Highlights for How Democracy Ends

When democracy ends, we are likely to be surprised by the form it takes. We may not even notice that it is happening because we are looking in the wrong places.
All can continue to function as they ought while failing to deliver what they should.
The future will be different from the past. The past is longer than we think. America is not the whole world.
The resemblance to a scene in a Batman movie – the Joker addressing the cowed citizens of Gotham – was so strong it seemed like a cliché.
No matter how much firepower the supporters of the aggrieved loser might have at their disposal, the state always has more. If it doesn’t, it is no longer a functioning state. The ‘people with guns’ in the minimal definition of democracy refers to the politicians who control the armed forces. Democracy fails when elected officials who have the authority to tell the generals what to do refuse to give it up. Or when the generals refuse to listen.
Whichever way you slice and dice the different types of coup, there is one fundamental distinction between them: some coups need to make clear that democracy is over in order to succeed; and some coups need to pretend that democracy is still intact.
The more democracy is taken for granted, the more chance there is to subvert it without having to overthrow it.
In any democracy there will be winners and losers. In the words of two American political scientists, Joe Parent and Joe Uscinski, ‘conspiracy theories are for loser
A calamity that wipes out the property and lives of the rich as effectively as those of the poor will make for a more equal society. It will also be hell on earth.
Minor progress is possible. Big progress is elusive, and always liable to be derailed by the backlash small progress provokes. We may be stuck.
Democracies have two big advantages in dealing with environmental dangers. One is the effective power of pressure groups, which can raise inconvenient truths. The second is market economies, which can experiment with alternative solutions.
If no one is trying to strike a deal, no one has anything to lose by digging in. Democratic politics is always damaged by the attempt to get round it.
In the rarefied atmosphere of existential risk, politics barely gets discussed at all. Instead, putative solutions focus on technical fixes – like building off switches that can’t be tampered with. Meaningful choices for human beings get reduced to the decisions of the few people who understand how the technology works – they are the ones who need to do the right thing. Only those with the capacity to build these machines have the capacity to stop them. Everyone else is a bystander.
Democracy cannot control existential risk. The most it can hope for is to be spared by it. This is how democracy gets treated by the existential risk-management industry: with kid gloves, like some precious object of historic value that might yet turn out to have an incidental use. No one wants to dismiss democracy out of hand. It would be terrible to see it disappear, just as it would be terrible to imagine the Louvre going up in a puff of smoke. So it gets brought along for the existential ride.
Seen from the perspective of game theory, democratic decision-making is often idiotic. But it can be a useful idiot.
The lesson of the Cold War and beyond is that democracy can co-exist with existential risk, but not on terms that make sense to either side. Thinking about the end of the world is too much for democracy to cope with, but not enough to kill it off. Democracy persists, unhappily joined to a partner it cannot really tolerate.
Sleepwalking and tightrope walking are both features of contemporary democracy. It is what gives our politics its peculiar double quality of attentiveness and carelessness.
Because this is politics, both parties were driven by contingencies they struggled to control. There was no real conspiracy on either side. Yet politicians who appear to be in a trance-like state provide the fuel for conspiracy theories. The creature is asleep but it moves purposefully. Someone must be pulling the strings.
Contemporary democracy is haunted by a sense of what it has lost. Some of the loss is the capacity for genuine self-expression. We do not walk the tightrope. It is done for us, by functionaries who are motivated by their anxious desire not to fall. The noise of the crowd is not an integral part of the performance. It is another hazard to be faced in the attempt to keep upright and moving forwards. No one reaches the other side and then turns to come back just for the hell of it. The purpose of the performance is simply to keep aloft.
Just as democracy will end at some point, so too will intelligent machines arrive eventually, and perhaps even suddenly. But we are not there yet.
Waiting for the AI revolution that never comes can be a giant displacement activity. While we are worrying about the dawn of intelligent machines, unintelligent machines are already doing much of the work. Computers may not have learned how to think for themselves. But we have learned how to let them think for us. A machine does not have to be intelligent to perform tasks that traditionally fall within the ambit of human intelligence. All it takes is for the humans to franchise the work out to the machine, having first told the machine what to do.
The danger of unintelligent machines is that, as they grow in power and usefulness, they lure intelligent human beings into relying on them for too much.
The same could hold for politics. The machine solves the problem; the politician helps us to understand what the solution means. Democracy might get better.
Technology by itself does not determine our future. But it will if we let it.
Corporations spew out further corporations – shells within shells – simply to make it hard for ordinary human beings to understand what they are up to. One of the nightmare scenarios for our robot future is what would happen if the robots could self-replicate. We already have some idea of what that would be like – it’s the corporate world.
But it is not impossible. It takes political will. The complex machinery of the modern state often obscures the presence of political will. We can’t seem to find the ghost in the machine when we need it. None the less, it is in there somewhere.
Look again at Hobbes’s picture of the state. Suitably updated, it could be a picture of Facebook. Just put Zuckerberg’s head at the top. He is no emperor. He is the sovereign of a vast corporate machine, whose component parts are made from the input of huge numbers of individual human beings. These people provide Facebook with its power, but they share very little of that power themselves. What they get in return is the freedom to do their own thing. That was the promise of Hobbes’s state, too. Hobbes didn’t offer the citizens control over the monster they had created. What he offered them instead was control over their own lives in exchange for giving life to an artificial creature that could underpin their shared existence. He traded them personal freedom for political control.
The state provides us with services. Facebook helps us curate our lives. The state can make us feel secure. Facebook can make us feel loved.
The long history of modern representative democracy has been a largely successful attempt to tame these wilder impulses. We don’t lynch any more. We don’t tar and feather. We don’t ostracise. Except on Twitter.
Twitter is sometimes described as being like the Wild West. But really it is the closest thing we have to the democracy of the ancient world: fickle, violent, empowering.
We all want trustworthy politicians. Knowing what politicians are up to at all times might look like a way for us to trust them completely. But that is not trust. It is oversight, which is the opposite of trust. Once we know everything that is going on, trust becomes meaningless. We have no need to trust people who can never betray us: they might as well be machines. The precondition for trust is the possibility that we will be disappointed. To rule out disappointment is to give up on trusting anyone. It is self-defeating.
Representative democracy has always been a watching game. We watch them, to make sure they don’t take advantage of the power we have given them. They watch us, to make sure we don’t take advantage of the freedom they have given us.
Who watches the watchers is the question to which representative democracy has no good answer once watching becomes too much like hard work.
Again, it is a question of incentives, time and human resources. Even corrupt and inefficient states tend to have more of each of these than their opponents, who are limited by their need to improvise. To this point the internet has not proved to be an autocracy-busting machine. It has turned into another useful tool of power.
There is every reason to believe Zuckerberg when he says that he wants to make the manipulation stop. He didn’t intend for it to happen. That’s the problem: no one did. It is just a side effect of being in the advertising business.
Politicians are not like doctors or other professionals. We do not simply look to them for guidance and help. We look for them to reflect who we are. Superior forms of knowledge get in the way of that.
The most radical critics of contemporary democracy offer solutions that sound more like symptoms of what has gone wrong than any possible cure. Both Land and Yarvin are conspiracy theorists on a gargantuan scale. Their contempt for everything they dislike outweighs their capacity to describe anything plausible that might replace it. The political world they conjure up is a caricature, populated with incredible heroes and villains, which makes it impossible to believe in. This is true of many people who have given up on democracy. Their loathing for it leaves them unable to think about how it might turn into something else. They just want to get to the next stage as quickly as possible.
Widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics is unmatched by any agreement about what would be better. Most of the alternatives sound a lot worse.
There is little difference between thinking that there is no alternative and believing that the only alternatives are the outrageous ones.
Contemporary authoritarians have tried to learn the lessons of the twentieth century like everyone else. They offer the other half of what democracy can provide, but not the whole. In place of personal dignity plus collective benefits, they promise personal benefits plus collective dignity.
Maybe it is not a trade-off. Maybe it is a straightforward choice. If we insist that every voice counts, then we shouldn’t be surprised that politics turns into a cacophonous mess. If we want the best results, perhaps we should limit political input to the people who know best how to achieve them.
Even highly qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system they have been instrumental in building, so long as it behaves the way it is meant to.
For now, technology is fraying us more than it is liberating us.
Contemporary democracy is no exception. Macro events and micro experiences squeeze out the room for reasonable compromise. When people look for the institutions that might facilitate such compromise, they find that they have been hollowed out by the pull of political fears and frustrations that are either too big or too small to fit them.

Highlights for Surveillance Valley

The people gathered at city hall that night saw Oakland’s DAC as an extension of the tech-fueled gentrification that was pushing poorer longtime residents out of the city.
the Internet was developed as a weapon and remains a weapon today. American military interests continue to dominate all parts of the network, even those that supposedly stand in opposition.
An even more disturbing dimension of the AIR’s pacification work in Thailand was that it was supposed to serve as a model for counterinsurgency operations elsewhere in the world—including against black people living in American inner cities, where race riots were breaking out at the time.
He began to see that in a society mediated by computer and information systems those who controlled the infrastructure wielded ultimate power.
Where Wiener saw danger, Lick saw opportunity. He had no qualms about putting this technology in the service of US corporate and military power.
Indeed, intelligence agencies were among the first users of the tools ARPA’s command and control program produced just a few years later.
Like many upper-class Americans of his day, North worried that the massive influx of immigrants from Europe was destroying the fabric of American society, causing social and political unrest, and threatening the nation’s racial purity.47 This fear of immigration would become intertwined with anticommunist hysteria, leading to repression of workers and labor unions across the country. North saw statisticians like himself as technocratic soldiers: America’s last line of defense against a foreign corrupting influence. And he saw the tabulator machine as their most powerful weapon.
Deemphasizing ARPA’s military purpose had the benefit of boosting morale among computer scientists, who were more eager to work on the technology if they believed it wasn’t going to be used to bomb people.
Fliers posted on both campuses railed against “computerized people-manipulation” and “the blatant prostitution of social science for the aims of the war machine.”
Pool saw computers as more than just apparatuses that could speed up social research. His work was infused with a utopian belief in the power of cybernetic systems to manage societies. He was among a group of Cold War technocrats who envisioned computer technology and networked systems deployed in a way that directly intervened in people’s lives, creating a kind of safety net that spanned the world and helped run societies in a harmonious manner, managing strife and conflict out of existence.
The language of Licklider’s proposal—talk about propaganda and monitoring political movements—was so direct and so obvious that it could not be ignored. It confirmed students’ and activists’ fears about computers and computer networks and gave them a glimpse into how military planners wanted to use these technologies as tools for surveillance and social control.
Today, people still think that surveillance is something foreign to the Internet—something imposed on it from the outside by paranoid government agencies. Rowan’s reporting from forty years ago tells a different story. It shows how military and intelligence agencies used the network technology to spy on Americans in the first version of the Internet. Surveillance was baked in from the very beginning.
Indeed, the army referred to activists and protesters as if they were organized enemy combatants embedded with the indigenous population.
In the 1990s the country was ablaze with sweeping religious proclamations about the Internet. People talked of a great leveling—an unstoppable wildfire that would rip through the world, consuming bureaucracies, corrupt governments, coddled business elites, and stodgy ideologies, clearing the way for a new global society that was more prosperous and freer in every possible way.
Kevin Kelly, a bearded evangelical Christian and Wired editor, agreed with his boss: “No one can escape the transforming fire of machines. Technology, which once progressed at the periphery of culture, now engulfs our minds as well as our lives. As each realm is overtaken by complex techniques, the usual order is inverted, and new rules established. The mighty tumble, the once confident are left desperate for guidance, and the nimble are given a chance to prevail.”
Brand disagreed. In a long article he filed for Rolling Stone, he set out to convince the magazine’s young and trend-setting readership that ARPA was not some big bureaucratic bummer connected to America’s war machine but instead was part of an “astonishingly enlightened research program” that just happened to be run by the Pentagon.
Brand was deeply embedded in California’s counterculture and appeared as a major character in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yet there he was, acting as a pitch man for ARPA, a military agency that had in its short existence already racked up a bloody reputation—from chemical warfare to counterinsurgency and surveillance. It didn’t seem to make any sense.
Brand took a different path. He belonged to the libertarian wing of the counterculture, which tended to look down on traditional political activism and viewed all politics with skepticism and scorn.
Neuromancer coined the term cyberspace. It also launched the cyberpunk movement, which responded to Gibson’s political critique in a cardinally different manner: it cheered the coming of this cyber dystopia.
Leverage is a good word for Kelly’s sudden religious inspiration. His faith in God matched his faith in the power of technological progress, which he saw as a part of God’s divine plan for the world. Over the years, he developed the belief that the growth of the Internet, the gadgetization and computerization of everything around us, the ultimate melding of flesh and computers, and the uploading of human beings into a virtual computer world were all part of a process that would merge people with God and allow us to become gods as well, creating and ruling over our own digital and robotic worlds just like our maker.
At Wired, Kelly injected this theology into every part of the magazine, infusing the text with an unquestioning belief in the ultimate goodness and rightness of markets and decentralized computer technology, no matter how it was used.
It seemed more a networking hub and marketing vehicle for the industry, a booster intended to create a brand around the cult of technology and the people who made and sold it, and then repackage it for the mainstream culture. It was continuing a tradition that Stewart Brand had started, overlaying an increasingly powerful computer industry with images of the counterculture to give it a hip and grassroots revolutionary edge.
Wired’s impact was not just cultural but also political. The magazine’s embrace of a privatized digital world made it a natural ally of the powerful business interests pushing to deregulate and privatize American telecommunications infrastructure.
John Malone, the billionaire cable monopolist at the head of TCI and one of the largest landowners in the United States, made the cut as well. Wired put him on the cover as a punk counterculture rebel for his fight against the Federal Communications Commission, which was putting the brakes on his cable company’s multi-billion-dollar merger with Bell Atlantic, a telephone giant. He is pictured walking down an empty rural highway with a dog by his side, wearing a tattered leather jacket and holding a shotgun. The reference is clear: he was Mel Gibson of Road Warrior, fighting to protect his town from being overrun by a savage band of misfits, which, to extend the metaphor, was the FCC regulators. The reason this billionaire was so cool? He had the guts to say that he’d shoot the head of the FCC if the man didn’t approve his merger fast enough.
That’s where Wired’s real cultural power lay: using cybernetic ideals of the counterculture to sell corporate politics as a revolutionary act.
Brand saw computers as a path toward a utopian world order where the individual wielded the ultimate power. Everything that came before—militaries, governments, big oppressive corporations—would melt away and an egalitarian system would spontaneously emerge.
People treated the search box as an impartial oracle that accepted questions, spat out answers, and moved on. Few realized it recorded everything typed into it,
The book demonstrates that Page and Brin understood early on that Google’s success depended on grabbing and maintaining proprietary control over the behavioral data they captured through their services. This was the company’s biggest asset.
One thing was certain in the wake of the AOL release: search logs provided an unadulterated look into the details of people’s inner lives, with all the strangeness, embarrassing quirks, and personal anguish those details divulged. And Google owned it all.
Taken together, these technical documents revealed that the company was developing a platform that attempted to track and profile everyone who came in touch with a Google product. It was, in essence, an elaborate system of private surveillance.
The language in the patent filings—descriptions of using “psychographic information,” “personality characteristics,” and “education levels” to profile and predict people’s interests—bore eerie resemblance to the early data-driven counterinsurgency initiatives funded by ARPA in the 1960s and 1970s.
There was only one difference: instead of preventing political insurgencies, Google wanted the data to sell people products and services with targeted ads. One was military, the other commercial. But at their core, both systems were dedicated to profiling and prediction. The type of data plugged into them was irrelevant.
The truth is that the Internet came out of a Pentagon project to develop modern communication and information systems that would allow the United States to get the drop on its enemies, both at home and abroad.
All these CIA-backed companies paid Facebook, Google, and Twitter for special access to social media data—adding another lucrative revenue stream to Silicon Valley.
From their inception, Internet companies banked heavily on the utopian promise of a networked world. Even as they pursued contracts with the military and their founders joined the ranks of the richest people on the planet, they wanted the world to see them not just as the same old plutocrats out to maximize shareholder value and their own power but also as progressive agents leading the way into a bright techno-utopia.
Snowden’s views on private surveillance were simplistic, but they seemed to be in line with his politics. He was a libertarian and believed the utopian promise of computer networks. He believed that the Internet was an inherently liberating technology that, if left alone, would evolve into a force of good in the world. The problem wasn’t Silicon Valley; it was government power.
The cypherpunk vision of the future was an inverted version of the military’s cybernetic dream pursued by the Pentagon and Silicon Valley: instead of leveraging global computer systems to make the world transparent and predictable, cypherpunks wanted to use computers and cryptography to make the world opaque and untrackable. It was a counterforce, a cybernetic weapon of individual privacy and freedom against a cybernetic weapon of government surveillance and control.
I was puzzled, but at least I understood why Tor had backing from Silicon Valley: it offered a false sense of privacy, while not posing a threat to the industry’s underlying surveillance business model.
While couched in lofty language about fighting censorship, promoting democracy, and safeguarding “freedom of expression,” these policies were rooted in big power politics: the fight to open markets to American companies and expand America’s dominance in the age of the Internet.51 Internet Freedom was enthusiastically backed by American businesses, especially budding Internet giants like Yahoo!, Amazon, eBay, Google, and later Facebook and Twitter. They saw foreign control of the Internet, first in China but also in Iran and later Vietnam, Russia, and Myanmar, as an illegitimate check on their ability to expand into new global markets, and ultimately as a threat to their businesses.
China saw Internet Freedom as a threat, an illegitimate attempt to undermine the country’s sovereignty through “network warfare,” and began building a sophisticated system of Internet censorship and control, which grew into the infamous Great Firewall of China.
The correspondence left little room for doubt. The Tor Project was not a radical indie organization fighting The Man. For all intents and purposes, it was The Man. Or, at least, The Man’s right hand.
Despite Tor’s public insistence it would never put in any backdoors that gave the US government secret privileged access to Tor’s network, the correspondence shows that in at least one instance in 2007, Tor revealed a security vulnerability to its federal backer before alerting the public, potentially giving the government an opportunity to exploit the weakness to unmask Tor users before it was fixed.
From a higher vantage point, the Tor Project was a wild success. It had matured into a powerful foreign policy tool—a soft-power cyber weapon with multiple uses and benefits. It hid spies and military agents on the Internet, enabling them to carry out their missions without leaving a trace. It was used by the US government as a persuasive regime-change weapon, a digital crowbar that prevented countries from exercising sovereign control over their own Internet infrastructure. Counterintuitively, Tor also emerged as a focal point for antigovernment privacy activists and organizations, a huge cultural success that made Tor that much more effective for its government backers by drawing fans and helping shield the project from scrutiny.
Most people involved in privacy activism do not know about the US government’s ongoing efforts to weaponize the privacy movement, nor do they appreciate Silicon Valley’s motives in this fight. Without that knowledge, it is impossible to makes sense of it all.
In 2015, when I first read these statements from the Tor Project, I was shocked. This was nothing less than a veiled admission that Tor was useless at guaranteeing anonymity and that it required attackers to behave “ethically” in order for it to remain secure.
The old cypherpunk dream, the idea that regular people could use grassroots encryption tools to carve out cyber islands free of government control, was proving to be just that, a dream.
Silicon Valley fears a political solution to privacy. Internet Freedom and crypto offer an acceptable alternative. Tools like Signal and Tor provide a false solution to the privacy problem, focusing people’s attention on government surveillance and distracting them from the private spying carried out by the Internet companies they use every day. All the while, crypto tools give people a sense that they’re doing something to protect themselves, a feeling of personal empowerment and control. And all those crypto radicals? Well, they just enhance the illusion, heightening the impression of risk and danger. With Signal or Tor installed, using an iPhone or Android suddenly becomes edgy and radical. So instead of pushing for political and democratic solutions to surveillance, we outsource our privacy politics to crypto apps—software made by the very same powerful entities that these apps are supposed to protect us from.
So instead of pushing for political and democratic solutions to surveillance, we outsource our privacy politics to crypto apps—software made by the very same powerful entities that these apps are supposed to protect us from.
The IBM machines themselves did not kill people, but they made the Nazi death machine run faster and more efficiently, scouring the population and tracking down victims in ways that would never have been possible without them.
But not all control is equal. Not all surveillance is bad. Without them, there can be no democratic oversight of society.
By pretending that the Internet transcends politics and culture, we leave the most malevolent and powerful forces in charge of its built-in potential for surveillance and control. The more we understand and democratize the Internet, the more we can deploy its power in the service of democratic and humanistic values, making it work for the many, not the few.