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The Post-Attribution Era

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Cesare Maccari [Public domain]

In this 2007 book, Halting State, Charles Stross describes a near future in which the internet makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to properly attribute communications and events.

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers.

In this 2007 book, Halting State, Charles Stross describes a near future (2018, to be precise) in which the internet makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to properly attribute communications and events. They play online-facilitated live-action roleplaying games in which they have no way of knowing if their “missions” serve a more sinister purpose. They hold job interviews with people they cannot identify for businesses that remain anonymous. In one sequence, a character triggers a flash mob in order to foil law enforcement; the “zombie players” (literal and metaphorical) have no idea. Someone activated the flash mob, they just showed up.

As with many works of near-future science-fiction, Halting State was overly optimistic (if that’s the correct word) about the uptake of certain technologies: driverless cars, augmented-reality devices, quantum computing. Scotland is not (yet) independent. The EU is not as unified as Stross anticipated.

Despite these minor issues, I think Stross nailed a fundamental feature of contemporary political life. We do live in a post-attribution era. “Dark money” campaign financing is expanding in the United States Social-media distribution effectively ‘launders’ the sources of specific political claims. Astroturfing techniques are getting better, include those sponsored by governments. Articles from actual “fake news” websites—some based overseas—were widely circulated during the 2016 primary and general election.

None of this is entirely new. Nothing ever is. But it’s now cheaper and easier to inject political claims into civil society. In consequence, it’s becoming less and less likely that individuals will know the provenance of these claims—even as they become background knowledge for many people. This process, I suspect, helps short-circuit heuristics that people use to evaluate the quality of information, thus making it easier to promulgate false claims.

I don’t know exactly what it means to live in a post-attribution age. My suspicion is that its bad for liberal democracy and moral responsibility. Certainly, arguments against dark money flow from two principles: that understanding the sources of claims helps us to adjudicate them and that disclosure promotes accountability for those making claims. Are these correct? How far do they extend beyond political speech? I’m sure that some scholars and thinkers have addressed these issues, but I think we need to start having a more general conversation about how the inability to attribute claims—both in terms of ones ‘about the world’ and ones ‘on behavior’—might (or might not) matter for standard frameworks of deliberative democracy and political agency.

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