It was once more or less assumed that the digital world was good for democracy. That turned out to be premature (see Jarzombek 2016). Because the digital was for so long embedded in narratives that emphasised supposed benefits of techno-sociability to society, the political face of the digital was slow to emerge, forcing those now interested in it to play catchup. When we now raise the question of how the digital intertwines itself with the political we jump to issues like privacy, surveillance, digital suppression, disinformation and failed governmental oversight. And yet, despite the laws and policies that have all been put in place, the situation is an oily mess that seems to have no provenance and certainly no easy fixes. In the meantime, the digital establishment is becoming ever bigger and more powerful. Complaining about what to do has become a genre of literature all unto its own.
I would like to start the conversation from a different perspective. Instead of seeing the interface between the digital world and that of technology as a question of policy and control, we should see it as a space of operation with a clear teleological-hallucinatory end, a “blue-toothed” world where corporations, nations and individuals operate seamlessly in blissful harmony. The aim is for a bio-psycho-techno ‘natural’ to augment or replace the already natural. This was not how it began, of course. In the 1970s, computers were supposed to be good at equations; they were the love-child of mathematicians and put to use in military and business. Then computers became good at chess and moved into the world of games. It was only quite recently, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, that the digital discovered the marvellous world of the “expanded social” with Facebook (2004), Youtube (2005), Twitter (2006) and the like leading the way along with travel and media platforms as well as a vast array of tracking and exploitation technologies.
But this ‘social’ was merely a front for a much larger ambition, a new natural. A Google executive stated it pretty well: “Google’s goal is to become like breathing; just a necessary function for accomplishing what you need to do. You don’t think about it, you don’t really talk about it; you just instinctively do it.” Though cinematic imaginaries are already exploring this space, The Matrix and Westworld, for example, that does not mean that we yet understand the slower, more human-paced realities of that teleology.
Unlike the cyborg of old that is part machine and part human, our data-enhanced ontology integrates – or at least tries to integrate itself – with routines of everyday life and for this to happen it needs our willing participation, even though by ‘willing participation’ I do not mean conscious participation. In fact, it is safe to say that we are almost completely unaware of the massive amounts of data that we produce as we live our so-called daily lives. The processes by which our data is grown, harvested, consumed, stored, scrubbed, processed and re-processed are totally unknown to us (except, of course, to a chosen few). Also hidden from view is the incredible outlay of effort and expense. It is not just that lithium and rare earth metals need to be mined and processed. Data warehouses need to be built. Electricity needs to be produced; chips need to be manufactured, satellites need to be shot up into space, and so forth. The so-called political is overshadowed by an increasingly complex geo-political that all this entails. What is clear is that our conventional notions of ethics and even morality are unsuited to the issues that lie before it.
In all of this, the dataverse promises something almost humble, to make the human not into something different, but into something ‘more’ than it once was. It is not just about our practical interactions with banks, doctors and government agencies. I can get instant updates on blood oxygen and REM sleep scores. I can talk to my car and refrigerator. I can track my cat walking around the neighborhood. At MIT, colleagues from another department are working on a toilet that analyses my s**t and then sends me emails. And so on. And since the human world is incredibly complex, there is – or at least was – a lot of room for that approximational horizon to move into ever finer granularity of life, whether I know it or not.
I call this post-ontology.
The ontology of old presumed that we are somehow – or at least could try to be – genuine. For some people that meant – and has traditionally meant – more metaphysics, more religion, more God. For some others, it meant less metaphysics, more free will, more science, more alienation. Post-ontology is neutral on that score as it augments the condition where the inside and outside of ontology are no longer clearly delineated. All that matters is that the humanisation of data operates within the instrumental dialectics of ‘more’ – a more that is never enough. It is impossible for us to understand the scale of this ‘more’. Even at a technical level it boggles the mind. In any given day the average connected human interacts with a device some five thousand times, mostly unbeknownst to him or her. And currently, the dataverse is about two hundred zettabytes and rapidly growing. Someone figured out that would the equivalent of some forty trillion DVDs. If they were stacked, they would reach to the moon and back 100 million times (Bajaj, 2017).
It is no accident of history that the attempted normalisation of data coincides with the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. In ancient times, hallucinogens were common among our first society ancestors as the means to better listen and speak to the deities and spirits of the world. For us, the new regimes of data production and manipulation de-legitimise that old monotheistic allegiance to the singularity of the text. They help us inhabit the psychedelic, scale-less imaginaries of algorithms and power. If the monotheistic world of old required texts be written by God (Old Testament, Quran, Gospel), the new world of data naturalisation is governed by annual Verizon contracts, upgrade reminders, installation messages, security alerts. Unlike the metaphysics of old, this new one is infinitely more tactical, more approachable, more serviceable. It is ‘there’ within us, but no one can really tell ‘where’.
The result is that a type of crust has formed around our traditional – more modernist – ontology. Our residual sense of Self preserves its confidence in our sense of identity. That confidence can be loose, flexible, or even compliant; it can harden into identity politics and fundamentalism. But even if we try to reduce our data footprint, somewhere in our ontological ‘within,’ ontology is fed and enhanced by means of the vast invisible insides of the data-verse. Our new ‘inside’ is not governed by desires and passions, egos and ids —the mental interiors of old—but by an organisation of energies that suffuses our sense of Being. Our onto-crust constitutes the interface between this new digital habitat and the conventional one making us ever more embedded in its empowering addictions.
In all of this, the post-ontological does not care about the ‘what’ of politics. It only cares about politics as a medium through which data can be produced, mined, consumed, controlled and exploited, thus its tendency to align with “free speech,” not because free speech is a political position or a constitutional right, but because it guarantees the perpetual excesses of production that are necessary to perpetuate the hallucinations of life. Ironically, the dataverse aligns itself just as easily with speech suppression as long as the instruments of control can be continually upgraded, adjusted and reimplemented. The Chinese Communist Party has dialled this to maximum. Newspapers, education, science and commerce are all blended into the grand, swirling cloud of a magical, centrally-controlled digital infomatics. Leah Lievrouw writes that “to date, virtually no democratic state or system has sorted out how to deal with this challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of democratic processes, and my guess is that only a deep and destabilising crisis (perhaps growing out of the rise of authoritarian, ethnic or cultural nationalism) will prompt a serious response”(Lievrouw in Anderson & Raine, 2020). In the U.S. these grand operations are more disguised, but even there – as in other places around the world– the infusions and diffusions of data are now part of the proverbial ‘everywhere,’ made so not just by the nation states but by the great corporations that are themselves addicted to ‘data.’
But there is a problem. Both the Chinese and the capitalist attempts to humanise data are racing toward a horizon of inefficiency. Can the Chinese make computers that are not just fast enough and huge enough, but also free from bugs, malwares and infiltrations to capture everything and everyone in its metaphysics of harmonious infallibility? Probably not. As for the cult of free speech, it is a two-headed instrument that is designed to breed dissatisfaction at every turn. For the one, the politics of repair is sucked into the singular focus of its national metaphysics. For the other, the politics of repair is distributed through the erotics of influence with its endless and pointless conversations about how to turn the knobs and about who should be responsible, all of which produces yet more apps, yet more ‘networks,’ and yet more ‘laws.’
The two systems are destined to crash, but in what order it is hard to say. More satellites, more undersea cables, more touch screens, more phones, more batteries, more mines, more chips, not to mention more hackers, system failures, and electrical outages and security updates, produce an escalating volume of vulnerabilities. The gritty inefficiency of it all is already starting to show. The teleology of the naturalisation of data is, therefore, haunted by the possibility that it has an expiration date. Why else would Musk want to relocate the billionaires to Mars?
What can be claimed is that we are living in the last days of the digital’s Golden Age. Our life is not governed – as it was hoped a century ago – by an enlightened combination of reason, faith, science and nation. That was an illusion to begin with. The shattered debris of its implosion is all around us. The dialectics of the Enlightenment has now become the dialectics of a ‘more than human,’ the floating signifier of our temporarily constrained, teleological destiny.
Bajaj, K. (2017) “Total worldwide data will swell to 163 zettabytes by 2025” (April 11), Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/total-worldwide-data-will-swell-to-163-zettabytes-by-2025/articleshow/58118131.cms
Jarzombek, M. (2016) The Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age (Minnesota University Press, 2016)
Lievrouw, L. in Anderson, J. & Raine, L. (2020) “Concerns about Democracy in the Digital Age”, Pew Research Centre. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/concerns-about-democracy-in-the-digital-age/