Not far short of three years-ago I published a piece on the Huffington Post which suggested that humans had moved from the age of the sword into the age of the printing press and were about to move into the age of the algorithm. The reason, I suggested, for why a particular form of technology came to shape an age was that each technology conferred an advantage upon an elite or institutionalised group, or at least facilitated the emergence of a such group which could control these technologies in order to achieve dominance.
This is why the algorithm will have its age. Algorithms are extraordinarily powerful but they are difficult things to create. They require highly paid geeks and therefore their competitive advantage will be conferred on those with the greatest personal or institutionalised resource – billionaires, the Russians, billionaire Russians, billionaire Presidents (Russian or otherwise). There is also a seductive attraction between algorithms and subterfuge: they work most effectively when they are invisible.
I have also long been an advocate of the idea that fundamental shift that follows from the social digital revolution is the shift of trust from institutions into processes. Now the problem with processes is that they can be ‘gamed’ – and there are no better tools for gaming processes than algorithms.
With this in mind I read this excellent piece by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer last Sunday. The article is an exposure of a billionaire called Robert Mercer and the activities of various organisations he funds. Carol (as a journalist) determines that these organisations have as their objective the disabling of mainstream media. In reality they go way beyond this: they are designed to ‘game’ democracy itself.
Robert Mercer is a computer scientist who made his money running a hedge fund that uses – surprise, surprise – algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets. He is also a far right neoliberal: one of the types who wishes to do away with or disable the institutions of government, except the military and police, and replace them with markets and profiteering. Markets, as he well knows from his hedge fund experience, can be manipulated and gamed even more readily than democracy.
Indeed it is almost inevitable that men like Mercer, with his type of unaccountable and un-transparent money, will tend to be the winners in the age of the algorithm. This kind of money just doesn’t reside anywhere else. One is hard pressed to find a secretive far left billionaire – and those billionaires of a more liberal (as distinct from neoliberal) bent tend naturally to give their money to organisations that fight poverty and disease, rather than create secretive networks designed to manipulate and control public opinion and undermine democracy.
This isn’t a question of left or right – it is a question of elite power versus the interest of the people. This is exactly the type of struggle that characterised the introduction of previous technological ages and a struggle which, until the introduction of universal suffrage and thus genuine democracy in the 20th century, has always favoured the elites. This also explains why Mercer is out to disable and distort democracy – genuine democracy will always act as a restriction on the wealthy to use their wealth to become even wealthier. Will Hutton put it somewhat better when he said “the point of democracy is to ensure that capitalism lives up to its promises.” The only way to re-establish democracy and create any sense of regulation or oversight over the activities of the Masters of the Algorithm is transparency. You cannot balance the influence of a Robert Mercer by outspending him in an algorithmic arms race – because even if the necessary money existed, it would almost certainly sit within a context that wouldn’t allow it to operate under-cover in a Mercer-type manner.
You can only counter a Mercer by exposing and explaining what he is doing, which is why Carole Cadwalladr’s article is so important. The sunlight of transparency is the only anti-dote to the abusive potential of the Masters of the Algorithm.