This post and its first part are condensed in this blog post at NESTA.
“What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.”
In my previous post I argued that there was a huge difference between social change seeking today and in the decades from the 1960s. One was theory heavy, focused on the public realm as a unitary entity, and deployed the tactics of activism to influence government policy and the wider culture. Today’s change seeking movements focus far more on the individual initiative of social entrepreneurs, activism focused on individuals – for instance urging boycotts by consumers and investors.
Two core themes/methodologies/technologies in this area include the power of IT including the internet, social media and data and human centred design. As I noted in the previous post, I’m a big fan of all this. In the previous post I argued firstly that what might look like great work might otherwise be undone in ways that were visible to relatively straightforward ‘theory’ but not visible if one just deployed the standard enthusiasms identified above. Often these problems arise where intervention occurs within some kind of market context where ‘the market’ or the wider context throws off effects which offset the benefits one has otherwise generated, or where it can be seen on reflection that the intervention has generated its beneficial effects indirectly and one could have more impact targeting the problem directly. There are also interventions which fall foul of our ignorance. An intervention to lower greenhouse emissions is likely to do a lot better if it targets emissions directly, rather than rely on some rule of thumb like Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Open data and information
There’s a further class of problem in which the activist needs to guard against being the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. I first noticed this in the area of information and open data. As I put it here:
We have long known and for commonsensical reasons that good information is critical to economic efficiency. Friedrich Hayek argued this within the ‘Austrian tradition’ of economics in prosecuting his case in the ‘socialist calculation debates’ of the 1930s. ‘Asymmetric information’ arrived as a substantial issue within the neoclassical tradition around thirty-five years later with the work of theorists such as Kenneth Arrow, George Stigler, George Akerlof and Joseph Stiglitz.
Yet beyond the simple and effective – as far as it goes – outlawing of clearly misleading conduct – much of the rest of information policy has been left to mandatory disclosure. A little ‘theory’ helps us get a lot further.
- Doing “due diligence” on what we purchase is a laborious and often difficult exercise often requiring expertise we don’t have. For that reason virtually all the Product Disclosure Statements mandated on investments are ignored by investors. Consumers and also investors take the shortcut of relying on market reputations. Thus improving the process by which reputations are formed offers a very promising avenue for improving information flows.
- Further, a lot of the new information products of the internet are public goods privately provided. Following this logic leads to a range of promising possibilities for public private digital partnerships.
Lateral Economics produced a report which got quite a lot of coverage on the economic value of open data in the G20 particularly to argue the case for broadening our policy focus in these directions arguing that this might generate large economic and social benefits. Yet, as I discovered attending the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin, data activists weren’t particularly interested.
As Schumpeter observed (or as I have interpreted him) the ‘engine’ behind politics and activism is not ‘reason’ but affect – how we feel and what we want to express. I think the theoretical focus on information I’ve offered above offers the potential for a new birth of reform, diffusion of power and human betterment in the (liberationist) spirit of the Adam Smith, with much of its essence being about constraining the ability of the rich and the powerful to pass off their usual mediocrity as excellence and helping build the architecture of more open data ecologies of the future. I suspect there would be other agendas of similar ambition also.
But I discovered that somehow the activists are not excited by these ideas which are, after all fairly abstract. As far as I could see, the data activists were into two main things. They were doing what Facebook and any number of commercial social platforms were doing – building communities of shared value and were very focused on building cool apps, engaging their communities. And this then led them to look for more data to build apps for or run through existing apps. And those with more subversive intent were into things like ‘extractive transparency‘ which, with their cool apps and volunteer forensic work, enables groups of activists to trace the transactions of large multinationals like BP and expose hitherto unknown corporate linkages, not to mention questionable dealing and wrongdoing of many kinds.
Both of these activities are entirely worthy goals and I wish them well, but for me, they somehow miss some of the most important things about information and the new possibilities of the internet. So to revert to the title of this piece, a sketch of my ‘theory’ of information is above, and these initiatives are activism without theory about what would contribute the most from activism and public policy.
I was recently in London and at short notice Geoff Mulgan kindly invited me to an evening at NESTA showcasing D-Cent (Decentralised Citizens Engagement Technologies) a “Europe-wide project bringing together citizen-led organisations that have transformed democracy in the past years”. At the end of the evening Geoff summed up by saying that there had been a little progress but not major progress and that the latter was now the challenge. In a few year’s time we’d know if that had been achieved. Without wishing to criticise any of these projects, many of which seem very worthwhile,* much of this seemed to fit the same pattern I’ve outlined above.
The architects of these projects struck me as applying the mindset set out above – human centred design, transparency, user experience, and engagement – to politics. That might be a good thing to do, but then again it might be a mixed blessing. It might even make things worse. For instance in making digital products, lowering transactions costs is usually very worthwhile. But in democracy it raises the ‘vox pop’ quotient. A huge problem of politics as it’s practiced today is salience bias – as politics is swept along on the tides of the 24/7 infotainment cycle. If so, then lowering transactions costs could easily make things worse, amping up all the things you can get people wound up about instantly, and further suppressing those aspects of democratic governance that require a little more deliberation.
Other than some very brief comments from Geoff Mulgan opening the showcase which outlined the dimensions of the quadrant diagram below and further observing that things that might function in small online communities often won’t scale straightforwardly (which is one of the major if not the preeminent benefit of online platforms), none of the presenters gave me much idea of what they thought the major problems of democracy were and what the obstacles to tackling them might be. (However, by implication the projects’ focus on transparency and engagement tell us what problems they’re trying to address).
My own ‘theory’ about what’s wrong with democracy is not comprehensive or elaborate. (I set it out here only as an illustration of what I mean by ‘theory’ and where I’m ‘coming from’ – not because I expected these people to have the same theory as me.) From the time Ian Marsh suggested I re-read Schumpeter on democracy (pdf), two observations of his have always struck me as fundamental.
- I’ve already mentioned the first – that the engine of democratic engagement is affect and expression, not reason.
- The second is that all organisation of any sophistication – which obviously includes political life – requires a division of labour (as one sees in something as simple as your local football club – even off the field – with its president, secretary and treasurer). And a division of labour calls for people to exercise authority delegated from the sovereign people. And this raises principal-agent problems. The way these are solved in representative democracy is via politicians’ ‘accountability’ to the people (which, I note by way of aside, has become progressively transformed towards a consumer/producer model. But this accountability is mediated through the mass and social media which amplifies the affective nature of political engagement at the expense of careful deliberation (the latter being a very boutique taste in the traditional or social media.) And this opens up huge opportunities for power to manipulate the process.
These ideas suggest to me two fronts on which we might seek to address the democratic decline that’s all around us. First one role that it seems to me digital tools might help lead the way is in providing what I’ve called the middleware of democracy. Such ‘middleware’ would help discussion converge to less reactive, more reflective equilibria than currently occurs with the Alan Jones’s of the world revving up their audiences and passing it off as civic engagement. (As an aside, digital tools might really offer a new horizon for the teaching of collaboration.)
Second, pondering the problem of delegation has led me to believe that we should lean far more on deliberative democracy and I’m hoping to write something on this in the new year. Indeed, just as the architects of modern democracy in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century saw democracy as constituted by some balance of power between arms of government (executive, judiciary, legislature) and social classes (the commons, aristocracies of some kind, and in monarchical states, royalty), I’d argue for a model which balances the powers of representative and deliberative democracy (in which deliberative groups are chosen a la the Council of 500 in Athens – by lot). But I digress – that’s just my theory.
And as far as the use of digital tools to enhance democracy is concerned, pretty obviously something with the power of digital tools can play an important beneficial role. Digital tools can very likely play a useful role in enhancing transparency and accountability – and thus making corruption a little more difficult.** But it seems to me that any general consideration regarding digital tools for democracy should begin with some consideration of the extent to which they could exacerbate the worst features of what I’ve called vox pop democracy. Other than what might have been read into Geoff Mulgan’s opening comments about the difficulties in scaling digital democracy, this subject wasn’t raised and the two issues I’ve raised – the idea of digital ‘middleware’ and deliberative democracy were never raised.
* I liked a lot of the projects and am not criticising those embarked on them. And I may not understand them sufficiently, or perhaps there are other projects not represented at the showcase that I would have fancied more.
** I can’t recall if he said much on the night on this score, but the interesting Indigo Trust that William Perrin represented does run an interesting line in transparency and anti-corruption.