.
T

here is an old black and white video showing a trip to San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906, that is often seen as a fitting metaphor for the state of technology and policy. The cable car, on which the camera is based, trundles along the middle of the street while horses, pedestrians, cars, and wagons cut across the scene. It is a time when old tech was being overtaken by new tech, struggling to coexist with very few rules of the road, arguably like the world today.

The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century | Jamie Susskind | Pegasus Books

The problem is that that video is not as instructive as it first seems. There are, in fact, a number of overlapping, often conflicting, rules and governance structures for modern technology. Most striking for the metaphor, the video is missing a handful of hyper-powered companies that dominate the road. At the same time, existing structures are ill-equipped, as are policymakers, to handle the broad scope and speed which new technologies are creating in society. Jamie Susskind, the author of a new book “The Digital Republic” goes one step further arguing that the very political philosophy on which these governance structures are based—market individualism—is woefully insufficient to rein in the tech giants or guide the evolution of technology.

Susskind outlines a model of “digital republicanism” as an alternative to Adam Smith’s hidden hand at the center of governance. In Susskind’s telling, market individualism led to today’s excesses in the aggregation of power and market share by tech companies—and its ripple effects society and politics. In essence, digital republicanism argues that laws and governance should seek to constrain tech’s power from going beyond acceptable bounds of control so as to prevent them from undermining freedom and liberty. It stands against the aggregation of unchecked power by commercial companies or by the government and seeks to put the people back at the heart of legislation and governance.

Presenting a philosophical framework sets Susskind’s book out from the vast majority of technology policy and governance books. These typically only seek to provide a solution to an identified policy problem, but at their core, accept the underlying philosophical governance that led created the policy problem in the first place. In that, this is a particularly refreshing and welcome read.

His chapters are short and punchy, with clearly outlined points (often enumerated) and closing with a sharp conclusion. Think of them as very well-thought out Twitter threads more than overly verbose policy proclamations. Each thread, as it were, builds on the previous and links back the philosophical framework. You may not agree with what Susskind outlines—and indeed at times I did not—but he presents his argument in a compelling, cogent, and eminently readable fashion.

There is, however, an overwhelming elephant in the room—politics. The problem is that while Susskind quite wisely avoids engaging that elephant, it is, perhaps, the single greatest barrier to addressing the tech governance. Susskind’s model is almost Rawlsian in its nature—the most ideal of idealized visions for governance, but its presentation is divorced from the realities of the day. It is well and good to hypothetically craft laws through a veil of ignorance or the lens of digital republicanism, but to deny the political realities of the world is to doom the enterprise from the start. Indeed, it would appear that the entire ecosystem of policymaking is incentivized to not act.

The legislative process in Washington is so ossified and the dialogue so rancorous that the likelihood of making significant progress is quite slim. The pace of change is outpacing legislators’ ability to understand, let alone govern, emerging technology. The second and third order effects of new tech are hard to grasp at the best of times. The legislators themselves struggle with the technology of today (many of whom do not even use email), let alone envision a future of machine learning, driverless cars, quantum computing, and more.

This is to say nothing of the entrenched lobbying machines incentivizing governance and regulation’s light touch—ostensibly to encourage innovation, but in reality, to protect the bottom line and market share. While both the left and the right seem to have landed on an agreement that the present situation is untenable, the diagnoses of the problem are radically different—monopolies and misinformation on the left and section 230 and shadow banning on the right—that they may as well come from different planets.

Perhaps it is in this same vein that Susskind chooses not to fully address the challenge of managing mis- and dis-information. To be sure he outlines an interesting system of governance, certification, oversight, and accountability for social media, but he does not fully engage with the substance of how one determines what is and is not true. How can policymakers come to grips with regulating social media and mis/disinformation when there is little consensus on objective truth? How can there be a meaningful conversation when one party is enthralled by a pseudo-catechism of conspiracy theory whilst the other adopts a liturgy of mostly performative social justice?

At one point in the book, Susskind references the difference between consumers and citizens and in so doing lands on an apropos framing for many of the problems liberal democracy faces writ large. When liberal democracies begin to see their constituents as consumers—and citizens see their role purely in a consumptive fashion—the prognosis for democracy is grim. Citizens are engaged, consumers are passive.

The reality is that consumers are far more willing to give up their data and freedom for the sake of convenience and cheap prices. Consumers live in blissful ignorance—socially and technologically engineered through behavior design and unending dings and chimes that release just enough serotonin to keep them engaged with their app. More often than not, consumers are blissfully unaware that their behavior is algorithmically driven, tracked, packaged, and resold. And truth be told, they probably do not care at all. Citizens should be more than that, but sadly it appears not to be the case.

Tech companies are, understandably, driven by profit. TED talks about changing the world for the better and the swiftly abandoned mottos of “don’t be evil” aside, it all comes down to profit—just look at how politically convenient stands for privacy are jettisoned when dealing with the world’s largest market, China. Changing that incentive structure is part of the program Susskind outlines, but it comes across as a touch too optimistic. Putting the brakes on innovation will surely be the death of any robust digital republican governance structure.

Throughout my reading of Susskind’s book, I was reminded of the Federalist Papers—essays promoting the ratification of the American Constitution. It was, then, rather entertaining that Susskind closes his book by quoting the final Federalist essay, penned by Alexander Hamilton in 1788. “The Digital Republic” certainly has echoes—either by design or consequence—of those seminal essays. Susskind’s Digital Federalist Paper, then, is an interesting and needed contribution. Yet, unlike the Federalist Papers, there is no digital constitution to defend or attack, and perhaps that is the underlying problem.

In the end, Susskind’s book is a breath of fresh air into what is an otherwise stagnant debate on tech and governance. He brings a refreshing philosophically-grounded look at what are very complex challenges. It matters less whether one agrees with his conclusions and more that he presents an argument sufficiently robust and engaging that it serves as a wonderful starting point for a much overdue substantive debate.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Federalist Papers for a Digital World

Photo by George Kedenburg III via Unsplash.

July 9, 2022

In his review of Jamie Susskind's "The Digital Republic," Joshua Huminski draws on the book's echoes of the Federalist Papers, highlighting that there is no digital constitution to defend or attack, and perhaps that is the underlying problem in the debate of technology and governance.

T

here is an old black and white video showing a trip to San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906, that is often seen as a fitting metaphor for the state of technology and policy. The cable car, on which the camera is based, trundles along the middle of the street while horses, pedestrians, cars, and wagons cut across the scene. It is a time when old tech was being overtaken by new tech, struggling to coexist with very few rules of the road, arguably like the world today.

The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century | Jamie Susskind | Pegasus Books

The problem is that that video is not as instructive as it first seems. There are, in fact, a number of overlapping, often conflicting, rules and governance structures for modern technology. Most striking for the metaphor, the video is missing a handful of hyper-powered companies that dominate the road. At the same time, existing structures are ill-equipped, as are policymakers, to handle the broad scope and speed which new technologies are creating in society. Jamie Susskind, the author of a new book “The Digital Republic” goes one step further arguing that the very political philosophy on which these governance structures are based—market individualism—is woefully insufficient to rein in the tech giants or guide the evolution of technology.

Susskind outlines a model of “digital republicanism” as an alternative to Adam Smith’s hidden hand at the center of governance. In Susskind’s telling, market individualism led to today’s excesses in the aggregation of power and market share by tech companies—and its ripple effects society and politics. In essence, digital republicanism argues that laws and governance should seek to constrain tech’s power from going beyond acceptable bounds of control so as to prevent them from undermining freedom and liberty. It stands against the aggregation of unchecked power by commercial companies or by the government and seeks to put the people back at the heart of legislation and governance.

Presenting a philosophical framework sets Susskind’s book out from the vast majority of technology policy and governance books. These typically only seek to provide a solution to an identified policy problem, but at their core, accept the underlying philosophical governance that led created the policy problem in the first place. In that, this is a particularly refreshing and welcome read.

His chapters are short and punchy, with clearly outlined points (often enumerated) and closing with a sharp conclusion. Think of them as very well-thought out Twitter threads more than overly verbose policy proclamations. Each thread, as it were, builds on the previous and links back the philosophical framework. You may not agree with what Susskind outlines—and indeed at times I did not—but he presents his argument in a compelling, cogent, and eminently readable fashion.

There is, however, an overwhelming elephant in the room—politics. The problem is that while Susskind quite wisely avoids engaging that elephant, it is, perhaps, the single greatest barrier to addressing the tech governance. Susskind’s model is almost Rawlsian in its nature—the most ideal of idealized visions for governance, but its presentation is divorced from the realities of the day. It is well and good to hypothetically craft laws through a veil of ignorance or the lens of digital republicanism, but to deny the political realities of the world is to doom the enterprise from the start. Indeed, it would appear that the entire ecosystem of policymaking is incentivized to not act.

The legislative process in Washington is so ossified and the dialogue so rancorous that the likelihood of making significant progress is quite slim. The pace of change is outpacing legislators’ ability to understand, let alone govern, emerging technology. The second and third order effects of new tech are hard to grasp at the best of times. The legislators themselves struggle with the technology of today (many of whom do not even use email), let alone envision a future of machine learning, driverless cars, quantum computing, and more.

This is to say nothing of the entrenched lobbying machines incentivizing governance and regulation’s light touch—ostensibly to encourage innovation, but in reality, to protect the bottom line and market share. While both the left and the right seem to have landed on an agreement that the present situation is untenable, the diagnoses of the problem are radically different—monopolies and misinformation on the left and section 230 and shadow banning on the right—that they may as well come from different planets.

Perhaps it is in this same vein that Susskind chooses not to fully address the challenge of managing mis- and dis-information. To be sure he outlines an interesting system of governance, certification, oversight, and accountability for social media, but he does not fully engage with the substance of how one determines what is and is not true. How can policymakers come to grips with regulating social media and mis/disinformation when there is little consensus on objective truth? How can there be a meaningful conversation when one party is enthralled by a pseudo-catechism of conspiracy theory whilst the other adopts a liturgy of mostly performative social justice?

At one point in the book, Susskind references the difference between consumers and citizens and in so doing lands on an apropos framing for many of the problems liberal democracy faces writ large. When liberal democracies begin to see their constituents as consumers—and citizens see their role purely in a consumptive fashion—the prognosis for democracy is grim. Citizens are engaged, consumers are passive.

The reality is that consumers are far more willing to give up their data and freedom for the sake of convenience and cheap prices. Consumers live in blissful ignorance—socially and technologically engineered through behavior design and unending dings and chimes that release just enough serotonin to keep them engaged with their app. More often than not, consumers are blissfully unaware that their behavior is algorithmically driven, tracked, packaged, and resold. And truth be told, they probably do not care at all. Citizens should be more than that, but sadly it appears not to be the case.

Tech companies are, understandably, driven by profit. TED talks about changing the world for the better and the swiftly abandoned mottos of “don’t be evil” aside, it all comes down to profit—just look at how politically convenient stands for privacy are jettisoned when dealing with the world’s largest market, China. Changing that incentive structure is part of the program Susskind outlines, but it comes across as a touch too optimistic. Putting the brakes on innovation will surely be the death of any robust digital republican governance structure.

Throughout my reading of Susskind’s book, I was reminded of the Federalist Papers—essays promoting the ratification of the American Constitution. It was, then, rather entertaining that Susskind closes his book by quoting the final Federalist essay, penned by Alexander Hamilton in 1788. “The Digital Republic” certainly has echoes—either by design or consequence—of those seminal essays. Susskind’s Digital Federalist Paper, then, is an interesting and needed contribution. Yet, unlike the Federalist Papers, there is no digital constitution to defend or attack, and perhaps that is the underlying problem.

In the end, Susskind’s book is a breath of fresh air into what is an otherwise stagnant debate on tech and governance. He brings a refreshing philosophically-grounded look at what are very complex challenges. It matters less whether one agrees with his conclusions and more that he presents an argument sufficiently robust and engaging that it serves as a wonderful starting point for a much overdue substantive debate.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.