Digital democracy in an age of disruption

Former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy PM, Nick Clegg is one of those disgraced politicians who still thinks his opinion is worth something. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

In a recent article for the “I”, Nick Clegg has turned his focused gaze towards technology, AI, and the future of work. Three topics he knows nothing about.

“We are not helpless, and nor are we destined for a life of servitude under our robot overlords.”

The above, taken from the end of his article, captures the zeitgeist of contemporary society. With overtures of pluralism, this former MP doesn’t seem to understand how technology and data capture are changing the very fabric of society. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, we are experiencing widespread disruption not only in our social groups but also through work. Indeed, the one area of life where there hasn’t been any disruption is in the renegotiation of our social contract. However, as I will demonstrate, this is slowly starting to change.

Down the rabbit hole

“So I worry that for most people, if they have heard the term AI at all, it’s unlikely to have positive connotations. They’re more likely to have heard the warnings about “robots taking your job”, or the need to get the UN to ban “killer robots”. Are things really that bad?”

AI disruption is defined by two functions: education disparity and resource acquisition. Humorous worries about “killer robots” as Clegg points out, dull the senses of reason. The real issue here, which the political and tech class are not addressing, is the re-pivoting of the global economy and existing power structures.

The use of this language by Clegg is that he reduces people’s anxieties to mere condescension and quasi-manipulating readers into believing that this age of disruption will be like all other technological revolutions.

Fortunately, for those who occupy the apex of their given sectors hierarchy, they will be shielded from any “disruption”. Moreover, since they occupy the apex, they are more effective at not only weathering the storm but re-writing the rules of the game (aka institutions) to future-proof not only their positions but also their families.

A global underclass is born

“Consider the fashionable support in Silicon Valley for a Universal Basic Income, or UBI – the idea that the state could provide a cash income to every citizen, regardless of whether they are in work. The tech billionaire Elon Musk, for example, thinks this is going to be “necessary” as “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better”.”

This idea of a universal basic income is both crass and deeply inequitable. If this were implemented, the world would quickly come to resemble “The Hunger Games”. It does have other co-benefits, namely addressing the continuing population explosions. In fact, this could be seen as a neo-Malthusian policy response.

The important question to ask is, why would anyone really want $1000 a month? This fails to address the canary in the coal mine: If 99% of humanity is paid a UBI, then those who already profited from the system continue to do so, separating themselves from the rest of humanity. A quick read of this article in Fortune reveals the paradox of this scheme,

“In essence, people in the lowest income brackets are more likely than the wealthy to spend additional income, so a UBI would put a greater proportion of cash into circulation. Somewhat ironically, there’s plenty of evidence of this in the tech world itself, with dominant firms like Apple and Google sitting on giant piles of cash that are contributing relatively little to macroeconomic growth.”

Taken from Fortune.

It’s well-known that the old idea of capitalism’s “trickle-down” economics doesn’t work. What’s more annoying is, Clegg’s ideas are a clear example of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The poor in society spend more simply because they never have any wealth, and as such don’t know how to behave or grow their new found money. On the other hand, the rich horde, live off the interest, invest, and are anathema to wealth re-distribution.

Unfortunately for the rich, they have the most to lose in a more ‘equal’ society. Moreover, Clegg and Zuckerberg, are more effective in moulding the masses to their way of thinking. These entrepreneurs have to be admired. Our politicians have to be admired. And it is these tactics that are highly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”. That is all Clegg and his ilk is doing.

Ultimately, if you wish to survive and thrive in the coming decades, you need to move into the knowledge or digital economy, and climb to the top.

Aspirational nothingness

Data + Technological advancement = New Futures

“People will be freed from the shackles of work to “do other things and more complex things, more interesting things”.”

I’m unsure what Clegg is getting at here. As a Davos man, it’s easy for him to write such optimistic messages but this is propaganda. The bifurcation point in the world economy is centred around two variables: Data and technology. We all know about ‘tech’ but not so many know about ‘data’. Data is the dark-horse of our current transformation. Governments and businesses gather unprecedented quantities of our personal data, that’s why Edward Snowden’s leak was so important. However, whilst we’re being subject to unauthorised surveillance (most recently Google this week), this new treasure trove of data means that new jobs are possible and that the sheer quantity of data being collected cannot be processed into information or transformational knowledge. Of course, AI (machine learning and neural nets) will play an increasingly important role.

As this century progresses, I do not see “people freed from the shackles of work”. On the contrary, I think we will become increasingly dependent and tied to technology. Advertisers and marketers are at the front of the curve in this regard. Not only can they issue personalised ads but they can determine if you’ve actually clicked through and bought something.

A global underclass is incubated

“Anxiety about technology-driven unemployment is, of course, a recurring theme throughout history.”

This is true. However, the difference between history and present is the pace of change and the deployment of capital to hire labour. Unfortunately, as we’re all too well-aware, industry titans are sitting on hefty savings.

“However, predictions of permanent, systemic joblessness have always proved to be wrong. Far from impoverishing workers, previous rounds of technological innovation have forced down prices, stimulated demand, and pushed up wages. New types of jobs have been created that were previously unthinkable.”

Here’s an unorthodox view: The jobs that are being created are low-skilled, low-class and hideously repetitive. Wages at the bottom end of the labour market have increased, most in the middle have not. However, like all wage equilibrium shifts, the lines are often muddied! Of course, MPs have seen huge, 10%, pay increases. Civil servants have seen a pay freeze (or limited increases). The take-home message is, real wages have stagnated and aren’t in equilibrium with inflation.

“There is an important truth here: certain human qualities are very hard to replace with machines – good judgement, common sense, the flexibility to deal with the unexpected, personal contact.”

And here again, these qualities are all desirable features of councillors, politicians, QCs, solicitors, barristers, C-suite execs. There are those who win in life and those who are confounded to a life of misery and despair. Ultimately, as Hobbes wrote, “life is nasty, short and brutish”. Except in our modern utopia ruled by plutocrats, life is long, sensorily anaesthetised and increasingly moulded!

You’re one in a million

This post came about because of an article I read in yesterday’s “I”. It likely comes across as fearful of the future of technology. However, I am not fearful but instead sceptical of the messages our elites are propagating. I am not afraid of the future. I am not afraid of change. I am however afraid of the changing social contract. I am afraid of fellow citizens being left behind. I am afraid of a caste system being implemented globally, choreographed as the haves and have-nots (a recurring theme throughout history). But ultimately, it’s the failure of our outdated governmental institutions to successfully adapt to our changing future that worries me the most.

As I have written elsewhere and Clegg has below, the future success of rapid technological deployment and advances lies in the re-skilling of all people on earth. We know that in the following decades people will have many careers. People, like tech companies, will need to become agile in order to thrive. Free and quality education is that vehicle. However, the barriers to entry must be removed. Traditional Victorian education must be overhauled and re-tooling policies must be developed. Currently, only the best talent receive myriad of opportunities. All citizens must be given similar opportunities.

“Instead of a Universal Basic Income, we should instead explore how we can fund expanded universal basic services – including lifelong learning and training – from the additional revenues derived from technological innovation.”

In short, the following decades will either see altruism wane or egalitarianism flourish. The social contract is being tested like never before. Citizens of Anglo-Saxon countries are disturbing the social fabric of advanced economies.

There is hope. We see disruption affecting the social elites. Bitcoin, Ethereum and the blockchain, aim to do to our present rulers what AI and big-data aim to do to vast swathes of the 99%. Perhaps, we’re on the precipice of overturning our Modern-Regime? Maybe, we’re on the verge of a digital Tennis Court Oath? One thing is certain: Our elites are worried about blockchain and decentralised financial systems because these will revolutionise the redistribution and life opportunities of billions of people on earth.

Whilst this has been somewhat of a reprieve for me, I think Clegg’s right about one thing: Pluralism. Blockchain and digital currencies are digital pluralism and modern democracy. If these are used correctly, we can make a more equal and level society, something that Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein and others do not want. This is what we need from technology, a 21st-century digital democracy.



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