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.

Also:

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.

Postman On Media, Politics, and Childhood

In The Disappearance of Childhood, first published in 1982, Neil Postman writes the following:

Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, there can be no clear concept of what it means to be a child. Thus, the idea … that our electric information environment is ‘disappearing’ childhood … can also be expressed by saying that our electric information environment is disappearing adulthood.

How so, you ask?

[A]dulthood is largely a product of the printing press. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with adulthood are those that are (and were) either generated or amplified by the requirements of a fully literate culture: the capacity for self-restraint, a tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order. As electric media move literacy to the periphery of culture and take its place at the center, different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge.

To be clear, Postman is obviously not talking about the number of years one has been alive. Rather he is talking about a social reality — the idea of adulthood, a particular model of what constitutes adulthood — not a biologically given reality.

Postman chooses to begin elaborating this claim with a discussion of “political consciousness and judgment in a society in which television carries the major burden of communicating political information,” about which he has the following to say:

In the television age, political judgment is transformed from an intellectual assessment of propositions to an intuitive and emotional response to the totality of an image. In the television, people do not so much agree or disagree with politicians as like or dislike them. Television redefines what is meant by ‘sound political judgment’ by making it into an aesthetic rather than a logical matter.

How might we update this discussion of television to account for digital media, especially social media? There’s a hint in the way we refer to the people who engage with each. We tend to talk about television’s audience or its viewers and of social media users. Social media users, in other words, are not merely passive consumers of media. By drawing us in as active participants, social media weaponizes the superficiality engendered by television. We might also say that “sound political judgment” becomes a matter not only of the candidate’s aesthetic but of our own aesthetic as well.

Finally, here’s a passage from Rudolph Arnheim quoted by Postman:

We must not forget in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts. For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think. When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

That’s a strong claim right there at the end. It was made in 1935. Maybe we should hesitate to put the matter quite so starkly. Perhaps we can simply say not that the mind shrinks, but that certain habits of thought atrophy or are left underdeveloped. In any case, I was struck by this paragraph because it seemed a useful way of characterizing online arguments conducted with memes. Replace “pointing a finger” with “posting a meme.” Of course, the point is that calling these arguments is all wrong. Posting a meme to make a point is like shouting QED without ever having presented your proofs. The argument, such as it is, is implicit and it is taken in at a glance, it is grasped intuitively. There’s very little room for persuasion in this sort of exchange.

A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

The Miracle That Saves the World

are-233x300“Hannah Arendt is preeminently the theorist of beginnings,” according to Margaret Canovan in her Introduction to Arendt’s The Human Condition. “Reflections on the human capacity to start something new pervade her thinking,” she adds.

I’ve been thinking about this theme in Arendt’s work, particularly as the old year faded and the new one approached. Arendt spoke of birth and death, natality and morality, as the “most general condition of human existence.” Whereas most Western philosophy had taken its point of departure from the fact of our mortality, Arendt made a point of emphasizing natality, the possibility of new beginnings.

“The most heartening message of The Human Condition,” Canovan writes,

is its reminder of human natality and the miracle of beginning. In sharp contrast to Heidegger’s stress on our mortality, Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions.”

This is, indeed, a heartening message. One that we need to take to heart in these our own darkening days. Below are a three key paragraphs in which Arendt develops her understanding of the importance of natality in human affairs.

First, on the centrality of natality to political activity:

[T]he new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought

Natality was a theme that predated the writing of The Human Condition. Here is the closing paragraph of arguably her best known work, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written a few years earlier.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–”that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In a well-known passage from The Human Condition, Arendt refers to the fact of natality as the “miracle that saves the world.” By the word world, Arendt does not mean the Earth, rather what we could call, borrowing a phrase from historian Thomas Hughes, the human-built world, what she glosses as “the realm of human affairs.” Here is the whole passage:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

Arendt well understood, however, that not all new beginnings would be good or just or desirable.

If without action and speech, without the articulation of natality, we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bearing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes.

In fact, Arendt attributes “the frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together” to the “human condition of natality.” However, Arendt believed there were two capacities that channeled and constrained the power of action, the unpredictable force of natality: forgiveness and promise keeping. More on that, perhaps, in a later post.

Twitter: Trump’s Ring of Power

“I often tell students,” media scholar Henry Jenkins once noted, “that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

It’s a provocative grouping, which gives the observation its punch, and, as far as I can tell, it is also an accurate assessment. The engine, so to speak, that drives the media-related transformations of political or religious culture is the imperative to “get your message out.” Of course, as media theorists have observed, how you get your message out may transform the message itself and the audience.

We might say, then, that Twitter is to Trump what radio was to FDR or TV was to Kennedy or Reagan.

It is not that FDR was the first to use radio, or Kennedy TV, or Trump Twitter–those firsts were Coolidge, Truman, and Obama, respectively. Rather it is that these were the first presidents to fully exploit the potential of each medium, for better or for worse. Their success depended upon a confluence of personal qualities, existing cultural dynamics, and the affordances of the medium. Their success also reconfigured the norms of political culture and discourse–there was no going back and no way to undo the consequences.

The striking thing about Trump’s use of Twitter is how he deploys it, not only to circumvent the press but to control the other media as well. Need to shake up the news cycle? No problem, a tweet will do it. Thus the real power of Twitter was not necessarily that of reaching the audience on Twitter itself, which is quite small compared to TV, but in setting the agenda for how other media would cover the election and transition. It is as if Twitter were Sauron’s ring, the one ring to rule them all. In this case, the one medium to rule all media.

Incidentally, not unlike Sauron’s ring, Twitter also tempts users with power, the power to torment and destroy ideological opponents by unleashing armies of underlings, for example. But, like the One Ring, the power it offers to those who would wield it is ultimately illusory and destructive. The wise refuse it. They even refuse the temptation to do good by its use, for they know the ring serves its own ends and ultimately they cannot control the forces they unleash.