Technologically mediated spaces and organizations are frequently described by their proponents as alternatives to the state. From David Clark’s maxim of Internet architecture, “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code”, to cyberanarchist efforts to bypass the state via blockchain technology, to the claims that Google and Facebook, as they mediate between billions of users, are relevant non-state actor in international affairs, to Lessig’s (1999) ever prescient claim that “Code is Law”, there is undoubtedly something going on with technology’s relationship to the state which is worth paying attention to.
There is an intellectual temptation (one that I myself am prone to) to take seriously the possibility of a fully autonomous technological alternative to the state. Something like a constitution written in source code has an appeal: it would be clear, precise, and presumably based on something like a consensus of those who participate in its creation. It is also an idea that can be frightening (Give up all control to the machines?) or ridiculous. The example of The DAO, the Ethereum ‘distributed autonomous organization’ that raised millions of dollars only to have them stolen in a technical hack, demonstrates the value of traditional legal institutions which protect the parties that enter contracts with processes that ensure fairness in their interpretation and enforcement.
It is more sociologically accurate, in any case, to consider software, hardware, and data collection not as autonomous actors but as parts of a sociotechnical system that maintains and modifies it. This is obvious to practitioners, who spend their lives negotiating the social systems that create technology. For those for whom it is not obvious, there’s reams of literature on the social embededness of “algorithms” (Gillespie, 2014; Kitchin, 2017). These themes are recited again in recent critical work on Artificial Intelligence; there are those that wisely point out that a functioning artificially intelligent system depends on a lot of labor (those who created and cleaned data, those who built the systems they are implemented on, those that monitor the system as it operates) (Kelkar, 2017). So rather than discussing the role of particular technologies as alternatives to the state, we should shift our focus to the great variety of sociotechnical organizations.
One thing that is apparent, when taking this view, is that states, as traditionally conceived, are themselves sociotechnical organizations. This is, again, an obvious point well illustrated in economic histories such as (Beniger, 1986). Communications infrastructure is necessary for the control and integration of society, let alone effective military logistics. The relationship between those industrial actors developing this infrastructure, whether it be building roads, running a postal service, laying rail or telegram wires, telephone wires, satellites, Internet protocols, and now social media–and the state has always been interesting and a story of great fortunes and shifts in power.
What is apparent after a serious look at this history is that political theory, especially liberal political theory as it developed in the 1700’s an onward as a theory of the relationship between individuals bound by social contract emerging from nature to develop a just state, leaves out essential scientific facts of the matter of how society has ever been governed. Control of communications and control infrastructure has never been equally dispersed and has always been a source of power. Late modern rearticulations of liberal theory and reactions against it (Rawls and Nozick, both) leave out technical constraints on the possibility of governance and even the constitution of the subject on which a theory of justice would have its ground.
Were political theory to begin from a more realistic foundation, it would need to acknowledge the existence of sociotechnical organizations as a political unit. There is a term for this view, “managerialism“, which, as far as I can tell is used somewhat pejoratively, like “neoliberalism”. As an “-ism”, it’s implied that managerialism is an ideology. When we talk about ideologies, what we are doing is looking from an external position onto an interdependent set of beliefs in their social context and identifying, through genealogical method or logical analysis, how those beliefs are symptoms of underlying causes that are not precisely as represented within those beliefs themselves. For example, one critiques neoliberal ideology, which purports that markets are the best way to allocate resources and advocates for the expansion of market logic into more domains of social and political life, but pointing out that markets are great for reallocating resources to capitalists, who bankroll neoliberal ideologues, but that many people who are subject to neoliberal policies do not benefit from them. While this is a bit of a parody of both neoliberalism and the critiques of it, you’ll catch my meaning.
We might avoid the pitfalls of an ideological managerialism (I’m not sure what those would be, exactly, having not read the critiques) by taking from it, to begin with, only the urgency of describing social reality in terms of organization and management without assuming any particular normative stake. It will be argued that this is not a neutral stance because to posit that there is organization, and that there is management, is to offend certain kinds of (mainly academic) thinkers. I get the sense that this offendedness is similar to the offense taken by certain critical scholars to the idea that there is such a thing as scientific knowledge, especially social scientific knowledge. Namely, it is an offense taken to the idea that a patently obvious fact entails ones own ignorance of otherwise very important expertise. This is encouraged by the institutional incentives of social science research. Social scientists are required to maintain an aura of expertise even when their particular sub-discipline excludes from its analysis the very systems of bureaucratic and technical management that its university depends on. University bureaucracies are, strangely, in the business of hiding their managerialist reality from their own faculty, as alternative avenues of research inquiry are of course compelling in their own right. When managerialism cannot be contested on epistemic grounds (because the bluff has been called), it can be rejected on aesthetic grounds: managerialism is not “interesting” to a discipline, perhaps because it does not engage with the personal and political motivations that constitute it.
What sets managerialism aside from other ideologies, however, is that when we examine its roots in social context, we do not discover a contradiction. Managerialism is not, as far as I can tell, successful as a popular ideology. Managerialism is attractive only to that rare segment of the population that work closely with bureaucratic management. It is here that the technical constraints of information flow and its potential uses, the limits of autonomy especially as it confronts the autonomies of others, the persistence of hierarchy despite the purported flattening of social relations, and so on become unavoidable features of life. And though one discovers in these situations plenty of managerial incompetence, one also comes to terms with why that incompetence is a necessary feature of the organizations that maintain it.
Little of what I am saying here is new, of course. It is only new in relation to more popular or appealing forms of criticism of the relationship between technology, organizations, power, and ethics. So often the political theory implicit in these critiques is a form of naive egalitarianism that sees a differential in power as an ethical red flag. Since technology can give organizations a lot of power, this generates a lot of heat around technology ethics. Starting from the perspective of an ethicist, one sees an uphill battle against an increasingly inscrutable and unaccountable sociotechnical apparatus. What I am proposing is that we look at things a different way. If we start from general principles about technology its role in organizations–the kinds of principles one would get from an analysis of microeconomic theory, artificial intelligence as a mathematical discipline, and so on–one can try to formulate managerial constraints that truly confront society. These constraints are part of how subjects are constituted and should inform what we see as “ethical”. If we can broker between these hard constraints and the societal values at stake, we might come up with a principle of justice that, if unpopular, may at least be realistic. This would be a contribution, at the end of the day, to political theory, not as an ideology, but as a philosophical advance.
Beniger, James R. “The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the.” Information Society (1986).
Bird, Sarah, et al. “Exploring or Exploiting? Social and Ethical Implications of Autonomous Experimentation in AI.” (2016).
Gillespie, Tarleton. “The relevance of algorithms.” Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society 167 (2014).
Kelkar, Shreeharsh. “How (Not) to Talk about AI.” Platypus, 12 Apr. 2017, blog.castac.org/2017/04/how-not-to-talk-about-ai/.
Kitchin, Rob. “Thinking critically about and researching algorithms.” Information, Communication & Society 20.1 (2017): 14-29.
Lessig, Lawrence. “Code is law.” The Industry Standard 18 (1999).