Google, Beijing

Above: Google Headquarters, Beijing, China. Credit: Verygreen.

Post-Democracy

What do we mean by post-democratic or post-democracy, in the context of the Digital Revolution? In the midst of the Digital Revolution, in the countries of the Western liberal democracies at least, no political party really has that much control over the big tech firms. Regardless of who you vote for, the party you want in government cannot really do that much to affect and alter the course of the Revolution.

It doesn't really matter who you vote for, tech wins. Any government is doomed to playing catch-up, and wondering how to deal with the social consequences of the innovations wrought and introduced by the large US tech firms--sometimes written as FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google). There are, of course, also many other large tech firms not based out of the USA--Samsung, Alibaba, Huawei, etc.

Here are three examples. First, the Great British High Street. Many retail shops are in decline. The fact is that the trend to buy more-and-more online has left many shops without much profit and if you walk through the main retail centre of most towns there are shops closed-down--lots of them. They can't compete on price with online orders delivered to the door, and they can't hold that much stock around--so that even when you do go into a shop they often don't have what you want which is annoying and no sale is made. No government can really halt this decimation of the High Street. The only law that could be passed that could halt it would be an outright ban on Amazon or a specific Amazon tax-duty by which the state would artificially inflate the prices of goods bought online. No mainstream political party is going to go to the polls on a promise to make Amazon illegal or poor value for money. And even if they did, and won a majority, the law would be very hard, probably impossible, to enforce.

Second, book publishing. The publishing industry cannot survive the Digital Revolution. People are changing their reading habits: they still read, but it's lots of free online content mixed with other ways of getting entertainment and information such as videos. A book is very expensive when compared with £20 per month for one's broadband connection. One printed book for the same price feels like a bad deal--it's not value for money, and it's not really worth it. Unfortunately, no government can really do that much to stop the book publishers slowly going out-of-business. What reasonable law could be passed to force people to buy books rather than go online? There isn't one. (In the UK there is only one chain of bookstores left and their pre-tax profit taking into account all the shops in 2017 was £9 million.)

Third. Mid-priced restaurants. Again. There are many chains-of-restaurants which are close to bankruptcy in the UK due the rise of food-delivery apps. People would rather eat at home--than suffer the crap service and physical discomfort of a mid-priced restaurant meal. Once again, no government can do anything much to stop this trend. What law could they pass? Maybe an astonishing tax or duty-payable on food delivered by app that would make the meal ordered poor value? (This is what the state does with whiskey and cigarettes--it artificially inflates the price in order to decrease the number of people buying the item. In the UK tax and duty on cigarettes makes up 90% of the retail price charged to the customer.)

These above examples are concrete things, before we go into things like data collection, data mining, and so forth. The problem is that MPs--the MPs that we vote for--don't know that much about the technologies that the big tech companies have already innovated for the years ahead--like AI. How is a Western government going to regulate AI? When they cannot even be sure what counts as AI, and what it is already being used for?

So, when it comes to the individual voter the choice of political party is very unlikely to be one that could realistically take charge, or take control, of the Digital Age--to shape its course, become a leader, or director. No, the fact is that it is the tech companies who lead, and shape--and the tech companies who are really in control. This is what is meant by post-democracy.

(9 October 2018)