Los Angeles Review of Books Digital Editions – The Digital Revolution: Debating the Promise and Perils of the Internet and Algorithmic Lives in the Last Years of the Obama Administration
PLENTY OF RAPTUROUS CLAIMS have been made about the internet as an agent of democratization and innovation. Many more claims have been made about its Pandora-like perils, and how these herald our individual and collective downfalls, whether by taking away our jobs, exposing our darkest selves, or turning us into mindless automata disappearing into “click-bait rabbit holes.” The internet has allegedly enabled a new kind of populism, as well as political gridlock and the infelicities of the 2016 US presidential election. Clearly, it is the stuff of paradox — and possibly, as historians like Yuval Harari and others suggest, of Faustian bargains.
Like the commercial and industrial revolutions before it, this particular revolution opens up social spaces that alter how we affiliate and think. On the plus side, we can now communicate and connect with others like never before — not just with the approximately 150 embodied others whom anthropologists contend most people knew in the past, but with thousands and indeed millions of digital others. But it’s much harder to trust them, and to trust “information.” It is easier to “hide” — and also harder, which, depending on where you sit, or lurk, is a good thing, or not. Surveillance is more total, even while it’s more self-inflicted — and pleasurable; we love Netflix “knowing” us so well, and so we happily expose more of ourselves to get more of what we want. This is part of the Faustian bargain.
The LARB Science and Technology section has been capturing scholarly and popular views on the digital revolution in a series of essays and reviews that insist on historical perspective — on the longue durée. They were all written in the last years of the Obama administration, before the Trump one; they were first published on the LARB website and are now collected in this volume. They express what experts in their respective fields got right — and what they may have gotten wrong. They examine the stakes. In some cases, our contributors dismantle their colleagues’ arguments, especially when those arguments express a certain knee-jerk zeitgeist (e.g., the digital age is deskilling us or making us stupid). Internet philosopher David Weinberger of Harvard University, for instance, takes on the argument that the net is turning us into passive knowers. On the contrary, he counters, the net is transforming knowledge in ways that reveal the flaws inherent in past ways of knowing. “Networked-knowing” is, in his view, a positive phenomenon — it replaces the manufactured or “curated cohesion” of past knowledge regimes. As for the claim that the net reinforces echo chambers (and false news), he plays the contrarian again, countering that those chambers are now, thanks to the net, shot through with holes that anyone, including a teenager trapped in an otherwise airless cult, can follow just by clicking her finger.
The fact that no echo chamber is impervious to “information” from the outside certainly seems like a good thing. The fact that there’s quite possibly no algorithm or security system that isn’t potentially “leaky” or hackable is perhaps a less good thing, but part of the same digital coin. Our purported doom and salvation lie in the same places.
In an essay he wrote for LARB in 2014 and included here (see “The Manipulators”), journalist and blogger Nicholas Carr, author of several influential books on technology and culture, claimed that we may look back on 2014 as the year the internet “began to grow up” and the public was called upon to guide the technology rather than the other way around. He made this claim seven years after the launch of the iPhone and “tech boom” of 2007, as identified by journalist Thomas Friedman — when Facebook, Twitter, and “the cloud” took off, and when, in Friedman’s opinion, connectivity and computing got so fast and cheap and ubiquitous that they vastly outpaced social institutions. Writing in 2014, Carr thought that “we” would concertedly rebel against so-called corporate surveillance creep, and against being lab rats — as in the OkCupid and Facebook social engineering experiments of that year, which he addresses in his article here.
Clearly, we haven’t rebelled. Or, to use Carr’s metaphor, the internet has not “grown up” — and neither have we, its creators and users. On the contrary, “it” has only gotten better and more efficient at pressing our buttons.
In his 2016 book The Master Algorithm, computer scientist Pedro Domingos emphasizes that, in the digital age, “growing up” means knowing our algorithms. A responsible citizen is, in other words, a digitally savvy citizen. But, as sociologist Michael S. Evans counters in his review entitled “Algorithms: The Future that Already Happened,” we can already be managed — tracked, nudged, fixed — faster than we can respond. In addition, being technically knowledgeable simply isn’t expedient in our daily lives. Nor is “obfuscating” our digital tracks (in this regard, see Evan Selinger’s review: “Internet Privacy: Stepping Up Our Self-Defense Game”). What we really need, quips Michael Evans, is a “data reset button” — so that we can start over every few years on a digitally fresh playing field in the manner of a five-year plan or Biblical Jubilee.
A pause button might be more feasible if equally unlikely. But Evans has a point even if he is half-joking. And, of course, that’s another paradox of sorts. In the digital world, there is no absolute forgetting — at least for now, even as, on an individual level, we are forgetting more and more in a process dubbed “cognitive offloading”; the internet is of course not just our aide-mémoire, but transforming our memories and how we think. Is it transforming us even more profoundly than the commercial and industrial revolutions did?
An impossible question perhaps, but in his illuminating essay entitled “Algorithmic Life,” Berkeley historian and sociologist of science Massimo Mazzotti suggests, like Carr above, that we’re at a threshold moment. As happened with the word “technology” in the middle of the 20th century, our uses of the word “algorithm” are capturing new and unexpected processes of change. He explains how algorithms naturalize ways of doing things. They naturalize specific cultures. They’re tools for doing, as he puts it, and tools for thinking. For these reasons he calls them “emblematic artifacts” that, like the clock and computer before them, shape how we understand ourselves and act within the world. They’re like “powerful rhetorical arguments” in their ability to create and normalize social worlds. For Mazzotti, being a grown-up means understanding their “sociotechnical ecologies” — even as, thanks to innovations in machine learning, they increasingly defy our ability to comprehend them. It means asking questions about “the process,” and understanding whose worlds they’re making and whose biases they’re reinforcing.
In other essays and reviews, contributors take on particular aspects of the digital revolution. Literary scholar Dennis Tenen of Columbia University addresses the voluntary surveillance paradox alluded to earlier with respect to Netflix — but he uses the prison context as a point of departure. Legal scholar Frank Pasquale, author of the important 2015 book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, denounces the “false promise” of “disruption.”
In a new afterword to TechGnosis, published with LARB in 2015 under the book’s subtitle “Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information,” the genre-defying writer Erik Davis reflects on “the contemporary urge to ‘gamify’ our social and technological interactions,” and deconstructs net-enabled “enchantment” cum “weirdness.” Berkeley information scholar Geoff Nunberg addresses Nicholas Carr’s latest book Utopia Is Creepy (a compilation of his essays and 2005–2015 blog posts) to plumb the technological uncanny, but insists it’s in fact banal. He describes how, in 1964, he took a year off from college and worked in the General Motors Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair escorting VIP guests on the Futurama II ride. Humans were stick figures in the new technological corporate-sponsored imaginary. For Nunberg, we’re those stick figures — even as we’re ostensibly being ever more empowered and enhanced. “What’s most striking,” about the sensor-saturated world of the future, he observes, isn’t just the creepiness of new devices that watch and sense our every move, but “how trivial and pedestrian they can be.” The future isn’t more exciting, just more “efficient,” he concludes.
Professor of Culture and Media at The New School, McKenzie Wark addresses the artist’s escalating practical dilemmas in an age when new digitally enabled entities are taking an growing cut of the creative pie — at the very moment, in other words, when unsponsored against-the-grain creativity seems most important.
In separate essays, both the aforementioned legal scholar Frank Pasquale and philosopher Evan Selinger address automation’s likely effect on jobs; Pasquale expertly dismantles some of the hype around a jobless future and Selinger thoughtfully considers, by way of a review of Martin Ford’s 2015 book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, whether a techno-optimistic “bubble” is indeed, as claimed by Ford, impeding smart discussion of the perils of automation.
Contributor Eli MacKinnon uses the occasion of the republication of Andrew Hodges’s biography of Alan Turing to look back on the “jailbreaking” life that spawned the digital revolution. Another contributor, Julie Carpenter, asks what’s “fair” in war. A human-robot interaction researcher, she looks to both past and future, examining how age-old moral dilemmas are amplified when fleshly bodies meet digital realities in 21st-century militarized spaces.
Collectively, these essays thus address the digital revolution from a variety of disciplinary and ideological perspectives. They extol and debunk. They query, rather than take for granted, terms like “disruption,” “echo chambers,” “algorithm,” “efficiency,” “gamification,” “threshold moment,” and even old standbys like the words “revolution” and “technology” — all of them the currency of the digital age. They make legible the entanglement of societal values with technologies, as well as the eternal return of the same motifs (progress, utopia and dystopia, emancipation, millenarianism, or the term Faustian bargain referenced earlier). They look to historical antecedents, in other words, for what seem like de novo developments. Perhaps most importantly, they also, at least in some cases, dare to think about how we might, while we still can, go about shaping our digital futures. To close with Mazzotti’s point at the end of his essay: algorithms are now “the doors onto our futures”; we should at least be self-conscious about which ones we’re opening.
Michele Pridmore-Brown is a scholar with the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at UC Berkeley and the Science Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Julien Crockett is the associate editor for both the Science and Law sections at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and a writer based in Los Angeles.
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