Nervous States –Promises


This is the third and final post looking at William Davies book Nervous States–Democracy and the Decline of Reason. Davies provides some ideas for getting out of this mess at the end of the book. I believe that they are well thought out. First, Davies notes that there is one problem confronting humanity that may never go away, and which computers do nothing to alleviate: how to make promises. A promise made to a child or a public audience has a binding power. It can be broken, but the breaking of it is a breach that can leave deep emotional and cultural wounds. Davies states:

“Whether we like it or not, the starting point for this venture will be the same as it was for Hobbes:  the modern state, issuing laws backed by sovereign power.  It is difficult to conceive how promises can be made at scale, in a complex modern society, without the use of contracts, rights and statutes underpinned by sovereign law. Only law really has the ability to push back against the rapidly rising tide of digital algorithmic power. It remains possible to make legal demands on the owners and controllers of machines, regardless of how sophisticated those machines are.”


This is back to Hayek (his photo on the left. Hobbes on the right). You need good rules for the free market to deliver the best results. (Please note that the remainder of this post is largely cherry picked from the book without appropriate citations or credits primarily based on my laziness.)

Davies believes that giant technology platforms will be checked only by legal intervention. Populism, understood as a non-class based mobilization against concentrations of elite power, originated in Kansas in the 1880s because of resentment against monopolistic railroad and oil companies. The birth of modern antitrust law followed soon afterward, allowing large economic powers to be broken up by legal intervention.  Busting cartels and monopolies continued to be a way that political leaders of various parties demonstrated their populist credentials, right up until the 1970s. But since the 1970s, competition law in Europe and the United States has become increasingly technocratic in nature, focusing on intricacies of economic efficiency that are  invisible and incomprehensible to the public. Expertise (in particular, complex fields of economics and game theory that shape antitrust nowadays) has made regulation more opaque to the public.  At the same time, monopolies have prospered with Silicon Valley giants being among the principal beneficiaries.

According to Davies, a new wave of populist legal interventions could rein in the power of the new monopolists, and not only through breaking them up.  One of the political dangers of Facebook, for example, is that there is no available means for a member of the public to see the full range of political campaign ads that are being disseminated, but only those which are tailored for them.  The public sphere is presented in a personalized form, for each individual user, and there is no way to see it in its impersonal form.  Treating platforms as information fiduciaries or enforcing a principal of platform neutrality are possible routes to reining in platform power using legal means.

For this to happen, regulators must move beyond their narrowly defined economic criteria of what counts as a problem in the first place.  The Silicon Valley dream, of building the machines which mediate mind and world, is dashed, once companies are restricted to serving specific markets and clearly articulated human needs.

Much of the lure of populists, both of a left- and a right-wing variety, is their willingness to make promises. In many cases, these promises might be rash.  But for those who have studied the supporters of such politicians, the appeal of this type of rhetoric makes sense. The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s exploration of the lives of Tea Party enthusiasts in Louisiana revealed to her a “deep Story” underlying their political views.  On a fundamental emotional level, these people felt that some basic moral agreement had been broken, whereby their patience and hard work was no longer adequate for them to be deemed respectable citizens.  Crucially, at least for their political reaction to this, they blamed government rather than business for, the fact that a promise had not been honored.

Politicians must make simple, realistic, and life-changing promises. Either that, or nationalists will show them how it is done.  Highly complex policies, developed by experts with sophisticated modeling and delivery mechanisms, cannot satisfy the current demand.  Today policies predicated on universality–of treating everyone  equally–have growing political appeal.  Much of the appeal of “universal basic income” is the simplicity of paying everybody a fixed amount of money, with no strings attached.  Sufficiently simple and universal promises are able to withstand political attacks and media distortions.

One of the conditions that allowed liars to prosper in today’s politics  was that politics (and policy making in particular) became too technically complex to sustain a common sense of reality. The best hope for breaking the cycle of cynicism and distrust might be just one of two policies that are so simple, so deliverable that they reconnect the words of elected representatives with the experience of citizens.  Had governments introduced a policy of “helicopter money” instead of quantitative easing in 2009, this would have seen the sum in every individual savings account increase by a set figure, using the same technical means as the one employed for quantitative easing.

Davies notes that societies have renewed their capacity to make wide-ranging promises in the past. The birth of modern government and scientific expertise occurred in the aftermath of civil and religious wars in the seventeenth century.  The devastation of the Second World War was followed by unprecedented efforts to guarantee peace at an international level through the expansion of the welfare state and socialized health care. There is no reason to assume that the capacity to produce  new institutions of social contracts and peace has evaporated.