Information misery

Joseph Mallord William Turner, A Hurricane in the Desert (The Simoom), c.1830–2,
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By ARTHUR COELHO BEZERRA

Excerpt from the introduction, selected by the author, from the recently released book

1.

Taken at face value, today's information ecosystem appears to be something revolutionary, with its brilliant screens, its invisible connections, its omniscient sensors and its instantaneous speed of communication and data processing.

The innovative technological apparatus, equipped with advanced algorithmic organization techniques and digital representation of information, is capable of bringing more predictability to the results of human actions, anticipating natural phenomena, increasing the efficiency of production processes, expanding artistic and scientific potential and mitigate risks inherent in planning the most different activities in life, ensuring agility, comfort, effectiveness and safety.

A more detailed examination of the current dominant forms of production, circulation and consumption of information, however, reveals a large number of ethical dilemmas, resulting from the contradictions that hide beneath the thin glass and plastic skin of the devices that half the world's population carries. in the pocket.

Among these contradictions, we have the expanded connection that encourages individual isolation; the social network that fragments the public sphere; artificial intelligence that hypertrophies human stupidity; machine learning that promotes people's ignorance; the computational memory that forges cerebral amnesia; the technological acceleration that annihilates free time; the flexibilization of work that leads workers to overwork; freedom of expression that gives rise to hate speech; access to information that is eclipsed by denialist obscurantism; the hyperinformation society that ushers in the era of disinformation.

All these contradictions, which will be addressed throughout this book, are related to a determining historical fact: the advent of a new information regime in the 21st century, in which new forms of production, circulation and consumption of information are subject to old relations. social aspects of the capitalist mode of production, today metamorphosed into its digital version. This is a regime that, dialectically, leads to information misery.

The main stage of this new information regime is the internet, a decentralized interconnection network that allows the circulation of digital data through wireless electronic devices. Developed in a military context during the Cold War, the network began to be used, from the 1970s onwards, by North American universities and research centers for scientific communication purposes, and gained global contours at the end of the XNUMXth century, when becomes the point of convergence of an ancient abstract entity, which takes on mystical features in capitalist society: the market.

In 1995, when the computer network had already expanded to Europe, Australia and Asia, and tentatively arrived in Africa and Latin America (the emblematic landmark of the Brazilian internet takes place at Eco 92, in Rio de Janeiro), all restrictions about the use of the internet for commercial traffic in the United States are removed, and the environment online it becomes free – in the liberal sense of the term – to be economically exploited to its fullest.

Since then, new products, new services, new forms of mediation and classification of information and new processes of production, circulation and consumption of goods have been created as a result of a series of technological disruptions, term fashionable used to refer to advances in technology that promote radical changes in the economy, politics, culture, science and social life in general. Within capitalist society, technological disruptions are mainly led by commercial companies, managed according to the economic interests of their owners and shareholders.

2.

In the places and circumstances of the historical time in which the capitalist social form prevails, the central feature of the dominant information regime is the subsumption of the modes of production, circulation and consumption of information to the imperatives of capital valorization. Hence the profusion of expressions in scientific literature in recent decades, such as digital capitalism, informational capitalism, cognitive capitalism, platform capitalism, 24/7 capitalism, data-centric capitalism or surveillance capitalism.

Abstracting the different (and sometimes antagonistic) theoretical perspectives that support each of these terms, what is noticeable is a great variety of predicates that make reference to the same supersensitive historical subject, capital, which over the last five centuries has assumed mercantile, industrial and financial forms, today jointly active in the so-called “digital era”.

It is true, says philosopher Luciano Floridi, that technology has helped humanity to demarcate periods in its history, as we see in the so-called Stone Age or Iron Age. In doing so, however, it is necessary to avoid falling into the shallow instrumentalism that incenses the technological innovations of the digital era, and pay attention to the political and economic determinations that shape the dominant mode of informational production. Only in this way will we be able to establish an emancipatory critique of technology, which takes into account the preponderant role of internet corporations in the fluid architecture of contemporary global capitalism.

Moving in this direction, the first determination to be highlighted comes from the recognition that information, coming from data and metadata that are produced by people in their daily use of digital networks, both at work and leisure, is now essential for business models of the largest multinational technology conglomerates, whose concentration of economic power would be unimaginable by the standards of the last century.

Such an empire is built without regard to the multiple negative implications that its new modes of production and circulation of information bring to sociability, culture, security, the economy, political participation and the health of individuals.

Just think, for example, of problems that have gained prominence in recent years, such as cases of depression, anxiety and internet addiction (especially in electronic games and social networks), the creation of information bubbles that cultivate hatred, sexism and algorithmic racism, the massive circulation of disinformation and scientific and environmental denialism and other factors that corrupt the integrity of information, interfere in elections of international relevance, encourage the discredit of science and the press, harm the fight against pandemics, propagate religious intolerance and make it difficult to defend biodiversity.

Added to these scourges are all the current forms of exploitation of the workforce, the main pillar of capitalist society, the basis on which the superstructure of the current information regime stands, with its legal framework permeable to the precariousness of work and its politics. neocolonial that challenges national sovereignties and exploits minerals and minds in the global South, both essential resources for the functioning of a network that is close to consuming 20% ​​of all the planet's energy.

All these factors require the human and social sciences, and particularly critical information studies, to produce diagnoses that are not limited to describing the information regime in its appearance, but that also reveal the essence of the mechanisms of exploitation, oppression and of social control that prevent the current regime from being better than it actually is.

* Arthur Coelho Bezerra Professor at the Graduate Program in Information Science at IBICT-UFRJ.

Reference

Arthur Coelho Bezerra. Information misery: ethical dilemmas of the digital age. Rio de Janeiro, Editora Garamond, 2024, 140 pages. [https://amzn.to/3L7p7Of]


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