The Data Dictatorship

Ironically, in the big clash between Politics and Technology, the authoritarian systems (China, Russia) are proving to be far more skilled and unscrupulous than the democracies in the use and manipulation of the web. The West seems to have forgotten that technology spawns culture and politics and that it is not neutral: if the free exchange of information and the debate are manipulated and distorted by fake news, “data democracy” turns into “data dictatorship”.

In the summer of 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer, technician and industrial manager that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had appointed to head up the Strategic Office of Scientific Research and Development, was reflecting on the outcome of the war, which was to end that August. Having coordinated the scientists and generals involved in the Manhattan Project that led to the development of the first nuclear weapons, Bush was one of the very few people who already knew that the United States’ arsenal included atomic bombs. In his anxiety in those momentous days, Bush penned a seminal essay for The Atlantic entitled “As We May Think”, summarizing his experience as a technocrat in war and peace. That article, with its questioning title, still intrigues us today. It testifies in an exemplary manner to the impact of technology on politics, culture and daily life.

Yet today’s debate on Information Technology & Politics—for example, on the controversial issue of fake news, with Russian interference in the US election campaign in 2016 and FBI Director Mueller’s ensuing investigation of President Trump’s team, or on data privacy following the scandal over the NSA’s mass eavesdropping—always affords priority to the technical aspect over the human. In our eyes, it is technology, not history, that plays the dominant role in these political affairs, hypnotizing the media in the process. Yet 72 years ago, Bush prophetically intuited that setting out from a “technical analysis” without considering the social impact at every step prevents us from truly grasping the ultimate consequences of the Technical-Political theorem. Replacing “people” at the heart of the matter alongside “machines” corrects our perspective, according to Melvin Kranzberg’s crucial First Law of Technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”.

The challenge between Politics and Technology remains crucial for geopolitical hegemony in the twenty-first century. In the West, the ideological battle raging over computers, the web, social media, AI, blockchains fake news, and the power of large corporations and central governments over data is going to end up blinding our strategies.

The Crucial Race Is Between Politics And Technology

Technology proved to be a crucial factor in achieving victory in World War ii, and so Vannevar Bush published a blueprint in The Atlantic to ensure that the scientific and technological boom would guarantee peace in the aftermath of the war, averting the threat of fresh carnage. The key to his blueprint was the “memex”, a personal code, an essential storage archive of private memories and public data. “Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There are a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers… The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm and […] the user can be profligate and enter material freely.”

The quote could continue, and with every paragraph the reader would be spellbound by Bush’s prophetic skills: the man predicted the personal computer a generation before Jobs and Wozniak, office software ten years before Bill Gates was even born, and the power of the data society two whole generations before Facebook, Google or Amazon.

Rereading Bush today allows us to understand how the challenge between Politics and Technology remains crucial for geopolitical hegemony in the twenty-first century. In announcing massive investments in artificial intelligence (ai), data, and technology, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are simply confirming that fact. In the West, on the other hand, the ideological battle raging over computers, the web, social media, ai, blockchains (soon to play a central role in finance, the economy and communications), fake news, and the power of large corporations and central governments over data is going to end up blinding our strategies. The “memex”—the personal storage archive that Bush dreamed of as a tool for peace—is just a smartphone, yet many fear that it may turn from a liberation into a yoke.

Whoever would have thought, that the democracies would begin to look like Orwellian monsters of oppression while the authoritarian systems would prove capable of using the web with almost casual ease and effectiveness?

For Good Or For Ill

Do you recall the well-intentioned campaign for the web to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? The campaign totally ignored the fact that, as technology historian Thomas Rid reminds us, the cradle of the Internet was a military network, the Pentagon’s Arpanet. Norbert Wiener, an oddball mathematical genius at MIT, coined the neologism “cybernetics” in his pamphlet entitled “Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” written in 1948, three years after Bush’s article. At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, the public was mesmerized by Wiener’s legend—the hybrid “man-machine”—and the leaders in the White House and in the Kremlin became convinced that technology was the supreme weapon.

However, as the sceptic Thomas Rid points out, while “the futurists have not always gotten their prediction of the future wrong, they have almost always erred in calculating its speed, scale and shape, and they are still doggedly persisting in their error today.” Our generation has not avoided that trap: such scholars as Ray Kurzweil voice their certainty regarding ai’s imminent future prodigies, while physicist Stephen Hawking and businessman Elon Musk swear that it will turn us all into slaves. The technology critic Morozov denies that cyber war will break out, while Russian, American and Chinese generals are busy fighting the “fifth dimension war” online. Nicholas Carr argues that “Google makes us stupid” just as Socrates feared that writing would do, while Google Chief Economist Hal Varian sings future online education’s praises.

Putin and Russia are lagging behind in network theory and practice compared to the West, but they have been benefiting from the know-how of scholars of the calibre of mathematician Andrey Nikolayevich Kolmogorov.

Each one of these scholars formulates interesting arguments, but in assessing them, we need to avoid the trap of which Rid warns us, namely anticipating trends without properly calculating their magnitude, nature or outcome. A providential lesson in humility would have averted many painful fiascos: Russian infiltration in the race for the White House in 2016, Edward Snowden’s and Chelsea Manning’s disclosures regarding the transformation of US intelligence into a kind of Big Brother, and so forth. Whoever would have thought, in the Politics-Technology deflagration, that the democracies would begin to look like Orwellian monsters of oppression while the authoritarian and totalitarian systems would prove capable of using the web and data with almost casual ease and effectiveness?

Whoever would have predicted that Vladimir Putin, a former officer with the KGB, the Soviet espionage machine, in a country that could barely get its telephones to work, would deal a resounding crack on the ribs to President Barack Obama, an alumnus of Columbia University and of Harvard and the commander-in-chief of Silicon Valley? It is ironic to read of the expertise with which the trolls—it pirates in Putin’s Internet Research Agency headquartered at 55, Savushkina Street, Saint Petersburg—infiltrated and polluted us cyberdemocracy with murderous foresight using traditional diversion and disinformation techniques.

When Data Democracy Turns Into Data Dictatorship

The lessons imparted by Bush, Kranzberg, Wiener and Rid must put us on our guard: automation “is” politics, history, government. It is never a neutral tool. Putin and Russia are lagging behind in network theory and practice compared to the West, but they have been benefiting from the know-how of scholars of the calibre of mathematician Andrey Nikolayevich Kolmogorov, the author of hugely important theorems on networks and turbulence, since World War II. One of Kolmogorov’s algorithms, developed in 1941 to improve the aim of artillery fire and of Soviet tanks, argued that when aiming, it was best not to try to achieve a bull’s eye on every occasion but to try to hit the target in some way, even just glancing off it. Limited damage did not stop the German tanks or batteries immediately: on the field the tactic appeared to have failed. But shortly afterward the microfractures caused by “missed” shots, magnified by vibration, transportation and metal fatigue, soon “grounded” the guns and armored vehicles, having caused irreparable long-term damage.

Hedge funds on Wall Street have been using algorithms based on Kolmogorov’s humble yet fearsome theorem for a long time, and it was a new application of that theorem that fueled the Russian disinformation campaign.

Hedge funds on Wall Street have been using algorithms based on Kolmogorov’s humble yet fearsome theorem for a long time, and it was a new application of that theorem that fueled the Russian disinformation campaign conducted by hackers, trolls and content providers working in the garages of small towns such as Veles in Macedonia. Obama decided not to publicize the Kremlin’s offensive and stood by watching powerlessly as millions of disinformation “shots” ceaselessly rained down on the US election from ubiquitous websites. A large number of those shots were wasted, of course, but others were seen and shared.

A study conducted by the universities of Dartmouth, Princeton and Exeter in January 2018 shows that 27.4% of American voters—some 65 million people—fell for fake news and that a far larger percentage of Trump’s own grassroots electorate, some 40%, fell for it. This is neither the time nor the place to debate the extent to which the manoeuvre impacted the result of the vote (personally, I do not think it was decisive), but democracy needs to be protected from such threats. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that in January 2018 the European Commission set up an ad hoc High-Level Group of Experts to counter the fake news phenomenon in the EU.

If free trade in information and privacy, is diverted by fake news that has been industrially mass-manipulated on the basis of Kolmogorov’s theorem, then “data democracy” turns into “data dictatorship”.

The Russians may look like neophytes in the world of social media, but they have been unquestioned masters of disinformation since the days of the czars. The masterful diary of would-be spy Kirill Chenkin entitled Hunter Upside Down reveals that for men such as Soviet agent Rudolf Abel, popularized in the movie Bridge of Spies, disinformation was no longer an intelligence technique; it became a congenital feature of the men themselves, transforming their personality. The “disinformers” who steer the attacks on Europe and on the United States on the Kremlin’s behalf end up “believing” in the lies that they have put together in their labs, not because they truly believe that the pope has Trump’s endorsement or that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian or a paedophile, but in the political sense of believing that if the campaign against an adversary is “opportune”, then it is ipso facto “true”.

The West, though a master of technology, is naive in the way it handles hidden meanings. In the West, we tend to forget Kranzberg’s “non-neutrality” and Rid’s “unpredictable outcomes”.

In the future foretold by Vannevar Bush, data can be collated by giant public or private monopolies, companies in search of profit or intelligence agencies seeking control over society. If free trade in information and privacy, the debate in the “critical public sphere” beloved of sociologist Jürgen Habermas, is diverted by fake news that has been industrially mass-manipulated on the basis of Kolmogorov’s theorem, then “data democracy” turns into “data dictatorship”.

When presenting Super Sad True Love Story, a heart-rending novel by American writer Gary Shteyngart, I was struck by the threatening satirical invention that he calls the “apparat”. In the story, the apparat is a gadget which the state uses to control its citizens, scrutinizing data in real time. Everyone is obliged to wear one at all times, like the chain that Dostoevsky’s prisoner had to wear on his feet in Siberia. In the space of two generations, Bush’s “memex”—a tool for cultural growth—has mutated into the permanent tabs kept on people by Shteyngart’s “apparat”.

China’s “Technodata Dictatorship”

Science fiction? Not in China, where everyone really does have an apparat. The hukou, a registration of residence devised to distinguish country folk from city residents, is a cypher that collects social and economic information about everyone and anyone. The hukou was matched by the dang’an, a personal file containing the smallest details, from school to the workplace, prizes and punishments received, family life, marriages, divorces, party posts or criticism, salaries earned, expenses made and diagnoses given. Though the harsh Maoist rules of 1958 were relaxed under Deng, the xix Communist Party Congress (held in 2017) reaffirmed the authorities’ right to control data, information and personal details “in order to guarantee freedom for exemplary citizens while keeping tabs on negative individuals.”

The Russians may look like neophytes in the world of social media, but they have been unquestioned masters of disinformation since the days of the czars.

The collection of data, including posts on the social media, determines how far your career will advance, what schools you or your children will have access to, and where you may reside and on what terms. The data is tabulated by algorithms, the “virtuous and exemplary citizens” being selected and prizes awarded by the seven members of the Politburo Committee at the closing ceremony of the National Model Worker Program.

The glossy Soviet narrative of heroic miner Alexey Stakhanov mining far more than the quota assigned to him has gone forever. Chinese prizes are awarded by an algorithm on the basis of data. There are more CCTV monitoring cameras in China than there are in the United States, and the corporations that gather data (private or otherwise)—Alibaba (e-commerce), Tencent (message pp), Baidu (search engine)—supply the data they collect to the police and to the party. The 800 million Chinese who use the web are regimented in the “Great Firewall” that filters international websites, akin to the “Great Cannon”, while the “Golden Shield” spies on posts and suggests which keywords the censors should be blocking or keeping an eye on.

Though the harsh Maoist rules of 1958 were relaxed under Deng, the XIX Communist Party Congress (held in 2017) reaffirmed the authorities’ right to control data, information and personal details.

According to The Economist, President Xi Jinping has ordered the Technological Electronic Group, a Defense Ministry holding company, to develop programs capable of intuiting potential terrorist plots by analyzing data using ai algorithms. Police forces in the United States use similar software but have trouble accessing data; the state has no such scruples in China. Financial Times emerging markets editor James Kynge fears that a “technodata dictatorship” is coming into being in Beijing, where ironclad political control coexists with the free market. This bizarre hybrid, that neither Charles Montesquieu nor Karl Marx, nor even Vannevar Bush had foreseen, caused Chinese economists Wang Binbin and Li Xiaoyan (in a paper that caused a stir also in the West) to hint at the possibility of “abolishing the market” altogether. Prices, salaries, profits, production quotas and future investments would be established solely on the basis of predictive algorithms, ai and machine-learning techniques.

Although everyone (except Eden Medina in his essay “Cybernetic Revolutionaries”) seems to have forgotten the fact, unlucky Socialist President Salvador Allende tried to do that very thing in Chile when he entrusted four computers with the task of drafting his country’s future economic plan. It ended in a bloodbath, and Nobel prizewinner Leonid Kantorovich’s attempt to use electronics to establish the Soviet state’s steel output was just as much of a failure.

Unlucky Socialist President Salvador Allende tried to do that very thing in Chile when he entrusted four computers with the task of drafting his country’s future economic plan. It ended in a bloodbath.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the first politician to apply Big Data to politics, asked the computers of his day to tell him how the war in Vietnam was going on a day-to-day basis by tabulating the dead, wounded, prisoners, costs, number of bullets and shells fired, number of air strikes and ground lost and won. Another flop. In this case, indeed, a witness in Burns and Novick’s documentary Vietnam summed it up with a bitter quip: “When the data from McNamara’s project finally came through in 1968, the technicians burst out laughing. The computer confirmed that the war was going according to calculations and that the United States had won it, three years before.”

In short, using digital programs and data to forge policy is difficult. But anyone running a country or a business today who forgets that not only algorithms but culture and politics are made by Big Data, is heading way off track.

Originally appeared in Italian in Aspenia 80 “Potere digitale e democrazia”, published by Aspen Institute Italia, February 2018. www.aspeninstitute.it

Gianni Riotta

Gianni Riotta is an Italian journalist, a regular contributor for the daily newspaper La Stampa and a former Editor in chief of the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore and the news bulletin TG1. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Le Monde, Foreign Policy, and the New York Times. He teaches at Princeton and is the director of LUISS University Data Lab. He is a member of the European Union’s High-Level Group on Fake News. He also collaborates with IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca. He received the America Award of the Italy-USA Foundation in 2013. Riotta is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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