New Technology

Utopian Ambitions Meet Big Data

facebook privacyThe European Renaissance formed much of what became the West’s vocabulary concerning individual freedom, humanism, political order and the idea of scientific inquiry freed from religious supervision or customary oversight. It gave rise, amongst other things, to speculation about the possibility of perfection. Neo-Platonists, like Pico della Mirandola, considered what man’s release from a determinist chain of being might mean. “What a great miracle is man,” Pico wrote in 1487, “the intermediary between creatures … familiar with the gods above him, as he is lord of the creatures beneath him.”

In this optimistic spirit, later humanists, like Thomas More, imagined utopia, “no place”, where “there’s never any excuse for idleness”. More’s society of perfect happiness was also one of complete surveillance where “everyone has his eye on you”. In a similar vein, Francis Bacon conceived a New Atlantis where Salomon’s house, or the scientific College of the Six Days Work, would find out “the true nature of all things (whereby God might have the more glory in the workmanship of them, and men the more fruit in the use of them)”.

This essay appears in the March edition of Quadrant.
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The scientific revolution and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment only reinforced this quest. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein captured the dream of science which also came to address the growing irrelevance of God. By the late nineteenth century both Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Hardy speculated on the meaning of God’s death. As Hardy wondered:

And who or what shall fill His place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise? …

In Silicon Valley, Big Tech offers the latest apocalyptic answer to Hardy’s question concerning “the goal of their enterprise”.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus identified what he considered the central question facing humanity in a post-religious and post-Holocaust world: namely, why don’t we commit suicide? The Big Tech companies that have come in the last decade to shape the new virtual world order answer the existential question with another and older one, that the existentialists of the first half of the twentieth century never factored into their calculations, “Why don’t we abolish death and disease?”

Fictional tales of conscious machines have been science fiction themes frequently referenced by internet pioneers like Elon Musk. I Robot, Blade Runner and Ex Machina evince an obsessive desire to replicate human cognition. Silicon Valley ignores existential angst, denies biblical warnings like the Tower of Babel story and instead offers the singularity. Google’s Ray Kurzweil considers that the demise of death will represent not only the fulfilment of the Enlightenment project, but also announce the “rapture”.

We are, it seems, in the midst of a technological revolution which, like the industrial revolution, challenges our moral values, social cohesion and identity. Smart and interactive habitats, machine learning, data mining and domain-specific intelligence are new realities that disrupt conventional political and moral understanding in unanticipated ways.

The Silicon Valley program involves transhumanism and artificial intelligence, leading to what Yuval Harari in Homo Deus (2017) terms the new religion of dataism. The control of social media gives Silicon Valley immense power to shape our identity and influence our choices. Rapidly acquired wealth means that the new Big Tech elite form a transnational plutocracy, temporarily housed in the Bay area of San Francisco, that has little interest in the nation-state or democracy unless it suits their disruptive, progressive vision. The new technologies and the way the Silicons implement them, therefore, have profound but little-understood implications for both our democratic and our moral self-understanding.

Political and social organisation has always reflected the state of technological knowledge. The invention of the stirrup created feudalism. The printing press enabled the emergence of the Gutenberg galaxy which gave us the reformation of religion, the modern secular state and scientific rationalism. It liberated the free individual from the cocoon of medieval order.

The start of the computer age of electronics announced what Marshall McLuhan termed the global village. “The computer,” McLuhan contended, “is the most extraordinary of all the technological clothing ever devised by man, since it is the extension of our central nervous system.” New technologies create new environments. Identifying these “new modes of experience”, McLuhan also recognised that these “technologies are generations ahead of our thinking”.

What, we might wonder, does the social media revolution and its preoccupation with big data mean for our ruling political and economic assumptions? How does our latest technological clothing affect our secular and liberal modes of experience?

Pursuing the death of death is undoubtedly hubristic, but it already has transformative political and economic consequences. In practical terms, the new technologists have rapidly acquired immense financial, social and technical power. Amazon, Paypal and Google (restructured as Alphabet in 2015) launched after 1994, g-mail first appeared in 2004, so too did Facebook. Twitter began in 2006, Tesla in 2003, Airbnb in 2008, Uber in 2009.

Apple and Microsoft (1975) are relatively ancient. Apple launched in 1976 but its founder Steve Jobs revived it with the iMac in 1996 and the iPod in 2004. Significantly, Silicon Valley hosts the corporate headquarters of Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tesla, Uber, Paypal and Airbnb. The valley engineers the future and the future is algorithmic.

In 2017, eight of the world’s most highly valued companies were technology businesses. The combined market capitalisation of these companies is $4.7 trillion. That is 30 per cent of the combined capitalisation of the other ninety-two companies in the world’s 100 most valuable firms. Of these companies, five (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook) are from the US, two (AliBaba and Tencent) from China and one (Samsung) from Korea.

What are the social and political consequences of this remarkable Silicon Valley dominance? Jamie Bartlett’s BBC documentary The Secrets of Silicon Valley sought to reveal the character of the Silicon vision. Silicons assume they are “the solution, not the problem”. They also want “one global community” that will “reclaim our cities”. But to build their new world, they must first “disrupt” the old. What does disruption entail?

It is no accident that the Silicon experiment occurred in California and reflects the progressive and libertarian idealism of the 1960s. Steve Jobs, the founding father, was a hippie dropout. An anti-establishment, hippie worldview shaped Siliconia as it proceeded from counter-culture to cyber-culture. At the same time, infant tech start-ups, like Apple, from the 1980s onward, benefited from the private sector reforms, monetarist free market and minimal-state thinking that underpinned a Left Coast version of Reaganomics. Sceptical of state economic power, both free marketers and counter-culture capitalists favoured market solutions and limited taxation. Libertarians may diverge on the scope of their opposition to existing political and economic systems, but the libertarian precursors of the tech dream maintained that allowing the market free play would facilitate competition, economic and financial innovation, create employment and have a utilitarian and invisible-handed effect in generating greater wealth for all.

As Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State and Utopia, only a minimal state that respects individual rights allows us “to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conceptions of ourselves”. This libertarian understanding formed the side constraints that nurtured the take-off of the cyber-culture. In other words, libertarian in its foundations, the creators of the virtual world conceive it as an anarchy along hippie, communalist lines. The Internet Rights Charter holds the internet to be “a global public space … open, affordable and accessible to all”. Like the major US (but not Chinese) Big Tech companies, the charter upholds freedom of expression and rights to privacy.

However, despite these libertarian origins, current Big Tech behaviour subverts its roots in a Nozickian ideal of individualism. The economic strategy of the new media leviathans is not creative competition, but monopoly. The difference between Apple’s current book to share market value assumes the super-normal profits that only a monopoly could deliver. Similar valuations apply to Amazon, Google and Facebook. These companies have no profitable ways to invest their huge profits. Facebook and Google sustain their monopoly position by becoming an investment fund “attached to a media machine”.

Under monopolist conditions, the GAFA tetrarchy (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) threatens to over-run the market-based society. Their impact on print and mainstream media has been both transformative and destabilising. Facebook, Google and Twitter are essentially media platforms that mine data and generate profits through advertising. In 2017 Google and Facebook received 63 per cent of all US digital advertising revenue.

However, these enormously profitable businesses are parasitic on “the investments in collecting information made by others”. Despite weaponising the First Amendment, Twitter, Facebook and Google have become highly efficient disseminators of non-information. Used by “people of ill-will”, from Putin’s Fancy Bears to Islamic State, they afford platforms “for the deliberate dissemination of dangerous falsehoods”. These developments “raise huge issues” for maintaining an open society from online enemies that neither Karl Popper nor Robert Nozick could envisage.

The further consequence of this evolution is a new and intangible economic order. In Capitalism without Capital (2017) Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake examine how major developed economies now invest in intangible assets—design, branding, R&D and software—rather than in tangible assets, such as physical machinery or buildings. They contend that these intangible assets have determined the key economic changes of the last decade, from economic inequality to stagnating productivity. New technology drives this change. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, owns no physical assets.

It is the intangible assets, the integration of software and design into a brand, that creates value. The intangible economy is fundamentally different from the tangible one. Its characteristics involve “scalability” of the product design, especially through the new global communications environment, spill-overs into other products in the same domain, and synergies where design and development hubs create dynamic environments where intangibles cluster, revitalising areas like Shoreditch in London, while at the same time generating greater inequalities in wealth and its distribution across the wider society. While intangibility flourishes, the old economy, wages and employment stagnate.

Yet investment in intangibles (the major source of investment in the UK, US and Sweden) is risky because products are both scalable and mobile. Some estimates predict that by 2033 47 per cent of jobs will be at high risk of disappearing. Robots will replace insurance writers, bus and truck drivers, waiters and carpenters. Even doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects and artists could soon be outperformed by an algorithm.

Intangibility also facilitates the rise of super-dominant companies, removed from political or fiscal oversight. The oligopolist character of the new media and the intangible economy it has made possible means that since the Western financial crisis (2007), the Gini coefficient has widened in all developed economies, fracturing a critical link between capitalism and democracy. Instead, intangible capitalism supports the Pareto principle. The sociologist Wilfredo Pareto argued that society always reverts to a mean where 20 per cent of the population own 80 per cent of the wealth.

The structural implications of the intangible economy favour this iron law of oligarchy in a twenty-first-century networked form. It is estimated that in ten years there will be 150 billion networked measuring sensors. This will produce a mass of data about personal preferences which will enable those who own the data to disconnect the means of doing politics from its ends. The new media platforms will increasingly gather data to produce information that influences decision-making, disrupting the political relationship between the individual, the rule of law, and the market.

Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google already offer platforms to target voter preferences and facilitate extremist ideologies that render democratic processes open to divisive manipulation by alien powers. Putin’s subversive propaganda campaigns have been so successful because all he needed “was social media”.

Current discussion concerning social media focuses, primarily, on its effects on the economic and social infrastructure: the job market, personal privacy, or democratic transparency and the manipulation of the electorate through fake news and disinformation. However, merely addressing AI’s external impact on society neglects the existential question: How will intelligent algorithms affect the liberal self-understanding of the autonomous, rational self?

Conceptions of social contract, natural rights and liberty that have shaped secular political understanding since the seventeenth century assume a rational individual. Despite developments in neuroscience that dispute the understanding of the self as a “single essence”, these do not necessarily have moral or political implications. Even if my internal voice is not free, no one knows better than I what I want most. Science notwithstanding, I still have every reason to value and protect my free choices.

Artificial intelligence and data mining, however, alter the paradigm. AI will soon be able to analyse individuals in such intimate detail that it will know them better than they know themselves. The reasons for listening to our inner voice will be extinguished. AI will know better what we really want. In Anarchy, State and Utopia Robert Nozick assumed that no one would choose a pleasure or experience machine if it became a possibility. AI suggests otherwise. This has implications for the self-owning individualism central to liberal democratic practice.

As the utility of preserving autonomy collapses, the political and social structures and values that reflect it could dissolve. Governments will increasingly use algorithms to predict policy outcomes. If machines show that they can provide consistent and correct policy decisions they will steal democratic control from the people and their representatives. Once we accept that the intelligent machine holds the “right answer”, and we enjoy the benefits of its success, we will enter a condition of techno tutelage. As Nick Bostrom has argued, “AI could attain a level of intelligence vastly greater than humanity’s combined intellectual wherewithal”, rendering the psychological utility of voting redundant.

AI will not be a “tool” to make our lives easier, it will construct intelligent systems capable of participating in a feedback loop with humans. AI will present us with answers about our nature, needs and desires that we cannot imagine. It will force us to question what it means to exist with dignity, and what values should be preserved in order to live the good life. AI thus challenges the values that shape our social and political order and renders abstract philosophical arguments in defence of freedom obsolete.

AI “dataism” has, for the Silicons, assumed the character of a religion. Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, a media platform in the process of mutating into an AI business, predicted The Age of Spiritual Machines (2006). For Kurzweil, “the human species, along with the computational age technology it created, will be able to solve age old problems … in a postbiological future”. From Kurzweil’s transhumanist perspective, we are entering the fifth evolutionary epoch where human intelligence merges with technology to reach the “singularity” at which point we (or at least an elite) would “be transformed into spiritual machines”. The Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it is probable that we already inhabit a matrix-like simulation of the past created by our post-human descendants. Bostrom’s followers embrace “simulation theology”. They include Big Tech pioneers like Google as well as Peter Thiel of Palantir and Paypal and Elon Musk of Space-X and Tesla who have founded the Singularity University and the Future of Humanity Institute.

Socrates maintained that to philosophise is to learn how to die. Whether one believes the soul is eternal or perishable with the body, Western civilisation historically recognised this natural order of things. Big Tech’s transhumanists, by contrast, seek life everlasting. Beyond criticising what he calls “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual”, Thiel also finances SENS (Strategically Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation, devoted to the scientific “curing” of death.

It seems the Mark Zuckerbergs, Tim Cooks and the Larry Pages call the political shots on America’s Left Coast. Although they maintain similar professional profiles, as investors and entrepreneurs, Thiel’s endorsement of Trump stands out against the Left Coast Big Tech’s Democrat sympathies. Yet what draws Zuckerberg, Kurzweil, Musk and Thiel together may be more decisive than their divisions. All embrace “technologism”, or more accurately an abstract scientific rationalism that triumphs over any Left–Right partisanship. All questions recede before the task of technical progress. In the first decades of this millennium, the technical view has triumphed. Even economists today are essentially technologists, locating the demand-side “real” factors behind our chronically low interest rates that account for our secular stagnation.

As Elon Musk, channelling Francis Bacon, explains, Big Tech applies an abstract scientific method to both engineering and society. “It’s really helpful,” he maintains, “for figuring out the tricky things.” Siliconia possesses an unprecedented belief in the scientific method, building new worlds by promulgating a technological ideal untrammelled by the threat of competition or social discontent. Visionary entrepreneurs like Musk, Thiel and Zuckerberg assume the cult status of philosopher-CEOs.

Unlike the ancient world, where philosophy was a stoic and contemplative affair, the new philosopher-CEO augments his wealth and scale in the service of “realising” a utopia based on incessant innovation. Zuckerberg, Page, Thiel and Musk pursue, like Bacon before them, the dream of a New Atlantis.

The technological approach Siliconia advocates represents the latest version of what the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott identified as the politics of faith or rationalism in politics. This style first emerged in the early modern period of European politics. It emphasised reason, not as Aristotle or Aquinas understood it, namely, as a faculty of the practical understanding, but as Bacon, Descartes and Kant came to reinvent it, in theoretical or abstract scientific terms. Since the Enlightenment, rationalism has promoted the sovereignty of technique that affords the prospect of certainty. As Ray Kurzweil contends, AI merely reinforces the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment project.

The possibility of certain knowledge, which a scientific method applied to the realm of politics or society intimates, provides a technique which not only “ends with certainty but begins with certainty and is certain throughout”. As Oakeshott observed, “how deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which (particular) traditions of political behaviour have given place to ideologies”. In the case of Siliconia the ideology is dataism.

The rationalist concern with technique always intimated a politics of perfection, which in its twentieth-century ideological form welcomed the growing bureaucratic power of government to make politics conform to a rational plan. Oakeshott, as a conservative, counterposed the experience of a particular, contingent tradition and a local grammar of self-disclosure and self-understanding with the rationalist endeavour to reduce “the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles”. Cutting itself off “from the traditional knowledge of society”, rationalism, or what Musk terms the scientific method, combines the politics of perfection with the politics of uniformity. Political activity consequently “consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of society before the tribunal” of the rationalist’s intellect. “The rest,” as they know who experience the roll-out of the intelligence-gathering Chinese social credit system, “is rational administration.”

The new giants of tech, Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, don’t merely crave monopoly as a matter of profit. Instead, as Franklin Foer argues,

Big tech considers the concentration of power in its companies—in the networks they control—an urgent social good, the precursor to global harmony, a necessary condition for undoing the alienation of humankind.

Under such conditions of internet oligopoly, techno-managerialism through the manipulation of choices, fears and desires undermines and replaces the self-owning individual of liberal thought with servile dependency. The emergence of Big Tech renders democracy obsolete and creates conditions for elite rule based on the control and access to technology and big data. This is already happening in China, where the ruling Communist Party in collaboration with big data gathering companies like Ali Baba and a universal social credit system is building a virtual digital dystopia.

We can identify in Silicon Valley utopianism certain presuppositions about the rule of a new techno-guardian class that seeks to establish trans­national processes and networks and an evolving theory of political and social organisation framed around Pareto’s 20/80 rule. The recent eruption of populism against this trend in the West might only be a temporary blip, susceptible ultimately to long-term big data management.

Silicon Valley’s craving for monopoly, in fact, stretches back to the counter-culture of the 1960s, where it emerged, “from the most lyrical of visions of peace and love”. The hippie counter-culture of Haight-Ashbury dreamt from the outset of subverting the basis of the “straight” traditional order.

Such utopian visions, grounded in anarchic idealism, are of course the problem and not the solution. They are the antithesis of the conservative understanding of civil society as a compact between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. As the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton notes of the great disruption, the tech world of virtual networks erodes places and erases:

the hierarchies that settle there. They replace space by time, and time by a succession of crowded instants in which nothing really happens since everything only happens on screen … The web is an unspecified nowhere, a Hobbesian state of nature in cyberspace. But for that reason it cannot compete with the trustworthy somewhere for which most people yearn. It is a release from place but not a replacement.

To engage in this rationalist quest for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is, of course, “a gamble which may have its rewards”. However, “when undertaken in a society not itself engaged in the gamble, it is mere folly”. The project of finding a short cut to heaven is as old as the human race, and conduct that orients itself by big data, the scientific method and its axiomatic rules is precisely an attempt at this kind of shortcut. Such projects assume that they may avoid the difficulties of life by engaging in a scheme in which the ends have been determined for them. They explicitly pursue a future state of perfection, all the while neglecting the joys and sorrows of our present temporality.

Significantly, the media technologies we use have rapidly turned into compulsions. This is just as their designers intended. The rationalist technique has not entirely escaped those involved at the birth of Big Tech. Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, even acknowledges that it was designed to act like a drug, giving “you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever”.

The social media companies deliberately exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology. As well as addicting its users, social media contributes to “continuous partial attention”, limiting people’s ability to focus. Everyone is distracted all of the time. As well as making us stupid and inattentive, Big Tech undermines political democracy with the tyranny of big data.

However, it’s not all bad news. Some observers wonder whether the social media era may have peaked. Former addicts are attempting to wean themselves off it. Nick Bilton considers it the beginning of a massive shift. Somewhat belatedly, Western governments have started to pursue the tech monopolists under anti-trust laws and render them accountable for the material they post.

The truth is that a morality and a political project in this Big Tech form breeds nothing but distraction and moral and ultimately political instability. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, like Sean Parker, now feels “guilty”, about the socio-political implications of technological manipulation. Musk wants to colonise Mars before robot wars destroy earth. Chagrin, as Michael Oakeshott observed, ultimately awaits all those who embark upon such rationalist enterprises.

Associate Professor David Martin Jones is Reader in Political Science at the University of Queensland. His latest book is The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (2015, with M.L.R. Smith).


2 thoughts on “Utopian Ambitions Meet Big Data

  • ianl says:

    A literate and occasionally provocative essay with some insights, but ultimately a rather simplistic curate’s egg, in my view.

    It is true that ” … these enormously profitable businesses are parasitic on “the investments in collecting information made by others”” and as such have become overwhelming juggernauts. In fact, I had at first (well over a decade ago) welcomed Google for its’ search engines and the Google Earth utility; for those who have no use for the latter above simple armchair curiosity, the real uses for Google Earth will remain out of sight, I suspect. I now regard Google’s unjustified but overwhelming censorship of the internet as unbearably irksome.

    However, parasitism upon the efforts of others is not the stuff of “philosopher CEO’s”. Too grandiose by far. It is merely hubris buttressed by the advent of sudden uncountable wealth. Musk, pimply Zucky and all are not rationalists deploying the scientific method (why, oh why do those in non-scientific endeavours so consistently mis-portray this major fruit of the Enlightenment – such persistent straw men) but rather the shrewd recipients of spins of the wheel of fortune. FaceBook, for example, is vulnerable not to State regulation so much as consumer fickleness. If enough people were to choose some other form of communication, FaceBook would be yet another electronic dodo. In short, the power of the Zuckys and the Goggles rests only in people’s willingness to submit to it. If there is any profundity at all in the advent of “social media”, it is the demonstration yet again of the hunter and the herd.

    Zucky was lucky. (No, nothing wrong with that).

    The quite sudden growth of FaceBook actually had me wondering if there was Deep State money behind its’ early stage development. Why may this be ? What a potential method for electronic surveillance of the populace … as it turned out, that was just so, but as is always true, the monster grew to be a Frankenstein. Now we have various efforts from various States to control it again. There is no intention of regulating “social” media to the point of impotence – it’s far too useful … just ask the ABC. Controlling it, though, is a different story. Mass communication, from the printing press to radio and TV, has always been a two-edged sword for authority. Goggle and FaceBook are the same challenge wrought larger by the advent of the internet – in itself, the most stupendous library the world has ever seen, with almost universal, affordable access.

    Philosopher CEO’s indeed. So fanciful.

  • en passant says:

    We have consciously reverted to a forgotten lifestyle of the distant past. Steve Jobs said that social media would bring people together into a single society. He realised too late that it has exactly the opposite effect as it actually isolates people. A few months ago I travelled by train into the city. Of the 25 people in the carriage, 23 were glued to their mobile phones.

    Secondly, even further back in time the scrawny, nerdy son of a friend of mine created an avatar of himself on the internet. It attracted the attention of (trigger warning) a pretty girl from another city who wanted to meet up. When they did, the result was devastating. He locked himself in his room for a year, sneaking out at night to raid the fridge. Unlike me, my friend tolerated this as ‘the best option’.

    Finally, while working interstate as a contractor from Monday-Friday my boss (also a fly-in, but with an apartment) invited five of us to dinner. At any one time never less than three were on their mobiles, texting, talking or reading whatever, but with others not at the dinner party.

    Now that we have more time we have reverted to a lifestyle of the distant past and once more hold or attend dinner parties (remember those?). They are easy to arrange as we hire a cook/maid to do the serving and cleaning up so we can all socialize.

    Take a call and you leave over the 17th floor balcony. It is my small contribution to recivilising discourse and rehumanising society …

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