended to agitate the very passions liberal democracy was initially advanced to suppress (at least according to the story liberal democracy tells about itself). It is as if, having given up on the possibility of reasonable political discourse and deliberation within a pluralistic society, those with the means to control the new apparatus of government have simply decided to manipulate those recalcitrant elements of human nature to their own ends.

It is this latter path that Madrigal and Tufekci have done their best to elucidate. However, my rambling contention here is that the full significance of our moment is only intelligible within a much broader account of the relationship between technology and democracy. It is also my contention that we will remain blind to the true nature of our situation so long as we are unwilling to submit our technology to the kind of searching critique Borgmann advocated and Ellul thought hardly possible. But we are likely too invested in the promise of technology and too deeply compromised in our habits and thinking to undertake such a critique.

2 thoughts on “Democracy and Technology

  1. Michael, I should make a point more often to say so, but I’m very glad you’re posting regularly again.

    This post resonated with me particularly, and reminded me of a bit from the beginning of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty essay. He says, basically, that it’s only where there is fundamental disagreement about “ultimate purposes” that politics truly begins. He goes on:

    “Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.”

    As glad as I am to see that some of the shit being thrown at Silicon Valley is beginning to stick, as Evgeny Morozov said in one of his recent invectives, I’m also wondering more often where I stand amongst those hurling it. With the role of technology becoming harder to ignore, dissenting voices are multiplying, and as with our president, common targets are concealing what are probably significant differences in “ultimate purposes” among them. Perhaps this is just fine; now may be no time to split hairs, yet I find with Berlin that the politically motivated objections that I have to technology have roots in my understanding of what human flourishing involves. Since I throw my lot in with those who believe technologies are never a mere means, I’m never entirely comfortable with those who take little to n issue with the technologies themselves, but only with the uses they’re put to and the people that profit by them. Again, these are certainly important issues, but I find myself wondering how much common cause I should really assume with those whose concerns about technology go no further.

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