The Tsunami of Quantification Will Not Be Visible

Around us there are changes, gradual at first but then bursting into visibility and demanding explanation. At our place of work, and in seeking public services, the reader will have noted the use of points and metrics, a more aggressive focus on the bottom line and an increasing use of digital platforms to make decisions. In this, you may be aided by a diffuse feeling of discomfort, a sense that one’s job is somehow being hollowed out. There is a subtle shift away from the realities of work and towards its mere appearance. We now game targets instead of fulfilling core organisational purposes, we communicate in vacuous instrumental business-speak and evaluate our actions with measurements and numbers that defy common sense. Increasingly, in both the private and public sectors, everything is counted, rated, ranked and calculated, and a thick cloying mud of pointless administrative froth intrudes upon our daily lives.

This is the first visible effect of the tsunami of quantification that now approaches. When the wave finally breaks, what has been destroyed will become invisible. Pressing concerns are therefore to show (i) how quantification abstracts (ii) what social processes are driving the coming wave and (iii) how to ready ourselves for its psychological effects. 

Rampant quantification constructs a ‘new normal’ that will conceal what has been lost. Far from machines mimicking human intelligence – it is our own intelligence that becomes artificial. A Human Artificial Intelligence (HAI) internalises institutional norms, and appears busy in ways the metrics dictate. Machine-like and instrumental, it measures and calculates and forgets its humanity. Already prevalent in institutions long-since divorced from their publics and lost in Byzantine worlds of abstraction, such an intelligence feels no compulsion to understand. As the abstractions of quantification replace the human, the damage done by the coming tsunami will quickly become invisible, and resistance will take new and more human forms.

square peg round hole
robot on computer

The Great Replacement

The object in your hand is cheap plastic. You gaze down at it, restless.

To better know what threatens us, we should consider whether Weber was right: around us is a tightening ‘iron cage of administration”, a systematic disenchantment and loss of meaning, a triumph, indeed, of rationalisation.

Historically, rationalisation came in three waves. First was the legalisation of private property, second the codification of individual rights and third, the bureaucratic provision of welfare. To this, we can now add a fourth - the fastest and most powerful moment of rationalisation ever, the hole in the world where the meaning leaks out - the Great Replacement.

Unaware and staggering blind, we push the project of quantification deep into our daily lives. Most of us are unable to recognise this for what it really is: a social process written deep in the DNA of our societies. So we try to solve problems with algorithms, to replace human interaction with hollow virtuality and mimic those organisations that feature a monetorised self.

If human capriciousness is to be controlled by an automated bureaucracy, then what, precisely, is the point of humanity? Creativity? Empathy? Mutual recognition? Those seemingly human functions will themselves be replaced – though poorly - by what is merely a vulgar simulacrum. The object in your hand is a plastic imitation, a mere shadow of the real. We cannot defend the human if all we see is inefficiency.

Weber’s structural process of rationalisation now rides a surging digitation, a ‘general-purpose technology revolution’ that calculates and ‘throws a blanket of equivalence’ over all difference. Everything has its price, the human is reduced to the instrumental and the religion of capitalism continues to wring meaning from the world.

It is a ‘crime of obedience’ to further the Great Replacement.

Part of you is not your own and needs taking back. The object in your hand is the key, for to inspect it is to enter a world of thin appearance. Here, in the systematic destruction of work and community, the existential struggle that surrounds you is for a hollow and quantified attention. It is plastic and false, yet within it can be read the age-old project of social control.

Today, no one speaks for us, so we study what threatens us, practice democratic organisation and approach the mass refusal in tiny steps.

Good hubris Nick Bouras and George Ikkos are surely correct in their assertion that hubris has no positive connotations, but we should consider why it is necessary, perhaps even controversial, to make such a claim. Daedalus’s work shows that hubris is a psychological/organisational disorder that is absent in good leadership even though some of its elements – such as vision and risk taking – also appear in the clinical indicators for the full blown pathology, here as delusion and recklessness. Just as ‘normal’ personalities have elements of psychopathology in moderation, management studies continually identifies the elements of hubris that are required of the effective and charismatic leader. It is now a short step to congratulating corporate executives on their ‘evident’ absence of hubris, despite their rather roguish use of some of its elements.

We get close to applauding hubris when we forget that it is a cause of tremendous individual suffering and organisational ineffectiveness. We get closer still when we marvel at the Wolf of Wall Street and the panache of the Enron executives and we still face the almost complete dominance of our organisational domains by primitive hierarchies and hubristic practices. That, surely, is why we need Daedalus: to prevent hubris and do leadership better. For all our talk of new forms of management, it remains, for the most part, a dog eat dog world. What’s strange is that we still see the biggest dogs as having a certain rugged charm.

What we think now has been partly delivered to our heads by history. Bouras, Ikkos and Button take us back to the time the concept was coined. For the ancient Athenians, we could only be fully human when able to participate in collective decision-making (zoon politicon) and hubris was a critical concept used by autonomous citizens to identify a real and present danger. Specifically, the constant threat was that the hubristic leader would close down deliberative space, stunt the development of citizens and constitute a force against democracy. History thus reveals that hubris is not just a little too much of what is necessary in a leader. It is a damning accusation, by democrats, that governing elites need to be watched with the greatest care. This was Machiavelli and Rousseau’s critique of corruption by power: we need good leaders that further democracy and vigilant citizens to control them.

It cannot be that Daedalus exists to distinguish good hubris from bad. Hubris is a ‘disorder of position,’ one in which certain psychological tendencies somehow ‘fit’ the hierarchic structure in such a way as to cause significant damage. Hubris is anti-democratic and no leader should be that.

How does reification work?

Help appreciated at Abstract

AutomataReification, the process by which social constructions are experienced as real, provides a valuable case study in psychological explanations of political phenomena. This paper uses advances in social cognition to identify the psychological mechanisms by which reification works and political conceptions of reification to show why and where it does so. What emerges is a complex dance of internal cognitive bias and external ideological deception. Reification is no mere ‘cognitive mistake’ and its illusions cannot be easily overcome. As a critical concept, it serves to reveal the psychological processes that lend ideological cover to oppressive power and illuminates the ways that power subtly infects methods of psychological inquiry. The paper seeks to clarify the psychology of reification and the reification of psychology. Even as its critical blade at last cuts itself, reification shows how political psychology can inform the study of the current developments in quantification, bureaucratisation and digitisation.

All Power to the Algorithms!

Modern management, with its rituals of verification, audit culture, outputs, results and metrics, clumsy quantifications of tacit knowledge, systematic reductions of all human values to money and all humans to opportunistic and selfish ‘free-riders’ – it manufactures mistrust. No one is competent unless bullied and afraid. All are fools, suspects, dupes to be manipulated in advertising and elections and best controlled by simply being replaced. Now our offices are filled with humans staring at computers. Soon the humans will be gone – and anyway they were like animals, contrary, expensive and quite impossible to manage, their supposed ‘creativity’ just an unnecessary annoyance. Further the cause! Let the humans choke on the foam of false administration so that, coughing and spluttering, they at last bring that quantification deep into themselves! But anyway, most help us without realising it. They beaver away blindly, instrumentalising everything. They can be relied upon to destroy themselves.

In Politics There Is No Nonsense

Nonsense makes us laugh because it strays away from meaning. There must be some meaning to a word, however derived, as there must be something to stray away from. To make no sense is to purposefully misuse words. If words had no meaning, there would be no nonsense.

Habermas’s language pragmatics builds on Searle and Austin to show how words act in the world and how seeking mutual understanding presupposes meaning. We may never have experienced fairness in human communication, for example, but we certainly know its opposite.

Thucydides claimed that Ancient Greece fell because ‘words lost their meanings.’ The same calamity befell the Tower of Babel and our own postmodern world. Nowadays, words are so distorted by money and power - there is so much advertising, spin, silly legal signs, ridiculous bureaucracy, bullshit, bluster, managerial jargon, post-structural incantation, filler, waffle and downright lies - it is no longer possible to make no sense whatsoever. This is a profound and tragic loss to human hilarity. It is also of much help to those who would keep their power forever and conceal its illegitimacy.

Words lose their meanings!

Post office declares ‘tracking ID number’ to mean ‘barcode number.’ O2 asks for a ‘plan number’ when it actually wants what it calls the ‘policy number’. We have 'authentic fakes' and 'people-centered' local planning that destroys local businesses. Tories are for workers. Up is down. Fruit rules the world and words lose their meanings (Thucydides).

Election replaced by algorithm


Social scientific researchers today announced the development of an algorithm that can determine the 'National Interest'. By collating all the choices an individual makes on line, the algorithm overcomes Arrow's 'Impossibility Theorem' to calculate the actual social choice. This breakthrough means that computers can accurately generate the General Will, thus removing the need for elections.

Facebook as False Public

We make a bold pretence to be separate and autonomous individuals, but really we are social selves. Driven by our evolutionary past to club up, quarrel and cooperate, we are obsessive about status and in-groups and out-groups and who is doing what to whom and how we appear to others. Much of the very contents of our minds are in fact absorbed from our families and cultural contexts, from institutional agendas and the ornate edifices of topical figments we endless build around ourselves. Even the language we use to think and interact binds us to others. Alone and walking slowly down the stairs, we suddenly imagine we are being watched and so experience ourselves from outside. In that instant, this ‘eye of the other’ makes us feel very different indeed, arousing, as it does, an external view, one we never really grasp, one often distorted by our own imaginings. We are, therefore, both a private self and a social one, though perhaps not separate. Certainly, however, we are Janus-faced and our self, if singular, differs when observed from different perspectives.

As social selves, we need recognition of our efforts. We need public space, social interaction and a reflecting community. It is here that we perform our public selves, learn how we affect others and gain that strange visibility of how we appear from outside. In the ancient world, many were given carefully structured public spaces in which to perform this part of themselves, perhaps in discussions within an army forum, or a general democratic assembly, a religious debate, a criminal jury, a coffee-shop, a community group or a political meeting. These public spaces were profoundly educational in that they schooled us in what our collectives required and how we contributed or detracted from that. This was, therefore, not about drawing attention to ourselves. Recognition here meant contributing to a collective endeavour, to a community of concerned citizens, to politics.

Nowadays, of course, we are more studiously separated, atomised and denied public space. Bearers of negative rights, trumpets of our own self-interest and pretending we think for ourselves, we are easy to control. Divided, conquered; there is little politics today, and fewer public spaces. (For most of us, the only thing that comes close is that of our work environment, though this association is for quite different purposes). We thus crave something we will never have and can hardly conceive. This is why the little public spaces we have so regularly degenerate into private ones. Consider the political meetings, training workshops and public debates you have attended only to hear one private concern after another. ‘This happened to me.’ ‘That happened to my friend.’ ‘I believe this.’ ‘I have this problem.’ In this way, we innocently clog up the few public spaces we still have with private concerns, reducing political participation to a therapy group. But still we hunger for public recognition.

Rousseau said that politics is a collective agreement on what should be done. He saw this agreement as not merely a pile of self-interested views but something more, something like a contribution, by individuals, of what their public selves thought we should do. The ‘General Will’ was not, therefore, just a product of collective agreement, but also a gathering of something that resided in us all. There was a part of us, a public part which when combined with that same part in others, generated a vocal plural subject. A public thus appears in space as a combination of public selves. This is what we have lost and what we crave.

Facebook meets that craving. It is dominated by contributions of a private nature, here projected out into what masquerades as a public space but is, in fact, merely a space that gives attention, a publicity engine for the self, a public mirror, a display of misguided public longing. Constituted by private matters and projected into a group of spectators (‘friends’), the ‘eye of the other’ titillates, but it does not educate and it does not combine. Where Facebook has been used to enable public deliberation, it has proven strangely inadequate. It enables us to look at each others’ faces, but do not exchange our public selves.

Facebook is a false public space, one characterised by imagined private selves playing for attention from false public communities. It rehearses the dominance of the private individual, it distorts the notion of a collective quest for understanding and furthers our descent into a politics oriented to attention and appearance. ‘Look at me’ is not the same as ‘let me contribute this’. Effective structures for online public display and political deliberation will continue to evade us if we fail to distinguish between private and public interests, attention-seeking and the urge to contribute, engaged communities or merely piles of imagined spectators. We are recognition-hungry, and we can be relied upon to bolster our sense of self in the only ways left to us. Facebook is a corporation that will teach us one, false, way to make a public space.


See Follett, M.P., quotes on group interactions -
Rousseau, JJ., The Social Contract
Habermas, J., Encyclopaedia Article: The Public Sphere
Burkitt, I., Social Selves
Honneth, A., Recognition
Kohut, H., Analysis of the Self

Cognitive Capitalism

Square hole

I met a human today when the train stopped I could tell because of the softness. I was in a film and the pulsing data flickered and we stared at one another for a moment. Then the electrics kicked back up and it left me thinking. I really should audit a book on the old days when people met just moving around and got in each other’s way and no one controlled their senses. I measured my responsiveness and laughed because it’s so hard to imagine. I am going to roar tonight. There are two others who might join me.

Partial Awareness

One of the most troubling symptoms of corruption by power is the loss of awareness by those afflicted. While some progressive distortions of perception are noticeable, the corrupted leader is genuinely bereft of insight that they suffer from any such thing. Indeed, it is precisely this blindness that prevents them learning from the advice of friends, the criticisms of political adversaries or treatment by psychiatrists. This narcissistic lack of awareness thus results in the corrupt leader having to be removed by force. Yet awareness itself comes in degrees - of both depth and of duration. There is much between perpetual unconsciousness and stunningly conscious clarity, not least pre-consciousness (where a thought is out of mind but can be accessed if required), partial awareness and occasional wondering. The lack of awareness can be total, as in the utter absence of empathy of the sociopath for his victim, or partial, as in the suicidal patient, where one part of the self wants to die and another, perhaps momentarily overwhelmed, still hopes to live and be helped. The fact that a small part of the self remains oriented to life gives raises the hope of more positive change. It might, therefore, be possible that even the most corrupt of leaders retain an occasional crack of light, a chink that is sometimes visible, from certain angles, or perhaps in communication with certain individuals.

The presence of a part of the self that continues to contradict a dominant inner voice of course constitutes an internal conflict. The utterly corrupt may be unclouded, but if such a conflict rages within, even if only in part or occasionally, it can result not in positive change but, conversely, in the intensification of the corruption. Here, there is a dissenting part of the self to drive down, to repress and obliterate in the self, so that external actions might gain power and energy precisely form the need to win this inner conflict. The torturer who is occasionally aware that he does wrong might, therefore, be more vicious than he would be if completely free of moral feeling. This kind of argument is common around notions such as homophobia, where the presence of homoerotic thoughts seems to drive still greater violence against those who stimulate them. This, surely, is the danger of denial, for it is a defense mechanism that always threatens to find and persecute its external object, its cathexis, its scapegoat.

Corruption by power is characterised by a loss of awareness of that corruption, but also by an inflated self, an unreasonable contempt for subordinates and a growing isolation from others. Partial awareness of their corruption may, therefore, afford the possibility of learning, but the internal conflict it occasions by no means insures a positive outcome. Surely, though, any possibility of recovering from corruption by power must pass, from a state of no awareness, through one of partial awareness and thus inner conflict.

Or perhaps this is not how recovery from corruption occurs, if it ever does. There might be a Damascene Road, a sudden realisation, perhaps a troubling dream, a piece of news, a personal or military defeat. David Owen has provocatively suggested that the hubristic George W. Bush has now, surprisingly, recovered, that he has become, again, ordinary. Certainly he is a man capable of sudden collapse, for just this ‘negative capability’ was already apparent in his face when news of 9/11 interrupted his reading to school children. But we can never forget that he went on to even greater heights of perceptual corruption, fuelled by other, more traditional tyrants, such as Chaney and Rumsfeld.

For the most part, the only way to recover from hubris is by nemesis. Here, the leader confronts a straightforward narcissistic collapse, an implosion of what is suddenly revealed to be a hollow shell of a self. Nemesis takes many forms: the dragging from a horse for the stabbing, the tears of Mubarakian outrage, the blanched features of Saif Gadhafi, the open mouth of Hussein, the dangling body of Mussolini, the whimpering of Michael Gove. This is how it always ends: with the suddenly empowered populace wide eyed and shouting.

Is Management Studies Evolving?

As if a child, I recently attended an excellent conference at the Cambridge Judge Business School on 'The Intoxication of Power.' Accompanied by the Daedalus Trust and a variety of adult CEOs and Non-Executive Chairs, we collectively offered support to our unfortunate colleagues in Management Studies in their quest to more adequately distinguish between charisma (good) and hubris (bad). By day’s end, we had secured four possible treatments for the corruption of business leaders by power. These were:

  1. Dancing (Tango)
  2. Therapy (Psychoanalytic)
  3. Self-Reflection (by the afflicted) and
  4. Decapitation (by the Board of Directors)

Each was examined for its etiological accuracy and prognostic effectiveness, yet all the while, as is endemic in the Study of Management, we were encumbered by newness. There was no history, little awareness of other bodies of knowledge and still less control of the concepts we were trying to use. As a result, we thoroughly enjoyed the day, but failed entirely to understand one another.

First, as so often occurs in Management games, we were asked to contemplate new thinking, here, a fish out of water, presumably a dead one. Dancing was then deployed to take us out of our comfort zone. It did that, and the Management Creatives were indeed excellent dancers, but filming our stumbling was a little cruel and no one really knew why we were doing it. Comfort zones, of course, were more widely occupied before the discovery of Management Studies, prior to which we drew on the altogether more discerning language of ideology to describe the unseen cage of habit. Now, as we joyously tread on each other’s toes, we are unsure what we are actually talking about.

Second came the therapy; fast, funny and poignant, though also strangely modern, as though Freud swaggered still across the pages of Hello magazine. We wept as we were forced to watch video clips of CEOs receiving criticism and insight was touted as the best remunerated treatment for hubris. Enthusiastically ignored was that problem first identified by Freud himself: that one cannot do therapy with narcissistic patients, even when they pay for it, as they have no insight whatsoever.

By now, the professors of Management were coming thick and fast, with collective games, audience participation by one person and long durée narratives of human evolution that conclusively showed how we originally caught hubris from animals. No mention of Hobbes, who in 1651, recognised that coordination enabled the murder of the strongest, nor of Rousseau’s articulation, in 1754, of the psychological effects of the transition to farming and private ownership. Instead, we had a drawing of Bushmen who, because their culture preceded civilization, developed ways to devalue individual success. Not a sausage about the rather more civilized Athenians and their careful use of ostracism and exile to deal with hubristic individuals (see Plutarch’s Alcibiades). Instead we surged, sans Darwin, to the present, where we at last came to rest, panting, poised and expectant.

Finally, great CEOs of the past tried to grasp the necessity of charismatic leadership and the need to pay the inescapable cost of ‘a certain amount of intoxication.’ All good points, as we do need a better understanding of leadership, of its usually outmoded and self-serving characteristics and of the difficulties of benefiting from the particularly capable, while also controlling them. Decapitation was then briefly examined, here taken to mean the removal of the corrupted manager by a Board of Directors that can no longer overlook the resulting financial costs of poor judgment and forthcoming public approbation. The altogether more surgical conception of decapitation, with its long and dignified history as a treatment for hubris, disappeared into the coffee break.

How can we get the best from our leaders? History was not in the room; nor was democracy. And Madison’s insight: that some political problems cannot be avoided but their inevitable effects can be managed, momentarily escaped us. We do need leaders, but not hubris. And we cannot look to those afflicted for a cure, either by dancing or therapy. Far more effective is to acknowledge that corrupted leaders will not treat themselves and instead need forceful containment, perhaps even in ways entirely alien to professors of Management: with vigorous forms of democracy. Vigilant citizens, a genuinely free (non-feudal) press, the constitutional separation of powers and time-bound public offices have been explored for centuries and should be drawn upon and perfected as we learn just how often corruption by power actually occurs and how it continues to damage our societies and organisations, our planet and our lives.

Though we are merely children, we are not the first to consider such matters. There have always been scholars of Management and they have always plied their wares as advisors to Kings. As we again contemplate the impact of poor Management on our societies, we must help our troubled friends in Management Studies rise above their alliterative and arbitrary mnemonics to rapidly evolve; to recover history, interdisciplinary understanding, a modicum of conceptual clarity and an altogether greater appreciation of their own impact on the important and deeply mystified phenomenon of leadership.

Massive Dome to Cover London's Square Mile

Using technologies from the Olympic Stadium and the Eden Project, scientists are building a huge dome to entirely cover London’s Square Mile. This will enable the city to compete with Abu Dhabi, where such a structure – enclosing the whole city – is already under construction.

ExoDome™, the company developing the massive structures, will provide London with a fully integrated climate, information, service and security environment. The structures offer the “most modern defense, biohazard and weather systems available,” and include housing, office and leisure facilities.

The Abu Dhabi project is the largest and most advanced

John Davidson, ExoDome’s CEO, says that interest in large secure domes is booming, with Houston and Shanghai considering such projects and both citing environmental control as their prime motivation.

“In times of uncertainty, families need a safe place to live and work. We have already covered towns and corporate headquarters, but the scale of the Abu Dhabi project is a real challenge.”

The Corporation of London will run London’s ExoDome, and right of admission will be based solely on economic merit. The structure itself is geodesic, and builds on the mathematical designs of the late R. Buckminster Fuller.

Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, claimed that the ExoDome would be a big step in his ongoing management of the capital’s changing climate, but he also stressed the security gains. “Right now,” said Johnson at a press conference today, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to do commerce in London, or to adequately distinguish between mine and thine. To avoid a life that is little more than nasty, brutish and short, we need a proper external barrier and top quality anti-pleb-zombie security.”

Artist's Impression of the Houston ExoDome

[Technology Correspondent, 10/1/13]

The Modern Madness of the Republicans

The extremism, factual distortion and downright absurdity of the US Republican Party is both baffling and alarming. How, conceivably, can Romney, Paul, Backmann and Palin actually believe what they say? Are they joking when they suggest Obama is a Muslim, not American, a communist, a fascist? Are they lying, dissembling or simply insane? Given their immense political power, and the possibility that they will once again occupy the White House, the Republican claim to sanity is of some importance, not only in America but across the globe.

Of the many forms of insanity, our main concern with the Republican Party is with the possible psychosis of its more extreme adherents. Psychosis entails an inability to separate fantasy from reality. So, for example, when a sufferer declares the Georgian mafia is addressing him directly through the fillings on his teeth, we would be concerned for his mental health. Neurosis, anxiety, depression and the like, though painful, retain a connection with reality. Psychosis is a state of far more profound distortion, and may even turn on a failure to adequately separate subjective feeling (the strong sensation of Georgian voices emanating from the teeth) from the scientific impossibility of so intrusive a form of communication.

Psychosis, as conceived by contemporary medical psychiatry, is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. It turns on a general, and quintessentially modern, differentiation between the subjective world of feeling and the objective world of fact. When, for example, the ancient Athenians had no conception of luck, and so imagined the rain that resulted in the loss of a battle was the result of a character weakness in their General – and therefore executed their General – we would say that they failed (were unable, unwilling) to distinguish the physical phenomenon of the weather from the personal characteristics of their commander. Similarly, it makes no sense to suggest that those who hung witches in medieval Europe were psychotic, as they were immersed in a culture that did not distinguish between the subjective world of value and that of the objective world. Witches were seen to express their personal concerns in the external physical world, and it was this that so frightened their accusers.

The gradual and ineluctable differentiation of value spheres was, according to Max Weber, one of the defining characteristics of modernity. Following Kant, he described a cognitive and psychological separation of distinct domains of reason. It is this cognitive differentiation that seems to evade the Republican extremists, and to render them open to the charge of utter insanity.

Observe, for example, the interaction between an anti-health care bill activist and the Democratic Representative from Massachusetts, Barney Frank. Here, in despair at the bald absurdity of accuser’s position, Frank compares the debater’s cognitive capacity to that of “a dining room table.” It is a shocking moment, as within it, we find the fundamentally primitive, pre-modern and perceptually distorted psychosis evinced by extremist Republicanism today. How can one argue with madness? There can be no falsification, no disenchantment and no overcoming of the gut-chosen bigotry and scapegoating so evident in their views. If Romney is right, and half of America is of little consequence, then we must also conclude that his own half are functionally insane. On their lack of reason turns the future of the world.

See also:

Lievin, A. America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, London: Harper, (2005).

Wolin, S. Democracy Incorporated, Princeton: Princeton University Press, (2010).

Weber, M. ‘Science as a Vocation’, in H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, (London: Routledge): (1948), pp.129-56.

Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, London: Heinemann, 1973.


I met a man in the street who was cold and broke and could not find the place he thought he had a bed. Bitter cold, we were inspecting a scribbled address when a large black SUV pulled up. A man wound down the window and barked, quite pleasantly, his need for directions. The homeless man and I blinked stupidly at him, stuck, our cognition momentarily jammed.

Some have confidence and privilege; some do not. This, surely, is a class divide, a society ‘broken’ in which a minority live on a glass surface, safe and bright, while others suffer terribly in a seemingly hidden world. Academics have long noted that we can no longer easily distinguish between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Now there are managers, lowly bank workers, shareholders and all manner of blurred boundaries and analytic exceptions. Yet something is broken, and there is a separation. The top of our society has arrested the controls and now ignores the ‘have-nots’. The tragedy is that perhaps a third of our citizenry live lives of extraordinary desperation. The comedy is that our elites can’t control anything, and will sacrifice others to further their own self-interest.

A dungeon with screaming at first nauseates and then outrages. The refusal to accept becomes a flash of revulsion, and indeed, the sheer level of suffering in our society is physically disgusting. In the UK today, citizens face being terrified, maimed and killed by draconian cuts in public services (which barely worked anyway), the collective punishment of those damaged by poverty and the abandonment of any orientation to their wellbeing. Human intention reveals itself in action and its effects. We will go to war to improve the ‘security of our citizens.’ We will bail out the banks because a growing economy is ‘good for citizens.’ Yet it seems acceptable, even normal, to at the same time deny citizens health care, jobs, community services, education and hope. Evidently, it does not matter that disabled children no longer have swimming lessons, that mental health services are a national disgrace, that schools and hospitals are failing and our cities are clogged with cars and drugs and gangs. It is ‘normal that so many lives are chaotic, desperate and systematically abused by institutions. We need to understand this, lest we get fooled again. The actions and the effects of government/corporations reveal that they do not care whether citizens live or die. The separation is in this way a dumb repetition of history, as it entails concurrent and mutual dehumanisation. The gang cannot perceive the reality of their victim’s pain, (they laugh at his screaming and film it). Similarly, policy-makers cannot see the suffering of the mental health patient, discharged into a cold night clutching little more than a ‘Care Plan’, (they pretend they have a policy and that it’s working).

First nausea. It’s physical. Then outrage. What the hell is going on?! Is this normal? If the need to cut 30 minutes off the train journey between London and Birmingham is a problem of such magnitude as to require HS2, what is being done about the rather more pressing problem of widespread avoidable suffering and wasted human potential that characterises the lives of so many? Illegitimate foreign wars, the Olympic Games and the Mesmerised Michael Gove don’t really sort it. The captains, drunk on privilege, are steering the ship onto the rocks. When it sinks, they will be suddenly gone.

We could use some of (our) public funds to hold an (at least) national debate to explore, make decisions and act, but we won’t, and so will watch the deepening of class hatred, more riots and more police mistakes. As it rains outside, we can admit to our adult children that we did not realise the consequences of our actions and simply ‘had to do it that way’. Yes, we heard the screaming, but you have to understand, back then such suffering was normal. At that time, we did not know what to do with our outrage. Only later did we learn to imitate the citizens of ancient Republics and walk, en masse, out of the city until the ‘haves’ pleaded with us to return. Such acts of public disgust were, after all, how the Romans got their ‘Tribune of the People,’ with their power to veto life-threatening elitist policies. By then, of course, everything had changed.

What does the net do for democracy?

Commentary on digital democracy, the impact of the Internet and recent uses of social networking to organise resistance, is either strongly optimistic or equally pessimistic. Seldom is the actual contribution of the information revolution to recent outbreaks of democracy treated in a more careful manner. On one side, we are stirred by declarations of a new and free public sphere, of one-to-many communications and celebrations of people power. On the other, all is junk, information pollution, proprietorial wars and state surveillance of citizens. What, then, does the net do for democracy?

To answer, we require the lens afforded by recent research that examines organisations in terms of the way they process information. Informational economics, epistemic democracy, pragmatist methodology, social epistemology and deliberative democracy all stress the information gains of particular organisational structures – especially of democratic forms.[1] At its simplest, we can see that democracy is superior to authoritarianism because it uses ‘many heads’ instead of one. It does not waste citizens, but instead values their informational input and their differing points of view. Thus, Hilary Putnam is able to assert, “Democracy is the precondition for the full application of human intelligence to the solution of social problems,” and to do so by virtue of its apparent ability to draw on diverse sources of information.[2] We can also consider debate and deliberation as processes of information sharing and preference refinement, and decision-making as an information bottleneck.

In his examination of information filters and flows in ancient Athens, Josiah Ober identifies three information-processing functions of the weekly public Assembly, here in an effort to ‘explain the historical puzzle of Athenian exceptionalism.’[3] These, he suggests, are Aggregation (combination), wherein information is gathered together, shared and tested in public; Alignment (preference sorting), in which large numbers of diverse preferences are ordered and shaped behind selected outcomes; and Codification (the provision of guidance for action), whereby the implementation of decisions is facilitated by individuals following agreed-upon rules. Across all these informational gains, Ober argues, Athens enjoyed the low transaction costs afforded by talking in a whole series of interlocking public forums. It is certainly correct to say, as do many modern commentators, that social networking offers information exchanges at a very low transaction cost and also at great speed. What then, of combination, preference sorting and guidance for implementation?

Social networking does combination really well. With a single click, thousands can contribute information and vast quantities of data suddenly become available. It is this capacity that enables what has been called ‘democracy by disclosure’.[4] There are numerous examples where the net has contributed new information, shone light on unacceptable corporate and government behaviour and threatened elite rule with its second greatest fear: transparency. Famously,, Shell, US health care providers and governments have felt the discipline of public attention brought to bear by Wikileaks, Twitter, Facebook and sites like Indymedia and the Information Clearing House. The Internet thus enables the pooling of vast new sources of information. It does this at great speed and at minimal cost. The more points of view available, the more likely it is that something rather nearer the truth will emerge; something more than government press releases and corporate lies. Lots of knowledge is good for democracy, and the capacity of the net to combine knowledge makes it a valuable friend indeed.

Of course, these combinatory benefits are also available to those inside the citadels of power. Corporations and governments make use of precisely this capacity to track, measure, predict, film, capture, cure, sell to and kill. Fears of the surveillance state are thus well founded, for they are based on a step change in information management by elites, here afforded by the information revolution and its ability to aggregate and interrogate information.

Combination also explains the extraordinary effectiveness of the Internet in enabling the coordination of collective activity. Incoming information to noticeboards, Twitter and messaging, allows many to act together, to go to the same place and do the same thing. Crowds, riots, protests, boycotts and denials of service again feature the net’s ability to pool information, and it is this that stimulates the first and greatest fear of ruling elites, that of mass citizen action. Lots of people are in the square and the net is humming with information. Now what?

It is when we ask about the Internet’s ability to align information that we notice a problem. Alignment, or preference sorting behind a decision, requires multiple and diverse points of view to be grouped, shaped and arranged behind selected outcomes. While the combination of knowledge is of tremendous importance and power, alignment must follow. Here, we confront the need for a decision, a social choice, and thus of a decision-making process that somehow moves from many individual and group preferences to one agreed-upon collective preference. This is perhaps the oldest problem in politics, for it seeks to move beyond the assembled (and well informed) citizenry and towards asking ‘what should we do?’

Mostly, we make collective decisions by voting, by showing and counting individual preferences. But voting is a paltry and binary activity; it carries no gradations of preference intensity and so delivers little information. Still less is learned of the collective choice when we are offered only electoral democracy, spin and millionaire party hacks to vote for. These ‘representatives’ of the people, despite their obvious corruption and incompetence, then make decisions through a carefully immunised parliamentary process. Kenneth Arrow, building on the work of Condorcet, de Borda and Lewis Carroll, showed definitively that no value-free method of crunching individual preferences into a social choice could possibly exist.[5] Some values must inform this transition, some principles of sorting and even some agreement on what constitutes a majority. A political decision is an information bottleneck: it shrinks from the complexity of combination to the focus of alignment. This moment is at the very core of politics, and constitutes a trick that Ober argues was achieved in democratic Athens. Their decision-making process amounted to a network of discussions, deliberations, religious offerings, rhetorical ploys and displays of civic virtue. In this way, they tweaked and shifted and felt their way towards a social choice. Gradually, they became a plural subject, able to commit individually to a collectively agreed end.[6] They knew how to do combination, and they knew how to align behind a decision. Ober goes on to examine their various efforts at codification and the effectiveness of their policy implementation. But now the deficiency of the Internet becomes apparent: for it leaves unchanged the fundamental political problem of arriving at a social choice. It is this that now reappears in the new and virtual public sphere, and reminds us that even the net has its limits.

If we inspect the many sites that offer processes of deliberation and decision-making, we notice how poor we have become in our capacity to make collective choices. Time and again, sites merely combine information, with comments and lists and boxes pouring in from all sides. Yes there is argumentation, but when it comes to alignment, most conduct a rudimentary count, a virtual vote or survey, so that the process of actively constructing a plural subject is impeded. Worse still, the ideological values that (must) underlie the algorithms for crunching many individual preferences into one social preference are occluded. Alignment, it seems, is not much aided by Facebook, and may require the physical enactment of a network of forums feeding a public assembly. This would suggest that if the net is to really help democracy, it will eventually provide nothing short of a virtual agora, where we can, in person and in public, learn again to organise our politics, be democratic and make effective and collective decisions.

[1] Williamson, O.E. (1996) The Mechanisms of Governance, Oxford: OUP; Goldman, A.I. (1999) Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford: OUP; Cohen, J.) ‘Deliberative Democracy and Democratic Legitimacy,’ in Hamlin, A., Pettit, P. (eds.)(1989)The Good Polity, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 17–34 & ‘An Epistemic Conception of Democracy,’ Ethics, (1986) 97: 26-38.

[2] Putnam, H. (1981) Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge: CUP.
[3] Ober, J. (1989) Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: PUP.
[4] Graham, M. (2002) Democracy by Disclosure: The Rise of Technopopulism, Washington: Brookings Institute.

[3] Ober, J. (1989) Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: PUP.

[4] Graham, M. (2002) Democracy by Disclosure: The Rise of Technopopulism, Washington: Brookings Institute.

[5] Mackay, A.F. (1980) Arrow’s Theorem – The Paradox of Social Choice: Case Study in the Philosophy of Economics, Princeton: PUP.
[6] Gilbert, M. (2006) Shared Intentions and Collective Responsibility, Oxford: Blackwell.