In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes defined the State as an “automaton.” When we organize society politically, that means putting into motion a series of processes, mechanisms and procedures that constitute the administrative technology of bureaucracy. The machinery of modern democracy was constructed in the age of the nation states, hierarchical organizational structures, the division of labor and the industrialized economy, a world that has been largely overtaken by technology that is digital, de-localized, decentralized and structured in the form of a network.
What happens to politics and its specific institutions when the technological environment changes in this way? What political transformations do we associate with robotization, digitalizing and automation? It is still hard to know, and perhaps that ignorance explains the fact that two types of diagnoses have been formulated, and they both imply, although for opposite motives, a type of farewell to politics: the prophets of enthusiasm announce the absolute power of technology over politics, which they consider a fundamentally positive outcome. What we call the “internet of things” is also going to transform political practices, and there are those who prophesize that it could even fulfill the role of repairing or replacing political structures that are weakened or absent. New technology could solve problems that the old politics could not handle. The other conclusion is pessimistic to the extent that the new technological environment is necessarily associated with the government’s loss of control over social processes and the de-democratization of political decisions. Technophilia and technophobia share the supposition that the logic of technology can replace the logic of politics; the only distinction is whether they believe this is good or bad news.
In a short time, we have gone from cyber-enthusiasm to techno-concern; instead of understanding new technologies as sources of empowerment, we increasingly see them as artifacts that remove our control. There is a certain popular revolt against technology: consider anti-Uber protests, concerns about accidents by driverless cars, the distrust of genetically modified crops or trade union suspicions regarding workplace automation. The internet, which was hailed as a promoter of democratization, is now seen as an intruder, whether in the private realm or in electoral processes. The larger the big data companies grow, the more restricted we find the realms in which we still have autonomous decision-making abilities.
We still do not know exactly the impact that new technologies will have on our form of political life, whether they will improve democracy, modify it or make it impossible. When we stop fluctuating between euphoria and disappointment, perhaps we will be ready to provide a thoughtful opinion about a transformation that is still underway. In any case, it is unquestionable that the current technological revolution makes our democracies depend on forms of communication and information that we neither control nor fully understand. From a structural point of view, those technologies are damaging central aspects of our political system: parliamentary control has stopped being what it was before Twitter existed; the financialization of the economy escapes the political regulation that the states exercised; we do not know what a critical citizenry might mean in an environment populated by informational garbage. Democracy is slow and geographically situated while the new technologies are characterized by speed and de-localization.
The fact that we automate certain decisions, whether individual or collective, should in principle be considered a relief, but that possibility constitutes a threat if it implies complete surrender of our sovereignty. Intelligent machines seem capable of superseding human decisions, invisible algorithms establish new sources of power and injustice, technocratic authorities enjoy excessive prerogatives. At this rate, we could imagine Siri—after noting our likes, what we consume, the social networks we have joined, our habitual preferences—informing us of how we should vote, as Bartlett imagined in a recent book in which he contrasts the people with technology.
Do reasoned information, individual choice, democratic self-government continue to make sense in these new technological environments? In the first place, we should not underestimate the risk that techno-authoritarianism may be increasingly attractive in a world in which politics has reaped a long list of failures. There are those who claim that algorithms and artificial intelligence could distribute resources more effectively than the irrational or poorly informed citizenry. It would be something like a digital version of the classic technocracy but aligned with large technological companies and their irresistible offers of service, information and connectivity. The problem is that it makes no sense to confront the power of these companies with anti-trust legislation. The idea that monopolies are bad because they raise prices and harm the consumer was central to the organization of the analogous economic space, but we are now confronting technological companies that lower prices—including some, like Google and Facebook, that are free—and they are excellent for consumers. The threat they pose to democratic life has nothing to do with prices but with the concentration of power, the regulation of data and the control of the public space.
It would be hard for digital empowerment not to have an unsettling side or for the possibility of escaping centralized control not to imply a weakening of political authority in general. But the idea of perverse actors who are fighting to strip us of our sovereignty is too humanistic for the digital era, an era in which there is an unprecedented exchange of accessibility and control, of individual and shared empowerment.
Spell checkers are a simple example of the advantages and disadvantages of automation; they provide a significant service, while simultaneously leading us to make certain errors. A pessimist is someone who believes that spell checkers are to blame for our increasingly faulty writing; an optimist is one who, rather than complaining, spends that time looking over what he or she wrote. And that is precisely what politics is: the institutionalization of a level of reflexivity so that our automated devices can be designed in accordance with what we have determined to be a successful life in common. Siri cannot take our place when it comes to making that determination, but she can in everything else.