The unbearable cleverness of algorithmic citizenship

Costica Dumbrava | A citizen with a view | March 2018

Adam: Have you watched the news?

Eve: Oh! Poor children…

Adam: Imagine, all three of them had genetic mutations that would have prevented them from living worthy lives.

Eve: Lucky fat guy!

Adam: Well, good that the trolley was connected to the Central Unit. Who else would have been able to tell?

Eve: Yet, poor children!


Adam: By the way, have you watched the Games of Polls, last night?

Eve: No, what is that?

Adam: It is this new show about people from another time who do not have the Network and the Central Unit. So they have to come together, talk incessantly and then choose a leader to decide on all kinds of common issues.

Eve: No Central Unit? How do they go about?

Adam: Well, apparently this is happening sometime before the computers and the smart city appeared. When people had to take care of everything! When they did not have upgradables and decision bots. When they literally had to decide for themselves!

Eve: For themselves?

Adam: Yes. And in order to make things easier, or more complicated, if you ask me, they established to always choose a person from among themselves to rule on their behalf. However, nobody really knew anything in those times. So, inevitably, the chosen ones had to be changed at some point in time. This choosing is the funniest part. Those who wished to be leaders had to stage a big show, in which they had to monkey and humiliate themselves in order to convince the rest that they were the best. The Games of Polls is about that.

Eve: Interesting. So who decides in the end?

Adam: All of them. They call it democracy, although it sounds more like democrazy to me.

Eve: They all choose? Including the cognitive sub-optimal and the bio part-timers?

Adam: I guess, they say that everybody is equal and that everybody should take part. And that, at the end of the day, it’s their decision, as a whole.

Eve: It sounds a bit hocus pocus to me. But how do they know what to choose, if you say that they don’t have any computers and data? I mean we live in the smart city, where every breath, move and neural discharge is recorded, analysed and integrated into the Network, so that the Central Unit can promptly and properly address whatever discomfort and desire we have. How could these ancient people decide anything? How could they know what was really at stake? What did they really want?

Adam: Apparently, they did not know any of that and this is why the show is so funny. There are these people who step forward and say: ‘I am the best leader, choose me!’ And then each one comes up with all kinds of tricks. For example, there is this guy, called Demagog, who talks loudly about kicking some people out of the country because they did not have some kind of password or something.

Eve: So they are not all equal?

Adam: Well, they are equal, as far as it goes, but not everybody can enter or stay in all places, they need to have some kind of password. In any case, this guy, Demagog, was fretting and pounding about how he would kick these people out and how he would make the country great again. And, you know what? The other people got so excited. Crazy, I tell you. And they chose him to be their leader.

Eve: And then what? Did Demagog kick those people out? Was the country great again?

Adam: I don’t know. The show is only about the choosing. Apparently, it does not matter what happens afterwards. Until next time, when they have to do the choosing again. Then everything heats up again.

Eve: Hm.

Adam: What is it?

Eve: You know… the children.

Adam: It is all data now.

Eve: I wonder what any of those ancient people would have done had they steered the trolley.

Adam: They would certainly not have been able to reach a rational decision in such a short amount of time. They could not have possibly known to assess all the relevant factors and to calculate the life worthiness coefficients of those involved. They would have made some random choice. Or, worse, they would have chosen wrongly.

Eve: Adam, do you know how are those life worthiness coefficients calculated?

Adam: I guess they are based on all kinds of things, like genetic predispositions, exposure to datapathologic risks, upgrading records… I can ask my googlet.

Adam’s Googlet: Yes, Adam?

Eve: No, it’s ok.

Adam: I’m fine, Googlet.

Adam’s Googlet: Let me know if you need anything.

Adam: Ok.

Eve: My wellness chip is playing me tricks, I will have my do-bot check it again.

Adam: Maybe it has to do with the latest Network upgrade.

Eve: Maybe.


Eve: What would you have chosen, Adam?

Adam: Choose what?

Eve: … If you had driven the trolley?

Adam: Ah, Eve, the trolley again…

Eve: If you were to choose between killing the fat guy or the children?

Adam: Nobody killed anybody. All trolleys are automated nowadays and connected to the Central Unit, which takes the best decisions, given the circumstances. You know it!

Eve: I know it, but…

Eve’s Googlet: Eve, I detect high levels of moraline in your spine. I will run a full diagnosis and notify the Central Unit. Would you like to sit down and relax?

Eve: I’m fine, Googlet, just thinking.

Eve’s Googlet: I recommend…

Eve: Not now, Googlet.

Adam: Eve, what is wrong?

Eve: So those ancient people chose funny guys to lead their lives, knowing that they were probably not making the best choices and that, indeed, there was no such best choice to make. And you say they were cheerful! Our decision bots take care of all our small things and the Central Unit takes care of all our big things. They are always right because they rely on unimaginable amounts of data. Data that we and the smart city emanate every millisecond, that we do not really understand, that we don’t even know it exists. Certainly, we would not be able to put two and two together to take any enlightened decision. Because anything requires putting billions of twos and billions of twos together. But what if it takes more than data to…

Eve’s Googlet: Eve, you are too tired. I am putting you to bed.