January 12, 2020
Just Say No to Surveillance Capitalismby Ballard Quass
How social physics teams up with the drug war to give a knock-out blow to human transcendence
As Shoshana Zuboff reveals in her 2019 book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism," one of the biggest cheerleaders of that new data-based economic system is Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland of MIT, an expert in the creation of creepy software designed to harvest data about a wired Netizen's feelings and intentions. But Pentland's goals are more ambitious than just enabling a new approach to economic control. He envisions a Skinnerian world run according to the mathematical principles of "social physics," a brave new world in which humans are controlled by the once-maligned processes of operant conditioning, with the behavior of formerly free citizens being nudged and corralled by data-controlled algorithms designed to steer their actions in "beneficial" directions, at least as the term "beneficial" is defined by Pentland's deep-pocketed clients.
"Such dehumanization sucks," you may say, "because it treats human beings as widgets. But what does it have to do with the drug war and the DEA?"
When the Conquistadores arrived in South America, they immediately saw the ritual use of psychoactive plants as demonic. Why? Because their rational European mind was laden with a material bias that denied any special abilities to the conscious mind. The idea that psychoactive plant use could open up new useful visions was therefore entirely foreign to them. They therefore had no compunction in abolishing such plant-based rituals, often abolishing the tribes that practiced them, too, for good measure.
The Conquistadores' attack on the humanity of indigenous peoples can be seen as part one of a two-part process of social control spanning half a millennium. The Conquistadores stole the soul from the indigenous people in the 1600s by denying them one customary means of self-transcendence. Now, hundreds of years later, Social Physics has come along to tell us how the social reality of the dispossessed can be re-created, not through transcendent experiences with plants, of course (since the materialist Conquistador mentality maintains its grasp on the western mind, even in post-colonial times), but through the robotization of humankind.
Viewed in this light, all Americans (and the world, for that matter) face the plight of those indigenous people, for we have all been barred from accessing transcendence through plants, thanks to the drug war. And now, to add insult to this unconstitutional injury, materialists like Pentland come along to quantify the soulless residuum of our lives with algorithmic formulas to ensure that our stymied ambitions for transcendence become acceptable to us as the new status quo. If we're unhappy about being transformed into Pentland's predictable data-making robots, not to worry: algorithms will be written that will sense our distress and take appropriate action, adding a smiley face to our online calendar, perhaps, along with a link to a feel-good article about puppies that were recently rescued from a puppy mill.
Pentland's ideal world seems to be one in which the richest capitalists are happy and the rest of us are pacified. This is a world that uses the average person as a widget to ensure the happiness of the top 1%. It is a despotic project that sees efficiency as the ultimate good, while viewing personal transcendence as the enemy. Why? Because transcendence can result in behavioral changes that cannot be predicted by data-crunching algorithms, changes that may even predispose some to overthrow the whole Big Brother project of social control entailed by social physics.
When it comes to humanity's desire for personal transcendence, the drug war has already knocked us down "for the count." Now Pentland's "social physics" wants to come along and deliver the coup de grâce to our aspirations, by using data-based algorithms to construct a reality in which humanity will be taught to make its peace with a strictly material and economically focused world.
Conclusion: It's time to just say no to surveillance capitalism.