In the comments to my previous post, Sketches on Mutant Design, RS Bakker raised an important point on the technologies insulated in the core of neoliberal functionality: “I think we all need to bite the big data bullet. The machines are great at isolating patterns–they are here to stay. Critical theory has to break up the technocratic monopoly on the interpretation of those patterns.”
This is an important point to make: beyond the profit motivations of multinational corporations, military operations and the borderless surveillance state, big data plays a fundamental and necessary role in our lives. It contributes to an overall ease of life in every domain, from the bulk data-basing and analysis in healthcare to the massive logistics involved in transportation of people and goods around the globe. Big data is a media construct, and it is through its mediation that we grasp the scope of the world’s messy mesh. Knowledge of climate change itself has only been capable through the existence of big data, careful monitoring, sensor webs, and cybernetic technologies of feedback. All technics, ultimately, are xenotechnics that can help sustain the fleshy shell of the human. Big data technologies are no different.
How does one begin to tackle the issue of technocracy, of top-down planning, management, and monitoring? It would appear that the technologies that technocracy governs have always been an affair of these govermentalities; it was the complex problems of fire control that introduced the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences to feedback loops, management of bulk data from radar sensors that gave us digital technology, and the automated aerial warfare in Vietnam that paved the way for everyday technologies of consumerism. The collision of endless simulation and supply chain logistics during the Gulf War (technologies themselves that spurred by the massive private-sector investment under President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative) resulted in the flight of planners and tacticians from the military to the corporate arena. Friedrich Kittler has taken this relationship to its delirious limits, enclosing new media technologies and the cultures they germinated in a sense of secreted-away dread: “Radio is just the military radio system of the First World War minus the talkback-capability, television just the civilian twin of the radar screens of the Second; to say nothing of computer technology…”
Tackling the issue of technocracy and its relationship to everyday life means bringing to the surface all of these ancillary issues. This shouldn’t be considered, however, an argument of technological determinism, where technics contain an essence of war that it carries into civilian sphere in some vague envelope; what needs to be recognized is the potentialities embedded in technology, particularly in light of cloud computing and the internet of things. Technologies of hypercommunication generate asymmetrical platforms that are ultimately unique on their case-to-case basis – on one hand, technologies can be smoothing in terms of what communication can accomplish, while on the other it can have a centralizing effect and produce cartels of physical and digital components. Leftist theories have so often valorized the smoothing effect of information technology. For Yann Moulier Boutang, “cognitive capitalism” is a positive force; his adaptation of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley leads him to all sorts of technological-utopian proclamations. Antonio Negri (who was affiliated with Boutang at the French journal Multitudes) attempts to steer the influence of Silicon Valley back towards a Marxist analysis with his theories of “immaterial labor” that must be liberated from the codifications of Empire through acts of proto-Accelerationism. The foundation of this argument begins to melt away as soon as one juxtaposes the increasingly precarious physical labor and materialist infrastructure that such immaterial labor relies on (and this isn’t even to bring in the issue of the exertion, exhaustion, and burn-out suffered by “immaterial” laborers).
The grounds, ungrounds, and undergrounds of media infrastructures condition what is visible and what is invisible. This is a question of power relations and contested territories in a way that makes the geo- in geopolitics stand out. The earth is part of media both as a resource and transmission… It is the contested political earth that extends to being part of military “infrastructure”: the earth hides political stakes and can be formed as part of military strategy and maneuvers.
A proposition: the existence and future continuation of big data is contingent upon megastructures.
We cannot limit the problematic of technocracy and technology, and the possibilities of an emergent praxis to counter and cope with these trends, to these issues. I would like to bring into play and dialogue the fact that media technologies are an affair of geological and ecological forces, whose composition generates their own assemblages of technocracy, bureaucracy, and governmentalities. We could take this in numerous directions, from the extraction of tin, aluminum and silicon from the earth; perhaps more important than these, however, are rare earth minerals (REMs). There are 17 identified rare earth minerals, with applications found in everything from x-ray technology to LED lights to sonars to innumerable computer, cell phone, and television components. Despite their name REMs are not very rare at all; what makes them rare is the difficulty in mining and separating them from one another.
Reza Negarestani, in his infamous Cyclonopedia, described oil as a powerful inhuman agency that bends civilization to its will, exerting its force through the all-too-human picture of religious turmoil and geopolitics. In one passage he describes how “The nervous system and the chemistry of war machines smuggled through oil infuse with the western machines feasting on oil unnotices, as petroleum has already dissolved or refinedly emulsifided them in itself, as its chemical elements or its essential derivatives (Islamic ideologies, ambitions, implicit policies, socio-religious entities and formations, etc.).” One could just as easily write a Cyclonopedia from the perspective not of oil, but rare earth minerals. They are leaking into popular imagination: as China monopolizes some 97% of the world’s RME supply, the video game franchise Call of Duty has depicted an age of coming conflict situated around global demand and the difficulties this poses for international relations. Even the forces of oil that so fascinated Negarestani are too subjected the necessities of REMs, as they are the material form made to host the big data and logistics necessary for pipelines to carry out their given tasks. “Just as we are beginning to attend to the activity of materials in political life, the existence of materials has become increasingly bound up with the production of information… the pipeline was always more than a physical infrastructure.” Or more simply put, rare earth minerals are the infrastructure behind the infrastructure.