‘It gave me hope in democracy’: how French citizens are embracing people power

Peter Yeung at The Guardian: “Angela Brito was driving back to her home in the Parisian suburb of Seine-et-Marne one day in September 2019 when the phone rang. The 47-year-old caregiver, accustomed to emergency calls, pulled over in her old Renault Megane to answer. The voice on the other end of the line informed her she had been randomly selected to take part in a French citizens’ convention on climate. Would she, the caller asked, be interested?

“I thought it was a real prank,” says Brito, a single mother of four who was born in the south of Portugal. “I’d never heard anything about it before. But I said yes, without asking any details. I didn’t believe it.’”

Brito received a letter confirming her participation but she still didn’t really take it seriously. On 4 October, the official launch day, she got up at 7am as usual and, while driving to meet her first patient of the day, heard a radio news item on how 150 ordinary citizens had been randomly chosen for this new climate convention. “I said to myself, ah, maybe it was true,” she recalls.

At the home of her second patient, a good-humoured old man in a wheelchair, the TV news was on. Images of the grand Art Déco-style Palais d’Iéna, home of the citizens’ gathering, filled the screen. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m supposed to be one of those 150,’” says Brito. “He told me, ‘What are you doing here then? Leave, get out, go there!’”

Brito had two hours to get to the Palais d’Iéna. “I arrived a little late, but I arrived!” she says.

Over the next nine months, Brito would take part in the French citizens’ convention for the climate, touted by Emmanuel Macron as an “unprecedented democratic experiment”, which would bring together 150 people aged 16 upwards, from all over France and all walks of French life – to learn, debate and then propose measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. By the end of the process, Brito and her fellow participants had convinced Macron to pledge an additional €15bn (£13.4bn) to the climate cause and to accept all but three of the group’s 149 recommendations….(More)”.

The Case for Digital Activism: Refuting the Fallacies of Slacktivism

Paper by Nora Madison and Mathias Klang: “This paper argues for the importance and value of digital activism. We first outline the arguments against digitally mediated activism and then address the counter-arguments against its derogatory criticisms. The low threshold for participating in technologically mediated activism seems to irk its detractors. Indeed, the term used to downplay digital activism is slacktivism, a portmanteau of slacker and activism. The use of slacker is intended to stress the inaction, low effort, and laziness of the person and thereby question their dedication to the cause. In this work we argue that digital activism plays a vital role in the arsenal of the activist and needs to be studied on its own terms in order to be more fully understood….(More)”

Digital Democracy’s Road Ahead

Richard Hughes Gibson at the Hedgehog Review: “In the last decade of the twentieth century, as we’ve seen, Howard Rheingold and William J. Mitchell imagined the Web as an “electronic agora” where netizens would roam freely, mixing business, pleasure, and politics. Al Gore envisioned it as an “information superhighway” system for which any computer could offer an onramp. Our current condition, by contrast, has been likened to shuffling between “walled gardens,” each platform—be it Facebook, Apple, Amazon, or Google—being its own tightly controlled ecosystem. Yet even this metaphor is perhaps too benign. As the cultural critic Alan Jacobs has observed, “they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshanna Zuboff has dubbed the business model underlying these factories “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism works by collecting information about you (your Internet activity, call history, app usage, your voice, your location, even your fitness level), which creates profiles of what you like, where you go, who you know, and who you are. That shadowy portrait makes a powerful tool for predicting what kinds of products and services you might like to purchase, and other companies are happy to pay for such finely-tuned targeted advertising. (Facebook alone generated $69 billion in ad revenue last year.)

The information-gathering can’t ever stop, however; the business model depends on a steady supply of new user data to inform the next round of predictions. This “extraction imperative,” as Zuboff calls it, is inherently monopolistic, rival companies being both a threat that must be eliminated and a potential gold mine from which more user data can be extracted (see Facebook’s acquisitions of competitors Whatsapp and Instagram). Equally worryingly, the big tech companies have begun moving into other sectors of the economy, as seen, for example, in Google’s quiet entry last year into the medical records business (unbeknownst to the patients and physicians whose data was mined).

There is growing consensus among legal scholars and social scientists that these practices are hazardous to democracy. Commentators worry over the consequences of putting so much wealth in so few hands so quickly (Zuboff calls it a “new Gilded Age”). They note the number of tech executives who’ve gone on to high-ranking government posts and vice versa. They point to the fact that—contrary to Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010 declaration that privacy is no longer a “social norm”—users are indeed worried about privacy. Scholars note, furthermore, that these platforms are not a genuine reflection of public opinion, though they are often treated as such. Social media can operate as echo chambers, only showing you what people like you read, think, do. Paradoxically, they can also become pressure cookers. As is now widely documented, many algorithms reward—and thereby amplify—the most divisive and thus most attention-grabbing content. Keeping us dialed in—whether for the next round of affirmation or outrage—is essential to their success….(More)”.

Remaking the Commons: How Digital Tools Facilitate and Subvert the Common Good

Paper by Jessica Feldman:”This scoping paper considers how digital tools, such as ICTs and AI, have failed to contribute to the “common good” in any sustained or scalable way. This is attributed to a problem that is at once political-economic and technical.

Many digital tools’ business models are predicated on advertising: framing the user as an individual consumer-to-be-targeted, not as an organization, movement, or any sort of commons. At the level of infrastructure and hardware, the increased privatization and centralization of transmission and production leads to a dangerous bottlenecking of communication power, and to labor and production practices that are undemocratic and damaging to common resources.

These practices escalate collective action problems, pose a threat to democratic decision making, aggravate issues of economic and labor inequality, and harm the environment and health. At the same time, the growth of both AI and online community formation raise questions around the very definition of human subjectivity and modes of relationality. Based on an operational definition of the common good grounded in ethics of care, sustainability, and redistributive justice, suggestions are made for solutions and further research in the areas of participatory design, digital democracy, digital labor, and environmental sustainability….(More)”

Algorithmic governance: A modes of governance approach

Article by Daria Gritsenko and Matthew Wood: “This article examines how modes of governance are reconfigured as a result of using algorithms in the governance process. We argue that deploying algorithmic systems creates a shift toward a special form of design‐based governance, with power exercised ex ante via choice architectures defined through protocols, requiring lower levels of commitment from governing actors. We use governance of three policy problems – speeding, disinformation, and social sharing – to illustrate what happens when algorithms are deployed to enable coordination in modes of hierarchical governance, self‐governance, and co‐governance. Our analysis shows that algorithms increase efficiency while decreasing the space for governing actors’ discretion. Furthermore, we compare the effects of algorithms in each of these cases and explore sources of convergence and divergence between the governance modes. We suggest design‐based governance modes that rely on algorithmic systems might be re‐conceptualized as algorithmic governance to account for the prevalence of algorithms and the significance of their effects….(More)”.

E-participation: a quick overview of recent qualitative trends

Paper by David Le Blanc: “This paper briefly takes stock of two decades of e-participation initiatives based on a limited review of the academic literature. The purpose of the paper is to complement the results of the e-government Survey 2020/ As such, the emphasis is on aspects that the e-government survey (based on analysis of e-government portals and on quantitative indicators) does not capture directly. Among those are the challenges faced by e-participation initiatives and key areas of attention for governments.

The paper maps the field of e-participation and related activities, as well as its relationships with other governance concepts. Areas of recent development in terms of e-participation applications are briefly reviewed. The paper selectively highlights conclusions from the literature on different participation tools, as well as a list of key problematic areas for policy makers. The paper concludes that while e-participation platforms using new technologies have spread rapidly in developed countries in the first decade of the 2000s and in developing countries during the last 10 years, it is not clear that their multiplication has translated into broader or deeper citizen participation. Beyond reasons related to technology access and digital skills, factors such as lack of understanding of citizens’ motivations to participate and the reluctance of public institutions to genuinely share agenda-setting and decision-making power seem to play an important role in the observed limited progress….(More)’

Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers

Book by Brian W. Kernighan: “Numbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive—especially when they are really big. The media loves to report on millions, billions, and trillions, but frequently makes basic mistakes or presents such numbers in misleading ways. And misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences, since they can deceive us in many of our most important decisions, including how to vote, what to buy, and whether to make a financial investment. In this short, accessible, enlightening, and entertaining book, leading computer scientist Brian Kernighan teaches anyone—even diehard math-phobes—how to demystify the numbers that assault us every day.

With examples drawn from a rich variety of sources, including journalism, advertising, and politics, Kernighan demonstrates how numbers can mislead and misrepresent. In chapters covering big numbers, units, dimensions, and more, he lays bare everything from deceptive graphs to speciously precise numbers. And he shows how anyone—using a few basic ideas and lots of shortcuts—can easily learn to recognize common mistakes, determine whether numbers are credible, and make their own sensible estimates when needed.

Giving you the simple tools you need to avoid being fooled by dubious numbers, Millions, Billions, Zillions is an essential survival guide for a world drowning in big—and often bad—data….(More)”.

Platform Power to the People

Essay by Sanjay Pinto & Beth Gutelius: “When stay-at-home orders swept across the United States in response to the coronavirus outbreak this past spring, workers’ rights advocates accustomed to in-person meetings had to adjust quickly—and many did. In April, thousands of supporters joined a digital workers’ town hall to learn about the issues facing Nashville’s low-wage workers amid COVID-19, compounded by a series of tornadoes that had recently hit the Tennessee capitol’s region. In May, Taco Bell workers in Michigan created an online petition with support from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a group formed in the early months of the pandemic. That effort won them hazard pay and increased paid sick leave, among other benefits.

In response to the pandemic, workers both employed and unemployed have used digital platforms and tools to magnify their voices and meet their needs. They have launched online petition campaigns to demand safer workplaces. Worker centers, unions, and other economic justice groups are broadcasting Facebook and Instagram live events to share information about programs that support workers, offering online training to navigate state unemployment insurance systems, and sending out text blasts asking workers to take direct action.

Digital platforms have also helped workers share information about the problems they’re confronting, mobilize different forms of support and mutual aid, and make demands of employers and policy makers. Such engagement occurs not only within the channels created by established worker justice organizations, including unions and worker centers, but also among informal networks of workers who have common concerns. In some cases, digital tools are mediating relationships between workers and employers to address needs that have intensified during the pandemic. Online platforms are connecting people to steadier work, for example, and enabling employers to pay in to benefits funds for workers who have been shut out of government-sponsored and regulated systems.

These uses of digital tools are not new. Mainstream social media platforms, despite serious drawbacks discussed below, have played an important role in a variety of social movements. For example, activists used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests during the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. In the worker justice arena, online engagement using social media platforms that mobilize and organize workers, like Facebook and customized platforms like Coworker, has contributed to impressive actions and campaigns, including teacher strikes in the United States, strikes of Ryanair workers in Europe, and successful efforts to challenge unfair workplace policies in nonunion settings around the world. In many ways, COVID-19 has amplified and accelerated the digital efforts that have already been in motion. In a time of social distancing, people have increasingly relied upon digital tools to support collective action across different sectors, just as they have for a broad spectrum of other social interactions.

However, digital engagement will never replace analog or in-person forms of connection, as we have seen in the recent protests drawing attention to the epidemic of police violence against Black Americans. Nor will tools designed to directly address specific challenges confronting low-wage workers single-handedly transform the broader set of conditions that have produced rising inequality; ongoing expansion of the low-wage economy; and entrenched marginalization based on identity markers like race, gender, and citizenship status. Just as we need to challenge the idea that technological change will inevitably lead to mass unemployment, we also need to resist seeing new technology as supplying a set of easy fixes that secure a just and equitable future of work.

In this article, we examine how worker-centered digital tools and approaches to digital engagement might fit within a larger set of strategies for shifting power in the economy and ensuring that all people have access to “decent work” that provides fair income, social protections, and the freedom to organize, among other measures. How can online organizing foster connection and collective action—even direct action—for workers separated by geography and working across different sectors? For those lacking information about their labor rights and the behavior of unscrupulous and abusive employers, how can digital channels offer a lifeline? How can digital tools help pave the way for “high-road” forms of employment that pay fairly and invest in workers, particularly in areas where prevailing policies and norms translate into chronic precarity?…(More)”.

How to Use the Bureaucracy to Govern Well

Good Governance Paper by Rebecca Ingber:”…Below I offer four concrete recommendations for deploying Intentional Bureaucratic Architecture within the executive branch. But first, I will establish three key background considerations that provide context for these recommendations.  The focus of this piece is primarily executive branch legal decisionmaking, but many of these recommendations apply equally to other areas of policymaking.

First, make room for the views and expertise of career officials. As a political appointee entering a new office, ask those career officials: What are the big issues on the horizon on which we will need to take policy or legal views?  What are the problems with the positions I am inheriting?  What is and is not working?  Where are the points of conflict with our allies abroad or with Congress?  Career officials are the institutional memory of the government and often the only real experts in the specific work of their agency.  They will know about the skeletons in the closet and where the bodies are buried and all the other metaphors for knowing things that other people do not. Turn to them early. Value them. They will have views informed by experience rather than partisan politics. But all bureaucratic actors, including civil servants, also bring to the table their own biases, and they may overvalue the priorities of their own office over others. Valuing their role does not mean handing the reins over to the civil service—good governance requires exercising judgement and balancing the benefits of experience and expertise with fresh eyes and leadership. A savvy bureaucratic actor might know how to “get around” the bureaucratic roadblocks, but the wise bureaucratic player also knows how much the career bureaucracy has to offer and exercises judgment based in clear values about when to defer and when to overrule.

Second, get ahead of decisions: choose vehicles for action carefully and early. The reality of government life is that much of the big decisionmaking happens in the face of a fire drill. As I’ve written elsewhere, the trigger or “interpretation catalyst” that compels the government to consider and assert a position—in other words, the cause of that fire drill—shapes the whole process of decisionmaking and the resulting decision. When an issue arises in defensive litigation, a litigation-driven process controls.  That means that career line attorneys shape the government’s legal posture, drawing from longstanding positions and often using language from old briefs. DOJ calls the shots in a context biased toward zealous defense of past action. That looks very different from a decisionmaking process that results from the president issuing an executive order or presidential memorandum, a White House official deciding to make a speech, the State Department filing a report with a treaty body, or DOD considering whether to engage in an operation involving force. Each of these interpretation catalysts triggers a different process for decisionmaking that will shape the resulting outcome.  But because of the stickiness of government decisions—and the urgent need to move on to the next fire drill—these positions become entrenched once taken. That means that the process and outcome are driven by the hazards of external events, unless officials find ways to take the reins and get ahead of them.

And finally, an incoming administration must put real effort into Intentional Bureaucratic Architecture by deliberately and deliberatively creating and managing the bureaucratic processes in which decisionmaking happens. Novel issues arise and fire drills will inevitably happen in even the best prepared administrations.  The bureaucratic architecture will dictate how decisionmaking happens from the novel crises to the bread and butter of daily agency work. There are countless varieties of decisionmaking models inside the executive branch, which I have classified in other work. These include a unitary decider model, of which DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is a prime example, an agency decider model, and a group lawyering model. All of these models will continue to co-exist. Most modern national security decisionmaking engages the interests and operations of multiple agencies. Therefore, in a functional government, most of these decisions will involve group lawyering in some format—from agency lawyers picking up the phone to coordinate with counterparts in other agencies to ad hoc meetings to formal regularized working groups with clear hierarchies all the way up to the cabinet. Often these processes evolve organically, as issues arise. Some are created from the top down by presidential administrations that want to impose order on the process. But all of these group lawyering dynamics often lack a well-defined process for determining the outcome in cases of conflict or deciding how to establish a clear output. This requires rule setting and organizing the process from the top down….(More).

Learning like a State: Statecraft in the Digital Age

Essay by Marion Fourcade and Jeff Gordon: “…Recent books have argued that we live in an age of “informational” or “surveillance” capitalism, a new form of market governance marked by the accumulation and assetization of information, and by the dominance of platforms as sites of value extraction. Over the last decade-plus, both actual and idealized governance have been transformed by a combination of neoliberal ideology, new technologies for tracking and ranking populations, and the normative model of the platform behemoths, which carry the banner of technological modernity. In concluding a review of Julie Cohen’s and Shoshana Zuboff’s books, Amy Kapcyznski asks how we might build public power sufficient to govern the new private power. Answering that question, we believe, requires an honest reckoning with how public power has been warped by the same ideological, technological, and legal forces that brought about informational capitalism.

In our contribution to the inaugural JLPE issue, we argue that governments and their agents are starting to conceive of their role differently than in previous techno-social moments. Our jumping-off point is the observation that what may first appear as mere shifts in the state’s use of technology—from the “open data” movement to the NSA’s massive surveillance operation—actually herald a deeper transformation in the nature of statecraft itself. By “statecraft,” we mean the state’s mode of learning about society and intervening in it. We contrast what we call the “dataist” state with its high modernist predecessor, as portrayed memorably by the anthropologist James C. Scott, and with neoliberal governmentality, described by, among others, Michel Foucault and Wendy Brown.

The high modernist state expanded the scope of sovereignty by imposing borders, taking censuses, and coercing those on the outskirts of society into legibility through broad categorical lenses. It deployed its power to support large public projects, such as the reorganization of urban infrastructure. As the ideological zeitgeist evolved toward neoliberalism in the 1970s, however, the priority shifted to shoring up markets, and the imperative of legibility trickled down to the individual level. The poor and working class were left to fend for their rights and benefits in the name of market fitness and responsibility, while large corporations and the wealthy benefited handsomely.

As a political rationality, dataism builds on both of these threads by pursuing a project of total measurement in a neoliberal fashion—that is, by allocating rights and benefits to citizens and organizations according to (questionable) estimates of moral desert, and by re-assembling a legible society from the bottom up. Weakened by decades of anti-government ideology and concomitantly eroded capacity, privatization, and symbolic degradation, Western states have determined to manage social problems as they bubble up into crises rather than affirmatively seeking to intervene in their causes. The dataist state sets its sights on an expanse of emergent opportunities and threats. Its focus is not on control or competition, but on “readiness.” Its object is neither the population nor a putative homo economicus, but (as Gilles Deleuze put it) “dividuals,” that is, discrete slices of people and things (e.g. hospital visits, police stops, commuting trips). Under dataism, a well-governed society is one where events (not persons) are aligned to the state’s models and predictions, no matter how disorderly in high modernist terms or how irrational in neoliberal terms….(More)”.