The Shire in the mirror - Manuel Delia
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The Shire in the mirror - Manuel Delia

Safer times? Everyone knows that there is always a camera watching them and a computer making a note of where they are going and what they are doing.

Safer times? Everyone knows that there is always a camera watching them and a computer making a note of where they are going and what they are doing.

Galadriel: Will you look in the mirror?

Frodo: What will I see?

Galadriel: Even the wisest cannot tell. For the mirror shows many things. Things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass.

From The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

It is 2036 and Maltese democracy could not be stronger. The fashion for referenda has now really caught on. Voting has become simple and inexpensive. Every written law is now enacted by popular consent. It is like Ancient Greece again except we all do it over the phone. The government asks us if we agree with a law with a simple yes/no question and those who answer within 60 minutes get to decide. The decision is usually clear within 30 seconds or so.

It is a relief we have done away with Parliament. The expense has always been wasteful. They were not reading Bills anyway and why pay for the middle man if you can do the job yourself?

We did have a couple of elections by electronic voting. In the old days, we would have had around 400 volunteers for each party watching every single marked ballot paper go into the correct pigeon hole. They would be gutted for months after a loss but could swear that the process had been fair. That is ancient history now. When e-voting was introduced, the 400 volunteers stayed home and watched the result being announced on TV seconds after the last ballot was cast.

For some time, they could not rid themselves of the nagging doubt that someone somewhere could still manipulate the result, because there was no one to check and provide certainty.

There is no one to check that the result of a referendum is what the majority really intended anyway. But since almost no one really reads the text before voting and the government always wins, why should anyone check?

After all our phone notifies us when there is a law that is of interest to us and lets us get on with our business when something esoteric is being debated. That has cut out a lot of noise. Our phones know what interests us by noting what we search for, what we like and dislike, who our friends are and who we admire and who we despise.

This means the government finds it easy to tell us what we want to hear in the way we want to hear it and shares with us only the things we feel strongly about.

We often get to say no. That is empowering. Gone are the days of annoying political correctness and the indiscipline of the turn of the century. Children are spanked when they get out of line. Teachers are transferred when their pupils do not like them. And news is only distributed if enough people like it enough to help it proliferate. Undesirables are allowed into towns at the appropriate time so they can do the cleaning and the repairs. When their curfew kicks in, we can go out with people like us and enjoy ourselves without having to endure the presence of the underclass.

It is a relief we have done away with Parliament. The expense has always been wasteful. They were not reading Bills anyway and why pay for the middle man if you can do the job yourself?

We do not only get to vote on laws. We get to vote on their application and enforcement as well. The old judges often used to get it wrong. How can you expect objectivity from a human being? There were times when clothes were sewn by hand, until machines could mass produce them. It took us even longer to automate criminal justice but we are there now.

We receive the evidence of crime by phone. Naturally it is only those crimes that outrage us that we get to know about: undesirables chasing local girls or beating local boys. Now they get what they deserve. And we get to vote on the sentence as well. Trial by your peers writ large.

When the videos first appeared, some complained that the evidence could be considered ambiguous, even deceptive. They called them “deep fake videos” because someone’s face or voice could be superimposed on the screen, making them look like they were doing or saying something they never did or said.

Liars and deceivers wanted us to doubt our very own eyes. No one was surprised that they had objected to video evidence of other people’s crimes when video evidence of their own crimes emerged. They claimed to be speaking for individual rights and freedoms but what they were really worried about was being found out. And they were.

Who could have guessed that civil rights activists would prove to be rapists and pillagers? It is a good thing we found out the truth about them and voted to have them banished.

The fact is we live in safer times. Everyone knows that there is always a camera watching them and a computer making a note of where they are going and what they are doing. If we obey the laws we have all approved, we have nothing to worry about. We never worried about policemen in the street in the old days, did we? When they had those night roadblocks, looking for drugs or weapons inside cars, we never worried because we had nothing to hide.

Why worry now that the process is automated? No need of roadblocks to harass the innocent when a camera can see what the guilty are hiding.

But it is not just for criminals. It also has benefits for all. The cameras tell our phones where we go, what we do and who we talk to. Our phone learns much quicker what we like and dislike and gives us the news we want to hear and introduces us to the music, the culture and the politics it knows we shall be happy with.

The data also cuts out bad debtors or bad drivers. We have automated judges which means we also have automated bank managers and insurance providers. Our record rules us out of a mortgage or car insurance if a computer thinks we are likely to cost everyone else more than our fair share.

We are not stupid. Even in these times of automated law-making, of industrial scale justice and of streams of background behavioural analysis and cognitive prediction, we know things do not work without someone greasing the wheels.

This mechanical production of timely news that we like, effective justice for those we dislike, and the happiness of a society where our opinion matters, still needs an old school clockmaker, a master craftsman, to keep everything working like clockwork.

He is well informed with all the data the cameras gather. He knows our mind by looking at the likes and dislikes we share online. He knows what we want before we know it ourselves and today we will be asked what he knew yesterday we would want tomorrow.

It is not a democracy if it does not give us the leader that thinks of the questions we want to answer. We have cut the middleman. But we will never stop needing him.

It is 2036 and we are content. A lot has changed but the good news is, we still have Joseph.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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