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 existing techno-legal apparatus: We can tighten leaky data protocols, build more encryption into communication networks, pass new laws to oversee the NSA.
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 analyze 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 produced, 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 this movement is not just to scrutinize 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 well being.”
This is not the time or place to assess the merits of the degrowth agenda with regard to the economy. But it’s hard to deny that it has presented many interesting intellectual challenges to mainstream economics. A robust defense of the pro-growth agenda today requires addressing concerns over climate change as well as explaining why there’s no simple linear relationship between growth and happiness. If more growth doesn’t make us happier, why should it guide our economic policy?
As an alternative paradigm for arranging productive activity, the degrowth agenda has resulted in at least some provocative new thinking about politics and economics. There is no such alternative paradigm with respect to information yet. The existing efforts to think of different ways to relate to technology and information smack of privatized and transcendentalist solutions that work at the level of individuals, not collectives: We are encouraged to explore “digital detoxing” to reinvigorate our sense of reality, to install apps that would make us more “mindful,” to spend time in camps that ban gadgets from their premises.
None of these solutions offers a coherent intellectual alternative to the current paradigm of “more information is always better.” Degrowth theorists invoke the convenient but real 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. No wonder they lend themselves to private solutions like apps to regain mindfulness.
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—who needs this messy debate about alternative ends when you have the data to select the best possible means?—while producing citizens who, caught up in the endless feedback loops of modern bureaucratic systems, surrender the political process to the technocrats, always pleased to nudge and tinker 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 personalization of search can give us fabulous results, directing us to the nearest pizza joint in two seconds instead of five. 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 market-based solutions to the privacy problem advanced by some critics of the current system—Jaron Lanier, for example, argues that people should be allowed to own and trade their own data, supported by a strong property regime around data—are unlikely to be any more effective in countering this slow erosion of democracy than the market-based solutions to global warming. Remember the Emission Trading System once celebrated by the European Union? It has been a remarkable failure.
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.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.