On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.
There has been much written in recent times about post-truth politics, and much associated naval gazing as commentators, analysts and politicians themselves have tried to understand how to deal with all this. Leave campaigners in the UK promised £350m a week for the NHS; Donald Trump still thinks he opposed the war in Iraq; and Vladimir Putin claimed no involvement with the war in Ukraine. Populism, reactionism, anti-intellectualism – call it what you will, it’s certainly got currency.
Speaking of currency, the pound has taken a pounding since the Brexit vote, and overnight trading on the 6th-7th October witnessed a flash crash that traders have struggled to explain. David Bloom at HSBC put it that the pound had become the de facto opposition in Britain. ‘Sterling,’ he said, ‘has become a structural and political currency.’ I’d go further than that. It’s the algorithms providing the opposition. The algorithms governing the trading desks even scrape news feeds to see potentially influential stories (one commentator suggested that comments from Francois Hollande on the Brexit negotiations may have triggered the ‘flash crash’). They sense and learn, and respond, constantly scoring and valuing political decisions and the smallest market moves.
The algorithms then form their own truth. This isn’t post-truth politics, it’s absolute truth. And that is potentially a whole lot worse.
We live in a perpetual reckoning. It’s a strange place in some respects, and not very forgiving. It’s a place where everything is counted, everything is measured, billed, quantified. I’m talking, of course, about the digital space that we inhabit today, where our politics and our societies function and grow, where our families meet, our groceries are procured, and our priests broadcast Mass.
I had the privilege to participate in a workshop on algorithmic governance this past Friday at my alma mater, the National University of Ireland, Galway, under the supervision of Dr Rónán Kennedy and Dr John Danaher of the Law Faculty. and co-funded by the Colleges of Business and Public Policy. It’s part of a wider program of research grandly titled ‘Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project‘, which promises to tread some fascinating pathways. Comprehensive synopses of the event have already been published by Dr Danaher and one of the speakers Dr Muki Haklay, so I won’t re-do their work, but instead refer to one of the particularly interesting themes that emerged from the work.
Paul Mason‘s imminent book ‘Postcapitalism’ is plugged this weekend in the Guardian with an extended essay on the subject. Accompanied by some excellent graphics, some of which I’ve reproduced here, the broad thesis is that capitalism as we know it is ending, and that we are moving into a ‘sharing economy’, but at its heart is a Marxist argument about information and power. Mason goes so far as to argue that the changes we are witnessing herald the arrival of a new kind of human being, a sort of cocktail of Marxist proletarianism, social Darwinism, and Kurzweilian posthumanism.