Can the Digital Fix What the Digital Breaks?

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In 1995, John Gray wrote “The cultural void that yawns when the secular meliorism of the religion of growth founders is as yet too far away to be on any intellectual or political agenda.”[1] As the “religion of growth” Gray referred to found new life, temporarily, during the late 1990s and first half of the 2000s, in the various forms of financialized casino-capitalism practiced in the western world and beyond, it remained so.[2] The 2008 financial crisis forced the briefest of reckonings onto official agendas, but soon the status quo was restored. By then, an idea which had emerged in the mid-1970s in the US, of managing the world as one enormous financial and monetary system, underpinned by neo-liberal market ideology which, at the point of a gun, attempted to legitimize the management of people in terms of price signals disembodied from culture and politics, had reached such hegemonic intellectual and institutional status that few seemed to notice the numb silence emanating from that yawning cultural void. And fewer still understood its dangers.

The reason Gray worried about this problem was simple. Increasingly artificial economic growth was masking a rising political risk in the West. Aristotle’s axiom that economic activity is senseless unless it satisfies human need had been upended. Human need was being treated, by neo-liberal ideologues and their acolytes in government, finance, and industry, as senseless unless it satisfied the illusion of constant economic growth. The ideology ruthlessly and unreflectively deployed market institutions as instruments, ignoring the centrifugal effect the stampede would have on the very social fabric it was supposed to be serving. When the music stopped, and market institutions failed as they inevitably do, the wreckage of social and political life would pose, among a litany of consequences ignored or downplayed by market ideologues, an increasing risk to domestic civil peace.

In the decade since 2008 these risks have only grown and begun to erupt. Its most visible expressions are in Trumpism in the US, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of the far-right and growing socio-political unrest in much of Europe and many other parts of the world. Australia enjoys heavily diluted versions of these trends for now, but a stationary economy and a catalogue of external threats to it portend for permanently anxious times. These expressions, moreover, are symptoms of precisely what Gray had warned of in 1995: that neo-liberal market fundamentalism had rendered both progressive and conservative projects, for which a renewable cultural life based in historical and institutional memory is the essential matrices, moribund as viable socio-political projects – leaving the polities of the West, with increasingly ephemeral and stationary economies, vulnerable to every type of disfunction imagined and unimagined.

Gray identified the primary political agenda for reasoned public discourse in Western countries as the discovery and negotiation of a new regime of sufficiency in resource distribution, one which would reflect the extant circumstance of the quest for full employment without, and with rapidly dropping levels of, full-time employment.[3] By the mid-1990s, market fundamentalism had unleashed the twin global forces of labor market equalization with labor market mechanization on populations everywhere. The high levels of mobility and low levels of security and certainty, which became the new normal for working people, had centrifugal effects on the social fabric, as could have been, and was, predicted. But this discovery and negotiation through reasoned public discourse did not materialize. In its place, a combination of denial, distraction, equivocation, and scapegoating has subsumed political life in most of the polities in which an honest reckoning is most needed. A new regime, however, of sufficiency in societal resource distribution is nonetheless being negotiated. Not in public and not through reasoned discourse, but through stealth, divergence, and in many cases, involving outright theft.

The cover for this new regime emerged in an unexpected place. The accelerating pace of technological change, enabled and driven by unfettered market forces calibrated to maximize output at any and all cost, produced a by-product unanticipated by its chief engineers which soon found a novel and increasingly pivotal utility. The by-product is the way in which the destruction of historical and institutional memory by technological churn for its own sake resulted, not in the rejection of market fundamentalism by the polities of the West, but in their ever-increasing dependence on it for the sustainment of divergence and delay. Polities have found that contrary to much of what would still pass for political theory in most universities, no overthrow of ruling elites has come with the melioristic theft of generational wealth which has accompanied the stagnation of economic activity and now, with market failures rising, heavy losses and declining living standards among working people in Western countries. Instead, the thinnest veneer of public relations, managed via the harlequinade of political disfunction, has sufficed to keep the civil peace while a new regime of resource allocation is rolled out. The novel component of this divergence strategy is located at the human-computer interface – now primarily the mobile digital device and its attention harvesting platforms.

The digital age converged with the failure of market institutions in the West at an opportune time for stakeholders in the status quo. Digital information and communication technologies in the 1990s carried with them the instrumental promise of economic renewal through gains in efficiency and productivity, so critical to the fiction of neo-liberalism, and the existential sense of progression and vanguardism so evidently critical to the associated self-image of Western late-modernity. Gains in efficiency and productivity turned out to be largely chimerical, and the exploitable vulnerabilities of individual self-image became the plough-and-sceptre of the digital age – a burgeoning field of research and development meshing social psychology with computer science tagged “Captology” (computers as persuasive technologies) in 1997 by B.J. Fogg.[4]

The consumer became more like a minable commodity, driven spigot-like into the machine to stem the leaking legitimacy of virtual capitalism. A quasi-extractive industry has emerged in the form of attention cultivation, whereby the “user” receives certain conveniences for free while servicing the data collection and analytics industry with ever greater and more personal data streams which, when collated and packaged, are delivered back to the consumer via altruistic “persuasion” narratives developed by what are, basically, a new generation of unelected, unaccountable, and largely unidentified social engineers. This process represent value to advertisers and a range of other paying end-consumers whose profitability accrues to a shrunken cadre of corporate, financial, and bureaucratic hyper-elites. Tagged Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff – her 2019 book is a watershed.[5] To wonder aloud how the basic tenets of liberalism and democracy mesh with this picture is to awaken from some sort of dream.

Perhaps, though, the most critical blow to the liberal sensibility by this turn of the digital age – of a litany of blows – is in its obliteration of the central Enlightenment concept of a person. The modern liberal project orbited the Enlightenment image of a unitary, continuing, rational decision-making individual, disembodied from time and place, culture and tradition, and in the Rawlsian sense, invisible to the accidents of fate. This cerebral cosmopolitan artifice, which rests most heavily on the Platonic and Kantian metaphysic of noumenalism, resembles nothing real from the troves of human history. It is as unreal today as it was when Dostoevsky rejected it on his return to St Petersburg in 1860. Nonetheless, this vision of a person is one which apparently carefully deploys reason in making life plans, discerns which components of a good life might be pursued and kept, and which components might be resisted or discarded. It imagines living under a political settlement in which every other person more-or-less does these things too, and on that basis claims a self-conscious space for a plurality of “values” under such a settlement, when this anaemic conception of values basically amounts to autonomy over life plans and preferences, enabling the “liberal pluralism” debated by political theorists such as Berlin and Raz.

For all the flaws in this Enlightenment affectation of a person, not the least of which is its implausible reductivism, nothing has exposed its disutility as comprehensively as the age of captology and big data analytics. The entities leaping out of data analytics via the mass surveillance of human beings are not unitary and continuing rational decision-making individuals. It is instead the fragmented and transient selves of the human animal, moved more by suggestion and impulse – as birds-of-a-feather – not by individuated and reasoned calculation. This heteronomous self is thus radically re-embodied in time and place, re-embodied in culture and tradition, and the accidents of fate are made transparent like never before by the practices of digital life-logging and the Quantified Self analyzed at scale. Arguably the most catastrophic blow to this now ghostly liberalism as a Western political project is this evisceration of its central concept of the person.

This re-embodied, post-liberal self is only the tangled plurality of conflictual human needs it has always been. Without doubt, the extant reality of the human condition on display in the wake of the liberal project is of a radical and irreducible pluralism, not just within and between differing cultural communities or within and between differing individuals, but within the individual itself. The digital age might yet be remembered as an age of radical transparency, when at some future point its political impact is properly considered. Kantian noumenalism, the strange Enlightenment artifice which acted as the site of moral universalism as long as its contradictions could be sustained, was a very likely and early casualty in hindsight.[6]

If the noumenal could not survive the fragmentation of the person, nor could its heavily intellectualized moral content. Our existential reality is one of fragmented persons, in an extended metaphysical heterarchy instantiated by complex and emergent systems of humans and things. To understand these persons, look to Latour, Hodder, Floridi, Gallagher, Maan, and if you are game, even Hoffman.[7] Some of this reality is depicted in digital data analytics, but much of it is not. The process of digitization is radically reductive. As Lanier[8] notes, it unavoidably involves the impoverishment and bastardization of transient and indiscrete wholeness into repeatable, discrete, computable componentry. Just as the cognitive sciences are rediscovering human beings in indiscrete brain-body-environment matrices,[9] digital evangelists hope to force this post-Enlightenment person onto a grid.

There is a global digital race on, nonetheless, to recapitulate the person out of bits. Surveillance Capitalism may yet be undergirded in the West by a type of virtual liberalism in which a cognitively managed “individual” sustains the making of illusory “rational” choices via a choice architecture promulgated with predictive technologies. This appears to be the banal dream of some digital monopolists,[10] and it probably speaks to the power of denial still alive in much of the Western polity. Or perhaps more accurately, it reflects the failure of political imagination and the fear of abandoning, like Pascal, an obvious fallacy. The social engineer is the figure most ridiculed by history – we have, nonetheless, a new generation who believe they are armed with tools which will enable a radical break with that history – a story played out over and over again, particularly during times of great cognitive dissonance. The irony of their tragic role seems to elude them.

A less banal project would be to incorporate the instruments of the digital age into the building of an infrastructure which could help support and sustain the reality of political pluralism within and between individuals, communities, and countries, in which liberal practices and institutions are one among many ways of life and where historical inheritance and the contingency of local human need is the normative cipher. The unmistakable reality is that the human animal still lives on the ground in large groups, enmeshed with and dependent upon others with common needs and abilities but vastly different goals and values from itself, and it needs membership of a political community which reflects a common life true to a shifting but recognizable historical memory. This remembering and reproduction of identity is the substance of a stable and sustainable civil peace, and the commonality shared by all cultures lies in its fragility and now, the extent to which we are threatened by technological nihilism.

Diverging difference, not converging sameness, would be its animating theme, and the quest to realize a political project which reflects rather than denies the reality of cognitive, cultural, and political plurality would be a worthy one. As Gray wrote of the cultural void after the stampede of neo-liberalism, however, addressing this need remains a way off any mainstream intellectual or political agenda. A spark of optimism, I think, can nonetheless be glimpsed if those in the process of building the tokenised ecosystems of Web 3.0 turn their minds, along with philosophers, cognitive scientists, and political theorists, to the diverging human narratives their creations should service, the core of which is, contra the liberal project, that a plurality of political and cultural forms can only thrive in civil peace when given substantive and legitimate legal expression as whole ways of life. A modus vivendi of, and for, the digital age.

 

Notes

[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (Routledge, 1995), 170.

[2] John Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions Of Global Capitalism (Granta Books, 2015).

[3] John Gray, Limited Government: A Positive Agenda, First Edition edition (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1989).

[4] B. J. Fogg, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do (Morgan Kaufmann, 2003).

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019).

[6] Zac Rogers, “The Digital Burial of Kantianism,” LinkedIn Pulse (blog), February 10, 2019, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-burial-kantianism-zac-rogers/.

[7] Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Harvard University Press, 1999); Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things (John Wiley & Sons, 2012); Luciano Floridi, The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality (OUP Oxford, 2014); Shaun Gallagher, Models of the Self (Andrews UK Limited, 2013); Ajit K. Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self (University Press of America, 2009); Donald Hoffman, “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem,” Mind and Matter 6, no. 1 (2008): 87–121.

[8] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto (Penguin UK, 2010).

[9] Shaun Gallagher, Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[10] Vlad Savov, “Google’s Selfish Ledger Is an Unsettling Vision of Silicon Valley Social Engineering,” The Verge, May 17, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/17/17344250/google-x-selfish-ledger-video-data-privacy.

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Dr. Zac Rogers is a Research Lead at the newly established Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University of South Australia. He is currently lead researcher in a defence and academic collaborative project exploring the impact of digital transformation from infrastructure to the human and computer interface on Australia’s internal and external security, national interests, defence planning, and strategy.