The haunting specter of techno-authoritarianism has only gotten more haunting
Noah is equating 2 terms here that aren't the same: "liberalism" and "democracy". Democracy is a belief that the law should be largely dictates by the will of the people. Liberalism is a set of policy propositions (rights) that are not subject to infringement. We often describe Western societies as "liberal democracies" without without realizing the tension between these ideas.
Either can obviously be taken too far.
The example I use with my students is the society of 5 animals in which the 3 wolves vote to eat the 2 sheep and the sheep are expected to lay down and die, since the "the people" have spoken. (I used a similar example when I was a TA grad student involving men and women which I'm sure I could never use today.)
What we often fail to realize is that liberalism can also lead to most political decisions ceasing to be governed by popular consent and instead controlled by "liberal principles" (which usually means, the principles of the powerful.) Totalitarianism in the name of liberalism is a very real possibility, and one that appears quite likely in the West (witness Trudeau's response to the trucker protest last year -- distinctly illiberal yet cheered by the highest centers of power.)
Thus the EU insists that Hungary is "not democratic" (for having a non-liberal government) and Poland this year "returned to democracy" (for electing a liberal government). In each case, what the EU really means is that the respective country doesn't do what the powerful in the EU say "all civilized people ought to do". But Justin Trudeau gets a pass since he's a card carrying member of the liberal elite and thus "on the right side of history".
I share Noah's concern over creeping totalitarianism, but I think he's blind in his left eye to fail to notice it coming from that direction as well.
"Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."
- Frank Herbert, Dune
Noah, goddamit dude. I subscribed to your substack to get the optimistic neoliberal econo bro "chart goes up" takes in order to get away from the horrifying real politik of N. S. Lyons types. And here you are these days being a steel eyed realist about the danger of campus radicalism and totalitarian tech convergence. I agree this isn't the likeliest future, but the arguments toward it being a possible one, I would say, are a little more compelling than just a few anecdotes, especially after the Twitter files debacle.
I think the scariest thing is not that Communist China is using technology to control its people. That is just a continuation of Communist policies from the 20th Century.
The scariest thing is that in the past 5 years many in the West have decided to copy their example, and they just might have the power to fully implement it.
You could be right.
That said I think you’re underweighting the dictator information problem. The AIs are also going to be tweaked to tell the dictator what he wants to hear just as all his sycophantic advisors do. It’s going to inevitably lead to catastrophic decisions that blow up the whole system.
Democracies, for all their flaws, solve the dictator information problem.
This is a meaningful and important article, and as usual, eloquently composed. My argument, as usual, is with the China bashing, Doing the utmost surveillance to extinguish a terror campaign that claimed many lives, and doing it without shooting up the population is a worthy exercise. Contrast this with Israel’s surveillance of the oppressed Palestinian community, which is followed up by raids and killings. Why reference China’s surveillance rather than Israel’s more deadly control, the scariest of all scary technologies, and also exported.
The printing press is a good analogy, because the printing press imo was one of the biggest factors in the collapse of monarchies across Europe, the rise of the period known as the Enlightenment, and the spread of democratic principles in France, UK, and the US, but the full impact of Gutenberg's invention didn't become apparent until decades or centuries later. Kings and Queens may have hated the printing press, but Voltaire, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin, who was heavily involved in the printing trade, used it to make the case against absolute monarchies. I'm hard pressed though to think of any advantages that the Internet/social media/AI offers to democracies, instead it seems to be weighted heavily in favor of dictatorships and autocratic governments being better able to control unruly, subversive or rebellious citizens, just as it was bad for an absolute monarchy's hold on power to have citizens who are literate, who can form contrary opinions. I'm unconvinced that the Internet/social media encourages any semblance of reasoned debate, but it certainly leads to lots of ad hominem attacks, misinformation, and surface-level understanding of issues. There's just no shortcut to understanding issues without reading deeply and spending time on trying to better understand them.
Even the famous town hall meetings in New England that Zuckerberg or other tech bros like to compare social media to(we're connecting the world!!) were governed by regular face to face social norms with people you'd probably see quite often, and unwritten social norms about what kind of language was tolerated. Courtrooms might be the closest institution we have left to this. The unfortunate part of this, is the tenor and vitrol of social media bleeds into real life discussions, because people and especially young people, who have no memory of a pre-social media world, have never learned or never practiced how to control their emotions, to be able to discuss controversial issues in real life, while still being respectful of whomever they're debating. Obviously, this is an ideal, but social media dosen't even incentize you to practice it at all. Instead, it makes it all too easy to dehumanize people, which is what dictatorships have always thrived on. Look at Trump's recent quote that left wing people are "vermin". He's also someone who admittedly dosen't read books, and never would've become president without Twitter allowing him to form a Vulcan mind meld with his supporters.
Unfortunately, a turnkey tyranny is likely even without any conscious decision on the part of Western governments. As costs fall and use-cases multiply, sensors are continuing to proliferate across our cities. These are installed for benign civic purposes like traffic monitoring, responding to noise complaints, crime prevention, and so on, but obviously collect a broad swathe of data beyond their intended purpose. Since it's all in public, it's not subject to most privacy laws.
The mountain of data these devices collect is made increasingly legible with AI. So we're increasingly entering a world where any minor crime or misdemeanor (jaywalking, technical hate speech in the UK, etc.) can and will be captured, made legible, and recorded. Whether this is actioned en-mass by police, or simply held in reserve for a future malicious actor to use against political enemies, the outcome is still tyrannical.
As I argue below, positive action is required to combat this trend. Taiwan, as per usual, is ahead of the curve here in systematising the anonymisation of public data, and even going so far as to attempt to prevent their future reverse engineering:
I am reminded of President Bush Jr.'s malaprop: “I am the decider…”
The purpose of government has always been to provide order out of chaos. There has been a lot of talk about AI taking jobs from humans, but it is decision-making, the job of government, is ripe for AI dominance. We are already witnessing how AI can retrieve massive amounts of data specific to a problem and formulate a comprehensive plan within minutes eliminating human error and bias. I can’t think of a job better suited to AI’s talents. What would the world look like if Congress and Parliaments were replaced by efficient and fair algorithms rather than bumbling politicians on the take?
There is a lot of discussion about new technology and little concern for how human psychology will be affected. If an AI-augmented government becomes more efficient, will messy humans have to up their game to keep pace with technology? How much efficiency and order do we really want? In densely populated China after centuries of Confucian orderliness, the populace is happy with trading chaotic freedom for security and harmony.
When I was in the military, they taught me to follow orders and strict adherence to the chain of command. After awhile it became familiar and a way of life. My psychology shifted from being a civilian to being a soldier. I remember a bumper sticker on a car at Camp Pendleton Marine Base: “To err is human, to forgive is divine… neither of which are Marine Corps policies.” Darwin showed us that it is the most adaptable who survive. It appears we have a lot of adapting at warp speed heading our way.
It certainly has to be a threat on the political side.
But economic liberals (particularly those of a more ideological bent) should perhaps be at least as concerned about the threat of digital dirigisme. A major problem for the command economies of the C20th was getting sufficient, correct and timely information about what people wanted back to the centre, so it could adjust production accordingly. In the age of AI, that may not be the problem it was back in the days of paper files, telephones and smoke-filled rooms. Increasingly, the norm in a lot of sectors is very large, heavily-regulated organisations (often unstable or underwritten by government) with a small managerial-entrepreneurial elite making unacceptably large fortunes from them and often prepared to ignore or work around the regulations to make even bigger fortunes. A couple of medium-sized steps for regulators could add up to one giant leap for luxury automated communism - or whatever left accelerationism is being called this week. (Though other advantages of the free-market model such as spreading the intellectual burdens, costs and residual risks of product innovation, may be far harder to replicate within in the central-planning model).
And the 'O Henry' insert in Noah's penultimate paragraph is a reminder that how things turn out is almost always a surprise.
“The basic upshot is that powers that are better at marshalling economic resources tend to displace powers that aren’t as good at it.”
It is also a story about energy which is why it would be crazy for liberal democracies to neuter themselves with restrictive fossil fuel supply side policies in the struggle to decarbonize. More of a risk with Europe than the US.
Many well meaning historians explain cause/effect without hard data. Ref. today's blog: "... historian Paul Kennedy tries to explain how geopolitical power switches from one country, regime, or empire to another ... powers that are better at marshalling economic resources tend to displace powers that aren’t as good at it." However, data-driven, evidenced based historians & sociologists conclusively show that every nation/empire goes through disintegrative phases, allowing competitors to best them. See Dr. Peter Turchin (peterturchin.com) and the Seshat database. The US is now in a disintegrative phase, which explains our partisan politics and social turmoil. Noah, please see Dr. Turchin's evidence explaining where we are, how we got here, and what to do about it. Many thanks.
We failed to recognize Russian attacks on the 2016 election, which credible sources believe change the result to Trump, were a kind of unrecognized war on the U.S.A. Maybe poetic justice for all the CIA dirty tricks and bullshit free markets will make things lovely advice from economists that screwed up Russia and many other countries. The combination of more sophisticated propaganda/marketing techniques with social media delivery make for an information ecosystem that could bring down democracy worldwide. A key problem is widening gaps between rich and poor--always a problem for decaying empires. When the rich conclude that democracy will take away some of their privileges they sometimes decide we can do without democracy. They are usually disappointed. Isabelle Allende's book House of the Spirits lays this out clearly for Chile. It would be a similar mistake for U.S. elites to think that Trump will help and protect them.
China’s has spent an inordinate amount of money via loans and often shabby or unneeded infrastructure projects in numerous countries (e.g., failing dam in Ecuador, unneeded airports), in the process saddling countries with large debt burdens. In the long term, I think this creates resentful enemies. So, what is China going to do if some of these countries tells it to buzz-off and default on loans? Fire it’s fancy missiles into South America. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. Ask Cuba how South America worked out in the long term.
A significant number of young, educated, tech-adepts fled Russia because of Putin’s war in Ukraine. This, I think, is one of the biggest unforced errors in the new Millennium. It doubled NATO’s border on Russia, weakened EU autocrats, strengthened/repaired the NATO alliance, and has damaged the Russian economy for one or two generations. Two million Russians refugees were accepted by Poland. It wouldn’t surprise me if Poland became the tech powerhouse in Europe.
In the conventional world, China will be ringed by Southeastern Asia countries ramping up business with the West. Australia, China’s largest trading partner, joined the new -country alliance.
As for AI, my money is on quiet organizations such as DARPA.
I feel myself channeling Glenn Greenwald when I read this. (Which is not supposed to happen, ever.)
Noah, you've argued that the US government should be more proactive in producing media content that promotes liberal-democratic values and counters propaganda from actors like Russia and China.
A few points to consider:
* A recent study of TikTok found that the overwhelming majority of Israel-Palestine content on the app this month has been pro-Palestinian. That matches Beijing's official position but we still don't know if it's caused by deliberate manipulation of the algorithm. It's plausible that it isn't, since TikTok is used mostly by young people and they were already more receptive to a left-wing analysis of the situation before the latest conflict broke out.
* There's no reason to think that social media platforms which are free from conscious manipulation are likely to deliver the right opinions on this issue or any other... regardless of what you think the right opinions may be. Manipulation isn't the only thing that makes social media toxic in a political context, because horrible opinions are quite capable of being amplified organically.
* If the US and other democracies want to shape public opinion by overt action, they'll need to use social media as well as traditional media, and dropping content onto existing platforms won't be enough. They'll probably also want to create popular platforms of their own and exercise some kind of algorithmic control over them. (You know, like China does.)
Bearing all that in mind:
* If the US government did control a large social media platform where political issues were discussed, would its algorithm be open to public scrutiny? What principles would it follow?
* To promote the ideals of liberal democracy at a moment when Israelis and Palestinians are at war, what should the US government try to make Americans think about the conflict?
* Separate from the last question: if those tools were currently in place, what is it *likely* that the US government would now be trying to make Americans think?
Would it be the same regardless of which party held the White House? Would it be what Americans actually ought to think?
"despite its military’s poor performance in Ukraine, Russian society remains largely without organized dissent."
Is this supposed to be positive for Russia? I think your thesis was stronger 3 years ago, since both Russia and China has failed with almost everything since then without any mechanisms for course correcting. I still think your thesis is on to something, but I wonder if the stability and efficiency isn't at best a temporary benefit for authoritarian techno states and as soon as their leaders start making mistake they head for the iceberg without means to avoiding it