Predictive Politics: When Algorithms Will Run Our Democracy

New tech may soon be able to predict future political problems and independently develop solutions before issues even arise. But what does that mean for democracy?

Minority Report future returns
Minority Report future returns
DreamWorks Pictures
Adrian Lobe

MUNICH — Tech companies are obsessed with predicting human behavior. Auto-correct knows what word we're about to type and Amazon knows which book we'll buy next. But for a while now, governments have also been using algorithms and predictive analytics to forecast their citizens' behavior.

In many countries, the police already have so-called "predictive policing software," which uses data to estimate the probability of crimes being committed in the future. In the U.S., the city of Chicago has developed an algorithm to predict food hygiene violations in restaurants. In the UK, authorities are using big data analysis to predict cases of child abuse. In Germany, the government plans to use an artificial intelligence system to predict "potential" crises before they arise.

This privatization and mechanization of politics is an extension of libertarian utopian states.

A few months ago, the management consultancy firm Deloitte published a report describing various government trends, most striking of which is "anticipatory government". "The latest developments in neuro-linguistic programming, machine learning and speech and image recognition have made it possible for governments to anticipate and predict problems instead of reacting to them," says the report. They can avoid a whole range of problems, from crime to homelessness to accidents. As the use of this technology grows, governments will turn into a technocratic risk and process management system: input, output, done.

This new approach to politics will not only establish a new basis for exercising power (namely data) but will also lead to new rules being introduced. It won't be decision-makers or politicians deciding what constitutes a crisis — it will be software developers. When a software developed by IBM – or SAP in the case of the German army – identifies any kind of crisis that politicians must react to, it constitutes a kind of lobbying, as developers gain influence over politics through a supposedly evidence-based system. This privatization and mechanization of politics is an extension of libertarian utopian states, a phenomenon that experts predicted decades ago where government structures are influenced by the market.

It is a system is based on a very particular understanding of politics in which political issue is denied legitimacy before it even becomes politicized. The predictive government essentially means preventing social phenomena such as criminality, homelessness or unemployment, as though they are the consequences of delayed or ineffective government policy.

Big Data Is Watching — Photo: Shahadat Rahman

This depoliticizing technology uses a mathematical approach to suck all the air from the political system. From a democratic perspective, political issues are not a "problem", in the sense that they are not bothersome or disruptive. Rather, they are jumping-off points for a political process which, according to the classic model, begins with identifying and defining the problem, then progresses to setting the agenda and formulating and implementing policies. Ending a policy is part of the political process, but it isn't the same as depoliticization. Preventing political problems in advance ultimately means an end to the entire democratic process.

Would citizens have a right to appeal against the software's decision?

We need to let go of the idea that the state is a kind of thermostat you can use to adjust the wellbeing level of society. Democracy is always an incomplete system, of which the core principle is transparency: Issues will be publicly negotiated and resolved. Preemptive government and its fixation on the future actually constitute a conservative obsession with the present: everything must remain as it is. Political problems are treated as disturbances to the normal functioning of society.

In a modern bureaucratic state, there are, of course, legal disturbances that must be resolved (disturbances of the peace, an illegally parked car, etc.). When police are faced with a demonstration, they must consider hypothetical elements and predict whether an escalation will occur. They don't use computers to do this — they use their own judgment and experience. It is a perfect illustration of the difference between a democracy and a preemptive government, which intervenes much earlier and closes off certain avenues before citizens even have a chance to explore them. Such instruments can easily lend themselves to authoritarianism.

A software company develops a computer program that analyses variables such as the number of participants, noise levels and the degree of aggression of geotagged tweets to calculate the probability of a demonstration descending into violence. If the police use this software and deny demonstrators the right to protest, would the computer-generated prediction still be valid? Would protestors have a right to appeal against the software's decision? If the computer produces an unreliable result, would authorities be obliged to act on it? These are only a few of the questions that show how computer code could override the law.

In New Orleans, data company Palantir tested a predictive policing software without the local authorities having any idea it was in place. The model identified connections between people, places, cars, weapons and social media posts, and used these alongside other data to determine who might commit a crime or who might be a victim of crime. Their findings will not be made public, so people will not know who has been identified as a potential criminal. The information is locked away.

The most frustrating thing about this data-driven, deterministic government model is not just that it shuts down all political debate. The big underlying problem is that this system doesn't consider the future a malleable realm of possibilities, but as a latent threat, a risk to be managed. Even utopias are suspicious entities in the computerized regime, as they can't be reduced to a predictable data set.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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