Under the invisible eye of a ubiquitous surveillance system the automated inspection of personal data can no longer simply be conceived as an all-seeing eye, a hidden ear, a baleful presence behind the scenes. The myriad forms of contemporary electronic surveillance now constitute the irremediably multiple feedback loops of a cybernetic society, devoted to controlling the future.1 Crisis and conflict are lodged permanently within its positive feed-back loops, knitting together the impersonal agencies of global capital, in all its socio-cultural and techno-commercial complexity. Behind all this is a Manichean world concocted during the war against fascism by none other than Norbert Wiener and his Cybernetic Vision.
Peter Galison would term Wiener’s vision of fusing human and machine the “ontology of the enemy”.2 It was here in this early aircraft predictor system that the dark war machines we now term drones were already a hidden telos or tendency of abstraction, one moving toward the future like a hawk after prey. Even then the notion of programming a machine to scope out the enemy with an antagonistic eye, hooked to the passive and lowly servomechanisms supporting it, modulated by informational plug-n-play software controlled remotely by a human would bring to light the stirrings of the Golem which is so pervasive in our current quest for Superintelligence. The ghosts of those early experimental systems present to us in this age of data-mining and neuromarketing the image of a Golem that is ourselves, the cyborg populations of a global world of computational capitalism.
In the twentieth century, it was a matter of large-scale news and advertising companies distorting the public sphere in which ideas are exchanged. It was a world of propaganda, ideology, and public relations experts who used the tools of media to sway the populace. Now we are heading toward an entirely different kind of society, based not on informed debate and democratic decision, but rather on electronic identification, statistical prediction and environmental seduction. And in this society, the ciphers of opportunity presented by marketing data are never very far from the targeting information thrown off by an evasive enemy.3
As the Internet-of-things becomes an actual part of everyday life rather than a hype word in our tech magazines, the re-ontologization of our cities infrastructures will become total environments in which every object is aware and adjusts itself based upon the users in the environment. As one walks through these projected Smart Cities controlled by AI one’s life will become part of a ubiquitous network of hidden surveillance adapting to your life as part of a complete command and control, security and economic marketing system targeting as well as predicting your behavior and capturing your desires. The word “control” has a precise meaning here: it refers to the continuous adjustment of an apparatus, or in this case, an environment, according to feedback data on its human variables. This notion of adjustments to an environment is the key, if we want to understand the pervasiveness of surveillance in today’s societies – a pervasiveness that goes well beyond military, police and secret-service functions. To understand it, however, requires abandoning two commonly held ideas: the literary image of Big Brother peering out from a screen, and the more complex architectural image of the Panopticon. (Holmes)
It is obvious that both Big Brother and the Panopticon are outdated, though they have not entirely disappeared from many parts of the world. The question, then, is how do we characterize a surveillance regime that is neither totalitarian nor disciplinary (Foucault), but depends primarily on the statistical treatment of aggregate data in order to shape environments in which populations of mobile individuals can be channeled and controlled? How, in other words, do we understand the political economy of surveillance in a network centric society on call 24/7?
It is now a matter of these technocrats adjusting the parameters of an open environment so as to stimulate and channel the probable behaviors of a population, and to manage the risks entailed by its free and natural mobility, or indeed, by the expression of its desire. The problem of algorithmic governance of these living environments and their mobile users is as Foucault explains, “how they can say yes; it is how to say yes to this desire.” In a world where every aspect of one’s existence is targeted to capture and modulate desire within an environment that is a total control system. Our society, which displaces so much of its conflict into the future, is nonetheless the present framework in which individuals, groups and populations are all become cyborgs, that is, people bound inseparably to machines (i.e., mobile devices, tablets, wearables, and external environmental systems regulating their lives, movements, desires), struggling to make sense and to achieve purposes within these mediated environments that are expressly designed to modulate and manipulate them.
For Holmes our society’s obsession with controlling the future – and with insuring accumulation – has at least two major consequences. The first is the organization of a consumer environment for the immediate satisfaction of anticipated desires, with the effect of eliminating desire as such, and creating an atmosphere of suspended disbelief where entire populations move zombie-like and intellectually silent beneath exaggerated images of their unconscious drives. The second consequence, as we have seen with such violence in recent years, is the simple removal of those who might trouble this forcibly tranquilized landscape with any kind of disturbing presence or political speech. Caught between a J.G. Ballard novel of psychopathy and the loss of affect, where voyeurs act out monstrous events of murder and mayhem just to remember what it once meant to be alive. And the world where people vanish and disappear from your life, their memories erased from the digital records of corporate and government. We live at the beginning of an age where an older vision of humanity living out their natural lives amid the natural wonders of the world, raising families, developing friends and loved ones, creating a life shaped by memory and desire are giving way to something else.
This brave new world will generation by generation slowly disconnect from the human world, the human species: homo sapiens. It will develop both enhanced powers and dispositions of mind and flesh that previous naturals will be unable to keep pace with. The external world will become a site of living things, an animated environment catering to one’s every desire, policed by precognitive algorithms that will monitor the whole of society ubiquitous and with total awareness. To be part of this happy paradise all one will need to do is give up one’s illusion of self, individuality, and liberty. One will owned and branded by a corporation living out one’s life in serfdom to its exigencies. Else there will also be those born through cloning or external incubators who from birth will be excluded from full citizenship, and rather will be part of clade and caste system from birth to death. The technologies for such massive undertakings are partially in development even now. As for society accepting such a world one need only thing of 9/11 and how easy it was to instigate the Patriot Act which took away many freedoms that have not yet be returned. One can imagine certain events being staged and instigated to force the hand of societies to incorporate and recognize even darker regulations and laws to escape risk and conflict for a safe harbor and complete security and economic welfare.
As our children and their children become more enmeshed in this emerging algorithmic society in which their daily lives are 24/7 monitored, programmed, modulated by both corporate and governmental regulations and tasks the memory of their parents struggles and warning will vanish leaving only the revised records of a world under social control.
- Holmes, Brian. Future map or How the cyborgs learned to stop worrying and love surveillance. Continental Drift
- Galison, Peter. The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision’, Critical Inquiry 21 (1994)