On Tuesday Lawrence Quill gave a public lecture on Technological Conspiracies. It was creative, thought-provoking, and opened with a charming advert for a family robot. We’ll post a video of the lecture here soon, but in the meantime here’s a text of the comments I gave after the talk, where I raised some questions about technology, conspiracy, and disenchantment.
1. There’s a question at the heart of your talk, but which isn’t quite spelled out: What exactly is political about technology?
- Perhaps it’s because values are embedded in artefacts, like the ‘sleeping policeman’ or the way my tv automatically switches off, judging me for spending four hours watching tennis;
- Perhaps it’s because technology redistributes resources and risks. If politics, in Harold Lasswell’s famous phrase, is all about ‘who gets what, when and how,’ then technology would seem by extension to be political;
- Another thought is that technology shapes the material conditions of our lives, and even our sense of self. This strikes me as true, but it’s true of almost anything;
- And maybe something becomes political when it is subject to conflict under pressure for a collective decision. In this sense, technology, like anything else, is potentially political.
But the problem you find is that there’s not enough conflict. Why does nobody care about this looming technological conspiracy? Again, there are a few possible answers.
- People don’t mind. They consent to give up their data to Facebook and all the rest;
- There is conflict, but it’s suppressed. Perhaps those who suffer injuries or cruelties don’t have the power to resist;
- Or maybe they don’t recognise themselves as being in a relation of power at all;
- Or perhaps your worry is that people just won’t see the threat until it’s too late.
2. I’m struck by your notion of a ‘technological conspiracy’ – ‘A “technological conspiracy” refers to a group of individuals possessing a highly developed scientific / technical skill-set engaged in activities that advance their interest at society’s cost, while simultaneously producing a discourse that deliberately challenges the conventional wisdom or traditional structures of power within that society’ (5).
You admit that this is a rather unusual conspiracy. In particular, conspiracy on your account doesn’t need individual or collective intention, just a common interest. This is a departure from the idea of conspiracy as necessarily involving an explicit agreement to do something wrong – it suggests that a conspiracy can involve people acting together in a common interest without necessarily making an explicit agreement (I have some sympathy for this sort of view). And you say that it is ‘open, visible, ostensibly democratic.’
But if you’re talking about a group of individuals engaged in activities that advance their interests at society’s cost in a completely open and visible way, then where’s the conspiracy?
One way I can make sense of it is by thinking of it as an ‘environmental conception of conspiracy’, that is, as a set of conditions that incentivise and enable conspiracy in the (more conventional) sense of hidden coordination in a partial interest (I say more about this in a forthcoming publication). As you say at the end of your essay, new technologies ‘make it easy to usher in new forms of surveillance and control’ (15).
The environmental conception of conspiracy is usually directed at processes of government. In a classic version it is expressed by the American founding fathers, who saw politics as an environment of conspiracy. Indeed, the politics of the 18th century was rife with fears of corruption and conspiracy, as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood have argued. It was in part for this reason that James Madison, for instance, was obsessed with creating institutions that would hedge against corruption, remove incentives, and generate countervailing pressures, rather than try to winkle out and retrospectively punish particular acts of wrongdoing. More recently, American right wing thinkers have attacked democratic politics itself as an environment of conspiracy. This is not about believing that this or that particular group is engaged in this or that hidden agreement to subvert the public good. Rather, it’s about seeing politics as structured in a way that makes such behaviour more likely or even inevitable.
If your argument involves an environmental conception of conspiracy, then it is striking that you locate it in the domain of the market. This is striking because at least in recent years, the predominant view has been that the market is an environment unfavourable for conspiracy. The market is the domain in which vast numbers of people use their own judgment in taking up goods and services, in a network of horizontal, voluntaristic exchanges. This environment tends away from conspiracy because the outcomes are the result of nobody’s design. When you talk about technology, you associate it with innovation, creativity, and most importantly, with people trying to solve problems in vast numbers of different ways, and where success is determined by consumer choice, so the effects of technology are part of the impersonal discipline of the market, not the collective decision of some entity capable of making decisions. Nobody decided that we would be living our social lives through Facebook. It was a combination of Facebook’s innovations and billions of individual decisions.
So where’s the conspiracy? If we think in terms of an environment of conspiracy I could imagine several possibilities.One that you point to is a sort of second-order technocracy, not at the level of controlling production in the manner of socialist planners, but at the level of building, maintaining, and owning the structures within which individuals interact. Then there’s the threat that inside every technological black box there lie human judgments and decisions which are not subject to public scrutiny or influence. And there’s the threat of monopoly, which is not only a threat in itself, but creates concentrations of private power which are capable of being linked up with the state (as in the relationships between the NSA and the internet giants.
But I’m not sure if this environmental conception of conspiracy is quite what you do have in mind. Is it?
3. My last comment is about disenchantment and re-enchantment: Your story here is on the one hand about the blending and blurring of man and machine. As you quote Robert Pirsig: ‘The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things’. On the other hand it is about what you call a re-enchantment, as robots are recast as companions in an ideology of ‘Techno-Zen’.
I wonder if we might push the idea of disenchantment a bit further here. When Max Weber talked about the ‘disenchantment of the world’ he referred to rationalisation, and in particular to the displacement of magical elements of thought by technical means and calculations. The disenchanted world might be complicated, but it’s not mysterious. There are no ‘mysterious incalculable forces that come into play’, that ‘one can, in principle, master all things by calculation’.
To the extent, as you suggest, that the self becomes manifest in technologies – in relationships mediated by technology, through comments and likes of friends’ activities, through articles we choose to read, websites we visit, robots we interact with – I wonder if the story isn’t rather that aspects of the self become knowable and calculable in a new kind of way. If the self is increasingly manifested through technology, then it is at the same time becoming disenchanted, in the sense that enters a domain in which it becomes calculable. I might tell one story about my tastes in music, but the frequency tracker on my music player might tell an embarrassingly different story.
It is significant that your essay puts privacy and disenchantment together. Perhaps one reason the language of privacy has less purchase in this context is that what is being revealed, about the self and about society, comes in the form of aspects of human behaviour being rendered increasingly knowable and calculable and thus made a possible object of intervention.
So to sum up: What is political about technology? What is conspiratorial about the conspiracy? And what about disenchantment.
I can assure you he had some very good answers, but to see for yourself you’ll have to watch the lecture.