Chapter 12Intro and table of contentsChapter 14

Chapter 13   –   Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power

Instrumentarianism as a New Species of Power

Big Other is the apparatus that enables instrumentarianism to control the means of behavioral modification, and it does so in a way that promotes radical indifference: Big Other wants to know what you are doing with certainty, but it does not care about what you are doing. As long as it is able to derive behavioral surplus, it does not care about the preexisting relationships, the goals, the dreams, only the scavenging of behavioral data matters. Again, unlike totalitarianism, instumentarianism does not attack us physically, does not maim or kill us, or maliciously control our daily movements. Rather, it lets each organism move around and collects the data, all the while confiscating the right to answer the questions: who knows? who decides? who decides who decides?

A Market Project of Total Certainty

Skinner and other behavorists saw that they could use a maze, a scale, or other simple devices to impact the behavior of small animals, but they always believed that humans would be too attached to their own free will in order to be molded in very much the same way. What they had not seen is that Big Other, with its super-high scale technological apparatus, would make this attachment blow into pieces. It did so in the shadows, without detection. The goal is total certainty over outcomes, and in the process we will undergo total pacification of society, where we are all but organisms that live to create known outcomes.

This Century’s Curse

Aarendt had theorized that totalitarianism was not an “error” of the 20th century, and that if it had risen so quickly across continents at roughly the same time, it’s because it was a system that was addressing the century’s problems. Zuboff argues that Instrumentarianism is similarly very well adapted to the problems of its own era, starting with the well-documented loss of Trust (interpersonal trust, trust in institutions) that started in the latter third of the last century. Governments, seeing this general lowering of trust in trust levels, are very eager for more surveillance capitalism, in order to reinstate certainty in a world of more and more unpredictable society.

The fight against terrorism is the poster child of this affinity. Despite the fact that governments are seen as fighting with surveillance capitalists to get the latter to remove terrorist content, the synergies between those 2 kinds of actors have kept growing in the last 20 years of surveillance exceptionalism: Trusted Flaggers programs, voluntary scanning programs, “Terror summits” and other algorithmic solutions have all at least been discussed. In 2017, it all coalesced into the GIFCT on the tech companies’ side. And careful observers will have noticed how in the last few years, this sort of collaborations have started seeping into other areas beyond terrorism, including policing populations.

The China Syndrom

The epitome of this affinity between government and Big Other can be found in China, with the social credit score calculations, which are designed to “improve citizens’ behavior.” To Zuboff, this very definition nudges this system towards instrumentarianism rather than totalitarianism, like many observers are claiming: it is the construction of superscale means of behavior modification. Credit scores come to prominence on the back of a long history of authoritarian regimes that have willingly broken down many elements of societal trust in their citizens, and are now promising to enable people to know “who they can trust” again.

After originally tying the Credit Score system to private entities (Chinese e-commerce giants who could use the scores to propose better outcomes for users), the government turned around and decided to fully own the chain instead (we wouldn’t want surveillance capitalists to have too much power now, would we?). Instead, the system aims at controlling all aspects of citizens’ lives, not just their consumption: travel options, promotions, the choice of kids’ schools, the ability to buy a house… All of it could be tied to a person’s debt. The economies of action were spectacular: 10% of people on the “bad list” started to pay back their debt.

While a system as widely invasive and pervasive as the Chinese one might not (yet) be admissible in a Western democracy, Zuboff posits that our systems are shockingly close in spirit, if not in detail, to what the Chinese government is implementing. The main difference is that in China, Big Other is a political project, while in the West, it is a market project…

A Fork in the Road

As Big Other is coming to power, we are all deers stuck in the headlights. Some of us are outraged, but most are frozen in disbelief, in front of a change in paradigm that is too enormous to comprehend. But as we harness our astonishment at what is starting to happen around us, we have two paths ahead of us: one leads to a world where our free will disappears peacefully into Big Other, the other leads to a world where digital life enables more democratic pathways.

Chapter 12Intro and table of contentsChapter 14