The name is significant. AI “now” is indeed about AI as it is now, that is, not as it could and should be. Emphasizing the “now” has a critical edge. The focus is on what AI is actually doing, or more accurately, not doing right in the various areas of concern to the Institute, namely law enforcement, security, and social services. The AI Now Institute’s explicit concern with the “social implications” of AI translates into a rather one-sided civil rights perspective. What the institute explores are primarily the dangers of AI with regard to civil rights issues. This is well and good. It is necessary and of great use for preventing misuse or even abuse of the technology. But is it enough to claim that simply dropping AI as it is now into a social, economic, and political reality riddled with discrimination and inequality will not necessarily enhance civil rights and that the technology should therefore either not be used at all or if it is used, then under strict regulative control? Should one not be willing and able to consider the potential of AI to address civil rights issues and correct past failings, and perhaps even to start constructively dealing with the long-standing injustices the Institute is primarily concerned with? Finally, quite apart from the fact that the social implications of AI go way beyond civil rights issues, should not the positive results of AI in the areas of law enforcement, crime prevention, security, and social services also be thrown onto the scale before deciding to stop deployment of AI solutions? One cannot escape the impression that the general tenor of the participants at the symposium is the throw the baby out with the bathwater.
With 1.35 billion active users (3rd qt. 2014), Facebook is now as big as China. If we include other social media, such as Twitter, Goggle+, YouTube, Instagram, etc., we seem to be witnessing an unprecedented migration into a networked social sphere that demands rethinking of topics such as globalization, transnational publics, global governance, and international relations. It will be objected that these topics have to do with real politics, with economics, war, terrorism, ecological threats, and issues of justice. However, it would perhaps be too hasty – considering the role that social media have played in political initiatives throughout the world – to assume that global communities of social media users are not also concerned with these issues and do not make a difference in the world of real politics. Traditional political theory is going through a crisis. Politics has always been the prerogative of sovereign nation states. Only citizens of a constitutional state were thought to be capable of political action, that is, participation in processes of deliberation and decision making with regard to the common good. Politics belongs in the domain of what Habermas called the “public sphere.” The public sphere is that social domain in which private individuals come together to freely and equally deliberate matters of common concern. In democratic societies the better argument and not violence or coercion legitimates governance. If legitimate and effective governance is only possible within the boundaries of a constitutional state, where rule of law and democratic procedures are established, what happens to the public sphere in a global network society? Globalization means that almost all important problems go beyond national borders. It means that the “emergence” of supra-national moral obligations such as Human Rights and global governance institutions such as the UN place the traditional idea of state-based politics in question. Globalization leaves the public sphere, it would seem, without a home.
The digital media revolution has largely made both the private sphere and the public sphere obsolete, or at least questionable, and has created a domain that is neither private nor public, a domain in which traditional forms of association, including politics, are being called into question. Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) chooses not to use the terminology of modern social theory at all and speaks of the “collective,” a space of networks instead of a public sphere bound on the one side by a radically individualized privacy and on the other by hierarchical and oppressive social structures. Following Latour we propose dropping the categories of private and public and exchanging them for a new term, the socio-sphere. The socio-sphere is neither private nor public, but is based upon the new form of communication made possible by digital media, namely, “many-to-many” communication. The age old limitations on communication forcing it into either a one-to-one mode or into a one-to-many mode created a public sphere that was inherently contradictory. One-to-many communication disguised itself by means of the concept of representation and pretended to be one-to-one communication, that is, a form of communication in which all co-participate equally. The affordances of digital media create an entirely new form of communication capable of overcoming the limitations imposed upon communication since the beginnings of human history. This is what the technology does. The possibility of many-to-many communication brings with it the hope of resolving the contradiction of representation created by traditional media, namely, that one speaks for the many by means of speaking to the many. In the wake of the digital media revolution the public sphere, and with it, the private subject of modernity, vanish into the socio-sphere. There is no longer anything like privacy and there is no longer a specifically public space.
The public sphere of modern bourgeois society is supposed to be the domain in which everyone can speak freely to everyone in order to reach consensus on matters of concern and on that basis coordinate cooperative action. The problem with this concept is that the spatial and temporal conditions of face-to-face interaction make it impossible for everybody to speak to everybody. Within the parameters of modernity this contradiction could not be resolved. The media, at first print media in the form of leaflets, newsletters, and newspapers, and then electronic broadcast media came to be the forms of communication structuring the public sphere. When private individuals came together to form a public, they lost their privacy and individuality and were transformed into anonymous masses. The defining characteristic of mass media is “that no interaction among those co-present can take place” (Luhmann). The private individuals of the public became the masses of the silent majority, who had restricted access to information and could therefore be manipulated by those in control of the media. Cooperative action was in reality not the outcome of one-to-one deliberation, but of one-to-many, hierarchical communication. No modern politician, businessperson, or scientist denies the power of the media, and no one who does not use the media effectively will gain and maintain political power, successfully market their products, or even get research grants. Modernity attempted to solve this problem by means of the concept of representation. Representation explains how democracy is possible under the conditions of the dichotomy between interaction and organization. Democratic process and the counting of votes became the mechanism of transforming one-to-one into one-to-many. Under the regime of the hierarchical one-to-many communciation, however, representatives could only speak for the people in the mode of speaking to the people.