Category: Uncategorized


Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism

June 20th, 2019 — 8:34pm

Earlier this year I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and was strongly affected by it. It’s always hard to judge how new works will age, but I found her narrative a poignant comment on the last few decades of the information society: a society that evolved quite differently from what many expected from the early days of the Internet. I’m willing to guess that this book will remain relevant for a long time as a snapshot of the direction that society has taken in our present time. Morozov has analysed the book in more detail than I am capable of. Here I will try to relate some of Zuboff’s points to the ideas I have developed on this blog. Unlike Fleischer (Swedish) I feel that the length of this book is justified.

I’m not categorically against capitalism (yet), but I do believe that capitalism can take problematic forms and sustain negative processes in society. Zuboff argues that what our contemporary social/behavioural data-driven internet giants represent is nothing less than a genuinely new form of capitalism that is essentially dependent on the need to observe and predict (ultimately, influence) increasingly minute forms of human behaviour. All those accidental data leaks from mobile apps, etc., are not accidental. She draws liberally on Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) to make her case. There’s ample room to draw on Heidegger (enframing/gestellung), but for some reason, Zuboff chooses not to go there.

Humans wish to live in freedom (we usually agree) and perhaps do live in freedom. But what is this freedom? One definition would be that free actions do not have a calculable cause, need not be rational. In a certain way, freedom is the freedom to be arbitrary, to be irrational. This might not mean that causes do not exist, but it may mean that the right to conceal causes is important.

But from a systems point of view, entirely free, as in unconstrained, humans (in a vacuum, or a blank space devoid of meaningful relations or objects, etc) are not free. Probably, we feel most free when we are constrained to the appropriate degree: we need a floor to stand on, momentum to move with, fixed points to brace against… if the constraints are appropriate and partial in this way, then we develop a style of behaviour. In theory, we can imagine a situation where humans are so constrained that they can hardly make any choices from one moment to the next. Exploiting the gap between on one hand totally constrained and specified behaviour, and on the other hand the moderate constraints of an “appropriate” situation in the above sense, a situation with slack, we are free to play, to endow our actions with style, to perform. Perhaps this is one useful notion of freedom. Behavioural markets, then, purchase the right to choose our behavioural styles for us, to invisibly constrain us and introduce more friction. Perhaps they convert the slack into profit, perhaps they transfer it to other actors using money as a conduit. (Of course, we may think of the ability to endow one’s own actions with style in such a constraint gap as the flow of particularity.)

Why is human freedom still a scary notion to us, individually and collectively? Many consumers and techno-optimists would happily trust the voice of the algorithms rather than personally make choices. Many rush to record and give away vast quantities of data. Various forms of private and governmental surveillance combine in ways probably unimaginable to most who participate in it. Which unconscious drives are at work here? What do we hope to gain as a society? Can the internet, software, and modern electronics not be applied to nobler ends?

Comment » | Philosophy, Uncategorized

Enlightenment and the search for meaning

December 26th, 2018 — 5:04pm

The premise of the enlightenment would be that we have finally discovered how to live rationally. Authority is located in natural science, free enterprise and free markets, and empirical knowledge. Thus we can cast aside all the superstitions of the past and finally become what we were meant to be. Can we?

Not everyone agrees. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are commonly associated with the “school of suspicion”, throwing doubt on capitalism, on the rational mind, and on morality and religion, to take but a few examples. Freud in particular burst open the doors to the unconscious, bringing back, seemingly, the demons that the enlightenment had sought to finally bury. The bottom line of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents seems to be that man is doomed unhappiness, since his (sexual, violent, etc) desires will always make him clash with polite society. If true, this is truly a tragic insight.

In contrast to Freud, Jung appears to be a man of compromises. Freud’s view of the unconscious is highly centred on sexuality. The “Id” seems to be  primarily a source of threatening or disturbing impulses. Jung’s view of the unconscious is centred on the possibility of integration, of bringing separate pieces together into a harmonious whole, including the “Shadow”, broadly his equivalent of Freud’s Id. He even postulates an archetype that guides the individual towards meaningful integration of these separate parts, the Self. The self provides the individual with a sort of pattern that is repeated over and over again across a lifetime, increasingly elaborate. Eventually all the parts are, if we are lucky, integrated and even the dark or purely negative parts are given a meaning in the whole. The idea that the individual unconscious can basically provide a teleological, predefined template for an integrated personality reminds one of soul or destiny, and seems much more optimistic than Freud. But perhaps it is more accurate to call Jung a realist. He tends to insist on every phenomenon having both positive and negative aspects. Integration may fail. Life may contain excessive suffering, torment or early death. Although individuals are supposed to be naturally led towards greater integration, Jung doesn’t seem to offer any positive guarantees about mankind’s progress as a whole towards a better moral state.

Enlightenment ideas seem to be alive and well, if in a somewhat mutated form, having survived two world wars. The idea that we can design or plan a better society is perhaps questionable after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a notable exception is China, which sometimes looks as if it operates a semi-planned society, while at other times it looks more capitalist than North America). Instead, we live by the rule of market forces and rationality takes the form of scientific R&D, as well as technocratic administration, where appropriate. The rule of a number of invisible hands, the neutered “individual” as the basic unit of production and consumption. Although technological capitalism has produced immense positive effects, its dark side is also sizable.  Enlightenment has led to nihilism. Alienation is real. Although human beings can endure working as replaceable units for some time (if a man has a why, then he will endure almost any how) in general and over time, this kind of work does destroy meaning and is intolerable. What will be the long term consequences of forcibly suppressing common sense and social conscience on a mass scale?

In this environment, it takes a certain stubborn optimism to insist that technological and economic progress will bring about a better society (Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker). It may be too early to pass judgment on what kind of world we are building, but let us at least be keenly aware of its price.

The problem of loss of meaning is for now mainly a Western one, though it may not remain so for much longer. The same cultural forces that drove the development of Christianity – the search for the one truth – may also have driven the development of science and technology. Thus, according to Nietzsche, Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction. Countries like India and China have perhaps not yet reached “peak enlightenment”, still absorbing Western ideas and intensifying their implementations of technological capitalism. Japan may quite possibly have reached peak enlightenment some time ago and thus shares in the Western problem, although not on a Christian basis. Thus its solutions may look different. In the near future, this problem can be expected to burden all cultures that are committed to technological capitalism.

According to Jung, God, meaning, and the divine are archetypes, which are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that they must be given a concrete form, lest they be projected and unconscious, with potentially disastrous consequences. Our best solution, temporary as it may be, could be to treat consciousness as holy, in both its social and individual forms, in both its explicit/rational and its pre-rational, implicit, potential, half-finished forms. Existentialist cinema like that of Ingmar Bergman (who would have been 100 this year) seems to locate the holy in interpersonal relationships. Tolstoy does something similar. Their views of love are realist and ambivalent: they endorse it, but it may lead one astray (Anna Karenina, Through a Glass Darkly). Yet they certainly endorse it. This region may serve as a practical locus of the holy. Is love not a form of heightened social consciousness imbued with positive possibilities? Does individual consciousness, even of a mute object, not always refer back to the social, through the meaning it contains and through its driving wish to discover and express truth?

Comment » | Philosophy, Uncategorized

Rice fields and rain

October 5th, 2016 — 11:58am

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Humans primarily live in a world of beings, each of which has meaning. Meaningful beings appear to us interconnected, referencing practices and other beings in a referential totality. Buttons suggest pushing, chairs suggest sitting, a tractor suggests farming. A (Japanese) rice paddy may suggest the heavy labour that goes into the rice harvest each year, the tools and equipment that go with it, as well as the gradual depopulation of the village, since the young ones prefer a different line of work elsewhere. It may be part of the site and locus of an entire set of concerns and an outlook on life.

The world of beings is the one that is most immediate to us, and a world of molecules, atoms, energy or recorded data, useful as it may be, is something much further away. In each case it must be derived and renewed from the use of a growing and complex apparatus of equipment, practices and body of concepts, such as the traditions of physics or mathematics. Yet nobody would dispute that these worlds – the world of beings and the calculated world – are interrelated. In some cases they are even deeply intertwined.

But how can we reconcile the calculated world with the world of beings? How exactly do they influence each other? And if the calculated world is expanding aggressively, thanks to the spread of computational machinery and its servants, is the world of beings being pushed back? Receding? Are we abandoning it, since it is no longer good enough for us? Refusing to touch it, other than with thick gloves?

The calculated world concerns itself with propositions, true facts, formal models, records. A conceptual basis is needed to codify and engage with it. A record is formed when an observation is made, and the observer writes down what was observed. Initially, it retains an intimate connection with the world (of beings). The record is interpreted in light of the world and allowed to have its interplay with other beings. The observation “it rained heavily this week” is allowed to mean something in the context of farming, in the context of a possible worry about floods, or as a comment on an underwhelming holiday. Depending on who the reader is and what their concerns are, all these meanings can be grasped. The record may thus alter the reader’s outlook in a way similar to what direct experience of the rainfall would do.

At this level, the only facts we may record are that it rained or did not rain, and whether the rain was heavy or light. But given that we have some notion of space or time, as human beings do, repetition becomes possible. Scales for measuring time and space can be constructed, The rainfall can now be 27 or 45 mm. We are now further away from the world of farming, floods and holidays – “45 mm” of rain needs to be interpreted in order to be assigned any meaning. It has been stripped of most the world where it originated. The number 45 references only calculable repetition of an act of measurement. Enabled by the notions of space and time, already it tries to soar above any specific place or time to become something composable, calculable, nonspecific. Abstraction spreads its wings and flaps them gently to see if they will hold.

So on all the way up to probability distributions, financial securities, 27 “likes” in a day on social media and particle physics. At each level of the hierarchy, even when we purport to move “downward” into the “fundamentals” of things, layers of meaning are shed and a pyramid of proverbial ivory soars to the sky.

Spatial and temporal observations depend on measurement on linear scales, such as a stopwatch or a ruler. Such scales are first constructed through repeated alignment of some object with another object. Such repeated alignment depends on counting, which in turn depends on the most basic and most impoverished judgment: whether something is true or false, does or does not accord. Thus something can have the length of 5 feet or the duration of 3 hourglasses: it accords with the basic unit a certain number of times. This accordance is the heavily filtered projection of a being through another. The side of a plot of land is measured, in the most basic case, by viewing the land through a human foot – how many steps or feet suffice to get from one side to the other? Even though the foot is actually able to reveal many particularities of the land being measured – its firmness, its dampness, its warmth – the only record that this attitude cares to make is whether or not spatial distance accords, and how many times in succession it will accord. All kinds of measurement devices, all quantitative record making, follows this basic principle. Thus, the calculable facts are obtained by a severe discarding of a wealth of impressions. This severity is obvious to those who are being trained to judge quantitatively for the first time, but soon internalised and accepted as a necessity. Today, these are precisely the facts we are accustomed to calling scientific and objective.

But the accordance of beings with distance or time is, of course, very far from the only things we can perceive about them. The being emits particular shapes, configurations, spectra that make impressions on us and on other beings. Thus it is that we may perceive any kind of similarity – for example the notion that two faces resemble each other, that a dog resembles its owner, or that a constellation of stars looks like a warrior. We delight in this particularity, which in a way is the superfluous or excess substance of beings – it is not necessary for their perception but it forms and adds to it. Thus the stranger I met is the stranger with a yellow shirt and not merely the stranger. He can also be the stranger with a yellow shirt and unkempt hair, or the stranger with a yellow shirt and unkempt hair and a confident smile, and so on – any number of details may be recorded, any number of concepts may be brought into the description. These details are not synthetic or arbitrary. But they are also not independent of the one who observes. They would depend both on a richness that is of the being under observation, and on the observer’s ability to form judgments and concepts, to see metaphorically, creatively and truthfully.

Such impressions, which carry a different and perhaps more immediate kind of truth than the truth that we derive from calculations and records, may now have become second class citizens in the calculated world that grows all around us.

3 comments » | Computer science, Philosophy, Uncategorized

Deletion

July 4th, 2010 — 12:24pm

A characteristic of a naive approach to the digital world is the tendency to record and store everything. JustBecauseWeCan. Every photo, every e-mail, every song, every web site ever visited, every acquaintance who ever added you as a friend on some social network, every message you ever received. Somebody, probably an author, termed this the “database complex”, I think. A projection of a certain greedy tendency to gather and collect things. This does have certain benefits when coupled with a good search function. Every now and then I find myself having to use some information that only exists in an e-mail that I received 6 months ago or so.

A more advanced approach is selective forgetfulness. Humans cannot go on with their lives if they do not forget memories and experiences that are irrelevant and useless. They become unable to set and act on new targets. I think that a slightly less naive digital life would contain a measure of deletion. Deletion of files, old e-mails that have probably become useless, “friends” on social networks who are mere acquaintances or even less, and so on. Taking away the old makes space for the new. It can be especially powerful to see the number of files in your home directory reduced from 50 to 5. A lot of confusion and ambivalence is immediately removed.

Part of taking the next step step deeper into the digital age should be deciding, each for themselves, what one’s personal thresholds and principles of deletion are. What should be deleted, when and why? In our brains it has been managed by evolution for us. Now we must manage it by ourselves.

1 comment » | Life, Uncategorized

Meta notes: 1+ year with Monomorphic blogging

May 29th, 2010 — 12:28am

After 13 months and 51 posts, my experiments in blogging continue, although they are perhaps better described as polymorphic than monomorphic. Maybe it’s time for some reflections.

On the whole blogging in this format and at this frequency has been a pretty fun and fulfilling process. I get to practice writing free-form, nonscientific texts, and even if many of them might not be read by so many people, the idea that they might be turns it into a useful exercise.

Recently Flattr buttons were added to this blog, which allows users who use the service to donate money and show appreciation for my texts (some such people indeed exist – thanks a lot, all two of you!). Initially I had a single button for the entire blog, but now I am trying out a format where I have one button per post.

I’ve noticed, on this blog and elsewhere, that I can’t quite decide if I should write with British or American English. I feel culturally uncertain as a writer of this language. But recently I’ve come to think that I should embrace my European background, so more of the British variety in the future is a likely prospect.

Topics have been varied. The tag and category systems have been used in an attempt to bring some order to the table, but they’ve become too chaotic to be useful. A restructuring is perhaps in order during the next 13 months.

One of the most popular topics I’ve written about has been the Scala language. People tend to google Scala a lot, and it’s actually really uplifting to see the interest in it (since I hold it to be a way forward). If you are a blogger who wants to get a billion page views, write about Scala. I don’t want to consciously pander to the readers too much, so in itself it is not a reason for me to write about the topic. I will write about Scala when I want to say something about it. (A difficult principle to really practice.)

I’ve tried out some different WordPress themes occasionally, but so far I haven’t found anything I like better than this “Infinimum” theme. It feels very clean, functional and modern.

That will be enough of the reflections for now.

2 comments » | Uncategorized

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