The Nature and Problems of the Political MAS

The time has come to consider the nature of the political MAS more closely and some of the questions that its emergence is already posing.

The political MAS is a system constituted by other systems, which, as a single agent (Floridi and Sanders 2004), is

a. teleological, the MAS has a purpose, or goal, which it pursues through its actions;

b. interactive, the MAS and its environment can act upon each other;

c. autonomous, the MAS can change its states without direct response to interaction: it can perform internal transitions to change its states. This imbues the MAS with some degree of complexity and independence from its environment; and finally

d. adaptable, the MAS' interactions can change the rules by which the MAS changes its states. Adaptability ensures that the MAS learns its own mode of operation in a way that depends critically on its experience.

The political MAS is thus an intelligent7 MAS when it implements features a–d efficiently and effectively, minimising resources, wastefulness and errors while maximising the returns of its actions.

The emergence of intelligent, political MASs poses many serious questions, which can only be quickly reviewed here.

4.1 Identity and Cohesion

Throughout history, the State has dealt with the problem of establishing and maintaining its own identity by working on the equation between State = Nation, often through the legal means of Citizenship and the narrative rhetoric of Space (the Mother/Father Land) and Time (Story in the sense of traditions, recurrent celebrations of past Nation-building events, etc.). Consider, for example, the invention of mandatory military service during the French Revolution, its increasing popularity in modern history, but then the decreasing number of Sovereign States that still impose it nowadays. It is a sign of anachronism that, in moments of crisis, Sovereign States still give in to the temptation of fuelling nationalism. The equation between State, Nation, Citizenship and Land/Story had the further advantage of providing an answer to a second problem, that of cohesion, for it answered not just the question of who or what the State is, but also the question of who or what belongs to the State and hence may be subject to its norms and actions.

New political MAS cannot rely on the same solution. Indeed, they face the further problem of having to deal with the decoupling of their political identity and cohesion. The political identity of a MAS may be very strong and yet unrelated to its temporary and rather loose cohesion, as it is the case with the Tea Party movement in the US. Both the identity and cohesion of a political MAS may be rather weak, as in the international Occupy movement. Or one may recognise a strong cohesion and yet an unclear or weak political identity, as with the population of tweeting individuals and their role during the Arab Spring. Both identity and cohesion of a political MAS are established and maintained through information sharing. The Land is virtualised into the region of the infosphere in which the MAS operates. So Memory (retrievable recordings) and Coherence (reliable updates) of the information flow enable a political MAS to claim some identity and some cohesion, and therefore offer a sense of belonging. But it is, above all, the fact that the boundaries between the online and offline are disappearing, the appearance of the onlife experience, and hence the fact that the virtual infosphere can affect politically the physical space, that reinforces the sense of the political MAS as a real agent. If Anonymous had only a virtual existence, its identity and cohesion would be much less strong. Deeds provide a vital counterpart to the virtual information flow to guarantee cohesion. An ontology of interactions replaces an ontology of things (Floridi 2007).

4.2 Consent

A significant consequence of the breaking up of the equation political MAS = Nation State = Citizenship = Land = Story and of the decoupling of identity and cohesion in a political MAS is that the age-old theoretical problem of how consent to be governed by a political authority arises is being turned on its head. In the historical framework of social contract theory, the presumed default position is that of a legal opt-out: there is some kind (to be specified) of a priori, original consent, allegedly given by any individual subject to the political State, to be governed by the latter and its laws. The problem is to understand how such consent is given and what happens when the agent opts out of it (the out-law). In the hyperhistorical framework, the expected default position is that of a social opt-in, which is exercised whenever the agent subjects itself to the political MAS conditionally, for a specific purpose. Gathering consent around specific political issues becomes a continuous process. The problem is to understand what may motivate or indeed force agents (again, not just individual human beings, but all kinds of agents) to give such consent and become engaged, and what happens when such agents, unengaged by default (note, not disengaged, for disengagement presupposes a previous state of engagement) prefer to stay away from the activities of the political MAS. Failing to grasp the previous transformation from historical opt-out to hyperhistorical opt-in means being less likely to understand the apparent inconsistency between the disenchantment of individuals with politics and the popularity of global movements, international mobilisations, activism, voluntarism, and other social forces with huge political implications. What is moribund is not politics tout court, but historical politics, that based on Parties, Classes, fixed Social Roles, and the State, which asked political legitimacy only once and spent it until revoked. The inching towards the so-called centre by parties in Liberal Democracies around the world and the “Get out the vote” strategies (GOTV a term used to describe the mobilisation of voters to ensure that those who can do vote) are evidence that engagement needs constantly renewed and expanded in order to win an election. Party (as well as Union) membership is a Modern feature that is likely to become increasingly less common.

4.3 Social vs. Political Space

Understanding the previous inversion of default positions means being faced by a further problem. Oversimplifying, in prehistory, the social and the political spaces overlap because, in a stateless society, there is no real difference between social and political relations and hence interactions. In history, the State seeks to maintain such co-extensiveness by occupying all the social space politically, thus establishing the primacy of the political over the social. We have seen above that this may be based on normative or economic strategies, through the exercise of power, force, control, and rule-making. In hyperhistory, the social space is the original, default space from which agents may move to (consent to) join the political space. It is not accidental that concepts such as civil society, public sphere (also in a non-Habermasian sense) and community become increasingly important the more we move into a hyperhistorical context. The problem is to understand such social space where agents of various kinds are supposed to be interacting and give rise to the political MAS.

Each agent, as described in Sect. 4, has some degrees of freedom. By this I do not mean liberty, autonomy or self-determination, but rather, in the robotic sense, some capacities or abilities, supported by the relevant resources, to engage in specific actions for a specific purpose. To use an elementary example, a coffee machine has one degree of freedom: it can make coffee, once the right ingredients and energy are supplied. The sum of these agent's degrees of freedom are its “agency”. When the agent is alone, there is of course only agency, no social let alone political space. Imagine Robinson Crusoe on his “Island of Despair”. However, as soon as there is another agent (Friday on the “Island of Despair”), or indeed a group of agents (the native cannibals, the shipwrecked Spaniards, the English mutineers), agency acquires the further value of multi-agent (i.e. social) interaction: practices and then rules for coordination and constraint of the agents' degrees of freedom become essential, initially for the well-being of the agents constituting the MAS, and then for the well-being of the MAS itself. Note the shift in the level of abstraction: once the social space arises, we begin to consider the group as a group—e.g., as a community, or as a society—and the actions of the individual agents constituting it become elements that lead to the MAS' newly established degrees of freedom, or agency. The previous simple example may still help. Consider now a coffee machine and a timer: separately, they are two agents with different agency, but if they are properly joined and coordinated into a MAS, then the issuing agent has the new agency to make coffee at a set time. It is now the MAS that has a more complex capacity, and that may or may not work properly.

A social space is thus the totality of degrees of freedom of the agents one wishes to take into consideration. In history, such consideration—which is really just another level of abstraction—was largely determined by the territory and hence by a variety of forms of neighbourhood. In the example above, all the agents taken into consideration are chosen because of their relations to the same “Island of Despair”. We saw that ICTs have changed all this. In hyperhistory, where to draw the line to include, or indeed exclude, the relevant agents whose degrees of freedom constitute the social space has become increasingly a matter of at least implicit choice, when not of explicit decision. The result is that the phenomenon of distributed morality, encompassing that of distributed responsibility, is becoming more and more common (Floridi forthcoming). In either case, history or hyperhistory, what counts as a social space may be a political move. Globalisation is a de-territorialisation in this political sense.

If we now turn to the political space in which the new MASs operate, it would be a mistake to consider it a separate space, over and above the social one: both are determined by the same totality of the agents' degrees of freedom. The political space emerges when the complexity of the social space—understood in terms of number and kinds of interactions and of agents involved, and of degree of dynamic reconfiguring of both agents and interactions—requires the prevention or resolution of potential divergences and the coordination or collaboration about potential convergences. Both are crucial. And in each case more information is required, in terms of representation and deliberation about a complex multitude of degrees of freedom. The result is that the social space becomes politicised through its informatization.

4.4 Legitimacy

It is when the agents in the social space agree to agree on how to deal with their divergences (conflicts) and convergences that the social space acquires the political dimension to which we are so used.

Two potential mistakes await us here. One, call it Hobbesian, is to consider politics merely as the prevention of war by other means. This is not the case, because even a complex society of angels ( homo hominis agnus) would still require politics in order to further its harmony. Convergences too need politics. Out of metaphor, politics is not just about conflicts due to the agents' exercises of their degree of freedom when pursuing their goals. It is also, or at least it should be, above all, the furthering of coordination and collaboration by means other than coercion and violence. Second, and one may call this potential mistake Rousseauian, it may seem that the political space is then just that part of the social space organised by law. In this case, the mistake is subtler. We usually associate the political space with the rules or laws that regulate it but the latter are not constitutive, by themselves, of the political space. Compare two cases in which rules determine a game. In chess, the rules do not merely constrain the game, they are the game because they do not supervene on a previous activity: rather, they are the necessary and sufficient conditions that determine all and only the moves that can be legally made. In football, however, the rules are constraints because the agents enjoy a previous and basic degree of freedom, consisting in their capacity to kick a ball with the foot in order to score a goal, which the rules are supposed to regulate. Whereas it is physically possible, but makes no sense, to place two pawns on the same square of a chessboard, nothing impeded Maradona's 'hand of God' from scoring a goal[1], and that to be allowed by a referee who did not see the infringement.

Once we avoid the previous mistakes, it is easier to see that the political space is that area of the social space constrained by the agreement to agree on resolution of divergences and coordination of convergences. This leads to a further consideration, concerning the Transparent State.

  • [1] In Argentina v England (1986 FIFA World Cup), Maradona scored a goal by using his hand. “The ball went into the goal. Referee Ali Bin Nasser of Tunisia did not see the infringement and allowed the goal, much to the chagrin of the English players and management”, wiki/Argentina_v_England_(1986_FIFA_World_Cup)#.22Hand_of_God.22_goal
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