Category Archives: Commentary

Empire’s Regrets

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America’s “business” sensibilities were seen as both the economic and ethical boon of American empire. George F. Kennan, one of the chief architects of the cold war American empire, saw in “the reputation of Americans for businesslike efficiency, sincerity and straightforwardness” a singular advantage in America’s effort to establish and maintain its global power. (I am quoting from Kennan’s notes for his Memoirs, archived at Princeton.) Indeed, for nearly all of the cold war architects of American empire, the “business” personality meant reliability, responsibility, power, and stability.

This personality is also the kind needed to build an empire. Empires want stability. Power is not enough. The Pax Romana of the ancient world was not an accident of the centralization of power in the emperor. It was its purpose and its justification. By the time of Octavian’s ascent to imperial rule as Augustus in 27 BCE, the Roman Republic, though esteemed then and now for its renowned constitution, had been in upheaval for well near a century, fraught with plots, assassinations, power plays, coups, and civil war. The emperor meant the empire could stabilize.

The American empire of the postwar and cold war periods was frequently characterized as a reluctant one. This was part of its “businesslike” ethic. Certainly, America’s ascent to world power after World War II was not intended to be a replication of the British colonial empire. It was to be more subtle, and, if possible, more invisible in its workings. It was not to be “colonial” in the way of nineteenth-century empires or America’s own past approach to its indigenous peoples. Rather, it was to work through a kind of triumvirate of distributed American military power, America-led financial institutions, and strategic alliances. This is, and was, American empire. And like all empires, it wants, on the whole, stability.

Within the empire of postwar and cold war America, technology was to be a means of order, or ordering. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, technology and technological innovation were inseparable from the empire: Big science, big industry, and a very big military-industrial complex drove technological innovation. There is no other way to make sense of the remarkable technological developments of the period—computers, the internet, satellites, missiles, and thermonuclear warheads—than in terms of the overwhelming imperative of the empire to enforce order onto the world, just as there was no other way to account for the empire’s penchant to perceive threats to order everywhere, from Laos to Guatemala to the Arctic.

But this “businesslike” empire was also an empire of capital, and of capitalism, both ideologically (as America confronted communism) and structurally (as private capital and public funding worked together to uphold empire). And capitalism is disruptive. As Americans learned in the 1930s, it was prone to destruction and reconstruction, ups and downs, booms and busts. If empire wants stability, capitalism favors instability.

From the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, American domestic and foreign policy was aimed at making both empire and capitalism work by having them work together. If Keynesianism was the logic, a “businesslike” approach to technological innovation was the lynchpin. A primary way the American empire harnessed capitalism was by harnessing science, technology, and industry—the sources of “innovation.” Bell Labs, IBM, Westinghouse, General Motors: Big Industry meant not only working-class jobs but the cooperation between capital and empire. This cooperation was crucial to empire’s power, for it meant capitalism’s disruptive logics could be tempered by empire’s need for order.

But as things turned out, capitalists began to undermine the cooperative logic of the empire. In the age of Reagan, a new kind of capitalism and a new kind of capitalist emerged under the auspices of innovation and deregulation. Entrepreneurial capitalism began to exploit the stable networks of capital, communications, and human movement the empire offered. If neoliberalism was the new logic, technology was the motor, including new techniques and technologies of finance capital. Finance, computers, the internet, automation, and a new Silicon Valley ethic of creative, disruptive innovation emerged as insurgents within the empire. And “business” took on a new, distinctly disruptive look, too.

The entrepreneurial insurgents of the 1980s and 90s created new markets, even as they destroyed old ones, especially labor markets. Tech and finance industries took new risks, risks freed of empire’s insistence on stability. These risks were money motivated, but they were also social, ambitiously aimed at reshaping the way humans live their lives (for the tech industry the “human” is always the subject, and for the finance industry humans are always objects).

And on the backs of these insurgents rode yet another kind of capitalist, the postmodern capitalist convinced that brand is value, image is economy, and money but a manipulable bit. Retail, development, entertainment, and service industries made brand identity a franchise industry, all the while using fraud, bankruptcy, lobbying, and the exploitation of legal and tax loopholes to create value, or perceived value.

Remarkably, given empire’s need for stability, these entrepreneurial and postmodern forms of capitalism became not only an economic ethic but a political one, as if the solution to every problem were to shake things up. We saw this, above all, in the penchant for deregulation in the 80s and 90s. But we also saw it in the mythologies that developed around Silicon Valley, innovation, and technology, and around what Donald Trump would brand “the art of the deal.” Still, from Reagan to the present, every presidential administration has tried to have it both ways, making room for capitalism’s disruptions while maintaining hold of a relatively stable American empire.

Now, the balance has shifted: The postmodern anarcho-capitalist, seen in the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Peter Thiel, is now vying for the reigns of the empire. This personality seeks to reorganize geopolitical power around the most elusive of categories—spirit, culture, and identity—while trying to create maximum space for the disruptions of capitalistic innovation. “Strength” and “weakness,” understood in quasi-romantic terms of spirit and culture, are supposed to organize the values of this would-be world power (which, because it eschews stability, would not be an empire), and state violence is to be used as a technique of purification (thus the ubiquity of “war” in the rhetoric of these anarcho-capitalists, a striking point of commonality with their surprise allies, conservative culture warriors). On the other hand, the old empire is striking back in the personalities of the new secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, both of whom seem to represent a vision of empire in which capital cooperates in exchange for relative world stability and in which “strength” is measured less in cultural and spiritual terms and more in terms of diplomatic alliances, military might, and economic hegemony.

Which vision will prevail is still unclear, but the current condition of uncertainty might partly explain the box-office success of Split, a horror film about a man suffering from multiple personality disorder. One might describe it as a parable for an empire in crises, in which we viewers are the kidnapped hostages.

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Silicon Valley’s Survivalists

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons.

Seventeen years ago, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, my wife’s grandfather built floor-to-ceiling shelves in his basement and filled them with toilet paper, tuna, Twinkies, and batteries. He was prepping for Y2K, the Millennium bug. Boom Boom, my wife’s normally calm and reasonable grandfather, was convinced that computer programmers had set civilization up for collapse by representing the four-digit year with only the final two digits. Once the digital clocks and computers tried to register the year 2000, electric grids and so all things electronic would crash. Civilization wouldn’t be too far behind. My father, in the foothills of western North Carolina, didn’t stock his shelves. But he did load his shotgun.

Today, prepping isn’t just for old southern white guys. The tech titans of Silicon Valley, as Evan Osnos recently wrote in the New Yorker, are buying bunkers and waiting for the breakdown of society as well. But Silicon Valley’s survivalists are different from Boom Boom and my dad. They are preparing for a civilizational collapse they otherwise celebrate as disruption and innovation. Continue reading

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Irony Goes to Washington

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters. Wikimedia Commons.

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters. Wikimedia Commons.

A curious thing happened on the way to the Trump presidency. Cicero—the ancient Roman Stoic and teacher of rhetoric—started appearing in the media. Slate, CNN, and the Washington Post suggest that Trump’s sometimes incoherent speech is actually drawing on hallowed techniques of political oratory. Ancient rhetoricians didn’t just analyze speech; they taught ambitious young men how to use it to gain power with verbal tricks, such as saying you won’t say something as a way of intimating it. (Remember the first debate?) That’s called “praeteritio.” But hyperbole is also a technique. And so is intentionally contradicting yourself, which is called irony.

These articles about Trump’s Ciceronian speech are part of a debate about how intentional his speech actually is. Is he a master of rhetoric—especially on his preferred medium, Twitter—or simply lacking attention span, firing off tweets on conflicting whims? Continue reading

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Infernal Machine Collective Manifesto: On the Occasion of the Inauguration

An empty podium at the U.S. Embassy in London. U.S. Embassy London via Flickr.

An empty podium at the U.S. Embassy in London. U.S. Embassy London via Flickr.

We—let us reclaim the We, the declaratory We, the contentious We, the collective We. On this inaugural day, as the seas rise, the drones fly, the tweets storm, and a reality TV star ascends to the heights of world power, the Infernal Machine returns.  Just as all that is solid is melting into air and all that is sacred is profaned (yet again but differently), we want to face the real conditions of our life together, again.

And these conditions are new: Our politics, our institutions, our reality have been eroded by a techno-enabled cynicism and a vociferous optimism peddled from Silicon Valley to Washington, DC. Our media channels,  often filled with noisy disinformation, have come close to overwhelming all hope for truth and a common good. Technology has become both a demon and a god, oppressor and savior, post-human and super-human.

Less than a year ago, many of us were decrying technocracy and neoliberal automation—the routinization of decisions by distant experts. And now? We have been compelled, by the Twitter-assisted success of the newly inaugurated president, to defend expertise, even as we know that it is not enough. But a few moons ago, we were skeptics when it came to data, statistics, and polls. Now social science, not to mention science, is under attack by those who believe that “to tweet it is to prove it.” A year ago we thought that the great showdown of the decade would be between the state and Silicon Valley. Now we see their collusion, willed or not.

So we are at our own inauguration point, our own auspicious beginning, full of omens.

During the age of high technology—think mid-twentieth-century broadcast media and rust-belt production lines—entropy, the erosion of order, represented the great problem of the age. “Information = entropy” became the rallying cry of a new coterie of scientists, engineers, and poets, the basis for a celebration of new media channels for a potentially limitless proliferation of communication.

And then the science fiction of that earlier pretense turned cyberpunk; the Internet promised freedom and gave us something more complex. And with the production of unprecedented quantities of digital data, the virtual world got Big. The prospect of our own technological age is now tipping points and system failures that threaten sudden catastrophe. Experts, yes, but what happens when a politics far outside the boundaries of the Old Media and the Old Discourse—including what threatens to become Old Democracy—emerges?

During the age of high technology, media could be left to their own. Signals, senders, receivers, and noise constituted an engineering schema that could be bought, regulated, and directed by the relatively few for advertising to, informing, and entertaining the many. The media was both an institution and a fantasy of power: a towering professional enclave that sent signals to the receivers of a polis of citizens, couch potatoes, airport-bound travelers, and runners on treadmills.

But today “the media” has no towering centers: Media are on wrists, our hearts,  our streets, and in space. The center of media production is no longer New York, Hollywood, or the editorial room at the local newspaper, but Facebook and would-be Facebooks (Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, and so on).  But these new media types don’t edit. Their only norm is unregulated use for the sake of unlimited profit. And so a form of parallel meme-processing is the underbelly of what once was decried as “merely the news” by thinkers from Nietzsche to Neil Postman.

During the age of high technology the academic study of media developed its own high towers and professional enclaves: communications; radio, film, and television; cinema.  It also included courses from journalism, speech communication, economics, business, and literature. Each operated on its own frequency. Technology studies, meanwhile, built an edifice (rather plain and drab at first, until a Gothic renovation by a Frenchman, Bruno Latour, with a penchant for networks, actants, and jokes). If the age of high technology yielded a change in the categories, such that agency was distributed and binaries upended (a “general cyborg condition,” as Donna Haraway put it), then what does the fast-advancing Digital Era call for? What philosophy will grasp this history?

A chorus on the Left decries the “fading of fact,” as though we had not attached media and rhetoric to the disappearance of fact for half a century—or since Plato. How can our self-proclaimed sophisticates have failed to see this continent of intellectual energy emerging outside their media, yet on the platforms those media share? How can those trained to think of Enlightenment as having the darkest of sides, a necessary backlash in its very heart, be so naively surprised by this predictable development?

And, so, on this inauguration day, we dedicate this platform to finding those positions, to develop the techniques, to find the pressure-points in our media and rhetoric to make sense of our new conditions, technological and political, and to articulate commonalities and goals.

It’s therefore time we collect and meet in a common, contested, conflicted, complex field that we variously call research, criticism,  scholarship, philosophy, or science. Let us inaugurate a collective, a collective that might form a community, but that cannot and should not be an academic “discipline,” inasmuch as it is academic but undisciplined thinking that we need.

It’s time to collect, and to be collected. Let us be philosophical, whimsical, constructive, critical, and confused. But let us collect, and be collected. Let us write proverbs, poetry, commentary, essays, explorations, and maybe even code. But let us collect, and be collected.  Let us listen, learn, make notes, draw connections, and consider diagrams. But let us collect, and be collected, with ecumenical means in search of effective voice.

We—this “We,” too, is a complex field—invite a world of scholars, computer scientists, thinkers, programmers, poets, and priests to join us. This platform is a position, but a position that will change through collection and collation. We will make a database and channel of what is to be done. And that must remain an open question, our question, for as long as we have energy and affordance to answer to it.

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Apple’s Fight with the FBI: A Follow Up

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

In the end, the Apple-FBI dispute was solved when the FBI cracked Apple’s security—without assistance. This is great for the FBI, but terrible for Apple, which now has, as the New York Times reports, an image problem. “Apple is a business, and it has to earn the trust of its customers,” says one security company executive in the Times. “It needs to be perceived as having something that can fix this vulnerability as soon as possible.”

In taking on the FBI in the San Bernardino case, Apple, it seems, had hoped to create the perception of an absolute commitment to security. Creating an iPhone that not even the state could crack was important to Apple’s image in a post-Snowden era. No doubt Apple must have marketing data that suggests as much.

But now, everybody knows Apple’s “security” can be breached, with or without the help of Apple’s engineers. If the FBI had deliberately picked a public fight with Apple (which nothing suggests they did), it could hardly have orchestrated a better response to Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the San Bernardino investigation: The FBI got what it wanted while undermining the very claim on which Apple staked its case in the court of public opinion, leaving Apple frantically trying to figure out how they did it.

Of course, as the security executive says, Apple is a business. Still, in an age of complaints about  corporate profits taking precedence over the needs of civic life, I continue to be mystified by Apple’s stance, which—whatever the company’s claims—makes sense only as a strategy to maintain or further maximize its profits. In this case, Apple has shown little regard for that which the relative security of a society actually depends: legitimate forensic work, due process, and the state’s (yes, the state’s, which, unlike corporations or private security firms, is publicly accountable) capacity to gauge future threats and reasonably intervene within the confines of the law. Yet “security” is to Apple a marketing problem, not a civic problem.

As I stated in my earlier, longer, and admittedly more thoughtful post about this matter, I think that Apple could have cooperated in this particular case, as they had done in past cases, with relatively little harm to the company’s reputation and with real forensic good being done. Of course, cooperation would have meant that the only wall between your iPhone and the FBI would have been the law itself, but isn’t that the whole point of liberal societies? Lex Rex—law over all, including the FBI, and including Apple’s image.

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The Public, the Private, and Apple’s Fight with the FBI

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple is resisting the FBI’s request that the company write software to help unlock the IPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the perpetrator, with Tashfeen Malik, of the massacres in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. Apple is said to worry that if it lets the FBI into Farook’s phone, it will open a global can of worms, and set a precedent for doing the same thing for less “friendly” governments. And a “back door” to individual phone data will compromise overall security, leaving phones vulnerable, in Tim Cook’s words, to “hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission.”

Since the appearance of the Snowden documents, it’s hard for many of us, at least on the level of sentiment, to root for the US government wanting access to phone data. Though the case is complex (and Apple has unlocked phones for the FBI before), the surveillance state is a remarkably frightening prospect, and even the very targeted, essentially forensic, aims of the FBI in the San Bernardino case understandably evoke worries.

But Apple’s battle with the FBI brings to mind Bob Dylan’s quip that “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We face something like the classic high-school English class choice between Orwell’s “Big Brother” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” If the FBI concerns us, Apple should, perhaps, concern us even more.

As Hannah Arendt makes clear in The Human Condition, privacy never stands alone: It always has its co-dependents—especially, the public, the political, and the social. Changes in the meaning of “privacy” mean changes in the meaning of the “public,” and the other way around. The private and the public are interlocking political concerns.

In other words, whenever you are faced with a debate about privacy, also ask what the implications of the debate’s potential outcomes are for public life. Continue reading

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Beyond the Reveal: Toward Other Hermeneutics

fitness

Part III: Toward other Hermeneutics

I want to make clear here that I believe we need to keep pushing for new research—new policies and practices that help ensure just algorithmic processes at work inside our infrastructures. (See posts one and two of “Beyond the Reveal.”) If our search engines, pricing structures, law enforcement or trade practices depend on or enact unlawful, unethical, or unjust algorithmic processes, we need to have ways of stopping them. We need accountability for these processes, and in some cases that will also mean we need transparency.

But, as urban studies scholar Dietmar Offenhuber points out in Accountability Technologies, accountability isn’t inextricably linked to transparency. In fact, some forms of revelation about opaque processes may do more harm than good to the public. If we make information access a priority over “answerability and enforcement” when it comes to just algorithmic infrastructures, Offenhuber warns, we may not achieve our goals.

So there may be times when “opening the box” might not be the best path to dealing with the possibility of unjust systems. And it is almost certainly the case that our black box metaphors aren’t helping us much in research or advocacy when it comes to charting alternatives.

In my own collaborative work on a Facebook user study, my co-authors and I focused primarily on a question directed to users: “Did you know there’s a black box here, and what do you think it’s doing?” The results of this study have set us on a path to at least learning more about how people make sense of these experiences. But in some ways, our work stands to get stuck on the “reveal,” the first encounter with the existence of a black box. Such reveals are appealing for scholars, artists, and activists—we sometimes like nothing better than to pull back a curtain. But  because of our collective habit of establishing new systems to extricate ourselves from old ones, that reveal can set us on a path away from deliberative and deliberate shared social spaces that support our fullest goals for human flourishing.

I confess that at this point, I bring more cautions about black box hermeneutics than I bring alternatives. I’ll conclude this post by at least pointing to a path forward and demonstrating one possible angle of approach.

My critique of black box metaphors so far leads me to the following questions about our work with technologies:

  1. How else might we deal with the unknown, the obscured or opaque besides “revealing” it?
  2. Do we have to think of ourselves as outside a system in order to find agency in relation to that system?
  3. Can interface serve to facilitate an experience that is more than cognitive, and a consciousness not ordered by the computational?

As Beth Novwiskie pointed out in a response to this post in lecture form, we already have at least one rich set of practices for addressing these questions: that of interpretive archival research. Are not the processes by which a corpus of documents come to exist in an archive as opaque as any internet search ranking algorithm? Isn’t part of the scholar’s job to account for that process as she interprets the texts, establishing the meaning of such texts in light of their corporeal life? And aren’t multiple sensoria at work in such a process, only some of which are anticipated by the systems of storage and retrieval at hand? Understood as “paper machines” and technologies in their own right, certainly the histories of how scholars and readers built their lives around epistles, chapbooks, encyclopedias, and libraries have much to offer our struggles to live with unknown algorithms.

We might also, however, look to the realms of art, design, and play for some productive alternatives. Take for example, the latest black box to take techno-consumption by storm—Apple’s iWatch. This object’s use is almost certainly headed in the direction of integration into users’ lives as a facilitator of new daily routines and systems, especially by the quantified self set. Other writers on this blog have already helpfully set the new box in the context of its precedent in meditative practices or contemporary tech labor. But as we work to understand how the new systems involve us in new, opaque processes, a glance at some more intentionally opaque neighbors might be of help. In my next post, I’ll set a few recent objects and experiences next to the iWatch for comparison for how they invite distinct incorporation into the rhythms of daily attention, thought and action.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: A Metaphor’s Effect

future

In my last post, I described how the black box emerges historically with the extrication of (at least some) laborers from the machines of industrial labor. The cost of this move is that the laborer, now outside the machine as an operator, must herself operate as black box. The interface between the laborer and machine becomes central to this new relationship, especially as managers and technologists focus on how constantly to reconfigure the interactions between and among human-machine pairs.

In recounting this history of a metaphor, I aim toward a critique of how black box metaphors are used today to describe opaque technological processes. And I don’t mean to suggest that any use of a black box metaphor inadvertently invokes a whole history of labor and interface. But I do think we can surmise from this history a dominant narrative that draws heavily from the black box metaphor:

  1. As an “infrastructural inversion,” the black box metaphor creates the possibility, for some, of imagining themselves as outside a system that formerly may not have been visible at all.
  2. Where and when this happens, interfaces emerge and gain prominence as a point of mediation with the formerly invisible system.
  3. Design for interaction between the user and the “black boxed” process tends to imagine the human mind as another form of black box, emphasizing cognitive over manual processes.
  4. The new system comprised by this user and her machine then starts the process anew—the user/worker has been incorporated into a new system that she may not actually see unless naming a new “black box.”
  5. This narrative will also depend on the exclusion of some who need to “stay behind” and keep the system going within the “old” forms of labor.

To describe a process as a black box thus potentially sets in motion a whole series of implications for sensation, knowledge, labor, and social organization.

Let’s look at this, for example, in light of new attention brought to the role of algorithms in Facebook use (an effort in which I have been involved as a scholar). How does describing the Facebook algorithm as a black box set us on a particular narrative of analysis and research?

Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.

But maybe this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system. The black box metaphor suggests that such providers will also need to design for the user who tweaks. (It may even be that designing for the tweaker may be more profitable than designing a “perfect feed.”) As in previous ergonomic problems, this process will begin to imagine and construct a particular kind of mind, a particular kind of body, a particular kind of user. Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.

Maybe, by structuring our engagement with the experience of Facebook’s opaque processes through the black box metaphor, we’ve set ourselves up to construct a new black box, and ignored the ways in which our relations to others, within and without the present system, have been changed by our newfound awareness.

I’m struck here, for example, by how well the narrative of the black box I’ve described here fits a number of stories we’ve lived and heard regarding privacy and networked media. Whether it’s the Snowden revelations or Facebook’s unauthorized emotion study, the story often plays out the same way for many of us. We realize or remember anew just how much work we’re providing some entity within a current system, and then proceed to either alter our use patterns or abstain altogether from that system in order to remain outside that work. Debates ensue over who is complicit and who is not, and with the exception of those working in a more organized fashion to enact prosecution or new laws, most of us are stuck in an “opt-in or opt-out” scenario that never goes anywhere.

It’s likely only a matter of time before the market for more subtle responses than “opt-in or opt-out” is met with a new set of black box systems. One can imagine, for example, a range of services: free email if you submit to full surveillance and data-trolling, modestly-priced email if you submit your data for use via an anonymizer, or premium email at high costs that removes you from all data-harvesting.

Perhaps, even as we remain justifiably critical of the unseen and unknown software processes that govern and regulate a growing number of shared spaces and subjectivities, we might search for another way to live with these processes than hitting the escape button and entering a higher-level routine. More on that in my next posts.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes

brain

Part One: Histories

Amidst growing attention and calls to action on the role of algorithms in our everyday lives, one idea recurs: “opening the black box.” In such analyses, the “black box” describes a process that happens in secret, for which we only know the inputs and outputs, but not the steps that takes place between. How might this metaphor be structuring our approach to thinking about algorithms and their place in our lives, long before we get to the work of accounting for the social and political work of algorithmic systems?

In this first of four posts, I’ll begin an answer to this question by looking at the history of the “black box” as a way of modeling cognitive or computational processes. In the second post, I’ll offer some cautionary words about reliance on this metaphor in the important work of ensuring just systems. Finally, in the last two posts I’ll look to some alternatives to black-box-opening in our relationships to opaque technological processes.

The black box metaphor began to acquire its shape during changes in labor that took place after World War II. Whereas managers before the war had largely treated work as a series of learned behaviors, the designers of work and work environments after the war began to think less about suiting the laborer to the work, and more about suiting the work to the laborer.

More than a mere Taylorist repeater of actions, the new ideal worker of post-war Human Factors research not only acts but perceives, acting according to learned evaluative routines that correlate sensation to action. The ideal post-war laborer is not a person of a particular physical build, conditioned to perform particular motions, but rather a universalized collection of possible movements, curated and selected according to mathematical principles. Human Factors research turned the human laborer into a control for a system, a proper medium for the transfer and transformation of input.

Key to this new approach was the influence of information theory on approaches to both computing and psychology. In computing, the understanding of signals as information paved the way for a mathematics of binary code, in which the course of electrons through physical gates and switches could translate into algorithms and mathematical functions. In psychology, those who had grown weary of behaviorism’s stimulus-response approaches to explaining and modifying human action saw in Claude Shannon’s approach echoes of the structure of the human brain. These early cognitive scientists saw in thought a kind of algorithm performing consistent functions on ever-changing sense data, zipping through the brain’s neural pathways the way electrons travel through the copper of a computer’s circuits.

And so a new understanding of the operator’s actions emerged alongside a new understanding of a computer’s routines. The first software emerged at the same time that psychologists began to analyze human thought and memory as a collection of mathematical functions performed on sense data. In other words, the black box as we know it emerged as a pair of metaphors: one to describe the computational machine, and one to describe the human mind.

Before these developments, systems of manufacture and control were designed to include the human body as a “control” in the operational sense. The control in any function is a limiter, providing brackets to the acceptable inputs and possible outputs. If a laborer slows done his or her work, the entire process slows. In the new post-Taylorist work flow, in contrast, the control is performed by a computational process, rather than a human embodied one. The new computers allowed for the programming of internal black boxes within the machine itself. Information from multiple sensors, as it coursed through these machines, would be analyzed and checked for deviation. The result produced from such analyses would set certain mechanical processes in motion in order to produce a desired end.

Although the worker has been replaced by an algorithm as the system control, she or he is not missing from the scene entirely. Rather, the human operator now performs the function of a control for the control. The machine affords indications to the human operator of the proper functioning of the software-based controller. Deviations from designated functions trigger new action from the human operator, according to more advanced algorithms than required of previous industrial operators. This new human operator must synthesize multiple forms of data—visual, aural, even symbolic data—and then decide on a proper course of action, of input to the machine, according to a trained set of decision-making criteria and standards.

Though operating from more of a distance in relation to the phenomena of mechanical system function, this new, error-detecting human operator plays no less critical a role. His or her mental routines must be just as carefully scripted and trained as the Taylorist laborer’s physical actions, and often via emerging understanding of the brain as a computer.

The new operator is thus less of the system even though he or she is made more in the image of that system. Formerly one organ within a mechanical body, he now is modeled as a discrete body himself, tethered to another, mechanical body, and modeled after that body, for the purposes of safe and consistent system flow. The machine and the operator mirror one another, with the interface as their crucial site of division, the glass of reflection and action.

These changes also effect sociality through the creation of a new entity to include all agents. This new entity—the organization—invites design at a complex level that accounts for multiple machinic and human actors. Where each machine used to come with an operator as controller, the two treated as a single entity, the post war machine comes with an operator as agent, who is necessary to the proper functioning of the machine. But the human operator is separate from the machine. For large-scale projects, this doubling results in increased complexity, which the organization approaches as yet another information processing problem.

The organization, this plurality of entities, is coincident with the emergence of the interface. Machines and operators without true interfaces—as in Taylorist scenarios—are not collective in that they are not social. They are merely aggregate. Thus some of the biggest moves in computing research toward the latter half of the twentieth century were those that simultaneously addressed the interface between one operator and her machine, and the structure of all machine-human pairs, organized together into one system—one black box process.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Algorithms Who Art in Apps, Hallowed Be Thy Code

 

If you want to understand the status of algorithms in our collective imagination, Ian Bogost, author, game designer, and professor of media studies and interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology,  proposes the following exercise in his recent essay in the Atlantic: “The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with ‘God’ and ask yourself if the sense changes any?”

If Bogost is right, then more often than not you will find the sense of the statement entirely unchanged. This is because, in his view, “Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.” Bogost goes on to say that this development is part of a “larger trend” whereby “Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites.” Science and technology, he fears, “have turned into a new type of theology.”

It’s not the algorithms themselves that Bogost is targeting; it is how we think and talk about them that worries him. In fact, Bogost’s chief concern is that how we talk about algorithms is impeding our ability to think clearly about them and their place in society. This is where the god-talk comes in. Bogost deploys a variety of religious categories to characterize the present fascination with algorithms.

Bogost believes “algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.” Later on he writes, “the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action.” Additionally, “Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially ‘big data,’ whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity.” “We don’t want an algorithmic culture,” he concludes, “especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate theocracy.” The analogy to religious belief is a compelling rhetorical move. It vividly illuminates Bogost’s key claim: the idea of an “algorithm” now functions as a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals.

He prepares the ground for this claim by reminding us of earlier technological metaphors that ultimately obscured important realities. The metaphor of the mind as computer, for example, “reaches the rank of religious fervor when we choose to believe, as some do, that we can simulate cognition through computation and achieve the singularity.” Similarly, the metaphor of the machine, which is really to say the abstract idea of a machine, yields a profound misunderstanding of mechanical automation in the realm of manufacturing. Bogost reminds us that bringing consumer goods to market still “requires intricate, repetitive human effort.” Manufacturing, as it turns out, “isn’t as machinic nor as automated as we think it is.”

Likewise, the idea of an algorithm, as it is bandied about in public discourse, is a metaphorical abstraction that obscures how various digital and analog components, including human action, come together to produce the effects we carelessly attribute to algorithms. Near the end of the essay, Bogost sums it up this way:

The algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it to wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like ‘algorithm’ have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.

But why does any of this matter? It matters, Bogost insists, because this way of thinking blinds us in two important ways. First, our sloppy shorthand “allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable,” allowing the perpetual deflection of responsibility for the consequences of technological change. The apotheosis of the algorithm encourages what I’ve elsewhere labeled a Borg Complex, an attitude toward technological change aptly summed by the phrase, “Resistance is futile.” It’s a way of thinking about technology that forecloses the possibility of thinking about and taking responsibility for our choices regarding the development, adoption, and implementation of new technologies. Secondly, Bogost rightly fears that this “theological” way of thinking about algorithms may cause us to forget that computational systems can offer only one, necessarily limited perspective on the world. “The first error,” Bogost writes, “turns computers into gods, the second treats their outputs as scripture.”

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Bogost is right to challenge the quasi-religious reverence for technology. It is, as he fears, an impediment to clear thinking. And he is not the only one calling for the secularization of our technological endeavors. Computer scientist and virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has spoken at length about the introduction of religious thinking into the field of AI. In a recent interview, he expressed his concerns this way:

There is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been going on for some decades now:  A core of technically proficient, digitally minded people reject traditional religions and superstitions. They set out to come up with a better, more scientific framework. But then they re-create versions of those old religious superstitions! In the technical world these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.

While Lanier’s concerns are similar to Bogost’s,  Lanier’s use of religious categories is more concrete. Bogost deploys a religious frame as a rhetorical device, while Lanier’s uses it more directly to critique the religiously inflected expressions of a desire for transcendence among denizens of the tech world themselves.

But such expressions are hardly new. Nor are they limited to the realm of AI. In The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, the distinguished historian of technology David Noble made the argument that “modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.”

Noble elaborates:

This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.

Looking also at the space program, atomic weapons, and biotechnology, Noble devoted a chapter of his book to history of artificial intelligence,  arguing that AI research had often been inspired by a curious fixation on the achievement of god-like, disembodied intelligence as a step toward personal immortality. Many of the sentiments and aspirations that Noble identifies in figures as diverse as George Boole, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Edward Fredkin, Marvin Minsky, Daniel Crevier, Danny Hillis, and Hans Moravec—all of them influential theorists and practitioners in the development of AI—find their consummation in the Singularity movement. The movement envisions a time—2045 is frequently suggested—when the distinction between machines and humans will blur and humanity as we know it will be eclipsed. Before Ray Kurzweil, the chief prophet of the Singularity, wrote about “spiritual machines,” Noble had astutely anticipated how the trajectories of AI, Internet, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life research were all converging  in the age-old quest for the immortality.  Noble, who died quite suddenly in 2010, must have read the work of Kurzweil and company as a remarkable validation of his thesis in The Religion of Technology.

Interestingly, the sentiments that Noble documents alternate between the heady thrill of creating non-human Minds and non-human Life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the equally heady thrill of pursuing the possibility of radical life-extension and even immortality. Frankenstein meets Faust we might say. Humanity plays god in order to bestow god’s gifts on itself.

Noble cites one Artificial Life researcher who explains, “I feel like God; in fact, I am God to the universes I create,” and another who declares, “Technology will soon enable human beings to change into something else altogether [and thereby] escape the human condition.” Ultimately, these two aspirations come together into a grand techno-eschatological vision, expressed here by robotics specialist Hans Moravec:

Our speculation ends in a supercivilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outward from the sun, converting non-life into mind …. This process might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity … the thinking universe … an eternity of pure cerebration.

Little wonder that Pamela McCorduck, who has been chronicling the progress of AI since the early 1980s, can say, “The enterprise is a god-like one. The invention—the finding within—of gods represents our reach for the transcendent.” And, lest we forget where we began, a more earth-bound, but no less eschatological hope was expressed by Edward Fredkin in his MIT and Stanford courses on “saving the world.” He hoped for a “global algorithm” that “would lead to peace and harmony.”

I would suggest that similar aspirations are expressed by those who believe that Big Data will yield a God’s-eye view of human society, providing wisdom and guidance that is otherwise inaccessible to ordinary human forms of knowing and thinking.

Perhaps this should not be altogether surprising. As the old saying has it, the Grand Canyon wasn’t formed by someone dragging a stick. This is just a way of saying that causes must be commensurate with the effects they produce. Grand technological projects such as space flight, the harnessing of atomic energy, and the pursuit of artificial intelligence are massive undertakings requiring stupendous investments of time, labor, and resources. What motives are sufficient to generate those sorts of expenditures? You’ll need something more than whim, to put it mildly. You may need something akin to religious devotion. Would we have attempted to put a man on the moon without the ideological spur of the Cold War, which cast space exploration as a field of civilizational battle for survival? Consider, as a more recent example, what drives Elon Musk’s pursuit of interplanetary space travel.

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Without diminishing the criticisms offered by either Bogost or Lanier, Noble’s historical investigation into the roots of divinized or theologized technology reminds us that the roots of the disorder run much deeper than we might initially imagine. Noble’s own genealogy traces the origin of the religion of technology to the turn of the first millennium. It emerges out of a volatile mix of millenarian dreams, apocalyptic fervor, mechanical innovation, and monastic piety. Its evolution proceeds apace through the Renaissance, finding one of its most ardent prophets in the Elizabethan statesman and thinker Francis Bacon. Even through the Enlightenment, the religion of technology flourished. In fact, the Enlightenment may have been a decisive moment in the history of the religion of technology.

In his Atlantic essay, Bogost frames the emergence of techno-religious thinking as a departure from the ideals of reason and science associated with the Enlightenment. This is not altogether incidental to Bogost’s argument. When he talks about the “theological” thinking that suffuses our understanding of algorithms, Bogost is not working with a neutral, value-free, all-purpose definition of what constitutes the religious or the theological; there’s almost certainly no such definition available. Rather, he works (like Lanier and many others) with an Enlightenment understanding of Religion that characterizes it as Reason’s Other–as something a-rational if not altogether irrational, superstitious, authoritarian, and pernicious.

Noble’s work complicates this picture. The Enlightenment did not, as it turns out, vanquish Religion, driving it far from the pure realms of Science and Technology. In fact, to the degree that the radical Enlightenment’s assault on religious faith was successful, it empowered the religion of technology. To put it another way, the Enlightenment—and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here—did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace, but instead renamed them as, respectively, Progress, Utopia, and Technology. To borrow a phrase, the Enlightenment immanentized the eschaton. If heaven had been understood as a transcendent goal achieved with the aid of divine grace within the context of the providentially ordered unfolding of human history, it became a utopian vision, a heaven on earth, achieved by the ministrations science and technology within the context of progress, an inexorable force driving history toward its utopian consummation.

As historian Leo Marx has put it, the West’s “dominant belief system turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.” Indeed, the further Western culture proceeded down the path of secularization as it is traditionally understood, the more emphasis was placed on technology as the principle agent of change. Marx observed that by the late nineteenth century, “the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of—as all but constituting—the progress of society.”

When the prophets of the Singularity preach the gospel of transhumanism, they are not abandoning the Enlightenment heritage; they are simply embracing its fullest expression. As Bruno Latour has argued, modernity has never perfectly sustained the purity of the distinctions that were the self-declared hallmarks of its own superiority. Modernity characterized itself as a movement of secularization and differentiation, what Latour, with not a little irony, labels processes of purification. Science, politics, law, religion, ethics—these are all sharply distinguished and segregated from one another in the modern world, distinguishing it from the primitive pre-modern world. But it turns out that these spheres of human experience stubbornly resist the neat distinctions modernity sought to impose. Hybridization unfolds alongside purification, and Noble’s work has demonstrated how the lines between technology, sometimes reckoned the most coldly rational of human projects, and religion are anything but clear.

But not just any religion. Earlier I suggested that when Bogost characterizes our thinking about algorithms as “theological,” he is almost certainly assuming a particular kind of theology. This is why it is important to classify the religion of technology more precisely as a Christian heresy. It is in Western Christianity that Noble found the roots of the religion of technology, and it is in the context of post–Christian world that it currently flourishes.

It is Christian insofar as its aspirations are like those nurtured by the Christian faith, such as the conscious persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Noble cites Daniel Crevier, who, referring to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” suggests that “religious beliefs, and particularly the belief in survival after death, are not incompatible with the idea that the mind emerges from physical phenomena.” This is noted on the way to explaining that a machine-based material support could be found for the mind, which leads Noble to quip, “Christ was resurrected in a new body; why not a machine?” Reporting on his study of the famed Santa Fe Institute in Los Alamos, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich writes, “Judeo-Christian stories of the creation and maintenance of the world haunted my informants’ discussions of why computers might be ‘worlds’ or ‘universes,’ …. a tradition that includes stories from the Old and New Testaments (stories of creation and salvation).”

However heretically it departs from traditional Christian teaching regarding the givenness of human nature, the moral dimensions of humanity’s brokenness, the gracious agency of God in the salvation of humanity, the religion of technology can be conceived as an imaginative account of how God might fulfill purposes that were initially revealed in incidental, pre-scientific garb. In other words, we might frame the religion of technology not so much as a Christian heresy, but rather as (post–)Christian fan-fiction, an elaborate imagining of how the hopes articulated by the Christian faith will materialize as a consequence of human ingenuity in the absence of divine action.

Near the end of The Religion of Technology, David Noble warns of the dangers posed by a blind faith in technology. “Lost in their essentially religious reveries,” he writes, “the technologists themselves have been blind to, or at least have displayed blithe disregard for, the harmful ends toward which their work has been directed.” Citing another historian of technology, Noble adds, “The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.” I suspect that neither Bogost nor Lanier would disagree with Noble on this score.

This post originally appeared at The Frailest Thing.

Michael Sacasas is a doctoral candidate in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @frailestthing. 

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