Society Is Not A Machine, Optimization Not The Right Paradigm!

The digital revolution progresses at full pace and reshapes our societies. Many countries have invested in data-driven governance. The common idea is that "more data is more knowledge, more knowledge is more power, and more power is more success." This "magic formula" has promoted the concept of a digitally empowered "benevolent dictator" or "wise king," able to predict and control the world in an optimal way. It seems to be the main reason for the massive collection of personal data, which companies and governments alike have engaged in. 

The concept of the benevolent dictator implies that democracy would be overhauled. I certainly agree that democracy deserves a digital upgrade, but in recent years many voices in the IT industry have even claimed that democracy is an "outdated technology," which needs to be bulldozed. Similar arguments have been put forward by politicians in various countries. There is now an acute danger that democracy would be ended in response to challenges and threats such as climate change, resource shortages, and terrorism. A number of countries come to mind.

However, recent data-driven analyses show that democracy is not a luxury, in contrast to what has been claimed by increasingly many people before. Democracy pays off. A study by Heinrich Nax and Anke Schorr, using high-performance computers, reveals "short-run economic incentives to de-democratization for the most economically and democratically developed nations. [However,] These short-run boosts come with intermediate-run reductions of political capitals and with long-run reductions in growth." In other words: demolishing democracy would be a terrible and costly mistake.

Therefore, the anti-democratic trend in many countries is dangerous and needs to be stopped. First, because ending freedom, participation, and justice would end in socio-political instability and finally in revolution or war. (Similar instabilities have already occurred during the transition from the agricultural to the industrial society and from there to the service society.) Second, because the above "magic formula" is based on flawed assumptions.

Society is not a machine. It cannot be steered like a car. Interaction—and the resulting complex dynamics of the system—changes everything. We know this, for example, from spontaneous breakdowns of traffic flow. Even if we could read the minds of all drivers, such "phantom traffic jams" could not be prevented. But there is a way to prevent them, based on the use of suitable driver assistant systems: distributed control approaches, using Internet of Things technology, real-time data and suitable real-time feedback, together with knowledge from complexity science.

The paradigm of data-driven optimization would work perhaps if we knew the right goal function; moreover, the world would have to change slowly enough, it would have to be sufficiently well predictable, and simple enough. However, all these preconditions are not fulfilled. As we continue to network the world, its complexity grows faster than the data volume, the processing power and the data that can be transmitted. Many aspects of the world are emergent and hardly predictable. The world is quickly changing by innovation, and we need even more of it! Not even the goal function is well-known: should it be gross national product per capita or sustainability, power or peace, average lifespan or happiness? In such cases, (co-)evolution, adaptation, and resilience are the right paradigms, not optimization.

Decision-makers around the globe need to be aware of these things, to save democracy, to get better information systems on the way than those that are based on mass surveillance and brute-force data mining; to argue for interdisciplinary and global collaboration; for approaches built on transparency and trust; for open and participatory systems, because they mobilize the capacity of the entire society; and for systems based on diversity and pluralism, because they promote innovation, societal resilience, and collective intelligence.

If we don't manage to get things on the right way, we may lose many societal, economic, legal and cultural achievements of the past centuries; we might see one of the darkest periods of human history; something much worse than "1984—Big Brother is watching you": a society, in which we might lose our freedom, enslaved by a "citizen score" that would give us plus or minus points for everything we or our friends and partners do; where the government and big corporations would determine how we should live our lives.