Chapter 14Intro and table of contentsChapter 16

Chapter 15   –   The Instrumentarian Collective

The Priests of Instrumentarian Power

Zuboff mentions that the Utopian leaders at surveillance capitalism companies are not very vocal about their theories. Rather, she chooses to turn her attention to what she describes as a network of academics who have invested all manners of behavior modification entities, through academic research, advisory boards, or consultancy. This network has at its helm researcher Alex Pentland, and builds on the principles of B.F Skinner and other animal-populations-observing researchers who have a god complex, observing humanity “from above” to shape it for its own good.

When Big Other Eats Society: The Rendition of Social Relations

Old-time behaviorists lamented the lack of instruments and methods available for behavior monitoring and modification: Pentland and his teams have worked tirelessly to create them! Until the advent of smartphones, they too were struggling with the poor or nonexistent available data. So they set up their own “reality mining” operations through research groups equipped with smartphones that were collecting behavioral surplus and analyzing it at (albeit small) population scale for the first time. This was possible as early as 2008, in close-knit, fast-paced communities like the MIT provided, and yet, there were already concerns about privacy. And already an understanding from Pentland of the commercial opportunities.

Research continued forward, evolving from location-based data collection and treatment to areas like social communication monitoring and real-time interventions. It also moved from students to office workers (both “captive” audiences). By promoting measurements of interpersonal interactions, and accompanying nudges, Pentland and team claimed to make businesses gain millions (for example, by scheduling work breaks in a coordinated, algo-lead manner, they claim to have made a call center USD 15 million in a single year). From there onwards, the jump onto organizing society was easy to complete. Pentland and co. want to replace the current systems that organize our civilization with the more accurate models that they’ve developed. And people will agree to participate in these because of the promised riches of efficiency, practicality, and convenience.

The Principles of an Instrumentarian Society

Pentland exposed his grand theory in his 2014 book “Social Physics” in which he explains that an instrumentarian system would require total knowledge of everyone’s social interactions in order to function with 100% accuracy. This idealized society hinges on 5 general principles (echoing many of the theories of B.F.Skinner):

  • Behavior for the Greater Good: the good of society is more important than the will of the intelligent individual. The new collective intelligence operates as we learn to act in a coordinated manner to serve “social universals” (health care, transportation, energy, safety…). Of course, no mention of whose good the system would optimize for…
  • Plans replace Politics: As a means of collective decision-making, hard data and predictable outcomes trump democracy every day of the week: now is not the time anymore for rational deliberation, face-to-face negotiation and compromise, the world is going too fast for these friction-adding processes. Rather, iterative “tuning of the network” will achieve better performance.
  • Social Pressure for Harmony: The focus is on changing the connections between people rather than changing individual behaviors. Of course, social media is central to this endeavour of finding the “right incentives” to get people to behave in a certain way. In enacting this sort of method, instrumentarianism moves away from empathy and imitation as motivators for action, and replaces it with social pressure. 
  • Applied Utopistics: There is no doubt in the utopists’ minds that their system of total knowledge and prediction is needed and even inevitable. There needs to be a new social class of tuners who exercise perpetual vigilance to cure human nature of its weaknesses by ensuring populations are tuned, herded, and conditioned to produce the most efficient behaviors.
  • The Death of Individuality: instrumentarianism becoming reality depends on shedding the “destructive fiction of individual autonomy” in order to let the planners do their thing. Independent thought still exists, though, but they are seen as friction that only serves to defeat the carefully crafted social physics models. 

The Third Modernity of the Hive

Instrumentarianism reimagines society as a hive to be monitored and tuned for guaranteed outcomes. We have spent the many previous chapters analysing it from the perspective of the surveillance capitalists, but what does it feel like from the inside, as one of the organisms that compose this total system? This is what we’ll explore next.

Chapter 14Intro and table of contentsChapter 16