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TECHNOLOGY AND DEMOCRACY

July 22, 2017

TECHNOLOGY AND DEMOCRACY

I have written many pieces on my dedication to democracy, the then brand-new means of governing (which for the first time in human history involved obtaining consent of the governed for its legitimacy) in ancient Athens until Roman legions ended such an experiment after only 169 years. We in this country claim to have had democratic rule since 1789, or 238 years, though our actual practice of this form of governing has waxed and waned since then, due mostly to executive overreach by presidents who have failed to read or understand the Separation of Powers Clause of our Constitution and the constraints on government in our Bill of Rights. We have executive overreach to contend with as I write this by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is not the first to try his hand at executive overreach. My two favorite presidents (FDR and Lincoln and in that order) did their share as well, FDR with his internment of Japanese-American citizens during WW II and Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Note that both such wrongs were committed during wars, which apparently were deemed justified by the exigencies of national survival. In retrospect, it seems strange that our country would act unconstitutionally while at the same time fighting and dying for the survival of our Constitution and its embedded democratic institutions, especially since there were other better and constitutional ways to handle such situations.

As with Trump, the choice of freedoms from dictatorial rule seems to be a selective one, but one “selected” by the dictator free and clear of the limiting powers of the Separation of Powers Clause of our Constitution under the pretext of “emergency,” which presumably gives the executive the right to act unconstitutionally, and if there is no emergency but a need for one in order to justify such executive overreach, we can, like Hitler, burn the Reichstag or create domestic disorder in order to instill fear in the populace and thus provide the necessary grounds for dictatorial rule.

Trump has tried to create such an “emergency” with his hue and cry in re immigration, but fortunately, the Separation Clause kicked in and the co-equal branch of our government, the judiciary, has limited his designs under enabling legislation to play dictator in this area. Enabling legislation, like all legislation, is subject to judicial overview, and voided or limited if found unconstitutional ever since Marbury v. Madison, an early case in American jurisprudence establishing such right, without which right we would have long since seen our democracy go down the drain due to political overreach.

The above is prologue. What I want to briefly discuss in this piece is a new threat to our democracy by non-politicians (or are they?) – the threat of technology. Ellen Ullman, computer engineer and the author of Life in Code, published an excerpt from this book in the July, 2017, edition of Harper’s Magazine which I think relevant to this discussion, and which presents a potential roadblock to our practice of and commitment to democratic values. We may fairly call this “technology” rather than “executive” overreach, and suggests that democracy can be attacked from other angles than the political from within, such as fascist invasions from without, Putin’s cyberspace intrusions etc.

She notes that “Technology is not neutral; it is made by people with intentions. Machines and algorithms are imbued with the values of their makers, values that move outward into the wider, nontechnical world. It matters greatly, then, who writes the code.” She further notes that “The vast majority of software engineers are white or Asian men under the ages of forty. These programmers, along with marketers, propose new applications and their target user groups to venture capitalists, who decide which startups are funded. . . . They write the algorithms that control trade, resource allocation, foreign aid, political and social actions – that is, life.”

In other words, consciously or unconsciously, the Wall Street biases of those who write such programs are transferred into spheres of influence formerly the exclusive province of those elected to make such decisions who are elected by the will of the people, which may vary greatly from the innate biases of the programmers, and since removing such biases from teaching and renewal of such biases is a hopeless enterprise in addition to being perhaps unconstitutional, what can we do?

Ullman wants to demystify code. She wants the public to know that programs are written by human beings and can be changed by human beings. To this end she suggests that education in computing should be integrated into public school curricula, starting in kindergarten and continuing through university. She understands that such a proposal would require upheaval in funding but feels it necessary if we are to foster a renewed belief “in the value of the public sphere and civic life.”

Such a value is of the essence of democracy, a value so embedded in our democratic institutions that it has no peer, whatever algorithms we may discover. I think she is on to something in identifying yet another new dangerous externality (though a perhaps unintended consequence) that defines our democracy as just another ATM machine for the vested interests because, if that’s all it is, then why value the “public sphere and civil life” or any other such manifestation of humanity in a world composed only of vendors, vendees and financiers, and just accept our lives as widgets?

So how, in this narrow context, do we save and nourish our democracy? Cut the insanely fat defense budget and use the savings to teach computer programming K through university is one such way, and I am open to any other suggestion that would provide the necessary financing. Ullman has correctly identified yet another threat to our democracy, and it is up to us to act on it, and speaking for myself, I far prefer preservation and expansion of our democratic institutions over eternal expansion of the Dow. How about you?     GERALD       E

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