Lost in space? Silicon Valley and the future of democracy

When Elon Musk talks about governance on Mars, what’s really scary are the implications for democracy on Earth.

Ziyaad Bhorat
13 July 2016

Elon Musk. Credit: Flickr/Bill David Brooks. Some rights reserved.

Elon Musk made headlines recently at ReCode’s 2016 Code Conference in Los Angeles for revealing more of his futurist thinking about technology and humanity. The enigmatic billionaire founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, SolarCity and PayPal turned heads with his argument that there’s just a “one in billions chance” that we are living in “base reality” and not one that’s simulated by a super-intelligence.

But it was Musk’s comments on the future governance of Mars that should really ring the alarm bells outside of the increasingly powerful technological elite to which he belongs. They highlight just how vulnerable governments and citizens might be when accelerating innovation in technology meets politics, coupled with the Libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley.

Musk proposes a system of direct democracy on Mars in which each individual votes on issues and laws instead of having any elected representatives. He argues that this would reduce the tendency towards corruption that’s present in today’s representative systems. Musk emphasizes the inertia of formal, legal models of governance, suggesting that laws should only operate for a finite period of time and should be easier to remove than to create.

This is not the first time that he has advocated for this position. In September 2015 Musk put the same ideas forward in conversation with the German Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, ending by referring to himself as a “pro-Anarchist.” Despite the stigma it often attracts today, anarchism more generally refers to the renunciation of state hierarchies: individuals have equal freedoms and can voluntarily associate among themselves as they see fit.

Although substantially similar to libertarianism in the original sense of the word, anarchism differs from the right-wing, pro-capitalist flavor of libertarianism that has emerged in the United States since the 1970s. Crucially though, at the core of both ideologies is a very limited role for government in regulating the affairs of individuals.

The suggestion of a ‘pure,’ direct democracy isn’t new of course. It was Plato who suggested that excessive freedom, coupled with the tendency of power-seeking individuals to exploit the belief in an equal capacity to rule, made pure democracy both unstable and vulnerable to demagogues and tyrants.  French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville reached much the same conclusion in distrusting democracy’s propagation of the “tyranny of the majority.” Both Plato and de Toqueville therefore advocated the necessity of skilled and able rulers to protect minority groups and keep governance stable.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was particularly critical of anarchism. In his book Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View Kant argued that anarchy lacked the enforcement mechanisms required to preserve freedom and maintain the law as more than an empty recommendation. But it was the French political philosopher Montesquieu who saw the problems inherent in pure democracy through majority rule most clearly, and who advocated for the decentralization of power through a separate judiciary, executive, and legislature—the checks and balances we see today in most democracies.

Editorial columnist Andrew Sullivan argues that current developments in the United States are already fulfilling many of these prophecies in relation to the rise of populism, majoritarianism and demagogues. In America Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny, he argues that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are examples of this shift. It’s true that both men have actively spoken out against the insular web of elected representation that keeps citizens separated from the elites in power who are supposed to be accountable to them.

Yet in a world in which technology is increasingly powerful, Trump and Sanders may just be smoke and mirrors, or at best precursors to a different and more troubling trend: the rising political power of a wealthy technocratic elite whose shared libertarian views have the ability to thwart any system of checks and balances. Musk’s Martian model of governance is troubling, not just because of its idealism and its omission of any means to protect true freedom and equality, but because its call for deregulation has major implications for politics now and in the near term future.

Musk is part of the Silicon Valley elite, a group that includes the likes of Facebook co-founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates, and Jack Ma—the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Together, these eight men have an estimated personal net worth of $273 billion in addition to the market value of the huge companies they control. However it’s not just their fortunes that make these individuals powerful but also their ability to develop and wield the technologies that are able to influence—and perhaps even alter—societies around the world. Not only do they have the power to resist government regulation, they can actively shape governance and politics.

For example, in 2015 Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple spent $48.6 million lobbying government in Washington D.C. This represents a 12 per cent increase over 2014 and 28.5 per cent since 2013. Yet the CPA-Zicklin Index ranked Google, the largest spender in this group, amongst the lowest performers of all S&P 500 companies in terms of political disclosure and accountability. Meanwhile, over 250 staff have moved through the revolving door between Google and its related companies and the federal government, Congress and national political campaigns during the two Administrations of President Obama.

Information is also a major battleground for technology companies. Apple, Microsoft, and Google have all invested in Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition set up in response to the US Government’s attempts to obtain their users’ data. While this may relieve individuals’ privacy concerns it does little to protect them from Silicon Valley itself. Companies like Facebook and Microsoft are already collecting vast amounts of social, personal and professional information. Taking these intrusions one step further, 23&Me is a startup backed by Google’s sister venture capital company, GV (formerly Google Ventures), which raises the stakes by collecting individuals’ DNA information through its home genetic testing products.

Technology is accelerating exponentially. This is already placing legal and regulatory institutions under greater stress, forcing governments into a game of constant catch-up. Courts, legislators, and executive authorities must decide what to do about the issues that arise from a spreading array of technologies that have the potential to transform key elements of politics and governance: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, gene selection, space colonization, net neutrality and cyber-security, to name just a few.

With technology advancing faster than the capacity of most institutions to respond effectively, the danger grows that societies will become even more vulnerable to the sway of those who own, control and master it. Whether intentionally or not, technocrats may be able to influence which groups ultimately end up in power, which issues are selected for attention as a matter of political priority, and how technology is used to deepen or hollow out democracy. Without new checks and balances, how we organize ourselves politically may be at the whim of a small but wealthy Silicon Valley elite.

In order to keep up with these developments, all branches of government need to retool themselves or make space for new institutions to be created. Deloitte consultants Shah, Brody, and Olson suggest that regulatory bodies need to invest in new capacities and technologies that allow them to sense irregularities and risks; involve and educate citizens much more effectively; develop guidelines and standards to fill gaps in regulation; and consult and collaborate across both public and private stakeholders. Above all, demands for openness and accountability from Silicon Valley must be amplified.

When Elon Musk talks about how Mars should be governed, the red planet’s future population should obviously be concerned. But what should really worry us are the implications of Musk’s thinking for the near-future governance of Earth.

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