The Digital Leviathan: Power, Enslavement and Autonomization


…this system does indeed give every appearance of being a gigantic technical individual, a digital Leviathan exerting its power over the entire earth through its ability to continually outstrip and overtake, and to do so on behalf of a decadent, uncultivated and self-destructive oligarchy an oligarchy that is absolutely venal, that is, perlectly nihilistic.

—Bernard Stiegler, The Automatic Society

Every morning many of us in the West wake up to the buzz of various electronic devices: alarm clocks, radios, TV’s, and laptops or mobile devices that connect us to a world wide grid of data: the Internet. Some of us have even begun investing in digital devices that can supposedly give our lives more leeway, refrigerators that can either remind us we’re out of milk or some other staple, or even order it for us through the production of preprogrammed applications connected to our favorite grocery outlet through the Internet. For the most part we are beginning to take this all for granted, as if the complexity of the technology involved had always already been there in our lives, something that is given and goes without saying. Our connected multitasked lives are bound to a world of technological gadgets that also connect us to our loved one’s, our friends, our businesses, healthcare, legal and other systems in ways that seem to make our lives more secure, protected, and cared for. As if the world’s storehouse of communications were at our beck and call, and we were at the center of a multiverse of technical objects that cared about us and our welfare. But are we?

I grew up in a world without such connections, an analogue world where gathered information about one’s day through a slow process of inconvenient gadgets. One’s news came at specified times from radio, television, or newspapers;  and, for the most part the information was already out of date, historical, and unreliable. We did not have the convenience of mobile phones with thousands of useful apps that could align our day and offer us decisioning processes or digital secretaries/agents to do our bidding for us while we sat back and sip our coffee, listen to our children, or walk our dogs while our avatars gathered the daily quota of email, news, and business assignments. No, we had to navigate the day ourselves, make our own phone calls, go out to a physical mail box and check or send mail the old fashioned way of hand delivered envelopes or packages, etc. We had to use various inconvenient and old fashioned ways of doing things that our children, and even ourselves in this day and age couldn’t imagine living without. We’ve become so attached to our electronic and digital multiverse of technical objects that if someone came along and took them all away from us we’d be at a complete loss as what to do next.

We’ve become dependent and subservient to the technical world surrounding us, this digital Leviathan we’ve all seen emerging for the past thirty years has hooked us into a machinic society of conveniences and contrivances that we no longer even think about it; it’s become ubiquitous, invisible, given. “This contemporary Leviathan is global, and it is the result of the reticular and interactive traceability of 24/7 capitalism, which has now become a part of common awareness.”1 Our lives are immersed in data, information overload. Not only are we immersed in a glut of information, we ourselves have become data to a universe of machines that capture our lives and process them as if we, too, were electronic devices that could be modulated and scraped clean for a machinic Leviathan hungry for our digital souls. For most of us all this goes without saying, it’s become habitual: “Through habits users become their machines: they stream, update, capture, upload, share, grind, link, verify, map, save, trash, and troll. Repetition breeds expertise, even as it breeds boredom.”2

Bored but happy, we carry our mobile devices throughout the day, take pictures, share information, update our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts or any number of other social media systems, speak with our children, our clients, our partners, etc., and never think about how this same information is being captured by anonymous and ubiquitous systems just below the threshold of our gadgets without our awareness or consent. Our lives have for the most part become absolutely transparent and open to a machinic society that may or may not have our best interest at heart. We barely acknowledge such a world, much less worry about it. Should we?

With the exposure of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks we discovered just how deep it goes, how our government and commercial systems have slowly been accumulating the digital traces of our lives and mapping them to data clouds to be scraped for purposes other than the security and welfare of our daily living. “Technology has now enabled a type of ubiquitous surveillance that had previously been the province of only the most imaginative science fiction writers.”3 Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide would document the case of Snowden and expose the depths of corruption to which our government has gone in collusion with corporatism and the dark corners of a fascist system that seeks not the protection of its citizens, but rather seeks to secure itself from its citizens. The Fourth Amendment would be tossed aside in the wake of 9/11 and the unlawful surveillance and gathering of data by the NSA would become part and partial of a corrupt system of governance and secrecy that has wiped away the very system that was meant to safeguard us. Fourth Amendment would state it clearly:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In 2010 WikiLeaks engaged in its most famous publications to date, revealing systematic abuse of official secrecy within the US military and government. These publications are known as Collateral Murder, the War Logs, and Cablegate.  The response has been a concerted and ongoing effort to destroy WikiLeaks by the US government and its allies.4

As a direct consequence of WikiLeaks’ publications the US government launched a multi-agency criminal investigation into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks staff, supporters and alleged associates. A Grand Jury was convened in Alexandria, Virginia, with the support of the Department of Justice and the FBI to look into the possibility of bringing charges, including conspiracy charges under the Espionage Act 1917, against Julian Assange and others. US officials have said that the investigation is of “unprecedented scale and nature.” In Grand Jury proceedings no judge or defense counsel is present. Congressional committee hearings have since heard the suggestion from members of the US Congress that the Espionage Act could be used as a tool to target journalists who “knowingly publish leaked information,” suggesting that the approach is being normalized in the US justice system. (ibid.)

That our government has gone to such lengths to cover up and criminalize those who exposed its own illegal and criminal actions is telling. What we’ve learned more than anything is that we can no longer trust our government to protect its citizens. Why? Because it fears us and is aligned with the commercium (i.e., the oligarchs, plutocrats, etc.) that it seeks to protect from the vast majority in favor of a small, rich, and powerful elite. Because of this it has aligned itself with the very tools of social media where we leave our digital traces each and every day: the system social governance of self-production of traces,  the network effect and high-performance computing applied to data’, and with the formation of artificial crowds that is the basis of ‘crowdsourcing’ (that of the data economy), the digital stage of grammatization* is leading psychic individuals throughout the world to grammatize their own behaviour by interacting with computer systems operating in real time. (Stiegler, 138) The point here is that each of us leaves a digital footprint, a double, an electronic file of data-traces that can be used by powerful algorithms to nefarious purposes. As Stiegler will put it if ‘our statistical double is too detached from us’, it is because the data automatized production and exploitation of traces, dispossesses us of the possibility of interpreting our retentions and protentions – both psychic and collective. (Stiegler, 139). In other words our stand in, our digital identity – as it were – becomes an electronic node that can be scanned by automatic processes without our knowledge or consent, and it is these electronic traces our online-onlife selves that becomes the placeholder for our virtual/actual lives.

The flat image that these traces of our online lives leave become disconnected from our actual lives, and become a part of an algorithmic world that is mapped and shriven of our emotional attachments and worldly outer lives. This digital self, a dividual (Deleuze), is calculable and can be instrumentalised by automatic processes that can be rerouted to military, police, commercial or other agents of this darker world of the Digital Leviathan. We see aspects of this when we log on in the morning and sipping coffee pull up our favorite social media site and suddenly have personalized  ads for books or gadgets splashed across the screen that seem like magic to know what we want before we ourselves are aware of it. We’ve been profiled and segmented into silos of various commercial and governmental systems that can utilize the traces of our online lives to know more than we ourselves know about our hopes and dreams, our fears and nightmares. Cannibalized by a Leviathan who never sleeps we’ve become enslaved in a data based systems of traces that moves as we moves, thinks as we think, knows as we know in an uncanny and frightening parody of our actual lives of flesh and blood. We’ve all become Golem’s in an electronic prison that shapes us more than we shape it.

*For digital rhetoricians, Stiegler’s notion of “grammatization” is particularly striking in that it suggests the beginnings of a theoretical framework for orienting rhetorical inquiry amid the interminable sea-change of new devices, software packages, and product features. Grammatization cultivates a perspective that is complimentary to and ultimately distinct from those associated with electracy, augmentation, remediation, and other canonical terms that rhetoricians and compositionists often borrow from media studies in order to frame their analyses of digital writing technologies.

“How can you remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior?” asks Jaran Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.5 His answer is simple: just delete your social media accounts, begin freeing your lives from the digital Leviathan. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun tells us

Rather than “consent once, circulate forever,” we need to find ways to loiter in public without being attacked. We need a politics of fore-giving that combats the politics of memory as storage, that fights for the ephemeral and fights not only for the right to be forgotten but also the right not to be stored in the first place. This reengagement with memory also entails a change in our habits of using—and our refusal of designs that undermine habituation by turning habits into forms of addiction, a refusal of undead information that renders us into zombies.(ibid.)

This notion that we should have the right to our memories, our data-files, our traces is at the core of the legalities of these issues of privacy and concern in the digital kingdom of Leviathan. Is it too late? Can we change things? Is disconnecting a way to begin while we sort out the misuses to which our profiled traces have so far been put? What is to be done?

  1. Stiegler, Bernard.Automatic Society: The Future of Work.  Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017) (Page 139).
  2. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. The MIT Press (May 27, 2016)
  3. Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide (Kindle Locations 55-56). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  4. Assange, Julian; Appelbaum, Jacob; Müller-Maguhn, Andy; Zimmermann, Jérémie. Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (Kindle Locations 153-155). OR Books. Kindle Edition.
  5. Jaron Lanier. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Kindle Locations 35-36). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.