Digital Technology Demands A New Political Philosophy

Elon Musk’s takeover bid for Twitter raises important questions about whether social media platforms are political technologies that must be governed by democratic norms and principles.

antonkvo for Noema Magazine

Jamie Susskind is the author of “The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century” (available for pre-order) and “Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech” (2018), which received the Estoril Global Issues Distinguished Book Prize. He lives and practices law in London.

Thirteen years ago, Mark Zuckerberg decided to make Facebook more democratic. He would give users a say in the rules that governed them. They could comment on new policies and, if enough people commented, vote to approve or reject the terms that governed the platform. 

But three years later, Facebook published a new set of policies and submitted them to the people. The people were not impressed: of at least 667,000 users who took part, 88% voted against.

So did Facebook humbly withdraw its new rules? It did not. The company said the results would only be binding if 30% of all users voted, which, in late 2012, would have meant more than 300 million votes. That’s significantly more than the prime minister of India — the most populous democracy in the world — received in the most recent general election. Eventually, Facebook stopped holding plebiscites altogether.

This episode came to mind last month, when the world’s wealthiest person, Elon Musk, made his move for a 100% stake in Twitter. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk explained that his purposes were primarily political rather than commercial. Free speech, he argued, is a “societal imperative for a functioning democracy.” Twitter has the “potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe” but will not “serve this societal imperative in its current form.” It therefore needs to be “transformed as a private company.”

Men like Zuckerberg and Musk are the subject of fascination. Their character, their genius, their flaws — all are treated to feverish scrutiny. Since Musk’s bid for Twitter, there has been a predictable flurry of speculation: does he know what he’s doing? Is he a troll or a revolutionary? Will he improve conditions of free speech? What, if anything, will he do about online harassment and extremism?

Though valuable and interesting, it is possible that these kinds of questions obscure the deeper issue, or at least the longer-term one. At root, the big question for the future of powerful technologies is this: whether they are ultimately economic entities which should be governed according to market principles, or whether they are in fact political in nature, and so should be governed by democratic norms and principles. In the long run, the answer we provide to this question will significantly affect the course of democracy around the world — more, in any event, than whether Musk himself understands the concept of “free speech absolutism.”

Many other advanced democracies are tacking toward the political/democratic option. The UK is considering a landmark Online Safety Bill, which will place strict duties on social media platforms. Off the back of the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU is readying a swathe of new measures — an Artificial Intelligence Act, a Digital Services Act, a Digital Markets Act — all of which will curb the power of tech firms.

“The unaccountable power of digital technology is at its most obvious when a vast social media platform is purchased by one man for expressly political purposes.”

Even allowing for the dysfunction of Capitol Hill, it is odd that, of all countries, the U.S. is lagging behind. The American republic was founded on a set of ideals — republican ideals — that are hostile to concentrations of arbitrary power. Yet unlike Japan, Israel, Canada and the European Union, the U.S. has no omnibus data protection regulation at the federal level. Recent proposals for reform — to data policy, the law governing social media platforms, the law governing algorithms — have struggled to find enough support in Congress.

In historical perspective, this is curious. Though wary of the awesome power of the state, the framers never saw government as the only threat to liberty. They recognized that concentrations of private power were a menace too. James Madison warned of the need “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” More than a hundred years later, Theodore Roosevelt cautioned that the “citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.”

Hostility toward arbitrary power has been a precept of American politics for centuries. But it has been part of the republican tradition for much longer. The Romans of the Roman Republic warned against imperium: unaccountable power in the hands of the state. What’s more, they feared dominium: unaccountable power in the hands of private individuals and corporations. The United States grew out of a tradition of republican politics that reaches back to antiquity. But when it comes to the tech industry, these early ideals appear to have been waylaid.

The unaccountable power of digital technology is at its most obvious when a vast social media platform is purchased by one man for expressly political purposes. But the challenge is not limited to Musk or even to social media. Something bigger is going on.

Part of the issue is ubiquity. Gone are the days when we could shut our laptops and seek respite from technology in the safety of the analogue world. Digital devices now surround us, in meatspace as much as cyberspace. In our lifetimes, a growing number of everyday objects — buildings, infrastructure, furniture, appliances — will be connected to the internet, endowed with sensors and processing power, enabling them silently and constantly to interact with us and each other. As the technologist Bruce Schneier wrote, “It used to be that things had computers in them. Now they are computers with things attached to them.”

It’s not just that digital systems are growing more ubiquitous. They are becoming more capable. Allowing for skepticism of the hype around AI, it is unarguable that computers are increasingly able to do things that we would previously have seen as the sole province of human beings — and in some cases do them better than us. That trend is unlikely to reverse and appears to be speeding up.

The result is that increasingly capable technologies are going to be a fundamental part of 21st-century life. They mediate a growing number of our deeds, utterances and exchanges. Our access to basic social goods — credit, housing, welfare, educational opportunity, jobs — is increasingly determined by algorithms of hidden design and obscure provenance. Computer code has joined market forces, communal tradition and state coercion in the first rank of social forces. We’re in the early stages of the digital lifeworld: a delicate social system that links human beings, powerful machines and abundant data in a swirling web of great complexity.

The political implications are clear to anyone who wants to see them: those who own and control the most powerful digital technologies will increasingly write the rules of society itself. Software engineers are becoming social engineers. The digital is political.

We are not the first generation to witness the rise of a new form of social power. In every era, people have struggled for control of what political theorist Michael Walzer calls “dominant goods”: the ideas and artifacts that enable one group to dominate others. Digital technology is a kind of dominant good. It enables those who own and control it to exert power, outside of the traditional channels of political or legal influence.

Of course, power is not a problem in itself; it is a permanent feature of human societies. But power is a legitimate subject — the legitimate subject — of critique and analysis. We might fairly ask whether we are intellectually ready (to say nothing of whether we are politically or legally ready) for the world that is coming into view. New forms of power demand new political philosophies, or at least adaptations of old ones.

“Software engineers are becoming social engineers. The digital is political.”

Systemic philosophical responses to the challenges of digital technology have been surprisingly slow to arrive. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, the political philosophy of the internet was mainly dominated by cyber-utopianism or the Californian Ideology of unbridled economic liberalism. It was only after 2016 — after voters chose Trump and Brexit — that an avalanche of new political ideas could be heard rumbling in the distance. But even then, a lot of them have turned out to be arcane or legalistic, focused on the trees of specific platforms, protocols and provisions, while missing the broader forest of social change.

In the realm of politics, there is the instinct — reflexive and understandable, but ultimately unhelpful — to jump to regulatory “solutions” without first doing the hard work of finding philosophical clarity. This is partly because of the speed of technological change. Contemplation feels like a luxury. But that’s not really an excuse.  Tech policy cannot be rushed or done on instinct alone. The decisions we make in the next decade or so will have lasting political significance; later generations will look back and try to understand why we set society on the course that we did. Of course, we can’t always expect political leaders to be philosophers, but we can hope that policy in tech governance is led by principles other than crisis-management.

In this context we can, albeit dimly, view the political battle-lines that are now being drawn for this century — between digital nationalists who regard powerful technologies as a vehicle for national greatness; digital liberals who wish to order the digital world according to notions of rights and consent; digital socialists who wish to see the most powerful technologies under common ownership; digital libertarians who argue for complete marketization of the digital realm, and through it, the rest of society; and so forth. But these philosophies are visible only in outline.

But where are the digital republicans? To be a republican is to regard the central problem of politics as the concentration of unaccountable power and to regard the primary purpose of law as the reduction of that unaccountability. For the republican, the challenge presented by digital technology isn’t Musk or Zuckerberg; it’s the idea that people who command technologies will gain a degree of command of society, too.

In a digital republic, there would be appropriate checks and balances on the exercise of digital power. These might take familiar forms: systems of certification for powerful technologies; professional qualifications and duties for powerful individuals; avenues of appeal against important algorithmic determinations; systems of inspection and oversight for high-risk products and platforms. In other industries, these kinds of measures are commonplace. In tech, they are seen as heretical.

For the last few decades, digital technology has not only been developed, but also regulated, within the same intellectual paradigm: that of market individualism. Within this paradigm, the market is seen not only as a productive source of innovation, but as a reliable regulator of market participants too: a self-correcting ecosystem which can be trusted to contain the worst excesses of its participants.

“The question is not whether Musk or Zuckerberg will make the ‘right’ decision with the power at their disposal — it’s why they are allowed that power at all.”

This way of thinking about technology emphasizes consumer choice (even when that choice is illusory), hostility to government power (but ambivalence about corporate power), and individual responsibility (even at the expense of collective wellbeing). In short, it treats digital technology as a chiefly economic phenomenon to be governed by the rules and norms of the marketplace, and not as a political phenomenon to be governed by the rules and norms of the forum.

The first step in becoming a digital republican is recognizing that this tension — between economics and politics, between capitalism and democracy — is likely to be among the foremost political battlegrounds of the digital age. The second step is to argue that the balance has swung too far to one side, and it is overdue for a correction.

The questions raised by the Musk takeover are systemic, or structural, in nature. It would be folly to fixate too closely on the qualities of Musk or Zuckerberg or whoever else happens to be dominating the news on a particular day. We cannot know how they will act in the future, and we cannot know who will eventually replace them. We cannot know what as-yet-uninvented technologies they might eventually have under their command.

All we can know, or at least try to work out, is how to think clearly about the underlying challenge, which is the power of digital technology and the threat it could pose to freedom and democracy. That affects all of us. For the republican, the question is not whether Musk or Zuckerberg will make the “right” decision with the power at their disposal — it’s why they are allowed that power at all. Send not to ask for whom Musk tweets; he tweets for thee.