07 March 2011

Thoughts on Augmented Computational Inequality

When thinking about the profound changes introduced by digital technology at a social, economic and political level, it is interesting to see recent arguments being made in terms of two elites battling out for supremacy over who is able to 'control' culture and serve as the gatekeepers to it (see Jarvis 2011, Anderson 2011). Here I want to think of them as two camps, on the one side we have what I call the moderns, represented by writers like Nick Carr (2011) and Matthew Crawford (2010), and in the postmodern camp writers like Jeff Jarvis (2011) and Clay Shirky (2010). Indeed it is in this vein that Jeff Jarvis criticises what he calls the The distraction trope, the idea that technology is undermining our ability to think deeply without being sidetracked (see Agger 2009, Freedland 2011). In a similar way to the enlightenment thinkers who pitched the moderns against the old, Jarvis argues:

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting (Jarvis 2011).
In this argument, Jarvis attacks 'modern' writers like Nick Carr (2010) and Jonathan Freedland (2011), who worry about the changes that digital technology introduce into our lives as we are increasingly living non-linear lives. Indeed, the shift could be understood as one from the modernist subject, unified, coherent, linear, reflexive to a postmodern subject, fragmented, incoherent, non-linear, and increasingly real-time (see Berry 2011). Jarvis believes that the moderns' arguments essentially boil down to an attempt to hold back culture and technology so that an old elite remain in power. These 'old' elites are not the traditionalists that the original moderns attacked. Indeed, those traditionalists supported religion, the King and the old hierarchies of status and power.

Rather it is the moderns themselves that the postmoderns have no time for. These moderns are the middle class who have benefited from the Humboldtian ideals, the bourgeois who have monopolised the media, the universities, and the professional class more generally over the past century.

For the German Idealists, like Humboldt, culture was the sum of all knowledge that is studied, as well as the cultivation and development of one’s character as a result of that study. Indeed, Humboldt proposed the founding of a new university, the University of Berlin, as a mediator between national culture and the nation-state. Under the project of ‘culture’, the university would be required to undertake both research and teaching, respectively the production and dissemination of knowledge. The modern idea of a university, therefore, allowed it to become the preeminent institution that unified ethnic tradition and statist rationality by the production of an educated cultured individual (Berry 2011: 19). 

These new 'old' moderns are the formerly privileged minority who were educated in a national culture and shared in a cultural milieu that they believed that was rightfully theirs. This cultural education gave them not only the power of discourse more generally, but also real power, in terms of preparation through elite schools and universities in traditionally humanities education to become the masters. These are described as the kinds of people that used to read novels like Tolstoy's War and Peace (see Carr 2010) – although it is doubtful that they ever did. As Carr (2008) argues,

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it” (Carr 2008).
Of course, it was never a problem for the working class to have staccato minds and to suffer the consequences of the shallowness of thinking bought by poor education and little access to high culture. These moderns now express their concern that they too may be losing their cognitive powers in a technology infused society. Indeed, their fears sometimes sound rather like a paranoia over a potential loss of the self,

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (Carr 2008).

This is identified as a loss being suffered by the 'literary types' (Carr 2008), the cultural elite who previously were able to monopolise the deep thinking in a society. Naturally, this cultural elite also considered themselves the natural leaders of a society too. In Britain we tend to think of Oxbridge educated politicians like David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg, and Ed Milliband who currently monopolise political power – although it is doubtful that we think of them as deep thinkers.[1] They were certainly educated in the belief that certain kinds of knowledge, usually humanities knowledge, was for 'some humans', an elite that could understand and protect it (Fuller 2010). For the postmoderns, on the other hand, the world has already shifted beyond the moderns' control, Holt (2011) explains:
‘No one reads War and Peace,’ responds Clay Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University. ‘The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.’ (Woody Allen solved that problem by taking a speed-reading course and then reading War and Peace in one sitting. ‘It was about Russia,’ he said afterwards.) The only reason we used to read big long novels before the advent of the internet was because we were living in an information-impoverished environment. Our ‘pleasure cycles’ are now tied to the web, the literary critic Sam Anderson claimed in a 2009 cover story in New York magazine, ‘In Defense of Distraction’. ‘It’s too late,’ he declared, ‘to just retreat to a quieter time’ (Holt 2011).
The new barbarians at the gates are increasingly led by techno-libertarians who declare that technology is profoundly disruptive of old powers, status and knowledge. Indeed, David Clark (1991) famously declared what has become one of the guiding principles of the IETF,
In many ways, the IETF runs on the beliefs of its participants. One of the "founding beliefs" is embodied in an early quote about the IETF from David Clark: "We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code".  (Hoffman 2010).
The postmoderns, themselves generally educated in technology, business, technology law, and the physical sciences, see themselves pitted against an old guard that they see as increasingly defending an unsustainable position. For them knowledge can now be freely mediated through digital technology, and the moderns, as guardians of culture and history, are out-of-date, defunct and obsolete. This is, of course, revolutionary talk, and is reminiscent of the original premise of the social sciences that argued for 'all humans' rather than a privileged subset (see Fuller 2010). Indeed, one could argue that the universalisation of their claims to democratic access to knowledge is crucial for their political project. All the bulwarks of the modern empire, the university, the state, the large-scale corporation and even the culturally sophisticated educated elite are threatened with being dismantled by a new techno-social apparatus being built by the postmoderns.[2]

However, the arguments of the postmoderns have an important and critical flaw – they are blind to the problems created by economic inequality. The moderns dealt with this political economic problem by educating a minority of the population that would be involved in the social reproduction of knowledge but were crucially committed to the wider 'public good'. The postmoderns, on the other hand, call for the market alone to right the wrongs of class, status and hierarchy without any countervailing means of correcting for areas where the market produces problems, so-called 'market-failure'.[3] For the moderns, the state can be used as a tool to correct the wrongs of the market and offer solutions through the use of various kinds of intervention, for example to help prevent inequality, to regenerate an area or to correct lack of investment by the private sector.

Within the terms of the postmodern imaginary, however, the state is itself identified as part of the problem, having been to closely entwined with the logic of the moderns. The only solution is transparency and 'openness', a dose of sunlight being applied to all areas of social life. Usually in the form of private wealth channelled through philanthropy linked to a calculative instrumental rationality, such as demonstrated by the Gates Foundation.
"In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for," Peter Krämer, a Hamburg shipping magnate and philanthropist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel. "That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end, the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal" (Bruinius 2010).
Thus, the postmoderns see the world divided starkly between those who work hard, and those who do not (usually in hidden areas away from the glare of cleansing technology); for those that work hard will inherit the riches, but for those who do not, then a technological solution will be found to solve this problem, usually in the form of league tables, targets, incentive structures and monitoring. Lyotard clearly identified this postmodern mindset where,
Knowledge becomes a force of production it also becomes both a tool and object of economic and political power. Knowledge...is already... a major...stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled of over territory, and... control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labour. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other. (Lyotard 1984: 5) 
The result of this new circuit of power and knowledge is that knowledge is now connected directly to wealth. Indeed, the underlying problem is that ‘truth’ is increasingly tied to expenditure and power, for the pursuit of knowledge is now tied to the use of advanced and, on the whole, expensive technologies. Power is connected to expenditure, for there can be no technology without investment just as there can be no investment without technology. But further to this, in an era of augmented technology then those who can afford it will have bought the cognitive capabilities that certain technologies allow. In other words, it is not that writers such as Nick Carr are losing their ability to think, rather they do not earn enough money to buy the right kind of technology to think with. Google, amongst others, looks forward to a new age of 'augmented humanity'

Monetizing “augmented humanity” will require large existing businesses that depend on the economics of scarcity to change to the “economics of ubiquity,” Schmidt said, where greater distribution means more profits. He cited the (long-expected) successful monetization of YouTube as an example. “Augmented humanity” will introduce lots of “healthy debate” about privacy and sharing personal information, and it will be empowering for everybody, not just the elite, Schmidt said (Gannes 2010).
This implies new gatekeepers to the centres of knowledge in the information age are given by technologies, cognitive and data-processing algorithms, data visualisation tools and high-tech companies. Providing you have the money you will have access, and not just access, as we increasingly rely on computational devices to process this raw data and information. Thinking itself, outsourced into cognitive technical devices will supply the means to understand and process the raw information given by access. For Lyotard the only way to fight this corporate and military enclosure of knowledge is clear: ‘The line to follow for computerization to take . . . is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and databanks’ (Lyotard 1984: 67). However, it is clear that access itself will not be enough, it is not that we live in an information age, rather it is that we live in a computational age, and computation costs time and money, something which is unequally distributed throughout the population.

Indeed, the consequences of this computational inequality is that the richer you are the faster you will think, the wider the knowledge you can pay to access, and the better your analysis. This is a not a computational divide between the computational-haves and the computational-have-nots, but the reduction of all knowledge to the result of an algorithm. The postmodern rich won't just think they are better, indeed they won't necessarily be educated to a higher level at all, rather they will just have the better cognitive-support technology that allows them to do so. Knowledge is therefore recast to be computable, discrete, connected, in a real-time flow and even shallow – if by shallow we mean that knowledge exists on a plane of immanence rather than hierarchically ordered with transcendental knowledge at the peak.

To build this new world order the existing gatekeepers of knowledge need to be bought to heel to enable the computational systems to scour the world's knowledge bases to prepare it for this new augmented age.[4] Knowledge and information will be the fuel of this new capitalism. Indeed, Lyotard was right in calling for the databanks to be opened, but he might not have realised that they would contain too much information for any single human-being to understand without access to the unequally distributed computational technology and know-how. We might therefore paraphrase Lyotard and say that the line is, perhaps, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the algorithms and code.






Notes

[1] "Consider the social pedigree of the leading lights on both front benches today. Cameron, Clegg and Osborne went to private schools whose fees are more than the average annual wage. More than a third of the current Commons was privately educated, three percentage points up on that elected in 2005, reversing a downward trend over several generations... The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, went to Oxford from affluent north London, graduated in philosophy, politics and economics — or PPE, an apprenticeship scheme for budding pols — and was soon working for Gordon Brown. The defeated David Miliband went to the same Oxford college (Corpus Christi), also did PPE and was soon advising Tony Blair... The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, is another Oxford man, who also graduated in — yes— PPE and also ended up working for Brown. At Oxford he met his future wife (and current shadow home secretary) Yvette Cooper, which should not be a surprise, because she too was reading PPE" (Neil 2011).
[2] If this reminds you of the statements of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, it should. They draw from a similar vein for their critique: ''Its not only in Vietnam where secrecy, malfeasance and unequal access have eaten into the first requirement of foresight ("truth and lots of it")." (Assange 2006).
[3] Although a nascent universalisation is suggested by the notion of the 'common' as used by movements like the Creative Commons and open source software groups (see Berry 2008).
[4] This in part explains the attack on the universities current monopoly on knowledge by both the state and the information techno-capitalists. It also show why the state is under such pressure to release its own reservoirs of information in the form of the open access movement, with notable examples being the US data.gov and the UK data.gov.uk. For a good example of this see the Cape Town Open Education Declaration.


Bibliography

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