Who counts?

I had been looking forward to reading The Ordinal Society by Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy, and it hasn’t disappointed. My copy is covered in sticky notes marking interesting points.

What do they mean by the term? It is the world created by Silicon Valley built on the digital traces we all create using its services and that “stratifies individuals through a myriad of differentiated methods of matching, scoring and classification. Those methods have both a practical application and a moral valence. The ordinal society is both a means of social organization and a mode of first person experience.” The book brings the lens of sociological theory – Mauss, Deleuze, and Bourdieu feature most prominently – to the now-familiar effects of digitalization.

This makes it orders of magnitude more persuasive than the dreadful but influential Age of Surveillance Capitalism of Shoshana Zuboff. The Ordinal Society traces the evolution of digital capitalism from the initial stages of a gift exchange structure – it was all free and so wonderful nobody much minded the gradual development of data extraction business models – through the subsequent collection and use of data, development of classifications and then the increasingly extractive and financialized business models of digital platforms. The classification of individuals and association of these categories with profits created rankings of people which almost unavoidably turned into apprasial of relative moral worth. “The data imperative was a cultural and political accomplishment, beyond the economic search for efficiency.” The data brokerage business is one of the most dynamic but also least well-understood of modern industries – including on the dark web. And while “social life is messy”, the digital world needs orderly (binary) constructs. These lead to decisions that are hard to challenge – one’s digital identity might have been denied right of entry to another country before the flight has taken off. The book coins the term ‘eigencapital’ (in a broad analogy to cultural capital) to capture the concept of the data asset that is one’s individual identity (based on the eigenvectors of information constructed from a dataset).

What use is your eigencapital? One example the book gives is that it is embodied in the amount of time people need to wait to access services. Higher eigencapital people might get access to a better-staffed phone number and call centre, or get a place higher up the queue for a chatbot to respond: “Sociologists have long studied queues and lines as structures that allow for both control of status.” (I’d never thought of this but it makes sense of my mill-worker parents’ obsession with never being late for anything ever.) Queuing data amplifies this social dynamic.

Anybody sentient in the UK in recent weeks will have become aware of the Post Office Horizon scandal: the very existence of digital data makes people believe in its truth (and there is a dreadful – albeit rebuttable – presumption in UK law that computers are right and people are wrong). The use of machine learning systems and now generative AI is massively amplifying all the ways this can lead to unfreedom and injustice. “At their best these approaches really do perform astonishingly well. But their scale and complexity invites a kind of deference to the oracle, both in terms of its care and feeding on the one hand, and its pronouncements, on the other.”

The sections on digital identity and money reminded me of Dave Birch’s wonderful book Identity is the New Money. Dave had tremendous foresight; the issues he raised then are currently key issues in the debate about Digital Public Infrastructure. The Ordinal Society has examples like the collection of sensor data from cars turning auto manufacturers into financial services companies, and the infamous John Deere case. ‘Servitization’ is becoming more widespread across the economy although to what extent is unclear. The book also has a section on crypto and DAOs, an area I’ve never really got to grips with.

It ends pessimistically: “Public goods and collective goals are being dissolved in the acid bath of individualization and competition, leaving us increasingly alone in a hyperconnected world whose social ordering is precisely metered and, in its factitious way, inarguably ‘right’. Life in the ordinal society may well be unbearable.” Funnily enough, I ended up less pessimistic, if only because this would be so unbearable the revolution would happen first. Still, we have a lot of work to do to force the toxin of data and engagement-driven business models into retreat.

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Money, money, money

Money has always seemed mysterious to me, and so I’ve always carefully avoided monetary economics as too difficult (which makes it ironic that when I returned from my US PhD programme to a job in the UK Treasury in 1985 I was assigned to the monetary policy unit – this in the days long before Bank of England independence, when the Treasury and Chancellor made the policy decisions). Still, from time to time I dip in, and found Stefan Eich’s The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes an interesting read.

The book is an intellectual history of how certain key thinkers regarded money, covering Locke, Fichte and Marx in between Aristotle and Keynes. The selection is used to illustrate a core point that how money is theorised and governed involves political choices, not technocratic ones. This repeated theme reminded me of Paul Tucker’s Unelected Power, similarly arguing against seeing monetary policy as an expert domain. I was initially resistant to this but on reflection at least partly agreed (partly first, because the technical affordances set the boundaries of policy feasibility, and second, because I hold on to the idea that most ‘experts’ in such areas are motivated by a sense of the public good rather than ideology or personal philosophy).

Anyway, back to this book. Each chapter reflects a close reading of the relevant work of each subject combined with an analysis of the contemporary political context. Thus he argues that Locke, for example, in his contributions to the debate about England’s increasingly clipped silver coinage, made the political move of ‘depoliticising’ money, arguing for its ‘intrinsic value’ linked to a quantity of metal: “Locke’s intervention was itself political, even where it removed political discretion,” with the aim of bolstering the role of the state as a general guarantor of (classical) liberal freedoms while limiting its scope to act in detail.

Similarly on Keynes, he writes, monetary policy, “was a public task tied to social justice. It derived its legitimacy from the implicit political covenant that also grounded the state. But it was nonetheless removed by at least one degree from popular politics since it relied on management by a group of experts who had to carefully navigate between democratic legitimacy and the political uses of their expertise.” This seems spot on. And the act of navigation is challenging in turbulent times. Independent central banks have broadly done a good job of stabilising the aggregate economy since the mid-2000s but a bad job in not recognising the distributional and political consequences of QE on a massive scale.

The other message I took from the book was that political and ideological contention both contributes to the emergence of new monetary technologies and is channelled by the affordances of the technologies. When I worked in the Treasury, my job was basically to try and figure out why monetary aggregates were growing so damn quickly – this was the tail end of the pure monetarist experiment in the UK. It turned out that trying monetary targeting at a time of huge technological change (derivatives markets exploding, ATMs and credit/debit card use spreading rapidly, deregulation of consumer credit) was doomed to failure. I still don’t understand cryptocurrencies but they are certainly part of this continuing dialectic of  – to mix metaphors horribly – walking the tightrope between the inevitably political character of the monetary system and the desirability of stability in the economy which requires taking it out of politics. The Currency of Politics really helps understand this.

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AI and us

Code Dependent: Living in the shadow of AI by Madhumita Murgia is a gripping read. She’s the FT’s AI Editor, so the book is well-written and benefits from her reporting experience at the FT and previously Wired. It is a book of reportage, collating tales of people’s bad experiences either as part of the low-paid work force in low income countries tagging images or moderating content, or being on the receiving end of algorithmic decision-making. The common thread is the destruction of human agency and the utter absence of accountability or scope for redress when AI systems are created and deployed.

The analytical framework is the idea of data colonialism, the extraction of information from individuals for its use in ways that never benefit them. The book is not entirely negative about AI and sees the possibilities. One example is the use of AI on a large sample of knee-xrays looking for osteo-arthritis. The puzzle being tackled by the researcher concerned was that African American patients consistently reported greater pain than patients of European extraction when their X rays looked exactly the same to the human radiologists. The solution turned out to be that the X rays were scored against a scale developed in mid-20th century Manchester on white, male patients. When the researcher, Ziad Obermeyer, fed a database of X-ray images to an AI algorithm, his model proved a much better predictor of pain. Humans wear blinkers created by the measurement frameworks we have already constructed, whereas AI is (or can be) a blank slate.

However, this is one of the optimistic examples in the book, where AI can potentially offer a positive outcome for humans. It is outnumbered by the counter-examples – Uber drivers being shortchanged by the algorithm or falsely flagged for some misdemeanour and having no possibility of redress, women haunted by deepfake pornography, Kenyan workers traumatised by the images they need to assess for content moderation yet unable to even speak about it because of the NDAs they have to sign, data collected from powerless and poor humans to train medical apps whose use they will never be able to afford.

The book brought to life for me an abstract idea I’ve been thinking about pursuing for a while: the need to find business models and financing modes that will enable the technology to benefit everyone. The technological possibilities are there but the only prevailing models are exploitative. Who is going to find how to deploy AI for the common good? How can the use of AI models be made accountable? Because it isn’t just a matter of ‘computer says No’, but rather ‘computer doesn’t acknowledge your existence’. And behind the computers stand the rich and powerful of the tech world.

There are lots of new books about AI out or about to be published, including AI Needs You by my colleague Verity Harding (I’ll post separately). I strongly recommend both of these; and would also observe that it’s women in the forefront of pushing for AI to serve everyone.

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AI needs all of us

There’s no way I can be unbiased about Verity Harding’s new book AI Needs You: How we can change AI’s future and save our own, given that it began with a workshop Verity convened and the Bennett Institute hosted in Cambridge a few years ago. The idea – quite some time before the current wave of AI hype, hope and fear – was to reflect on how previous emerging disruptive technologies had come to be governed. After some debate we settled on space, embryology, and ICANN (the internet domain naming body), as between them these seemed to echo some of the issues regarding AI.

These discussions set the scene for Verity’s research into the detailed history of governance in each of these cases, and the outcome is a fascinating book that describes each in turn and reflects on the lessons for us now. The overall message is that the governance and use of technology in the public interest, for the public good, is possible. There is no technological determinism, nor any trade-off between public benefit and private innovation. The ‘Silicon Valley’ zeitgeist of inevitability, the idea that the tech is irresistible and society’s task is to leave its management to the experts, is false.

The implication of this – and hence the book’s title – is that: “Understanding that technology – how it gets built, why, and by whom – is critical for anyone interested in the future of our society.” And hence the ‘Needs You’ in the title. How AI develops, what it is used for an how – these are political questions requiring engaged citizens. This is why the historical examples are so fascinating, revealing as they do the messy practicalities and contingency of citizen engagement, political debate, quiet lobbying, co-ordination efforts, events and sheer luck. The embryology example is a case in point: the legislation in the UK was based on the hard work of the Warnock Commission, its engagement with citizens, tireless efforts to explain science; but also on years of political debate and a key decision by Mrs Thatcher about its Parliamentary progress. The resulting legislation has since stood the test of time and also set an ethical and regulatory framework for other countries too. The lesson is that the governance of AI will not be shaped by clever people designing it, but as the outcome of political and social forces.

The book is beautifully written and a gripping read (more than you might expect for a book about regulating technology). There are quite a few new books on AI out this spring, and there are others I’ve read in proof that are also excellent; but this will definitely be one of the ones that stands the test of time. Not for nothing did Time magazine name Verity as one of the 100 most influential people in AI. She is now leading a Bennett Institute Macarthur Foundation-funded project on the geopolitics of AI. I’ll be in conversation with her at Waterstones in Cambridge on 14th March.



Politics and economics

There’s a sentence I underlined twice in Ben Ansell’s Why Politics Fails: “Politics makes growth.” This is my main takeaway from editing a series of policy essays from my colleagues in the Productivity Institute, which will be out at the end of November for National Productivity Week. If you ask people what are the two main causes of the UK’s dismal productivity in recent times they will pick what’s close to their own interests – various skills policies (the madness of the student loan system, the dreadful FE system, the madness of tearing up painstakingly-agreed T-levels for a new system…), R&D policies and the lack of institutions to enable the commercialisation of innovations, low investment levels because of a gazillion tax changes and low saving. But every essay circles back to politics: the politics of ‘announceables’, of over-centralisation, of silos, and so on.

Anyway, Why Politics Fails is an excellent introduction that does what it says in the title: it analyses political failures through the lens of five traps or, more accurately, trade-offs. The first chapter is about the tension in democracy between honouring majority preferences and protecting minorities. The equality trap is the trade-off between equal rights and equal outcomes. The third chapter is about solidarity, manifested only in situations of individual need. The security trap is the  balance between (too much) anarchy and (too much) order. And the prosperity trap concerns the short-run economic (and electoral) gains looking more attractive than long-run decision-making that will enable prosperity over time.

The book has lots of examples, contemporary and historical. It would make an excellent additional read for students, as well as being accessible to the general readership (and Reith Lectures audience). I liked its emphasis on the delicate role played by a country’s institutions – for example, the book suggests an argument against UBI is its institutional fragility, compared to making improvements in existing, well-established welfare states. And the prosperity chapter rightly points to the importance of institutions as bulwarks against short-termism. It occupied me for a trans-atlantic flight & I enjoyed reading it.

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