The Silicon Cage: “Legitimate” governance 100 years after Weber

I presented this paper at the Data Power conference at the University of Bremen in September 2019.


In “Politics as a Vocation”, the lecture that he gave one hundred years ago, Max Weber offered what would become one of his most influential ideas: that a state is that which “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. Such use of violence, Weber argued, is legitimated in one of three distinct ways: by “tradition”, by “charisma”, or by the “virtue of ‘legality’ … the belief in the validity of legal statute … based on rationally created rules”.

In this centennial year of Weber’s lecture, much has been made of Weber’s prescience regarding modern-day charismatic demagogues. Yet it is in the conceptualisation of “legal-rational” legitimacy that greater purchase may be found when we grapple with the use of data and algorithms in contemporary society. As I will argue, the “iron cage” that Weber identified, which serves to constrain human freedom through the coercive combination of efficiency and calculation, has been supplanted. Today, we instead occupy what might be called a “silicon cage”, resulting from a step change in the nature and extent of calculation and prediction relating to people’s activities and intentions.

Moreover, while the bureaucratisation that Weber described was already entwined with a capitalist logic, the silicon cage of today has emerged from an even firmer embedding of the tools, practices and ideologies of capitalist enterprise in the rules-based (we might say algorithmic) governance of everyday life. Alternative arrangements present themselves, however, in the form of both “agonistic” and “cooperative” democracy.

From #MAGA to @AOC: Reflections on Radical Media in the Trump Era

I presented this paper, co-authored with Katie Arthur, at MIT’s Media in Transition conference in May 2019.


That social media both “giveth and taketh away” is not a new idea, but it is one that came to the fore in the tumultuous 2016. As the events of that year showed, while technological advances have afforded new space for radical media strategies—helping advance goals such as climate justice—so too have they created opportunities for political candidates from outside the mainstream to leverage populist resentment in the successful pursuit of political power. In this paper, we will explore how the use of civic media has evolved in the two years since our CMS Masters theses were submitted. While Donald Trump has, as President, consolidated his hold on mainstream media attention via his Twitter account, other voices have also emerged from the very different tradition of civic organising to share space on the “platform” of Twitter. Among the most prominent of these new voices is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose political experience as an organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign and as a supporter of marginalised communities such as the residents of Standing Rock, helped propel her to the U.S. House of Representatives, as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. In the paper we will explore Ocasio-Cortez’s rise, with a focus on her visibility on social media. As we will show, the rapid rise of “AOC” holds lessons for the prospects of both the “Green New Deal” policy she has trumpeted, and for whichever Democratic candidate is nominated to challenge Donald Trump in 2020.

Deciding how to decide: Six key questions for reducing AI’s democratic deficit

Artificial intelligence (AI) has a “democratic deficit” — and maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. As Jonnie Penn and others have argued, AI, in conception and application, has long been bound up with the logic and operations of big business. Today, we find AI put to use in an increasing array of socially significant settings, from sifting through CVs to swerving through traffic, many of which continue to serve these corporate interests. (We also find “AI” the brand put to use in the absence of AI the technlogy: a recent study suggests that 40% of start-ups who claim to use AI do not in fact do so.) Nor are governments of all stripes lacking interest in the potential power of AI to patrol and cajole the movements and mindsets of citizens.

Read more at Medium.

AI4People—An Ethical Framework for a Good AI Society: Opportunities, Risks, Principles, and Recommendations

I am a co-author on a new paper which appears in Minds and Machines (open access).2000px-Black_pencil.svgThis article reports the findings of AI4People, an Atomium—EISMD initiative designed to lay the foundations for a “Good AI Society”. We introduce the core opportunities and risks of AI for society; present a synthesis of five ethical principles that should undergird its development and adoption; and offer 20 concrete recommendations—to assess, to develop, to incentivise, and to support good AI—which in some cases may be undertaken directly by national or supranational policy makers, while in others may be led by other stakeholders. If adopted, these recommendations would serve as a firm foundation for the establishment of a Good AI Society.