Smart Machines and Enlightenment Dreams (2)

In part one, I mentioned a ‘nagging suspicion’:

aren’t (1) the fantastically optimistic projections around objective data & AI, and (2) the increasingly high-profile crises of fake news, algorithmic bias, and in short, ‘bad’ machinic information, linked in some way? And aren’t both these hopes and fears rooted, perhaps, in the Enlightenment’s image of the knowing subject?

As usual, we’re caught up in two seemingly opposite fantasies. First, that the human is a biased, stupid, unreliable processor of information, and must be augmented – e.g. by the expanding industry of smart machines for self-tracking. Second, that the individual can know for themselves, they can find the truth, if only they can be more educated, ingest more information – e.g. by watching more Jordan Peterson videos.

Below are some of my still-early thoughts around what we might call the rise of personal truthmaking: an individualistic approach that says technology is going to empower people to know better than the experts, often in cynical and aggressive opposition to institutional truth, but a style that we find in normative discourses around fact-checking and media literacy as well as by redpilled conspiracy theorists, and in mainstream marketisation of smart devices as well as the public concern around the corruption of politics.

 

Smart machines

Let’s start with the relatively celebrated, mainstream instance, a frontrunner in all the latest fads in data futurism. Big data is passé; the contrarian cool is with small data, the n=1, where you measure your exercise, quantify your sleep, analyse your productivity, take pictures of your shit, get an app to listen to you having sex, to discover the unique truths about you and nobody else, and use that data to ping, nudge, gamify yourself to a better place.

Implicit here is a clear message of individual empowerment: you can know yourself in a way that the experts cannot. Take the case of Larry Smarr, whose self-tracking exploits were widely covered by mainstream media as well as self-tracking communities. Smarr made a 3D model of his gut microbiota, and tracked it in minute detail:

smarr screencap

This, Smarr says, helped him diagnose the onset of Crohn’s disease before the doctors could. He speaks about the limitations of the doctor-patient relationship, and how, given the limited personal attention the healthcare system can afford for your own idiosyncratic body and lifestyle, you are the one that has to take more control. Ironically, there is a moment where Kant, in his 1784 What is Enlightenment?, broaches the same theme:

It is so easy to be immature [unmündigkeit]. If I have […] a doctor who judges my diet for me […] surely I do not need to trouble myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay.

To be sure, Kant is no proto-anti-vaxxer. Leaving aside for a moment (though a major topic for my research) the many readings of aufklärung and its place in historicising the Enlightenment, we can glimpse in that text a deep tension between the exhortation to overcome tutelage, to have the courage to use your own understanding, and the pursuit of universally objective truth as the basis for rationalisation and reform. And it is this tension that again animates the contemporary fantasy of ubiquitous smart machines that will know you better than you know yourself, and in the process empower a knowing, rational, happy individual.

Now, it just so happens that Larry Smarr is a director at Calit2, a pioneer of supercomputing tech. He has the money, the tech savvy, the giant room to install his gut in triple-XL. But for everybody else, the promise of personal knowledge often involves a new set of dependencies. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the selling point of many of these devices is that they will collect the kind of data that lies beyond our own sensory capabilities, such as sleep disturbances or galvanic skin response, and that they will deliver data that is objective and impartial. It’s a kind of ‘personal’ empowerment that works by empowering a new class of personalised machines to, the advertising mantra goes, ‘know us better than we know ourselves’.

The book will focus on how this particular kind of truthmaking begins with the image of the hacker-enthusiast, tracking oneself by oneself using self-made tools, and over time, scales up to the appropriation of these data production lines by insurance companies, law enforcement, and other institutions of capture and control. But here, we might ask: how does this particular dynamic resonate with other contexts of personal truthmaking?

 

Redpilling

We might recall that what’s happening with self-tracking follows a well-worn pattern in technologies of datafication. With the likes of Google and Amazon, ‘personalisation’ meant two things at the same time. We were offered the boon of personal choice and convenience, but what we also got was a personalised form of surveillance, manipulation, and social sorting. In the world of data, there’s always a fine print to the promise of the personal – and often it’s the kind of fine print that lies beyond the reach of ordinary human lives and/or the human senses.

Fast forward a few years, and personalisation is again being raised as a pernicious, antidemocratic force. This time, it’s fake news, and the idea that we’re all falling into our own filter bubbles and rabbit holes, a world of delusions curated by youtube algorithms. When Russian-manufactured Facebook content looks like this:

fake post

we find no consistent and directly political message per se, but a more flexible and scattershot method. The aim is not to defeat a rival message in the game of public opinion and truthtelling, but to add noise to the game until it breaks down under the weight of unverifiable nonsense. It is this general erosion of established rules that allows half-baked, factually incorrect and otherwise suspect information to compete with more official ones.

We recognise here the long, generational decline across many Western nations of public trust in institutions that folks like Ethan Zuckerman has emphasised as the backdrop for the fake news epidemic. At the same time, as Fred Turner explains, the current disinformation epidemic is also an unintended consequence of what we thought was the best part about Internet technologies: the ability to give everyone a voice, to break down artificial gatekeepers, and allow more information to reach more people.

Consider the well known story of how the 2015 Charleston shooter began that path with a simple online search of ‘black on white crime’ – and stumbling on a range of sources, showing him an increasingly funneled branch of information around crime and race relations. In a way, he was doing exactly what we asked of the Internet and its users: consult multiple sources of information. Discover unlikely connections. Make up your own mind.

The same goes for the man who shot up a pizza restaurant because his research led him to believe Pizzagate was real. In a handwritten letter, Welch shows earnest regret about the harm he has done – because he sought to ‘help people’ and ‘end corruption that he truly felt was harming innocent lives.’

Here we find what danah boyd calls the backfire of media literacy. It’s not that these people ran away from information. The problem was that they dove into it with the confidence that they could read enough, process it properly, and come to the secret truth. Thus the meme is that you need to ‘redpilling’ yourself, to see the world in an objective way, to defeat the lies of the mainstream media.

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Once again, there is a certain displacement, the fine print, parallel to what we saw with self-tracking. Smart machines promise autonomous self-knowledge, but only by putting your trust in a new set of technological mediators to know you better than you know yourself. Redpilling invites individuals to do their research and figure out their own truth – but you’ll do it through a new class of mediators that help plug you into a network of alternative facts.

 

Charisma entrepreneurs

The Pizzagate shooter, we know, was an avid subscriber to Alex Jones’ Infowars. The trail of dependencies behind the promise of individual empowerment reveals shifting cultural norms around what a trustworthy, authentic, likeable source of information feels like.

America, of course, woke up to this shift in November 2016. And in the days after, the outgoing President offered a stern warning about the complicity of our new media technologies:

An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.

The assumption being, of course, that we would universally still find the Nobel a marker of unquestionable trust, and vice versa for Koch money. But what if a Harvard professorship is no longer such an unquestioned seal of guarantee, and what if being funded by oil money isn’t a death knell for your own credibility about climate change?

To describe these changes in terms of cynicism and paranoia is to capture an important part of this picture, but not all of it. We rarely pass from a world of belief to a world without, but from one set of heuristics and fantasies to another. What recent reports such as one on the ‘alternative influence network‘ of youtube microcelebrities reveals is the emergence of a certain charismatic form of truth-peddling.

By charismatic, I am contrasting the more serious, institutionalised bureaucratic styles to what Weber had called ‘charismatic authority’ [charismatische Herrschaft]: that which attracts belief precisely through its appearance as an unorganised, extraordinary form of truth. It’s critical here to distinguish this charisma from some internal psychological power, as if certain people possess a magical quality to entrance others. Weber considered charisma in more or less relational terms, as an effect of others’ invested belief, and something which often undergirds more institutionalised forms of power as well. The key is to understand charisma’s self-presentation as an explicitly extra-institutional circuit, through which actors are able to promise truth and action too radical for normal process, and to claim a certain ideological purity or proximity to Truth beyond the messiness of the status quo.

We can immediately recognise how alternative influencers, elements of the far-right, etc. have sought to turn issues like anti-political correctness into a marker of such charismatic authority. And individuals like Jones become exhibits in the emerging performative styles of such charisma, from his regular Mongol horde-like forays into the mainstream to pick up notoriety, or his self-righteous masculine rage as a default emotional state:

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But we should add to that a couple of slightly less obvious dimensions, ones which make clear the parallels and resonances across the different businesses that sell the fantasy of personal truthmaking.

The first is that influencers like Jones consistently claim that they are the rational ones, they are the ones that go for scientific evidence, they are the true heirs of the Enlightenment. The common refrain is: I’m not gonna tell you what to think: I just want to inform you about what’s happening, about Pizzagate, about fluoride in your water, about the vaccines, and let you make up your own mind. The reams of paper strewn about Jones’ desk, regularly waved at the camera with gusto, are markers of this seeming commitment to Reason and data – even though, in many cases, this ‘evidence’ is simply Infowars articles reprinted to testify on Infowars the show.

Alex Jones doesn’t reject the Enlightenment; he wants to own it.

Second, all this is further complicated by the commercialised structure of this charismatic truthmaking. Alex Jones isn’t just a fearless truthspeaker, but also a full time vitamin peddler. While Jones works to obscure his exact revenue and audience numbers, his ‘side’ business of dubious supplements has grown into a major source of funding that helps support the continued production of political content. In his many infomercials seeded into the show, Jones touts products like Super Male Vitality – a mostly pointless mixture of common herbal ingredients packed with a premium price and a phallic rubber stopper.

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Recently, Jones has updated his stock with products like “Happease” – “Declare war on stress and fatigue with mother nature’s ultimate weapons” – in a clear nod to the more dominant market of highly feminised wellness markets (think Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop and its ‘Psychic Vampire Repellent’). The connection between fake news and fake pills is made clear in one of Jones’ own sales pitches:

You know, many revolutionaries rob banks, and kidnap people for funds. We promote in the free market the products we use that are about preparedness. That’s how we fund this revolution for the new world order.

Such shifts threaten to leave Obama’s earlier warning behind as a quaint reminder of older standards. For instance, exposing someone’s financial conflict of interest used to be a surefire way to destroy their credibility as a neutral, objective truthteller. But how do we adapt if that equation has changed? As Sarah Banet-Weiser has shown in Authentic, you can now sell out and be authentic, you can brand your authenticity. You can make your name as a mysterious, counter-cultural graffiti artist speaking truth to power, and then make a killing auctioning your piece at Sotheby’s, having the piece rip itself up on front of the buyer’s eyes – and they will love how real it is. In such times, can we really win the battle for reason by showing how transparent and independent our fact-checkers are?

 

Truth isn’t truth

Today, we often say truth is in crisis. The emblematic moment was the Marches for Science, which brought out outrage, but also a certain Sisyphean exasperation. Haven’t we been through this already? Surely truth is truth? Surely the correct path of history has already been established, and what must be done is to remind everyone of this?

science march combo

Well, Rudy Giuliani has the answer for us: truth isn’t truth. Facts are in the eyes of the beholder, or at least, nowadays they are. Or, to be less glib: the struggle today is not simply between truth and ignorance, science and anger – a binary in which the right side goes without saying, and the wrong side is the dustbin of history screaming and wailing for the hopefully final time. Rather, it is a struggle over what kinds of authorities, what kinds of ways of talking and thinking, might count as rational, and how everybody’s trying to say the data and the technology are on their side.

It’s a twisted kind of Enlightenment, where the call to know for yourself, to use Reason, doesn’t unify us on common ground, but becomes a weapon to wield against the other side. Insisting on the restoration and revalorisation of objective journalism or faith in objective science might be tempting, and certainly an essential part of any realistic solution. But taken too far, they risk becoming just as atavistic as MAGA: a reference point cast deep enough into the mist, that it sustains us as fantasy precisely as something on the cusp of visibility and actuality. A nice dream about Making America Modern Again.

Information has always required an expansive set of emotional, imaginative, irrational investments in order to keep the engines running. What we see in self-tracking and charismatic entrepreneurs are emerging ‘disruptive’ groups that transform the ecosystem for the production and circulation of such imaginations. We might then ask: what is the notion of the good life quietly holding up, and spreading through, the futurism of smart machines or the paranoid reason of charismatic influencer?

 

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Smart Machines & Enlightenment Dreams (1)

I was at UC San Diego in March for a symposium on “Technoscience and Political Algorithms“. In April, I’ll be at the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre with Whitney Phillips and Selena Nemorin to talk about “New Technological Ir/rationalities” – and then at NYC’s Theorising the Web. Then in May, I’ll be back at MIT for Media-in-Transition 10.

Across all four, I’m continuing to grapple with an earlier question, or rather, a nagging suspicion: aren’t (1) the fantastically optimistic projections around objective data & AI, and (2) the increasingly high-profile crises of fake news, algorithmic bias, and in short, ‘bad’ machinic information, linked in some way? And aren’t both these hopes and fears rooted, perhaps, in the Enlightenment’s image of the knowing subject?

One popular response to the fake news epidemic was to reassert the ideals of scientific knowledge – that is, of impersonal, neutral, reassuringly objective information – hearkening back to a hodgepodge of 19th and 20th centuries. But in its pure form, we know this is just as atavistic as MAGA: a reference point cast deep enough into the mist, that it sustains us as fantasy precisely as something on the cusp of visibility and actuality. Information has always required an expansive set of emotional, imaginative, irrational investments in order to keep the engines running – which, in fact, is what is being endorsed in those protests for science.

One major aspect of this story is how the emphasis on the critical faculties of the autonomous individual lends itself to both a widespread cynicism (including the emergence of trolling as a mainstream performative style) and the atomising organisation of life as data in the world of surveillance capitalism. I’ll get to that in a future post. In this one, what follows is some preliminary notes about – not so much direct inheritance, but repetitions, rearticulations, resonances – between how contemporary technologies and Enlightenment projects theorise the production of objective truth.

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Consider, for example, self-tracking technologies. Beddit, the sleep tracker, records your heart beats, respiration cycles, and other bodily movement; when you wake, it greets your consciousness with a numerical sleep score. You’re asked to consider how your sleep must have been – information produced and processed while the thinking subject was, literally, turned off. We can now track our exercise; mood swings; shitting; sex behaviour, including ‘thrusts per minute‘ (now sadly defunct). We can ask these devices to recommend, nudge, influence our social relationships, or shock us with electricity to jolt us back to work.

https://www.rescuetime.com/assets/integration-example-pavlok-e2a12d6cea8d10f2a70d6dbad7a5073e.png

In the book, I discuss how these technologies are presented as empowering the knowing individual. The idea is that the unerring objectivity of smart machines can be harnessed for a heroically independent form of ‘personalisation’. But lurking in this vision is a crucial set of displacements and double binds:

  1. First, the objectivity of this data-driven knowledge is secured by displacing the subject of knowledge from the conscious self to the smart machine – a machine which communicates ceaselessly with the nonconscious elements of the human individual, from glucose levels to neural electrical activity.
  2. In other words, this interaction targets human sensation and sensibility as the next frontier of rationalisation. Here, the ideal of the knowing individual, for whom sensation is the privileged path to autonomous knowledge, intersects with the project of datafying humans through sensory data. We find here the dual pursuit of human knowledge, and knowledge about human beings.
  3. The objective is to program the individual towards a fitter, happier, more productive entity. These displacements help put together a vision of voluntary, empowering human control with a machine-driven view of the human as an amalgamation of datafied parameters that can be nudged into the optimal curve.

These dynamics recall, of course, theories of cybernetics and posthumanism – but, I would like to suggest, they also extend longstanding projects and problems of the Enlightenment: how can we establish an autonomous grounding for Reason? How can human sensation be understood not only as a path to objective knowledge, but a basis for a rational optimisation of social systems?

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In 1726, Benjamin Franklin created for himself a journal of virtues: each day, he would record his performance according to thirteen criteria including ‘temperance’ and ‘chastity’.

A page from Benjamin Franklin's virtue journal

Franklin’s journal is a well-cited event in the prehistory of tracking and datafication. What is crucial is that it is the thinking, feeling individual that is at the heart of curating and interpreting this data. In contrast, mass market tracking technologies today seek more automated, ‘frictionless’ design: not only is it more convenient for the users, the idea is that the smart machines will avoid becoming contaminated by the biases and flaws of human subjectivity. In short, ‘machines that know you better than you know yourself’.

So there is a historically very familiar proposition here – that technoscience will provide what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison called machinic objectivity (in the context of 19th century scientific images). The emphasis is on neutral and accurate data untainted by human bias, which individuals might utilise this information for a more rational life. With self-tracking, as part of what Mark Hansen has called ‘twenty-first century media’, this objectivity is secured through a certain displacement. Where Franklin guarantees the validity of his records through his own integrity, self-tracking promises empowering self-knowledge through a new degree of technological dependency.

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Crucially, this displacement occurs through the contested object of human sensation. Where human feelings, memories, affects, are on one hand demoted as unreliable and biased sources of self-knowledge, it is exactly the minutiae of human sensation and experience that smart machines plumb for new use cases, new markets.

This datafication of sensation puts a new spin on the old Enlightenment relationship between sensation and Reason. Insofar as the Enlightenment was built on a spirit of aufklarung, of overcoming established authorities for truth, the individual’s ability to know for themselves was often predicated on a turn to sensation and experience. It was the human individual, who was equipped with both the senses to acquire data and the Reason to process and verify that data , that would be indispensable for putting the two together.

This emphasis on sensation was fundamental to many Enlightenment projects. In France, we might think of Condillac and Hélvetius, who explored bodily experience as the foundation of all ideas – variously grouped as sensationists, sentimental empiricists, etc. by scholars like Jessica Riskin. (We are, of course, simplifying some of the different ways in which they can be grouped and ungrouped, catching only the broader themes for the moment.) The senses, in the narrowly physical sense, was often connected to sensibility or sentiment, understood as an affective disposition of the soul that would lie at the basis of one’s ability to intelligently and morally process external stimuli.

For our purposes, perhaps the best example for this historical resonance is Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’homme machine, or ‘Man, a Machine’. Yet contrary to how the title might sound today, man as machine was not a dry creature of logic, but defined by the effort to annul the Cartesian gap. There is no soul as a thing separate from body, not because the workings of the soul are mere ephemeral illusions, but because sensation and sentiment are the crucial mechanisms that arise from physical bodies and operate what is wrongly attributed to a transcendent soul. The upshot is that the proper analysis of sensation becomes crucial to understanding, manipulating, and optimising man as a machine.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/LaMettrie_L%27homme_machine.jpg

Indeed, the story goes that La Mettrie, an accomplished physician, developed his strong materialism after a bout of illness and this personal experience of the mental struggle caused by a weak body. In a distant echo, today, a common pattern in the personal testimonies of self-tracking enthusiasts is that illness and other bodily problems were the catalyst for them to turn to tracking technologies. It would be a difficult medical problem, a long convalescence, and other such experience where the machine breaks down, that motivated them to seek a more objective and rational basis for the care of the self.

In this sense, sensation serves an important dual purpose for the Enlightenment:

  1. On one hand, there is sensation as the raw stuff of human machines – the truly empirical and rational ingredient for theorising human behaviour, in opposition to divine design as the First Cause or the intangibly transcendental soul.
  2. On the other hand, sensation and its proximate concepts are also held up as an important and even moral quality, insofar as the individual has a responsibility to cultivate their senses to grow their proficiency with Reason.

With technologies like self-tracking, human individuals’ sensory acquisition of empirical data is displaced onto machinic harvesting of ‘raw data’ – where the former is demoted to a biased, partial, and irredeemably flawed form of collection. And the exercise of human Reason remains, but is increasingly shaped by what the machines have taken out of those sensations, which arrives with again the moral authority of objectivity.

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But there is one last displacement to be made. The abduction of self-knowledge and self-control onto the smart machines takes on futuristic projections about reprogramming subjects. In Surveiller et Punir, Foucault mentions La Mettrie as a marker in the development of the docile body: that his materialism facilitated a “general theory of dressage, at the centre of which reigns the notion of ‘docility’, which joins the analysable body to the manipulable body.” L’homme machine was not only a model for understanding human sensation in a programmatic form, but also a model for reprogramming human behaviour.

Today, the theoretical rationalisation of the human subject in technoscientific terms is again contributing to new techniques for the government of self and others. The Quantified Self, which some early enthusiasts sought to use as a way to break away from the top-down applications of big data, is increasingly a Quantified Us, or rather, a Quantified Them, where the technology crafted to personalise big data is being scaled back up to governments and corporations.

Consider just one intersection of wearables, mind-hacking and state surveillance. Popular tracking devices like Thync have adopted neuroscience tools like EEG to enable monitoring and even direct manipulation of brainwave activity. In 2018, it was reported that the Chinese government had begun to deploy ‘mind reading’ helmets in select workplaces – in reality, fairly simple, probably EEG-based devices for detecting brainwave activity.

The devices can be fitted into the cap of a train driver. Photo: Deayea Technology

This was no surprise: already in 2012, Veritas Scientific claimed to have produced a ‘TruthWave’ helmet that could detect if the subject is lying. TruthWave has since more or less disappeared, and the use-claim is always likely to have been hyperbolic. But it was also the case that the device was partly funded by the US military. At the level of the technologies employed, the principles of data processing and analysis, the private-public flow of funding and expertise, the ubiquitous spread of sensors and smart machines has far more in common with surveillance capitalism than it might like to admit.

***

Smart machines and big data have a long historical and cultural tail, one which draws not only on cybernetics and posthumanism, but the dynamic of sensation, objectivity and social reform that was central to the project of the Enlightenment. In the popular imagination, technoscience is a line, stretching itself ever forwards in inevitable progress: but in the normative and imaginative sense, it more resembles an ouroboros, ever repeating and devouring itself. And as that cycle captures us in the seductive dream of total objectivity, new technologies for surveillance and value extraction are embedding themselves – literally – under our skin.

When you can trust nobody, trust the smart machine

I will be at AOIR in Montreal, 10-13 October to present some newer work as I look beyond the book. Below is one brief summary of ongoing investigations:


 

What is the connection between smart machines, self-tracking, and the ongoing mis/disinformation epidemic? They are part of a broader shift in the social rules of truth and trust. Emerging today is a strange alliance of objectivity, technology and the ‘personal’ – often cast in opposition to the aging bastions of institutional expertise. The fantasy of an empowered individual who ‘knows for themselves’ smuggles in a new set of dependencies on opaque and powerful technologies.

 

1.

On one hand, individuals are encouraged to know more, and to take that knowing into their own hands. Emblematic is the growth of the self-tracking industry: measure your own health and productivity, discover the unique correlations that make you tick, and take control of rationalising and optimising your life. Taglines of ‘n=1’ and ‘small data’ sloganise the vision: the intrepid, tech-savvy individual on an empowering and personal quest to self-knowledge. Implicit here is a revalorisation of the personal and experiential: you have a claim to the truth of your body in ways that the doctor cannot, despite all their learned expertise. This is territory that I go into in some detail in the book.

 

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And so, Calit2’s Larry Smarr builds a giant 3D projection of his own microbiome – which, he claims, helped him diagnose the onset of Crohn’s disease before the doctors could.

 

But what does it mean to take control and know yourself, if this knowing happens through technologies that operate beyond the limits of the human senses? Subsidiary to the wider enthusiasm for big data, smart machines and machine learning, the value proposition of much (not all) of self-tracking tech is predicated on the promise of data-driven objectivity: the idea that the machines will know us better than we know ourselves, and correct the biases and ‘fuzziness’ of human senses, cognition, memory. And this claim to objectivity is predicated on a highly physical relationship: these smart machines live on the wrist, under the bedsheets, sometimes even in the user’s body, embedding their observations, notifications, recommendations, into the lived rhythms of everyday life. What we find is a very particular mixture of the personal and the machinic, the objective and the experiential: know yourself – through machines that know you better than you do.

 

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Jeannine Risley’s Fitbit data is used to help disprove her claims of being raped by an intruder. What is called ‘self-knowledge’ becomes increasingly capable being disassociated from the control and intentions of the ‘self’.

 

2.

Another transformative site for how we know and how we trust is that of political mis/disinformation. While the comparison is neither simple nor obvious, I am exploring the idea that they are animated by a common, broader shift towards a particular alliance of the objective, machinic and ‘personal’. In the political sphere, its current enemies are well-defined: institutional expertise, bureaucratic truthmaking and, in a piece of historical irony, liberalism as the dishonest face of a privileged elite. Here, new information technologies are leveraged towards what van Zoonen labelled ‘i-pistemology’: the embrace of personal and experiential truth in opposition to top-down and expert factmaking.

 

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In such ‘deceptive’ social media postings, we find no comprehensive and consistent message per se, but a more flexible and scattershot method. The aim is not to defeat a rival message in the game of public opinion and truthtelling, but to add noise to the game until it breaks down. It is this general erosion of established rules that allows half-baked, factually incorrect and otherwise suspect information to compete with more official ones.

 

The ongoing ‘fake news’ epidemic of course has roots in post-Cold War geopolitics, and the free speech ideology embedded into social media platforms and their corporate custodians. But it is also an extension of a decades-long decline in public trust of institutions and experts. It is also an unintended consequence of what we thought was the best part about Internet technologies: the ability to give everyone a voice, to break down artificial gatekeepers, and allow more information to reach more people. It is well known how Dylann Roof, who killed nine in the 2015 Charleston massacre, began that path with a simple online search of ‘black on white crime’. The focus here is on what danah boyd identified as a loss of orienting anchors in the age of online misinformation: emerging generations of media users who are taught to assemble their own eclectic mix of truths in a hyper-pluralistic media environment, while also learning a deep distrust of official sources.

 

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2017 saw the March for Science: an earnest defence of evidence-based, objective, institutionalised truth as an indispensable tool for the government of self and others. The underlying sentiment: this isn’t an agenda for a particular kind of truth and trust, this is just reality – and anyway, didn’t we already settle this debate? But the debate over what counts as reality and how we get access to it is never quite settled.

 

3.

These are strange and unsettling combinations: the displacement of trust from institutions to technologies in the guise of the empowered ‘I’, and the related proliferation of alternative forms of truthtelling. My current suspicion is that they express an increasingly unstable set of contradictions in our long-running relationship with the Enlightenment. On one hand, we find the enduring belief in better knowledge, especially through depersonalised and inhuman forms of objectivity, as the ticket to rational and informed human subjects. At the same time, this figure of the individual who knows for themselves – found in Kant’s inaugural call of Sapere aude! – is increasingly subject to both deliberate and structural manipulations by sociotechnical systems. We are pushed to discover our ‘personal truths’ in the wilderness of speculation, relying only on ourselves – which, in practice, often means relying on technologies whose workings escape our power to audit. There is nobody you can trust these days, but the smart machine shall not lead you astray.

 

Facebook scores our trustworthiness because we asked them to

News that Facebook assigns users with secret ‘trustworthiness’ scores based on the content they report has drawn a familiar round of worries. We are told that as users flag objectionable content on the platform, they are themselves scored on a scale of 0 to 1, based on how reliably their flagging concurs with the censors’ judgment. Presumably, other factors play into the scoring; but the exact mechanism, as well as the users’ actual scores, remain secret. The secrecy has drawn critical comparisons with China’s developing ‘social credit’ systems. At least with China’s Zhima Credit, you know you’re being scored and the score is freely available – something not afforded by American credit rating systems, either.

But there’s a bit more to it. In many ways, Facebook is doing what we asked it to do. To untangle the issue, we might look to two other points of reference.

One is Peeple, the short-lived ‘Yelp for People’ that enjoyed a short period in 2015 as the Internet’s most reviled object. The app proposed that ordinary people should rate and review each other, from dates to landlords to neighbours – and, in the original design, the ratings would be published without the victim’s consent. The Internet boiled over, and the app was quickly stripped of its most controversial (and useful) features. That particular effort, at least, was dead in the water.

180821 Peeple img

But Peeple wasn’t an anomaly. It wasn’t even the first to try such scoring. (Unvarnished tried it in 2010; people compared that to Yelp, too; and it died just as quickly.) These efforts are an inevitable extension of the tendency to substitute lived experience, human interaction and personal judgment with aggregated scores managed by profit-driven corporations and their proprietary algorithms. (Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason.) If restaurants and Uber drivers are scored, then why not landlords, blind dates, neighbours, classmates? Once we say news sources have to be scored and censored in the battle against fake news, there is a practical incentive to score the people who report that fake news as well.

More broadly, platforms have long been about ‘scoring’ us for reliability and usefulness, and weighting the visibility and impact of our contributions. It’s been pointed out that such scoring & weighting of users is standard practice for platforms like Youtube. Facebook isn’t leaping off into a brave new world of platform hubris; it is only extending its core social function of scoring and sorting people, in response to widespread demand that it do so.

In recent weeks, Twitter was described as essentially a rogue actor amongst social media platforms. Where Facebook and others moved to ban notorious misinformer Alex Jones, Jack Dorsey argued that banning specific individuals on the basis of widespread outrage would undermine efforts to establish consistent and fair policy. Those who called for banning Jones criticised Dorsey’s approach as lacking integrity, a moral cop-out. But let us be precise: what exactly makes Twitter’s decision ‘lack integrity’? Do we believe that if somebody is widely condemned enough, then platforms must reflect this public outrage in their judgment? That is, in many obvious ways, a dangerous path. Alternatively, we might insist that if Twitter’s rules are so impotent as to allow an Alex Jones to roam free, they should become more stringent. In other words, we are effectively asking social media platforms to play an even more dominant and deliberate role in their ability to censor public discourse.

In many ways, this is the logical consequence of the widespread demand since November 2016 that social media platforms take on the responsibility of policing our information and our speech, and that they take on the role of determining who or what is trustworthy. We scolded Mark Zuckerberg in a global reality TV drama of a Congressional hearing, telling him that with power comes responsibility: it turns out that with responsibility comes new powers, too.

180821 Zuck img

Now, we might say that the problem isn’t that Facebook is scoring us for trustworthiness, but that the process needs to be – we all know the magic phrase by heart – open, transparent, accountable. What would that look like? Presumably, this would require not only that users’ trust scores are visible to themselves, but that the scoring process can be audited, contested, and corrected. That might involve another third party, though it is uncertain what kind of institution is trustworthy these days to arbitrate our trust scores.

Here, we find the second reference point: the NSA. Tessa Lyons, Facebook’s product manager, explains that their scoring system must remain as secret as possible, for fears that bad actors will learn to abuse it. This is, of course, a rationale we have seen in the past not only from social media platforms with regards to their other algorithms, but also the NSA and other agencies with regards to government surveillance programs. We can’t tell you who exactly is being spied on in what way, because that would help the terrorists. And we can’t tell you how exactly our search results work, because this would help bad actors game the algorithm (and undermine our market position).

So we come back to a number of enduring structural dilemmas in the way our Internet is made. In protesting the disproportionate impact of a select few powerful platforms on the public sphere, we also demand that these platforms increase their control over public speech. Even as we ask them to censor the public with greater zeal, we possess little effective oversight over how the censors are to act.

In the wake of Russian election interference, Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, the pretention to neutrality has been punctured. There is now a wider recognition that platforms shape, bias and regulate public discourse. But while there is much sense in demanding better from the platforms themselves, passing off too much responsibility onto their hands risks encouraging exactly the hubris we like to accuse them of. “What makes you think you know the best for us, Mark Zuckerberg? Now, please hurry up and come up with the right rules and mechanisms to police our speech.”

If there is sufficient public outrage, Facebook might well be moved to retire its current system of trust scores. It has a history of stepping back from particularly rancorous features, only to gradually reintroduce them in more palatable forms. (Jose van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity.) Why? Not because Facebook is an evil force that advances its dark arts whenever nobody’s looking, but because Facebook has both commercial and social pressures to develop more expansive scoring systems in order to perform its censoring functions.

Facebook’s development of ‘trust scores’ reflects a deeper, underlying problem: that traditional indices of trustworthiness, such as mainstream media institutions, have lost their effectiveness. Facebook isn’t sure which of us to trust, and neither are we. And if we are searching for new ways to assign trust fairly and transparently, we should not expect the massive tech corporations, whose primary responsibility is to maximise profit from an attention economy, to do that work for us. They are not the guiding lights we are looking for.

Interview @ Gas Gallery

I spoke with Ceci Moss at Gas, a mobile art gallery that roams Los Angeles and the web, about different forms of self-tracking: the technological promises and economic precarities, moral injunctions and everyday habits… found here.

An excerpt:

We have to ask not only ‘is this really empowering or not’, but also ‘what is it about our society that makes us feel like we need to empower ourselves in this way?’ In the same way, we have to ask what kind of new labours, new troubles, new responsibilities, new guilts, that these empowering activities bring to our doorstep. From an economic perspective, if you are someone who has to constantly sell one’s productivity to the market, the ‘empowerment’ of self-tracking and self-care becomes a necessary labour for one’s survival. The injunction to ‘care for yourself’ is a truncated version of ‘you’ve got to care for yourself to stay afloat, because nobody will do it for you.’

The interview is part of their ongoing exhibition:

take care | June 9–July 20, 2018

Featuring: Hayley Barker, Darya Diamond, Ian James, Young Joon Kwak, C. Lavender, Sarah Manuwal, Saewon Oh, Amanda Vincelli, and SoftCells presents: Jules Gimbrone

How do radical ambitions of “self-care” persist or depart from capitalist society’s preoccupation with wellness and the industry surrounding it, particularly when filtered through technological advances? How can we imagine personal wellness that complicates or diverges from capitalist and consumerist tendencies? Taking its name from the common valediction, which is both an expression of familiarity and an instruction of caution, take care, is a group exhibition that considers the many tensions surrounding the possibilities of self-care.

 

Lecture @ Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

I will be at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, on 20 March 2018 to discuss data, bodies and intimacy, as part of their year-long program on the work of Seth Price. More information here.

 

Data, or, Bodies into Facts

Data never stops accumulating. There is always more of it. Data covers everything and everyone, like skin, and yet different people have different levels of access to it,so it’s never quite fair to call it “objective” or even “truthful.

Entire industries are built around storing data, and then protecting,  organizing, verifying, optimizing, and distributing itFrom there, even the most banal pieces of data work to penetrate the most intimate corners of our lives.

For Sunha Hong, the promise of data is the promise to turn bodies into factsemotions, behavior, and every messy amorphous human reality can be distilled into the discrete, clean cuts of calculable information. We track our exercise, our sexual lives, our relationships, our happiness, in the hope of selfknowledge achieved through machines wrought in the hands of others. Data promises a certain kind of intimacy, but everything about our lived experience constantly violates this serene aesthetic wherein bodies are sanitized, purified, and disinfected into objective and neutral facts. This is the pushpull between the raw and the mediated.

Whether it be by looking at surveillance,algorithmic, or selftracking technologies,Hong’s work points to the question of how human individuals become the ingredient for the production of truths and judgments about them by things other than themselves.

 

Update: He gives a talk.

sign

Presentation @ Digital Existence II: Precarious Media Life

Later this month I will be presenting at Digital Existence II: Precarious Media Life, at the Sigtuna Foundation, Sweden, organised by Amanda Lagerkvist via the DIGMEX Research Network (of which I am a part) and the Nordic Network for the Study of Media and Religion. The abstract for my part of the show:

 

On the terror of becoming known

Today, we keenly feel the terror of becoming known: of being predicted and determined by data-driven surveillance systems. The webs of significance which sustain us also produce persistent vulnerability to becoming known by things other than ourselves. From the efforts to predict ‘Lone Wolf’ terrorists through comprehensive personal communications surveillance, to pilot programs for calculating insurance premiums by monitoring daily behaviour, the expressed fear is often of misidentification and misunderstanding. Yet the more general root of this anxiety is not of error or falsehood, but a highly entrenched moralisation of knowing. Digital technologies are the newest frontier for the reprisal of old Enlightenment dreams, wherein the subject has a duty to know and technological inventions are an ineluctable force for better knowledge. This nexus demands and requires subjects’ constant vulnerability to producing data and being socially determined by it. In turn, subjects turn to what Foucault called illegalisms[1]: forms of complaint, compromise, obfuscation, and other everyday efforts to mitigate the violence of becoming known. The presentation threads this normative argument with two kinds of grounding material: (1) episodes in becoming-known drawn from original research into American state- and self-surveillance, and (2) select works in moral philosophy and technology criticism.[2]

 

[1] Foucault, M., 2015. The Punitive Society: Lectures at the College de France 1972-1973 B. E. Harcourt, ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] E.g. Jasanoff, S., 2016. The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future, New York: W.W. Norton & Co; Vallor, S., 2016. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Winner, L., 1986. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Presentation @ 4S

I will be at 4S [Society for Social Studies of Science], Boston this week in the ‘Surveillance and Security’ panel: Thursday 31 August, 4.00pm, Sheraton Boston Flr 3 Kent.

Recessive Objects: Surveillance and the (Dis)appearance of fact

Recessive objects are things which promise to extend our knowledge, but thereby publicise the very uncertainty threatening that knowing. These archives, statistical figures, black boxes mobilise our enduring faith in nonhuman objectivity and technological progress, imposing a sense of calculability and predictability. Yet far from extinguishing uncertainty, they provide material presence of the absent, secret, unknowable – especially the widening gap between human and machinic sensibility. Recessive objects address longstanding questions about the social production of what counts as objective fact, and what kind of virtues are invested into ‘new’ technologies. They emphasise the practical junctures where public imagination, material artefacts and the operational logic of new technologies intersect.

I discuss two recessive objects featuring centrally in America’s recent encounters with surveillance technologies: (1) the Snowden Files, an indefinite archive of state secrets leaking profusely since 2013; (2) the latest generation of self-tracking devices. What does it mean to know about a vast state surveillance system, even as it operates almost entirely removed from individuals’ sensory experience? How can the public make its judgment when proof of surveillance’s efficacy is itself classified? What kind of ‘self-knowledge’ is it when we learn about our bodies through machines that track us in ways our senses cannot follow – and claim to ‘know you better than you know yourself?

Presentation @ ICA 2017

Next week, I’ll be presenting at the International Communications Association conference, San Diego, on the future as a trope by which potentiality and speculation may be folded into the domain of reasoned judgment. Saturday 27 May, 9.30am, Aqua Salon AB.

On Futures, and Epistemic Black Markets

The future does not exist: and this simple fact gives it a special epistemic function.

The future is where truths too uncertain, fears too politically incorrect, ideas too unprovable, receive unofficial license to roam… The future is a liminal zone, a margin of tolerated unorthodoxy that provides essential compensation for the rigidity of modern epistemic systems. This ‘flexibility’ is central to the perceived ruptures of traditional authorities in the contemporary moment. What we call post-fact politics (David Roberts), the age of skepticism (Siebers, Leiter), the rise of pre-emption (Massumi, Amoore), describe situations where apparently well-established infrastructures of belief and proof are disrupted by transgressive associations of words and things. The future is here conceptualised as a mode for such interventions.

This view helps us understand the present-day intersection of two contradictory fantasies: first, the quest to know and predict exhaustively, especially through new technologies and algorithms; second, heightened anxiety over uncertainties that both necessitate and elude those efforts. In the talk, I trace these contradictory fantasies across several interconnected scenes. We find voracious data hunger and apophenia (Steyerl) accompanied by visions of uncontrolled futures in the Snowden affair, and the narrative of radical terrorism; in Donald Trump’s depiction of eroded borders, and the use of latest surveillance technologies in tracking Muslims; in the revival (endurance?) of the paranoid style (Richard Hofstadter); and even in the apocalyptic warnings over climate change, tempered by deep confusion over the reliability of such estimates.

The trading of ‘futures’ in stock markets originated from the need to align uncertainties inherent in agricultural timescales with the epistemic demands of human markets. The futures I speak of are currency in epistemic black markets: spaces where things other than presently real, proven, accounted for, may nevertheless be traded for sentiment and opinion.

 

Criticising Surveillance and Surveillance Critique

New article now available on open access @ Surveillance & Society.

Abstract:

The current debate on surveillance, both academic and public, is constantly tempted towards a ‘negative’ criticism of present surveillance systems. In contrast, a ‘positive’ critique would be one which seeks to present alternative ways of thinking, evaluating, and even undertaking surveillance. Surveillance discourse today propagates a host of normative claims about what is admissible as true, probable, efficient – based upon which it cannot fail to justify its own expansion. A positive critique questions and subverts this epistemological foundation. It argues that surveillance must be held accountable by terms other than those of its own making. The objective is an open debate not only about ‘surveillance or not’, but the possibility of ‘another surveillance’.

To demonstrate the necessity of this shift, I first examine two existing frames of criticism. Privacy and humanism (appeal to human rights, freedoms and decency) are necessary but insufficient tools for positive critique. They implicitly accept surveillance’s bargain of trade-offs: the benefit of security measured against the cost of rights. To demonstrate paths towards positive critique, I analyse risk and security: two load-bearing concepts that hold up existing rationalisations of surveillance. They are the ‘openings’ for reforming those evaluative paradigms and rigged bargains on offer today.