A cursory glance of various news feeds, academic publications, and commentary suggests that both inside and outside of the national security, intelligence, and defence communities in Australia and many of its allied and partner countries overseas, awareness of a collective blind spot has been growing. The blind spot exists at the nexus of the social-political-technological matrix underpinning the liberal democratic polity, its functionality and utility, a matrix radically transformed by the influx and the overflow of the objects and actors we refer to broadly as the digital age. An axiom of political theory is that any stable and sustainable polity must be able to express and renew a cultural and political form with broad legitimacy among its constituent communities. Already impoverished by market fundamentalism, this capacity is further endangered in the digital age by its attack on the cognitive conditions critical to the reproduction of historical memory. Five of these conditions are highlighted below. The crisis of legitimacy facing liberal democratic institutions, accelerated and magnified by the digital age, should be understood as a core strategic threat to the West.
That the viability of liberal democracy as a social and political project is in question can induce a range of reactions, from denial to a type of moral panic. But the existence and the legitimacy of the question is far from novel. In 1995, with the digital age in its infancy, John Gray considered the future of liberal democracy in his still unparalleled critique of the collapse of modernity and its Enlightenment tenets, Enlightenment’s Wake. The core of Gray’s thesis is the foundationalist argument for the modern liberal project has been found badly wanting. Foundationalism in liberal thinking rested on two core themes: Rationalism—that with the growth in scientific knowledge human beings were becoming more reasonable and thus more peaceful—and Universalism—that this process represented an historical convergence toward a global civilization. Contrary to the liberal triumphalism of the 1990s, Gray saw these as fictions coming to an end. He warned that hoping liberalism could limp onwards without foundationalism both overestimated the extent to which liberal practices embedded liberal culture and underestimated the extent to which the polities living under liberal practices needed the foundational roots of liberal culture to continue bothering with those practices at all. The rapidly maturing digital age has accelerated these processes.
The hope of viability has nonetheless limped on, mainly due to the capacity of late-modern capitalism to invent and reinvent entirely artificial regimes of demand and distraction. The financialization of economic life became a harlequinade of nonsense—a type of casino-capitalism that has turned particularly nasty since the 1980s. The dominant institutions of post-industrial societies—a cadre of financial, corporate, and bureaucratic elites—do not protect families. They have sought to exploit and manipulate them. See the Australian Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry for abundant evidence.
Defying for a time the even more obvious fact that without a middle class and a generous welfare state—luxuries hollowed out by market forces—the legitimacy of liberal institutions would struggle, the undeniable unravelling might be finally punctuated by historians with the re-emergence of populism as a transatlantic political force. The buffer of the expectation of infinitely increasing prosperity removed, scarcely more than sticks and string hold these little empires together. Foundationalism having receded, an intellectual curiosity for liberal North Atlantic academic elites was, for large portions of the populations affected, the lived experience of meaningless and humiliating deception. Hope and anger are rivalrous siblings; left unattended, they only deepen the crisis of legitimacy in institutions. Populism is unlikely to attend to these needs long term, and the type of reasoned public discourse required to restore legitimacy faces a new series of challenges in the digital age.
Gray contended the sole universal offering of western modernity to the world would turn out to be hegemonic, technological nihilism rather than the values and institutions underpinning a converging universal and cosmopolitan civilization under secular humanism. Polities across the world have modernized without westernizing, some with astonishing success.The events and aftermath of 9/11 demonstrated what lay beneath the assumptions of liberal foundationalism with stunning impact, and the resurgence of local, contingent, historical, particularistic, ethno-religious traditionalism has defined the world in the thaw of the Cold War ever since. Increasingly since the mid-2000s, Gray’s view that late-modernity would become synonymous with an increasingly brutal and nihilistic form of techno-centric control has been borne out. Nowhere has modernity marched without the lock-step of technological domination. And nothing has remained beyond the reach of the digital age and its transmutations.
The digital age has en masse performed a transformation of the spatial-temporal zones within the brain-body-environment matrix of human cognition. Its possible to think of these transformations in relation to five basic interrelated features of the human cognitive experience.
Privacy: In I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, web privacy expert Lori Andrews details the multitude of ways in which the sphere of privacy available to individuals is being encroached upon. Andrews notes the law is not protecting this most fundamental of rights in an open democratic system. Encryption, perhaps the last stumbling block to total surveillance, is a battlefield slowly being won in favour of intrusive transparency, further shrinking the zone once quarantined and respected as private. With wearable technologies and social media, former bastions such as the family home and the human body itself can no longer be considered zones of privacy.
Absence: In The End of Absence, Michael Harris writes that in a world of constant connection and attention farming, the “rarest commodity is a chance to be alone with your thoughts.” To be periodically absent from others and the world has always been a normal feature of human life, and in these moments we formulate a stance toward others and the world from which all consensus in social and political life emerges. Without absence, this capacity is stifled and replaced by the tyranny of an exhausted and manipulated attention span, fully exposed to exploitation.
Contemplation: Similarly, in World Without Mind, Franklin Foer writes of the impoverishment of language and the written word and its impact on introspection, creativity, inspiration, authorship, and discernment—of the capacity to make and attribute knowledge. Knowledge in a world looking only outward cannot be of a quality and value required for mediation between conflicting viewpoints and human needs to take place. What socio-political role does thinking play in a near future of ubiquitous and inexpensive data-driven, predictive technologies?
Ambiguity: In You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier explains how the process of digitization erases as a structural necessity the transient and indiscrete in favour of the discrete and repeatable. Human life has existed as an analogue and unassigned whole, but the syntactical visions of Silicon Valley evangelists believe otherwise. They build software reflecting a fetish for cybernetic totalism, as radical and as deeply misanthropic a view of the human animal as anything seen in the millenarianism of the 20th century. Adaptive human life exists in the buffer zone of uncertainty, for which the deterministic certainties of computationalism have no regard.
Security: In Nervous States, William Davies writes of the overwhelming sense of anxiety and insecurity that has become part and parcel of living digitally mediated lives. An animal moved more by suggestion than by reason, human beings are deeply vulnerable to the constant gaslighting laced with fear which is now the price of being connected. No mere coincidence, the disorienting, humiliating, and demeaning experience of being online provides data analytics more likely to reveal our honest signals, and thus greater value to those entities for whom the manipulation and exploitation of human cognition is now a bread-and-butter business model. These techniques have a long lineage—one associated with the finer arts of prisoner interrogation.
Now consider the impact of these transformed spatial-temporal cognitive zones on five traditional pillars of liberal-democratic life.
Tolerance: To tolerate the beliefs and behaviours of others requires the capacity and willingness to make a moral judgement. Toleration itself expresses confidence in one’s judgements, however imperfect they are, and forms the basis of the modus vivendi we enter into with other people. It is the foundation of a pluralist liberal polity. Tolerance requires zones of privacy from which some public judgements are exempt and in which some beliefs and practices remain ambiguous and uninterrogated. Shrinking this spatial-temporal zone cuts two ways. It overwhelms the individual with the tyranny of others, and it spikes societal anxiety about what might lurk in the shadows, exacerbating the collective sense of insecurity.
Impartiality: The dominant Anglo-American thread in contemporary political liberalism remains Rawls’ theory of justice. Its central pillar is the veil of ignorance—a mental artifice from behind which the vagaries of human fate are removed from our understanding of a person. Without absence, the capacity for contemplation, and a healthy regard for ambiguity, the artifice of impartiality central to Rawlsian justice is breached by the deluge of partiality toward others.
Shared life experience: Traditional theories of liberal life reflect an awareness of the importance to the human animal of a sense of community. With connection has come not the shared experience of an accessible and identifiable polity but deepened social isolation for the individual. What is shared digitally is mostly not real. Collective life online can be impoverished and insubstantial, and more likely to harbour a siege mentality than a sense of security. Online communities are not merely digital representations of real communities. The digital substrate allows us to transmit only binary fragments of ourselves, as Luciano Floridi has noted. The weaponization of group identity, so amenable to the choice architecture of digital platforms and a key tenet of the data collection model, makes a broader sense of collective experience impossible. That connecting and sharing are literally the mission statements of Facebook is an affectation now stretched so far beyond the absurd it barely qualifies as satire.
Doubt: The capacity for informed scepticism is the key to legitimacy in human institutions under a liberal settlement. We shroud knowledge with authority by imagining the real possibility of doubt. The formulation of a human stance toward an unknowable world is processual, not discrete and finite. We know when we have imperfect information, and we know when we are offering our trust in institutions and each other nonetheless. This process is made impossible when the churn and speed of institutional knowledge is too rapid for doubt to form. When doubt is impossible, so is legitimacy. The popular focus on the proliferation of falsehood is a distraction. It is the collapse of the possibility of doubt that undermines liberal institutions.
Trust: Perhaps central to the entire matrix of liberal practice is the voluntary acceptance of vulnerability in the presence of irreducible uncertainty. Trust between humans is more than a political value we might hold. It amounts to a way of being human. It is a strategic resource and a prime target of attack in the digital age.
It is an unmixed good that our collective awareness of this blind spot is increasing. It should also be obvious that no single group of public and private institutions can claim or be attributed the mandate to respond. This challenge is societal. For national security, intelligence, and defence communities, the definition and demarcation of strategy will have to be reworked. State and non-state adversaries understand our blind spot. They’ve studied it deeply, seeking asymmetries, avoiding our strengths, and finding the weaknesses we are loathe to admit let alone address fruitfully.
The unutterable truth is that only two decades ago, the digital information age was widely believed to represent the West’s greatest competitive strategic advantage. For communities outside the traditional national security sphere, understanding the definition and demarcation of their roles and responsibilities in relation to societal well-being will also require change. As it stands, too many view the current circumstances as an opportunity for the exploitation and predation of a rudderless polity and an increasingly vulnerable population.
Mind sets, laws, practices, and mandates will require fundamental change. Whether or not liberalism survives this historical moment as a viable project at the heart of western civilization, and what might replace it in that role, are fundamentally unknowable. That these challenges are real and are presented here as impossibilities is intended to provoke, unsettle, and to urge their more full and serious examination.
Zac Rogers is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for United States and Asia Policy Studies, and a Ph.D candidate (under examination) at Flinders University of South Australia.
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Header Image: Social media’s effects (Jack Sachs)