The Cloud of All-Knowing | Democracy and Demagogues in the Age of Data


“True power is not the strength to force someone into slavery, but to make them happily lock their own manacles, as if chains were adding to their liberty.” 

Yesterday The Observer published a long and detailed piece that attempted to join (some of) the dots between the ‘big data’ socio-political technology firm Cambridge Analytica, and the recent Brexit and Trump votes.

To cut to the disturbing conclusion:

This is Britain in 2017: a Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us.

The military angle is, I think, an incredibly powerful one. From earlier in the article:

This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. [Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University] has researched the US military’s funding and use of psychological research for use in torture. “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them,” she says. “It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.

What a military does is to command the most cutting edge, powerful – and most likely censured – technologies that a society can muster, and use it to defend and sustain a regime. What is so shocking about the digital micro-managing of mass psychology is that these bleeding edge weapons (for that is what they are) are being turned, without their knowledge, onto civilians, by billionaire corporate figures who don’t serve in any government, but are driven by an extreme ideology.

The Geneva Convention was established to frame some kind of decency in theatres of war. Feels like it’s high time we had a digital version, because the civilian casualties here are potentially huge.

The Military-Industrial Complex…

For a military to work, the ‘sell’ to a society – which we buy into by volunteering our taxes – is that we remain safe from tyrants, and enjoy our liberty. This is rarely the whole story, and when a society begins to question whom the military is really serving and whether the price is worth paying, things can get tasty. Hence, one of the things a government tries to do is work hard to sustain the narrative: our military and its powerful technologies are out there doing good, and you are all benefiting.

We hear quite a bit about the ‘military industrial complex’ – the shadowy interplay of vested interests between a government working to sustain a growing economy, and an arms industry trying to make money. What is fascinating about this situation is that this is now functioning at a level above the government we elected. When you ‘manage’ a democracy, your democratic leaders are akin to puppets – allowed to be there only as long as they serve the needs of the powers above them. (Ironically, the visible corporate interests were why Hillary was rejected… while the invisible ones were the reason Trump got in.)

The question is why we stand for this, and here is the profoundly clever thing about the succulent web: true power is not the strength to force someone into slavery, but to make them happily lock their own manacles as if chains were adding to their liberty. 

Thinking on this, I was reminded of Zizek’s phrase at the end of Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (still the best thing he’s done) where he says:

“Cinema doesn’t offer us our desires, but tells us what to desire.”

With immersive mass media, the effect is exponentially more powerful. We think that Facebook and our smartphones are giving us what we desire – but it’s the very opposite. We are giving them what they desire… only for us then to be told in laser-guided ads what it is we should be desiring. In other words, we are arming our own weapons that will be used against us.

…And The Military-Religious Complex

But the thing is, none of this is new. If we read the Old Testament with any sense of political tuning, we can see that this is the same shit that religious authorities have pulled since forever. With the power of the Evangelical right and the hugely symbol-heavy idea of ‘those who have served,’ what we see is an explicit military-religious complex. Those who serve… and in this we see that the priestly class are the crack forces of the original 1%. Check the founding text of the Levites, in Exodus 32:

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

‘Perhaps.’ Therein lies the threat: your safety is not guaranteed, but I’ll do my best to stop this violent ‘Other’ from killing more of you…

And this is the justification we hear from governments now as privacy and liberty is eroded. They are protecting us from a great terror, so we’d better behave. And how should we behave? By desiring what we are instructed to desire.

The Cloud of All-Knowing

It’s this long thread that I trace in GETTING HIGH. The technology of religion – used to exert social control in the name of salvation from horror – has become the religion of technology. The 1% are the constant, and the way that they remain so is by feeding us a story that our chains are actually what we need. The serpent in Genesis makes it clear that our ignorance – our lack of knowledge – is the reason we are ourselves gods. And so to the Apple, to us offering our very hearts and souls up to the Cloud of All-Knowing, delivering to us not our promised divinity, but instead offering these snakes a perfect means of control:

“The story we are fed is that we are becoming more knowledgeable, more powerful and more able to be present in more places but, as we upload more and more of our personal and private information into ‘the cloud,’ abdicate more and more responsibility for remembering to the web and sit in shrugged silence while the NSA and GCHQ freely and constantly monitor every digital action we make, it is the technology companies and government security services who are now functionally divine. The more we bind their devices to our wrists and give them permission to know our locations, the more they know the number of our days, the beats of our hearts, the most intimate details of our relationships.

“Critics of [Ray] Kurzweil’s vision talk of a possible future where we will be farmed by higher-intelligence machines, but in the worst excesses of my own over-dependence on technology I know that this is already happening. Logging on to the servers of Facebook, Google and Twitter is free, but I am the one who has been genuflecting, my communications harvested for information that can be used to target products at me with laser-guided accuracy, happy to have my every move tracked in return for the repeated message that it is me who is benefiting, me who is achieving lift. I am told that I am winning my freedom through ever-more-human gadgets, even as they turn me into a well-behaved automata, running like clockwork, obeying pings and reminders, advised to walk more, given updates on how I’m sleeping.

“With serpentine smoothness, sophisticated advertisements convince us that, with each newly purchased device, with each new aspect of our lives that we move online, it is we who are becoming more powerful, we who are climbing Mount Olympus, we who are storming heaven. But, while all along we are being robbed, it is Plato who gets to write the ending. While the rich steal from the poor, the powerful remain in power by offering the illusion of power to the powerless.”

The task of Radical Theology – as I’ve seen it, and as I propose in the book – is to offer a counter-technology that works towards the death of these divine structures. Problem is, I’m concerned that Radical Theology is itself morphing into a ‘desiring machine’ that carries the very same dangers. But more about that in another post … 😉


One response to “The Cloud of All-Knowing | Democracy and Demagogues in the Age of Data”

  1. I was raised sort of inside Bill Gothard’s homeschool cult. Even though he is elderly and scandal has forced him out of his dying organisation, he’s still trying to be some kind of leader. Your pull quote from this post is a perfect translation of some of his doublespeak: