The Rising Spectre of Populism

The Guardian ran this headline last week:

‘He’s not a populist, he’s popular’: Nikol Pashinyan becomes Armenian PM.

For some context, the article is about the change of leadership in Armenia and the quote within the headline comes from one of the new PM’s allies.

Notice the defensive edge to the declaration. Would such a statement have made it to the headlines a few years ago? I’m not so sure. It would have been safe to assume that a person elected to lead a country enjoyed significant support from the general populace. This is no longer the case. Perhaps we have Donald Trump to thank for this. After all, he managed to get elected despite riding a wave of divisive politics and losing the popular vote.

The more pertinent question would be to ask if this trend is here to stay. If, going forward, being popular would no longer be enough for politicians to stake a claim to widespread support and legitimacy; they would also have to dissociate themselves from the spectre of populism.

A Quid Pro Quo Life

While reading Pedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm, a book about machine learning, I found the following extract that talks about life in the digital age:

Every transaction works on two levels: what it accomplishes for you and what it teaches the system you just interacted with. Being aware of this is the first step to a happy life in the twenty-first century.

To reassure us that this is a positive development, Domingos goes on to say that it is better to think of a computer as a tool to serve us rather than as an adversary. And what it learns from us helps it to serve us better.

I have three thoughts about this.

One, this element of reciprocity is already present in transactions between humans. A shopkeeper I buy something from, is learning about me and, by extension, his customer base. The presence of machine learning amplifies this part of our lives.

Two, this logic can be applied to the products offered by companies like Google and Facebook. This would be a more nuanced way of looking at our relationship with these enterprises than the simple, and now over-used, notion of data being the new oil.

Three, in the event that Domingos’ optimism is misplaced and a system happens to be malign, we should have the ability to walk away from a transaction.