Swarms and Networks

“I also suggest,” Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2008, “that identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation.” “Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation,” he went on to say, “turns into a lifelong task …. There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing.” The result, he added, is “a lot of tension and anxiety.” There is no remedy or cure for this anxiety because “the efforts of identity formation veer uneasily, as they must, between the two equally central human values of freedom and security.”

I’m not sure what to make of the emphasis placed on the tension between freedom and security. The book to which these words form a part of the Introduction, Does Ethics Have A Chance In A World of Consumers?, was published in 2008. I would assume that Bauman was working on the text in the mid-2000s, that is to say very much in the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed. In this context, a focus on the freedom/security binary makes some sense. Make of that opposition what you will. Bauman goes on to make a number of interesting observations, which I think it worth our time to consider. I’ll note two of them here, and one or two others in future posts.

1. “In the void left behind by the retreat of fading political authorities, it is now the self that strives to assume, or is forced to assume, the function of the center of the Lebenswelt …. It is the self that recasts the rest of the world as its own periphery, while assigning, defining, and attributing differentiated relevance to its parts, according to its own needs. The task of holding society together … is being ‘subsidiarized,’ ‘contracted out,’ or simply falling to the realm of individual life-politics. Increasingly it is being left to the enterprise of the ‘networking’ and ‘networked’ selves and to their connecting-disconnecting initiatives and operations.”

2. “In a liquid-modern society, swarms tend to replace groups, with their leaders, hierarchies, and pecking orders …. Swarms need not be burdened by the groups tools of survival: they assemble, disperse, and come together again from one occasion to another, each time guided by different, invariably shifting relevancies, and attracted by changing and moving targets …. A swarm has not top, no center; it is solely the direction of its current flight that casts some of the self-propelled swarm units into the position of ‘leaders’ to be followed for the duration of a particular flight or a part of it, though hardly longer.”

While Bauman was writing, social media was still in its infancy, but I’m struck by how useful 1. and 2. can be to helping us understand the social role of social media. Swarm: is there a more apt metaphor to capture the fluid dynamics of social media platforms, whether we are talking about viral memes or Twitter mobs?

Social media platforms materialized the social conditions that Bauman was describing. The networked self and the swarm became visible and, thus, traceable when they manifested themselves on social media platforms. Consequently, they also become subject to manipulation. Platforms (apps, etc.) are to the digital age what institutions were to pre-digital modernity. Power flows through them.

“Watching any individual ‘unit’ in the swarm,” Bauman went on to write, “we would find it daunting to explain the twists and turns it followed, and even more daunting to grasp the secret behind the amazing similarity and synchronicity of moves made by the great number of individual units.” Until, that is, every movement of the unit could be monitored and recorded with frightening precision, as is the case with the operations of individual “units” or users on social media platforms. Suddenly they become legible, subject to analysis and manipulation. Our politics are now driven by actors who understand this new state of affairs.


Political Economy or Ethics of Technology?

Tweeting from the Future Fest 2018 conference in the UK, one reporter summed up Evgeny Morozov’s closing comments this way:  “we have been diverted into debate over moral and ethical dimensions of AI when we should instead be focusing on the political economy.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment, and, frankly, I hardly understand it. It strikes me as a false and untenable dichotomy, and obviously so.

I think I know where it is coming from, however. I suspect it is, in part, a reaction to a certain kind of popular tech discourse epitomized by sophomoric trolley car-style think pieces about autonomous vehicles. I suppose that if this is all that one believes a debate over the moral and ethical dimensions of AI amounts to, then one might be forgiven for thinking it is at best a diversion. It’s not unlike confounding the whole scholastic enterprise with the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (except that, in this case, at least the think pieces have actually been written).

Along similar lines, it seems to me that Morozov’s framing shares a family resemblance to recent criticisms leveled at the Center for Humane Technology—that, for example, they reduce the problem with contemporary technology to a matter of ill-informed consumers, who can simply be taught to make better individual choices (this is a mischaracterization of the center in my view, although I have my own reservations). The assumption, not altogether wrong, is that individual choices ultimately do not matter.

More importantly, it is also the case that an impoverished understanding of what constitutes moral and ethical matters is in play. Fundamentally, it seems to me that when you take up the issue of political economy, you are unavoidably treading on moral and ethical ground. Why should we embrace any policy that is not ultimately right, good, or just? It is a symptom of the root-deep problems we face in a technocratic society that it is plausible for us to conceive of politics and economics as sciences that arrive at their conclusions in a moral and ethical void.

Again, ethics talk is frowned upon presumably because it is thought to entail proscriptions on individual behavior that are taken to be ultimately ineffective because they ignore collective action. But at the same time we should consider whether or not the allergy to ethics talk does not also reveal a commitment to the liberal subject that must be given free reign, who must be constrained by nothing beyond its own will. We are, as Eliot wrote, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

Of course, this is exactly the mythos within which contemporary technology sprawls out of control, one that hitches unfettered technological advance to the empowerment of the unfettered individual will.

The naive critic may assume that technology advances in a political and economic vacuum. The smart critic knows that technology is a social reality with political and economic dimensions. I say the political/economic critique will never get very far unless it is grounded in a compelling moral vision.

Lastly, I will simply note, wryly, that political economy emerged as a sub-discipline of moral philosophy.

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Eight Theses Regarding the Society of the Disciplinary Spectacle

One of the better known aspects Michel Foucault’s work is his genealogy of prisons in Discipline and Punish. Foucault opens with a description of the grizzly execution of a regicide in mid-eighteenth century Paris. This public execution illustrated for Foucault a society ordered by the public spectacle of torture. As Foucault tells the story, modern western societies gradually moved away from the practice of the spectacle to the practice of disciplinary surveillance.

Disciplinary surveillance was best illustrated by the ideal prison proposed by Jeremy Bentham. It was a panopticon. There was a station at the center of the prison where guards could see the prisoners but the prisoners could not see the guards. The idea was simple:  the prisoners would stay in line because they had to assume that they were always being watched. No violence was necessary, the internalized gaze of the surveillance apparatus disciplined the behavior of the prisoner.

Foucault’s point in all of this was not simply to tell a story about the evolution of prisons but to comment on the nature of society. The prisons were a microcosm of a society that disciplined its members by the operations of surveillance.

The emergence of digital technology has, of course, only heightened the social consequences of surveillance. Never before has it been possible for a government (or corporation) to so precisely and pervasively surveil its citizens (or customers and/or employees). At every turn, we encounter increasingly sophisticated instruments of surveillance that track, monitor, document, and record, with or without our consent, a remarkable array of data about us.

So it would seem, then, that the trajectory outlined by Foucault continues apace, but I’m not sure this is the whole story.

The machinery of the spectacle was not the machinery of disciplinary surveillance. The rack was not the panopticon, or the actual techniques of surveillance and disciplines deployed in prisons, hospitals, schools, etc. Presently, however, the instruments of surveillance and the instruments of the spectacle are often identical.

Writing in 1954, well ahead of Foucault, Jacques Ellul warned about “the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques.” “The result,” he warned, “is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques.”

In his day, however, these complexes of techniques were still clunky: “the technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together,” Ellul acknowledged, “and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole.”

I’ve suggested recently that this new technique of organization has already appeared among us and, simply put, it is digital technology, which has made it possible to interlock and synthesize the whole array of existing techniques of surveillance and discipline while wildly improving their efficiency, scope, and power.

Digital technology has also made possible the convergence of the spectacle with the techniques of disciplinary surveillance. But we must acknowledge that the spectacle, too, has undergone a transformation. It is not merely a matter of public torture. Indeed, it has taken on an undeniably pleasurable quality. What remains the same and warrants the continued use of the word spectacle is the captivating and pervasive ocular extravagance of the phenomena in question.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” He also claims that in modern societies “all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” And, of course, that Debord can be supplemented with Baudrillard’s hyperreality. (I claim no deep expertise on the work of either theorist, but it seems to me that their need not be read as mutually exclusive.)

The idea is that many features of contemporary society come into focus when filtered through the convergence of the spectacle and disciplinary surveillance. I’m uncertain as to whether we should refer to the product of this convergence as spectacular surveillance or the disciplinary spectacle. Perhaps, neither. Perhaps what emerges, while sharing certain properties with both and reverse imaging others, is, on the whole, an entirely different reality. I’ll go with the society of the disciplinary spectacle for the time being.

In any case, I want to make clear that the key to this conjecture is the material fact of technological convergence made possible by digital technology. While this convergence manifests itself across a variety of artifacts and practices, it is the smartphone that may be the most apt image. It is through this device that the operations of the disciplinary spectacle most evidently come to bear on the human being. It is through this one device and the applications it supports that we experience the spectacle and that we most readily yield our data.

Consider what follows to be a set of provisional, in no way exhaustive theses regarding the consequences of this convergence of spectacle and surveillance.

  1. In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the spectacle smuggles in the surveillance rendering it all the more effective as it loses any obviously authoritarian quality.
  2. In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the spectacle, and hence the disciplinary surveillance, is participatory. It is, consequently, more deeply and effectively internalized than the panoptic gaze because we imagine ourselves not merely as consumers but as producers in our own right. We participate in generating the spectacle, and we are conditioned by same work.
  3. Insofar as it is the self that we are producing so that we might more fully participate in the spectacle, we experience a double alienation from world and from ourselves. Our efforts to heal this alienation within the context of the disciplinary spectacle only aggravates the condition and further feeds the machinery of surveillance. The quest for authenticity is the quicksand of the disciplinary spectacle.
  4. “The spectacle,” according to Debord, “is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.” In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the discourse is no longer a monologue (we are no longer in the age of mass media), it becomes a cacophony of monologues sometimes bound by resurgent tribal associations. The discourse also becomes keenly aware of itself. The laudatory tone is replaced by agonistic irony.
  5. When the spectacle exists within the same infrastructure that sustains the disciplinary surveillance, the discipline takes on an anti-disciplinary aspect. It appears as release rather than restraint. We might say it reverses the relationship between ordinary time and carnival. Restraint becomes the safety valve. We temporarily go off the grid in order to come back to the spectacle energized to participate more fully.
  6. Debord again, emphasis mine: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.” If we understand Debord to mean that we slide into the condition of appearing to have, in the society of the disciplinary spectacle we slide into the condition of appearing to be. The self becomes the commodity.
  7. Attention is the fuel of the machinery of the disciplinary spectacle. It is the fuel insomuch as the spectacle is powered by our desire for attention and the tools of disciplinary surveillance often function best when capturing our attention to feed their data collection.
  8. The spectacle devours reality. If there is not a distinction between the spectacle and reality, it is because reality can only appear as a function of the spectacle.

More so than usual, this post is an exercise in thinking out loud. Comments, push back, further elaborations welcome.


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Information Devours Communication

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (originally published in 1981).

He goes on to argue that “information is directly destructive of meaning and signification.” “Information devours its own content,” he adds, “It devours communication and the social.”

There are two reasons Baudrillard give for this. I’ll draw your attention here only to the first. Speaking of information, he writes,

“Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is very familiar. The nondirective interview, speech, listeners who call in, participation at every level, blackmail through speech: ‘You are concerned, you are the event, etc.’ More and more information is invaded by this kind of phantom content, this homeopathic grafting, this awakening dream of communication. A circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the antitheater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution, the integrated circuit of the negative. Immense energies are deployed to hold this simulacrum at bay, to avoid the brutal desimulation that would confront us in the face of the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.”

CNN was, then, barely a year old, Twitter and Facebook altogether unimagined. It seems to me, nearly four decades on that we incontrovertibly live in the antitheater of communication.

We’re Reading Fahrenheit 451 Wrong

I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a day or two ago while reading Ian Bogost on Apple’s Airpods. Bogost examined Airpods’ potential long term social consequences. “Human focus, already ambiguously cleft between world and screen,” he suggests, “will become split again, even when maintaining eye contact.” A little further on, he writes, “Everyone will exist in an ambiguous state between public engagement with a room or space and private retreat into devices or media.”

It’s a good piece, you should read the whole thing.

It reminded me of Bradbury on two counts. First, and most obviously, Bradbury’s novel imaginatively predicted Airpods before earphones were invented. In the novel they are called Seashells, and they are just one of the ways that characters in the story sever their connection with the world beyond their heads, to borrow Matt Crawford’s formulation. Second, Bogost’s fears echo Bradbury’s. Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really about censorship, after all, and it’s unfortunate that the novel has been reduced to that theme in the popular imagination.

Bradbury makes clear that the firemen who famously start fires to burn books are doing so only long after people stopped reading books of their own accord as other forms of media came to dominate their experience. Actually, to be more precise, they did not stop reading altogether. They stopped reading certain kinds of books: the ones that made demands of the reader, intellectual, emotional, moral demands that might upset their fragile sense of well-being.

Fahrenheit 451, in other words, is more Huxley than Orwell.

Fundamentally, I would argue it is, like Huxley’s Brave New World, about happiness. “Are you happy?” a young girl named Clarisse asks Montag, the protagonist. It is the question that triggers all the subsequent action in the novel. It is the question that awakens Montag to the truth of his situation.

At one remove from the question of happiness, is the matter of alienation from reality effected by media technologies. In 1953, when barely half of American households owned a television set, and primitive sets at that, Bradbury foresaw a future of complete immersion in four wall-sized screens through which people would socialize interactively with characters from popular programs.

Speed also severed people from meaningful contact with the world and became an impediment to thought. Literal speed—billboards where as long as football fields in order to be seen by drivers zooming by and walking was deemed a public nuisance—and the speed of information. An old professor, who knew better but did not have the courage to fight the changes he witnessed, explained the problem to Montag:

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

Social media was still more than fifty years away.

This same professor, Faber, later went on to lecture Montag about what was needed. Three things, he claimed. First, quality information, from books or elsewhere. Second, leisure, but not just “off-hours,” which Montag was quick to say he had plenty of:

“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the fourwall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”

The third needful thing? A society that granted “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two.”

Not a bad prescription, if you ask me.

Earlier in the novel, as Montag travelled by subway to meet Faber for the first, he clung to a copy of the Bible that he had stowed away. He knows he will have to surrender it, so he attempts to memorize as much as he can. But he discovers that his mind is a sieve. He recalled that when he was a child an older relative would play a joke on him by offering a dime if he could fill a sieve with sand.

As he travelled to meet Faber, “he remembered the terrible logic of that sieve.”

But, he thought to himself, “if you read fast and read all, maybe some of the sand will stay in the sieve. But he read and the words fell through, and he thought, in a few hours, there will be Beatty, and here will be me handing this over, so no phrase must escape me, each line must be memorized.”

But his material environment undermined his efforts. As in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, distraction undid the work of the mind. In this case, Montag’s focus and concentration battled and lost against the tools of marketing. An ad for Denham’s Dentrifice blared over a loud speaker as he tried to commit what he read to memory. The brief memorable scene portrays a scenario that should feel all-too familiar to us.

He clenched the book in his fists. Trumpets blared.

“Denham’s Dentrifice.”

Shut up, thought Montag. Consider the lilies of the field.

“Denham’s Dentifrice.”

They toil not-


Consider the lilies of the field, shut up, shut up.

“Dentifrice ! ”

He tore the book open and flicked the pages and felt them as if he were blind, he picked at the shape of the individual letters, not blinking.

“Denham’s. Spelled : D-E-N ”

They toil not, neither do they . . .

A fierce whisper of hot sand through empty sieve.

“Denham’s does it!”

Consider the lilies, the lilies, the lilies…

“Denham’s dental detergent.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It was a plea, a cry so terrible that Montag found himself on his feet, the shocked inhabitants of the loud car staring, moving back from this man with the insane, gorged face, the gibbering, dry mouth, the flapping book in his fist. The people who had been sitting a moment before, tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham’s Dentifrice, Denham’s Dandy Dental Detergent, Denham’s Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice, one two, one two three, one two, one two three. The people whose mouths had been faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice. The train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great ton-load of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass. The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run; the great air-train fell down its shaft in the earth.

“Lilies of the field.” “Denham’s.”

“Lilies, I said!”

The people stared.

“Call the guard.”

“The man’s off–”

“Knoll View!”

The train hissed to its stop.

“Knoll View!

“Denham’s.” A whisper.

Montag’s mouth barely moved. “Lilies…”

Attention is a resource, and, like all precious resources, it must be cultivated with care and defended. It is, after all, that by which we get our grip on the world and how we remain open to world.

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