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The Politics of Disconnection: Network Geography, Trump, Sanders, Brexit, et al

Disconnection

Due to advances in transport and digital infrastructure, we live in an increasingly-connected world.  The value of global flows rose from US$5tr in 1990 to US$30tr in 2014[1].  In the same period, international travel grew from 435m to 1.1bn per year.

But this global interconnection – and the economic crash that was its direct result – has led to a powerful counter-reaction, with challenger politics emerging from both right and left.  The figureheads in the global North are various and sometimes curious: Trump, Sanders, Farage, Iglesias, Tsipras, Le Pen, Hofer, and more.  While differing in many policies, they share common ground that boils down to the slogan, “Disconnect!”.

Examples of insurgent policies include:

  • Disconnection from human networks through anti-immigration initiatives.
  • Disconnection from governance networks such as leaving the EU or abandoning free trade agreements.
  • Disconnection from production networks through support for localised production, and disincentives to globalised production.
  • Disconnection from – or at least restrictions on – capital networks through tax and other financial controls.
  • Disconnection from geo-political networks through increasing reticence for overseas military intervention.

There are many other policy examples: British disconnection from international development networks; French disconnection from the euro; etc.

Who is this coming from?  Setting aside the catalysis and aspirations of individual leaders, there are differences but also similarities between the demographics of those disconnecting from the right and those disconnecting from the left[2].  Right-wing disconnectors tend to be older, poorer, less-well-educated; left-wing disconnectors the reverse. But they appear to have two things in common: they are more often from the ethnic majority, and they are more often men.

We can understand these people in terms of positional network geography (see earlier discussion).  Rarely excluded from key global networks, instead these are people who perceive themselves – or can be persuaded to perceive themselves – as adversely incorporated, peripheralised in those networks.  They see a network core that benefits at their expense; they see new, mobile members seeking to join their network and potentially displace them.  For those who are white men perhaps there is particularly a gap between the promise or expectation of benefitting from the growth of global networks, and a perceived reality of not doing so.

As the complexity of the networks into which we are connected grows, and as the number of our network connections grows, we become increasingly connected into contexts that are too complex to either understand or control.  Yet we demand that our politicians control these uncontrollable networks.  And this takes place in an environment of growing digital politics in which form matters more than content.

Combine these two and we encourage the confident assertion of simple solutions: on the right, disconnecting from global flows of labour; on the left, disconnecting from global flows of capital; both disconnecting from global governance networks.

This is reminiscent of the disconnections of the 1920s following the shock of the First World War.  Remind me, how did that work out?

[1] MGI (2016) Digital Globalization, McKinsey Global Institute, San Francisco, CA

[2] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/si-we-can-how-left-wing-podemos-party-rattling-spanish-establishment; https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-demographic-profile-of-a-Bernie-Sanders-supporter; https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/24/eu-referendum-provincial-england-versus-london-and/; http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/

Understanding WDR2016 as a Conflict of Closed vs Open Institutional Logics

11 February 2016 3 comments

How can we explain the negative consequences associated with ICTs: the digital deficit and digital ills identified in the 2016 World Development Report?

As summarised earlier, the Report itself blames the digital deficit – inequity in the distribution of ICT benefits to a few “haves” rather than the many “have nots” – on two divides: a digital divide of very uneven access to the digital infrastructure; and a social divide of inadequate policies, skills, and (public sector) institutions.  And it ranges a little wider in identifying authoritarian states, vested interests, and monopolies as the source of some negative ICT-related impacts.

The Report therefore starts to manoeuvre around two classic ICT4D shortcomings[1]:

  • The teleological error: the association of ICTs solely with their intended purposes; assuming that policy needs only focus on removing barriers to diffusion and adoption to deliver development.
  • The structural error: the association of ICTs solely with “imminent development” (incremental, short-term, development driven by individual agency), ignoring the association of ICTs with “immanent development” (the development that emerges from the deep structures of society).

But we can push further than the Report does to look at those deep structures, using the ideas of institutional logics.  Institutional logics are broad social forces with both material and symbolic elements that shape the way we think and act.  Religion, family, state, and market are typical logics but running through digital development is a conflict between two other logics:

  • Open logic: a cooperative logic that values openly-accessible inputs, participative and collaborative processes, and shared distribution of benefits.
  • Closed logic: a competitive or controlling logic that values restriction of inputs, processes and benefits to particular individuals or groups.

At least in the economic and political spheres, closed logic is the dominant global force but challenged sporadically by open logic[2].  On that basis, we can see three patterns reflected in the Report:

  • Reinforcement: cases in which the dominant closed logic is reproduced, or extended, or augmented through use of ICTs. Examples abound: electronic surveillance of citizens by autocratic regimes; the lack of impact of e-procurement systems on bribe-paying and bid participation rates; capture of e-participation systems by political elites; and development of digital monopolies.
  • Insurgence: cases in which the subordinate open logic is strengthened through use of ICTs. For instance, crowdsourcing to report and reduce electoral violence and fraud, creation of open learning systems, or crowdfunding platforms.  But these are fewer and weaker than the reinforcement examples.  So there is a sense of marginality: incremental gains that do not disturb the underlying closed logic – sometimes perhaps deliberate “openwash” that coats closed logic with an open veneer.
  • Metamorphosis: cases in which ICTs initially support open logic which is then translated into closed logic. A number of the Report’s sharing economy examples have followed this trajectory; for example, mutating from non-profit to for-profit.

The Sustainable Development Goals are clear that development to date has been too incremental, and needs to be transformational.  If we take that seriously, then ICT4D must attend to its teleological and structural errors; in particular, asking how ICTs can accompany or even facilitate structural transformation.

This does not mean spurning closed logic and supporting only open logic – competition, control and cooperation are all fundamental human impulses, and none of them alone can deliver development.  But ICTs cannot help deliver the SDGs’ radical agenda if they simply help closed logic grow at the expense of open logic.

This means more ICT4D research on the role of digital technology vis-a-vis the immanent development that emerges from society’s deep structures, and more ICT4D practice that recognises and engages with those structures.

[1] Adapted from Murphy, J.T. & Carmody, P. (2015) Africa’s Information Revolution, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK.

[2] See, e.g., Fuchs, C. (2008) Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age, Routledge, New York.

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