Computer illiteracy is destroying democracy

 

‘lies, damn lies, and statistics.’

You’re a monster. An authoritarian undermining democracy. Yes, yes, this is hyberbole. But is it? How did this happen? Odds are you are at least luke warm to democracy in theory. Yet you follow and support trends that rip into it’s flesh. Like some jungle predator with a face full of blood. A low information werewolf, who seems normal enough on a regular day. But periodically on a clear night, when the moon is full you are asked to vote. To support some idea put to the public. You wake up in torn clothing, covered in ‘I voted’ stickers, your integrity cut and bruised.

Generation X may well be the only generation who can see it. Anyone can be shown it, I hope, but only Generation X has a firm footing in both worlds. Generation X was the first generation to grow up with computers. They grok both automation and networks in a special way. Kids of the 80s remember seeming retail shrink wrap software and air gapped computers. Everywhere. There was no shortcuts. Your data quality defined your output. Type in the wrong numbers and get wrong answers out. Garbage in, garbage out, burned into our subconscious with toil.

Our computer world, before the internet world was lit ablaze with the web, mirrored the rest of the world. Statistics were garbage, or at least they could be. Open a newspaper, and some huge dramatic number would adorn page two. How many dead, how many tons of material, how many days until a trend reached a record. It may sound like our world now, but there were many such page 2s. The next week another chart, painfully explained would contradict it. It was understood that even one basic assumption change, either in the data or the formula changed everything. Boomers got this, the greatest generation got this, and so did Xers. We grew up in a self aware, analog world. A common culture.

Boomers didn’t grow up with computers. They knew what they were, sort of. Sure the tiny minority of computer professionals in that generation may share X’s perspective, but their youth was more rocked by the introduction of transistors, literally. X had a supercomputer sitting on their desk. Not cheap, not small, but a single desktop would have been worth waging war over just twenty years prior. They had the freedom to explore it, and more importantly, explore how people reacted to it.

Data inherently must have focus. Scope and scale matter. Forget that and you run out of memory, or bits in your data type. Ram and hard drives were tiny. Just big enough for an algo and some subset of data. You could only reiterate as many times as you can store. It was elegant and efficient or it failed. Eventually you realized, at some level, that elegance was a trade. Conflated data types. 3d perceptions smashed into 2d sprites. You made assumptions and you knew it. Everyone knew it. The bad assumptions were glaring. Mashed pixel art were unrecognizable and made games unplayable. Spreadsheets that wouldn’t produce even basic known outcomes with known good data. Programs looped forever. Generation X was computer literate, or in some cases they were forced to know they weren’t.

Along with the internet came more resources. Computers were still finite but growing faster than programmers could reduce their assumptions. Modems connected the world to mountains of code and data. An endless landscape of shared ideas and effort. Many mountains of garbage, but some with beautiful parks atop them. The children forever after would grow up in this connected world. Limited resources never explored, self reliance never tested. Air gaping was out of the question. The greatest became the latest. Not because younger people are lazy, as is often postulated, but because they can’t keep up. The mountains grow faster than any one person can shovel. You can copy someone else’s mountain in the blink of an eye, or if it’s big, the consumption of a cup of coffee.

An individual explorer may transverse the many mountains, but when a civilization builds a city atop, it collapses. A crash and screaming panic as sinkholes swallow up whole skyscrapers. It happened with Nazdaq founder Madoff, it happened with the USA Office of Personnel Management, It happened with Solar Winds, and it happened with first Diebold and now Dominion voting machines. Disasters unforeseen as cyber-security flies air patrols high above the skylines build atop faulty un-scrutinized code. The insider threat. Not from any one person, though they may participate, but built up from faulty assumptions. The mountains of un-examined code and data are the ultimate insider,

How did the ground under our feet become the an insider just waiting to defect? Conflation. Shortcuts, cheats and correlation without causation. Not scrutinizing the details because there are too many of them. An explosion of assumptions. The shoot from the hip idea that because there are experts, and they present detail, that detail is sufficient to understand all the important problems. People are drawn to the tallest, shiniest building, not because it has a firm foundation. It is un-examined. Instead it is a landmark in a rapidly changing skyline. A compass needle in a landscape so poorly planned that people run from landmark to landmark, lucky each time their presence is not their integrity’s grave.

Computers fail fast. So fast, that failure is the model. Instead of science and engineering, with both time tested models and scrutiny, computer code and data is slapped together. No loving examination is practiced. It’s a great model. A personal favorite. The wild west. Full of mystery and exciting puzzles. Chaos incarnate. Irresistible to the smartest humans suffering from perpetual boredom. Trying to find a solution, any solution, to any problem that temporarily blocks your goals.  Lewis and Clark mapping out the wilderness over and over. Subject to skill and talent, but also to random luck. So random that massive signs and tourists celebrate the rare occasion that explorers mapped out a path worth keeping as a superhighway later. Except with computers the analogy of time and pavement breaks down. The first path that works is the path the entire world uses. No additional exploration is attempted. The computers follow the trail at light speed, it’s path rarely explored again.

Thee data dumps and code fragments are not the product of scrutiny, but instead junky fragile prototypes, forced into production. Piled up in massive hills and mountains adorned with the structures of democracy. No one person can own the exploration of such a hill, nor can the structures on it be easily moved aside, so no one does this impossible work. It’s all great fast fun copying these broken structures, but it’s not a game. Real lives hang in the balance.

A computers code can be engineered as their hardware often is. Designed with degrees of precision. Understood from the bottom up. Scrutinized not just by someone, but anyone who has an interest. An effort including the entirety of the world. It should be the whole world, because human civilization pays the price when it is not. When a skyscraper or a city falls into a pit of chaotic or un-scrutinized code the world falls with it. That’s their city too. Same bad data, same bad code. Democracy needs scrutiny. Not only of it’s data, but it’s twisted winding algorithms. It can be played like a game but it’s not. If any system ever had malicious externalities, defectors with real menacing goals against a society, it’s democracy.

Psychopaths, foreign actors, and other profit motivated defectors can use the chaos of top down computing as subterfuge, but that’s not democracies worst problem. Many democracies have faced complex and inept bureaucracies before. It’s the problem of both speed and ignorance. Speed as poor or subversive ideas can become critical infrastructure in mere months, and ignorance, that a closed source code system allows this. I single out generation X as the lone guardians not because newer generations can’t know better, but because they can, and don’t. Nothing drills a point home like toil and suffering. Struggling to make the limited resources of tiny ancient computers sing for you. You can see the compromises plain as day. It seems people who did not have to make due, don’t know what they don’t know. An unknown unknown. Younger people think you can trust any computer code that works, and they are dead wrong. The biggest danger to the whole system is they don’t even know there are risks.

It’s not that network babies can’t demand open source code, or limited use computers, or code audits. I’m hoping it’s that they never even thought about the problem. They never once had to look at a computer and say, this isn’t doing what I need, and had to solve it by understanding the problem with more depth. They are drowning democracy in their unjustified trust of the machines that they depend on. Having been educated in a system that never questions authority, so long as it feigns casual support for individualism. Individualism that computers and their twisted code, doesn’t know or care about. If it feels good, it must BE good. A write once paper log of operations doesn’t make network babies feel good. The better than genetics certainty of digital signatures doesn’t raise their confidence because they were taught not to be skeptical in the first place.

It’s doesn’t end with ignorance of the unknown unknowns. The real tragedy is the technocratic elitism. The same exact system that produces the blindly trusting, produces their captors with the same exact philosophies. As feel good generations filter out their geeks with the knack for code, and socially isolate them from shared social experiences, they quickly come to believe that the rabble is grossly ignorant. Thinking they understand safety and scrutiny, they use it to justify subjugation. The shared delusion that all people are one behavior set tells the technocrats that the sometimes intelligent but misguided have had every opportunity to distrust and scrutinize their world. They must be managed, or even worse, re-educated. Technocrats who are elite from youth categorize their less adept social peers as if they were Non Player Characters in some simulation, dehumanizing them.  They need computerization to marry their misguided complex rules to their different in practice counterparts.  To thwart natural law and enforce their chosen norms.  The same norms that drive individual sovereignty and it’s derivative democracy.  Don’t just take my word for it, look how badly political polling fails for example. If the model worked, the projections would be more accurate.

Democracy as a system is rapidly dying. It’s no surprise as it’s a system of cooperation. Computers make bad decision making possible at a blinding and still increasing pace. Both in the design of the computer software, and in enforcing broken social paradigms sold as science. There is a solution, but tales, myths of another time, block it from taking hold. During generation X’s youth the public was not aware of how important computer literacy would become. Many companies won a lottery as rare ‘ordinary’ employees were promoted into roles where they revamped their companies computer code and data. The companies in question got lucky. They hired personnel that had not yet recognized skills, who in turn, returned the companies investments many times the worth of their salaries. They stumbled onto a gunslinger, just made for the wild west. This turned into a hiring spree, and then a crisis. Politicians the world over have made it a top priority to find every single geek that they can identify through programs like STEM. It’s exhausted the supply, isolating would be technocrats from interacting with their broader societies.

It’s time to recognize the truth. The public has few top gunslingers. Don’t take my word for it, test yourself. Make some time. Examine some code or some data. Make it behave the way you want. If you can’t that’s fine. I and nobody else should think less of you for it.

Stop trusting the technocrats. They can’t provide you with solutions to democracy, it’s not practically possible. Their system of design is semi-random and they can not audit it in detail, even if they wanted to, which they probably don’t. Big tech and big data did not grow, or was not designed in your interest. Know what you don’t know. I don’t care if you put computer specialist on your resume, but don’t you believe it. Don’t believe the tall tales of gunslingers of the 80s and 90s still apply.  Demand tangible proof of markets, votes, stats and anything MIGHT influence any sort of vote. Do not become someone else’s useful idiot. If they can’t prove it demand the code and the data. If you can’t understand it, and they can’t explain it where you deeply understand it, don’t vote for it.  Or with it.  Until they make a simpler model you can understand.   If you can’t grok the code, and you can’t see the data, the only way to protect democracy is to assume it isn’t sufficiently vetted, or honest.

There is a chance democracy can be saved. If you realize the truth. Democracy REQUIRES more skeptics than our society requires technocrats. They are vital to peace and progress.  It doesn’t even matter if you are not genuinely a skeptic, but democracy can’t function if you don’t act like one.  Your smallest culture doesn’t make you better, and that goes double for the technocrats because of how their business model operates. That criticism and doubt from common society isn’t just important to democracy, it’s the only thing that keeps it alive.

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