The Political Perils of “Big Data”

In “Every Little Byte Counts,” a recent review of two books on “advances in our ability to store, analyze and profit from vast amounts of data generated by our gadgets” (otherwise known as Big Data), Evgeny Morozov makes two observations to which I want to draw your attention. 

The first of these he makes with the help of the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Here are Morozov’s first two paragraphs: 

In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-­development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do. What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.

While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.

This is a profoundly important observation, and it is hardly ever made. In his brief but insightful book, Nature and Altering It, ethicist Allen Verhey articulated a similar concern. Verhey discusses a series of myths that underlie our understanding of nature (earlier he cataloged 16 uses of the idea of “nature”). While discussing one of these myths, the myth of the project of liberal society, Verhey writes,

“Finally, however, the folly of the myth of liberal society is displayed in the pretense that ‘maximizing freedom’ is always morally innocent. ‘Maximizing freedom,’ however, can ironically increase our bondage. What is introduced as a way to increase our options can become socially enforced. The point can easily be illustrated with technology. New technologies are frequently introduced as ways to increase our options, as ways to maximize our freedom, but they can become socially enforced. The automobile was introduced as an option, as an alternative to the horse, but it is now socially enforced …. The technology that surrounds our dying was introduced to give doctors and patients options in the face of disease and death, but such ‘options’ have become socially enforced; at least one sometimes still hears, “We have no choice!” And the technology that may come to surround birth, including pre-natal diagnosis, for example, may come to be socially enforced. ‘What? You knew you were at risk for bearing a child with XYZ, and you did nothing about it? And now you expect help with this child?’ Now it is possible, of course, to claim that cars and CPR and pre-natal diagnosis are the path of progress, but then the argument has shifted from the celebration of options and the maximizing of freedom to something else, to the meaning of progress.”

The second point from Morozov’s review that I want to draw your attention to involves the political consequences of tools that harness the predictive power of Big Data, a power divorced from understanding:

“The predictive models Tucker celebrates are good at telling us what could happen, but they cannot tell us why. As Tucker himself acknowledges, we can learn that some people are more prone to having flat tires and, by analyzing heaps of data, we can even identify who they are — which might be enough to prevent an accident — but the exact reasons defy us.

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.”

Moreover, as Hannah Arendt put it in The Human Condition, politics is premised on the ability of human beings to “talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.” Divorcing action from understanding jeopardizes the premise upon which democratic self-governance is founded, the possibility of deliberative judgment. Is it an exaggeration to speak of the prospective tyranny of the algorithm?

I’ll give Morozov the penultimate word:

“It may be that the first kind of power identified by Agamben is actually less pernicious, for, in barring us from doing certain things, it at least preserves, even nurtures, our capacity to resist. But as we lose our ability not to do — here Agamben is absolutely right — our capacity to resist goes away with it. Perhaps it’s easier to resist the power that bars us from using our smartphones than the one that bars us from not using them. Big Data does not a free society make, at least not without basic political judgment.”

I draw your attention to these concerns not because I have an adequate response to them, but because I am increasingly convinced that they are among the most pressing concerns we must grapple with in the years ahead.

Technology, Moral Discourse, and Political Communities

According to Langdon Winner, neither ancient nor modern culture have been able to bring politics and technology together. Classical culture because of its propensity to look down its nose, ontologically speaking, at the mechanical arts and manual labor. Modern culture because of its relegation of science and technology to the private sphere and its assumptions about the nature of technological progress. (For more see previous post.)

The assumptions about technological progress that Winner alludes to in his article are of the sort that I’ve grouped under the Borg Complex. Fundamentally, they are assumptions about the inevitability and unalloyed goodness of technological progress. If technological development is inevitable, for better or for worse, than there is little use deliberating about it.

Interestingly, Winner elaborates his point by reference to the work of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his now classic work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, MacIntyre argued that contemporary moral discourse consistently devolves into acrimonious invective because it proceeds in the absence of a shared moral community or tradition.

Early in After Virtue, MacIntyre imagines a handful of typical moral debates that we are accustomed to hearing about or participating in. The sort of debates that convince no one to change their minds, and the sort, as well, in which both sides are convinced of the rationality of their position and the irrationality of their opponents’. Part of what MacIntyre argues is that neither side is necessarily more rational than the other. The problem is that the reasoning of both sides proceeds from incommensurable sets of moral communities, traditions, and social practices. In the absence of a shared moral vision that contextualizes specific moral claims and frames moral arguments there can be no meaningful moral discourse, only assertions and counter-assertions made with more or less civility.

Here is how Winner brings MacIntyre into his discussion:

“Another characteristic of contemporary discussion about technology policy is that, as Alasdair MacIntyre might have predicted, they involve what seem to be interminable moral controversies. In a typical dispute, one side offers policy proposals based upon what seem to be ethically sound moral arguments. The the opposing side urges entirely different policies using arguments that appear equally well-grounded. The likelihood that the two (or More) sides can locate common ground is virtually nil.”

Winner then goes on to provide his own examples of how such seemingly fruitless debates play out. For instance,

“1a. Conditions of international competitiveness require measures to reduce production costs. Automation realized through the computerization of office and factory work is clearly the best way to do this at present. Even though it involves eliminating jobs, rapid automation is the way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in advanced industrial societies.

b. The strength of any economy depends upon the skills of people who actually do the work. Skills of this kind arise from traditions of practice handed down from one generation to the next. Automation that de-skills the work process ought to be rejected because it undermines the well-being of workers and harms their ability to contribute to society.”

“In this way,” Winner adds, “debates about technology policy confirm MacIntyre’s argument that modern societies lack the kinds of coherent social practice that might provide firm foundations for moral judgments and public policies.”

Again, the problem is not simply a breakdown of moral discourse, it is also the absence of a political community of public deliberation and action in which moral discourse might take shape and find traction. Again, Winner:

“[...] the trouble is not that we lack good arguments and theories, but rather that modern politics simply does not provide appropriate roles and institutions in which the goal of defining the common good in technology policy is a legitimate project.”

The exception that proves Winner’s rule is, I think, the Amish. Granted, of course, that the scale and complexity of modern society is hardly comparable to an Amish community. That said, it is nonetheless instructive to appreciate Amish communities as tangible, lived examples of what it might look like to live in a political community whose moral traditions circumscribed the development of technology.

By contrast, as Winner put it in the title of one of his books, in modern society “technics-out-of-control” is a theme of political thought. It is a cliché for us to observe that technology barrels ahead leaving ethics and law a generation behind.

Given those two alternatives, it is not altogether unreasonable for someone to conclude that they would rather live with the promise and peril of modern technology rather than live within the constraints imposed by an Amish-style community. Fair enough. It’s worth wondering, however, whether our alternatives are, in fact, quite so stark.

In any case, Winner raises, as I see it, two important considerations. Our thinking about technology, if it is to be about more than private action, must reckon with the larger moral traditions, the sometimes unarticulated and unacknowledged visions of the good life, that frame our evaluations of technology. It must also find some way of reconstituting a meaningful political contexts for acting. Basically, then, we are talking not only about technology, but about democracy itself.

Langdon Winner On the Separation of Technology and Politics

The following excerpts are taken from Langdon Winner’s “Citizen Virtues in a Technological Order.” The article first appeared in the journal Inquiry in 1992. The version linked here is from Technology and the Politics of Knowledge, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay.

Winner begins his essay by arguing that ancient Greek and Roman philosophy isolated technology from politics, an isolation that persisted through the medieval era. In the modern era, technology and politics are still sealed off from one another but for different reasons. Describing the modern view, Winner writes,

“Technological change, defined as ‘progress,’ is seen as an ineluctable process in modern history, one that develops as the result of the activities of men and women seeking private good, activities which include the development of inventions and innovations that benefit all of society. To encourage progress is to encourage private inventors and entrepreneurs to work unimpeded by state interference [....] The burden of proof rests on those who would interfere with beneficent workings of the market and processes of technological development.

If one compares liberal ideology about politics and technology with its classical precursors, an interesting irony emerges. In modern thought the ancient pessimism about techne is eventually replaced by all-out enthusiasm for technological advance. At the same time basic conceptions of politics and political membership are reformulated in ways that help create new contexts for the exercise of power and authority. Despite the radical thrust of these intellectual developments, however, the classical separation between the political and the technical spheres is strongly preserved, but for entirely new reasons. Technology is still isolated from public life in both principle and practice. Citizens are strongly encouraged to become involved in proving modern material culture, but only in the market or other highly privatized settings. There is no moral community or public space in which technological issues are topics for deliberation, debate, and shared action.”

To be clear, the problem, according to Winner, is not necessarily an absence of thinking about technology, although that thinking tends to be already mired in “technocratic” assumptions. Rather, it is an absence of political structures that might put such thinking into action. Hence, “The lack of any coherent identity for the ‘public’ or of well-organized, legitimate channels for public participation contributes to two distinctive features of contemporary policy debates about technology, (1) futile rituals of expert advice and (2) interminable disagreements about which choices are morally justified.”

When Silence is Power

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are  not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. Power, in these situations, is actualized only when word and deed are severed. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.

The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.

These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.  

Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.

Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.

Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.

When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.

How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?

Silence.

Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.

Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.

Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.

But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.

Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.

Weaponized Consumption

Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After VirtueUnable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.