Against A Calculated Life: How to Overcome the Privacy Worldview

Originally published in  Please Come Back: The World As Prison? 

By Patricia de Vries and Geert Lovink

From the high peaks of intellectual arrogance, one can have the clarity to see the world falling apart. (From down here, from the viewpoint of our trivial, illegible, chaotic realities: we salute them.) _Valeria Luiselli

Bruno Latour famously wrote, “The machine will work when all the relevant people are convinced.” The machine is broken, yet it is still spinning at full speed. Tracking, tracing, profiling, and predicting are no longer the power tools of the state-corporation to keep its people under control and its business running. We have internalized surveillance as a DIY practice, and, even worse, an indulgence, thanks to slickly designed smartphones, (h/w)ealth apps, social media platforms, cloud computing, capillary household junk, and affordable surveillance and recognition technology. The information technology industry runs on the data we feed its operators in exchange for bug-free convenience, and also on the age-old trope that the social world can ultimately be known, steered, and predicted from a value-neutral, unmediated perspective. We believe that as long as we fill our machines with the staggering amount of data collected from our clicks, likes, tweets, search entries, check-ins, thoughtless purchases, and online chatter, we can calculate the probability of future events and become the micromanagers of our otherwise chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable and unknowable social, political, and biological lives. We believe that with the help of our technological extensions we can get an understanding of what is called the “outside world.”

We willfully forget that we are part of that outside world, not situated in it. We have known this ever since David Hume’s scrutiny made us aware of the tacit metaphysical assumptions we tend to indulge in. Data mining, data modeling and analysis, and the visual metaphors with which we understand information technologies all too easily provoke a false sense of objectivity, control, and security. Juggle and slice your data long enough and you will find something that is statistically significant but also utterly meaningless: there is a spurious correlation between the number of people who died getting tangled in their bedsheets and the revenue generated by ski facilities in the United States. Scientists have a term for it: p-hacking. We ignore the fact that the patterns data algorithms churn out are predetermined by the people who program them. Every byte of data, and by extension every mathematical formulation, has society’s fingerprints all over it.

We are faced with the victory of inductive reasoning and quantified social science that employs cybernetic feedback loops in every possible field of society, from journalism to health care, from the military to agriculture. Be it out of arrogance or Platonic confusion in a control-obsessed, neopositivist and disintegrating Europe, we need to engage with the unevenly distributed consequences of quantified bias, coated with the veneer of high-speed statistical analysis, false positives, and skewed predictions in a wide range of fields. We don’t need expensive algorithms to predict that those who already face sociopolitical and economic marginalization will continue to be targeted and hardest hit.

Yet there is a smidgen of hope here. In ancient times unicorns were real because the relevant people were convinced of their existence. We need to convince the relevant people at the peaks of intellectual arrogance that the machine is beyond repair.


Burst Your Selfie Bubble

In order to get over the guilt and shame of your naughty self, and also over the despair of real-time monitored, quantified, and monetized self-as-data, we might consider giving the boot to the arrogant, anthropocentric notion of the indivisible, original, copyrighted, autonomous individual. It reifies a way of thinking of a single and unique self, an autonomous and independent persona demarcated from, and unmediated by, its socio-technical surroundings. It assumes the primacy of the human over the machine and, as such, is utterly unhelpful.

We are reminded of W. H. Auden’s poignant remark that “we would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” Can only war and natural disasters help us overcome the decadence of the self-centered political economy of social media? This deplorable insight into the Western Self is a strange yet powerful mixture of, on the one hand, the cold and cynical Enlightenment, and on the other, the Christian belief in self-punishment and a simple, unadorned life, free from images and gadgetry. The question has become: How can a populist majority be created that is not based on hatred and sacrifice, and that can present a real-life alternative to the techno-narcissism of our time?

Instead of fortifying a stronghold for the Self in the name of Humanity, we should open a wider playing field. Understanding the self as interdependent and relational helps to multiply the exits from our data-obsessed prisons. We are, by default, embedded, commingled, hybridized, and stained. Each of us is the sum of volatile and contingent relations and mediations, of countless alignments between disparate actors, settings, and things. Pull a loose thread from any so-called individual and it unravels a web of countless interconnections and affective relations, winding from the micro to the macro level. When you trace these connections, an infinite map of relations unfolds, some ambiguous, others harmonious; some strong, others weak; some contradictory, others competitive. By recognizing the rhizomatic connections between the spaces we inhabit and the people and things we inhabit them with, we multiply the avenues for change.

To convince the right people that the machinery of the 1 percent and the Frightful Five is fundamentally broken, we need to understand their connections to the larger sociopolitical architecture in which they run and hum. This requires following its wires in all the directions they lead. You can’t disarm the power of a machine before you understand its concatenations. This, too, requires broad, intersectional coalitions between diverse dismantlers, with an eye for those assemblages of people and things who are unevenly and disproportionately targeted and burdened by the automation, information, and securitization paradigm, all too often overlooked by the narrow focus on the individual’s right to privacy.


Lose Your Religion

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life_Wisława Szymborska


We may ask ourselves: In what ways is our fear of the controlling machine different from our fear of God’s wrath? The control society is all too often described as an all-seeing and all-knowing entity of overwhelming, fearsome, and transformative power: a potent force whose intangible omnipresence shapes and mediates our lives in uncontrollable and invisible ways. What we dread and what we expect from these technological forms of monitoring and measuring is similar to what we’d expect of a divine entity: to save or squash humanity. We pride ourselves on our enlightened histories, yet we theologize technology with zeal. Invisible, ubiquitous sensors track your every move, monitor what’s up your sleeve, and read your mind. On doomsday, sinners may expect to be pounded and punished by the overlord of the control society: Capital. The agents of these doom scenarios are often future employers, tax officers, insurance companies, your next real estate agent, your smart coffee machine, your favorite travel site, your car navigation system, and, of course, Google.

The “influencing machine” is a classic notion in psychiatric literature. The fear of the mind reader is a cult classic, too. And the notion of the invisible hand, of the Unseen Mover, is probably as old as humanity itself. This is not to say that surveillance technology has no influence; it does, sometimes profoundly. In the same way, uncalculated and incalculable or miscalculated events not covered in any data-analytics scenario are quite influential. Technology does not determine social structures, nor does it govern our behavior—thank Heavens! No matter how loud Silicon Valley praises the Big Data, the universe still does not make much sense to us. Technology surely bats, but we don’t know what or who will bat last.

If the meaning given to God and Control is all too similar, if the prison is a church, there is leeway; there is room to maneuver. You can take different positions: You can walk out of the church, reform it, become an iconoclast, lose your religion, start another one, or become a Pastafarian.


Overcome Your Privacy

It is not hard to observe that offline “privacy” is a bourgeois commodity one can purchase in exclusive places, accessible primarily to the affluent classes. The tactical withdrawal of the rich into temporary “white spots”—or staycations on Mars—is only one of many responses. Online, the best you can do is find your limited way with sophisticated crypto software. The rest of us provide free immaterial labor that is the data giants’ machines material. The global poor cannot afford privacy, and they pay a high price: surveillance has consequences that reproduce poverty and marginalization. Hack or be hacked is today’s equivalent of eat or be eaten. The 1% has a whole array of services—human and nonhuman—at its disposal to quickly move through public space without being noticed. The latest paradigm is offline as the new luxury. Meanwhile the marginalized precariat is encouraged to be online 24/7, waving its devices in the air to find a signal, struggling to coordinate life with productivity-enhancing apps on a disintegrating continent, stuck in traffic jams commuting to and from the gig economy. While they are compelled to text (WhatsApp and WeChat) and navigate their tribelike social lives through their smartphones, the happy few can delegate their communication-and-control to their personal assistants.

This sync-addiction is a sign of our times, and, like any addiction, a social problem. It can be ignored by the nihilist few, but needs the hands of the collaborative many to be properly addressed. The will to convince the right people that the machine is broken must also come from inside the (not so) noble self. To do so, we need to muster the discipline to refuse to constantly update and refresh, to resist the allure of the perpetual now of the news feed, to overcome the temptation of uninterrupted digital communication with the other. In other words, and in German: Überwinde deinen inneren Schweinehund and discover that Nietzschean Übermensch that slumbers inside all of us.


Forget Your Mask

Data trash loves living at that violent edge where total human body scanning meets an inner mind that says no, and means it. Not a machine, not nostalgia for vinyl, and most certainly not a happy camper, data trash is the critical mind of the 21st century _Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein


A favorite artistic gesture at the diner dansant, where the digital society gathers, is face coverage. Think of Anonymous with their Guy Fawkes masks, or the numerous artistic projects, from Knowbotic Research’s Opaque Presence to Bogomir Doringer’s curated Faceless collection. The elegant movements imply the moment when the veil will be lifted. The scheme is always the same: we play with identities—we scare, surprise, and seduce—until it is time to tear off the mask. The revolutionary resolution is sought offline, in incognito on real-life streets, in temporal zones of invisible non-identity provided by facial concealment strategies. What the mask project promises is to overcome the virtual enclosures, from Second Life to Call of Duty.

The question is no longer whether to uncover the panoptic regime. The prison has moved its walls inside the Self. That’s the move from Michel Foucault’s centralized and institutionalized disciplinary society to Gilles Deleuze’s societies of control. The Deleuzian call for “new weapons” against societies of control has been a never-ending source of inspiration for artists, designers, and activists alike. Speculative aesthetic art practices have problematized the loss of privacy from different perspectives. Some mock the culture of paranoia; others soak it up. Some seek to undermine monitoring technologies by way of camouflage, invisibility; others seek to materialize the alleged immateriality of surveillance technologies by way of visualizations and calls for hyper-transparency, provoking the visual regime. Yet others try to disrupt the calculative mechanisms of specific software, or warn us of an encroaching bleak future if things do not radically change.

Instead of playing into the privacy-surveillance and entrepreneurial capitalist paradigm, we need to decode dissent by multiplying those practices that address the thin line between information and noise. These are practices that engage with the a priori mediated condition of our realities and our inevitable incapability to capture “the real.” Let us instead consider the critical and subversive potential of the unknowns, the mishap, the failure. Embracing failure means “letting go of the idea that you structure your [life] based on entrepreneurial models” of “success or failure” and letting go of the idea that “you should always be investing in yourself, . . . maximize potential—all of these business metaphors that we use to describe our personalities.”(Scott Sandage, The Invention of Failure). We need assemblages of dismantlers that enter control-prisons and shake their foundations. We will be able to enact resistance when we will learn how to fail better and embrace noise, black swans, and uncalculated events. Let’s fall short, divest ourselves of our Selfs, break vows, depart by way of the roof, err, potter around, take detours, reject guilt (which is nothing but a complex form of fear), become intractable. Let us increase our ability to relate affectively and genuinely to other people and things. Let’s waste our time. This is a strategy to live an uncalculated life, to plunge into its depths, to convince ourselves and others that there is an otherwise, and to open all the cell doors to the unpredictable futures that lie outside of data- and app-locked prisons.