Technological Conspiracies and Public Engagement

Posted on July 26th, 2015 by Lawrence Quill

In the early days of the Internet, many authors recognized the democratic potential of the new technology. The ‘electronic agora’ promised to revolutionize the political process and to overturn the constitutional arrangements that, to quote Madison in Federalist 10 required ‘the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity’ from any share in the government.

But times have changed. The rise of Internet giants, the threat of terrorism (including cyber-terrorism), and the wonder of gadgets that double as personal surveillance devices have altered our understanding of our relationship to the state, to corporations, and to conceptions of what it means to be human. It seems that the Internet is less ‘electronic agora’ and more participatory panopticon.

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Interestingly, in his Defense of Politics (1962), Bernard Crick offered some relevant thought about politics’ relation with technology. He used the latter in the broad sense to mean ‘science’, ‘administration’, and a certain kind of thinking about how societies and politics should be ordered. This was a trend that was popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain.⁠ Technology was not simply an activity applying scientific principles to the production of tools and goods but a social doctrine that advanced the idea that all human problems were reducible to technical solutions. The engineer, noted Crick, had replaced the warrior or gentleman as the archetype for citizenship. Education was fast being reduced to technique and training, and politics was finally becoming a ‘science’ reliant upon laws which might be discovered through observation. The claim being advanced, Crick notes, is that it is possible to do for society what physics has done for nature.

A brief survey of the best-seller titles in any good bookshop will tend to confirm this hypothesis. In breathless tones, we are told of the new ‘social physics’ that is revolutionizing our world but, far from being mere dupes in this process, we find ourselves active and often willing participants ready to sacrifice personal safeguards (i.e. the right to privacy) in favor of a perceived benefit or service. In the absence of certainty and increased risk, we turn to numbers and the patterns and relationships between them to provide guidance as to how we should live. In fact, some problems are considered so complicated that no human can even think of solving them (i.e. climate change).

In the near future, software and robotics will combine to replace many of the jobs now in existence, more accurately predict behavior patterns in the economy and consumption, revolutionize healthcare (and insurance), and utterly transform those institutions like schools and universities that fail to keep up with the pace of change. The momentum seems unstoppable, the computer scientists and visionaries possessed of an almost religious passion. But what of politics?

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Ironically, for Crick the answer to problems that had grown too complex for tradition to solve was, in fact, a political one and not a technological one. Politics was a separate kind of human activity, separate from technology and (relatedly) administration. ‘…essential to genuine freedom; it is unknown to any but advanced and complex societies; and it has specific origins only found in European experience. It is something to be valued almost as a pearl beyond price in the history of the human condition…’(17)

For contemporary technologists and a good number of citizens this description of the ‘genuine’ nature of politics and freedom is likely to fall on deaf ears. Indeed, it only further underlines how irrelevant politics is. Politicians and (some) social scientists would probably concur. Part of the appeal of contemporary Internet technologies for policy makers is that technology offers solutions to intractable political problems like stopping terrorism or crime through increased surveillance and biometric security. Relatedly, a large portion of the public, it is the radical critique of traditional institutions by technologists that seems so empowering.

The conflict between these world-views, the political and the technological, seems disorienting. What is needed is some way to understand the changes that are happening.

In my own work, I have turned to the notion of conspiracy to provide one way of thinking ourselves out of this conundrum first by historicizing some of the more outlandish claims of technologists but also by acknowledging that the ‘human condition’ that Crick refers to is being rewritten. To be sure, this is hardly a new process as claims about what constitutes humanity have been a site for ideological contestation for centuries. But an interesting combination of narratives (from evolutionary biology and psychology, postmodern critiques of selfhood, and arguments from advocates of Artificial Intelligence) combined with a greater dependency upon technology is doing much to undermine previously held truths about what makes human beings human. If this is a conspiracy then it is an unusual one, conducted in the open, where we are willing ‘participants’ in the process.

Does this make Crick’s analysis irrelevant? I don’t think so. It is questionable whether our online behaviors are the same as participation.  And we ought to consider, too, that the design of the electronic agora today, if there is such a thing, is carefully controlled, monitored, recorded, and analyzed for advertising potential. If this is freedom then it is a very peculiar sort.




Lawrence Quill is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at San José State University, CA.He is the author most recently of Secrets and Democracy: From Arcana Imperii to WikiLeaks (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). His current research focuses on the politics and ethics of leaking, and political theories of conspiracy.