Power 2.0 : Why Big Brother will get even Bigger from now on

I think every post on politics should be put into perspective using moral psychology. And who better than Jonathan Haidt to get the job done :

Here's a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes. The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters' hearts by promising to protect or expand programmes for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we'll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don't want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That's what families are for. One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

This certainly goes on to show how little reason actually has to do with politics. How much of an emotional, and hence moral, beast, politics are. Isn't strange that just as religion has recourse to burning books in the past to avoid their disruptive power, governments, today, try to bring down websites ...

Power + Information

Power's stronghold is informational asymmetry. I've thought it through. Whatever the stakes, without that, whatever your armies' size, you have no decisive advantage. I'm writing this as I think of how the US beat the Soviet Union during the cold war. The Star Wars episode was very illustrative. The US didn't really have the means to deploy the anti-missile system they were bragging about. Yet, it seemed like they had and nobody knew they couldn't. That was more than enough to throw the Union into a deadly spiral. So that's why governments overreacted during the Wiki leaks episode. Somebody was threatening their side of the informational asymmetry equation.

To me this equation is the reason why Big Brother won't stop growing from now on. The more traditional information gets taken away from governments' grasp, the more they'll try to get a hold of information that can't be easily revealed by their new adversaries : Your information. Of course governments are giving away more and more information. Look at the Open Data movement. But again, which data is being spread ? Recently, two amateur astronomers found a US spy satellite. These are supposed to be secret right ? Well clearly, the needle on the secrecy barometer is shifting. And that is bound to change the power equilibrium.

Now, of course Open Data is the way to go. Keeping the data for yourself in an age where transparency is being touted everywhere is the best way to anger your taxpayers. Obama, Cameron, Hollande ... understood that fairly quickly. "Give them the data !". I don't know if history has proved that the more transparent governments and system end up winning  (US versus The Soviet Union) but giving more tools for citizens to build more things is often a good idea. We live in an open world where we realize much quicker what's happening on the other side of the frontier and start wondering why we're not there yet. One way the "Lumières" made the French Revolution possible is by showing their fellow citizens what was happening on the other side of the English Channel.

If politicians can't promise us that future, they'd better give us the tools to build it ourselves. Hence the present rationale best put forward by Cameron's "Big Society" paradigm. For the standard of political promises is changing. "Change" itself on the lips of a politician cannot possibly mean the same thing it did 5 years ago. Now, among other things, it has to echo citizen empowerment.

Power + The Future

Having more information doesn't mean you'll be more able to predict. Take it from a data analyst. Models with more data from the past will only get better at predicting the past and modeling it nicely. They'll never give a more precise picture of the future. The Black Swan does a good job explaining that. At best, more information can get focusing. In no way does it make the system more predictable. By making you more confident, more information makes you more to making huge mistakes, often caused by small unpredictable, hard to spot waves. Period. More information certainly won't garanty a more sustainable power balance. Power sustainability is the result of two things :

  • Political infrastructure : a government capable of taking decisions
  • Social cohesion : A people that won't shout too loud when decisions are made

But the more information is available, the more that social cohesion will be hard to form. Governments used to take decisions with information at hand only they owned. Now, they share that information with the people and there are no hidden parameters. When you know on what decisions are being based exactly, accountability reaches a whole new level. No wonder the Portuguese, Spanish and Greek governments are having a hard time. The only solution in that scenario is, again, Cameron's "Big Society". "They might not like what we decide ? Great ! Give them the power to decide themselves. Let them be accountable for their own future." I wonder of this take on things goes on to solve Dani Rodrik's irreconcilable triangle :

Deep down, the crisis is yet another manifestation of what I call “the political trilemma of the world economy”: economic globalization, political democracy, and the nation-state are mutually irreconcilable. We can have at most two at one time. Democracy is compatible with national sovereignty only if we restrict globalization. If we push for globalization while retaining the nation-state, we must jettison democracy. And if we want democracy along with globalization, we must shove the nation-state aside and strive for greater international governance.

This definitely echoes Mundell's impossible trinity as he applies that close/open, government/people, global/local trilemma to monetary exchange. So take China for example. They're certainly pushing for globalization while retaining the nation-state. Hence the lagging democracy. But again, this needs to be considered dynamically, not statically. It's how fast you push each aspect relatively to others that matters. As an illustration, the Chinese government allowed regional elections in the year 2000. This might seem like a big step but relative to pushes in globalization and the nation-state aspects, it's a small advance. Power's sustainability rests on that moving equilibrium.

Power + Feedback

For Power to sustain itself, it also needs to be wary of the ripples of its actions today. Why today more than yesterday ? Because mortgaging the future today has heavier consequences than it had in the past. The US and the UN can't over-react to Syria's misbehavior. They have to show some kind of mercy and understanding. Nobody wants to dig out the Western countries colonialist reputation that the Iraki episode forged. Rome could over-react to one of its regions' uprising and crush it swiftly. People would forget promptly and even if they didn't, they didn't have the power to react, so risking the future wasn't that big of a gamble. But today, remembrance mechanisms are becoming more effective. Many say excessive information is leading us to becoming more forgetful but major players' mistakes remain as more indelible stains today than they did in the past. They become a perpetual part of their identity.

It was Max Weber who talked about the State's legitimate right to exercise violence. In many ways, his conception of the state reflects Machiavelli's pragmatism as the latter also describes the necessity of using force in some cases. For both, feedback and remembrance weren't really issues. In "The Prince" Machiavelli advises to finish off all those who would be likely to rise later on in a conquered state. But just as a website can't be shut down today, a government simply can't finish off the enemy. The playground is way too subtle now and the riposting powers too dispersed. Government need to be ever more careful of feedback. But that doesn't mean they can't use it to their advantage.

The feedback loop is an amazing beast. Among other things, it contributes to what economists call The tinker bell effect (or the Dunning Kruger effect) : you can fly, but only if you believe you can fly. In one of his posts, Krugman describes it in an interesting way, while weighing in on a debate between two other economists :

OK, I have to weigh in briefly on this debate between Mark Thoma and Scott Sumner. Mark is being too gentle here: on this issue, Scott is just wrong — actually wrong on two levels. First, he writes that : "But here’s the bigger flaw with the whole expectations trap argument. People think it applies to monetary policy, but they forget it applies equally to fiscal policy. (Indeed I never realized this until today.) Here’s why. Krugman’s model relies on rational expectations, indeed you can’t get the expectations trap without ratex. But if you have ratex in your model, then no policy can work unless it is expected to work."

What Scott is suggesting is that all macro policy, both monetary and fiscal, is subject to what we might call the Tinkerbell Principle: you can fly, but only if you believe you can fly. But this isn't even true about monetary policy, unless you’re at the zero lower bound. Under normal circumstances, an open-market operation will reduce short-term interest rates, regardless of what the market believes. It’s only when you’re up against the lower bound that increasing the current monetary base does nothing, so an open-market operation matters only if people believe it signals higher inflation later.

In this case, the debate gravitates around monetary policy and how one can get out of the liquidity trap (the one Japan is stuck in and the one economists thought the US was heading towards). But the Tinker Bell effect is very much applicable in other economic situations. We used to say that a third way to reboot the economy, aside the fiscal and monetary techniques the government could employ, is the media reboot : During a crisis, use ads and commercials to give people the impression that everything's OK ("10% discount on all summer tops", "Brand new collection at GAP", "Leave for the Bahamas this summer", "The Dark Knight Rises is an all-time box-office hit"). Spread the joy and people will eventually believe the crisis is over. Everything indicates people are just fine, spending their money happily. Maybe that's how the US dug its way out of its last bust. Fundamentals aren't that shiny.

The Dark Side of Power

And here I'm not talking about Dark Vader or any obscure dictator but rather about the unexplored side of power. One we might be tinkering with now. Today, politicians need to act as :

  • Global Vendors, getting on their hands and knees to attract foreign capital
  • Local Brokers, catering to their citizens' demands and taking decisions carefully, constantly watching out for feedback

So in a way, being so dependent on others' actions, they're powerless ! But then again, this is what power or rather Power 2.0 really is. It's all about Mediation. Being the perfect middle man. For in an age where Oloptism (The power of collective intelligence) is rising, that is where you want to be to be able to leverage it. Governments need to consider the possibility that a Supra-democracy might rise soon. Many realize that if Internet users decide to vote on launching a satellite in outer space and succeed, the satellite will get funding (Kick-starter ...), get built and launched (maybe by private space companies looking for exposure). And all this, without states having any word to say in all the process.

It goes on to remind me of Eric Van Der Broeke's idea of an atomic fractional production society where small workers make big things happen and where big companies become too heavy, too slow, too big to ... survive. In this vision, co-working spaces would become collision spaces where ideas would meet and mate : The offline equivalent of internet's forums. In other words, what the Internet did to information, e-working and co-working would do to work : Atomize it, fraction it, crowd-source it. Again, this stems from a proven rationale :

  • Gutenberg's breakthrough was a drop in the price of printing, see what happened to books
  • The internet revolution is a drop in the price of information, see what happened to information and the people living off of its asymmetries
  • The work revolution is due to a drop in the price of working tools and working places, a drop in the price of capital (Considering that being able to work = work place + work tools)

It's about scope now not scale, as this Al Jazeera opinion piece points out :

Peer production methodologies are based on the exact opposite tenets. Peer production communities believe that knowledge is a commons, for all to share. Therefore, no innovation can be withheld from the human population as a whole. In fact, withholding a life-saving or world-saving innovation is seen as distinctly unethical. Peer production designs for distribution, inclusion and small-scale fabrication. Planned obsolescence - which is a feature and not a bug, of the current system - is totally alien to peer production logic. In other words, sustainability is a feature of open design communities, not a bug. So what are the economies of scope of this new age? They come in two flavors: the mutualising of knowledge and the mutualising of tangible resources.

In other words, sharing is a viral virus that's conquered us all now. Maybe it's become a need or maybe it's simply been fleshed out thanks to new technologies. Whichever, sharing will reach a new level and when it does, expect the world to look very different :

  1. Informational asymmetries are being broken
  2. Hence, Big Brother needs to get Bigger to preserve that asymmetry
  3. Only more information does not enable a bigger insight into the future and hence a more sustainable power
  4. Power sustainability = Power Infrastructure + Social Cohesion
  5. Social cohesion, in a transparent environment, entails giving out more power to citizens
  6. Consequently, the best way to remain relevant is to leverage that growing power [Big Society]
  7. Because of the growing impact of feedback, traditional power holders are forced to become mere mediators
  8. Citizens' newly acquired abilities are changing the way they act our citizenship out
  9. Sharing is moving from a trend to an inner feature of the rising system
  10. Therefore, Power 2.0 will stem from dispersed sources

I'd love to hear what you think about all that. Sharing is sexy, share your opinion :)