Sauron’s Gaze: The Eye of Algocracy

The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.

—Gothmog. Lieutenant of Morghul

We might rephrase that statement as follows: The Age of Organic Men is over. The Time of the Artificial Man has come. But even that is too hopeful. We know not what the supposed posthuman Singularity holds in store for us. The dilemmas surrounding machinic life or artificialization of our planetary society and civilization are the X factor in our current equatons surrounding the topic of the Posthuman.

Those that have either read or seen the film The Lord of the Rings based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy will remember the great Eye of Sauron that saw into the hearts and minds of men and controlled Middle Earth through his One Ring. We have no dark necromancers in our world, yet we seem to have a blind yet pervading system of software built out of mathematical algorithms that has begun to control and manipulate our global civilization in ways we have as yet been unable to grasp. The impact of this techno-commercial enterprise has recently shed light on the vast apparatus of surveillance capitalism and its governance of our digital lives through the efforts of the whistle blower Edward Snowden.

John Danahar in a recent paper (Understanding the Threat of Algocracy) would argue that “the increase in algorithm-based decision making poses a threat to the legitimacy of our political and legal system. The threat in question is relatively unique (due to its technological basis) and difficult to resist and accommodate.” It was this threat that Snowden would expose in the inner spy worlds of the NSA and its illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. Yet, it’s more than this, the techno-commercial and other market sectors dispatch algorithms 24/7 in continuous quest to mine information about our lives for their profit systems that provide feedback, incentives, ad-campaigns, etc., all toward capturing our desires. As Danahar says in another related post, “The upshot: big data is undermining democracy by depriving us of our ability to think for ourselves, determine our own path in life, and critically engage with governmental decision-making.”

We are immersed in data-information, and yet this vast world of images and textuallity is not knowledge. Knowledge is formed through a social process of consensus and truth making. It’s at the heart of the scientific method and the Enlightenment program, and has been a standard since at least Plato and Aristotle in logic and theoretical thought. Truth is formed in the public sphere through the give and take of peer pressure and critique. When we speak of laws of science or government (for that matter) we speak of consensus building and a continuous process of debate in the public sphere where decisions are made by humans for humans. In our time the human factor is being eliminated in this process in favor of algorithms that do not plan, theorize, debate, or formalize the truth of something, but rather work through binary transactions of simple input/output relations that filter, massage, manipulate, and transform terabytes of data into digital actions.

In his paper Donavan terms this global algorithmic governance of our lives and Algocracy. For Donavan ‘algocracy’ is the phenomenon whereby algorithms takeover public decision-making systems. My previous posts speak to this threat that Donavan will encapsulate, saying,

Public decision-making processes ought to be legitimate. Most people take this to mean that the processes should satisfy a number of proceduralist and instrumentalist conditions. In other words, the processes should be fair and transparent whilst at the same time achieving good outcomes. The problem with algocratic systems is that they tend to favour good outcomes over transparency and fairness. This is the threat they pose to political legitimacy.

The point here is that the decisions guiding our lawmakers in Congress and Senate are now in the hands of dataveillance technologies that for the most part make the informed decisions regarding the daily routines of these Lawmakers a simplified task. One remembers the humongous amount of information on Obama Care when it came out and that most government lawmakers neither read or even thought about the vast data-store of information catalogued in its bill, but instead relied on programs and algorithmic systems to make the decisions proactively for them. Simplifying their lives as officials and presenting them with suggested pathways and decision matrixes.

Most of us are unaware of the vast surveillance world of Big Data that is going on 24/7 without stop around us. We live out our normal lives oblivious that almost every facet of our waking and soon, sleeping, life is becoming digitized and bound by a world ruled by blind machinic processes. The global capitalist system operates in what Tim Berner’s Lee the inventor of the Internet once envisioned as the ‘semantic web’, that enables the automated pre-treatment of the informational hyper-material that digital tertiary retentions constitute, and yet cannot in any case produce knowledge. As Bernard Stiegler will argue knowledge is always bifurcating knowledge, that is, an experience of non-knowledge capable of engendering, through a new cycle of images (which is to say, on the basis of new dreams), a new circuit in the process of transindividuation in which all knowledge consists. And as such, all knowledge contains the possibility of being dis-automatized through the act of knowing, where this knowing interiorizes the automatisms in which this knowledge also consists, but which through being automatized becomes anti-knowledge, that is, a dogma that can be dogmatic only by concealing from itself its dogmatic character, in other words, its automatic character.1


To a historian, it is striking the extent to which the neoliberals have repeatedly taken ideas from the left over the last half of the twentieth century and twisted them to their own purposes.

—Philip Mirowski,  Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown

In a world where everything becomes “grist for the mill” there is no privacy anymore. Our lives, not data – have become transparent and open; but not to each other, rather open books for the machines that now replace us in their mindless hiveworld of algorithms. As Stiegler surmises what we discover as trans-dividuation (or the making of a dividual: a digitized replica of our flesh and blood lives) is this false trans-individuation that short-circuits psychic individuals. The process of transindividuation and the transindividual are replaced by the transdividual and transdividuation, automatized and concealed by the speed of their production, and founded on this high speed. This outstripping [prise de vitesse] of psychic and collective individuals is a taking-apart [déprise] of the form of the noetic by the computational formlessness [informe] in which this speed consists – where taking-form, which is the basis on which Simondon thinks the elementary conditions of individuation, always arrives too late. (AS)

The Neoliberal order once sought to create a rational society stripped of its affective and irrational elements, and in so doing to eliminate the unknown factor that could not be stripped mined for surplus accumulation and profit. In the semantic web of techno-commercial global society this exclusion of the affects takes on an ominous pattern. The Neoliberal system did not go away but rather entered a new phase of Rational World Building. The Dividual (or digitized self-imaging semblance) that is traced within the networks as my identity harbors all the bits that are of import for both State and Market. Everything else is extraneous to the system and is excluded in the decision-making of these algorithmic programs. We are essentially logical constructs, ideal semblances of a rational society bound within a codified space of transactional awareness.

This outstripping, Stiegler will argue, this overtaking speed, leads to the disintegration of all taking of noetic (human intellect) form by annihilating the plastic potential borne by those who serve it, who are instrumentalized through the dispossession, flattening and annihilation of their singularities, subjected to the loss of three-dimensionality in which algorithmic transindividuation consists. Collective individuals are diluted by the hypertrophy of the economic sub-system as it becomes increasingly autonomous from the social systems and deterritorializes itself by parasitizing and completely engulfing the technical system – and psychic individuals, who are diluted in return.  (AS)

I love reading Thomas Ligotti’s horror stories but what we are doing to ourselves makes such horror seem like child’s play in the global nightmare machines we’ve invented for ourselves in our pursuit of profit. Capitalism has become a cannibalistic machine rending and tearing the very fabric of human civilization apart in its pursuit to accumulate more and more profit at a greater and greater acceleration. That it has moved into the speed lanes of light, created non-spaces of the hyperworlds of a global virtual city for its continued appetite is not surprising. It knows it’s time is short, that the real world is being depleted of its finite resources at an accelerating pace that is strip mining every last ounce of profit from the old industrial economies. It needs room, it needs space, it needs a way to exit the planet. It is even now busy formulating in its blind entropic mind a path forward for itself and its supplemental appendages.

When Nick Land used H.P. Lovecraft, William Gibson, Deleuze/Guattari (Anti-Oedipus) and so many other thinkers, writers, storytellers, etc. to describe this runaway beast of capitalism as if it were an alien presence from our future come back in time to guide, manipulate, and insure its own existence I laughed out loud. But not anymore, for if one takes the history of capitalism seriously one sees that it is wrapped up with technics and technology, and that it appears to use humans themselves in its blind and purposeless way to instigate and invent the very systems that are engendering it. How is this possible? Is this madness itself? Or is there something to this narrative that both politics, economics, sociology, and all the scientists or philosophers combined have yet to grasp? Are we headed toward global meltdown, apocalypse? Or, are we being led to engender the machinic gods of tomorrow? Is the Singularity both the end of the androcratic empire of man, and the rise of the machine or something else altogether?

My friend, R. Scott Bakker of Three Pound Brain and a fantasist extradonaire with two trilogies of his own under his belt would tell us that we’re entering the Zero World of Crash Space. Mind wiping stupidity ahead, folks.  For Scott humans for millions of years were tied to their natural environments, that our mental and physical maps of reality were built and maintained by taking most of our world for granted (i.e., neglecting most of the data of the world around us as “given”), so that as we’ve slowly emerged out of this environmental realm of the give into the artificial worlds of civilization, and, now virtual and digital life we’ve been leaving the natural world behind. Because of this the modern world of psychotics is a symptom of this break from the natural to the artificial. Our brains are cued to our natural environment and have not readied us for that leap into the strange artificial realms we are living in. We are losing our minds based on natural awareness and cues, and becoming something other than the animal we are. As Scott explains it,

The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.

We are lost in a virtual world without a map to guide us, and our brain is no longer able to find the environment that it was constructed to describe and work in. As Scott explicates:

And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.

Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.

For those like Danahar the answer lies in the posthuman dilemma. “The only kinds of enhancement technology that could bridge the gap are the truly radical (and hypothetical) forms. The ones that would give rise to a genuinely posthuman form of existence. Even if this form of existence is possible, concepts like freedom and self-determination may no longer have any meaning in such a world.” This sense that we are on borrowed time, that the machinic civilization arising in our midst is displacing humanity as the numero uno – or, primal intelligence on planet earth is at hand, and for such as Danahar the transhumanist or enhancement path of developing and engendering an epistemic elite of posthuman children to drive and maintain the race with the empowered technics and technologies of the future assembling themselves in our midst is our only hope.

That these algorithmic agents are slowly reprogramming humanity is not so obvious on the surface, but in the network effects of day to day actions we are seeing this ubiquitous power and knowledge slowly eroding democracy, decision-making, and human philosophical and theoretical heritage to the point that humans in a few generations may no longer know or care that their lives are controlled and hypernormalized by invisible agents of the machinic systems that secure their lives, families, and labours. In all but word and deed humans will have vanished into their artificial worlds without a trace.

More to come… stay tuned.

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 5669-5678). Wiley. Kindle Edition.