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Democracy and leadership in a new digital agorà

Rome, 04/12/2017, Meeting for the Friends of Aspen

Kick-starting this Meeting for the Friends of Aspen group was the observation that an end to information asymmetries, the achievement of absolute net neutrality, the elimination of any intermediation, and the attainment of pure democracy were just some of the benefits that were to be delivered by the big data revolution. Today, however, there has been a shift from widespread techno-optimism to an outlook of doom and gloom, predicated on market concentration, political manipulation and control, and even regard of the development of the internet as a threat to democracies. This phenomenon was seen as one demanding  examination, starting from what has happened over the space of a five-year period that amounts to an age.

The first question raised was whether the internet can be said to belong to everyone or whether it is a money-spinner in the hands of a few companies, as powerful as states and capable of using sophisticated mathematical models for political and business ends. Related questions posed included that of who actually manages and owns these algorithms, and whether the internet effectively amounts to some gigantic illusion that has ended up widening inequality gaps.

It was suggested that the right answer to these questions lies in an analysis which, based on reality, puts free will back at the heart of the debate. While on one hand algorithms risk appearing to be like some modern-day Ananke, it is also true that people – along with their creativity, intelligence, and freedom – must remain the key players.

Keeping to reality was seen as first and foremost entailing recognition that, with the advent of the data society, a post-truth era has arisen: it denotes the transition from the objective to the subjective, from specific expertise to hearsay, and a world in which everyone thinks that mastery over everything – from philosophy to law, and from psychology to medicine – is only one all-commanding click away. This is the age of fake news, tapping into a primal need for simple answers to complex problems, with news deliberately concocted for commercial ends or, worse, in order to manipulate consensus. It ushers in the rise of the belief in individual perceptions as what really count, in emotion over reason, and in the doxa over the episteme. It involves a process of subjectivization of knowledge that has not occurred in a peaceful and linear manner, as had been foreseen, but rather through the implosion of an ancient system of values without the creation of an alternative model as a frame of reference.

The participants stressed that it is precisely in the face of this void that new leaders are called upon to undertake a profound responsibility, to provide interpretative tools befitting the complexity of the moment. It was deemed evident that the demonization of the internet is not the appropriate response, indeed it risks putting democracies at a disadvantage compared to authoritarian regimes, which invest in the use of data to wield their power. Yet it was also held to be true that, within the international community, regulatory and penalty measures are needed that are capable of restoring balance to the market, avoiding the formation of monopolies in the supply of data, and safeguarding users in terms of transparency and privacy, while steering clear of the disingenuous process of self-regulation.

Hence, the real challenge was characterized as being one of a cultural nature: the ability to construct an alternative narrative, authoritativeness, and verification of sources were all pointed to as values to be invested in with a view to creating “antibodies” helpful in recognizing manipulations and remedying them. Today more than ever, leaders are called upon not to ride the wave of fear of the future and to avoid dwelling on fruitless pessimism, which is a harbinger of loss or, worse, of narcissistic disengagement.

In conclusion, it was observed that there would seem to be no shortcuts: it is necessary to give real meaning to the concept of transparency, to substantiate its existence constantly, and to safeguard it from false promises of freedom – all this to protect citizens from the mere illusion of participation and to prevent the possibility of private companies progressively encroaching on areas that are characteristically and fundamentally the province of public institutions. Failing this, there will be a definitive triumph of Ananke over Libertas, of bloggers over leaders, and of influencers over scholars.