Benjamin Bratton, The Stack 1
Shoshana Zuboff, ‘The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism’, Frankfurter Allgemeine 25 May 2016.
What would it mean to make a ‘portrait of contemporary life’ and the subjects who live it? Such a portrait might be conceived as a triptych: In a first scene, apparently autonomous and independent individuals, their interaction limited to discrete exchanges, participate in a performance or game which, while evidently obeying certain rules, remains enigmatic to the viewer; Elsewhere, a remote, impenetrable monolith silently processes their moves, modulates the parameters of the game, and records and tabulates its outputs; thirdly, we see the power source of this computational cortex: a vast, automated machine for harvesting energy from a sun whose cyclical path across the sky synchronises the ‘real-time’ rhythm of all three scenes.
As a viewer, you are deprived of anything to identify with in these strange, abstracted scenes; yet you cannot avoid the awareness that this is somehow familiar terrain. It is precisely this hiatus in identification that should interest us here. For, in this triptych of The Game, The Farm, and The Power Source, what presides over the long circuit between infrastructural power and the choreographing of bodies and minds is a certain model and modelling of the individual, through which the recognition of contemporary subjects and their social milieu is placed into tension.
In the late twentieth century, ‘gamification’ emerged as a term to designate the computational modelling of personal and social intercourse as a codified set of ‘moves’ linked to competitive goals. The use of game-like procedures to elicit engagement and motivation and to track interactions, a staple of social media and viral advertising, has recently made inroads into practices of governmentality, where accountability, quantification, and the inducements of punishment and reward are increasingly moulding political participation, education, and social policy to the axioms of capitalist economics. Here the tendency of such models to react back onto social practices themselves, so that they appear as the ‘natural’ grammar of human interaction, may mark a crucial point in the absorption of life into the real abstractions of capital.
In John Gerrard’s Exercise (Dunhuang) 2014 we are invited to view the scene of gamification itself from three different points of view: from the ground where we see, plotting their paths through a bare landscape, eerily automated figures whose ritualised encounters leave only one player standing; from the overhead perspective of a surveilling power (a viewpoint not unlike that of the drone, another contemporary machine that reduces human affairs—in this case, the violence of warfare and bloodshed—to the model of a videogame); and from directly above, in a satellite view where the players become single data-points, and the game environment as a whole comes into view. In each of these positions of increasing scope and mastery, our viewpoint orbits around the player who is the current ‘winner’.
This terrain is configured for machine vision. The paths trodden by the players, and the performance they present to us, are choreographed by an algorithmic game-engine. And while its shifting configurations may seem to emerge from the autonomous movements of the players, this apparent lack of global control conceals more subtle modes of cultivation.
For what is designated by ‘gamification’ is not exactly playful: inevitably, the data points targeted and collated are those amenable to measurement, comparison, and the determination of value. It is these imperatives that ultimately impose a constraint on the ‘moves’ that will be registered, the variable rewards that will be enjoyed, and the stimulating signals that solicit the players’ attention and participation.2
In the second scene we see an immense factory, flanked by columns of power transformers which attest to its productive capacity. But what is being produced here? Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) 2015, Gerrard’s portrait of a datacentre, presents a counterpoint to one of his earlier works, Sow Farm (Near Libbey, Oklahoma) 2009, which depicts an agricultural facility located in the same area, with distinct similarities that go beyond its geographical isolation and its functional architecture. In this sow farm animals are housed in a massive shed, fed by automatic feeders, and left unattended for months until they are picked up and transported for slaughter. Like the datacentre, this secluded unit exemplifies the way in which concentrated production remains invisible to the distributed world of consumption that it serves.
The data ‘farm’ provides an image of concentrated capital power that is all the more perplexing, since it is largely dedicated to providing services that are ‘free’ and voluntarily consumed, but it nevertheless produces value from this consumption. This operation brings into view another dimension of invisibility: the computational processes taking place in such data centres operate well below the threshold of human perception. As such, while human subjects may interact with them, and indeed increasingly rely on their output for information, guidance, and even education, what is processed in The Farm are discrete, asignifying signals whose aggregation and analysis yields models at odds with our traditional understanding of ourselves. By harnessing social reciprocity and cognitive response patterns as their raw materials, The Farm invites us to interact with, and as, these models. This is a centralised facility for the cultivation of attention and for the rendering of human interactions into valuable data; but it also plays a part in producing a specific image of the individual as data-trail or game-history.
The Power Source
The final scene yields a deeper account of this disarticulation between apparently decentralised play and the industrial scale and centralisation of its operations. As the ‘black box’ of The Farm models individuals while claiming to facilitate their increased autonomy, it also tends to veil the sources of its power behind the effortless surfaces of the ‘virtual’. Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014, with its concentric array of automated mirrors, exhibits the synchronisation of these weightless interactions with the large-scale extraction that powers their electronic supports. The transcendent geometry of this gigantic apparatus gives it the air of an efficiently engineered realization of solar worship. Stripped of all religious connotation, however, it speaks of the material dependency of a global social structure on the continued extraction of energy.
To the apparent horizontality of The Game, and the convergence of its data in the black box of The Farm, The Power Source adds a final, resolute verticality: tracking the path of the sun, its automated hall of mirrors focalise the intricate complexities of global networks, resolving them into mere tributaries of a burning ball of gas.
And yet the ‘cognitive material’ necessary for this entire operation goes unaccounted for in the circuit. Where do the subjects who play the game come from? This is a question that falls outside the totalizing closed loop of the Game, the Farm, and the Power Source.
Drawing on the work of Gilbert Simondon,3 philosopher Bernard Stiegler defines two defining traits of the individual:
2. This process of psychic individuation is only truly accomplished to the extent that it is inscribed in a process of collective or social individuation.4
According to Stiegler, it is the cultivation of attentional forms—the gradual forming of mental capacity through interpersonal care and contact—that generates individual subjects within a social milieu:
The social is therefore reproduced through the necessary process of psychic individuation, but this individuation—the realisation of culture in the singular—is also a condition for the continued growth and transformation of the social. Furthermore, these processes themselves cannot be abstracted from the modes of inscription and recording in which culture is materialised, the material techniques that enable the transmission of forms and the creation of a common space and time.6 The cultivation of individuals thus also depends upon the mobilisation of memory traces that underwrite transindividuation.
Consequently, when the archives and institutions of a common culture are progressively decanted into a memory-system that exists primarily to produce value from quantifiable data and to farm cognitive resources, and when the cultivation of attention is entrusted to this system, the process of transindividuation is transformed and the ‘game of life’ takes a new turn. This event imparts a subtle difference to the meaning of autonomy: rather than being a hard-won capacity which is inseparable from the individual’s social history, autonomy is now predicated of individuals as such, who simply do not exist prior to their entry into The Game.
Such is the image of the individual that accompanies a ‘new process of psychic and collective individuation that emerges at the heart of […] a network society of planetary proportions’;7 one where the ‘rules of the game’ lead to the dissolution of politics as surely as they elide the question of individuation.
Philosopher and mathematician Gilles Châtelet argues that the link between individuation and politics is precisely what is suppressed by the pseudoscientific alibis employed to naturalize ‘market democracy’. The neoliberal concepts of spontaneous order, catallaxy, emergence, and the discourses of cybernetics and networks merely extend and impart a futuristic sheen to early liberal discourses of ‘political arithmetic’ and ‘social physics’. The latter championed a naturalistic conception of the social in which order spontaneously emerges from discrete interactions between individuals, and on this basis sought to defend the economic individual against the hindrances of political intervention while stringently ignoring the inherently political and extra-economic process of individuation.8 Likewise, the ‘methodological individualism’ at the heart of neoliberal economics proceeds from the theoretical fiction of fully-formed, fully independent, and equivalent agents meeting innocently and symmetrically on a level terrain. Any order that exists in the social is seen to emerge not from the historically-grounded process of transindividuation, but purely from the interplay of these atomic individuals, with the pseudoscientific figures of chaos, complexity, and emergence dissimulating the conditions under which such ‘units’ become available.
Such an abstraction of course has its roots in the exclusion of social reproduction (and especially the work of mothers) from the economic field and thus from a whole model of social reality. The further extension of this model through the gamification of the apparatus of socialisation, education, and social support merely confirms this exclusion and invisibility. For Châtelet, as for Stiegler, if one can speak of a ‘social dynamics’, what marks it out from any such ‘social physics’ is the crucial role of individuation, which demands resources and modes of generosity that cannot be integrated into the ‘cybernetic vaudeville’ of transactional scenarios populated by the gamified psychology of readymade ‘rational agents’.9
If, as Châtelet argues, neoliberal economics emerges from a flawed psychology endebted to game theory,10 the concerted effort to shape the social around its theoretical model via the mediation of technical machines inevitably leads both to the internalisation of the model and to the withering away of politics. As the model gradually shapes the real it is supposed to model, politics becomes a kind of ‘photocopy’ of the economy: established as ‘natural’ units, atomic individuals can be subjected to a political arithmetic: they are statistically analysed in order to detect laws in their movements and reactions, and collective identity is redefined in terms of the modulation of these statistical masses. This depoliticisation also implies a full-on assault against the notion of a concretely singular individual, the individual who is properly psychically and socially individuated: the numerical ‘certainties’ proffered by neoliberal economics as evidence of its objectivity ‘are obtained by way of the “clarity” of the self-evidence of statistics, which effaces the conditions of the genesis of the individuals upon whom statistics does its work’.11
On the level of the individual, in the context of what is called the attention economy, the forming of attention that is a constitutive part of individuation is replaced by a mere vigilance to signals: the injunction to insert oneself into a transglobal flow of continuous alerts, calls for action, polling points, and pattern-recognitions, a machinic semiotics modulated algorithmically at infra-cognitive speeds where every interaction immediately generates yet more demands for attention, and where every response is fed back to The Farm, which now gradually absorbs the functions of political administration. According to Châtelet what emerges from this political programme in the guise of the obsolescence of politics is a ‘painless scientific management’ of the social that places its trust in automated modulation and, where it intervenes, does so only to optimize the ‘natural’ order.
Against the claim that such a ‘cyberpolitics’ boasts the virtues of transparency and decentralisation, Châtelet argues that neoliberal politics continues to establish centres of administration, political analogs of the ‘Invisible Hand’ of economics: black boxes, machines of governmentality that process inputs and produce optimized outputs, with politics becoming nothing more than the supply and demand of political services (a trend now observable in the privatization and technical automation of ‘government services’, lauded as an advance in democracy and transparency). Economics and politics thus converge, entering into an apparently spontaneous immanence that is, in fact, governed by a masked transcendence. Despite their idealisation as natural principles, the Invisible Hand and Black Box belong to a model contrived and maintained by concentrated centres of power.12
The resources of individualization—care, attention, and education—thus become nothing but another ‘rare resource’, unequally distributed and optimized through ‘consensual engineering’ to ensure the ‘equilibrium’ of equal atoms of opinion. This integration is consummated by the installation of a ‘microphysics of obedience’, or what Châtelet calls a neurocracy: the ultimate colonisation of the brain that permits the cybernetic administration of populations to close in on the ‘absolute zero of politics’. On a finer scale yet than the isolated units of atomised individuals, cybernetics extends the automated system of modulation into the brain itself through the continual measurement and fabrication of behaviours.13 At the limit, brains become nothing more than a passive surface of inscription; receptacles formed by and reinforcing a generalised econometric model which is realising itself in the organic fabric of bodies. Where Stiegler warns that a ‘being that has not been educated, whose attention has not been formed to any extent […] does not have a mind’,14 Châtelet suggests that such beings are nothing short of ‘cognitive cattle’ whose cogitations are cultivated only in so far as they can be profitably harvested:
No doubt this vision seems like a distant science-fictional dystopia; yet the contemporary figures of social gamification—not only the compulsive checking of messages, statuses, and ‘likes’, but the plugging-in of schoolchildren to performance monitoring, gamified teaching, and dynamic information resources—are indeed becoming little more than subconscious cognitive servomechanisms of capitalism, within a world in which the individual is increasingly managed by networks of automated sensors, visual media, and soft disciplinary mechanisms; in which information circulates at a speed that outstrips human cognition, tending to draw on the social body in ways that have less to do with the cultivation of attention than with a modulation of cognitive bodies as elements in an electronic choreography attuned to the production of exchange value—precisely what Gilles Deleuze called the ‘control society’.16
In his threefold portrait of contemporary life, John Gerrard gives us a less pointedly political vision, yet one that is more disturbing precisely because it is presented visually, in the alluring mode of this model’s own high-resolution self-representation. These are not just moving images, but scale models of a totalising global machine, rendered in the media that are its basic mechanisms (the medium of the algorithm, the digital model, and the flat display that is the screening surface for all of our social and personal play, and increasingly the window into our selves).
On the horizon of these three virtual worlds, there appears our own: a world governed by an articulation between the apparently horizontal world of The Game and its atomised players, the silent centralized administration of this game and the cultivation of its players by The Farm, and the remote fuelling of this whole circuit by The Power Source.
If today ‘transindividuation has become the object of industrial technology’—and the object of a ‘social engineering which aims to render […] the social relation […] industrially discretisable, reproducible, standardisable, calculable and controllable by automata’,17 such a gamification of the social implies the progressive disappearance, or at least transformation, of the kinds of subjects that once seeded it with cognitive raw material. In the circulation of continually fragmented, analysed, and reaggregated signals, the social fiction of personhood is preserved only in so far as it serves as a motivation for entering The Game: self-realisation, personal growth, learning outcomes, and social reputation, tracked and fed back to The Farm.
Gerrard’s three scenes also serve to further expose the relation between power and visibility. Firstly, the quasi-individual reduced to a set of data-points is ‘incarnated’ in the figures of the players on Dunhuang’s landscape, making their play into a performance and inducing an uneasy identification with the algorithmic choreography of their gestures (The Game). Secondly, the illusion of a quasi-natural ‘self-organization’ is challenged by bringing into the public eye the ‘more or less centralised organs which have de facto control over the circuits of transindividuation’18 (The Farm). And finally, an occult figure stands as a monument to the sublimation of energy required for the continued enforcement of this ‘second nature’—a scale-model of the social predicated in the last instance on a planetary-scale extraction and transduction of energy (The Power Source).
In this triptych you may see yourself through the compound eyes of another: a vision in which your place in the game is ‘the real you’. For the vocation of the portraitist consists in condensing and rendering visible a movement of subjective life that does not reveal itself to everyday perception, yet strikes us with a shock of recognition.
- Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
- For the reflections of a ‘design ethicist’ on these mechanisms and their role in driving digital traffic, see Tristan Harris, ‘How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds’.
- Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective (Paris: Aubier, 2007).
- Bernard Stiegler, ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon’, Culture Machine 13, 2.
- See Stiegler’s Technics and Time, vol 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).
- Stiegler, ‘Relational Ecology’, 5.
- Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies  (Falmouth and New York: Urbanomic and Sequence Press, 2014). See also ‘A Martial Art of Metaphor: Two Interviews with Gilles Châtelet’.
- Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 161.
- See Châtelet, ‘Methodological Individualism’, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 160–64.
- Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 49.
- Ibid., 62–63.
- Ibid., 67–68.
- Stiegler, ‘Relational Ecology’, 2.
- Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 132.
- Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59 (Winter, 1992), 3–7.
- Stiegler, ‘Relational Ecology’, 13.