Democratic societies face two options in the post-Snowden era. The easier one is to continue business as usual and pretend that the NSA's insatiable desire for data is just an aberration that can be rectified by tinkering with various aspects of our exist
The more challenging option is to let Snowden’s revelations stand in for more than just reckless administrative overreach by a few rogue bureaucrats. Here we are facing an emerging and mostly unaddressed threat to the democratic ethos – and it’s only going to get worse as the means to collect, record and analyse data become cheaper and more ubiquitous.
The reason why this threat has mostly gone unnoticed is simple: Such a conclusion would contradict the rosy narrative of the information economy, which assumes that, when it comes to information, growth can go on forever. Google, Facebook and hundreds of their copycats in Silicon Valley operate on the premise that there’s no limit to how much data can be collected, traded and shared. For them, more information is always better – and we’d better get it fast.
The parallels to those parts of the economy not yet subsumed under the capacious umbrella of “information” are illuminating. For a very long time, the assumption of infinite growth – with GDP as the sole benchmark for assessing government policy – has ruled supreme here as well. The first dissident voices in the early 1970s quickly drowned in the free-market sloganeering of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but the critical questioning of growth as the sole focus of economic activity resumed during the last decade, driven by concerns over global warming.
Today, this critical agenda is being pursued by the adherents of the “degrowth” movement – popular in Europe but enjoying very little traction in the United States. The goal of degrowthers is not just to scrutinise the ecological wisdom of continuing in the current pro-growth mode but also to question the wisdom of using indicators like the GDP to assess and formulate public policy. As Yves-Marie Abraham, a Canadian sociologist and one of the proponents of the degrowth agenda, puts it, “[T]his is not [about] the decline of GDP, but the end of GDP and all other quantitative measures used as indicators of wellbeing.”
There’s no denying that degrwoth theory presents interesting intellectual challenges to mainstream economics. A robust defence of the pro-growth agenda today requires addressing concerns over climate change as well as explaining why there’s no linear relationship between growth and happiness. If more growth doesn’t make us happier, why should it guide our economic policy?
There is no equivalent of degrowth ideas with respect to information yet. The existing efforts to think of different ways to relate to technology and information work at the individual, not collective, level: We are encouraged to explore “digital detoxing” to reinvigorate our sense of reality, to install apps that would make us more “mindful”.
None of these solutions offers a coherent alternative to the current paradigm of “more information is always better”. Degrowth theorists invoke the bogeyman of global warming to reorient our thinking process. The vision of such a disaster, however, has so far been missing from the information debate. All we see are concerns about personal health, shortening attention spans, distraction. These are
concerns about individuals, not collectives.
What would the appropriate equivalent of global warming be in this case? Perhaps it’s the gradual evaporation of the democratic spirit from our political system. This evaporation is happening as a naive belief in Big Data forecloses the spaces that have previously been open to public deliberation while producing citizens who, caught up in the endless feedback loops of modern bureaucratic systems, surrender the political process to the technocrats, always tinkering on the micro level but rarely interested in macro-level systemic change.
Instead of challenging Silicon Valley on the specifics, why not just acknowledge that the benefits it offers are real – but, like an SUV or always-on air conditioning, they might not be worth the costs? Yes, the personalisation of search can give us fabulous results, directing us to the nearest pizza joint in two seconds. But these three seconds in savings require a storage of data somewhere on Google’s servers. After Snowden, no one is really sure what exactly happens to that data and the many ways in which it can be abused.
For most people, Silicon Valley offers a great and convenient product. But if this great product will eventually smother the democratic system, then, perhaps, we should lower our expectations and accept the fact that two extra seconds of search – like a smaller and slower car – might be a reasonable price to pay for preserving the spaces where democratic politics can still flourish.
The problem we face is not a lack of control over individual data. It’s the fact that, armed with so much data, modern political systems seem to believe that they can dispense with citizens – while citizens, enjoying themselves in the digital cornucopia of “content”, are all too happy to abandon the realm of the political. To create a personal market in data under these conditions would only be to speed up the already fast decline of the democratic system.
Whether it’s by applying ideas from degrowth or by embracing some other intellectual paradigm that could challenge the “more information is always better” narrative, we badly need new models to think our way out of the democratic deficit that Snowden revealed. The Snowden debate needs thinkers who are as fluent in code and constitutional law as they are in economics and politics.
Evgeny Morozov is author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism”.