OVER the past 30 years or so humanity has been stealthily infantilized as advertisers, powerful lobby groups, thinktanks, governments and social media giants have infiltrated our brains. Whether it’s the relentless pursuit of instant gratification or the echo chambers of Facebook our willingness to surrender our privacy and even the direction of our lives has become truly Kafkaesque.
Ever since Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow we have known that one aspect of our brains involves the two modes of thinking. According to Kahneman: “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little of no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” Use of System 2can help to improve on judgements and counter bias but ‘it is reluctant to do so because it is indolent’ and ‘little can be achieved without considerable effort’. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to realise that the advertisers et al have realised this aspect of our brain and successfully tapped into System 1 while systematically discouraging the use of System 2 so that we crave the instant gratification of buying now and demand constant unnecessary upgrades.
One might be tempted to ask whether any of this matters. Many would argue that the answer is an emphatic YES because it has a direct impact on our freedom, agency and our particular form of representative government. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff traces how the likes of Google suddenly realised that they could bundle up all the waste data that they accumulated and sell it on to whoever would find it useful. It was the psychologist B. K. Skinner who realised the political value of all this when he ‘viewed the creative and often messy conflicts of politics, especially democratic politics, as a source of friction that threatens the rational efficiency of the community as a single, high functioning super-organism’.
It is the serendipitous marriage between neoliberalism and the social media giants, some would argue, that has led to what the philosopher Byung Chul Han calls ‘psychopolitics’ in his book of the same name.
Han describes how neoliberalism ‘makes citizens into consumers’ and how as consumers ‘today’s voters have no real interest in politics – in actively shaping the community’. And participation now amounts to little more than ‘grievance and complaint’ which has given rise to ‘spectator democracy’. Leaving aside the question as to whether we actually have a democracy, rather than what might more accurately described representative government, this combination of neoliberalism and social media means ‘we are entering the age of digital psychopolitics’ which involves ‘passing from passive surveillance to active steering’.
Han points to how Big Data now enables political parties to micro-target voters in the way that, as Channel 4 News recently highlighted, during the 2016 USA election the Trump campaign acquired detailed information on 200 million Americans and were able to target potential Clinton-voting black citizens with adverts designed to dissuade them from voting. In many of these areas the black vote collapsed. He drives the point home when he states that ‘Big Data can even read desires we do not know we harbour’, entering the ‘collective unconscious’ territory of Carl Jung.
So, what, if anything, is to be done? Zuboff argues that we should be the grit in the system, slowing down the smooth transition to a hive society by declaring ‘no more’. Han takes this one step further by urging us to become idiots presumably in the mould of Dostoevsky’s ‘positively beautiful man’ in The Idiot who clashes with the emptiness of his 19th century Russian society. “The idiot is idiosyncratic,” writes Han, setting the idiot in conflict with ‘smart’ devices and their acolytes. “Idiotism stands opposed to the neoliberal power of domination, total communication and total surveillance.”
The idiosyncratic idiot is nothing to do with the attenuated Homo Economicus of neoliberalism in which the only relationship we have with others is transactional. This is the atomized society which makes it easy for Big Data to isolate and inhabit. Rather, the idiot is the genuine embedded citizen who emerges from his or her social being. It is this individual that will become the grit, that will side with Doug against Kevin Bacon’s annoying EE cypher, will declare ‘no more’ and reclaim Big Data for the people. Long live the Idiot!