Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, May 06, 2013

Jeron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? via Andrew Keen

In this clip, Andrew Keen interviews Jaron Lanier about his new book Who Owns the Future. The book hasn't arrived yet at my doorstep, but I'm sure to say more about it once it does. In his last book, You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier made the obvious and obviously indispensable point that artificial intelligence does not exist anywhere in the world, but that the expectation and attribution of artificial intelligence does exist in ways that generate real effects in the world nonetheless.

I once joked that "computer science in its theological guise aims less at the ultimate creation of artificial intelligence than in the ubiquitous imposition of artificial imbecillence." Like most of my jokes it is deadly earnest and this attitude has always made me feel Lanier was a kindred spirit, whatever our many differences on particular questions. In the fin de siecle that burst the bubble of irrational exuberance of the dot.bomb Lanier already warned in his Half a Manifesto about the pernicious effect of attributing "intelligence" to inept programs like autocorrect functions, which both overestimates the facility of a bad program to its detriment but denigrates the actual intelligence of the humans who use the program (the most obvious but possibly least problematic effect of which is the way the default setting of autocorrect programs automatically substitute their terrible pseudo-judgments for the real judgments of humans).

In an editorial written on the occasion of the publication of his earlier book, Lanier expanded many of the themes from the manifesto, connecting such disparate phenomena as the pretense that the analysis of a word cloud visually representing the numerical recurrence of particular words in a speech can substitute for a rhetorical interpretation of the speech, as the construction of a consumer's "taste" from a correlation of a particular buying history with the buying histories of other consumers, as the algorithmic determination of the profoundly influential credit score that has come to shape as much as national status does the field of agency available to the contemporary citizen-subject. To this one can add endless examples, from a pedagogy of "teaching to the test" replacing a pedagogy devoted to the inculcation of habits of criticism and conviviality, to an exploration of the world circumscribed by "get directions" on google maps or the barking injunctions of the GPS, or to the subjection of new songs and screenplays to statistical analyses of prior hits to determine whether they receive investment or distribution.

Although Lanier insists that technologies always embed "services" and that we are always better off thinking of them explicitly in terms of the services they are providing or not, well or not, at what costs compared to not, it seems to me that this was always the least objectionable intervention entailed by his critique -- and Lanier's insistent congeniality does enable him to inhabit the profitable if inadequately threatening position of "loyal opposition" within the world of neoliberal futurology, a rather different position from the one inhabited by, say, Evgeny Morozov (whose critiques are, to a likeminded curmudgeon like me, admirably unvarnished, but also possibly unread even by those who read them especially by those who most need to read them as a consequence). I would be inclined to describe these technologies less as services than as fetishistic mediations between the intelligent humans who are profiled by these programs and reduced to these resulting profiles and the intelligent humans who program them or the plutocrats (and would-be plutocrats) who hire the programmers and whose highly reductive ends shape the programs. As I put the point "'Artificial Intelligence' is always an essentially fetishistic misrecognition of computer-mediated relations among intelligent humans." The discourse of "artificial intelligence" invests the program with agency the better to disavow the interested intelligence out of which the program emerges and in turn distract our attention from the way the program denigrates in turn the intelligence of profiled subject. Both the disavowal and the distraction Lanier alerts us to are classically fetishistic and function insistently in the service of reactionary political ends -- an entailment that Lanier predictably soft-pedals (in part through his reading of the aspirational techno-transcendence of futurological ideology, what he somewhat loosely calls "rapture," and what I diagnose, I hope somewhat more specifically myself as superlativity).

It seems to me that Lanier's basic case was forcefully (indeed, more forcefully) anticipated by Adorno and Horkheimer's "Culture Industry" thesis -- from a chapter in their Dialectic of Enlightenment but crucially elaborated by Adorno in many other places over the years -- in which the efforts of a plutocratic minority to ensure efficiency and profitability creates the conditions in which the aesthetic judgment of majorities is replaced with the completion of formulas, collective struggle for fulfillment is replaced with mass deferral of fulfillment as masochistic fun, and the freedom of making the feast is replaced with the liberty of selecting items from somebody else's menu.

In his new book, if this interview is a reliable indication of where he has gone, Lanier would seem to have extended his thesis. Rather than simply note that attributions of "AI" mediate, or more specifically enable by disavowing the substance of, highly interested political relationships among intelligent humans in plutocratic orders (again, obviously this is my more explicit framing of the views I think are entailed by his critique), Lanier would now seem to be pointing out the ways in which digital "open access" actually circumscribes the field of the available the better to control it and digital "free provision" of goods and services actually elicits an initial investment in what amounts to an extractive relation of predation. If I am reading Lanier correctly, he is providing a crucial corrective here to digi-democrats like Yochai Benkler who characterize the rise of digital p2p-formations as an essentially anti-industrial revolution (where "industrial" stands for concentrated investment-intensive infrastructures as rationalizations for authoritarian-centralized credentialization-and-control of information and resources), but also nicely amplifying the still underelaborated and rather impressionistic suggestions of James Boyle when he talks about the relevance of environmentalist refigurations of the politics of "culture-enclosure." It would seem that Lanier is no longer simply drawing our attention to the interested political relations mediated and disavowed through "AI"-discourse but also exposing the essentially unsustainable extractive-industrial-consumptive norms and forms through which so-called "digital democrats" are looting the archive and ritual-infrastructural affordances of democracy and culture more generally. It would also seem from some reviews of the book that Lanier conjoins this critique to something like the proposal that "people have quantifiable value and deserve to be recompensed for it." As I have put this point myself: "Celebrating non-subsidized crowdsourcing is always only an apologia for plutocracy peddled as peer-to-peer."

I do think these are very important points to make, if indeed he is making them in the book, and as I said I will have more to say about this when I read the book. I will need not least to weigh the force of his critique against who knows how many genuflections he makes to flatter the pretensions and sooth the delicate defensive feelings of his many plutocratic digitopian friends. That the digital elite are the "nicest elite you could care to meet" or some such nonsense is already offered up in this interview as a preview of coming attractions in that nauseating vein -- to which I'm sure my readership can endlessly and effortlessly offer the remedial interventions of friendly anti-gay bigots and Nazis who were kind to their pets and complacent consumers who are eating the planet to the catastrophic ruin of us all without meaning to ad nauseum. I'm sure everybody reading this already knows me for a temperamental curmudgeon. But when a critique takes on so conspicuously political a coloration there is surely a more substantial justification for forthrightness that is not just reducible to the "attitude problem" of negative nellies like me: For plutocratic minorities who are benefiting from the predation on and precarization of majorities of their peers but who feel they are entitled to more than simply having the facts of their predation and precarization pointed out to them to make them stop doing doing it -- you really must forgive me, but that attitude itself is indispensably indicative of the very plutocratic predation and violence under scrutiny and precludes its exemplars from the category of "nice people" who deserve more consideration in the first place. Not to put too fine a point on it, the attitude just demonstrates that in addition to doing the wrong thing (which everybody manages to do all too often in our lives, me obviously and serially included) you are an entitled asshole who wants to be congratulated and compensated for stopping doing the wrong thing. Why anybody wants to cater to such an attitude is quite beyond me.

Be all that as it may, by way of conclusion, I want to read a few more indications from the interview and other promotional materials associated with Lanier's new book, any of which might have to be revised with my reading of the book itself when I finally get to give it a try in earnest. In the interview, Keen declares that Lanier seems "nostalgic for the future" and Lanier seems, if a bit ambivalently, to accept this diagnosis. It seems to me that there may be a crucial connection between this retro-futural nostalgia and the very idea, affirmed by Lanier's choice of the title for his book, that "The Future" is "Own[ed]" by somebodies who may not be everybody.

That there is a retro-futurity built in to futurity is an insight that has a certain currency. My own chestnut along these lines, I suppose, is the assertion that, "To speak of 'The Future' is always to indulge in reaction. All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms." But contemporary science fiction writers like Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Charlie Stross have all made a point lately to insist on the extent to which science fictional futures are allegories or skewed or even alienated refigurations of the present that enable a critical and creative inhabitation of the present otherwise. One discerns a comparable move in Douglas Rushkoff's riff on Toffler's famous futurological gateway-drug, the notion of "future shock," in his recent Present Shock. Of course, I have repeatedly insisted that the "accelerating change" futurologists crow about masks the essential stasis of their preferred pieties, but also, more perniciously, "accelerating change... has never had any substantial reference apart from the increasing precarity produced by neoliberal looting and destabilization of domestic welfare and global economies -- often facilitated, it is true, by the exploitation of digital trading, marketing, and surveillance networks -- a precarity usually seen and experienced from the vantage of privileged people who either benefit from neoliberal destabilization or who (rightly or wrongly) identify with the beneficiaries of that destabilization." Daniel Harris has rather notoriously said of the "futuristic" as a style vernacular that it is a perverse repudiation of the quotidian present to which is attributed an amplified capacitation that is never actually on offer: doors slide sideways rather than opening normally, windows are round instead of square, art deco buildings evoke aerodynamic flight, but what is crucial to recognize is that in no case does the not-nowness of the futuristic ever really translate into a greater utility or progressivity and hence they lodge us ironically ever more deeply in nowness after all, but a nowness peddled as a newness that is vacuous (and may foreclose actual novelty, actual progressivity).

Bruce Sterling once had the protagonist of his excellent novel Distraction frenetically declare "I believe in America. I happen to believe that this is a unique society. We have a unique role in the world... We invented the future! We built it! And if they could design or market it a little better than we could, then we just invented something else more amazing yet. If it took imagination, we always had that. If it took enterprise, we always had it. If it took daring and even ruthlessness, we had it -- we not only built the atomic bomb, we used it! We're not some crowd of pious, sniveling, red-green Europeans trying to make the world safe for boutiques!" By this the character meant to insist on a rather perverse birthright but Sterling himself meant, I think, to remind us of the ruinous ideology of postwar US exceptionalism built on disavowals of Hiroshima via fantasies of energy too cheap to meter, disavowals of the toxicity and pollution of petrochemical extraction via fantasies of plastic suburban faux-abundance and frictionless traffic, disavowals of corporate-military exploitation via fantasies of progressive global development, and so on. Such a reminder manages to situate, say, the more general paradox of the presentism of futurism I elaborated in the prior paragraph into a more specific, and one has to admit rather more sinister, history.

What does it really mean for someone like Lanier to admit to a nostalgia for "The Future" when futurological ideology has always functioned in the service of the denialism of the privileged of the pain and suffering of those who enable but are excluded from privilege? To return to Lanier's title, "The Future" has always been "owned" by the few, and more to the point its ownership by them has enabled their ongoing ownership of so much more than they can deserve over the rest of us all along. What I always insist on is that we make a distinction between "Futurity [as] a register of freedom, [and] "The Future" [as] another prison-house built to confine it... Futurity is the openness in the present arising out of the ineradicable diversity of calculating, contending, and collaborative stakeholders who struggle to make and remake the shared world, peer to peer... Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands." That the author of a critique of plutocratic futurity who is unquestionably a beneficiary of plutocratic futurity expresses a nostalgia for "The Future" is a bit troubling, to say the least, but it remains to be seen whether or not Lanier manages to overcome his nostalgia in a substantive way in his piece, rather than providing in it yet another futurological apologia for technocratic plutocracy in the form of yet another vapid solicitation of digital democracy. I am hoping for the best.


Andrew G. Gibson said...

On the point about "the future" and the Frankfurt School, I though of Simon Critchley (here: reminding us that we have to resist the future. "The future is always the ultimate ideological trump card of capitalist narratives of progress."

Dale Carrico said...

Don't you hate it when you're rendered irrelevant in a single sentence?

jimf said...

> fantasies of plastic suburban faux-abundance and frictionless traffic

It was **so** cool. I'm sorry you missed it, Dale!

I actually had a **dream** about the Firebird IV not long ago.
What is my subconscious trying to tell me?

Dale Carrico said...

It's true, I don't get highway hardons. I see that City of Tomorrow and I think -- replace all that asphalt with trees and monorails and I'm there!

jimf said...

> . . .monorails and I'm there!

Well, there were trains running down the center of that
big highway.

The trains, and all the little cars, moved, you know.

Dale Carrico said...

all the little cars moved

Did the little cars poot little pollutant clouds as they moved, slowly filling the auditorium until whole crowds perished clutching spastically at their throats?

jimf said...

> . . .slowly filling the auditorium until whole
> crowds perished clutching spastically at their throats?

No, the ride was air-conditioned. ;->