The Age of Big Data: The Calculus of Control

 

What counts is that we are at the beginning of something.

—Gilles Deleuze, Postscript On The Societies of Control

The idea of big data is that the previous slow, clumsy, step-by-step search for knowledge by human brains can be replaced if two conditions are met: All the data in the world can be compiled in a single “place,” and algorithms sufficiently comprehensive to analyze them can be written.

—George Gilder, Life After Google 

The automatic society of hyper-control is a society founded on the industrial, systemic and systematic exploitation of digital tertiary retentions. All aspects of behaviour thereby come to generate traces, and all traces become objects of calculation…

—Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society

 

The unique strength of the human race is its ability to exteriorise itself: we put more and more of our memory, knowledge and capacity into external technical apparatuses. At the same time, though, this exteriority is also humanity’s greatest vulnerability, because whoever controls such tertiary memory systems necessarily also controls the human experience of time.2 And time is the key that unlocks two divergent futures: a future in which technology no longer needs humans, becoming autonomous and independent of the dialectical and reciprocal relations that have hitherto shaped their respective histories; and, second, a future in which humans recognize an originary relationship with technics and technology becoming immersed in the ongoing challenge of liberating the inhuman core of human.

Marc Andreessen often quoted for his provocative statement that “software is eating the world” (see: Why Software Is Eating the World) would envision Google as the prime mover in a world in which Big Data replaces the world in real time producing a copy of a copy that much like Plato’s Cave incorporates a shadow world of pure data that mimics the real world but is in itself mere software and code run by vast combinations of hardware, fiberoptics, and algorithms at the speed of light and time. A world in which humans are considered free as long as they hook into the overdetermined paradise of systems that know them better than they know themselves.

Chris Anderson in his 2008 article The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete  would herald in the Big Data era of high-speed search and capture algorithms that would spell – as he saw it – the end of theory or science as we know it. According to the Chris Anderson article to which we previously referred,  ‘big data’ heralds the ‘end of data technology designating what is also called ‘high-performance computing’ carried out on massive data sets, whereby the treatment of data in the form of digital tertiary retentions occurs in real time (at the speed of light), on a global scale and at the level of billions of gigabytes of data, operating through data-capture systems that are located everywhere around the planet and in almost every relational system that constitutes a society … it is because digital tertiary retention and the algorithms that allow it to be both produced and exploited thereby also enable reason as a synthetic faculty to be thanks to the extremely high speeds at which this automated of understanding is capable of operating.

The hyperindustrialization of time, memory, and desire is at the heart of Bernard Stiegler’s diagnosis of our current malaise and depressive world of work and play: the politicization of life itself by the techno-scientific control of both biological and cognitive processes. A world that subtly contaminants and corrupts our lives through the sheer power of our own desires, a world in which we become willing slaves to the technological gadgets that are presented to us as devices of freedom and independence. As Arthur Bradley  asks: Why do Real Time media pose such an existential threat to the human temporalisation of time? For Stiegler, as for Derrida before him, everything seems to hinge on the fact that Real Time is not really time: what we perceive to be happening ‘live’ or immediately when we speak and observer our mobile phones  is, of course, actually the product of a technological synthesis operating so quickly that it is below the minimal threshold of phenomenological time consciousness. (Bradley, 142)

For Stiegler the gap between memory and perception are being elided, humans are losing their minds to their machines allowing the interface worlds of speed, mobility, and data to supervene in the age old thought processes that were internalized as part of the human mind. These vast systems of clouds, algorithms, search and capture systems do our thinking for us all in real time to the point that we habitually accept their suggestions and attention getting registers as if they were our own thoughts returning to us as if by magic. Caught in the networks of power and knowledge we have become consumed rather than consumers, our minds delivered up and sacrificed to the technological gods of commerce to do their bidding. We live in a present without past or future, a realm of pure empty non-time in which there is no ‘yesterday’, no possibility of stopping, or slowing down, or reflecting upon, what we have seen and heard – just a permanent, continuous, live ‘now’ that has always already selected for us our primary memoriesfor us, distributing to us the thoughts and images of our desires as if we’d just imagined them for ourselves. As Bradley describes this hyperindustrial era of media capture systems: “Such is the position of the consumer in the age of industrial reproducibility – a new proletariat condemned to consume time mechanically, indiscriminately and destructively” (143).

In this sense we’ve always already become part of a virtual world of hypertime, a realm of vacuous repetition in which our lives have become products of the very memory systems of computed power and control that were supposed to free us from our dependency of more primitive tools and technologies. Even now as virtual technologies begin to become cheaper and cheaper we will opt out of many of the previous industrial era channels of politics, education, work, and play allowing these artificial worlds to replace our real life experiences with synthetic one’s. In today’s world of VR systems many corporations have begun using these elaborate tools to retrain or train employee’s in ways that would jeopardize them or put them in dangerous real world situations. VR systems bypass the perceptive real world systems of the brain. That’s the “thinking,” deciding, problem-solving part of the brain, which knows the virtual experience is unreal. Bypassing these lobes of intelligence, VR operates on the so-called reptilian brain behind, where a suspension of disbelief allows the memory to be imprinted with a “real” experience. By fostering this cerebral phase change, virtual reality can accelerate the learning process for most jobs.3

In the 1970s, virtual reality broke through by training pilots on flight simulators and preparing oil rig engineers in special-purpose training cells. Then it triumphed as gear to test and design products. As Lanier points out in Dawn of the New Everything, “Every vehicle you’ve occupied in the last two decades, whether it rolls, floats, or flies, was prototyped with VR.”4 Due to the violent and sometimes unpredictable nature of Black Friday Walmart began a VR training program that plunges trainees into the midst of the chaos and enables them to complete transactions without being trampled. Walmart reports that trainees who have practiced using VR perform more confidently and effectively under actual conditions. (ibid.) Even the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gathered in Park City, Utah, the team used VR to experience the downhill course in South Korea, site of the 2018 winter games. Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, and the other Olympians could experience the course, viscerally vamping through every twist and turn, without risk of a season-ending injury, or worse. (ibid.) Across the U.S. many fire departments have gotten on the bandwagon of VR and are using training software for firefighters, whose lung cancer rate is fifty times higher than the rest of the population’s. Every year, firefighters have to train in smoky conditions where they inhale toxic fumes. Using VR systems, they can experience smoky vision without inhaling. Still more vital, they learn to identify the visual and auditory signs of an impending “flash-over event,” in which flames can suddenly sweep them up. (ibid.)

But this is only the tip of the ice-berg as more sophisticated systems become readily available to everyday consumers allowing the interfaces between mind and environment to take on a more artificiality made natural. As Big Data systems become ubiquitous and invisible they will replace our natural environments with artificial one’s in which we might never leave our homes, secured and fully protected from outside dangers we might roam the virtual lanes of our fully mapped and integral smart cities as dividuals and avatars guided and channeled by superintelligent algorithms that seemingly have our best interest at heart. The insidious takeover of our lives by software will complete the semantic apocalypse forecast by my friend R. Scott Bakker: “As a result, the only universal imperatives that remain are those arising out of our shared biology: our fears and hungers. Thus, consumer society, the efficient organization of humans around the facts of their shared animality.” In a fully automated, appetitive world where our every attention is captured by the merchants of desire we will be programmed to do their bidding night and day all along thinking it is our own free will doing the work of selection.

This replacement of the real world with it’s artificial semblance is not something new: philosophers, artists, thinkers, software engineers, etc. have written of such sidereal takeover from the early era of modernity. Back in the heyday of the cyberpunk era Neil Stephenson in his novel Snowcrash would describe a fictional Metaverse: “He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”5 Yet, this was all fiction and dreamscapes of an imaginative mind still able to think and predict the trends at the heart of our hyperindustrial era. We do not have that luxury. In our age reality is being re-engineered, reontologized as one thinker puts it referring to a very radical form of re-engineering, one that not only designs, constructs, or structures a system (e.g. a company, a machine, or some artefact) anew, but one that also fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature, that is, its ontology or essence. In this sense, for example, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies are not merely re-engineering but actually re-ontologizing our world.6

Because of this re-ontologization of our ordinary environment we are already living in an what Floridi terms the infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized (space), and correlated (interactions). (Floridi, 9) Over the past couple of hundred years the acceleration of both technology and society has led to this hyperworld of information replacing the natural world. As Big Data and its worldwide networks become ingrained in our technologies this change may become irreversible mainly thanks to radical changes in worldwide transport and communications. Atoms and bytes have been moving increasingly rapidly, frequently, cheaply, reliably, and widely for the past fifty years or so. This dramatic acceleration has shortened the time required for many interactions: economic exchanges, financial transactions, social relations, information flows, movements of people, and so forth. And this acceleration has meant a more compressed life and a contracted physical space. Ours is a smaller world, in which one may multi-task fast enough to give and have the impression of leading parallel lives. We may regain a nineteenth-century sense of time and space only if one day we travel to Mars. (ibid., 293-294)

If we were worried that software was eating the world, wait till the world becomes a fully automated paradise (or hell?) of information animated by Big Data all to capture our desires and control our lives through the sheer power of our own imaginal dependency on technology. The increasing re-ontologization of artefacts and of whole (social) environments suggests that it is becoming difficult to understand what life was like in pre-digital times, and, in the near future, the very distinction between online and offline will become blurred and then disappear. (ibid., 8) As Floridi puts it:

Unless we manage to solve it, the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums. (9)

If our memories of the pre-critical realms of the natural environment are replaced by a digitized world of Big Data in realtime quantified spatial imagery that manipulates our desires and our thoughts in unnatural and artificial directions where does this leave humanity as a whole? Can we construct a new digital politics of memory capable of interrupting the unending flow of sound and light called Real Time world of Infosphere? There are many who promote an ideology of speed, acceleration, and merger with this Real Time world of the Infosphere, believing it is inevitable that we become the machines that we had been all along. To be sure, this posthumanoid is already beginning to incorporate its tools into what it still sentimentally likes to think of as its ‘body’: prosthetic limbs and joints, artificial organs, smart drugs, nano-technologies and now even synthetic cells. Yet, even this stage – the age of the so-called cyborg – will only be a transitory phase in its evolution, for as many believe (under the guise of techno-religious impulse) that the singularity is near. Such prognosticators and futurologists believe that by unchaining itself from the dying animal to which (the philosophers assured it) it was only ever contingently attached in the first place, it will become free to extend, enhance and ultimately upload its consciousness into the transcendental mind of pure information. For a new wave of self-professedly ‘transhumanist’ theorists such as Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, a post-biological destiny beckons for the human race in which the ancient Gnostic dream of the transcendence of base matter will be rendered glorious technological reality.

Such dreams of disembodied transmutation into machinic life have been with us for sometime. Almost religious in nature, a new techno-gnosis of mind messianism in which humans finally overcome finitude through the purity of an information apocalypse stripping their bodies of the last vestiges of carbon based life and imposing the inorganic circuitries of uploads and eternal updates. Exit in this scenario is from the flesh into machine which seems to be at the heart of many transhuman and posthuman mythologies emerging in the science fiction of our time. And, yet, the ironizing of others from embodiment theory to critical posthumanism would spell out a new humanist transfer in thought to a re-centered bodily desire at the expense of a return to a pre-critical essentialism, this time replacing the soul with the body as the center and circumference of all earthly base life.

As our real lives are captured and traced in the liniments of a Big Data crunch of an onlife existence as digital dividuals, image faring denizens of a artificial realm of light, sound, and image where we are continuously analyzed at ever increasing rates, individuals lose forms of identity in order to be included in this knowledge system. Our mobile phones hooked to the nerve center of this datafied existence will suggest our next moves among the Infosphere, leading us toward the optimal jouissance of bodily existence within a zone of capture. Unable to know we are the construction of advanced intelligence we will live out our waking and sleeping lives under the auspices of algorithms that govern our every thought. As Antoinette Rouvroy surmises this loss of individuation and critique are highly related. She argues there is worth in how older systems of knowledge, such as physical archives, allowed for ideas to be categorized, and then subsequently tested for accuracy. Today these checks on truth are more more difficult to execute. Rouvroy ends by arguing that these new paradigms are “maybe” emancipatory and democratic, but are certainly multifaceted. All of this has created the current state of human/digital interactions as “multitude without alterity,” finding knowledge through difficult to fully understand search algorithms and engines.7

Who knows which way the world will turn in the coming decades? Man into machine, technogenesis of the autonomous machines divorced from humanity, the merger or Cyborgization of humanity in a welding of man/machine unity, a sort of ultra illusionary world controlled by superintelligent machines scripting our daily thoughts and emotions because they know better than we know ourselves… a thousand-and-one nights of strangeness lie ahead and even the I of this I is but a fictional point without a precedent as to what that future holds other than the tendencies already present in the forward march of a telos that has no remainder but time itself.


  1. Deleuze, Gilles. Postscript On The Societies of Control. May, 1990
  2. Bradley, Arthur. Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida. Palgrave Macmillan; 2011 edition (May 27, 2011)
  3. Gilder, George. Life After Google (Kindle Locations 3972-3974). Gateway Editions. Kindle Edition.
  4. Lanier, Jaron. Dawn of the New Everything (New York: Henry Holt, 2017), 2. Introduction.
  5. Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (p. 24). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  6. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  7. Berns, Thomas and Rouvroy, Antoinette. Algorithmic governmentality and prospects of emancipation Disparateness as a precondition for individuation through relationships? ( Antoinette Rouvroy and Thomas Berns, Translated from French by Elizabeth Libbrecht) (see pdf)

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