Democracy With Unit Tests

I don’t listen to every episode of Freakonomics – it’s so chirpy – but Regulate This, on the disruptive approaches of tech firms monetizing underused resources owned by individuals, was excellent. It pulled together a number of different threads about innovation, regulation and consumer protection, to the point where a friend of mine was prompted to ask ”Does this presage the end of the regulationist government that has grown so steadily to protect us from any old thing?” … with all the good and bad that might imply.

So I don’t have a crystal ball, but this is an interesting swirl of forces. The basic problem with state regulation of this sort at the moment is it doesn’t scale down. It can deal with a taxi company but not renting out your back seat. It can face off against a hotel chain but not a spare room.

You also have two generations of bureaucracy and information technology facing off against each other. You have a Max Weber nineteenth century Prussian bureaucratic form of technology and organization, adapted through 20th century American progressivism, then dealing with a set of technologies and practices where a lot less of the machine is made of people, but instead code. Its a fight between two bureaucratic social elites with different traditions and texts and that is where much of the nastiness comes from.

Eg, the culture clash in the US Healthcare website rewrite … but also Nate Silver, also both Obama presidential campaigns and their use of big data and social network analysis.

Plus you have dynamics of actual consumer protection and consumer empowerment. The back seats of those cars in LA really are going to waste. My guess is for a while – like a decade or two – big government really won’t be able to deal with this sort of distribution. Big Government is the nearest shorthand for 20th century high modernist bureaucracy, that depends on lots of command and control and economies of scale. It just can’t scale down or move fast enough when put head to head with Internet-era tech. I imagine mostly an environment of benign neglect, but with horrible weird cases like suddenly living next to a popup brothel, which you can’t get the police interested in because everyone is renting out rooms on airbnb nowadays.

It was very interesting to me that New York and Chicago were big sites of regulatory pushback. They are both huge rich cities, with a lot of metro transport infrastructure, subways, buses and hotels. They have the population density economies of scale to make transport cheap already, even taxis. Whereas in, say, Brisbane, the trains cost an absolute fortune, and the taxis are basically non-existent outside of a very small square in the centre of town. Lift or Uber has a much bigger opportunity in Brisbane – or Phoenix, or Atlanta – because of the lack of competing infrastructure.

I think probably government will learn to adapt and use the new techs effectively, for better and worse, and will learn to scale down, so you can pay your 5% hotel room tax by smartphone for the three times a year you rent out your spare room. At its nicest it will look like GOV.UK, at its worst it will look like the CIA’s PRISM, and the latter will probably data mine the crap out of the former.

What about democracy and due process? There is a risk that in the rush to monetize every spare bit of capacity in our existing infrastructure, and routing around an elephantine bureaucracy with regulators that get new grads for a few years before they jump into the industries they were regulating, we screw up good processes of review and consultation just because they are slow. To me the only way around that doesn’t involve ignoring the tech is to exploit the legibility of software itself. Our regulations are code now. Well the regulations are public knowledge, right – why not the code? GOV.UK is on github (publicly hosted source control). Why not most civic infrastructure? Why not submit a patch for the local traffic light not leaving enough time for pedestrians, and argue about it in an issue system with your neighbours and the civil engineers looking after traffic design in that part of the city? It’s democracy with unit tests.

There are utopian extensions of this approach imagining using open software social and technical structures to reinvent corporations and government. One vision from Jessica Margolin and Jamais Cascio is to retool global business for resilience. The Jetpack Communist version is Terranova’s Red Stack Attack!: Algorithms of Capital and the Automation of the Common. Another vision might be using a structure like the W3C to fix climate change. I am drawn to these without being able to reconcile how they might live in the same world as gunboat diplomacy and social terror franchises like ISIS. There are visions in there, and a theory, and a kind of prototype, but not really a platform, yet.


I learnt about another two panopticons the other day. One is a watch that quantifies everything you do, physically. Treating oneself as big data is a very twenty first century thing to do. It’s the equivalent of a nineteenth century scientist dosing herself with her new experimental vaccine, but now risking nasty civic information death instead of horrible biological death. It also recommends itself as what Jamais Cascio calls a participatory panopticon: it is generated cooperatively by individuals, though once the information is collected it will presumably want to be liberated, and expensive. The prospects for medical advancement and self-empowerment seem rather marvelous; the prospects for medical insurance, whether state or private, seem less so. It all makes my use of runkeeper to track exercise look as wheezing and amateurish as the runs themselves.

The second is the British Library’s endearingly batty plan to store everything on the UK web. An enlightened quirk of British copyright law already gives them the right to do this, and it’s a beautiful, public spirited, idea. This can perhaps be grouped together with various initiatives worldwide to open access to government data, driven from within and without the state itself.

Let’s add to these the leviathans in the room – the security state panopticons. The US and UK ones we know of courtesy of Mr Snowden, the Chinese system has been in the open for some time, and presumably everyone in a uniform globally is at it by now, wrongly or wrongly.

Jeremy Bentham conceived of The Panopticon as a prison where everything a prisoner did could be observed, in order to reform him. That isn’t what we’re building today. We have a system of fledgling panopticons, built by competing interests, used for interacting institutional ends: a Panopticonarchy.

I’d say this system will be hard to completely avoid, and to do so successfully will be the equivalent of today’s statelessness. You will have to be like Hamlet and go live in a nutshell, and most people won’t want to. The choice for most individuals, already, is which panopticons to support and which to pollute, constrain and resist.

Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.

Self-kicking robot chair

If a key principle of robot ethics is not kicking the robot, what if the robot is designed to kick itself? This mesmerising chair continually collapses and reassembles itself. It’s a sculptural collaboration by Max Dean, Raffaello D’Andrea and Matt Donovan.

Does this escape censure because the parts of the chair are not particularly damaged in their disassembly? It would then just be a robot just doing its job, and the entropic interpretation would all be in the eyes of its human beholders. I am inclined to think so, though it is interesting how close it skirts the line. Alternatively, by allowing us to contemplate, as Greg Smith has it, the existential plight of furniture, does it sin against the robot by condemning it to hell?


Don’t Club The Cute Baby Robot To Death

Amy Harmon at the NYT has a good overview of a generation of robots specifically designed to trigger emotional cues in their easily manipulated meatbag slaves, er, that is, people. The key example is Paro, a therapeutic robot baby seal.

Jamais Cascio has suggested this empathic reaction should have moral weight. Like Mencius’ heart of compassion, he plausibly argues it is a marker of the complexity of the synthetic creature and our responsibility to it. Don’t Kick The Robot, Cascio advises. Developing the idea, he proposed it as one of five laws of robot ethics.

While SF stories focus on robots analogous existence to humans, for the forseeable future the link with animals will be far more relevant. Most people, and even philosophers like Peter Singer, suggest an animal has a different moral character to a person due to its lack of awareness about or plans for the future. It’s also worth remembering what most people’s ethical codes allow towards animals: of course empathy and affection, but also humane husbandry for profit, and slaughter for the dinner table. We treat many animals much like we treat these robots: as tools.