The informational utopia

Image: Andrey Matveev


Note on the essay “Big Tech” by Evgeny Morozov

When the electric machine for threshing corn arrived in the field, the farmhands exclaimed: “There's nothing left to invent!”. It was the pinnacle of progress. With digitization, technology – information technology – acquired importance in geopolitics, world finance, consumerism and even the corporate appropriation of intimate relationships. Now, we sift through the data to extract the predictions. As in William Blake's poem: "The humble Sheep displays the menacing horn".

neoliberal ideology

It is urgent to create regulatory devices for technologies. “The future task of progressive politics, in Brazil and elsewhere, must be to develop a strategy to ensure this control, evidently, by democratic means”, warns Evgeny Morozov, in the preface written for the Brazilian edition of the essay Big Tech: The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics. The Belarusian is a collaborator of the The New York Times, The Economist,, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times e Observer (The Guardian), being also republished in newspapers in Spain, Italy and Germany.

Chosen as one of the most influential Europeans, the scribe prays for a miracle. “What is required is a powerful ethos of business dynamism, associated with the commitment to radically rethink the functioning of society, and the role that technology plays in it” (p. 10). If you don't believe that cybernetic evolution, per se, curbs abuses against privacy; believes that “the technocratic utopia of apolitical politics” may generate a new habitus in capitalism, by magic (p. 92). But the suggested antinomy does not detract from the essayist, who is not lost by the detail.

The central thesis of the book is simple: “Any discussion of technology implies sanctioning, often involuntarily, some of the perverse aspects of neoliberal ideology” (p. 25). The thing happens because the discussion takes place with the grammar and syntax of technology, eliding political reflection. The “datacentric” model liquefies the dimensions of everyday existence into earning assets. A secret auction takes place on individuals' preferences and monetizable queries. It becomes known who won the auction through commercial offers on cell phones. Byung-Chul Han calls this intrusive accounting process of marketing codification “infocracy”.

a sweet fantasy

Silicon Valley reinvented the Enlightenment. Larry Page (Google) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) embody Diderot and Voltaire. The knowledge and research produced in universities seems idle, compared to the idealized entrepreneurship of the hegemonic booklet. Entrepreneurs would be the bearers of the lights that lead to autonomy and “digital socialism”, by empowering the user – making the generous markets pour material benefits to those who are relegated to the margins of society. A sweet fantasy: “Facebook is interested in 'digital inclusion', just as moneylenders are interested in 'financial inclusion' – for the sake of money” (p. 55).

The “intelligence” of everyday life makes Google an intermediary between the consumer, the refrigerator and the trash can – for monitoring purposes. Algorithms just don't tell who they work for. “Whether they favor tax-avoiding plutocrats, global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets, or companies that manufacture software of screenings, – this is hardly a democratic success” (p. 87). Look at the consumer. The citizen does not exist. He was abducted.

The evaluations focus on economic efficiency and avoid political criteria of the common good. Neotechnologists aim for “the death of politics”. Social problems must be solved with apps, sensors and endless feedback loops – enabled by startups lean. Conflicts between social classes would be analogical by-products. Digital colonization reinforces the conviction that the struggle between classes and ideologies is at an end. Infocratic data erases anti-systemic theories, wars of position and movement. Algorithmic measurement reorganizes the state. The five sisters (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon) are pushing to digitize public affairs. But Sweden, after fifteen years, withdrew the tablets and returned physical books to classrooms.

network economy

“Only through political activism and a vigorous intellectual critique of the very ideology of 'information consumerism', which underlies these aspirations, will we be able to prevent disaster” (p. 131), stresses Evgeny Morozov. The starting point for self-criticism is the climate crisis. The XNUMXth century stipulated the payment of energy with a pay-as-you-go table. It nullified any judgment of environmental value. The arrangement for exchanging carbon credits was designed to fix the problem before it collapsed. The rationale came from campaigns by militant environmentalists.

There are ethical dilemmas. The sensors price market figures for all users. If a decision harms someone, the moral factor demands an examination of conscience. Calculations about the financial advantage in the sharing economy are not enough. “We must do our utmost to stop the apparent economic normality of information sharing” (p. 134). Transindividual competitiveness is encouraged for capital to stretch its functional tentacles in society.

The cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are crucial to the future of democracy, whose virtue is to admit imperfection, resort to the collective and optimize learning in the face of threats from the extreme right. The “digital, parallel and private welfare state” is based on fiscal austerity policies. Uber's success, for example, depends on the liberalization of work and the precariousness of the workforce. For David Harvey, in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, the “accumulation by dispossession” of the poor prevails, while inequalities worsen. The basic income would compensate for the end of the salary as a social institution, for the unemployed excluded “in the universe high tech” (p.161).

Assange and Snowden

Data extraction by “artificial intelligence” (since 1993, entry in the Dictionary of XNUMXth century social thought, by William Outhwaite and Tom Bottomore) masks system contradictions; do not equate them. The information evokes oil in ancient times. Saddam Hussein's double is activist Julian Assange, awaiting extradition. The “crime” of the founder of WikiLeaks (2006) was to publish the underground of the invasions of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), the air attack on Baghdad with civilian victims (2007) and reveal that the gmail of foreign leaders had been violated in the CableGate (2010). The press evaporates the chase. The vassalage to imperialism is shameful.

Edward Snowden, with personal sacrifices, met with Glenn Greenwald (Intercept Brazil) in Hong Kong to pass along evidence of allegations of spying by the Northern power's National Security Agency. He went into exile to escape official revenge. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 and 2015. The documentary about mass surveillance by the CIA, by Laura Poitras, Citizenfour, won an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Oliver Stone filmed Edward's biopic entitled Snowden. His heroism is already on the wall of history.

“Information consumerism” compares to crack: addictive. The compulsion of the imperial nation, in crisis, prevents the phrase that would free it from the disease: “My name is 'United States' and I am addicted to data”. The feeling at the end of the reading is reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the confessions (1762-1765): “In the abyss of evils in which I am submerged, I feel the blows that are directed at me; I distinguish the instrument, but I cannot see the hand that directs it, nor the means that it uses”. Evgeny Morozov's book lays bare its tentacular fingers and dismantles anti-democratic ruses.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was the state secretary of culture in Rio Grande do Sul during the Olívio Dutra government..

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