The Hacking of America

Jill Lepore at the New York Times: “Every government is a machine, and every machine has its tinkerers — and its jams. From the start, machines have driven American democracy and, just as often, crippled it. The printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, the mainframe, cable TV, the internet: Each had wild-eyed boosters who promised that a machine could hold the republic together, or make it more efficient, or repair the damage caused by the last machine. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong. But lately, it’s mainly wrong, chiefly because the rules that prevail on the internet were devised by people who fundamentally don’t believe in government.

The Constitution itself was understood by its framers as a machine, a precisely constructed instrument whose measures — its separation of powers, its checks and balances — were mechanical devices, as intricate as the gears of a clock, designed to thwart tyrants, mobs and demagogues, and to prevent the forming of factions. Once those factions began to appear, it became clear that other machines would be needed to establish stable parties. “The engine is the press,” Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate inventor, wrote in 1799.

The United States was founded as a political experiment; it seemed natural that it should advance and grow through technological experiment. Different technologies have offered different fixes. Equality was the promise of the penny press, newspapers so cheap that anyone could afford them. The New York Sun was first published in 1833. “It shines for all” was its common-man motto. Union was the promise of the telegraph. “The greatest revolution of modern times, and indeed of all time, for the amelioration of society, has been effected by the magnetic telegraph,” The Sun announced, proclaiming “the annihilation of space.”
Time was being annihilated too. As The New York Herald pointed out, the telegraph appeared to make it possible for “the whole nation” to have “the same idea at the same moment.” Frederick Douglass was convinced that the great machines of the age were ushering in an era of worldwide political revolution. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” he wrote, “a revolution cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart.” Henry David Thoreau raised an eyebrow: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Even that savage war didn’t diminish Americans’ faith that technology could solve the problem of political division. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce, rightly anticipated that radio, the nation’s next great mechanical experiment, would make it possible for political candidates and officeholders to speak to voters without the bother and expense of traveling to meet them. NBC began radio broadcasting in 1926, CBS in 1928. By the end of the decade, nearly every household would have a wireless. Hoover promised that radio would make Americans “literally one people.”

That radio fulfilled this promise for as long as it did is the result of decisions made by Mr. Hoover, a Republican who believed that the government had a role to play in overseeing the airwaves by issuing licenses for frequencies to broadcasting companies and regulating their use. “The ether is a public medium,” he insisted, “and its use must be for the public benefit.” He pressed for passage of the Radio Act of 1927, one of the most consequential and underappreciated acts of Progressive reform — insisting that programmers had to answer to the public interest. That commitment was extended to television in 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission, the successor to the Federal Radio Commission, established the Fairness Doctrine, a standard for television news that required a “reasonably balanced presentation” of different political views….

All of this history was forgotten or ignored by the people who wrote the rules of the internet and who peer out upon the world from their offices in Silicon Valley and boast of their disdain for the past. But the building of a new machinery of communications began even before the opening of the internet. In the 1980s, conservatives campaigned to end the Fairness Doctrine in favor of a public-interest-based rule for broadcasters, a market-based rule: If people liked it, broadcasters could broadcast it….(More)”

On International Day of Democracy, International Leaders Call for More Open Public Institutions

Press Release: “As the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Democracy on September 15 with its theme of “Democracy Under Strain,” The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering will unveil its CrowdLaw Manifesto to strengthen public participation in lawmaking by encouraging citizens to help build, shape, and influence the laws and policies that affect their daily lives.

Among its 12 calls to action to individuals, legislatures, researchers and technology designers, the manifesto encourages the public to demand and institutions to create new mechanisms to harness collective intelligence to improve the quality of lawmaking as well as more research on what works to build a global movement for participatory democracy.

The CrowdLaw Manifesto emerged from a collaborative effort of 20 international experts and CrowdLaw community members. At a convening held earlier this year by The GovLab at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy, government leaders, academics, NGOs, and technologists formulated the CrowdLaw Manifesto to detail the initiative’s foundational principles and to encourage greater implementation of CrowdLaw practices to improve governance through 21st century technology and tools….

“The successes of the CrowdLaw concept – and its remarkably rapid adoption across the world by citizens seeking to affect change – exemplify the powerful force that academia can exert when working in concert with government and citizens,” said NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovačević. “On behalf of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, I proudly sign the CrowdLaw Manifesto and congratulate The GovLab and its collaborators for creating these digital tools and momentum for good government.”…(More)”.

Citizen Innovations

Introduction by Jean-Claude Ruano-Borbalan and Bertrand Bocquet of Special Issue of Technology and Innovation (French) : “The last half century has seen considerable development of institutional interfaces participating in the “great standardization” of science and innovation systems. The limitations of this model appeared for many economic, political or cultural reasons. Strong developments appear within the context of a deliberative democracy that impacts scientific and technical institutions and production, and therefore the nature and the policies of innovation. The question about this part of a “technical democracy”
is whether there will be a long-term movement. We dedicate this issue to citizen participatory innovations, more or less related to technical and scientific questions. It highlights various scales and focal points of “social and citizen innovation”, domains based on examples of ongoing transformations…. (More)
Table of Contents:

Constitutional Democracy and Technology in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Paul Nemitz at Royal Society Philosophical Transactions: “Given the foreseeable pervasiveness of Artificial Intelligence in modern societies, it is legitimate and necessary to ask the question how this new technology must be shaped to support the maintenance and strengthening of constitutional democracy.

This paper first describes the four core elements of today’s digital power concentration, which need to be seen in cumulation and which, seen together, are both a threat to democracy and to functioning markets. It then recalls the experience with the lawless internet and the relationship between technology and the law as it has developed in the internet economy and the experience with GDPR before it moves on to the key question for AI in democracy, namely which of the challenges of AI can be safely and with good conscience left to ethics, and which challenges of AI need to be addressed by rules which are enforceable and encompass the legitimacy of democratic process, thus laws.

The paper closes with a call for a new culture of incorporating the principles of Democracy, Rule of law and Human Rights by design in AI and a three level technological impact assessment for new technologies like AI as a practical way forward for this purpose….(More).

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

Reflecting the Past, Shaping the Future: Making AI Work for International Development

USAID Report: “We are in the midst of an unprecedented surge of interest in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. These tools, which allow computers to make data-derived predictions and automate decisions, have become part of daily life for billions of people. Ubiquitous digital services such as interactive maps, tailored advertisements, and voice-activated personal assistants are likely only the beginning. Some AI advocates even claim that AI’s impact will be as profound as “electricity or fire” that it will revolutionize nearly every field of human activity. This enthusiasm has reached international development as well. Emerging ML/AI applications promise to reshape healthcare, agriculture, and democracy in the developing world. ML and AI show tremendous potential for helping to achieve sustainable development objectives globally. They can improve efficiency by automating labor-intensive tasks, or offer new insights by finding patterns in large, complex datasets. A recent report suggests that AI advances could double economic growth rates and increase labor productivity 40% by 2035. At the same time, the very nature of these tools — their ability to codify and reproduce patterns they detect — introduces significant concerns alongside promise.

In developed countries, ML tools have sometimes been found to automate racial profiling, to foster surveillance, and to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Algorithms may be used, either intentionally or unintentionally, in ways that result in disparate or unfair outcomes between minority and majority populations. Complex models can make it difficult to establish accountability or seek redress when models make mistakes. These shortcomings are not restricted to developed countries. They can manifest in any setting, especially in places with histories of ethnic conflict or inequality. As the development community adopts tools enabled by ML and AI, we need a cleareyed understanding of how to ensure their application is effective, inclusive, and fair. This requires knowing when ML and AI offer a suitable solution to the challenge at hand. It also requires appreciating that these technologies can do harm — and committing to addressing and mitigating these harms.

ML and AI applications may sometimes seem like science fiction, and the technical intricacies of ML and AI can be off-putting for those who haven’t been formally trained in the field. However, there is a critical role for development actors to play as we begin to lean on these tools more and more in our work. Even without technical training in ML, development professionals have the ability — and the responsibility — to meaningfully influence how these technologies impact people.

You don’t need to be an ML or AI expert to shape the development and use of these tools. All of us can learn to ask the hard questions that will keep solutions working for, and not against, the development challenges we care about. Development practitioners already have deep expertise in their respective sectors or regions. They bring necessary experience in engaging local stakeholders, working with complex social systems, and identifying structural inequities that undermine inclusive progress. Unless this expert perspective informs the construction and adoption of ML/AI technologies, ML and AI will fail to reach their transformative potential in development.

This document aims to inform and empower those who may have limited technical experience as they navigate an emerging ML/AI landscape in developing countries. Donors, implementers, and other development partners should expect to come away with a basic grasp of common ML techniques and the problems ML is uniquely well-suited to solve. We will also explore some of the ways in which ML/AI may fail or be ill-suited for deployment in developing-country contexts. Awareness of these risks, and acknowledgement of our role in perpetuating or minimizing them, will help us work together to protect against harmful outcomes and ensure that AI and ML are contributing to a fair, equitable, and empowering future…(More)”.

Keeping Democracy Alive in Cities

Myung J. Lee at the Stanford Social Innovation Review:  “It seems everywhere I go these days, people are talking and writing and podcasting about America’s lack of trust—how people don’t trust government and don’t trust each other. President Trump discourages us from trusting anything, especially the media. Even nonprofit organizations, which comprise the heart of civil society, are not exempt: A recent study found that trust in NGOsdropped by nine percent between 2017 and 2018. This fundamental lack of trust is eroding the shared public space where progress and even governance can happen, putting democracy at risk.

How did we get here? Perhaps it’s because Americans have taken our democratic way of life for granted. Perhaps it’s because people’s individual and collective beliefs are more polarized—and more out in the open—than ever before. Perhaps we’ve stopped believing we can solve problems together.

There are, however, opportunities to rebuild and fortify our sense of trust. This is especially true at the local level, where citizens can engage directly with elected leaders, nonprofit organizations, and each other.

As French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach; they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” Through town halls and other means, cities are where citizens, elected leaders, and nonprofit organizations can most easily connect and work together to improve their communities.

Research shows that, while trust in government is low everywhere, it is highest in local government. This is likely because people can see that their votes influence issues they care about, and they can directly interact with their mayors and city council members. Unlike with members of Congress, citizens can form real relationships with local leaders through events like “walks with the mayor” and neighborhood cleanups. Some mayors do even more to connect with their constituents. In Detroit, for example, Mayor Michael Duggan meets with residents in their homes to help them solve problems and answer questions in person. Many mayors also join in neighborhood projects. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, for example, participates in a different community cleanup almost every week. Engaged citizens who participate in these activities are more likely to feel that their participation in democratic society is valuable and effective.

The role of nonprofit and community-based organizations, then, is partly to sustain democracy by being the bridge between city governments and citizens, helping them work together to solve concrete problems. It’s hard and important work. Time and again, this kind of relationship- and trust-building through action creates ripple effects that grow over time.

In my work with Cities of Service, which helps mayors and other city leaders effectively engage their citizens to solve problems, I’ve learned that local government works better when it is open to the ideas and talents of citizens. Citizen collaboration can take many forms, including defining and prioritizing problems, generating solutions, and volunteering time, creativity, and expertise to set positive change in motion. Citizens can leverage their own deep expertise about what’s best for their families and communities to deliver better services and solve public problems….(More)”.

How to Prevent Winner-Takes-All Democracy

Kaushik Basu at Project Syndicate: “Democracy is in crisis. Fake news – and fake allegations of fake news – now plagues civil discourse, and political parties have proved increasingly willing to use xenophobia and other malign strategies to win elections. At the same time, revisionist powers like Vladimir Putin’s Russia have been stepping up their efforts to interfere in elections across the West. Rarely has the United States witnessed such brazen attacks on its political system; and rarely has the world seen such lows during peacetime….

How can all of this be happening in democracies, and what can be done about it?

On the first question, one hypothesis is that new digital technologies are changing the structural incentives for corporations, political parties, and other major institutions. Consider the case of corporations. The wealth of proprietary data on consumer preferences and behavior is producing such massive returns to scale that a few giants are monopolizing markets. In other words, markets are increasingly geared toward a winner-take-all game: multiple corporations can compete, but to the victor go the spoils.1

Electoral democracy is drifting in the same direction. The benefits of winning an election have become so large that political parties will stoop to new lows to clinch a victory. And, as with corporations, they can do so with the help of data on electoral preferences and behavior, and with new strategies to target key constituencies.

This poses a dilemma for well-meaning democratic parties and politicians. If a “bad” party is willing to foment hate and racism to bolster its chances of winning, what is a “good” party to do? If it sticks to its principles, it could end up ceding victory to the “bad” party, which will do even more harm once it is in office. A “good” party may thus try to forestall that outcome by taking a step down the moral ladder, precipitating a race to the bottom. This is the problem with any winner-takes-all game. When second place confers no benefits, the cost of showing unilateral restraint can grow intolerably high.

But this problem is not as hopeless as it appears. In light of today’s crisis of democracy, we would do well to revisit Václav Havel’s seminal 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless.” First published as samizdat that was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, the essay makes a simple but compelling argument. Dictatorships and other seemingly omnipotent forms of authoritarianism may look like large, top-down structures, but in the final analysis, they are merely the outcome of ordinary individuals’ beliefs and choices. Havel did not have the tools of modern economic theory to demonstrate his argument formally. In my new book The Republic of Beliefs, I show that the essence of his argument can be given formal structure using elementary game theory. This, in turn, shows that ordinary individuals have moral options that may be unavailable to the big institutional players….(More)”.

Technology is threatening our democracy. How do we save it?

MIT Technology Review: “Our newest issue is live today, in which we dive into the many ways that technology is changing politics.

A major shift: In 2013 we emblazoned our cover with the words, “Big Data Will Save Politics.” When we chose that headline, Barack Obama had just won reelection with the help of a crack team of data scientists. The Arab Spring had already cooled into an Arab Winter, but the social-media platforms that had powered the uprisings were still basking in the afterglow. As our editor in chief Gideon Lichfield writes, today, with Cambridge Analytica, fake news, election hacking, and the shrill cacophony that dominates social media, technology feels as likely to destroy politics as to save it.

The political impact: From striking data visualizations that take a close look at the famed “filter bubble” effect that’s blamed for political polarization to an examination of how big data is disrupting the cozy world of political lobbying, we’re analyzing how emerging technologies are shaping the political landscape, eroding trust, and, possibly, becoming a part of the solution….(More)”.

As democracy goes digital, those offline are being pushed out of politics

Renata Avila at the Web Foundation: “Free and fair elections require an informed, active body of citizens debating the electoral issues of the day and scrutinising the positions of candidates. Participation at each and every stage of an electoral campaign — not just on the day of the vote — is necessary for a healthy democracy.

Those online have access to an increasingly sophisticated set of tools to do just this: to learn about candidates, to participate in political discussions, to shape debate and raise issues that matter to them. Or even, run for office themselves.

What does this mean for those citizens who don’t have access to the internet? Do online debates capture their needs, concerns and interests? Are the priorities of those not connected represented on the political stage?

The Mexican election: a story of digital inequality

María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martinez was selected as an independent candidate in Mexico’s recent July 1 elections general election — the first indigenous woman to run for president. But digital barriers doomed her candidacy.

Independent presidential candidates in Mexico are required to collect 866,000 signatures using a mandatory mobile app that only runs on relatively new smartphones. This means that to collect the required endorsements, a candidate and their supporters all need a modern smartphone — which typically costs around three times the minimum monthly salary — plus electricity and mobile data. These are resources many people in indigenous communities simply don’t have. While the electoral authorities exempted some municipalities from this process, it did not cover the mostly poor and indigenous areas that Marichuy wanted to represent. She was unable to gather the signatures needed….(More)”.