Code is the new law that makes us all the serfs of tech

Jamie Susskind

Jamie Susskind says that the digital giants are accruing power that recalls the age of feudalism

16 September 2018 22:54

In 2009, President Obama presented Gordon Brown with a gift of twenty-five DVDs, each containing a classic American movie. But when the Prime Minister returned home and settled into his favourite armchair, popcorn in hand, he discovered that the films would not play. At first glance, this appeared to be some kind of technical error. But the opposite was true: the DVDs had been designed to play only on US DVD players. This restriction, enshrined in code, could not easily be broken – even by the most powerful man in the land.

This simple story reveals a point of fundamental importance for the future of politics. Technologies exert power – the ability to get us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. And those who control the most powerful technologies will increasingly control the rest of us. All around us, code’s empire is on the rise.

If you want to log on to a computer system, but don’t have the password, the software won’t grant you access. If you want to Tweet a message, but it’s longer than 280 characters, the platform won’t let it send. Asking a technology to do something it is not coded to do is like climbing into a cupboard and asking it to take you to the fifth floor.

For this reason, early internet scholars argued that ‘code is law’ – or at least that code is like law. They were right. But their analysis was limited in that it encompassed only ‘cyberspace’, the nonphysical world accessed through computer terminals. In the future, code’s empire will not be confined to cyberspace. In time, tens of billions of everyday objects – clothing, household appliances, public utilities, domestic and industrial robots – will be endowed with processing power and sensors and connected to the internet.

This has been called ‘the internet of things’, ‘ubiquitous computing’, ‘ambient intelligence’ and ‘everyware’. It means that, in the next few decades, the distinction between human and machine, online and offline, virtual and physical, will become less and less clear. No-one would say, for instance, that a journey in a self-driving car is a journey in ‘cyberspace’. Yet passengers in such vehicles will still be subject to the rule of code. If a car is programmed never to drive over 50 miles per hour, then it simply will not do so, even in an emergency. Nor will it park on a double yellow line. Nor, perhaps, will it hesitate to pull over for a police vehicle. It might even refuse to drive to a brothel, or trespass in areas of private property. All this is in the discretion of those who write the code, just like the Obama DVDs.

All around us, code’s empire is on the rise.

As time passes, more and more human activity will be mediated through digital systems, from mundane pursuits like dating and shopping to civic engagement like debating on digital platforms. The code that governs these systems will come to govern many aspects of our lives. And it will become increasingly sophisticated – even if not smart like us – capable of learning, developing and adapting.

The power of digital technology lies partly in the rules contained in its code. But that is not the whole story. Technology also exerts power by controlling our perception of the world.

We are increasingly reliant on technology to inform us about matters beyond our immediate perception. Finding and gathering information, choosing what is worthy of being reported, deciding on the necessary detail and context – more and more of this work is done by machines. Algorithms already sort the news on social media; increasingly they will gather and filter it too.

When we ask our digital systems for information (presently we do this through Googling, but in the future this is more likely to take the form of personal assistants like today’s Siri and Alexa), we are only ever presented with a tiny slice of reality. And as augmented reality systems grow in popularity – smart glasses, lenses, earbuds – even our sensory perception of the world will be mediated by digital filters coded by someone else.

It is understandable why those with the ability to control the flow of information in society are likely to be powerful. Through what they tell us about the outside world, and encourage us to feel about it, they determine our shared sense of what is right and wrong, true and false, real and fake. They shape our emotions and our outlook, our norms and customs. They can raise issues to the top of the agenda – or make them disappear completely. Informational decisions of this kind, which we increasingly entrust to tech firms, are not technical; they are political.

When we ask our digital systems for information, we are only ever presented with a tiny slice of reality.

Additionally, technology contributes to power through the data that it gathers about us. As time passes, more and more of our (private and public) thoughts, feelings, movements, associations and utterances are being captured and recorded in permanent or semi-permanent form. As the consultants at Cambridge Analytica recognised, the more you know about people – their tastes, fears, habits – the easier it is to influence or manipulate them. And data-gathering has an even deeper disciplinary function too: when we know we are being ‘watched’, we are less likely to do things perceived as shameful, sinful, or wrong. The man who knows that Googling ‘child porn’ will result in his data being sent to law enforcement officials is less likely to undertake that search in the first place.

The big picture is that digital technology enables new and strange forms of political power, and this in turn has enabled the emergence of what is a wholly new form of political entity: the big tech firm, which exerts power through the technologies that it owns and controls. This is a notable development in human affairs.

Unfortunately, much of our early thinking about the social significance of big tech firms has been muddled. To begin with, we have been too slow to recognise certain tech firms as authentically political entities. We have tended to think about politics in a narrow fashion, limiting it to the work of parliaments and politicians. But this way of thinking can blind us to new and important forms of power that admittedly don’t conform to the classical conception of politics. Only belatedly have we come to recognise that the digital is political.

Next, our political vocabulary has not evolved as quickly as we need it to. Some commentators, for instance, have tried to characterise megafirms such as Google and Apple as ‘states’ or ‘governments’. But this is conceptually sloppy. Tech firms, to state the obvious, are commercial entities with their own private interests, operating within the market system in pursuit of profit. The only political trait they share with states and governments is the fact that they exert power. But the source and nature of that power is plainly different – and our political language ought to be able to accommodate that difference.

Nor can the emerging tech firms usefully be characterised as public utilities like electricity or water companies. Our relationship with such companies tends to be one of reliance – we need them for our day-to-day comfort – but not one of power. They do not get us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do.

The big picture is that digital technology enables new and strange forms of political power, and this in turn has enabled the emergence of what is a wholly new form of political entity: the big tech firm.

In nature, if not in degree, the tech firms of the future are most likely to resemble older forms of private power that we have forgotten about in the age of the modern nation state. Feudal landlords taxed, disciplined and conscripted their serfs. Medieval guilds issued regulations as to the quality and pricing of goods, and punished members who failed to comply. The Anglican Church had the power to censor heretical publications. The English East India Company had its own private army, taxing and ruling its subjects until it was subsumed into the British state by the India Act of 1858.

What these archaic entities have in common with tomorrow’s tech firms is that they exerted power directly over people. Other great corporations of the recent past, like the vast monopolies of the early twentieth century, had political power but of an indirect form, exerted through campaign finance and lobbying of the actual ‘political’ process. But tech firms don’t need to involve themselves in that process to have power. They govern through code, and through the endless gathering of information, and through close and nuanced control over people’s perception of the world.

The first step for our generation of political thinkers and activists is to recognise the nature of the power of technology. Only then can we work out how to harness and finesse that power for the benefit of humankind – without ceding too much ground either to tech firms or the states that seek to regulate them (and co-opt the power of technology for themselves).

There is an old principle in political philosophy, traditionally associated with the thinkers of the Roman Republic: humans are not truly free if they are subject to power that is unaccountable, arbitrary, or opaque. In the past, that power came in the form of princes, priests, and conquerors. In the future, it will increasingly take the form of technology.

It would not be sensible to suggest that we are presently somehow enslaved by Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. But it would be equally incautious to assume that this is the final state of affairs. The world is changing quickly, these tech titans are likely to be the first of many, and the technologies of power are still in their infancy. We should prepare.

Jamie Susskind is the author of FUTURE POLITICS: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech.

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