Today I launched google search and saw a tiny, self-effacing, non-intrusive little grey banner at the top of the search page. It was asking for donations to assist with the migrant crisis. I clicked more out of curiosity than any preparedness to donate*, because I wanted to verify if, indeed, Google was behind the campaign.
I was greeted with this:
So, it really was google behind the pitch.
Funnily enough, just a week ago, when I was fortunate enough to be sat next to the shimmery-green (and apparently decidedly toxic) waters of a Venetian canal, sipping from a glass of Italian ‘Spritz’ bastardized with dessert wine – (I have horrified everyone from tour leaders to professional sommeliers, with what I can do to a bit of wine: fruit juice, sprite, water, ice, you name it. I will tip it all in…) – I was having a spirited discussion with an Aussie about how most reasonable people are dissatisfied with politics and government, and that it’s only a matter of time before a large corporation steps into the void of boundless dissatisfaction and offers to just… um… you know, run tings.
The Aussie played devil’s advocate: how will the system please everybody, and how will voting work, etc. etc. I took the easy way out: People are lazy. The polity that will garner the largest populace will be the one that abstracts you the most from the messy mechanics of feigned democracy. You shall not have to even vote. You simply deem that the virtual polity works, or you deem that it doesn’t, in which case you would opt out. The virtual polity should have enough processing power and – let’s be honest – enough data on you that it can make a stab at your stay/opt-out decision matrix, mapping that to what it has done right and what it has done wrong to date. And, I underlined, giant corporations that already have most of our info are in the best position to step into this void, regardless of whether they should or shouldn’t.
Aussie sipped his un-tampered-with-wine, and then goaded: So are you saying this could be Google or Apple?
I smiled 🙂
Think about it, I said. If you have a google account, for example, you have it mainly because it just works. It is literally the only reason you keep it around. If you’re a fan of the parallel Apple or Facebook or whatever hegemonies, you are a fan because their systems similarly just work, for you. That’s the raw, common denominator yesterday, today and forevermore. People are after working infrastructure, so they can get on with their lives, their schemes and their plans. It is why there are boatloads of people on the shores of Europe: they are not there for high tea, or strudel, or yodeling lessons, or kilts and knee-high socks, much to the chagrin of many a nationalist. They are not there to take in an opera or to major in Swedish design, even if they might happily partake in both things. They are on the shores of working infrastructure, people. That is mostly what “Europe”, or any migration destination is to you, when you are an economic migrant or a refugee. And, ironically enough, it is this very simple fact, this not-necessarily-here-to-adopt-your-culture fact, that cleaves apart those that would welcome immigrants, from those that would not. But neither of those trenches are what this post is about.
You loped around behind an alpha male because, mathematically and presumably, it worked: it was either that or prepare for beat-downs from just about every other bossy primate in the hood. And for females, there was always going to be the matter of clingy little dependants hanging off of one’s teats, preventing too much testing of alternate hypotheses. Males did their math too, and risked the occasional beat-downs: it wasn’t worth it to play second fiddle to another male forever.
I guess whenever the top dog’s dominion got large enough, you could skitter away to the edges of it and not have to deal with them so directly anymore. A sort of de-personalisation of “might” begins to set in… and with it, a teensy bit of freedom. It’s now possible that the local or familial alpha male (or alpha female, in matriarchal or gender-balanced societies) could perhaps be reported to some even-higher-ups … a chief or village elder; a monarch… resulting, for once, in punishment. It probably wasn’t a given though. But it’s a crack of daylight…
It seems to me, that these were the loins from which all our present-day systems of governance were birthed – from nuclear family to extended family, tribe, village, town, city, and beyond. Our simpler arrangements kept morphing into more complex ones, and the game-optimal solution is now one in which everyone generally stays within the confines of one nation-state or another and submits almost completely to its laws. De-personalisation is now absolute: the Queen of England for example no longer comes to see you in person to give you a swift backhand of disapproval when, for example, you don’t pay your taxes. She has bazillions of minions, and entire systems bequeathed to her and maintained by the organs of her office, to do unto you whatever needs to be done unto you.
And now it seems that even this state of affairs is atrophying, because the organs of government have always been, and will always be, corruptible… and there have never been more ways to corrupt a system, let alone a person, as we have devised now as a species. Members of parliaments, prime ministers, presidents, upper and lower houses of government everywhere are imploding under the sheer stress of opposing lobbies: from us, the general public, from corporations, from their own internal political interests, and from other nation-states. Add to this the glare of the media, adding to the feeling that everything is turning to shit everywhere, all the time.
As I’ve argued before, we are not a species that can handle the massively parallel stream of data and information needed to undertake any kind of useful decisioning for any kind of modern, global problems.
We’re really only designed to process the singular, low-dimensioned results of such processes. And even there, we can only grasp the apt-ness of a result by comparing our resulting standard of living / quality of life with that of the people around us, and with that of the populace in other nations. We are result-oriented: the short-sightedness needed for assessing results cannot be the same wiring relied on for planning and strategy across decades, centuries and millenia. A machine will have to do that, because no-one has the patience to wait for a selection of humans (how would they be selected?) to be trained into clinically neutral, long-term-oriented, wise-folk who can make decisions for entire nations or an entire planet. I’d also wager that, we would not listen to their recommendations, with ‘why should we?’ being the most vociferous response. Christ, look at how shabbily we treat the UN.
So, I think it will end up being a machine. We tend to be more willing to leave machines alone to carry out their deliberations, and we tend to be meekly trusting of their outputs. Perhaps it’s because we see machines as entities with no vested interests of their own, so that they’re somehow less corruptible. (Of course, not only is that not true, since we build them in the image of our interests… but even if it were true, the situation wouldn’t last; give it a couple of generations for computers of the calibre we’re talking about to start having interests).
You can also argue that we would be free to tamper with such a machine or to build into it terrible biases – granted. Nevertheless, a machine (or an internetwork of them) will have to do this work. We are not up to the task, unless we want to go back to living as tribes and reducing the scope of each instance of governance accordingly. Even there, in our current massively global and highly inter-connected context, a machine might still be better in re-allocating resources silently without the constant intervention of highly biased (or sometimes downright fanatical) humans.
Eventually, I don’t know when, it might be useful to define a set of global, human/humane/humanistic rules (e.g. starting with something like the international charter of human rights, for examples) and then guide a machine with the very complex task of resource-allocation that is goal-oriented towards outcomes that maximise such rules, for as many people as possible.
Enter the “Corpolity”
As more and more of our economy becomes digitized, most of our needs too, are becoming digitized. We’ve gone from archiving fond memories in physical photo albums and foisting them upon un-suspecting visitors… to sharing digital images in real-time to keep in touch with friends and family. A concrete, social need in our Savannah wiring is being met by a purely digital infrastructure that, for most intents and purposes, in several parts of the world, is not (quite) subject to any polities in geographical space. That’s but one example.
Imagine a future where more concrete needs – education, housing/shelter allocation, work allocation etc. are met by digital services industries. If that future also has as “free” an internet as we have today, or better, then it follows that the corporations that deliver integrated services will be in a far better position to “govern” our communities than actual government bodies and their court systems. I think the latter will (and should) still exist, as a sort of last resort, but with a much narrower, more focused mandate.
And that could be just the tonic, because several advanced nations are running on a treadmill, constantly trying to reshape their politics and laws to solve for social problem X at time t: a thing that requires ever more nuanced, multifaceted reasoning with each passing decade. We have multidimensional classes of inter-related social problems that need to be considered/solved over a much bigger time window – a time window that encompasses the pertinent histories, the relevant current states / present, and a balanced future.
In short, the whole thing becomes a problem requiring the processing of massive amounts of data, not to mention the purging of self-interested short-sightedness (not mention magical, rigidist thinking) from the processing chain. It might be something machines can be good at.
Today, Google calmly sidestepped all the messy politics of the migrant crisis and just asked people to vote with their feet: to step into an ephemeral polity of their own making and just put some dollar bills down, if we think we trust them to do something useful with it. No Canvassing, no harnessing of, or weighing of opinion, no forums or comment threads… just, “do you want to give money to assist migrants in crisis”?
To answer, you do not have to check in with your local county council or to ask the prime minister or the president what their stance is on the issue. You don’t even have to ask your neighbour or your friend what they think. This is strictly between your credit card company – itself a global corporation – and the 4 chosen NGOs that google mediates for. And, I guess, the level of trust Google has garnered thus far from you (evidence of their ability to function as described: i.e. having delivered in the past).
Any number of heads of state might love to raise 8 million euros in a few hours, for the migrants’ cause. But you can imagine the scene: explaining themselves on the footsteps of parliament to their constituents, half of whom might wish for the migrants to just go the hell away, thank you very much. Explaining too, their sources of funding, and how they are going to spend it. They would also have to field the question of what to do with the migrants, once they are cared for and now have the strength to fight for the resources/infrastructure/safety/plain lack of fucked-up-ness that they came to these shores to seek in the first place. And aren’t they encouraging more migrants, with their benevolent actions, etc. etc. You will see that google calmly and apolitically leaves these last points out of their marketing rhetoric.
Which is something that a “Corpolity” would do, come to think of it. And it is, I think, a taste of things to come. Perhaps, since we have become a rowdy, rights-obsessed, twitter-happy mob, a polity AI would seek to engage humans only at chess move level, not chess game level. It might suffice only to surface small portions of entangled and gnarly issues, in order to make us feel like we’re playing. So that we can sleep at night, and the world feels as simple as it did when we once roamed the canopies. It keeps the peace, inside the virtual polity.
As for Google/”Alphabet”, I see you.
But know that sooner or later, if a corp wants to truly instantiate a polity, it needs to get into re-allocating all types of resources, not just cold hard cash. Because the world isn’t made of just cold hard cash.
* donating: I didn’t in the end. Google claims that it cannot match your donation or track it unless you are signed in to donate. I’m sorry, but even a street-food hawker would not be able to make such a claim. Unless there’s something about the fiscal logistics that is completely lost on me, don’t you just need like a paypal account or similar to accept money from strangers?
Then, once you’re ready to pay, what it does is effectively set up a google wallet – whether you want one or not (so now you see why they needed you to sign in). By dint of this they’ll also have not just your credit card details, but your address. Now don’t get me wrong: there will be a time when I will totally fess all this up to google, so that they can stop pretending they don’t already have this info. Just not today. I generally yield to their data inquisitions according to the level of functionality I need next from them.
So, stuck between the rock of assimiliating more fully with the google borganism / corp-as-polity and the hard place of running the gauntlet with 4 separate NGOs – exposing my self to 4 times the amount of follow-up post-donation spam (Save Darfur taught me a lot), I’ve done nothing at all for the migrants! 🙁
They won’t exactly be bereft without my input though. In the few hours I spent faffing about with this post, they’d already raised another 3 point something million. I’m glad of it though – whatever else the migrant crisis may be, it is a humanitarian crisis. Good on Google for at least ‘stepping into the void’.