Jamie Susskind’s book, ‘Future Politics’ underlines multifarious ways technology is bound to impact the political realm. By building a relationship between technology, state and the private sector, Susskind, has argued that technology in many ways will have to be organised in consonance with evolving ideas in politics. The tentative hypothesis proposed here, “how we gather, store, analyse, and communicate our information– in essence how we organise it– it is closely related to how we organise our politics”. Many a times, it has been assumed that technology has no relationship with the politics of the nation-state. The book, ‘Future Politics’ brings various concepts of political science and comprehend how each one of them is intertwined with technology. These concepts of politics are power, liberty, justice, and democracy. The reason behind choosing these concepts is our use of them in daily life while thinking and speaking about politics. Furthermore, these concepts have an irreducible core and thus, cannot be taken away without the concept ceasing to mean what it means. An important fact about concepts is that concepts on their own have no right or wrong definition, however, its definition must be accepted by significant number of its users. As the technological age advances, concepts will keep evolving depending on the usage of the linguistic community, therefore, there are no eternal concepts and no eternal meanings. Here, Susskind asks a crucial question that concepts valid during a particular historical epoch might not be relevant in the contemporary times. However, looking at this question from a political philosophy perspective, I argue that it would be a fallacy to not apply philosophical questions in times of technological change. An idea of ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’ is essential to deconstruct what is happening, and also, without understanding social realities it is intricate to know what kind of ethical framework will be applied in a particular context. I want to point out here in the beginning the author is skeptical about applying universal framework or using a theoretical paradigm in entirety. Therefore, the core argument here is to apply theory rooted in reality and facts of life to be able to give guidance as to how we live together. Susskind is highly critical of using theoretical concepts in an abstract sense and thus, advocates to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s tech-enabled democracy and applying Marx’s theories for ownership and control of AI systems.
The book is divided into four conceptual frameworks of politics- power, liberty, justice and democracy and how these ideas are connected with various strands of technology. Power, liberty, justice and democracy are not solely political but ideas constantly regulated by the state and private authorities (tech firms here). Keeping these concepts at centre, Susskind weaves arguments by reconciling different debates around these concepts by bringing forth various philosophical arguments. The book exceptionally brings out various philosophical arguments in understanding nuance of codes, algorithms, AI and blockchain.
Power: Power could be perceived in three ways: force, scrutiny and perception control. The argument here is that power in technological age will be more concentrated in the hands of the state and large tech companies. Susskind defines power as the ability, facility or capacity of a person to do something. The author is paying more attention to the idea of ‘power over’ than ‘power to’. However, this limited conception of power is inclined to negate power in relation the citizenry. Susskind’s concern is limited to power relations between people which boils down to ignoring the important questions of privacy and state surveillance. The relationship between code and power is such that our interaction with the code makes one to necessarily submit to the dictates of their code. Code, here, refers to set of instructions given to computer in its own language for the workings of various software. In that manner, Susskind points out that code can also be used to manipulate and influence people in ways that don’t resemble the workings of the law. This is where ‘scrutiny’ comes to play a huge role– where technology alters our perception about the world. The author summarises their viewpoint as ‘code is law and code is power’. Code’s empire rules us in the sense that it leaves no distinction between human and machine, online and offline, virtual and physical. In this context, whether we interact with digital technologies or whether we are aware of them, it will matter less and less.
In the coming times, code will be much more dynamic, sensitive and adaptable referee of our conduct– potent and capable of changing rules as well as enforcing them. The ‘force’ element of power also functions in three ways digitization of force – a transition from written law to digital law, privatization of force that is erosion of state control over the use of technology and automation of force that is the emergence of autonomous digital systems that can exert force against humans without immediate human oversight and control. Susskind argues that these three transitions will have a political significance. The ‘codification’ of law will take place when law will be computed by AI systems applying in general standards to specific situations. This has been called as ‘digital law’ which will further codify values. The values brings a scenario where technology will be capable of working on its own whims and fancies. For instance, a self driven car can be reprogrammed to drive off to the nearest cliff. The ‘power’ of technological realm is foucauldian because no matter whether we choose it or not we are subjected to it in our day to day life. The autonomy of digital systems and their self sustenance without any human intervention would have be maintained independently without any risks of being tampered by a third party. As we know this is bound to have risks as AI and other technologies operating without any human intervention will not be sensitive human needs and social cleavages. In this sense, technology in itself has a potential to influence and manipulate. The issue of scrutiny can be problematic as it is always a grey area when it comes to efficient surveillance systems and sketchy judgement of police and government officials. Being scrutinized will become a norm in future and those who monopolize the means of scrutiny are technologies capable of gathering and processing information and thus, gaining an increase in their power on rest of us.
Scrutiny also operationalize in a disciplinary manner, such that mere fact that we are being watched makes us alter our behaviors and the constant ‘big brother is watching you’ puts us in different hierarchies. Susskind argues, “in the digital life-world, individuals will be even more scrutable than before. Authentication will not be a matter of external designations like names or even numbers, but will be taken directly from our living bodies, each one uniquely identifiable by the bio-metric details of face, fingerprints, retinas, irises or gait”. This is identical to criticisms against Aadhar and its bio-metric technology. In other words, an individual is reduced to a number and there is no escaping.
Liberty: There are broadly two views on technology – an optimist and a pessimist. The former advocates that technology will free us from the shackles of daily life and make our life easy. The latter advocates for that technology will become another way for the strong to subjugate the freedoms of the weak. However, the author has argued for a balance of both optimism and pessimism and above all future would require ‘vigilance’ if one has to ensure according to John F Kennedy’s dictum, ‘survival and success of liberty’.
In future, the predictive analysis can pose a danger to citizens’ freedom by predicting their future behaviour. While the accuracy of such predictive analysis is one thing, predictive policing systems frequently tell police to put resources in an area where the outcome is still unpredictable. The algorithms which are deployed to predict crime, are prone to targeting people based on their future conduct or certain ideas perpetuated in society – racism, and gender bias. The predictive policing should focus on reasoning behind the commitment of crimes and not incarcerating people.
Another technological advancement has been encryption. There are two ways encryption bothers the author. Firstly, in case of terrorist attack it will be difficult for state agencies to detect terrorist plotting. Secondly, the author is skeptical of encryption becoming a ubiquitously acceptable technology as many private businesses would want an easy access to the platforms used by citizens.
Thus, the author holistically argues for a system of restraints than a system of precise and perfect law for what is already a society of flawed, damaged human beings.
Democracy : In the realm of digital technology, we are surrounded by multiple ideas of democracy. These include deliberative democracy, direct democracy, wiki democracy, data democracy and AI democracy. The idea of democracy from classical, liberal to republican is marred with how internet works in the present context. Susskind argues, “Political elites have begun to exploit the remarkable potential of big data in profiling citizens, modelling their political behaviour, predicting their intentions and targeting advertisements and organisational accordingly”. This has become ostensible in recent cases of political campaigning of Donald Trump in 2016 and deployment of Cambridge Analytica. This new approach to data-based campaigning has been called the ‘engineering of consent’ and also, as ‘weaponized AI propaganda machine’. This constant changing relationship between internet, government and citizens and a co-relationship between citizens, needs a regulatory framework. The author has succinctly pointed out we need to comprehend challenges and opportunities of democracy in the digital world. This would a continuous evolution of democratic notions and not any one framework can be utilized to comprehend the complexities of AI democracy or data democracy. The digital life-world will prompt us to decide that is equally deliberative and doesn’t stifle people’s liberties.
Justice: My first impression while reading the key concepts was that author has skipped an important concept of- equality. However, in this section, Susskind argues that justice and equality are not the same. Further, many a times, justice doesn’t translate into material equality and neither into treating everyone the same. The concept of justice, nonetheless, is interlinked with the concept of equality of opportunity and justice as desert. The concept of justice has a role in digital world in distributing algorithms to both the market and the state. These algorithms will again play a part in deciding distribution of social goods and deciding access to resources. Algorithms will apply to our shopping patterns routinely display advertisements for payday loans to less well-off groups. These are some essential questions revolving around distributive justice. Potential injustice is latent in several interstices of internet space- bad data, unjust rules, and even in neutral rules. In other words, those who write algorithms will wield unjust economic power and owners of digital technologies will be the lords of economic advantages. In that context, it is imperative to understand what are the economic structures of a society and how that will impact the distribution of social goods. The proposed idea is that of ‘Digital Con-federalism’ that ensures preservation of liberty so that people can move between systems according to their choice of code. The availability of liberties be it news gathering or communication should be such that it is possible to move between systems without adverse consequences.
The central idea of the book is that ‘digital is political’. The motive of many tech companies nowadays is to disrupt our economic and political lives in their quest for profits. The driving argument is that advances in genetic engineering, medicine, robotics, nanotechnology and AI will shape our politics such that concepts of theory would have to be contextualized. The future of politics must be comprehend in this kind of theoretical reality where justice, democracy, liberty and power are valued and put in harmony with digital world.
This piece is written by Manisha Chachra. Manisha is Associate Researcher at Govern.