“You cannot use the local profits from eroding democracy to pay for your rise in global diplomacy.”

Fascinating piece from Sinead O’Sullivan in the Irish Times a few days ago. In 1959, Rostrevor man TK Whittaker wrote a paper that set the Republic’s course of the next 60 years years. All of what came after, the ups and the downs, derived from that paper.

In short, it determined that the state would look outward economically and in almost every other way. In fact, this had been the case since the shock of the Irish famine just over a hundred years earlier. Prior to that most Irish folk didn’t emigrate.

In not owning land, and in large part living in a cashless economy (although, not the type people are talking about today), they didn’t have the means to move townlands never mind shift countries. Prior to this the only Irish to move were the Scots Irish.

Whittaker’s paper was an owning of that out turning. It gave tools to two generations that both transformed the standard of education (and therefore the confidence) of those going out and the level and quality of the returning foreign inward investment.

The social, cultural and economic changes in southern society cannot be exaggerated. This was a country without a significant industrial base, and very few sellable natural resources it could sell on the market against the capacity of bigger nations.

And yet, as Sinead, who works in a multidisciplinary team at Harvard Business School looking at the realities of the digital work, notes when it comes to the digital age Ireland’s reliance on FDI may have backed Ireland into a corner regarding some big tech:

….the real danger inherent in Ireland’s relationship with the global tech sector is not an Irish problem alone. We need to look outwardly during this debate.

Because while Ireland is winning the short game in terms of sector and economic growth off the back of these tech giants, the costs to this strategy are not only shared globally but are terminally damaging to the levels of democracy experienced worldwide.

The value and viability of global democracy is more highly contested today than ever before.

While democracy has enjoyed widespread global growth since the latter half of the 20th century, technological progression is affecting the levels of democracy within old and new democracies alike.

The creation of algorithm-based technologies has led to overwhelmingly private ownership of the production, collection and distribution of information and knowledge in the technological era.

The very nature of democracy seeks to create a balance between government and individual control, however the private technology industry has created unprecedented influence for governments (democratic and authoritarian alike) and for itself.

Companies such as Google and Facebook have been permitted to acquire unfettered power and through such power have increased their share prices at the cost of moulding the civic norms upon which democracy exists.

Tech veteran Jaron Lanier refers to both these companies specifically as being hooked on a particularly pernicious BUMMER (Behaviour of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent) business model (of which more in a later review).

As Lanier notes, in his chapter on how “Social Media is making politics impossible”…

BUMMER is neither liberal nor conservative, it is just pro paranoia, pro irritability, and pro-general assholeness.

Although Sinead is looking at this from an international perspective, it is not as though it is not also having an effect on domestic Irish politics. Each passing election sees the Dail rip itself into tinier shreds of parties and individuals who hate each other.

Publicly through Twitter, Facebook and the now ubiquitous WhatsApp group ‘problems’ scale as quickly as emotional contagion can travel down the artificial constructed neural pathways that these platforms have quickly assumed.

It uses the same kind of dumb algorithmic means to present to us as individuals what it thinks we want to hear about the world and occludes the world that every other individual is seeing, all in the service to the folk who pay their bills, the advertisers.

It’s worth noting too that these social media (BUMMER) groups are an affordance only of liberal democracies. The Arab Spring largely ended with those apparent freedoms being shut down. Countries like Iran and China barely allowed them in the first place.

Her kicker goes like this…

…is Ireland really a diplomatic superpower? In my mind, no. You cannot use the local profits from eroding democracy to pay for your rise in global diplomacy. You don’t get to promote a set of values abroad while quietly contradicting yourself at home.

We cannot celebrate our Nobel laureates who have written about prevailing Irish sovereignty through wars fought on land while removing the sovereignty of others through wars fought online. [emphasis added]

Not all big tech companies rely exclusively on this exploitative and dangerous BUMMER model. Apple and Microsoft and even LinkedIn, all of whom have large assets in Ireland sell real services to real people and are not necessarily a danger to democracy.

Meanwhile, as they post their untaxed profits, the state is once again being asked to pick up every bill for Covid. That, in anyone’s view, is unsustainable. Angrynomics is real and must be reversed. As Eric Lonergan says, it’s only imagination that’s needed.

Ireland needs a new Whittaker, someone with a broad enough vision to build on the advantages of the last 60 years but who understands that the state needs to pay its way not by bribing the wealthiest at any price, but by making its growth sustainable.