Fred Turner: "A democracy must do more than allow its citizens to speak. It must help them live."


In September 2017, we nearly had the Stanford media professor Fred Turner speaking at our “Politics of VR” event in Brighton (a faulty Skype defeated us on the night). His presentation would have been about the challenges of a future of immersive experience to our sense of politics - who writes the rules for this space? How can we have a say in how its shaped? How could we use it to imagine new political relations?

So we’re delighted to flag up Fred’s new essay for Harpers’ magazine, which bring his focus on politics and technology much more into our actual crisis-ridden moment (though we have our differences, o

As a historian of tech, Fred points out how far short of the ideal of “internet democracy” our current situation. But he wants us to recognise that there are anti-democratic tendencies lurking around at the heart of our network society - and we should try to reform them:

The new authoritarianism represented by Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place—a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.

Since the Second World War, critics have challenged the legitimacy of our civic institutions simply on the grounds that they were bureaucratic and slow to change. Yet organizations such as hospitals demonstrate the value of these features. They remind us that a democracy must do more than allow its citizens to speak. It must help them live.

Above all, it must work to distribute our wealth more equably and to ensure that every member of society has both independence and security. This is work that requires intense negotiation among groups with conflicting material interests, and, often, deep-seated cultural differences.

It requires the existence of institutions that can preserve and enforce the results of those negotiations over time. And it requires that those institutions be obliged to serve the public before tending to their own profits.

Today’s social media will never be able to do the difficult, embodied work of democracy. Computer-­supported interconnection is simply no substitute for face-to-face negotiation, long-term collaboration, and the hard work of living together.

The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have taught us that social media can be a powerful force for liberating us from the fiction that all is well just as it is. But the attention these activists have brought to their causes will mean little if the changes they call for are not enshrined in explicit, enforceable laws.

Even though the American state can be inefficient, unfair, corrupt, and discriminatory, the logic of representation that underlies it remains the most effective engine we have for ensuring the equable distribution of our collective wealth.

Over time, as new media have saturated our public lives, and as the children of the 1960s have grown into the elites of today, we have learned that if we want a place on the political stage, we need to make our interior lives outwardly visible. We need to say who we are. We need to confess.

When [the American Nazi] Richard Spencer calls himself a member of a victimized minority, or when Donald Trump bares his anger on Twitter, they are using the same tactics once deployed by the protesters of the 1960s or, for that matter, by participants in the #MeToo movement today. To make this observation is not to say that their causes are in any way equivalent—far from it.

But whether they are lying like Trump or revealing long-buried truths like the members of #MeToo, those who would claim power in the public sphere today must speak in a deeply personal idiom. They must display the authentic individuality that was once thought could be the only bulwark against totalitarianism, abroad and at home.

Speaking our truths has always been necessary, but it will never be sufficient to sustain our democracy. It’s time to let go of the fantasy that engineers can do our politics for us, and that all we need to do to change the world is to voice our desires in the public forums they build.

More here. We would push back on a few elements of this. One would be that many of the “social technologists” that surround us in A/UK - particularly in the blockchain and participatory tech space - are extremely concerned that they’re not just applying an “engineering” approach to digital citizenship.

They are keen for their platforms and technologies to be supporting real enterprise, and enabling rich social meet-ups - and that the question of “scaling up” their services is not an automatic good, given how much psychological triggering that process often requires. Have a look through our blockchain, coop, or digital democracy tags to see how mindful these technologists are.