Uncertainty, an essay



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Image: Eugenio Bucci

The uncertain someone and the owner of the machine

Our problem is that the machine is a much greater factor of uncertainty for you than you are for it. Most of the doubts about you your smartphone has already accounted for and priced. Applications and algorithms know almost everything about what's behind your fingers that type and your eyes that move in a fussy way covering every square millimeter of the screen. This is why the machine “guesses”, at the very moment you type the “v”, that you are going to write “empty”, or “value”, or “vice”.

Our problem is on the other side, I mean, it's on this side. Our problem is that you have no idea how the machine gets to know everything about you. Our problem is that on the other side there is a set of complex operations, very profitable and inaccessible to you. We don't really know what's going on over there. Hardly anyone knows. The only people who have any knowledge of the other side are those who have the key to the vault where the big tech – such as Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, or Meta, which owns Facebook and WhatsApp – lock up the codes of their algorithms. There are very few people.

Our life fell into an unparalleled asymmetry. On the other side, the nerve center of the “digital world”, monopolized by technology conglomerates, is a source of enormous uncertainties for the immense majority of humanity. Algorithms, controlled by technology giants, have already equated almost all the uncertainties that could remain about people's behavior. On this side, we look at the conglomerates and do not see what they keep. They have opaque walls.

You will have a blood test. Your primary care practitioner has certain expectations regarding results. From the symptoms he evaluated, he considers the possibility that markers of one or another illness appear. These indicators are more or less likely, depending on your doctor's clinical judgment. In any case, until the indices come out of the laboratory, you are nothing more than a system with a certain degree of entropy. The more uncertainty there is in relation to the possible results of your examination in the laboratory, the more value the information that comes from there will have.

But there are all the technological conditions for the algorithms to know the probabilities of your exam more accurately than your flesh and blood clinician. Just as the cell phone anticipates, as soon as your finger presses the letter “v” on WhatsApp, your intention is to write “virus” or “viral”, a system that has access to your laboratory’s database and thousands of other banks will be able to project likely trends in results. These likely trends will be based on statistical patterns extracted from your previous exam data combined with data from millions or billions of other patients.

A cluster of zeros and ones inside your cell phone can anticipate, with a good margin of mathematical certainty, when the terrible diagnosis will appear for you. And why do systems want to know about the future of your health? That's right: because this prediction has market value, especially for insurance companies. There are also the, shall we say, propaedeutic consequences of these clinical predictions. Trained by big data, physicians are increasingly behaving like risk managers: they manage their patients' “portfolio” of clinical indicators (cholesterol, blood glucose, triglycerides, and so on) with the aim of removing them from the less favorable statistical groups. Well-being and health are reduced to probabilistic arrangements.

The treatment we receive in the offices is a variant of actuarial metrics, with the purpose of removing us from the quadrants in which claims are more likely to occur. Medical professionals behave more or less like traders on the stock exchange or like fund managers. As for hospitals, they are becoming similar to investment banks.

Changing things up (in zeros and ones), uncertainty is a good (or a bad thing) that is unevenly distributed in the digitized world: it is bigger, it is immense, it is insurmountable for humans who are not owners of fortunes, of big business or power; it is small, well managed and profitable for the owners of companies worth billions or trillions of dollars and for those who run the machinery of politics.

Most of the time, we see this inequity as a rift between humans and machines, but, to tell the truth, we are talking here about a rift between social classes. The difference is that those at the top, the elite of the elite of the elite, own the technology, from which they extract gains with uncertainty, while those at the bottom only lose with it. Our problem, in the end, does not reside in the technology, but in the property relations that bind it.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of The superindustry of the imaginary (authentic).


Eugene Bucci. Uncertainty, an essay. How we think about the idea that disorients us (and guides the digital world). Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2023, 140 pages (https://amzn.to/3Qyfigp).

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