dan mcquillan

lecturer in creative & social computing

Nov 07, 2015

Ghosts in the Algorithmic Resilience Machine

My speaker notes from the panel on 'Resilience and the Future of Democracy in the Smart City' at the 25th anniversary conference of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, 7th Nov 2015.


I want to start by looking at what resilience and the smart city have in common. The idea of resilience comes from Holling's original 1973 paper on ecological systems. He was looking at the balance of predator and prey, and replaced the simple idea of dynamic equilibrium with abstract concepts draw from systems theory & cybernetics. Complex systems have multiple equilibriums, and movement between these is not a collapse of the system but rather an adaptive cycle. So the population of antelope drooping by 80% is not necessarily a catastrophe, but an adaptive shift. The system persists, although in a changed form.


What does this have to do with the smart city? In it's current incarnation, the smart city appears as pervasive computation in the urban fabric, driven by the twin goals of efficiency and environmental sustainability. It posits continuous adaptation through a cycle of sensing-computation-actuation. Heterogeneous data streams from sensors are processed in to a dashboard of metrics that triggers automated changes; so, for example, speed limits and traffic lights are manipulated to modify car emissions in near real-time. The new model of the smart city explicitly includes the participation of citizens as sensing nodes. Continuous adaptations are made to optimise flows with respect to the higher parameters of smoothness and greenness. The smart city is multi-dimensional complex system constantly moving between temporary states of equilibrium. It is a manifestation of high-frequency resilience.



But resilience means more than systems ecology. It has outgrown it's origins to become a governing idea in a time of permanent crisis. As a form of governmentality [] it constitutes us as resilient populations and demands adaptation to emergencies of whatever kind, whether it's finance, envirnonment or security. In practice, the main engine of resilience is through accelerated conversion of everything to Hayek's self-organising complexity of markets, with military intervention at the peripheries where this resisted.


If resilience is the mode of crisis governance and the smart city is a form of high-frequency resilience, what does the smart city mean for democracy? To understand the implications for the future of democracy, I want to look at the emerging mode of production through which both wider resilience and specifically the smart city are being produced; that is, through the algorithmic production of preemption.


We're all becoming familiar with the idea that contemporary life generates streams of big data that are drawn through the analytic sieve of datamining and machine learning. Meaning is assigned through finding clusters, correlations and anomalies that can be used to make predictions. While its original commercial application was to predict the next set of supermarket purchases, the potential for prediction has become addictive for sectors whose main focus is risk. While algorithmic preemption drives both high-frequency trading and drone strikes, it has also spread to the more mundane areas of everyday life.


In the same way that airline websites use your online data profile to tweak the ticket prices that you see, algorithmic prediction leads to preemptive interventions in social processes. One example is human resources departments, where it's used to predicts which employees will be the next to leave. Or in company health insurance, where staff wear Fitbits and pay insurance premiums based on predicted future health. In New Zealand, the government commissioned algorithms to predict which families are likely to abuse their children, based on data available in the first week after birth. And in some US states police stop and search is targeted by prediction software like PredPol.


This preemption forecloses possible futures in favour of the preferred outcome. The smart city will be a concentrated vessel for algorithmic preemption and, because of this, it will be a machine for disassembling due process.


This year in the UK there's been a big fuss about the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta ('the Great Charter'). The principle of due process in law is expressed in Clause 39 of the Magna Carta: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."


But so much of this is potentially shredded by the smart city; the constant contact with algorithmic systems that can influence the friction or direction of our experience opens the space for prejudicial and discriminatory actions that escape oversight.



The characteristics of algorithmic preemption that disassemble due process include the high frequency and often invisible nature of the resilience adaptations. But also because, unlike science, algorithmic preemption make no claim to causal explanation. It simply predicts through patterns, and the derivation of those patterns through abstraction and parallel calculation at scale is opaque to human reasoning. Therefore the preemptions of big data are not understandable as intent nor accountable to 'the judgement of peers'.


Algorithmic productive force avoids causality, evades accountability, and restrict agency to participation and adaptation. To be honest, things are not looking good...


But general computation doesn't predetermine the kinds of patterns that are produced. The network protocols are open, and the ability to take advantage of code is not limited to the powerful. The question is, if there are other possibilities, how can we envision them? If enthusiastic communities participating in bottom up citizen sensing using accessible tech can be assimilated in to the resilience of the smart city, as they can, where do we look for forms of social recomposition that combine community and computation for a real alternative?


I think this is where the ghost of Gustav Landauer arises to guide us. His most famous dictum was first published in “Schwache Staatsmänner, Schwächeres Volk!” in 1910: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.” You can't smash the state as an external thing, it is this networked relational form.


But the smart city is also a networked relational form. The relations span people, devices and infrastructures, with patterns of relationships modulated by algorithms. Can we use algorithms to contract other forms of relationship? Here, another distinctive aspect of Landauer’s politics becomes applicable. He said that rather than toppling the state, you have to overcome capital by leaving the current order. This is precisely the possibility raised by some current experiments in political prototyping through technology.


The one i want to look at is the blockchain, which is the technology behind Bitcoin. Bitcoin itself dispenses with the need for a central bank through having distributed ledger of transactions. These transactions can be trusted because of an algorithmic mechanism called 'proof of work' which is basically incorruptible because it's implemented through a cryptographic hashing function. The underlying mechanism is distributed, trustable records that don't require a centralised authority.


Many people are now looking at role that distributed, trustable records could play beyond cryptocurrencies, through forms of so-called smart contracts. This is where the blockchain could become a protocol for parallel structures.
Many people are now looking at role that distributed, trustable records could play beyond cryptocurrencies, through forms of so-called smart contracts.


Smart contracts enable, for example, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). A DAO involves people collaborating with each other via processes recorded incorruptibly on the blockchain. While a lot of the speculation around smart contracts is libertarian, I agree with David Bollier's assessment that they also hold out the prospect for commons-based systems. A smart contract would straight away deal with issues such as the free rider problem, a.k.a. the tragedy of the commons. As the well-known hacker Jaromil, who works on a fork of bitcoin called Freecoin, says: "Bitcoin is not really about the loss of power of a few governments, but about the possibility for many more people to experiment with the building of new constituencies." It seems there could be prefigurative politics in these protocols.


One project implementing Freecoin is the Helsinki Urban Co-operative Farm. This is a community-supported agriculture project, where people collectively hire a grower but where participants can also volunteer to work in the fields. The agreement id that each member does at least 10 hours of work per year and there lots of other admin & logistical tasks that have to be done. The complex transaction types and numbers are becoming an issue for the collective, and the plan is for Freecoin to be a decentralized & transparent way to track & reward contributions, maintaing self-governance and avoiding the need to create a centralised institution.


Although this is only one small example of the application of the blockchain to common-pool resources, it is an eerie echo of Landauer, who's practical politics focused on communes for the collective production of food and other necessities. Overall, I'm suggesting that through technologies like the blockchain, Landauer's approach of leaving rather than confronting, reconstituting sets of relationships, and concentrating on common production, could be the Other of the Smart City.


Let me finish by returning to the topic of this panel: resilience and the future of democracy in the smart city. I think the current direction of travel, based on algorithmic preemption, is towards the post-democratic forms of neoliberal resilience. But it may be that the consequent creation of highly computational infrastructures is also an opening for decentralised autonomous organisation, enabling us to 'occupy' computation and implement a kind of exodus (in the spirit of Gustav Landauer) to more federal-communitarian forms supported by a protocols of commonality.


Thank you