In this third edition of the wildly popular (?) Read This, I double down on a topic that I've been wrestling with for years now: the ways in which technology affects governance and the ways in which government reacts to new technology. As some of you might know, some years ago I was riding high on the "tech will make direct democracy a reality" wave of optimism. Fast forward to today and I'm more and more drawn to the notion that we have no idea what we're doing when it comes to tech. We keep treating tech as a panacea for political problems, despite growing evidence to the contrary. I've also just gotten my hands on Jamie Bartlett's The People vs Tech: how the internet is killing democracy (and how to save it) so watch this space for a review at some point soon.
1. Who needs democracy when you have data? (Technology Review)
If you haven't yet, I suggest you read Buzzfeed News' piece on how China uses its massive surveillance system to harass and intimidate foreign dissidents or minorities (in the previous Read This).
The article in TR takes a step back and looks at the broader issue - China's use of data to hold a tight grip over its polity.
For any authoritarian regime, “there is a basic problem for the center of figuring out what’s going on at lower levels and across society,” says Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist and China expert at Villanova University in Philadelphia. How do you effectively govern a country that’s home to one in five people on the planet, with an increasingly complex economy and society, if you don’t allow public debate, civil activism, and electoral feedback? How do you gather enough information to actually make decisions? And how does a government that doesn’t invite its citizens to participate still engender trust and bend public behavior without putting police on every doorstep?
2. Why technology favors tyranny (The Atlantic)
A captivating read by Yuval Noah Harari, of Sapiens fame. It's an excerpt of his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump may therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but feared they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the 21st century, populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.
The revolutions in information technology and biotechnology are still in their infancy, and the extent to which they are responsible for the current crisis of liberalism is debatable. Most people in Birmingham, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, and Mumbai are only dimly aware, if they are aware at all, of the rise of AI and its potential impact on their lives. It is undoubtable, however, that the technological revolutions now gathering momentum will in the next few decades confront humankind with the hardest trials it has yet encountered.
Bonus: The Brotherhood of Killers and Cops (OCCRP)
An investigation by Novaya Gazeta into... well... this:
I knew I had an unusual story on my hand, but I didn’t guess how unusual, when I met the man accused by Russian law enforcement of leading one of the deadliest gangs in the country’s rich criminal history.
We agreed to meet next to Vienna’s Grand Hotel in October 2016. On a sunny fall day, he waited on the street by the entrance — tall and almost bald, dressed in jeans, a tight black shirt, and a leather jacket. “Aslan,” he said.
That was my introduction to Aslan Gagiyev, who had created a criminal group, called the Family, which is accused of committing 60 murders. But by the end of our conversation, I understood that Gagiyev wasn’t just a gang boss. He was a key player in the symbiotic relationship that binds Russia’s law enforcement apparatus and its criminal underworld. (...)