Chapter 14 – A Utopia of Certainty
Society as the Other-One
Surveillance Capitalists want to expand their scope from installing an instrumentarian market to installing an instrumentarian society. “They aim to fashion a new society that emulates machine learning in much the same way that industrial society was patterned on the disciplines and methods of factory production.”
Totality Includes Society
WIth ubiquitous access to all corners of society with their hundred of millions, or even Billions, of devices and daily users, the larger surveillance capitalists have exhorted developers (internal AND external) to Change the World. This echoes the utopian views of their leaders and founders, who have proclaimed their aims of “solving society’s problems” for decades now. This is for example the direction that predictive products like the voice assistants are taking, first at an individual level, and then at the level of the entire society. Another example is Facebook’s Zuckerberg, whose aim is to build a global community, which he believes would be the “natural evolution of society.” And if in the process they have to concentrate all the economic and societal power, and pursue totalistic control, then so be it!
The Chief Utopians sell us an upcoming magical age when all will be resolved, their grand utopian vision realized. Zuboff notes that compared to previous utopians, surveillance capitalists have an additional, strategic weapon: they have the technical (and financial) means to make their vision come true immediately. While the theories are thin, the power to apply them to the real world is huge. Which is an issue: in real life, theory is created first, and put in practice only after it’s been poked at, deconstructed, and potentially tested. Think for example of how law is checked for constitutionality before being put in effect. None of this with Big Other.
Confluence as Machine Relations
Imagine a factory where each machine has sensors and is connected to the cloud. An Artificial Intelligence model built on top of this network will enable each machine to learn from the cumulative experiences of all the other machines of the plant. The model lives in the cloud AND in each device, which allows all devices to act in unison following the learnings of the pack, with the ultimate goal of avoiding accidents, mistakes, and general randomness. Now imagine a system where the network allows its controller to define policies in how machines interact with each other, but also how they interact with humans, according to predefined policies. Construction sites or warehouses are a perfect example.
As you take the logic forward, interactions between humans can therefore be modeled in a hybrid cloud-node system. Machine relations become the model for social relations, with humans and machines united as value-equivalent objects in the cloud, all instrumented and orchestrated in accordance with the policies. Each human becomes but an organism in a safe, predictable ecosystem: the division of learning mutates into life, ready for translation into all aspects of society.
Confluence as Society
Taken to an extreme, this sort of logic can be used to continue organizing society in a perfect, accident-free, totally predictable way… Consider some patents filed by Microsoft for a human-worn device that could monitor for and detect “psycho-social” events (based on someone’s vocal volume and tone, their biometric signals like heartbeat or perspiration, etc…) and notify the relevant authorities: healthcare providers, insurance companies, law enforcement. Minority Report without the unrealistic visionary “oracles.”
The instrumentarian future integrates a vision in which the machine world and social world operate in harmony within and across “species” as humans emulate the superior learning processes of the smart machines. Humans all converge towards the same, ideal, optimized behavior, in much the same way that all self-driving cars adopt the same behavior, feeding off of each other’s mistakes and learnings. There is no place for individuality in this system. This is the signature of the Third Modernity offered up by surveillance capital as its answer to our quest for effective life together.