Theresa May’s Algorithm

by Daniel James

How the UK voting public respond to Theresa May’s calculated decision not to appear in the leader’s debate will give us an interesting insight into how humans more generally might react to the affront of being made irrelevant by artificial intelligence.

Le me explain my point by drawing an analogy between the treatment of the electorate by Theresa May and a possible future situation imagined in Homo Deus by Yuval noah harari. Harari argues that we are moving towards a post-humanist age where the individual – or that which can not meaningfully be broken down – is very much being broken down into its, or our, component parts. This has been going on for some time – the thrust of much science being to break things down and see what they are made of in order to be able to see how it works and perhaps build it ourselves.

But it is only recently that machines have been built which are capable of holding – compared to the human brain – an almost infinite amount of facts, or more accurately pieces of data – think Cambridge Analytics and the ever increasing ability to serve segmented ads with slightly different and nuanced angles on politics in the recent Brexit-Trump victories.

The implication of this is that – once you join the matrix – enable location shizzle on your iphone, accept cookies, wear a fitbit, allow knowledge about your genes to be exploited by 23andMe – eventually, or in fact, pretty soon – you’re going to live in a world where you are no longer the authority on you. In the age of the human, that was the one thing we could all claim. But that may soon be over. Sure you can tell us all what it’s like to be you, but your clockwork memory is nothing when it comes to accessing the data. And let’s face it, it’s not like most of us make great life decisions based on reliable data as often as a supercomputer figures out the next figure of pi.

Imagine this specifically. You are not the authority on you. Even in what we might think of as quite a subjective end of the spectrum. Feelings. Friendship. Love for example.

Let’s say – and here’s roughly the example from Homo Deus – google & co. has aggregated all the data from your movements, your watch, your facebook posts, probably your audio and video that you store on the cloud soon too – and this same company has millions and millions of examples of the biometric data of people like you meeting each other, sending texts and going on dates – combined with the information about which ones worked, who ended up in a good fulfiling relationship and who ended up unhappy or worse.

Now, let’s say you’ve been casually seeing two people and you think you’re going to break it off with one of them because – you don’t know, there’s just something about this other person. BUT WAIT – your google and co. bot tells you that this is a mistake. It’s been running a background check on your plan and has to warn you that you have a 92% chance of being wrong in your decision. It has accessed the data from every meeting. Every heart beat. Every text message. It has understood your response – and remembered it – and is able to access it – and explain it – much better than you. Perhaps it even tells you that the reason to avoid candidate A is that although she thinks she likes you, she will soon get bored and you will end up unhappy whatever you try.

You decide not to take its advice the first time.

Some of your friends are doing the same thing. While others are getting almost culty about following the latest update of their bot’s advice.

And remember that in the brutal world of computing, once something is superior, it makes everything that has gone before it irrelevant. You can run windows 95 inside a shell on a later platform – the greater processing power of the successor means that it can do this – it can know every possible outcome and know the actual outcome of calculation quicker than the more basic programme. Essentially, there is nothing that the more basic programme can do that the later one cannot emulate – while still having spare capacity to do at least one thing – something else at the same time. This is a serious problem for humans running old operating systems…

But, back to the dating.

You think one thing is the best course of action, but the bot tells you something else.

If these bots are effective, the people who chose to follow the advice of their bot are going to be happier, more successful or whatever it is we want at the programming stage (I’d argue for coherence, but I’ll leave that for another post).

So after a certain amount of time of these bots giving us better advice than we can otherwise access, it will simply be ignorant for anyone to not follow the advice of the bot. It’s easy enough to imagine a world where someone who went against the advice of the bot, disobeyed its advice, might be immediately sectioned for being insane, because not following the advice of the bot necessarily means choosing for a worse option – whether this is measured in the future from the individual’s point of view (which is naturally in tension with this modernistic thrust) or a more futuristic amalgamated point of view that the individual is not even capable of really having, but the bot can, because of its ability to hold and analyse data.

So we’re now living in a world where only mad people have free will. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it. First it will be like having an iPhone, then it will become a habit, then a duty to obey, then… what was that old idea about freewill again?

Ok. So what does this have to do with the current UK election – and more specifically, Theresa May’s refusal to join the debate?

Well – it’s not a decision she has taken lightly. She will have analysed the fuck out of it, to use a technical term. She has teams who have reported to her on all the relevant precedents. She will have seen the boost that the minor parties get – particularly the Nick Clegg boost in the pre-coalition election, and the strong likelihood that the current leader has everything to lose and the smaller parties have everything to gain by being seen on the same platform, with the same rules and allocation of minutes and chance to make mistakes. If Mr Nutall doesn’t have an exact figure for the cost of his detainment camps, no one’s really that bothered. But that sort of gaffe could be very embarrassing for an incumbent – there would naturally be much more media attention on it and any perceived error.

(Like having so little plan for what to do if people actually voted for Brexit that the very people opposing Brexit end up in charge of making it happen. They presumably weren’t spending their time during the referendum campaign preparing for Brexit, right?)

Anyway, back to last night’s refusal to appear at the election debate.

I think we must assume that the analysis she was getting was telling her that whatever the content of what she said was, however well she prepared, however much better than Corbyn she was on the night – the mere fact of appearing in the debate would have negative consequences. It would tend very strongly towards evening out the vote.

This implies that people watching the debate would not even really be aware of the effect that it had on them overall. Which is very likely given that the polls that have been wrong so often recently are based on people self-reporting what they think that they think. Maybe this element of self-reporting is where the weakness lies.

So what people would think consciously and say in public about their response to the debate might be one thing. But how it effected their subconscious, irrational feelings towards the candidates – their sense of hierarchy and authority between the candidates – might be different. This seems impossible at first, insulting to our sense of self-determination and freewill. But it’s what advertising has been exploiting since the days of Edward Bernays – operating on the irrational and the unknown, rather than the conscious and easily explainable.

(A good example is thinking of your reaction to the best deal on a price comparison website for something like bank accounts if you have a bit of savings to put somewhere. Imagine one bank has the best deal, but you’ve never heard of it – and it’s never had a TV ad that you’ve seen. You might go for the ‘second best’ deal. Why? It had a TV ad a few years back. Perhaps you didn’t even really like it at the time, but at least there’s something – a sense of slight familiarity, you feel like you know where the company lives. But it’s often not a conscious thought. Just a draw towards one thing and away from another).

In the Nick Clegg debate for example, by framing each question as a question between 3 candidates who are on 40%, 30% and 10% of the vote respectively, in the absence of a stand-out catastrophic performance, the candidates are most likely to move towards the 33% mark, wherever they start off. It’s just a factor of the way we’d been thinking – previously living in a two party democracy. There was left and right, communist and fascist extremes, like night and day – dualities.

You were one or the other when it came down to it. Or at the very least – Not one, or not the other.

By allowing Nick clegg on stage, this became a very different question. With three possible – acceptable – and reasonable answers.

Imagine, with a different analogy, I offer an audience of 100 people the chance to vote heads or tails on a coin I am going to toss. Each vote will add a little bit of weight to the coin in such a way that it is more likely to come up that side.

If heads is the more popular choice to begin with, I’d be an idiot – if I was the politician representing heads – to allow a second stage of the vote where the question was re-asked as Heads, Tails, or Not Sure. Simply by asking the question in a way that has three answers, the answers will be skewed towards a more even three-way split.

So on the one hand Theresa May knows that the debate is a bad thing to do and that by not doing it she will get more votes than by doing it. But on the other hand she knows that everyone will think it’s a really bad thing not to do it, and they may even say it’s affected their opinion. But somehow it won’t affect their opinion as much as doing it would. So her best option is not to do it.

But in the circumstances, it is FUCKING ridiculous. It is incoherent. It does not make sense.

[Sorry, this is my human side coming through now…]

She’s been talking about strong and stable leadership and then she doesn’t turn up. What was she doing? She was either watching the debate, or she wasn’t. Both are terrible answers to a question that someone should ask her over the next week. Was she literally sat at home watching it on TV? She was presumably careful not to be out in public as the risk of having a de-contextualised photograph of her on the loose while all the other party leaders were ‘listening’ to the voters would be too much.

But just, some data…

She is unelected by the people.

She is not even really elected by her own party – only by default as the others stepped down before the vote.

She stood against brexit.

The people who stood for Brexit didn’t expect or want to win and so resigned because they apparently couldn’t handle it.

She said she wasn’t going to call a snap election.

She called a snap election.

She did a number of other so called u-turns (it’s good to listen, not so good to try and fuck over nurses, doctors, the unemployed, the ill, the old, the young, the disabled, the disenfranchised… and then back down when you realise you can’t get away with it)

She criticised Jeremy Corbyn for doing the debate rather than going out talking/listening to the voters – which was a moment of pure absurdism – that has been rivalled only by the entire last two years of politics in the UK (and the US for that matter).

The break up of the UK – and perhaps to some extent Europe – at least as we Brits know it – is imminent because of petty Tory infighting and machiavellian power-grabbing – trying to stave off UKIP (good idea) – by calling a referendum they never thought they would lose (or have to hold because they thought they would be in coalition – pesky poles – I mean Polls – and everyone knows, even the libdems, that you don’t have to keep your promises when you’re in a coalition) – and thereby unintentionally giving them, UKIP, everything they wanted anyway (bad idea).

The whole fucking thing makes no fucking sense. That much is clear.

And then after calling this snap election she fails to turn up to the job interview.

And you know what the tragic thing is? In some sense she did the right thing. She made the sensible decision.

And this is EXACTLY the kind of non-human behaviour that increasingly knowledgeable and efficient algorithms will lead to in ever more inevitable ways over the next twenty odd years of our lives.

How we – as voters in this case – respond to this colonisation, this patronisation of our freewill by Artificial Intelligence, algorithms and predictive data – will shape the structure of our relationship with these things in years to come.

Is it acceptable to behave – as Theresa May did – in a way that is at once less than human – and ultimately more human – more efficient than human?

Or do we stand up for our own relevance and refuse to live out a world that has already been focus-grouped into perfect efficiency for us?

Jeremy Corbyn is the only politican I’ve seen – no that’s not true, there’s also Caroline Lucas – in the UK – and to an extent the SNP and PC – who still have something over the algorithms.

What I particularly like about Jeremy Corbyn is that he doesn’t compromise the meaning of his actions for the immediate effect of his words. Because it is incoherent to do so. Because in the long term – as Macbeth might point out – if you kill the King to become the King, the King you become is not the same type of King as the King you killed. That’s why it pays to be coherent in your wishes. Macbeth’s tragedy is the incoherence of his ambition.

Certain politicians trade in their claim to coherence for power and influence in the short term.

Other politicians don’t need power to create change. And that’s the thing that really scares the status quo about people like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. They change people by resonance, not by force. Even if Corbyn does not get elected, his influence on people is and will continue to be great. It would be fascinating to zip forward in time to interview future female prime ministers and see whether more had taken their inspiration from the superficial fact that Theresa May is a woman, or the much more profound fact that Jeremy Corbyn is changing politics by not playing the short-term power game if it requires compromising his principles.

JC doesn’t really do personal attacks.

He doesn’t really do glam rhetoric. Or theme-tunes by Brian Cox.

He doesn’t really do short-cuts, because they mainly get you somewhere different to where you really want to go.

He doesn’t really do nuclear weapons.

He would – from all the evidence – rather live in a world where he had his fair share of what he deserved and what was available – than live in a world where he had more, but deserved it less.

This is the simple coherence that the many young and disenfranchised people have been waiting for in UK politics. You may not agree with a particular policy – you may be frustrated that he will not be the first to shove Montenegrins out of the way in the global resource game of musical chairs… but you can completely trust that he is who he says he is, he thinks what he says he thinks and he is trying his best to do what he says he is trying his best to do.

It’s not that much to ask in some ways, but the structure of our political system, media and our own habits of consuming news and being swayed by politician’s short term bribes and unlikely promises – leads to a situation in which he is a fucking rarity that we need to cling to with everything we’ve got.

There are different styles of negotiation possible. Dominance, force, manipulation – or empathy, understanding, cooperation. He will negotiate Brexit by trying to find the best solutions to the biggest problems for everyone concerned – ‘us’ and ‘them’ – being honest about what matters, showing empathy for the needs and concerns of the other side – and starting on the grounds that we are potential partners, friends and neighbours, not just competitors in a competition to tell our best soundbite porkies to lay claim to the same bit of pie.

I am confident that he represents me and the country that I recognise far better than the aggregated data systems that advised our learnéd PM-bot to hide from the electorate and skip the debate.

JC…

He’s not the Messiah.

But at least he’s not an algorithm. 

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