Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, by Jamie Susskind
As a former student, but an active enthusiast of international politics, I know that study of politics, by nature, is a retrospective endeavore. Political scientists and philosophers wrap their arguments around historical facts, studying and trying to understand events that already happened. Part of explanation for this is the nature of social sciences: researchers cannot conduct experiments as in natural sciences given that a subject of experimentation is social and political life, and even if they could, it would — and it should — take at least a lifetime before we can have any results of such experimentations. Another part of the reason, however, is a human choice: thinking about what already happened is easier: you already have at least some data; and you will have something solid to work with. Thinking about future is, in contrast, is challenging and often, ungrateful task. Predicting something is a demanding; you have no data about the future and you have to rely on imagination a lot, which necessarily involves subjective thinking — something not rewarded in academic circles. Moreover, people will point fingers at you if your predictions fail in the future. That’s why most of political science literature is about the past and that’s why political science failed to predict every major event.
In sum, it is challenging. But not impossible. Susskind’s Future Politics, despite having a very ambitious tittle, is a good example of this. Ironically, Future Politics was written not by a political scientist or theorist, but by a lawyer who loves political theory. In the book, Susskind analyzes how digital technology — and this is important, not just any technology (like satellites or drones), but data, AI and digital media — is changing and will continue to change the way we conduct politics.
Before diving into the future, Susskind provides a good intro to concepts of power, liberty, democracy and social justice. Once this established, Susskind tries to apply them to our digital reality, one-by-one showing how established Western political theories do a poor job in explaining it. Susskind proposes redefinition of ways we may apply these concepts to changes brought by tech. His argument is simple: we are not ready to changes brought to us by tech because we still thinking about politics like we are in the classical era. He argues that the way we talk about politics today comes from different era, and it no longer useful in the current and the future. Yet, that’s the only working language of politics we have, and instead adjusting reality to fit these concepts, we shall re-adjust these concepts to fit new reality.
For example, power is making someone to do things that the person would not otherwise do. But, is it not the same when, self-driving car does not allow me to go above speed limit, when I want to, especially on highway — that is, making me to do thing (follow speed limit rules) that I otherwise would want be doing? Example I gave is pretty poor, but you got general idea — tech is not apolitical, its just political lenses we have tend to ignore it or not see it at all. And Susskind offers to fix our lenses and explains how code and those who write it, data and those who collect it — change the way we govern ourselves.
The book is futuristic, but in the most realest way possible. Susskind does a good job of balancing today’s reality with future tech-driven apocalypses which, to be honest, makes sense. A lot of questions asked and situations hypothesized give you this really strange feeling that you are at the beginning of science-experiment-gone-bad: what Susskind describes is true already today, but the way he develops it into the future, makes you rethink daily benefits that you get from your tech. But do not get me wrong: the book is not a sci-fi about how everything will be bad in the future — it is a more political theory textbook, than that. It just usual daily tech things appear to have different color when looked through political lenses.
What I like about the book is that its not about start-ups, business, economy or innovation: its politics and how tech changes it. There is a good amount of books on how tech innovation is good for economy and everything else, but there are less of books on whether tech is good or bad for politics. Spoiler: it’s either, but we need to work on it.
Susskind is very clear when he explains why we should not confuse economics of tech with politics of tech. Tech firms have all the legitimate rights to wealth their earned, but with this wealth, they also gain a power to influence us, a power, which we do not necessarily consented to give. Yes, economic and everyday benefits of tech innovations are great, but it does not mean that we should receive these benefits at the cost of our liberty. He says this the best in the following paragraph:
We don’t typically let others dominate us without good reason, or at least without our permission. If tech firms are to acquire such power, then that power ought to be legitimate. For some this will sound odd. If an economic entity creates a product that consumers engage with, then why shouldn’t it enjoy the power that comes with its success? This type of thinking is sensible up to a point, but ultimately it confuses the logic of economics with the logic of politics. In the marketplace, investment, risk-taking, and hard work will often lead to the legitimate acquisition of wealth. But to say that the legitimacy of a tech firm’s political power should be judged by market standards because it originated in the market is like saying that a the legitimacy of military junta should be judged by military standards because it originated in a coup d’etat. On any faintly liberal or democratic view, what matters for the purpose of legitimacy is the perspective of people subject to the power in question. The political realm is not a marketplace.
What I also liked is the solution he proposes. There are no surprises: people should be given more rights over tech firms. Also — tech should help us to govern better. As everything, tech requires common rules so they can be used for public good. It is a normal process as many things we use daily went via process of agreeing on common rules on how we will be using them. Among potential tech-driven forms of governance are:
- Wiki democracy, where code, policies and laws will be accessible to everyone for editing:
The policymaking process could be broken down into various parts (diagnosis, framing, data-collection, drafting and refining legislation, so forth) and each part could be guided by the groups and individuals most willing or best placed to contribute.
With a proper constitution (perharps not one that can be altered by anyone at the click of a button) a Wiki Democracy could be built on the basis of clear rules about which laws may be edited, when and by whom, what they may or may not contain, and so forth.
- Data democracy, where public decision-making will be based on data, rather than votes — think of constantly collected datasets that used to better understand people’s preferences, thereby allowing equal consideration to everyone’s interests:
Under this model, policy would be based on incomparably rich and accurate picture of our lives: what we do, what we need, what we think, what we say, how we feel. The data would be fresh and updated in real time rather than in a four- or five-year cycle.
- AI democracy, where expertise-driven AI algorithms can be delegated with power to make automated decision on our behalf, on things that we do not have enough expertise to make beneficial decisions:
This would involve delegating authority (in matters big or small, as we wish) to specialist systems that we believe are better placed to determine our interests than we are. Taxation, consumer welfare, environmental policy, financial regulation — these are all areas where complexity or ignorance may encourage us to let an AI system make decision for us, based on what it knows of our lived experience and our moral preferences.
More advanced model might involve the central government making inquiries of the population thousands of times each day, rather than once every few years — without having to disturb us at all.”
These forms are not immune to criticism, but they offer interesting ideas that can be improved.
Susskind’s book is not about proposing policy recommendations though. It’s just something to consider and be questioned by. Susskind concerns not only with democracy types, but also equality, wealth concentration and distribution, social justice and liberty. It is quite wide and ambitious in its range, — and may be that the weakest side of the book. I would love to read more about, for example, data democracy, but given ambitious amount of topics covered, Susskind dedicates only two pages to this. It is the same with other topics — sometime, you would like to know more, but pages are limited.
That being said, I understand why Susskind went this way. I guess the point is not to provide a deep and specific analysis, as each chapter would require a book in itself — but to show how tech transforms different aspects of our collective self-governance. In other words, it’s not only that tech changes the way we communicate or behave, but also how we perceive things, how we decide on things, how we distribute things among us, and etc. Given this purpose, the book works. And if you are interested in this, give it a try.