Alan Moore and Douglas Rushkoff join me to discuss terror, terraformation, surveillance and the state. As things fall apart, and the center cannot hold.
“The problem with using big data analysis to predict the future is that it bases its understanding of the future entirely on the past,” explained Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author of Present Shock and other digital frontier explorations, via email. “It uses the vast quantity of data about what has already happened to calculate the probabilities of those things happening again. It looks at what people have seen, thought, and done before to figure out how those trends might continue into the future. But it has no way of contending with novelty. People, as much as we’d like to forget this part, are actually alive. Being alive, being creatures with free will, means we engage in anomalous behaviors. We do weird things. We do not behave completely logically. While we approach many routine things — like buying tampons — in predictable ways, we are less and less predictable when it comes to bigger, stranger decisions.”
Yes, predicting the behavior of purposefully indefinite terrorists brazenly skimming the global datascape proves a ludicrous proposition. But that deliberate imprecision nevertheless clears the launch pad for astronomical body counts and bonanza payouts, as more and more technocrats are employed to parse more and more data leading nowhere.
“The choice to blow up a bridge, for example, is already really novel,” said Rushkoff. “It is more apt to be relegated to the decision centers in our brains that aren’t working in a routine manner. Which brings me to the other big problem with attempting to use Big Data to identify terrorists: The sample size is really small. A whole lot more people buy tampons in a day than crash planes into a building. So the sample size for consumers of products is much much bigger than the sample size for terrorists. There just aren’t enough terrorists for statisticians to apply factor analysis and other big data predictive modeling techniques.”
The lifeblood of the precrime industry is an amorphous enemy way too narrow to accurately predict, more valuable to consumers than citizens who should be paying attention, like the precrimers watching them, to more pressing apocalypses. Like the real-time terror of global warming, a planetary emergency way too existential for Generation Overshare to parse, quagmired as it is in technocratic stratagems and straw men.
“The reason we put these people in power over us is to restrict ourselves,” explained Alan Moore, author of prescient panoptic comics like Watchmen and V For Vendetta. whose Guy Fawkes mask has become a Mona Lisa for Occupy, Anonymous and other populist deprogrammers. “We are frightened by our possibilities. We don’t feel comfortable about being responsible for ourselves and for the societies in which we live. We would much rather delegate that to appointed figures who will inevitably abuse their positions, but we know that going in.”
“If as you say there is that realization dawning throughout culture at the moment, then that can only be a good thing,” Moore added. “The closer we get to reality, the better off we generally are.”
“There’s something quaint about these attempts to control us today, in a period where we are boiling with information and complexity, both of which have reached levels that could be called fractal, if that wasn’t a polite way of saying chaotic,” Moore told me by phone from Northampton. “I really don’t think that the old tyrannies work anymore. That’s a very liberating thing, although it is just a marker of how complex and alien our situation is rapidly becoming. We are reaching a boiling point, and what happens after that is unpredictable.”
No matter what comes, we won’t be able to politically and philosophically counter the surveillance state until we recognize ourselves within it. Disembodying dystopian desires to watch and be seen has short-circuited America into a cascading redundancy demanding that terrorism and crime are Other People, usually darker-skinned and economically disadvantaged.
Assimilating and repairing our complicity in our overreaching technocracy is a first principle, if any meaningful change is to be had. And to do that, we need to more honestly, and thoroughly, process and remember our information and history, so that our shared future is filled with more than the reductive mind-wiped drones whose control, recalling Drake, has become an accelerating obsession.
“It’s true we’re devoting more brain to active RAM than hard drive, if I might use that metaphor,” said Rushkoff. “We relegate memory to the web, and thus we forget. When 9/11 happened, we seemed to be surprised to learn that someone tried to blow up the United Nations just a few years earlier. Or the Holland Tunnel. The real problem is that we’re so distracted by the onslaught of communications and data that we can’t think. People are too busy responding to consider the implications.”
“I have been writing about big data surveillance by both corporations and government for years” he concluded. “Everyone who works in the industry knows full well what’s been going on. It is remarkable that this particular episode of documentation has become such a big deal. We are at the mercy of a system that is desperately attempting to maintain itself. So the way to keep humans from getting the plot is to disorient us. It’s not Cheney doing it; it’s the machine itself. That’s what made Snowden a hero. He stood up as a human against the machine.”
This article appeared on AlterNet