Saturday, November 12, 2016

Just a thought

Indulge me, if you will, while I belabour an apparently whimsical metaphor.

Forms of parliamentary representative democracy have propelled nations like Great Britain and the United States on their economic, societal and cultural journeys through the history of recent centuries. None would deny that the machineries powering and steering these ‘vehicles of statehood’ have evolved since the days of the horse and cart and stagecoach. Some would say that it was roughly in the middle of the twentieth century that the functionality of governance, already a complex concatenation of legislative, judicial and executive mechanisms, was best ‘fit for purpose’, relatively well aligned and balanced with the perceived and experienced needs and desires of the largest majority of the governed populations.

Then almost imperceptibly the wheels started to fall off.

Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State: “You cannot simply Tweet your way to democracy, prosperity, and peace. You need an effective government and you need economic growth. These days, people are talking to their governments using 21st century technology, while governments listen on 20th century technology and respond with 19th century policies.” While elected assemblies did their best to cope with dogmas and ideologies, many of them outdated, as the millennium came ever closer science and technology was disrupting all that had gone before. To revert to the automotive analogy, as the end of the old century approached we allowed our rulers to perpetuate their fondness for swooping tail fins and vintage white-wall tyres. Parliamentarians and the legions comprising the ‘political elite’, the Westminster and Washington establishments, had retreated to their garages.

The English comedian author, and activist Russell Brand visited the Houses of Parliament and concluded that “The whole joint is a deeply encoded temple of hegemonic power.” Jeremy Paxman, reflecting on his notorious interview with the firebrand Brand, conceded that “We ignore the democratic process at our peril. People died for the right to choose their government, because otherwise power is wielded by the rich and strong for the benefit of the rich and strong. Russell Brand has never voted, because he finds the process irrelevant. I can understand that… the whole green-bench pantomime in Westminster looks a remote and self-important echo chamber.” The same can be said of Capitol Hill.

We as citizens have all too complacently allowed the democratic process to remain unreformed, unmodernised, stuck in another century. A modern automobile may have more than a hundred distinct modular electronic control  units embedded within its frame, involving nigh on a hundred million lines of computer code. Self-driving cars are already a reality, with Artificial Intelligence replacing the sentient driver. And yet those elected to represent us (according to whatever arcane system is retained in the nation in question) have not woken to the possibility that as designated drivers of the chariots of state they too, slumped on those green benches, might be replaced. There might be an end to the perquisites and privileges they enjoy as a matter of routine, any alteration of the comfortable status quo equated with the pathetic braying of the deplorable plebeians and written off as meaningless.

Naomi Klein: “Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.” In their quandary many will inevitably welcome the offer of a simple solution, a ‘Brexit’ or a ‘Trump’. Hubristic exploitation of controversy, a confident presentation of counter-factual proposition (if not downright untruths), may sway voters in the short term. Bombastic anti-establishment rhetoric will sound as if it holds the promise of a way ahead. But the path proposed by the noisy populists will be no smooth superhighway but a primitive and treacherous track through uncharted terrain.

Next-generation autos that can think for themselves have clear advantages. Flesh-and-blood drivers get drunk or drowsy, daydream or get distracted by mobile phones and squabbling kids. Autonomous cars detect their surroundings using ultra-sophisticated mapping systems, they are able able to communicate with each other. Connected vehicles provide safety warnings that alert drivers of potentially difficult conditions such as impending collisions, icy roads and dangerous curves. Sophisticated connectivity isn’t limited to the vehicle itself. The more communicative and integrated approach uses smart technologies deliver not only enhanced security but also to optimize efficiency and sustainability.

“The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting poor people all over the world, and the genuine legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class,” Naomi Klein warns. With an antediluvian political machinery, possibly corrupt but certainly indolent and suffering from cognitive impairment, determined to drive ahead but with their gaze fixed on the rear-view mirror, it seems doubtful whether any destination truly appealing to modern society as a whole can be reached safely.

Extra-parliamentary opposition movements, with nodes of protest and activism networked and intercommunicating using smart technologies could be an answer as the next leap forward towards governance reform. The networks might be supported by persistent benevolent AI, plotting the way ahead, aggregating, parsing and validating verifiable data, ‘applying the brakes’ when needed. It would be a bold and overdue step beyond the dangerous sclerosis  afflicting parliamentary representative democracy. Can algorithms be taught to filibuster? More seriously, can an intransigent push-back of the future be tolerated any longer?

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