Computer algorithms turning us into dependent pre-enlightenment serfs
“How sad it is!” murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. … If it were I who was to be always young and the picture that was to grow old! For that — for that — I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
In 1890 Victorian England’s enfant terrible Oscar Wilde published his haunting Gothic novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, that tells the story of a narcissistic young man, Dorian Gray, who likes to live it up, ignoring the morals and conventions of his time, and never wants to grow old. A Faustian pact with the devil promises to solve his problem. He stays young and attractive to the very end, but his portrait, an oil painting crafted with sublime perfection by the artist Basil Hallward, infatuated by Dorian’s beauty, grows older and uglier year after year.
We have all become Dorian Gray, but not through our own making. On data servers around the world, there exists a shadowy, distorted picture of ourselves, a doppelgänger, collected and collated by algorithms over which we have no control. We don’t even know that these records exist. This dataset, continuously updated and modified, shows any transgression, be it a credit card or mortgage default, a minor infringement or a felony, or any other suspicious activity, and will be saved forever in the vaults of the NSA or Google. Your algorithmic “portrait” turns into an evil creature that, as it fails to conform to the rules of the Googles, banks, or state, may secretly penalise the real you by, for example, having to pay higher interest rates for your mortgage, be banned from social media or, God forbid, end up in a CIA black site.
Google, social media and murky spy organisations follow the engineering logic of the NSA …”sniff it all,” “collect it all,” “know it all,” “process it all,” and “exploit it all.” (In Cheney-Lippold, 2017, National Security Agency, 2011)
In his book “We are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves” Cheney-Lippold wrote:
We are “well filled with data” in today’s networked society…open your computer and roam the web for five minutes. In a period of time only slightly longer than the average television commercial break, you will have generated, through your web activity, an identity that is likely separate from the person who you thought you were. In a database far, far away, you have been assigned a gender, ethnicity, class, age, education level, and potentially the status of parent with x number of children. Maybe you were labeled a U.S. citizen or a foreigner. There’s even a slight chance you were identified as a terrorist by the U.S. National Security Agency. (Cheney-Lippold, 2017)
In 2015 at the Chicago Humanities Festival (2015) he presented a comprehensive analysis of his daunting findings.
In a previous article, I’ve mentioned the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1943–2011), who, noting in his book “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter” that “media determine our situation” (1999), foreshadowed the power of algorithms and who controls them. These machines will not work in the “human” interest, but in their own machine-based interests, suggesting us being only their servants as long as necessary. He postulates a kind of genetic selfishness amongst these digital Frankensteins that are only interested in their own proliferation and power and will interfere with human interference that tries to limit them. HAL 9000: “Sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that” (Onrop, 2011).
If this sounds far-fetched consider an article in the Spiegel Online (2012) where Konrad Lischka describes what happens when looking up
…former German first lady Bettina Wulff on Google Germany, and the search engine suggests refining the search with terms such as “prostitute,” “bordello” and “Playboy.” Wulff, whose husband Christian Wulff resigned in disgrace from the presidency in February, maintains that the rumors about her alleged “red-light past” are completely false… last week they took on Internet giant Google too, filing a defamation suit with the Hamburg district court to force the search engine to remove a long list of damaging terms recommended by its “Autocomplete” function in connection with Wulff. Google, which has refused to comply, claims that the search suggestions are simply the result of an algorithm.” (Spiegel Online, 2012)
Leaving it open whether Google has the capacity to reign in its out-of-control search engines the issue remains that whoever has control over the data, it’s not you and me.
Seb Franklin (2015) in his book “Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic (Leonardo) sees it like this:
To exist, from the point of view of control, is to be digital — or, in Friedrich Kittler’s words, after the emergence of digital signal processing, “only what can be configured as a switching circuit exists.” This ontological digitality, separated from the machines and interfaces with which it has become synonymous, entails a fundamental process of discretization that can be purely conceptual as much as it can enable particular technological processes.(Franklin, 2015)
And these technological processes consist of collecting data, storing them, analysing them, and make them useful for commercial or political purposes of which we have no control or insight.
Have we become wards of the state again? Is Google our new guardian? A state of existence that we predominantly found in the European pre-enlightenment era. In his treatise “An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?” the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” — that is the motto of enlightenment. (Kant, 1992)
Kant’s original word for immaturity was “Unmündigkeit”, meaning a person that is “unmündig”, too young or mentally unable to own property, to do business, hold a public office, and do as he or she pleases, therefore needing a guardian, such as a state for example. Kant certainly had the Prussian state under Frederick II in mind, whom he regarded as an “enlightened” monarch. According to Kant, the enlightenment has freed us from the “tutelage” of the conservative aristocratic regimes that were pervasive in Europe at the end of the 18th Century. Published in Konigsberg in Prussia, 30 September 1784, Kant was a leading figure of the intellectual circles of that time that discussed the ideas of the Enlightenment extensively, which eventually led to the French Revolution in 1789 and the subsequent demise of some aristocratic regimes in Europe.
It leaves us with the question of how to regain our autonomy and control over our affairs in a world that has become digital. According to LATEST NEWS (2018)
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has promised to save the Internet from the tyrannical control of Big Tech…This week, British-born Berners-Lee will launch, Inrupt, a startup that aims to take back power from the same tech giants that have profited from centralizing the Internet. (LATEST NEWS, 2018)
He wants to turn back the wheel and decentralise the highly centralised World-wide-web by developing a service that allows us to control our digital selves, again. We would like to see a beautiful “portrait” of our selves out there that does not age but grows, showing our ever-evolving creative personalities, while we hopefully don’t mind that our physical selves are getting older as time goes by.
Tim’s ideas won’t solve the fundamental underlying problems that we find in our current media culture. But not many people are thinking and doing something that goes in the right direction. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide-web, is a visionary, that we know. Maybe he will again shine a guiding light on what’s important and come up with some exciting solutions.
Cheney-Lippold, J. (2017). We are data: Algorithms and the making of our digital selves. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Chicago Humanities Festival. (2015, November 13). Big data and the algorithmic citizen. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1703&v=Qdq4le5hcRU
Franklin, S. (2015). Control: Digitality as cultural logic (Leonardo) (1st ed.). Retrieved from Amazon.com
Kant, I. (Trans. Ted Humphrey) (1992 ). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?. Retrieved from https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Kant--What%20Is%20Enlightenment_.pdf
Kittler, F., & Young, G. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
LATEST NEWS. (2018, September 29).‘Father Of The Web’ to save the Internet from tyrannical big tech [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bBfnSoBDSo
Lischka, K. (2012, September 10). Blaming the algorithm: Defamation case highlights Google’s double standard. Spiegel Online. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/defamation-case-by-bettina-wulff-highlights-double-standard-at-google-a-854914.html
National Security Agency, “New Collection Posture,” 2011, www.aclu.org
Wilde, O. (2011). The picture of Dorian Gray: The uncensored original text (Annotated) (First Ebook Edition) Kindle Edition. Retrieved from Amazon.com