Discretisation of politics (Part 1)

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A few days ago, I was surprised by the thesis that digitalisation is changing politics by making compromise more difficult. What may seem obvious to many readers, I did not understand at first. The analogy between the format of representation in computers and the result of human action was spontaneously incomprehensible to me. Why should working with zeros or ones lead to more zero-or-one politics, or white-or-black politics? You can represent many more shades with digital representations than any human being would ever be able to perceive! The digital is much more differentiated than the human analogue. So why should digitalisation make political compromises more difficult? Let us first look at the assumed effect: Whether the ability to compromise is declining in politics is not easy to judge. Other countries and other contexts lead to other customs. Many columnists assume a decline, but the fact is that political compromise has been studied in political science in recent years – among others in relation to the concept of political representation (Fumurescu 2013), in relation to the growing moralisation (Ryan 2017) and in relation to the perception of insecurity (Haas 2016). It is interesting to note that political compromises are correlated by different authors partly positively (Wendt 2016), partly negatively (Ryan 2017) with the importance of value orientation in our society – cf. on the latter (Reckwitz 2019), where among other things the concept of embedding liberalism is discussed, which is supposed to help overcome the compromise problems. As far as the assumed cause for effect is concerned, the situation is clearer: the scientific publications on the digitalisation of democracy are a sea of oddities. For example, solutions to problems are derived from one-off interventions – for problems that do not exist in other countries. Or the actual problems of democracy are so skilfully avoided that they are not mentioned. Until a few years ago, the democratising effect of direct popular communication was also celebrated without any question mark. Conversely, real-world observations are often considered objectionable, which is why their publication does not come about. And the contextual contradictions between publications – case studies from South America and Central Europe tend to deliver opposite results – are hardly discussed. Conclusion: The topic has so far eluded successful research.

Getting ahead with fuzzy logic

Nevertheless, the question of whether the above thesis on the effect of digitalisation might not be true has not left me. In discussing the thesis, I begin with a caveat that is probably familiar to many readers: the “discrete” nature of digitally representable numbers does not fit our world of experience. We should therefore be careful about interpreting them by analogy. The form and content of digitalisation therefore do not necessarily appear similar to us, even if they are. This is shown, for example, by fuzzy logic. In its application, qualitative human descriptions are translated into digital values. Its main benefit is that it offers an interface for formulating system descriptions that accommodates people: Fuzzy Logic does not require precise statements. It helps us to deal with uncertainties and with information overload and to calculate with words – cf. on this (Portmann 2019). However, for its application to control complex systems – for example helicopters – good measurement systems, low latency when actuating the physical control instruments and fast data processing are necessary. Fuzzy logic thus needs the discrete digital so that it can perform fuzzy control tasks.

When digitalisation really changes politics ..

We should therefore not let the binary data format in IT distract us from the real thing. If the thesis that digitalisation is changing politics is true, we should look for the causes in what is new. It seems to me that what is important is not so much the binary representation of numbers as the high speed of information processing. What is new are undoubtedly the practical possibilities for integrating and filtering information. New are the possibilities to read between the lines and to recognise trends in information. Et cetera. If all this makes compromise difficult, then exciting questions arise:

  • Do compromises need information constraints?
  • Are compromises only possible if the parties involved are uninformed, slow in processing information, incapable of information selection and recombination, incapable of reading between the lines, et cetera?

That is, is the problem of the present that we have too much information? Quite possibly. A now established tenet of politics in digital times is that more transparency calls for more regulation. Liberal cynics occasionally add to this that more transparency also leads to more demands on the community by individual groups. As a result, the compromises will become more expensive rather than less. However: there are indeed mathematical models that lead to zero-or-one logics. They typically refer to events whose occurrence cannot be observed in finite time. It is hard to imagine that they play a role in politics. But perhaps we just lack the right models to see the forest between the trees. For now, let’s take a closer look at what is observable: Phenomenologically, the internet shows itself to be anything but discrete. The joy of fun leads to everything mixing with everything else. Many video messages that spread “virally” are the joint work of many authors with different intentions. Who intends what with which part, nobody knows and nobody is interested. Vulgar, fetishistic and roaring with laughter, the communication is quite popular – cf. (Phillips 2017). It is unclear whether it is outrage that drives people or lust – and whether they even know what drives them. It is also indifferent. The internet is in many ways the eternal carnival: an unpublic place without debate. And the internet seems to be rubbing off: many institutions that have functioned more or less acceptably for decades are becoming dysfunctional one by one. Unrestrained indiscipline is becoming visible – not because this indiscipline did not exist before, but because it was part of the system until now. Now, however, the ropes seem to be breaking that have so far prevented the downfall of reason. We realise how absurdly incompetent some representatives of the elites are and we observe how power becomes the determining factor under the cloak of various ideals and values. However, this has only super indirectly to do with zero-or-one. It is a “for me” (or “for us”) versus a “against me” (or “against us”) that is gripping society ever more firmly. Compromises often do not exist simply because handshake qualities for a deal are lacking. This may have something to do with digitalisation – but the mechanisms of action are difficult to discern in the case. More precisely: there are too many recognisable impact mechanisms of digitalisation to derive a big picture from them. Who alone could say whether the elites copy the masses or the masses copy the elites.

The “Great Paradox” and Deligitimation of Reason

What is not easy to cope with emotionally is the “Great Paradox”: while digitalisation creates transparency and thus empowers the periphery to see what is happening in the centres, we are increasingly losing political control. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant what happens in the centres, because decisions originate supra-centrally. In other words, we see further and further, but the actual decisions move even further away – cf. on this (Blühdorn 2013). When it comes to decisions in the global context, reason is usually at work, but occasionally insanity is also at work. It is always epidemic among the decision-makers. This delegitimises the supra-central developments that follow reason. Moreover, it remains unclear for the time being how democracy can function beyond the national. Many see this as impossible – cf. (Manow 2020). The EU’s concepts on this are not really convincing. But perhaps the “eternal carnival” practice in dealing with political messages on the internet also comes from the realisation that the elites are made up of precisely those people who in earlier centuries would have spent their lives as beggars, peasants or craftsmen. It is possible that the disrespect is not directed at the people, but at their roles, which they do not correspond to. In the sense of the initial thesis, it would then be the enabling effect of digitalisation that makes compromises more difficult: because digitalisation enables us to perform tasks that overtax us, it throws the political system in many countries out of balance. Examples point in this direction: without Twitter, Trump would never have become the tribune of the people who dominates political discourse in the West. His example proves what he says about the deficits of the system. In doing so, he takes the system of “checks and balances” ad absurdum – cf. (Manow 2020). In any case, there is reason enough to treat simplistic explanations about the effect of digitalisation with caution. It is quite possible that a loss of the ability to compromise occurs at the same time as digitalisation, without there being a causal connection in one direction or the other. But even if there are actual interactions – which there is some evidence for – we will only grasp them if we look at the political systems and the systematic effects of digitalisation in all their complexity. We have to get to the bottom of the developments, so to speak, in order to understand them. And we should be open to discovering the unexpected!


Part 2 is available here.


Acknowledgments

Many thanks to all those who have contributed to the creation of this column: Moritz Leuenberger, Elisabeth Ehrensperger and my colleagues at TA Suisse, as well as Tine Melzer, Thomas Gees, Siegfried Kolnberger and many others with whom I am always able to discuss such fundamental questions.


References

  1. Ingolfur Blühdorn: Simulative Demokratie – Neue Politik nach der postdemokratischen Wende, edition suhrkamp 2013. Alin Fumerescu: Compromise: A political and philosophical history, Cambridge University Press 2013.
  2. Ingrid J. Haas: The impact of uncertainty, threat, and political identity on support for political compromise, Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2016.
  3. Philip Manow: (De-)Democratisation of Democracy, edition suhrkamp 2020.
  4. Whitney Phillips, Rayn M. Milner: The Ambivalent Internet – Mischied, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, Polity Press 2017.
  5. Edy Portmann: Fuzzy Leadership – From the Roots of Fuzzy Logic to the Smart Society, essentials – Springer Verlag 2019.
  6. Andreas Reckwitz: The End of Illusions – Politics, Economy and Culture in Late Modernity, edition suhrkamp 2019.
  7. Timothy J. Ryan: No Compromise – Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes, American Journal of Political Sciences 2017.
  8. Fabian Wendt: Compromise, Peace, and Public Justification – Political Morality beyond Justice, Palgrave Macmillan 2016.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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