A Strong Democracy Is a Digital Democracy


 Audrey Tang in the New York Times: “Democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation — as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.

These are lessons Taiwan has taken to heart in recent years, with the government and the tech community partnering to create online platforms and other digital initiatives that allow everyday citizens to propose and express their opinion on policy reforms. Today, Taiwan is crowdsourcing democracy to create a more responsive government.

Fittingly, this movement, which today aims to increase government transparency, was born in a moment of national outrage over a lack of openness and accountability in politics.

On March 18, 2014, hundreds of young activists, most of them college students, occupied Taiwan’s legislature to express their profound opposition to a new trade pact with Beijing then under consideration, as well as the secretive manner in which it was being pushed through Parliament by the Kuomintang, the ruling party.

Catalyzing what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, the protesters demanded that the pact be scrapped and that the government institute a more transparent ratification process.

The occupation, which drew widespread public support, ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised greater legislative oversight of the trade pact. (To this day, the pact has yet to be approved by Taiwan’s legislature.) A poll released after the occupation, however, showed that 76 percent of the nation remained dissatisfied with the Kuomintang government, illustrating the crisis of trust caused by the trade deal dispute.

To heal this rift and communicate better with everyday citizens, the administration reached out to a group of civic-minded hackers and coders, known as g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”), who had been seeking to improve government transparency through the creation of open-source tools. The organization had come to the attention of the government during the Sunflower occupation, when g0v hackers had worked closely with the protesters.

In December 2014, Jaclyn Tsai, a government minister focused on digital technology, attended a g0v-sponsored hackathon and proposed the establishment of a neutral platform where various online communities could exchange policy ideas.

Several contributors from g0v responded by partnering with the government to start the vTaiwan platform in 2015. VTaiwan (which stands for “virtual Taiwan”) brings together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to debate policy solutions to problems primarily related to the digital economy. Since it began, vTaiwan has tackled 30 issues, relying on a mix of online debate and face-to-face discussions with stakeholders. Though the government is not obligated to follow vTaiwan’s recommendations (a policy that may soon change), the group’s work often leads to concrete action….(More)”.

Digital dystopia: how algorithms punish the poor


Ed Pilkington at The Guardian: “All around the world, from small-town Illinois in the US to Rochdale in England, from Perth, Australia, to Dumka in northern India, a revolution is under way in how governments treat the poor.

You can’t see it happening, and may have heard nothing about it. It’s being planned by engineers and coders behind closed doors, in secure government locations far from public view.

Only mathematicians and computer scientists fully understand the sea change, powered as it is by artificial intelligence (AI), predictive algorithms, risk modeling and biometrics. But if you are one of the millions of vulnerable people at the receiving end of the radical reshaping of welfare benefits, you know it is real and that its consequences can be serious – even deadly.

The Guardian has spent the past three months investigating how billions are being poured into AI innovations that are explosively recasting how low-income people interact with the state. Together, our reporters in the US, Britain, India and Australia have explored what amounts to the birth of the digital welfare state.

Their dispatches reveal how unemployment benefits, child support, housing and food subsidies and much more are being scrambled online. Vast sums are being spent by governments across the industrialized and developing worlds on automating poverty and in the process, turning the needs of vulnerable citizens into numbers, replacing the judgment of human caseworkers with the cold, bloodless decision-making of machines.

At its most forbidding, Guardian reporters paint a picture of a 21st-century Dickensian dystopia that is taking shape with breakneck speed…(More)”.

We Need a Fourth Branch of Government


George A. Papandreou at The New York Times: “In ancient times, politics was born of the belief that we can be masters of our own fate, and democracy became a continuing, innovative project to guarantee people a say in public decisions.

Today, however, we live in a paradox. Humanity has created vast wealth and technological know-how that could contribute to solutions for the global common good, yet immense numbers of people are disempowered, marginalized and suffering from a deep sense of insecurity. Working together, we have the ability to reshape the world as we know it. Unfortunately, that power rests in the hands of only a few.

The marginalization we see today is rooted in the globalization promoted by policy models such as the Washington Consensus, which distanced politics and governance from economic power. Companies in the financial, pharmaceutical, agricultural, oil and tech industries are no longer governed by the laws of a single state — they live in a separate global stratosphere, one regulated to suit their interests.

The consequences of all this are huge disparities in wealth and power. There is, for example, an overconcentration of money in media and politics, due to lobbying and outright corruption. And in many countries, democratic institutions have been captured and the will of the people has been compromised….

We could embrace reactive politics, elect authoritarian leaders, build walls, and promote isolationism and racism. This path offers a simple yet illusory way to “take back control,” but in fact accomplishes the opposite: It gives up control to power-hungry demagogues who divide us, weaken civil society and feed us dead-end solutions.

But rather than embrace those false promises, let us instead reinvent and deepen democratic institutions, in order to empower people, tame global capitalism, eliminate inequality and assert control over our international techno-society.

From my experience, an important step toward these goals would be to create a fourth branch of government.

This new deliberative branch, in which all citizens — the “demos” — could participate, would sit alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches. All laws and decisions would first go through an e-deliberation process before being debated in our city halls, parliaments or congresses.

Inspired by the agora of ideas and debate in ancient Athens, I set up as prime minister a rudimentary “wiki-law” process for deliberating issues online before laws are voted on. Trusting collective wisdom brought insightful and invaluable responses.

In contrast to how social media works today, a similar platform could develop transparent algorithms that use artificial intelligence to promote wholesome debate and informed dialogue while fairly aggregating citizens’ positions to promote consensus building. All who participate in this public e-agora would appear under their true identities — real voices, not bots. Eponymous, not anonymous.

To facilitate debate, forums of professionals could give informed opinions on issues of the day. Public television, newspapers, radio and podcasts could enlighten the conversation. Schools would be encouraged to participate. So-called deliberative polling (again inspired by ancient Athens and developed for modern society by James Fishkin at Stanford University) could improve decision-making by leveraging sustained dialogue among polling participants and experts to produce more informed public opinion. The concept was used by the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland from 2016 to 2018, a riveting exercise in deliberative democracy that produced breakthroughs on seemingly intractable issues such as abortion.

Today, we are on the verge of momentous global changes, in robotics, A.I., the climate and more. The world’s citizens must debate the ethical implications of our increasingly godlike technological powers….(More)”

Robotic Bureaucracy: Administrative Burden and Red Tape in University Research


Essay by Barry Bozeman and Jan Youtie: “…examines university research administration and the use of software systems that automate university research grants and contract administration, including the automatic sending of emails for reporting and compliance purposes. These systems are described as “robotic bureaucracy.” The rise of regulations and their contribution to administrative burden on university research have led university administrators to increasingly rely on robotic bureaucracy to handle compliance. This article draws on the administrative burden, behavioral public administration, and electronic communications and management literatures, which are increasingly focused on the psychological and cognitive bases of behavior. These literatures suggest that the assumptions behind robotic bureaucracy ignore the extent to which these systems shift the burden of compliance from administrators to researchers….(More)”.

Andrew Yang proposes that your digital data be considered personal property


Michael Grothaus at Fast Company: “2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang may not be at the top of the race when it comes to polling (Politico currently has him ranked as the 7th most-popular Democratic contender), but his policies, including support for universal basic income, have made him popular among a subset of young, liberal-leaning, tech-savvy voters. Yang’s latest proposal, too, is sure to strike a chord with them.

The presidential candidate published his latest policy proposal today: to treat data as a property right. Announcing the proposal on his website, Yang lamented how our data is collected, used, and abused by companies, often with little awareness or consent from us. “This needs to stop,” Yang says. “Data generated by each individual needs to be owned by them, with certain rights conveyed that will allow them to know how it’s used and protect it.”

The rights Yang is proposing:

  • The right to be informed as to what data will be collected, and how it will be used
  • The right to opt out of data collection or sharing
  • The right to be told if a website has data on you, and what that data is
  • The right to be forgotten; to have all data related to you deleted upon request
  • The right to be informed if ownership of your data changes hands
  • The right to be informed of any data breaches including your information in a timely manner
  • The right to download all data in a standardized format to port to another platform…(More)”.

We Need a PBS for Social Media


Mark Coatney at the New York Times: “Social media is an opportunity wrapped in a problem. YouTube spreads propaganda and is toxic to children. Twitter spreads propaganda and is toxic to racial relationsFacebook spreads propaganda and is toxic to democracy itself.

Such problems aren’t surprising when you consider that all these companies operate on the same basic model: Create a product that maximizes the attention you can command from a person, collect as much data as you can about that person, and sell it.

Proposed solutions like breaking up companies and imposing regulation have been met with resistance: The platforms, understandably, worry that their profits might be reduced from staggering to merely amazing. And this may not be the best course of action anyway.

What if the problem is something that can’t be solved by existing for-profit media platforms? Maybe the answer to fixing social media isn’t trying to change companies with business models built around products that hijack our attention, and instead work to create a less toxic alternative.

Nonprofit public media is part of the answer. More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, committing federal funds to create public television and radio that would “be responsive to the interests of people.”

It isn’t a big leap to expand “public media” to include not just television and radio but also social media. In 2019, the definition of “media” is considerably larger than it was in 1967. Commentary on Twitter, memes on Instagram and performances on TikTok are all as much a part of the media landscape today as newspapers and television news.

Public media came out of a recognition that the broadcasting spectrum is a finite resource. TV broadcasters given licenses to use the spectrum were expected to provide programming like news and educational shows in return. But that was not enough. To make sure that some of that finite resource would always be used in the public interest, Congress established public media.

Today, the limited resource isn’t the spectrum — it’s our attention….(More)”.

A fairer way forward for AI in health care


Linda Nordling at Nature: “When data scientists in Chicago, Illinois, set out to test whether a machine-learning algorithm could predict how long people would stay in hospital, they thought that they were doing everyone a favour. Keeping people in hospital is expensive, and if managers knew which patients were most likely to be eligible for discharge, they could move them to the top of doctors’ priority lists to avoid unnecessary delays. It would be a win–win situation: the hospital would save money and people could leave as soon as possible.

Starting their work at the end of 2017, the scientists trained their algorithm on patient data from the University of Chicago academic hospital system. Taking data from the previous three years, they crunched the numbers to see what combination of factors best predicted length of stay. At first they only looked at clinical data. But when they expanded their analysis to other patient information, they discovered that one of the best predictors for length of stay was the person’s postal code. This was puzzling. What did the duration of a person’s stay in hospital have to do with where they lived?

As the researchers dug deeper, they became increasingly concerned. The postal codes that correlated to longer hospital stays were in poor and predominantly African American neighbourhoods. People from these areas stayed in hospitals longer than did those from more affluent, predominantly white areas. The reason for this disparity evaded the team. Perhaps people from the poorer areas were admitted with more severe conditions. Or perhaps they were less likely to be prescribed the drugs they needed.

The finding threw up an ethical conundrum. If optimizing hospital resources was the sole aim of their programme, people’s postal codes would clearly be a powerful predictor for length of hospital stay. But using them would, in practice, divert hospital resources away from poor, black people towards wealthy white people, exacerbating existing biases in the system.

“The initial goal was efficiency, which in isolation is a worthy goal,” says Marshall Chin, who studies health-care ethics at University of Chicago Medicine and was one of the scientists who worked on the project. But fairness is also important, he says, and this was not explicitly considered in the algorithm’s design….(More)”.

The Church of Techno-Optimism


Margaret O’Mara at the New York Times: “…But Silicon Valley does have a politics. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Nor is it libertarian, despite the dog-eared copies of Ayn Rand’s novels that you might find strewn about the cubicles of a start-up in Palo Alto.

It is techno-optimism: the belief that technology and technologists are building the future and that the rest of the world, including government, needs to catch up. And this creed burns brightly, undimmed by the anti-tech backlash. “It’s now up to all of us together to harness this tremendous energy to benefit all humanity,” the venture capitalist Frank Chen said in a November 2018 speech about artificial intelligence. “We are going to build a road to space,” Jeff Bezos declared as he unveiled plans for a lunar lander last spring. And as Elon Musk recently asked his Tesla shareholders, “Would I be doing this if I weren’t optimistic?”

But this is about more than just Silicon Valley. Techno-optimism has deep roots in American political culture, and its belief in American ingenuity and technological progress. Reckoning with that history is crucial to the discussion about how to rein in Big Tech’s seemingly limitless power.

The language of techno-optimism first appears in the rhetoric of American politics after World War II. “Science, the Endless Frontier” was the title of the soaringly techno-optimistic 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, the chief science adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, which set in motion the American government’s unprecedented postwar spending on research and development. That wave of money transformed the Santa Clara Valley and turned Stanford University into an engineering powerhouse. Dwight Eisenhower filled the White House with advisers whom he called “my scientists.” John Kennedy, announcing America’s moon shot in 1962, declared that “man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.”

In a 1963 speech, a founder of Hewlett-Packard, David Packard, looked back on his life during the Depression and marveled at the world that he lived in, giving much of the credit to technological innovation unhindered by bureaucratic interference: “Radio, television, Teletype, the vast array of publications of all types bring to a majority of the people everywhere in the world information in considerable detail, about what is going on everywhere else. Horizons are opened up, new aspirations are generated.”…(More)”

The Future of Political Philosophy


Katrina Forrester in Boston Review: “Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing. The turmoil has given pause to economists, some of whom responded by renewing their study of inequality, and to political scientists, who have since turned to problems of democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in droves. But Anglo-American liberal political philosophers have had less to say than they might have.

The silence is due in part to the nature of political philosophy today—the questions it considers worth asking and those it sidelines. Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice. But for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied with a particular answer to that question developed by the American philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls’s work in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a paradigm shift in political philosophy. In his wake, philosophers began exploring what justice and equality meant in the context of modern capitalist welfare states, using those concepts to describe, in impressive and painstaking detail, the ideal structure of a just society—one that turned out to closely resemble a version of postwar social democracy. Working within this framework, they have since elaborated a body of abstract moral principles that provide the philosophical backbone of modern liberalism. These ideas are designed to help us see what justice and equality demand—of our society, of our institutions, and of ourselves.

This is a story of triumph: Rawls’s philosophical project was a major success. It is not that political philosophers after Rawls didn’t disagree; fine-grained and heated arguments are what philosophers do best. But over the last few decades they built a robust consensus about the fundamental rules of the game, conceiving of themselves as engaged in a common intellectual project with a shared conceptual framework. The governing concepts and aims of political philosophy have, for generations, been more or less taken for granted.

But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness….(More)”.

The Art of Values-Based Innovation for Humanitarian Action


Chris Earney & Aarathi Krishnan at SSIR: “Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t new to the humanitarian sector. Organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a long history of innovating in communities around the world. Humanitarians have worked both on a global scale—for example, to innovate financing and develop the Humanitarian Code of Conduct—and on a local level—to reduce urban fire risks in informal settlements in Kenya, for instance, and improve waste management to reduce flood risks in Indonesia.

Even in its more-bureaucratic image more than 50 years ago, the United Nations commissioned a report to better understand the role that innovation, science, and technology could play in advancing human rights and development. Titled the “Sussex Manifesto,” the report outlined how to reshape and reorganize the role of innovation and technology so that it was more relevant, equitable, and accessible to the humanitarian and development sectors. Although those who commissioned the manifesto ultimately deemed it too ambitious for its era, the effort nevertheless reflects the UN’s longstanding interest in understanding how far-reaching ideas can elicit fundamental and needed progress. It challenged the humanitarian system to be explicit about its values and understand how those values could lead to radical actions for the betterment of humanity.

Since then, 27 UN organizations have formed teams dedicated to supporting innovation. Today, the aspiration to innovate extends to NGOs and donor communities, and has led to myriad approaches to brainstorming, design thinking, co-creation, and other activities developed to support novelty.

However, in the face of a more-globalized, -connected, and -complex world, we need to, more than ever, position innovation as a bold and courageous way of doing things. It’s common for people to demote innovation as a process that tinkers around the edges of organizations, but we need to think about innovation as a tool for changing the way systems work and our practices so that they better serve communities. This matters, because humanitarian needs are only going to grow, and the resources available to us likely won’t match that need. When the values that underpin our attitudes and behaviors as humanitarians drive innovation, we can better focus our efforts and create more impact with less—and we’re going to have to…(More)”.