Feedback Infrastructure for Non-Market Forms of Social Coordination
"A more promising project for the left might be to find ways to deploy ‘feedback infrastructure’ for new, non-market forms of social coordination, thus challenging neoliberalism with the very tools it has helped to produce. One possibility points in the direction of China’s highly controversial social-credit system, with its allocation of punishments and rewards for transgressing or respecting social and political norms. The system’s excessively hierarchical mode of control renders it an unappealing prospect, however: making people’s eligibility to receive services dependent on their behaviour in the public sphere might solve problems of social coordination at too high a price.
There are, however, at least three other possibilities. The first, which we might, following Hayek’s description of competition, call ‘solidarity as a discovery procedure’, has to do with detecting new needs and ways to satisfy them through non-market mechanisms. The second, which we might call ‘designing non-markets’, concerns social coordination in matters unrelated to production and consumption. The third, which we might call ‘automated planning’, focuses exclusively on coordination in the economic sphere." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/II116/articles/evgeny-morozov-digital-socialism)
Solidarity as discovery procedure
"Consider a process centred on social life and problem-solving, rather than on capitalist consumption, as in Hayek’s theory. Social existence presents us with a plethora of problems to solve, some of them highly specific and only relevant to small groups of people, others of much wider importance. Digital ‘feedback infrastructure’ could be used to flag social problems and even to facilitate deliberation around them, by presenting different conceptual approaches to the issues involved. What counts as a ‘problem’ would also be open for debate: citizens could enlist allies and convince others of the virtues of their own readings of particular problems and proposed solutions to them. This framing would suggest that deliberation-based democratic procedures could themselves be modes of problem-solving and means of social coordination.
One could imagine the use of digital feedback infrastructure to match ‘problem-finders’, who would express their needs and problems, and react to those identified by others—either explicitly, by voicing them or writing them up, or ‘automatically’, via machine learning, or—with ‘problem-solvers’, equipped with cheap but powerful technologies and the skills to operate them. Once the two groups have been ‘matched’ by the feedback infrastructure, the activity of the ‘problem-solvers’ can help to render the implicit needs of ‘problem-finders’ tangible and explicit, adding to the pool of solutions which can then be drawn upon by other ‘problem-finders’. Assuming this takes place outside the commercial realm, there would be no barriers, such as patents, to impede the sharing of knowledge.
Collaborative problem-solving in the social domain already takes place to some extent. One example would be ‘hackathons’, which bring together ngos with particular problems and well-meaning hackers who might know how to solve them but would otherwise never encounter them."
"Though neoliberalism always favours markets and prices, its technologies help create possibilities for transcending them. One such is indicated by Alvin Roth’s work on devising ways to match organ donors with potential recipients, in the absence of prices: once the preferences of all the transacting parties have been clearly expressed, one can do away with the price system and find other ways of distributing scarce resources. This suggests the second use to which digital feedback infrastructure can be put by the left: designing ‘non-markets’."
Stafford Beer's proposals
"For Beer, the exact allocation between the two solutions—that is, whether to constrain the behaviour of individual parts (citizens or customers, for example) or to amplify the regulative capacity and the institutional and informational plasticity of the system, and of the systems that contain it—was to be determined democratically. The second solution was generally preferable, as it granted citizens more autonomy. Thus Beer advocated making planning, computing and coordinating infrastructure free and available to all, so that individual institutions, tasked with reducing complexity in their own contexts, could find their own optimal solutions. This did not imply some neoliberal vision of the ‘Big Society’, where individuals are expected to take problem-solving into their own hands, as fund-starved public alternatives collapse. Instead, the ambition is for radical democracy to join forces with ‘radical bureaucracy’ in order to take advantage of advanced infrastructures for planning, simulation and coordination. This combination should, at a minimum, yield solutions as efficient as those of Hayek’s ‘spontaneous order’, without, however, offloading all the adaptation costs onto citizens or erecting too many barriers to the problem-solving capacities of local systems."
"For some time now, left-leaning economists and activists have tried to reopen the Socialist Calculation Debate, arguing that the latest advance in data-gathering and computation would make the job of Lange’s Central Planning Board much easier.footnote36 Followers of Hayek and Mises have developed a standard response to such efforts, pointing out the efficiency losses involved in switching from the price mechanism to, say, a system using labour values as the basis of calculation. Neoliberals have it relatively easy in such debates, as the spectral presence of centralized planning in the proposed alternative economic system allows them to invoke the Hayekian knowledge problem. But is there a way to rethink the socialist position in a way that would neither involve central planning, nor morph straight back into the price system?
The predictive capacity of Big Data can anticipate our preferences better than we can; that Amazon got a patent on ‘anticipatory shipping’—allowing it to ship products to us before we even know we want them—suggests that the ‘feedback infrastructure’ can foresee and facilitate the satisfaction of our needs in ways unimaginable to central planners. Such predictive capacity is a function, not of the mysterious workings of the price system, but of the data held by platforms. Likewise on the production side, 3D printers enable cheap and flexible manufacturing, without the need for massive fixed-capital investment.
With a different funding model, one could democratize access to ai, while also getting more value for each dollar invested. Free, universal access to both additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence could facilitate the production of genuinely innovative products on a relatively low budget.
Given this new context, it does not seem very productive for the left to keep advocating for the use of more powerful computers to calculate input prices for the Central Planning Board—or to retain a centralized bureaucracy, with all the political problems it entails. Why insist on central planning, when a more decentralized, automated and apparatchik-free alternative might be achievable by putting the digital feedback infrastructure to work? The most ambitious effort to sketch what such an alternative might look like—think ‘guild socialism’ in the era of Big Data—was undertaken by the American radical economist Daniel Saros, in his rigorous, lucid—and unjustly neglected— Information Technology and Socialist Construction." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/II116/articles/evgeny-morozov-digital-socialism)