It knows how to talk about tools but is barely capable of talking about social, political, and economic systems that these tools enable and disable, amplify and pacify. Why the “digital debate” leads us astray.
If Ronald Reagan was the first Teflon President, then Silicon Valley is the first Teflon Industry: no matter how much dirt one throws at it, nothing seems to stick. While “Big Pharma,” “Big Food” and “Big Oil” are derogatory terms used to describe the greediness that reigns supreme in those industries, this is not the case with “Big Data.” This innocent term is never used to refer to the shared agendas of technology companies. What shared agendas? Aren’t these guys simply improving the world, one line of code at a time?
Something odd is going on here. While we understand that the interests of pharmaceutical, food and oil companies naturally diverge from our own, we rarely approach Silicon Valley with the requisite suspicion. Instead, we continue to treat data as if it were a special, magical commodity that could single-handedly defend itself against any evil genius who dares to exploit it.
Earlier this year, a tiny scratch appeared on the rhetorical Teflon of Silicon Valley. The Snowden affair helped – but so did other events. The world seems to have finally realized that “disruption” – the favorite word of the digital elites –describes a rather ugly, painful phenomenon. Thus, university professors are finally complaining about the “disruption” brought on by the massive open online courses (MOOCs); taxi drivers are finally fighting services like Uber; residents of San Francisco are finally bemoaning the “disruption” of monthly rents in a city that has suddenly been invaded by millionaires. And then, of course, there are the crazy, despicable ideas coming from Silicon Valley itself: the latest proposal, floated by one tech executive at a recent conference, is that Silicon Valley should secede from the country and “build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the United States, run by technology.” Let’s share his pain: A country that needs a congressional hearing to fix a web-site is a disgrace to Silicon Valley.
This bubbling discontent is reassuring. It might even help bury some of the myths spun by Silicon Valley. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day, told that Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” we would finally read between the lines and discover its true meaning: “to monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”? With this act of subversive interpretation, we might eventually hit upon the greatest emancipatory insight of all: Letting Google organize all of the world’s information makes as much sense as letting Halliburton organize all of the world’s oil.
But any jubilation is premature: Silicon Valley still holds a firm grip on the mechanics of the public debate. As long as our critique remains tied to the plane of technology and information– a plane that is often described by that dreadful, meaningless, overused word “digital” – Silicon Valley will continue to be seen as an exceptional and unique industry. When food activists go after Big Food and accuse those companies of adding too much salt and fat to their snacks to make us crave even more of them, no one dares accuse these activists of being anti-science. Yet, a critique of Facebook or Twitter along similar lines – for example, that they have designed their services to play up our anxieties and force us to perpetually click the “refresh” button to get the latest update – almost immediately brings accusations of technophobia and Luddism.
The reason why the digital debate feels so empty and toothless is simple: framed as a debate over “the digital” rather than “the political” and “the economic,” it’s conducted on terms that are already beneficial to technology companies. Unbeknownst to most of us, the seemingly exceptional nature of commodities in question – from “information” to “networks” to “the Internet” – is coded into our language. It’s this hidden exceptionalism that allows Silicon Valley to dismiss its critics as Luddites who, by opposing “technology,” “information” or “the Internet”– they don’t do plurals in Silicon Valley, for the nuance risks overwhelming their brains – must also be opposed to “progress.”
How do you spot “the digital debate”? Look for arguments that appeal to the essences of things – of technology, information, knowledge and, of course, the Internet itself. Thus, whenever you hear someone say “this law is bad because it will break the Internet” or “this new gadget is good because that’s what technology wants,” you know that you have left the realm of the political – where arguments are usually framed around the common good – and have entered the realm of bad metaphysics. In that realm, what you are being asked to defend is the well-being of phantom digital gods that function as convenient stand-ins for corporate interests. Why does anything that might “break the Internet” also risk breaking Google? This can’t be a coincidence, can it?
Perhaps, we should ditch the technology/progress dialectic altogether. “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” ran the title of a fabulous 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon – a question that he answered, by and large, in the affirmative. This question feels outdated today. “Is it okay not to be a Luddite but still hate Silicon Valley?” is a much better question, for the real enemy is not technology but the present political and economic regime – a wild combination of the military-industrial complex and the out-of-control banking and advertising – that deploys latest technologies to achieve its ugly (even if lucrative and occasionally pleasant) ends. Silicon Valley represents the most visible, the most discussed, and the most naive part of this assemblage. In short, it’s okay to hate Silicon Valley – we just need to do it for the right reasons. Below are three of them – but this is hardly an exhaustive list.
The rhetoric is as lofty as it is revolutionary
Reason number one: Silicon Valley firms are building what I call “invisible barbed wire” around our lives. We are promised more freedom, more openness, more mobility; we are told we can roam wherever and whenever we want. But the kind of emancipation that we actually get is fake emancipation; it’s the emancipation of a just-released criminal wearing an ankle bracelet.
Yes, a self-driving car could make our commute less dreadful. But a self-driving car operated by Google would not just be a self-driving car: it would be a shrine to surveillance – on wheels! It would track everywhere we go. It might even prevent us from going to certain places if we our mood – measured through facial expression analysis – suggests that we are too angry or tired or emotional. Yes, there are exceptions – at times, GPS does feel liberating – but the trend is clear: every new Google sensor in that car would introduce a new lever of control. That lever doesn’t even have to be exercised to produce changes in our behavior – our knowledge of its presence will suffice.
Or take MOOCs. They would undoubtedly produce many shifts in power relations. We know of all the visible, positive shifts: students getting more, cheaper opportunities to learn; kids in Africa finally taking best courses on offer in America, and so on. But what about the invisible shifts? Take Coursera, a company that was started by a senior Google engineer and that has quickly become one of the leaders in the field. It now uses biometrics — facial recognition and typing speed analysis – to verify student identity. (This comes in handy when they issue diplomas!) How did we go from universities with open-door policies to universities that check their students with biometrics? As Gilles Deleuze put in a 1990 conversation with Tony Negri, “compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harshest confinement as part of a wonderful happy past.” This connection between the seeming openness of our technological infrastructures and the intensifying degree of control remains poorly understood.
What does this invisible barbed wire mean in practice? Suppose you want to become a vegetarian. So you go to Facebook and use its Graph Search feature to search for the favorite vegetarian restaurants of all your friends who live nearby. Facebook understands that you are considering an important decision that will affect several industries: great news for the tofu industry but bad news for the meat section of your local supermarket.
Facebook would be silly not to profit from this knowledge – so it organizes a real-time ad auction to see whether the meat industry wants you more than the tofu industry. This is where your fate is no longer in your own hands. Sounds silly – until you enter your local supermarket and your smartphone shows that the meat section offers you a discount of 20%. The following day, as you pass by the local steak house, your phone buzzes again: you’ve got another discount offer. Come in – have some steak! After a week of deliberation – and lots of cheap meat — you decide that vegetarianism is not your thing. Case closed.
Of course, had the tofu industry won the ad auction, things might have gone in the opposite direction. But it doesn’t matter who wins the auction. What matters is that a decision that seems fully autonomous is not autonomous at all. You feel liberated and empowered; you might even write a thank-you note to Mark Zuckerberg. But this is laughable: you are simply at the mercy of the highest bidder. And they are bidding to show you an ad that matters – an ad based on everything that Facebook knows about your anxieties and insecurities. It’s not your bland, one-dimensional advertising anymore.
This example is hardly the product of my wild imagination: Last year, Facebook struck a deal with a company called Datalogix, which would allow it to tie what you buy at your local supermarket to ads that Facebook shows you. Google already has an app – Google Field – which constantly scans shops and restaurants in your area for latest deals. Nothing in this example hinges upon a hatred of technology or information: we are dealing here with political economy, advertising, autonomy. What does this have to do with the “digital debate”? Very little.
The data-centric model of Silicon Valley capitalism seeks to convert every aspect of our everyday existence – what used to be our only respite from the vagaries of work and the anxieties of the marketplace – into a productive asset. This is done not just by blurring the distinction between work and nonwork but also by making us tacitly accept the idea that our reputation is a work-in-progress – something that we could and should be honing 24/7. Therefore, everything is turned into a productive asset: our relationships, our family life, our vacations, our sleep (you are now invited to “hack” it so that you can get most of your sleep in the shortest amount of time).
The rhetoric attached to such “breakthroughs” is as lofty as it is revolutionary, especially when mixed with subjects like “the sharing economy.” „This is the first stage of something more profound, which is the ability of people to structure their lives around doing multiple sharing economy activities as a choice in lieu of a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week job,“ said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University and a big fan of “the sharing economy,” in a recent interview. „This is technology-driven progress. This is what it’s all about,“ he added. Oh yes, “progress” has never felt so good: who doesn’t like working 24-7 instead of 9-5?
When privacy is becoming expensive
Reason number two: Silicon Valley has destroyed our ability to imagine other models for running and organizing our communication infrastructure. Forget about models that aren’t based on advertising and that do not contribute to the centralization of data on private servers located in America. To suggest that we need to look into other – perhaps, even publicly-provided alternatives –is to risk being accused of wanting to “break the Internet.” We have succumbed to what the Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger calls “the dictatorship of no alternatives”: we are asked to accept that Gmail is the best and only possible way to do email, and that Facebook is the best and only possible way to do social networking.
But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money – and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertising-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.
Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our email. In the wake of the NSA scandal and the debacle that is Healthcare.gov, trust in public institutions runs so low that any alternative arrangement – especially the one that would give public institutions a greater role – seems unthinkable. But this is only part of the problem. What would happen when some of our long cherished and privately-run digital infrastructure begins to crumble, as companies evolve and change their business models?
Five years ago, one could still publish silly little books with titles like “What Would Google Do?” on the assumption that the company had a coherent and mostly benevolent philosophy, eager to subsidize unprofitable services just because it could. After Google shut down Google Reader and many other popular services, this benevolence can no longer be taken for granted. In the next two-three years, there would come a day when Google would announce that it’s shutting down Google Scholar – a free but completely unprofitable service – that abets millions of academics worldwide. Why aren’t we preparing for this eventuality by building a robust publicly-run infrastructure? Doesn’t it sound ridiculous that Europe can produce a project like CERN but seems incapable of producing an online service to keep track of papers written about CERN? Could it be because Silicon Valley has convinced us that they are in the magic industry?
Now that our communication networks are in the hands of the private sector, we should avoid making the same mistake with privacy. We shouldn’t reduce this complex problem to market-based solutions. Alas, thanks to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial zeal, privatization is already creeping in. Privacy is becoming a commodity. How does one get privacy these days? Just ask any hacker: only by studying how the right tools work. Privacy is no longer something to be taken for granted or enjoyed for free: you have to expend some resources to master the tools. Those resources could be money, patience, attention – you might even hire a consultant to do all this for you – but the point is that privacy is becoming expensive.
And what of those who can’t afford tools and consultants? How do their lives change? When the founder of a prominent lending start-up – the former CIO of Google, no less – proclaims that “all data is credit data, we just don’t know how to use it yet” I can’t help but fear the worst. If “all data is credit data” and poor people cannot afford privacy, they are in for some dark times. How can they not be anxious when their every move, their every click, their every phone call could be analyzed to predict if they deserve credit and at what rates? If the burden of debt wasn’t agonizing enough, now we’ll have to live with the fact that, for the poor people, anxiety begins well before they get the actual loan. Once again, one doesn’t have to hate or fear technology to worry about the future of equality, mobility and the quality of life. The “digital debate,” with its inevitable detours into cultural pessimism, simply has no intellectual resources to tackle these issues.
Where are the apps to fight poverty or racial discrimination?
Reason number three: the simplistic epistemology of Silicon Valley has become a model that other institutions are beginning to emulate. The trouble with Silicon Valley is not just that it enables the NSA –it also encourages, even emboldens them. It inspires the NSA to keep searching for connections in a world of meaningless links, to record every click, to ensure that no interaction goes unnoticed, undocumented and unanalyzed. Like Silicon Valley, NSA assumes that everything is interconnected: if we can’t yet link two pieces of data, it’s because we haven’t looked deep enough – or we need a third piece of data, to be collected in the future, to make sense of it all.
There’s something delusional about this practice – and I don’t use “delusional” metaphorically. For the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, delusion does not stem from too little psychic activity, as some psychoanalytic theories would have it, but, rather, from too much of it. Delirium, he notes, is “the incapacity to filter an enormous quantity of data.” While a sane, rational person “has learned that ignorance is vaster than knowledge and that one must resist the temptation to find more coherence than can currently be achieved,” the man suffering from delusion cannot stop finding coherence among inherently incoherent phenomena. He generalizes too much, which results in what Bodei calls “hyper-inclusion.”
“Hyper-inclusion” is exactly what plagues America’s military-industrial complex today. And they don’t even hide this: thus, Gus Hunt, the chief technology officer of the CIA, confesses that “since you can’t connect dots you don’t have …we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” Such hyper-inclusion, according to Bodei, is the prerogative of the deluded. For them, he writes, “the accidental, which most certainly exists in the external world, has no right of citizenship in the psychic one, where it is ‘curved’ to a certain explanation.“ For example, “a madman might find it significant that three people in a larger group are wearing a red tie, and might believe that this implies some form of persecution.” Likewise, the delirious person believes that “the concept of St. Joseph includes not only the individual person but also a wooden table since St. Joseph was a carpenter.” Well, it might be “delusion’ for Bodei but as far as Silicon Valley and Washington are concerned, we are talking bout “the semantic Web” and “Big Data”!
Silicon Valley doesn’t care that some of these connections are spurious. When Google or Facebook mess up and show us an irrelevant ad based on their misconceived view of who we are, it results in minor discomfort– and little else. When NSA or CIA mess up, it results in a loud drone strike (if you are lucky, you might qualify for an all-expenses-paid, one-way trip to Guantanamo).
The other problem with Silicon Valley’s epistemology is that its view of the world is heavily distorted by its business model. Silicon Valley has two responses to any problem: it can produce more “computation” (or code) or it can process more “information” (or data). Most likely, it will be a combination of the two, giving us yet another app to track calories, weather and traffic. Such small successes allow Silicon Valley to redefine “progress” as something that naturally follows from their business plans. But while “more computation” or “more information” could be lucrative private responses to some problems, it doesn’t follow that they are also most effective responses to the unwieldy, messy public problems have deep institutional and structural causes.
Much importance, at least in America, is attached to the immense potential of smartphones to solve a problem like obesity. How would this work? Well, the idea is that the smartphones already monitor how much we walk – they have sensors that do that – and they can tell us when we are walking less than the norm. They can also – perhaps, in some combination with Google Glass – monitor what we eat and keep track of our diet, telling us to refuse that tempting dessert. The assumption here, derived from behavioral economics, is that we make irrational decisions and that highly-targeted information provided to us at the right time via this new digital infrastructure can finally conquer our irrationality.
But notice how, in this case, the very definition of a problem like obesity shrinks to the neoliberal and the banal: it’s all our own fault! We are not really trying to solve the problem – only to deploy our tools – coding and information – to redefine the problem in the most convenient but also least ambitious way. It may be that if you are poor and you work several jobs and you don’t have a car to go shopping at a farmer’s market, then consuming junk food at a local McDonald’s is a completely rational decision: you get the food you can afford. What’s the point of telling you what you already know: that you are eating cheap and terrible food? The problem that needs addressing here is that of poverty – to be tackled through economic reforms – and not that of under-supply of information.
Sociologists have coined a term for this phenomenon: “problem closure.” To use one recent definition, it refers to “the situation when a specific definition of a problem is used to frame subsequent study of the problem’s causes and consequences in ways that preclude alternative conceptualizations of the problem.” Once the causes and consequences have been narrowly defined, it’s no wonder that particular solutions get most attention. This is where we are today: inspired by Silicon Valley, policy-makers are beginning to redefine problems as essentially stemming from incomplete information while envisioning solutions that only do one thing: deliver more information through apps. But where are the apps to fight poverty or racial discrimination? We are building apps to fix the problems that our apps can fix – instead of tackling problems that actually need fixing.
Let’s re-inject politics and economics into this debate
Do people in Silicon Valley realize the mess that they are dragging us into? I doubt it. The “invisible barbed wire” remains invisible even to its builders. Whoever is building a tool to link MOOCs to biometric identification isn’t much concerned with what this means for our freedoms: “freedom” is not their department, they are just building cool tools for spreading knowledge!
This is where the “digital debate” leads us astray: it knows how to talk about tools but is barely capable of talking about social, political, and economic systems that these tools enable and disable, amplify and pacify. When these systems are once again brought to the fore of our analysis, the “digital” aspect of such tool-talk becomes extremely boring, for it explains nothing. Deleuze warned of such tool-centrism back in 1990:
“One can of course see how each kind of society corresponds to a particular kind of machine – with simple mechanical machines corresponding to sovereign societies, thermodynamic machines to disciplinary societies, cybernetic machines and computers to control societies. But the machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective arrangements of which the machines are just one component.”
In the last two decades, our ability to make such connections between machines and “collective arrangements” has all but atrophied. This happened, I suspect, because we’ve presumed that these machines come from “cyberspace,” that they are of the “online” and “digital” world – in other words, that they were bestowed upon us by the gods of “the Internet.” And “the Internet,” as Silicon Valley keeps reminding us, is the future. So to oppose these machines was to oppose the future itself.
Well, this is all bunk: there’s no “cyberspace” and “the digital debate” is just a bunch of sophistries concocted by Silicon Valley that allow its executives to sleep well at night. (It pays well too!) Haven’t we had enough? Our first step should be to rob them of their banal but highly effective language. Our second step should be to rob them of their flawed history. Our third step should be to re-inject politics and economics into this debate. Let’s bury the “digital debate” for good – along with an oversupply of intellectual mediocrity it has produced in the meantime.