Rocket engineering, Kennedy Space Centre

Re-engineering politics: the promise and limits of digital solutionism

This article was first published by Impact48.

Charities and non-profits get new digital channels for free. Web designers and developers, flush with the warm glow of public service, get something new to put on their CVs. The world of civic hacking, it seems, is one in which everyone wins.

The ‘hackathon’ sessions organised by facilitators like Impact48 assemble teams of designers, developers and digital marketers willing to volunteer their time and skills to spend a weekend building online applications that seek to improve the reach and accessibility of charitable and public services.

Much excellent work has been done. The first Impact48 weekend, for example, helped Music in Hospitals Scotland reach a younger audience and explore new fundraising avenues. The second, in which I was glad to have the opportunity to contribute, built the foundations of a new online app for the Edinburgh Cyrenians.

Elsewhere, NHS hackathons have spurred innovations like CellCountr, an app providing a simple and efficient online interface for recording information about bone marrow samples. Several experiments have gone on to become essential ways of accessing public services that are now taken for granted:

  • FixMyStreet makes it easy for residents to notify local authorities about day-to-day issues like graffiti, fly tipping, cracked paving slabs and flickering street lighting.
  • WriteToThem, launched in 2005 when most MPs still didn’t have a public email address or website, makes it simple to contact them online. The service now routes hundreds of thousands messages to parliamentary offices.
  • TheyWorkForYou has powerful search tools for checking MP voting records and contributions to parliamentary debates and committees.

The proven effectiveness of these and other services led to the establishment of an open data hub that makes it easier for developers to access and do useful things with public information previously locked away in obscure databases. It’s an international trend: Britain contributes to the Open Government Partnership, an multinational venture working to establish clear guidelines for opening government data to developers.

Re-engineering politics

The capacity of online applications to radically improve the delivery of public services has encouraged avant-garde technologists to speculate that technology can also revolutionise the decision-making processes that shape those services. Perhaps politics too is just another engineering problem. Hacker ideals of openness, transparency and horizontal political forums have informed several bold experiments with radical policy-making frameworks proposed as alternatives to traditional liberal democratic institutions.

Kickstarter, for example, proposes a new model for the distribution of arts funding. Traditionally, artists seeking financial support have applied to established institutions like the Arts Council or the National Endowment for the Arts, where applications are appraised by experienced patrons. Kickstarter bypasses all that for a radical form of direct democracy: anyone can put forward a project on a sink-or-swim basis, with no mediation.

ruck.us offers another forum for civic engagement that makes no reference to traditional political institutions. New users are asked for some basic information about their fundamental political interests and beliefs, which the website’s algorithms process to assign them a ‘political DNA’. Users with similar DNAs are assigned to groups where they can launch projects called ‘rucks’ (an American football term analogous to a rugby scrum). Members of a ruck participate in forums to decide how best to advance their cause, whether it be through the organisation of local and national events, nomination of a particular user to stand for election, or lobbying. ruck.us offshoot Americans Elect was designed specifically for the 2012 Presidential election. Billed as ‘the first national online primary’ the initiative allowed registered users to nominate Presidential candidates through the click of a button, cutting out the established party primary process.

In Britain 38 Degrees works in a similar way to ruck.us, assessing the political preferences of its users through regular online polls and offering advice on how best to translate those concerns into effective political action.

These and other initiatives have evolved within a tech sector that has long been impatient with the endless compromises demanded by conventional political processes. For a certain kind of engineer established political parties, hamstrung by short-term electoral considerations, and parliaments, congresses and senates in which they operate, seem wholly inadequate vehicles for fixing major problems like climate change, poverty, inequality and migration, unable to stay the course for the long-term political action these problems demand.

For clever software engineers and entrepreneurs emboldened by their proven success in meeting complex technological and logistical challenges it all seems rather arcane. Eric Schmidt has said:

In the future, people will spend less time trying to get technology to work … because it will just be seamless. It will just be there. The Web will be everything, and it will also be nothing. It will be like electricity … If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.

And for Mark Zuckerberg,

There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.

The relative success of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in taking on the notorious challenge of targeting aid effectively has only served to encourage hope that engineers, armed with intellectual and digital firepower, can address social and economic challenges more effectively than mainstream politicians, a sentiment summed up neatly by Wired journalist Josh Quittner:

The Net is merely a means to an end. The end is to reverse-engineer government, to hack politics down to its component parts and fix it.

Politics: a ‘feature’ not a ‘bug’

For some commentators that cyber-utopianism is misplaced. Recent books by Jaron Lanier, Anthony Townsend and Evgeny Morozov caution against impatience with delicate processes of public decision making that have evolved over centuries of political practice and reflection. For Morozov faith in the redemptive power of the web to resolve the irresolvable is assuming a cultish aspect:

The very idea of ‘the Internet’ has not merely become an obstacle to a more informed and thorough debate about digital technologies. It has also sanctioned many a social and political experiment that tries to put the lessons of ‘the Internet’ to good use. It has become the chief enabler of solutionism, supplying the tools, ideologies, and metaphors for its efficiency crusades.

Morozov understands solutionism as a contemporary expression of the engineer’s perennial temptation to assume that ‘inefficiencies’ in the moral and political sphere can be ‘fixed’ much like broken machinery. He traces this technocratic faith to the Enlightenment philosophes, who sought to inaugurate a new Age of Reason by replacing a cobwebbed monarchy with democratic republican assemblies, analogue equivalents, it could said of, of digital forums like Kickstarter and ruck.us.

The Industrial Revolution encouraged a cult of the machine which culminated in the utopian social experiments of the first half of the 20th century, which attempted to pattern social and economic arrangements according to the model of an engineering blueprint. ‘Scientific socialists’ dreamed of technological utopias populated by rational worker-citizens organised like well-oiled machine components. These projects idealised the figure of the engineer, whose systematic approach to problem solving was taken as a paradigm for the methodical resolution of moral complexities. In his classic essay In Defence of Politics (1961), the political philosopher Bernard Crick suggests:

At heart what disturbs those hopeful for a science of politics is simply the element of conflict in ordinary politics; what excites them has been the prestige of science, its good reputation for – so it is thought – ‘unity’.

For Crick an uncritical faith in technology could foster ‘a style of thought that would be invoked in the name of reforming politics and cleansing it of imperfection, a doctrine that could “rescue mankind from the lack of certainty and the glut of compromises … [and] rehouse and redevelop mere politics” … everything in society is … capable of rational manipulation if the techniques of power and production are understood.’

In another influential essay, Technocracy (1969), Jean Meynaud writes:

[0]ne of the most important components of the technician’s mentality is his belief that rational analysis and interpretation of facts are liable to bring about unanimity, at least among men of good will. The technician who believes that he has arrived at a full understanding of a question is always surprised and often grieved when he encounters opposition to his theories; inevitably he is tempted to attribute this to ignorance or ill-will.

For Crick and Meynaud it is a misconception to believe that the untidy, endlessly argumentative civic realm will ever be capable of providing definitive answers to abiding human problems: politics should be understood as the fragile arena where competing visions of the good life find expression. People will always disagree over ideals and so politics will always be untidy. Wise politicians both express and mediate clashing conceptions of the good, a delicate project requiring humility and compromise. Morozov puts it nicely: the inherent untidiness of the political realm is a ‘feature’, not a ‘bug’.

It isn’t clear that the radically open democratic assemblies imagined by forums like ruck.uks and 38 Degrees would foster a kinder, more reasonable, more democratic politics. For all their problems political parties fulfil the critical function of organising diverse political views into reasonably coherent platforms. Parties represent long standing political traditions – liberalism, social democracy, conservatism and so on – that educate as well as reflect opinion, allowing patterns of opinion to find a home. Without the mediation of parties democratic assemblies become free-for-alls: it becomes impossible to reconcile the constellation of diverse opinions into coherent political strategies, leaving something that looks rather more like a marketplace than a civic assembly. Politics as crowdsourcing manifests crowdsourcing’s attendant problems: populism, the by-passing of minority voices, and short-termism.

If the political arena is conceived as a kind of marketplace, and citizens as consumers, dissatisfaction with politics will only grow. In the marketplace consumers get what they want; in the political arena individual desires are necessarily stymied by the necessity of compromise. Catherine Needham, in her book Citizen Consumers, argues:

The fundamental danger is that consumerism may foster privatised and resentful citizens whose expectations of government can never be met, and cannot develop the concern for the public good that must be the foundation of democratic engagement and support for public services.

There are reasons why traditional political processes are as they are. Established institutions embody something of the collective wisdom of centuries, and while they must always evolve, they cannot simply be swept away and replaced by a radically new systems. Political institutions offer well tried and tested frameworks for decision making, the channelling of partisanship, for education, and the navigation of pluralism and complexity.

Quantify yourself

The solutionist irritation with politics shows up in the phenomenon of ‘gamification’, the application of incentive systems from the gaming world to apps that encourage good citizenship through the award of points, badges and virtual currencies for fulfilment of everyday civic tasks.

Recyclebank, for example, gives users points for recycling good deeds that can be exchange for prizes. As the website blurb puts it: ‘If you want to learn how to live a greener lifestyle and get rewarded for it, then you’ve reached the right place!’

A couple of years ago Google started to reward Google News Badges to users able to verify they had read a certain number of news stories. Encouraged to share their badges with friends, recipients would be able to: ‘Tell them about your news interests, display your expertise, start a conversation or just plain brag about how well-read you are.’

Attempts like these to engineer good behaviour through incentives often have worthy intentions – the encouragement of environmentally conscious and well informed citizenship – but the tendency is to corrode rather than strengthen civic virtue: an act is virtuous only if performed without thought of personal advantage, as an end in itself, not as a means to reward.

The same might be said of civic apps inspired by the concept of ‘self-tracking’, which allow users to record detailed statistics about their day-to-day activities, monitoring of total steps walked, average heart-rate, breaths per minute, and even sleep patterns.

Again, the intention is good – individuals can take better care of themselves through careful self-monitoring –  but as with gamification the emphasis is on individual behaviour rather than the broader social and political contexts in which that behaviour is embedded. Health is a public as well as private matter. The focus on individual behaviour shifts attention from the policy decisions that shape the environment in which people act.

Technical expertise and civic virtue

The application of digital technology to the public sphere can and has already done enormous good. The optimistic hacker ethic has shown how the web can be used to revolutionise aspects of public service delivery.

But political issues can’t be fixed like software bugs. Gamification and self-tracking risk damaging the very civic virtues they are intended to promote. Gamification can help encourage people to act responsibly, but at the cost of cheapening the underlying motivations for those actions. Self-tracking can help people take responsibility for aspects of their lives they can control – regular exercise, dieting – but by placing so much emphasis on the individual the sense that people live and move within frameworks set by policy is lost. The exploration of new forums for mass participation is a commendable effort to encourage and enliven political engagement, but tends towards a crowdfunding consumerist politics.

Developers and entrepreneurs should tread carefully when seeking to apply technological fixes within the delicate sphere of moral and political deliberation and action. Here we act as moral agents, not consumers, and in pursuit of ideas, not rewards. Moral and political issues are not problems to be fixed, but expressions of differing, irreconcilable visions of the good that must be negotiated with humility and mutual respect.