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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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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Why Netanyahu Has Little Choice But To Extend The Ceasefire

The Israeli government has declared it is opposed to any ceasefire with Hamas. But one of its key objectives — and the top priority for Israelis — is to recover hostages. And only the ceasefire can achieve that...

photo of people marching with the sign Bring Them Home Now

A march in London in support of bringing home to Israel the hostages held in Gaza.

Vuk Valcic/ZUMA
Pierre Haski


PARIS — Monday marks the fourth and final day of the ceasefire agreed upon between Israel and Hamas. Does that mean the war resumes Tuesday in Gaza? Probably not, and here is why...

During the first three days of the ceasefire, 40 Israeli hostages, mostly women and children, were returned to the Jewish state. According to the terms of the agreement, three times as many Palestinian prisoners were released. Additionally, 35 Thai nationals and one Filipino, also kidnapped on Oct. 7, were released separately, as part of a negotiation that went through Iran. And one Russian citizen, according to Hamas, "in response to the efforts of Russian President (Vladimir) Putin and in appreciation of the Russian position in support of the Palestinian cause."

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A fourth exchange is scheduled for Monday. Meanwhile, over these same past three days, hundreds of aid trucks have been able to enter Gaza, where humanitarian conditions are catastrophic.

What will happen Tuesday, considering that Hamas still holds more than 180 hostages? All communication channels have been hard at work for the past 24 hours, to extend this ceasefire and facilitate the release of more hostages and prisoners.

Qatar has been leading the negotiation efforts. An envoy from Doha arrived in Israel on a special flight on Saturday — something worth noting, given that the two countries have no diplomatic relations. The United States is also very active, with President Joe Biden personally intervening on Saturday, when the agreement showed signs of impending collapse.

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