Digitalisation as the Colonialisation of Our Living Environment. On the Optimisation of Dominion and Servitude

Harald Welzer

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In a recent interview with the Tagesspiegel, Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explained what AI researchers are concerned about: “self-driving cars, autonomous weapons, fake news and deep fakes, filter bubbles and micro-targeting, in other words, targeted advertising of customers and voters. Will the new technologies concentrate the wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people? How many are going to lose their job to robots?” (Der Tagesspiegel, 20 July 2019). We could easily add others issues to these concerns sparked by digitalisation: the threat to democracy, the disappearance of privacy, monopolisation in platform capitalism, surveillance, cyberbullying, behavioural prediction, energy demands of digital applications, radiation exposure, delimitation of labour, information overkill, hyper-consumerism, economisation of social circumstances, so on and so forth. Indeed, there is no social area and no cultural practice which is inoculated from digitalisation. And even though life in wealthy countries, moving at dizzying speed, has become more convenient and consumer-based, one cannot attribute any obvious civilisational progress to digitalisation, i.e. the further improvement of interpersonal relationships. Indeed, it seems our growth-based economy with its pervasive logic of expansion in all subsystems is experiencing a dynamic boost through digitalisation (which, incidentally, is further heightening the enormous environmental and climate-related risks to our planet).

Shoshanna Zuboff compares digitalisation to an “invasive species” which penetrates all areas of a biosphere and is capable of destabilising an entire environmental system – an enlightening analogy. But since this isn’t about zoological habitats, but rather the social circumstances that digitalisation is radically changing, we would be better off (following Jürgen Habermas) to talk about a new colonisation of our living environment which is so fundamentally impactful and radical that it’s literally invading every aspect of daily life. To the extent that such colonisation – as in Habermas’ treatise – corresponded to the economic permeation of the living environment, it was possible to identify the areas which remained untouched by its influence – e.g. care and loving relationships, playing or mastering an instrument, or painting a picture for purely personal reasons.

With digitalisation, however, economisation has penetrated all areas of life. It is now possible to monetise every vacant room in a shared flat, unoccupied for several weeks, every passenger seat, every empty car trunk (as temporary storage space for packages ordered online). Every action, every statement is an occasion to ask for a rating, every personal interest suggested by an online search query, every movement in space, every media communication is a chance to enhance one’s personality profile set up by the web user. These serve as predictors of behaviour, which in turn generate needs and ideally the wish to satisfy them in real time.

There are two factors here which are especially worth noting: first, the vehemence with which the colonisers proceed, and second, how little resistance they encounter. What’s more, the affected societies – or at least the functionaries who embody them – do not appear especially inclined to interpret or debate what is happening to them as a political problem, nor view it as an attempted hostile takeover.

The Messianic slogans and language of Google, Facebook and AirBnB call to mind the language that colonial powers used long ago. In the same way they sought to bring Christianity to the natives (using any means possible) in the 17th and 18th century, today we are incessantly told that digitalisation has the power to “make the world a better place”, “eradicate all diseases” and “solve every problem” along with a host of similar promises of salvation. Yet no consideration is ever given to the fact that the problems of human coexistence are not binary ones. As the relationships of power and violence can be civilised and injustice mitigated, these are (in Heinz von Foerster’s words) non-trivial problems and cannot be reduced to “if-then” logics. The human being does not exist in a conditional universe, but within a construct of relationships which, in terms of internal logic, is not causal and non-conditional for the simple reason that humans interpret everything they encounter as part of the human or non-human world. Between condition and consequence, cause and effect, humans have always possessed something inherently unpredictable, namely an interpretation which can be different from case to case depending on the cultural context.

This is where binary logics fundamentally differ from the non-trivial logics of human life. Humans live in historically variable cultures which safeguard and improve their survival and have a reverse effect on their mentalities, psyches and self-concepts. Digitalisation provides a wonderful example of how this works. With the invention of the computer came the idea that the human brain functioned “like a computer”, only with more complex wiring. With the advent of the Internet came the idea of people “networking” with one another (and not simply existing within an echelon of relationships). In other words, human existence was interpreted using the model of an artefact that humans themselves had created. This line of thinking continued, for example, in the interpretation of data as “raw material” or machine learning as “artificial intelligence” – all of which represent to some extent the installation of digital programmes into the social sphere. In the meantime, society has arrived at a worldview that is more interested in “optimisation” than the political issues of change – including the idea that everything from institutions to the human body and brains – are inherently deficient and require “improvement”.

An ideology of Messianic solutionism has gained traction which superbly glosses over the age-old colonial intention of exploiting the labour, resources, sensual systems and bodies of today’s natives. And the new colonial masters are – like historical, real-world colonialism – white, male and culturally Western-oriented, at least with regard to the overwhelming majority of IT specials and digital economic players. It’s amazing that this circumstance alone is not condemned in feminist circles and post-colonial discourse for the scandal it is. Maybe it’s because smartphones are practically for everyone, an undifferentiated mass of data suppliers and behaviour-controlled users no matter whether a gender asterisk is included or not. (The truth is, as I was told in all seriousness by a female editor-in-chief of a weekly political magazine during a radio interview, that men might be the ones who primarily develop the devices and algorithms, but it was women who end up using them.)

And finally, did the colonised natives during historical colonialism ever ask for the blessings of a foreign culture, religion, government and economy? No. Similarly, there appears to be little interest in determining whether the majority of citizens want 5G antennas installed everywhere so that they can surround themselves with “ambient intelligence”, live in “smart” cities and “smart” buildings, have their cars drive themselves, and send their kids to schools which distribute iPads based on a pedagogically unsubstantiated “Digital Pact” (naturally sponsored by Apple). This and so much more is carried out in the service of technocratic self-evidence and simply accepted as compatible with the processes of modern democracy and its electorate, the independently discriminating subject.

Yet these two sides – a form of society that offers individual freedoms and a subject who independently uses and defends this freedom – find themselves at the centre of the neo-colonial attack. In his recent book Komplizen des Erkennungsdienstes (Accomplices of the Records Department), Andreas Bernard claims that the formats of self-descriptions and mutual behavioural surveillance – now a ubiquitous feature in the tracking functions of most smartphones which continuously tally one’s steps and monitor one’s sleeping rhythm – originated from psychometry and criminology for the purpose of monitoring divergent behaviour. Today they have become such a standard tool that smartphone users don’t begin trying to normalise their behaviour when confronted with some manifest deviation. Rather, each and every user is defined as potentially divergent and subjected to constant surveillance – and most importantly – they voluntarily self-monitor themselves in quantifying their life activities.

One of the most bizarre manifestations of this trend is the “quantified self” movement whose followers fastidiously have their every action quantitatively assessed because – as one of their gurus explained – it serves to “optimise human existence”. The triumph of Fitbit wristbands and Apple watches, like the surge in self-awareness in matters of nutrition, appearance and performance, shows that the internalisation of measuring, monitoring, comparing and evaluating have become standard aspects of our everyday lives. In other words, what would have once been condemned as a completely inappropriate incursion into one’s power of judgement and lifestyle just a generation ago is now eagerly embraced by most as the behavioural norm.

Adrian Lobe presents a similar line of discourse in his latest book Speichern und Strafen (Save and Punish), a title inspired by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. In the book, he explains how this colonisation of behaviour has been translated into a social, paradigmatic shift in which power is no longer wielded by elected governments but rather private institutions which supply us with information, insurance and not least of all, the behavioural police officers named Siri or Alexa we carry around with us in our pockets or install in our homes. “The large Internet companies Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are mutating into para-governmental agents who impose rules of conduct (Siri, for instance, advises users to abstain from smoking), monitor the population or provide evidence for criminal proceedings.” What’s more, the major Internet and communication giants are installing infrastructures – from monopolistic search engines and social networks to data transfer networks – which ostensibly operate beyond the reach of national governments because their corresponding budgets and the state of research make it all but impossible to create their own structures. And thus, a neo-colonial system has re-emerged in which there is no global alternative to Google, Amazon et al. – all monoliths which have made it all but impossible for societies to escape these superstructures.

The exception here is China, the populous dictatorship which started building its own parallel structures of search engines, social networks etc. very early on. By 2020 it will have created a system of perfect behavioural monitoring, opening a whole new chapter in the history of totalitarianism. What we mean by “behavioural monitoring” is that desired behaviour is rewarded with discounts and perks while deviant behaviour is punished. No longer does the data have to be collected by secret police and an army of spies; the surveilled masses deliver the data themselves. And as we’ve heard, they apparently welcome the idea because it makes it easier to assimilate into the prescribed harmonious order of freedom, judgement and responsibility.

Perhaps it is this relief from having to constantly think and decide for oneself that is so appealing in nominally free societies and moves users to willingly subject themselves to algorithmic norms. All that which is so deeply ingrained in the subject models and the culturally-oriented images people have of themselves has led to concepts that mirror the intentions of the colonisers: If people and their intellectual and physical abilities are considered fundamentally deficient, then it’s obviously necessary to help them optimise themselves with the achievements of digitalisation and artificial intelligence. Foucault called this the “interaction of the technologies of domination and technologies of the self”. In the same way individuals are regarded as deficient and in need of optimisation, so too is their living environment – a universe of unsolved problems which urgently require processing by means of digital applications. Contrary to what the digital economy might advertise, there is absolutely nothing disruptive about the result, for nothing is fundamentally changed, but only optimised, irrespective of what purpose it serves, to which the answer should be whether it is completely outmoded or has always been a stupid idea.

Ivan Illich once described the underlying mechanism of power as follows: “When behaviour that leads to madness becomes the norm in society, people learn to fight for the right to participate in it.” And this means that the colonialisation of our living environment begins to reach perfection when domination is no longer perceived as alien, but has been translated into internalised norms and self-constraints which the ruled masses believe to voluntarily follow for their own benefit.

It is astounding to see with what compliance politics and institutions, i.e. parliaments, ministries, universities, schools, cultural organisations etc, allow their immanent fields of activity to be pervaded by digital devices, control logics, surveillance mechanisms and testing and assessment criteria. The reason for this must lie in the subtle fact that most people believe the colonisers’ debasement rhetoric and consequently agree that everything they’ve done in the past has been “suboptimal” and thus “deficient” in some way. This is ultimately the most successful mechanism of colonial rule: getting the ruled masses to truly believe they are inferior, childish, incapable and uncivilised. Against this background, liberal democracies and specifically their institutions must urgently stage anti-colonial resistance against the destruction of their own, independently minded cultures.

Harald Welzer

Harald Welzer, born in 1958 in Blissendorf near Hannover, is a sociologist and social psychologist. Aside from his extensive activities as a journalist and sociology professor, Welzer has made a name for himself in the intellectual debate culture as director of FUTURZWEI. Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit and editor of the journal for politics and future taz.FUTURZWEI. Welzer’s most recent book, entitled Alles könnte anders sein: Eine Gesellschaftsutopie für freie Menschen (Everything Could Be Different – A Social Utopia for Free People) was published by the S. Fischer Verlag.

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