Smart Citizens, Smarter State

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* Book: Noveck, Beth, Smart Citizens, Smarter State. The Technology of Expertise and the Future of Governing, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.



Anna-Verena Nosthoff and Felix Maschewski:

"The problem with the information-centred approach as grounded in Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication and Ashby’s view of ultrastability becomes evident when looking a bit closer at Beth Simone Noveck’s recent ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State’ as well as some of her most recent talks. Noveck, who was Obama’s chief technology officer during his presidency and an adviser to his open government campaign, early and quite excessively praised the advantages of social networks and did not shy away from presenting parts of the mechanisms employed by corporate platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as innovative role models for a new form of digital Government As she summarizes in a TED-talk:

‘(...) one attractive alternative [to conventional politics] (...) is that of networks (...). You’ve got 3,000 employees at Facebook governing 900 million inhabitants. We might even call them citizens, because (...) [they] work together to serve each other in great ways. (...) social media do teach us something. Why is Twitter so successful? Because it opens up its platform. It opens up the API [application programming interface] to allow (...) new applications to be built on top of it, so that we can read and process information in new and exciting ways. We need to think about how to open up the API of government, (...) the next great superpower is going to be the one who can successfully combine the hierarchy of the institution (...) with the chaos and the excitement of networks, all of us working together (...), to engage in the practice of governance.’

In particular, Noveck’s last comment translates cybernetic management-pioneer Stafford Beer’s early vision of what he termed a ‘democratic machinery’ into the vocabulary of contemporary information technology. Sure, the idea of government as referred to by Noveck is far from that of an Opsroom with few steersmen acting on the basis of information, as Beer envisioned for the sake of cybernetically controlling Allende’s Chilean economy of the early 1970s. It seems closer to Beer’s never actualized project Cyberfolk, a form of a cybernetic nerve system established between the demos and the politicians, enabling the former to rate the latter via so-called ‘algedonic meters’ (pain-pleasure buttons on their TV) in real time and based on a vision of radical transparency. Noveck would arguably welcome such quantified direct-democratic mechanisms, as we will elaborate further on. In Noveck’s approach, the role of the government should be reduced to the role of a facilitator, its primary goal being to establish a ‘platform for coordinating citizen action’ based on the mechanisms of a dedicated feedback logic.

A pragmatic actualization of at least some aspects of early cybernetic visions of the state becomes evident, such as examined by Karl Deutsch, who, as mentioned, envisioned democratic politics as exclusively depending on its measurable level of information flows, ‘emancipated’ from deliberation, lengthy parliamentary discussions, arguments and what Habermas thought of as communicative action. Although Noveck provides a political approach that is far more participatory in its design than that of Parag Khanna or Karl Deutsch, her approach nevertheless reveals serious problems regarding issues of participation and equality. That is, Noveck addresses the problem of governance (which she, for the most part, uses as a substitute for politics in toto) as a coordination and logistics problem that urgently needs to be solved using better, or smarter, technology. According to her, the issue is to widen ‘the pool of potential problem solvers (...) with good solutions to a hard problem.’ A similar notion becomes evident in Khanna’s vision of what he considers a ‘smart’ state, in which progress should be measured according to so-called ‘KPIs’, or key performance indicators: much of the advantages that Khanna lists are concerned with smooth functioning, logistics and better service. One Singaporean example that he mentions affirmatively is the installation of touchscreen iPads for citizens to rate the state’s public toilet and passport check services.

Such a fundamental concern with the frictionless functioning of the whole and the rather limited focus on the handling of complexity through regulatable connectivity echoes Shannon’s concern with the intensity rather than the content of communication flows. Thus, it leaves little room for a discussion of more content-related and straightforward political matters such as various forms of inequality, issues of freedom, racist biases, algorithmic injustices and so on. Nor does it suggest how and why the sole focus on logistic efficiency might necessarily increase democratic deliberation. It should be evident that to participate in rating a service is clearly not similar to political participation in the sense of making one’s voice heard or articulating political demands. It is hardly surprising that Khanna at one point praises Swiss ‘technocratic’ workers who are ‘trained, competent and productive’ for ‘virtually never go[ing] on strike’: ‘Democracy,’ he concludes, ‘doesn’t deliver Switzerland’s perfectionist efficiencies; technocracy does.’ Again, this focus on maintaining stability at any cost is reminiscent of a classic cybernetic focus on ultrastability as the prior aim of politics, conceived as a ‘system’ in the first place. In fact, to Deutsch, the history of revolutions appeared ‘to a significant extent as the history of internal intelligence failures in the governments that were overthrown.’

To return to Noveck and the problems that some of her arguments raise, while she criticizes the lack of integration of citizens into the process of governmental decision making and institutional design, she eventually rejects expert professionalism in governance and political thought only to propose an integration of a different body of experts that includes, above all, technicians. Criticism of political elitism eventually leads to promoting a new elite that is, first and foremost, in possession of smart, ‘practical know-how’.

At the same time, the role of the citizen is mostly reduced to providing information. In this context, Noveck refers to what she calls ‘an army of citizen scientists reporting data through an app’, which she mistakes for actual ‘participation in government’, or what Arendt would term political action [Handeln] as opposed to, and precisely not correlative with, fabrication [Herstellen]. Even though Noveck proposes a model far more inclusive than Khanna’s army of state-rating citizens, her state design has limitations of its own. It is quite telling that she explicitly criticizes Habermas’s discourse ethics for only stressing the necessity of mediated forms of public discourse, i.e. a discourse that depends on institutions (such as, traditionally, the print media). Habermas, she argues, undermines more direct participatory roles that citizens could play at the level of governmental decision making. She leaves out Habermas’s revitalization of autonomous judgment, argumentative participation in public discourse and the normative framework initiated through public debate, and only emphasizes immediate data delivered to the government. In her neo-cybernetic agenda she leaves little room for the formation of discursive political will and so implicitly repeats Khanna’s belief that political representatives spend ‘too much time arguing rather than doing something’.

In Noveck’s model, general participation is reduced to reporting systemic disruptions, whereas participation in decision making is open to only those obtaining the relevant knowledge or know-how that might contribute to solving a particular problem. Moreover, according to Noveck, such ‘citizen experts’ should be listed publicly and ranked according to their individual capacities, in close cooperation with private platforms, such as LinkedIn and Coursera, on which citizens can publicly inform others of their progress, newly awarded certificates and so on. It seems like she proposes highly competitive, market-driven forms of self-organisation, that is, self-governance that largely relies on 360° feedback models. Such forms of self-organisation implicitly propose decentralized governance through flexible markets that allocate individual capacities. Politics is limited to coordinating expert knowledge with the aim of finding relevant technical solutions in real time. Additionally, Noveck claims, such ‘expertise’ can be attained by ‘anyone’, since technical education is now available ‘freely’ through Coursera and other similar platforms. She thinks of expertise as being ‘democratized’ simply through internet access and access to (corporate) platforms without considering prior issues of equality. Such prior issues can include potentially unequal distributions of free time, potentially unequal access to resources, the ability to attain such knowledge and issues of privacy and transparency regarding the use of personal data, among others.

In this context, even more problematic is Noveck’s explicit reliance on nudging techniques, as elaborated on in Thaler’s and Sunstein’s much-discussed Nudge (according to a recent report, behavioral economics has already affected policy initiatives in more than 130 countries, whereas the frames of application usually remain rather non-transparent). Noveck affirms what Thaler and Sunstein call the implementation of a ‘libertarian paternalism’: the aim of influencing, subtly controlling and, above all, anticipating human behavior through changing choice architectures, whilst at the same time delegating responsibility to the level of the individual in a typically neoliberal fashion. Probably little surprising, such a limited understanding of freedom can indeed be traced back to the historical origins of cybernetics, particularly the aforementioned Stafford Beer. Although he, politically speaking, followed a diametrically opposed agenda, namely, a socialist model, he defines freedom as a ‘computable function of effectiveness’. This understanding hints at the intellectual mindset of another and particularly debatable pioneer of neo-cybernetic politics: Alex Pentland."