Dr Dominic Burbidge – written evidence (DAD0044)

 

Research Director, University of Oxford; Lecturer in Politics, University of Oxford; External Advisor, Templeton World Charity Foundation

 

Most relevant Committee questions:

3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?

8. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?

9. To what extent do you think that there are those who are using social media to attempt to undermine trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions; and what might be the best ways to combat this and strengthen faith in democracy?

10. What might be the best ways of reducing the effects of misinformation on social media platforms?

 

WRITTEN SUBMISSION:

 

  1. Changes currently afoot over what our human community is and for require us to look anew at our civic ideals. We must take seriously the dilemma of being only one citizen as the human community grows and becomes ever more interconnected. As my community grows, I may not grow; as my community becomes more interconnected, I may not become as interconnected as everyone else. Analysis of the internet, digital technologies and artificial intelligence has so far tended to look at how they change society and the world as a whole, underappreciating the fact that in the midst of any change I remain just one person. The assumption has been that being more interconnected means being more interdependent. From the individual citizen’s point of view, however, progress in the expansion of digital technologies and artificial intelligence may mean that my own contribution and my own sense of self reduce, and that reduction is accelerated in line with accelerated erosion of interpersonal barriers.

 

  1. The networked age is not yet fully emergent, making us at times appear more like a set of specific users of services and platforms and, at other times, more like a genuine collectivity or citizenry. We entered the networked age on transactional and contractual terms with digital technologies that appeared to make our lives easier, bit by bit; we stay on covenantal terms with digital technologies that share our being and our identity, and make promises about future efficiency gains and data consolidations. The latter trend forms the basis to membership of a collectivity, while the former, set membership. We are each travelling this road from contractual to covenantal at different speeds, with some far behind and some far ahead, though the general direction is clearly one-way. There is grave need that our coming of age not be a growth in dependency but an emergence of a citizenry, guided not just by regulations but also civic ideals that are able to apply to our new habits and habitat simultaneously.

 

  1. An important test case is the introduction of algorithms and artificial intelligence into our public sphere decision-making, changes which are set to deeply affect our spirit of public service, justice, neighbourliness, democratic participation and moral reasoning. While numerous institutions and experts have focused on the changes technology and artificial intelligence are having on our personal mental development, our economy and jobs, and even the security of the entire human race, there has been less analysis of what the changes mean for the normative underpinnings to our citizenship.

 

  1. Our normative ideals of citizenship are being shattered in the networked age, an age which threatens to take decision-making out of the hands of individuals and splinter the notion of one’s community. Increasingly, we are following the decisions and recommendations of algorithms and artificial intelligence to understand what would be in our interests, and communicate in siloed groups that are purpose-built around particular aims or views rather than the common good. Our silos of communication can be created or collapsed at any time, and have reduced regard for members’ wellbeing over time.

 

  1. A number of the changes taking place to our civic engagement are already quite clear:

 

    1. A growing commitment to algorithmic decision-making in public affairs due to its assumed neutrality, expertise and rapidity, in turn framing public participation by citizens as relatively sentimental, inept and slow; greater out-sourcing of moral and judicial decision-making to algorithms, which are believed impartial, framing citizen decision-making as biased and individualistic.

 

    1. Reduced opportunity among citizens to develop political views in closed settings before sharing them with the wider public.

 

    1. Declining natural forgetfulness for bad or incorrect things said.

 

    1. Curtailment of one’s social network away from those with alternative viewpoints, especially during important political moments.

 

    1. A weakening ability to boycott online services that hold one’s data and history, and do not charge money for the service.

 

    1. Increased quantification of public goals and application of utilitarian principles for balancing competing interests, as opposed to deliberating over human values.

 

    1. Growing disconnect between global moral views and local living; increased anxiety over who the ultimate decision-makers really are.

 

    1. A burgeoning plurality of cybergovernance institutions and a weakening of the authority of national laws, in turn making the target of democratic advocacy less clear.

 

    1. Increased hate speech and misinformation; civic engagement narrowly focused on chastising those who have spoken hatefully or falsely.

 

  1. These changes in one sense share a great deal with 20th century marketization of human relations and sustained urbanisation, but they also deviate significantly from traditional capitalistic trends through involving an extraordinary personalisation of the laws of supply and demand. 20th century industrialism helped everyone buy the same things; 21st century personalisation of the laws of supply and demand gives everyone their own, individualised economy. In threatening our ability to be citizens and act well as citizens in pursuit of a common good, these trends risk a breakdown in social solidarity and a growth in channels of arbitrary authority. In this sense, growing distrust between the “haves” and the “have nots” is not simply an economic question of appropriate distribution but a growing existential question about who the decision-makers really are.

 

  1. Despite these areas of grave concern, the displacement of human decision-making and democratic deliberation through algorithms, machine-learning and digital technologies are not a threat to democracy itself because human decision-making is unique in the way it is able to order pursuit of the common good and find consensus. Humans do so through developing hierarchies of goods while retaining interest in the goods dismissed. Optimisation through algorithms instead demands horizontal flattening of goods while dismissing those goods not of interest.

 

  1. Democratic societies are uniquely able to aim at social unity as a good in itself, regardless of the public choices that democratic institutions make. This grants their permanence, despite all manner of technological changes. Indeed, the goal of interpersonal unity lies behind all of our social engagements and can be factored into evaluations of whether decision-making structures are efficient or optimal. As a uniquely human-executable goal, interpersonal unity is to be jealously guarded through insistence on the universal and timeless value of representative democracy.

 

  1. The “civic virtue” most appropriate for the networked age is that of listening. While education has had a major focus from Ancient Greece onwards on the art of rhetoric and what it means to be a good speaker, we are now entering an age where primacy must be placed on being a good listener.

 

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