Algorithms versus Hive Minds and the Fate of Democracy

Algorithms versus Hive Minds and the Fate of Democracy

Rick Searle (IEET, USA)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8592-5.ch001


For nearly two decades the Internet has been thought to presage two radically different political destinies. A dystopian outcome where that architecture becomes a sort of global panopticon used to monitor and manipulate its occupants and a utopian one where politics takes on anarchic and democratic which the heightened interconnection of the Internet makes possible. This essay uses these dichotomous possibilities as a way to understand how the Internet has evolved over the past generation, and how this development has been interpreted in the hopes of providing a clarified intellectual framework through which choices regarding its regulation and shaping in the public interest can be made.
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The power over this realm has been given to you. You are weaving the fabric of perception in information perceptualized. You could – if you choose – turn our world into a final panopticon – a prison where all can be seen and heard and judged by a single jailer. Or you could aim for its inverse, an asylum run by the inmates. The esoteric promise of cyberspace is of a rule where you do as you will; this ontology – already present in the complex system know as Internet – stands a good chance of being passed along to its organ of perception. (Pesce, 1997)

Certainly Pesce was onto something. As the Internet and its successor mobile technologies unfolded in the almost two decades following his essay it proved both the ultimate panopticon and a vector for the undermining of traditional centers of power. It gave us both the NSA and what political theorists characterized variously as “the end of power” (Naím, 2014) or “monitory democracy”. (Keane, 2009)

What Pesce got wrong was that his two imagined destinies for the Internet wouldn’t be radically different and mutually exclusive alternative futures, but would emerge in parallel with the rise of each in a sense serving to reinforce the other.

That, I think, has been our mistake. To see these two possible futures as alternatives rather than as intimately connected- a kind of future blindness that has prevented us from really grappling with the full political and philosophical implications of the digital age.

My task here is to dispel some of this blindness by providing a rough outline of the emergence of Pesce’s feared “prison” with a “single jailer” and his hoped for “asylum run by the inmates” in the hope that better understanding our situation will provide us with viable escape routes.

The following essay is divided into three sections. The first section will look at various manifestations of Pesce’s panopticon, and the algorithms that underpin it, which can be seen everywhere from finance, to the security state, to political campaigning, to criminal justice, to city management.

The second section will look at the inverse of this panopticon, the way in which the Internet has enabled lateral, almost leaderless movements, to burst onto the scene in the second decade of the 21 century. I characterize these movements and protests as “hive-minds”, and in this section will trace both how they have succeeded, but more importantly, why they have so far failed to engender any lasting systemic change.

The third and concluding section will try to uncover some of the historical assumptions that underlie this technological architecture, and its political manifestations, which I will argue emerge from much older philosophical anxieties over what human beings can ultimately know and do.


Mass Surveillance And The Rise Of Algorithms

Not all that long ago, people talked of the Internet as if it were a new and distinct domain- cyberspace- something separate from the real world with which we had long been acquainted. That is no longer the case, for what has happened over the last generation is that cyberspace has consumed the real world, it has become the overlay through which our reactions with reality are mediated. (Wertheim, 1999)

A peculiar model of how this mediation should work is now found across multiple domains. It is found in the way security services now operate, along with much of finance and commerce; it is the basis for new ways of responding to crime, and is deeply influencing the way we organize the cities of our increasingly urbanized planet. It is ultimately a model of power that has been made possible by the shrinking size of computer components and the spread of ubiquitous connectivity. It is a model that bears a chilling resemblance to Pesce’s feared panopticon.

Well before the Snowden revelations, in an article largely ignored, James Bamford laid out how the NSA had built a massive data center in the desert of Utah where:

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