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Coronavirus Philosophy

In the World of COVID, Technology Is Not Our Friend

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he argues that a pandemic was the best time, for the state, to institute a panopticon on society – a society in which, power could be exercised, not through force or violence, rather via surveillance:

“The plague-stricken town, transverse throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city”

“In order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of plague. Underlying the plague stands all forms of chaos and disorder”

For Foucault, the environment of a crisis reduces our revulsion to infringements on our freedom, privacy and autonomy. This has previoudsly been demonstrated in the anti-terror measures that were implemented after 9/11, such as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, PREVENT and increased airport security.

However, Foucault’s prediction that increasing disciplinary power would come from the state is outdated. Forty years of neoliberalism has castrated the state’s capacity to carry out such a project. The state does not have the capacity to enforce social distancing, make everyone where a mask and implement track and trace. The State will not be able to institute a panopticon. As such, the current pandemic has given Silicon Valley the opportunity for it to surveil us.

As our governments begin to cooperate with Apple and Google to create a track and trace app, the current pandemic gives Silicon Valley the opportunity to violate our privacy even further. Despite its progressive mystique, technology is the biggest threat to liberty that we have.

In popular culture, technology is viewed as something countercultural or ‘hip’. For example, In the Black Mirror episode Smithereen, the tech CEO, “Mr. Bauer”, goes on a meditation retreat; in Bandersnatch, the computer programmer takes LSD; in The Thick of It the conservative spin doctor, who loves the New Economy, is also into Eastern spirituality; in Camden, there is a club called ‘Cyberdog’ that fuses futurism with a psychedelic mystique. It appears strange that technology should be given this connotation. Why are these seemingly distinct subcultures able to merge; and merge without us questioning its absurdity? Doesn’t this mystique of progressiveness blind us to the regressive nature of their practices?

When we interpret objects or things, we do not interpret them purely by their physical characteristics. We interpret things as a combination of their physical attributes and their subjective historical practice- which gives it an ideology. For example, tea. We do not view tea by merely its chemical formula, we comprehend tea by how it has been historically and culturally practised, namely something for civilised conversation, an emblem of Britishness. All objects are imbued with ideology. This is not a problem if the object gets used in the same way as their ideology claims it gets used for.

“Love Island brands itself as a show where people can meet and fall in love”

There are many things in consumer society where an object’s stated purpose contradicts its actual purpose. For example, Love Island brands itself as a show where people can meet and fall in love. In reality, it is a programme for us to be shown drama and for its contestants to become famous. It has to have the disguise of being a show where people fall in love, in order to grant some credibility to the contestants so that they are able to interact with each other.

Technology represents a similar contradiction. It appears to be a tool that gives people more freedom, connection and individuality when in reality it is the greatest threat to those things.

The very way that society conceives of progress is technological progress. When we imagine the future and the advancements that we would have achieved it is always in the mode of technology. As Marcuse said, ‘Progress is not a neutral term’. By equating progress with technology, we have been blinded to the fact that technology has been a regressive force; it has been used to undermine our autonomy, our privacy and our environment. But how did this happen? How did technology become perceived as a countercultural force?

Frank Turner, in his book From Counterculture to CyberCulture, details the origins of the cultural fusion between technology, LSD and Zen Buddhism, and how the tech-entrepreneur became viewed as someone that would take us to the next frontier. Frank Turner claims that this ideology originated in Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. In this catalogue, Brand sought to provide information for the 1960s commune dwellers. It contained information about how to build a geodesic dome to live in, how best to hunt as well as various new spiritual ways and philosophies to live by.

“It contained information about how to build a geodesic dome to live in.”

The catalog was also highly influenced by an idea called Cybernetics, a concept originating from Norbert Wiener. When he was working for the military, he observed how pilots and gunners respond to each other’s’ behaviour. He noticed that both the pilots and the gunners existed in a network, where their behaviours would influence each other. The gunners would notice patterns in the pilots’ movement and then alter their behaviour. The pilots would eventually realise this change and then alter their behaviour; they both existed in a system operating in response to information about one another. The pilots and the gunners existed in symbiosis without any external actor controlling it. The pilot, through his actions, can change how other actors in the system operate. Whilst this is occurring, changes in how other members behaved (within the system) operate also affects how the individual pilot operates: they exist in a feedback loop. By responding to each other’s behaviour, a pattern and order emerge.

Wiener believed that, “Underlying all their messy, fleshy, emotional complexity, human beings could be modelled as mechanical information processors”. He then extrapolated this idea further. All biological, mechanical and social systems were all analogous to each other, each controlled by sending and receiving information in the same way as the gunner and the pilot. Society did not need any forms of hierarchy because order can be created from a system of information exchange. To a generation of young American commune dwellers in the ‘60s who read Stewart Brand’s catalog, the vision of a world as a large network of information exchanges seemed appealing.

Marcuse is seen as the intellectual father of the May 1968 student protests. One could use his infamous book, One-dimensional Man, to understand the motivations and fears of the ‘60s counterculture movement. Marcuse argued that industrial society had produced conformism, in which it manufactures false needs in order to make us feel content with the status quo. Furthermore, ‘warfare state’ – the apparatus that was geared towards increasing output in order to compete in the Cold War – was converting us into tools to be used as efficiently as possible for the economic and military goals of others. Marcuse viewed politics at the time as ineffective for change as the main parties all supported the system that converts human beings into mere parts of the machine, geared towards creating profit for capitalists and helping America in the Cold War.

Young people disillusioned with society, did not want to become soulless, controlled elements of a machine that operates in the interest of the military and big business. With politics incapable of bringing about a new society, they left the cities and sought to establish new ones in the communes. From Turner’s Whole Earth Catalog they encountered the enticing vision of cybernetics. The communes could create a world without hierarchy, oppression and conflict; they could construct a world that was in harmony, connected by the interlink of information. Cybernetics could bring about a more democratic, egalitarian and harmonious world. Individuals, free from all norms, hierarchies and rules, could explore themselves and attain a higher form of consciousness. They could then share information about their new self-discoveries with others in the network and through this series of information exchange and feedback. In this way both the individual and the world could improve.

Furthermore, cybernetic ideas connected well with LSD culture. Stewart Brand encountered a commune called the ‘Merry Pranksters’. They believed that, by taking LSD, they could connect with all matter everywhere and that could transcend time and space. For the ‘Pranksters’, LSD was a communication technology through which humans could not only exchange information but, at least imaginatively, merge with one another in a spiritually harmonious state. The “Merry Pranksters’ deployed technology in order to create a new consciousness and a new form of social organisation. They viewed the body and the landscape, community and the state, and sometimes even biological and electronic systems as mirrors of one another”. This matches with Wiener’s idea that all biological, social and mechanical systems were all analogous to one another.

However, when these ideas were implemented in the communes they often failed. The rejection of formal politics and any forms of hierarchy meant that they often suffered from factionalism or were taken over by ‘charismatic dictators’. Furthermore, they often recreated gender norms – tasks were often divided along gendered lines- and the concerns of ethnic minorities were often left unaddressed. Without any formal structures in place to deal with these issues and complete dependence on peer-to-peer relations, racism, sexism and bullying could not be dealt with.

In the end the communes had failed to bring about an alternative society. However, with the arrival of the computer, Brand found a new way in which the dreams of the commune dwellers and the cyberneticians could be implemented. In order to attain self-discovery, freedom and genuine community, one didn’t need to leave the city. Instead, these were attainable through exploring cyberspace. By exploring the ‘new frontier’ of cyberspace, one could access the information of self-improvement and discover like-minded individuals, free from all hierarchies, social norms and power relations. What was missing was the computer, which could provide the infrastructure that could bring about the cybernetic ideal. As a result, technology became synthesised with the ideals of the communalists. Technology became viewed as the means to achieve true freedom, equality and individuality. This ethos will eventually amalgamate into Wired Magazine.

To test Brands’ claim that technology could bring about a cybernetic utopia, Loren Carpenter, a computer graphics researcher for Pixar, did an experiment. He invited people into a room with a screen and gave them a paddle. The paddle had two sides: one red, one green. They split the room into half and played a game of pong. If you display the green side of your paddle, the ‘blocker’ in the pong game would move upwards and if you displayed the red side the ‘blocker’ would move downwards. One-hundred or so people had to work together, with nobody in charge, to move the pong blocker up and down. And it worked. The group developed a hive mind. The computer had revealed a hidden order to collective action. The computer had created the ideal society that the 60s commune dwellers dreamed of.

This gave legitimacy to the fusion between technology and the ideals of the counterculture. It gave the credence for Silicon Valley to claim that they were the ‘trailblazers’ that were bringing about a better tomorrow. The entrepreneurs at Silicon Valley could market itself as the people bringing about freedom, tearing down hierarchy and uniting the world. For example, in Apple’s 1984 ad, the Apple computer was marketed as the way to make “1984 not like 1984”. One can also see this sense of vision in Zuckerberg’s stated mission: “to connect every person in the world”.

Yet, in the same way that the producers of Love Island offer the illusion that its intention is for people to go on the show to find love is in order to give convenient disguise about their true intentions (becoming a celebrity), the mystique of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, as the people that will bring about progress, also offers a convenient disguise to what they are really doing: surveilling us for the benefit of business.

The way that these technology firms surveil us, differs from how surveillance has been traditionally used. Foucault argues that the ‘state apparatus’ uses surveillance in order to homogenize us through regimentation, routinisation and enforcing institutional norms. However, in 21st Century society, we have a large degree of social freedom where one can choose from an array of identities. Today’s surveillance capitalists, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it, “surveil our behaviour, not to homogenize us, rather because the data that they extract from us is, to them, a raw material which they can sell.”

Google

According to Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism was first practised by Google. When the corporation started it embodied that countercultural mystique that Brand created and the cybernetic ideals. Google stored data, such as pattern of search terms, how a query is phrased, spelling, punctuation, dwell time, click patterns and location. This data could, then, be used to improve spell check, search results and voice recognition. Like Cybernetics suggested, information exchange could create a feedback-loop that could be used to improve the algorithm without any external authority having to guide it. This is how Google became the gold standard of search engines.

However, despite its technological sophistication, it had no way to make a profit for its investors. As a result, by late 2000 it decided to use its swaths of behavioural data and its knowledge of computer science to create algorithms for targeted advertising. The behavioural data was used to predict what you would be doing later in order to target you with an ad at the moment you are most susceptible. For example, I am going camping. Google can look at all my searches, and the conversations with friends, and then target me with an ad about tents. If I was shown an ad about tents at any other moment, I would have ignored it. It was only with the data that they had about me that they knew when I was most susceptible to clicking on it. Knowing this would take the guessing work out of advertising, companies could target specific ads to those that would be most defenceless against it. In 2016, 89% of Google’s revenue came from its targeted advertising programme.

Like all businesses, tech firms are guided by the laws of capital accumulation. This means that Google will reinvest its profit into the things that were profitable in order to make more. As such, Silicon Valley firms are constantly and continuously expanding their techniques of surveillance in order to get a greater depth and scope of data about our emotions, personalities and preferences. Is it not strange that Google, a search engine, is attempting to create a car, or Facebook, a social network, also invests in virtual reality? They want you to be surrounded by one of their devices at all times in order to improve their predictions about what you’re going to be doing, how you are feeling and what you are thinking, in order to sell this data to other companies so that they can more effectively advertise. As one research analyst [b]described:

“I have seen many people spill their guts online, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself. I created my interior thought as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities”.

Rather than being the source of liberation that Steward Brand expected, technology and the internet has been used in order to reduce us into a raw material to be extracted for the benefit of others.

However, it goes much further than this. Surveillance capitalists eventually learnt that the easiest way to know how someone is thinking and feeling or what they are going to do in the future, is by intervening in the state of play. It is done so by “tuning” our behaviour – altering the way something is presented in order to change behaviour. For example, Netflix does so by changing the image and location of its shows when they are displayed on your home screen so that you are more likely to click on programmes produced and owned by Netflix. Another example is Pokemon Go; businesses, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, could bid for Pokemons to spawn on their property. Hundreds of people would then be herded into restaurants and cafes, creating more customers for them. A third case where technology firms were able to modify our behaviour was an experiment conducted by Facebook. They sent a post saying ‘I voted’ to certain people’s profiles, which you could then click on. Once you clicked on it, it would be sent to your Facebook friends. They researchers believed through the pressure of seeing the post and all their friends that clicked on it, 280,000 additional people went to the polls. By altering our behaviour our actions become more predictable.

But so what if these companies use data to target us with ads that are likely to influence us or direct us to shops that we may buy from? Ultimately, doesn’t the choice to buy something lie with us? This assertion is to some extent true. However, the problem with Surveillance capitalism is that it essentially excludes us from society; we are no longer deemed necessary because we are not their customers. Their customers are the other firms who buy our data. In this relationship, we are no different from the steel, plastic and rubber that goes into making a car. From us using technology, we also become suppliers of raw materials without receiving any reward for it. In the same way as industrial capitalism, where treating the natural world as a mere commodity leads to the degradation of the environment, Surveillance capitalism, by treating human beings as a mere commodity, will destroy the human condition.

Capital no longer needs to treat workers with any care as its most profitable raw materials are supplied for free. Bauman in Liquid Modernity describes how labour relations have changed from a relationship similar to a marriage to a cohabiting relationship. When the factories were immobile, capital was locked and dependent on labour, it couldn’t leave when the relationship no longer satisfied it. With the advent of the internet, businesses became intangible and lucid. This created a relationship that was analogous to a cohabiting couple, because capital was no longer bound by the conditions of space, it could uproot itself and move anywhere. This, combined with its reduced dependency on labour as a result of data extraction, gives companies the power to employ workers in the most efficient ways possible. It does not need to regard working conditions and pay in the same way that firms in the Fordist era had done. They can simply use and dispose of workers how and whenever they wish.

In Ellen Ullman’s memoir Close to the Machine she details what could happen to the nature of work as surveillance capitalism expands into other domains (clubs, restaurants and broadband providers are all beginning to utilize it): “My clients hire me to do a job, then dispose of me when I’m done. I hire the next level of contractors then dispose of them”, “We’re not supposed to invest in any one person or set of skills – no sense in it anyway. The skillset changes before the person possibly can, so it’s always simpler to change the person”. She has to constantly learn new computer programmes. She is lonely; relationships only last as long as the project and she only networks with people within her occupation. Here body, rather than being a whole, has to integrate itself with the rhythm of industry.

Technology, far from being a source of freedom and individuality, has the capacity to reduce us into objects and be controlled for the interests of others. Technology, without political change, has not allowed us to surpass the one-dimensional society that Marcuse described. Marcuse’s critique of society remains: domination in society occurs because the irrational telos (the goals, aims, aspirations) of those in power is wrapped in a rational apparatus. Because of this it is difficult to criticise it. So, what did Marcuse mean by this? Rather than using the smartest people on earth to eradicate poverty or solve climate change, Silicon Valley is using them to discover new ways to access and manipulate our behaviour, so that they do not have to rely on workers and can make a larger profit. But because these firms have so much expertise in science and mathematics, we feel incapable of criticising their actions and behaviour. And because we feel incapable of fully comprehending how the technology works, we become more susceptible to the mystique that it veils itself with. We are more likely to believe that they are the source of progress. We must remember, when their technology gets used to create a track-and-trace system, that they are not our liberator, rather that they are the greatest threat to the human condition.

Photo-credits Adam Shostack. Under CC BY 2.0 license.

By biel Schreuder Obiols

Politics and International relations student at the University of Nottingham.
Follow be on twitter @bielschruder

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