Thinking loudly about networked beings. Commonist. Projektionsfläche. License: CC-BY
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Me Ow

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The post Me Ow appeared first on The Perry Bible Fellowship.

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tante
18 days ago
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Me Ow
Berlin/Germany
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fxer
19 days ago
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Wolves must really be in pain.
Bend, Oregon

Neues Gesetz in Dänemark: E-Roller nur mit Helm

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In Dänemark gilt seit dem 1. Januar eine Helmpflicht beim Fahren mit Elektroscootern. Auch in Deutschland wird das gefordert. mehr...
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tante
19 days ago
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Helmpflicht für E-Roller ist das Mindeste. So hart besteuern, dass es sich nicht mehr lohnt, dass die Dinger den öffentlichen Raum vollmüllen.
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The Great Offline

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In 1995, environmental historian William Cronon published “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In it, he critiques the Western concept of “wilderness” as nothing but a fantasy that prevents us from meaningfully engaging with ecological systems. He argues that the idea of wilderness is beset by a central paradox: It supplies the “ultimate landscape of authenticity,” allowing for the purest expression of a human self, and yet it excludes human presence by definition (wilderness is wherever other humans are not). Wilderness thus remains a “profoundly human creation” — charged with individualism — in which we perceive not “nature,” but “the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

The idea of wilderness as we think of it today is a fairly modern invention. Up until the 18th century in the West, wilderness still carried overwhelmingly negative connotations, reflecting the biblical story of the Fall, in which it first signified the barren, empty, desolate lands to which Adam and Eve were banished after their expulsion from Eden. Throughout the colonial era, settlers narrated their mission in terms of the restoration of Eden: By turning worthless “wilderness” into something commodifiable and profitable, they were doing “God’s work.”

Before the internet, escaping to the wilderness was touted for its health benefits. Now, it is a remedy to the abstract category of technology — screen light and digital noise

Over time, as uncolonized tracts of land in North America grew scarcer, nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau began to lament the landscapes that were being lost to the plough. Gradually, wilderness came to signify Eden itself, specifically an Eden that predated the appearance of Adam and Eve. In these romanticized accounts of “nature,” Indigenous peoples were neatly figured as part of the fauna; which meant that the lands on which they lived could conveniently be called “uninhabited.” (Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes for Real Life: “It never occurred to the first white settlers who came to Yosemite and exclaimed that it had the pristine beauty of a European garden that it in fact was a garden.”) In 1964, as the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, it also enshrined into law a definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This definition of wilderness, underpinned by processes of racial dehumanization, persists today.

The concept of wilderness has surprisingly close ties to another modern invention: the idea of technological “disconnection,” and the accompanying idea of “digital detox.” These constructs share not only a repertoire of motifs, but also a conceptual underpinning. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, characterizes the offline world as a physical place, a kind of Edenic paradise. “Not too long ago,” she writes, “people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand” —  now, “they often walk with their heads down, typing.” Real Life editor Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the false presumption of a clean line between the online and the offline. Like the nature/culture binary, the online/offline distinction stems from a misguided preoccupation with authenticity. It frames our relationship with technology in terms of either connection of disconnection, wrongly implying that the “connected” are alienated from their true selves.

As concepts, “wilderness” and “the offline” are deeply enmeshed. Both offer mythologies of ahistoricity and unaccountability, an escape clause from the dilemmas of a globalized world. They cloak themselves in the language of embodiment (the wind in your hair, the sand under your feet), while offering up the fantasy of moving through the world without a digital or ecological footprint, as a little wisp of pure soul. Together — in setting up a binaristic opposition between the corrupted, connected, digital self on the one hand, and the pure, wild, disconnected self on the other — they pose major obstacles to thinking through the complexity of human-technological-ecological relations.


In early 2015, Twitter discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled dozens of words associated with the natural environment. The new edition of the dictionary — which cut terms like “acorn,”“buttercup,” and “kingfisher” in favor of adding “21st-century” terms like “broadband,” “voicemail,” “blog,” and “cut and paste” — had actually been published nearly eight years earlier. Nonetheless, the revelation prompted an open letter from 30 writers and broadcasters, including Margaret Atwood and British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, and a fresh wave of outrage. The authors evoked a terrifying portrait of the moral and physical health of 21st-century children, mourning the days when kids would “go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors.” Today’s experience of childhood, they wrote, was an “inner, solitary” affair, plagued by the proliferation of “obesity, anti-social behavior, friendlessness and fear.”

The letter doesn’t mention screen usage and it doesn’t need to. The specter of technology is implicit in its familiar portrait of the contemporary child as isolated, maladjusted, and inactive. Mainstream discussion of the current research on the impact of screen time on child development essentially offers a scientized version of the biblical story of the Fall: innocence irreversibly corrupted. In this sense, much contemporary “disconnectionism” (to use Jurgenson’s term) — like much contemporary nature writing — smacks of the Enlightenment-idea figure of “the noble savage”: a colonial vision of pre-industrial man uncorrupted by the evils of civilization. The figure of archetypal innocence is not always a child, sometimes it is an imaginary and extremely generic ancestor who never sat at a desk for eight hours at a time, went to bed with the sun, and was in tune with humankind’s innate goodness. Sometimes it is a parent, a grandmother, a self several decades earlier. “I am as free as nature first made man, ’ere the base laws of servitude began, when wild in woods the noble savage ran,” wrote John Dryden in 1672. “Thirty years ago,” begins Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together, “the world still retained a certain innocence.”

The “offline world” and the “wilderness” function as vessels for our frustrations with contemporary life: They are defined by what they don’t contain, rather than what they do

The construction of screen time as the moral evil responsible for this fall figures screen time and offline time as two sharply distinct and yet internally homogeneous categories, bound in direct opposition to one another (screen time is passive and introverted; offline time is active and social). The absence of analysis about what exactly we are doing online or offline — as well as the ways that screens and “real life” blur together — lend this discussion an almost magical quality: It is as if the mere presence of a screen becomes a kind of radiation, triggering irreparable mutations that lessen our humanity.

Like earlier anti-television campaigns, within contemporary “digital detox” movements the toxicity of screen time and the detoxifying benefits of the offline are conceived in terms of both moral and physical health. Theodora Sutton — whose research looks at “Camp Grounded,” a digital detox retreat that takes place in the Mendocino forest — has written about the way such retreats invoke a parallel between technology and food. “Consuming” digital content becomes equivalent to other forms of addictive, harmful consumption (alcohol, junk food) while the face-to-face encounters that take place in the “offline” are compared to a nutritious snack. Before the internet, escaping to the wilderness was touted for the health benefits of clean air, clean water, an absence of chemicals and smog — qualities that, in restoring the body, would supposedly also restore the soul to its purest state. Now, the abstract category of technology — metonymically represented by the more tangible substances of screen light and digital noise — is frequently added to the list of bodily harms to which wilderness offers a remedy. This sets up the assumption that a healthy relationship with the digital (short of total disconnect) looks like retreat and re-immersion, or detox and retox; a pattern that has its origins in the idea of wilderness.


The compartmentalization of nature and culture that was solidified with the Wilderness Act also shaped the ways online and offline worlds are conceived as separate, both spatially and ontologically. The association between the “offline” and “the wild” was deepened by the uneven distribution of broadband across the urban/rural divide. Increasingly, the fact that many national parks were “off grid” became appealing to those wanting to get away from digital ubiquity. In 2014, Parks Canada’s announcement that it was installing wi-fi in some of its most remote areas was met with backlash, a debate that flared up again two years later when the U.S. National Park Service floated the idea of building a high-speed fiber optic cable in Yellowstone National Park. “People who can’t live without their cellphones aren’t just the wrong demographic for Yellowstone,” argued an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. “They’re the very demographic the rest of us go to Yellowstone to escape. Let’s not encourage them.”

The us/them rhetoric here is familiar from the patronizing tone adopted by “disconnectionists.” If the offline, like the wilderness, represents the enlightened, healthy, embodied, free and authentic state, then the large majority of us, who cannot claim to dwell in either category, represent a fallen vision of humanity: disembodied and superficial, zombified and anxious, trapped in virtuality. If “people who can’t live without their cellphones” are the wrong demographic for Yellowstone, then this means essentially anyone who does not have a stable, well-paid job that allows them to put on an out-of-office, with zero caveats, for days at a time; freelancers and gig-workers; anyone with caring responsibilities. In other words, the majority of people today.

Writing in 1995, Cronon argued that the emergence of modern wilderness tourism catered to the tastes of America’s white male elites, who would escape to nature to counter the emasculating tendencies of civilization, with its comforts and conveniences. Crucially, writes Cronon, those who evoked the fantasy of unworked land were primarily those who had never had to work the land for a living. Similarly, calls to keep wi-fi out of the National Parks come overwhelmingly from wealthy city dwellers, who “go off-grid” to recharge their minds and bodies, returning to tout the benefits of escape. The fantasy world of the offline reproduces the “frontier nostalgia” embedded in the concept of wilderness, which for Cronon expressed “a peculiarly bourgeois concept of antimodernism.”

Cronon’s critique of wilderness hinges on the fact that the concept never referred to nature as a permanent home: instead, it was a place in which one could rediscover their humanity so as to return to the working world supercharged and replenished. “Digital detox” movements advertise a mode of being offline that looks a lot like wilderness tourism. While some of these (like Camp Grounded) situate themselves in actual protected ecological areas, others (such as the organization “Screen-Free Week”) simply replicate the temporal pattern of retreat and immersion, escape and return. In these cases, the siloed concept of “the offline” is still spatially conceived, albeit more nebulously. The offline takes on the aura of a lost Atlantis: the long-forgotten “real” world underlying the “virtual” world in which we live.

According to the notion of wilderness, history itself is a human phenomenon. The fantasy of escaping to a place beyond history is the fantasy of unaccountability

The problem is, of course, that the boundary between the offline and the online is incredibly hard to situate. It shifts as technologies change and become absorbed — to differing degrees, at differing paces — into the collective cultural perception of what counts as real as opposed to virtual. (Does watching cable TV count as being offline? What about answering a telephone call?) “Screen-Free Week,” for example — which invites participants to put down “entertainment screens” for seven days in May — was formerly called “TV Turnoff Week,” and was initially championed by an organization called TV-Free America. The name change, in 2010, was supposed to reflect the growing prevalence of entertainment and advertising consumption away from the television screen. It also inadvertently reflects the increasing incorporation of television watching into our nostalgia for the offline world. Gone are the happy days when families would gather around a weekly televised program like our ancestors around the campfire! Now smartphones are the threshold of the virtual.

The reality of orchestrating a screen-free week therefore entails a whole lot of decisions about the line separating work from leisure, “healthy” and “unhealthy” screen usage, the necessary and the superfluous, and what counts as a “screen” at all. With reference to Foucault, Jurgenson argues that the moral emphasis of disconnectionism comes from the fact that digital connection is bound up with desire (“to neutralize a desire,” Jurgenson writes, “it must be made into a moral problem we are constantly aware of: Is it okay to look at a screen here? For how long? How bright can it be? How often can I look?”). Similarly, technology theorist Dylan Mulvin has argued that self-control apps and screen-time limits place the onus on the individual to manage their own screen use, rather than encouraging us to think about the systems that determine the nature of our engagement with online platforms in the first place. In shifting the emphasis from what one is doing with the screen to how often one looks at it, we also shift the emphasis away from the worlds we are building collectively, and towards how we are inhabiting them individually.


In Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, an aristocratic young man stands in the center of the frame, his back to us, his posture distinctly arrogant, contemplating a wide vista of steaming mountain peaks. In the 19th century, as wilderness tourism was taking off as an industry, natural landscapes were figured as an antidote to the social pressures of urban living, offering truth in place of artifice, interiority in place of exteriority, solitude in place of small talk. Journeys into the wilderness were thus solitary by definition, offering the experience of existing as the only man on earth (Adam, alone and happy, before the arrival of Eve). According to the wilderness paradigm, man’s “truest self” could only emerge in the absence of other human beings.

Much contemporary nature writing still replicates this vision of what it means to be “immersed in nature.” This genre, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, is a corollary of what Jurgenson calls the “disconnectionist” or “detox” memoir. In both cases, the formula is largely the same: The author abandons the hyper-connected maelstrom of urban/digital living for a period of intense, solitary immersion in the world beyond the grid. They undergo a series of profound personal transformations which lead them back to their “authentic self.” In her critique of Robert McFarlane’s 2007 memoir The Wild Places, the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie points out McFarlane’s ample use of the first person in his accounts of journeys into the English “wilderness.” His isolation in the wilderness is so profound that it isolates him not only from his contemporaries, but from the broader story of humanity as whole. McFarlane writes: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.”

McFarlane’s memoir displays a blindness to the broader context of how the supposed “ahistoricity” of wilderness has been used to justify colonial seizure — as well as the specific way local economies and livelihoods shaped the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland beyond (in Jamie’s words) “the piteous romance of the Clearances and the Famine.” According to the notion of wilderness, history itself is a human phenomenon. The fantasy of escaping to a place beyond history is, ultimately, the fantasy of unaccountability. It spares the visitor from reckoning with the political, social and economic forces which have interacted with ecological forces to shape the landscape, while allowing them to indulge in the idea that they are self-created, forged in the absence of external cultural stimuli.

The myth of unspoiled nature means that fewer resources are directed towards cleaning up homelands that are already considered “spoiled”

As Theodora Sutton points out, one of the major claims made by Camp Grounded and other players within the digital detox economy is the promise of reconnection with other humans. (Camp Grounded’s slogan is “disconnect to reconnect.”) If the majority of other people are still “plugged in,” however, the kind of sociality this encourages is a siloed one: a tight, closed, conditional community. Because of the increasing impossibility of being truly offline while participating in contemporary social structures, “going offline” now is seen as entailing a particularly heroic type of self-ostracization, which deepens one’s connections with a smaller network of like-minded people. The “offline” is ultimately associated with a greater knowledge of the self, attuning one to one’s own needs and desires rather than the expectations of others.

This reflects something inherent in what the “offline” and “wilderness” are actually doing as concepts. If the spaces we imagine to facilitate reconnection with the self also banish the factors that determine who we are — the wider cultural dimensions of the worlds we belong to — then we are condemned to either living falsely, or being alone. Both concepts collapse when one acknowledges that, no matter how far off-grid one travels, there is no place, person nor thing on earth that is not determined by intricate webs of local and globalized forces, social and ecological. It is not possible to cut these cords, or to exit the grid of interconnection. It is only possible to pretend they don’t exist.


True disconnection, like true wilderness, is an empty goal. Whether we have shunned social media or not, the internet does not cease to exist as a driving force in the world, any more than ecological systems cease to shape our lives the minute we reach the end of the forest trail and hop back in the car. The concepts of the “offline world” and the “wilderness” function as vessels into which we pour our frustrations with contemporary life: They are defined by what they don’t contain, rather than what they do. It is entirely possible to abandon the fantasy of “the offline” as the seat of the real, while remaining critical about the ways contemporary technologies — and the socioeconomic systems within which they are embedded — are shaping our relations and identities. In fact, abandoning the idea of the online-offline binary is the only way to meaningfully engage with the question of how we can build a world that is fairer, more conducive to more happiness for more people.

I’m no stranger to apps that help me curb my screen time, and I’ll admit I’ve often felt better for using them. But on a more communal level, I suspect that cultures of digital detox — in suggesting that the online world is inherently corrupting and cannot be improved — discourage us from seeking alternative models for what the internet could look like. I don’t want to be trapped in cycles of connection and disconnection, deleting my social media profiles for weeks at a time, feeling calmer but isolated, re-downloading them, feeling worse but connected again. For as long as we keep dumping our hopes into the conceptual pit of “the offline world,” those hopes will cease to exist as forces that might generate change in the worlds we actually live in together.

As Cronon writes, the idea of “wilderness” corners us into a deep pessimism: By telling ourselves humans have no place in nature, we relinquish the possibility of living harmoniously with wider ecological systems. We’ll never tackle the global ecological crises we face by preserving a few little pockets of “undisturbed nature” when some of the biggest drivers of ecological damage — climate change, biodiversity loss — don’t respect spatial or temporal boundaries. The myth of unspoiled nature not only leads to misguided policies that threaten the very qualities we hope to preserve; it also means that fewer resources are directed towards  cleaning up homelands that are already considered “spoiled.”

The most exciting aspect of giving up mega-narratives like “the offline” or “the wilderness” is the promise of what might rush in to fill their place. By doing away with binary understandings of escape and retreat, connection and disconnection, we edge toward a much richer, more complex picture, in which human, ecological and technological systems are mutually co-determined, and in which everyone and everything is a bit responsible for everything else.

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tante
32 days ago
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"The most exciting aspect of giving up mega-narratives like “the offline” or “the wilderness” is the promise of what might rush in to fill their place."
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Hey man

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

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The weird part is they've been dating for 10 years now.


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tante
39 days ago
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It's played as a joke here but this is a massive reason for the horrible mental health many men have
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popular
39 days ago
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Malicious packages sneaked into NPM repository stole Discord tokens

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Malicious packages sneaked into NPM repository stole Discord tokens

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Researchers have found another 17 malicious packages in an open source repository, as the use of such repositories to spread malware continues to flourish.

This time, the malicious code was found in NPM, where 11 million developers trade more than 1 million packages among each other. Many of the 17 malicious packages appear to have been spread by different threat actors who used varying techniques and amounts of effort to trick developers into downloading malicious wares instead of the benign ones intended.

This latest discovery continues a trend first spotted a few years ago, in which miscreants sneak information stealers, keyloggers, or other types of malware into packages available in NPM, RubyGems, PyPi, or another repository. In many cases, the malicious package has a name that’s a single letter different than a legitimate package. Often, the malicious package includes the same code and functionality as the package being impersonated and adds concealed code that carries out additional nefarious actions.

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tante
44 days ago
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NPM (and PyPi/RubyGems) keeps spreading malicious packages. It's a hard problem but really needs to be tackled soon. Because "npm install" is basically how people build a lot of stuff these days.
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False Positivism

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During the pandemic, the everyday significance of modeling — data-driven representations of reality designed to inform planning — became inescapable. We viewed our plans, fears, and desires through the lens of statistical aggregates: Infection-rate graphs became representations not only of the virus’s spread but also of shattered plans, anxieties about lockdowns, concern for the fate of our communities. 

But as epidemiological models became more influential, their implications were revealed as anything but absolute. One model, the Recidiviz Covid-19 Model for Incarceration, predicted high infection rates in prisons and consequently overburdened hospitals. While these predictions were used as the basis to release some prisoners early, the model has also been cited by those seeking to incorporate more data-driven surveillance technologies into prison management — a trend new AI startups like Blue Prism and Staqu are eager to get in on. Thus the same model supports both the call to downsize prisons and the demand to expand their operations, even as both can claim a focus on flattening the curve. 

Impersonal, large-scale coordination by models can seem like an escape from subjective politics. It is rooted in a longstanding desire to streamline political thought

If insights from the same model can be used to justify wildly divergent interventions and political decisions, what should we make of the philosophical idea that data-driven modeling can liberate decision-making from politics? Advocates of algorithmic governance argue as though the facts,” if enough are gathered and made efficacious, will disclose the “rational and equitable” response to existing conditions. And if existing models seem to offer ambiguous results, they might argue, it just means surveillance and technological intervention hasn’t been thorough enough. 

But does a commitment to the facts really warrant ignoring concerns about individual privacy and agency? Many started to ask this question as new systems for contact tracing and penalizing violations of social distancing recommendations were proposed to fight the coronavirus. And does having enough facts” really ensure that these systems can be considered unambiguously just? Even the crime-prediction platform PredPol, abandoned by the Los Angeles Police Department when critics and activists debunked its pseudo-scientific theories of criminal behavior and detailed its biases, jumped on the opportunity to rebrand itself as an epidemiological tool, a way to predict coronavirus spread and enforce targeted lockdowns. After all, it had already modeled crime as a “contagion-like process” — why not an actual contagion?

The ethics and effects of interventions depend not only on facts in themselves, but also on how facts are construed — and on what patterns of organization, existing or speculative, they are mobilized to justify. Yet the idea persists that data collection and fact finding should override concerns about surveillance, and not only in the most technocratic circles and policy think tanks. It also has defenders in the world of design theory and political philosophy. Benjamin Bratton, known for his theory of global geopolitics as an arrangement of computational technologies he calls “the Stack,” sees in data-driven modeling the only political rationality capable of responding to difficult social and environmental problems like pandemics and climate change. In his latest book, The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World, he argues that expansive models — enabled by what he theorizes as planetary-scale computation” — can transcend individualistic perspectives and politics and thereby inaugurate a more inclusive and objective regime of governance. Against a politically fragmented world of polarized opinions and subjective beliefs, these models, Bratton claims, would unite politics and logistics under a common representation of the world. In his view, this makes longstanding social concerns about personal privacy and freedom comparatively irrelevant and those who continue to raise them irrational. 

We should attend to this kind of reasoning carefully because it appeals to many who are seeking a decisive approach to dealing with the world’s epidemiological, climatological, and political ails, which seem insurmountably vast and impervious to tried political strategies. The prospect of impersonal, large-scale coordination by models may seem especially attractive when viewed from within a liberal political imaginary, where the dominant political value is a preoccupation with defending individual “rights,” rather than supporting the livelihood of others or the natural environment. An appeal to the objectivity of models can seem like an escape from subjective politics.

This idea has its roots in a longstanding desire to streamline political thought through an appeal to technical principles. It can be traced back at least to Auguste Comte’s 19th century positivism and his idea of developing a “social physics” that could account for social behavior with a set of fixed, universal laws. Later in the 19th century the term was taken up by statisticians, covering their racist criminological and sociological theories with a veneer of data. Now the premise of social physics lives on in everything from MIT professor Alex Pentland’s work on modeling human crowd behavior to the dreams of technocrats like Mark Zuckerberg, whose quest for “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships” is in conspicuous alignment with Facebook’s pursuit and implementation of a “social graph.”

But a “social physics” approach that broadens the horizon of computational modeling can seem appealing to more than just tech-company zealots. In more disinterested hands, a compelling political case can be made that it is the only viable way forward in a world out of control, marked by demagoguery and mistrust. As the hopes for modeling gain momentum, it will become increasingly important to articulate clearly its shortcomings, inconsistencies, and dangers.


The technological infrastructure needed for “planetary-scale computation” and all-encompassing models doesn’t need to be invented from scratch. According to Bratton, it’s everywhere already: diverse computing devices, sensors for data collection, and users across the world are networked together in ways that afford humanity the ability to sense, model, and understand itself — everything from logistical supply chains to climate modeling. The planetary network of computation has already spawned well-documented abuses of overreaching data collection and harmful side effects of automating human decisions, but these are not Bratton’s concern. In his view, planetary-scale computation’s core architecture is practical and effective; it’s just that its current uses are misplaced and human, geared more toward tasks like collecting data to target individuals with ads than intervening in climate change. 

Bratton sees logistical platforms like Amazon and China’s Belt and Road Initiative as precedents for what planetary-scale computation should become: a data collection and analysis system that doesn’t merely try to optimize attention but instead makes services more efficient. Epidemiological modeling has become another precedent: The pandemic, Bratton suggests, has pushed us to develop models through which we perceive ourselves not as self-contained individuals entering into contractual relationships, but as a population of contagion nodes and vectors.” That is, the coronavirus — by infecting people irrespective of their subjective intentions, politics, and accords — demonstrated that objective, biological forces always have the last say. This challenges us to recognize what Bratton calls the “ethics of being an object”: the importance of acknowledging ourselves as biological things that can harm other things regardless of our subjective values and intentions. Rather than resist expanding surveillance measures, this “epidemiological reality,” Bratton argues, should have prompted us to forgo personal privacy and agency in favor of being accounted for by planetary-scale computing systems and modeling.

Epidemiological modeling exemplifies what Michel Foucault described as biopolitics”: a strategy of governance that uses statistical aggregates to represent the health of human populations at scale, enabling authorities to identify how individuals deviate from a “norm.” Often, Foucault is read as critiquing such strategies for extending regimes of normalization, but Bratton believes that there can be a “positive biopolitics” that demonstrates what population-scale abstractions provide to medical care over what they confer to political power, as though the two could be disentangled. 

Law enforcement agencies consistently appeal the notion that surveillance can work as a positive form of inclusion

For Foucault, subjectivity is a site and strategy of power. In other words, power exercises itself through shaping how we understand who we are. Unlike traditional juridical power in which a sovereign or state governs by decrees and prohibitions, what Foucault calls “biopower” can “dispose” human behavior to certain ends without needing the state to formally categorize or criminalize it. This account of biopower, too, is usually seen as a critique: That biopower coerces through incentives and data rather than through observable contracts and conspicuous acts of violence demonstrates its insidiousness. By operating through algorithms that manipulate human environments and attention, biopower can nudge human behavior without issuing explicit commands or receiving considered consent.

For Bratton, this abrogation of personal agency appears as a potential advantage, putting the ethics of being an object” into practice. Operationalizing population-scale Covid infection data, for example, could override individualistic myopia as well as clumsy conventional forms of state authority, which resorted to blanket lockdown measures only because they lacked the jurisdiction and capacity for more targeted measures. After all, Bratton argues, “Those in socio-economic positions that prevent them from receiving the medical care they need may be less concerned about the psychological insult of being treated like an object by medical abstraction than they are about the real personal danger of not being treated at all.” They would rather be objectified than neglected entirely.

In practice, however, biopower tends to be not either–or but both: Marginalized groups are both surveilled and neglected, and neglect is used as a pretense for surveilling them more. For Foucault, distributed biopolitical governance is no less partial and coercive than traditional sovereign power; moreover in his view these forms of power do not exclude one another. 

Biopolitical logic can be used as the pretense for exercising repressive sovereign power, as when the city of Portland broke up encampments of the unhoused for violating social distancing, gathering, and accessibility guidelines. And biopolitics can provide the basis for means-tested welfare policies, withholding benefits from targeted groups on the basis of objectifying abstractions. As cities in Texas experiment with technologies for registering houseless people on a blockchain to track the aid they receive, those who opt out of such surveillance may find themselves without access to essential services. This practice may appear more efficient” by some ostensibly objective standard precisely because it leverages existing distributions of power. As these examples suggest, an appeal to biopolitics does not absolve us from the ethical quandaries of how subjects are represented and manipulated, even when such abstractions are carried out with the intent of distributing aid or providing resources to those in need.


If data-driven governance aims to influence human behavior at scale, it must eventually consider carefully the ethics of how power configures subjectivity and how this complicates distinctions between objective and subjective reason. As Foucault argued, this does not mean we should return to the model of human rights and subjectivity provided by juridical power, where governance is organized by individual subjects who enter into contractual relations with one another. Rather it demonstrates that such a model is inadequate to contemporary configurations of power and that new models are needed. 

But the inadequacies of liberalism should not be taken to invalidate all critics of large-scale computational platforms. Bratton contends that “anti-surveillance” critique, broadly conceived, constrains discussions of technology to individualistic concerns over the rights and privacy of liberal subjects, effectively refusing to acknowledge how a lack of surveillance leaves certain communities, places, and processes unfairly unaccounted for. That is, critics of surveillance are ultimately arguing against what Bratton sees as inclusivity. 

For Bratton, inclusivity has less to do with participation in governance than with “quantitative inclusion”: having information about people accounted for in metrics, data, and models. Subjects should embrace the “ethics of being an object” and thereby renounce any decision about whether they should be included in systems that they don’t have a practical say in developing. 

By this view, the more inclusive model is the one that incorporates more diverse people within the scope of its calculations, ensuring their “right and responsibility to be counted.” To the degree that individuals refuse to be modeled, they are to blame for the models’ failures to be comprehensive enough to represent the world accurately and equitably — and not the extensive history of inequality in computing design and use. From Yarden Katz’s history of the white supremacist disposition of AI in Artificial Whiteness, through Virginia Eubanks’ investigation of discriminatory welfare algorithms in Automating Inequality, to Safiya Noble’s analysis of Google Search’s racial biases in Algorithms of Oppression, we find these inequalities at every step of the computing pipeline.

By viewing society in terms of networks of harm, it becomes easier to view solutions to all our problems in terms of data networks

The notion that surveillance can work as a positive form of inclusion is not new. Law enforcement agencies consistently appeal to it under a variety of names (evidence-based policing, information-driven policing, community policing) as a way to make neglected communities safer, as if greater scrutiny over their behaviors is what these communities need most. This data-based inclusivity — in which data about the number of times that communities commit crimes, call the police, or violate building codes are included in policing models — is different than inclusivity in decision-making, let alone inclusion in socially privileged groups. This is a data-driven iteration of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called “predatory inclusion” with respect to the real estate industry’s efforts to mask housing inequality and segregation.

While surveillance may be branded like cellular network coverage, as though it can reach greater populations to provide them with better access to various services, it turns out to be demographically slanted. Increased surveillance is not equivalent to more equitable treatment but an expression of its opposite. This is characteristic of most appeals to data-driven modeling in governance: Maximum “inclusivity” and representation in data that ultimately enables more stringent conditions for gatekeeping who can participate in the design of decision-making processes. Bratton, for instance, gives precedence to objective” accounts of data and algorithms over subjective” accounts of their harms and is dismissive of activists who express concerns over such issues as “algorithmic bias” without adhering to technical definitions of algorithms. To be sure, the term “algorithmic bias” can be used as a ready-to-hand watchword for algorithm critique that precludes sustained reflection. But initiating an algorithm naming contest — Bratton challenges us with a list so we know where he stands: “A* search algorithm? Fast Fourier transform? Gradient descent?” — ultimately supports a regime of exclusivity based on technical competency, barring certain people and ways of knowing from discussions about technology ethics.


The argument for data-driven governance takes biopolitical control and mandatory inclusion as fundamentally necessary and rational, a view which follows from seeing data-driven models as more explicit and unambiguous in their aims than human subjects. Once designed, models march toward their preconceived purpose according to an objective logic that adapts to contingencies. Bratton thus maintains that there is nothing inherent in planetary-scale computation that necessarily disposes it to detrimental uses; it is basically neutral, as though computation at scale offered no concrete and practical affordances to power. The harmful uses of computation with which we are increasingly familiar are instead simply irrational applications of the technology against its grain. 

But if planetary-scale computation is currently limited by the irrational social and cultural uses to which it is put, this doesn’t bode well for using this very same technology to transcend the politics that yield those apparent irrationalities. When Bratton presents the racial profiling and modeling of individual consumers that occurs on social media platforms as simply impractical uses of computation rather than practical tactics of power that planetary-scale computation specifically enables, he elides the entrenched material constraints and incentives of technology design that contribute to these practices in the first place. From communication platforms subsidized by user data to the biopolitical use of this data to analyze familial networks as criminal gangs, racial profiling and consumer behavior modeling aren’t simply misuses of computation, but affordances of it.

Without regard for these conditions of computing design and use, Bratton’s work reinforces the notion that computing applications are fungible: Social media technology can be applied to promoting social distancing instead of optimizing consumption; facial recognition technology can be applied to detecting infection instead of racial profiling; surveillance platforms can rebrand from crime prediction to infection modeling — and vice versa. After all, Bratton insists that social relations and ethics have an intrinsically epidemiological basis. By viewing society in terms of networks of harm, it becomes easier to view solutions to all our problems in terms of data networks, surveillance coverage, and interactions among distributed people and devices that must be regulated. Repurposing the existing architecture of planetary-scale computation to solving these problems becomes not a matter of on-the-ground subjective” criticism of the harms it has caused but an unwavering commitment to its “suppressed positive potential.”

Throughout his work, Bratton encourages the design of automated mechanisms for governance that “can be repeated again and again, without the trouble of new deliberation.” By imbuing human decisions into computational systems and then designing them to respond to the environment dynamically, we can automate extraneous political discussions away. As an example, Bratton points to the water faucet: It automates political decisions like “where should the water come from, and for whom should it now come,” simply making water available to whoever turns the knob.

But this basic example obscures fundamental questions about technical interventions: Who designs them? Who decides what they ultimately do? How could we responsibly account for their unintended consequences? Mistakes are an inherent aspect of any scientific process or political intervention. Appeals to data-driven modeling in governance must take into consideration how data-driven calculations, no matter how descriptive or statistically accurate in controlled experiments, can lead to unanticipated problems. 

For Bratton, models should not purport to know everything about the world. Instead, they must be carefully designed to abstract features from it, including and excluding details in the service of a particular objective. Since modeling cannot hope for perfect omniscience and omnipotence, it should be based instead on the specification of “heuristics” that reflect the practical, scoped tasks that we want modeling to achieve. Bratton does not give an example, leaving us instead with some questions to consider for modeling: “Will this work? Is this model modeling what really matters? Will this have the intended effect?”

This inevitably introduces subjectivity into modeling: What we choose to optimize, the values and measurements that we choose to attend to, are matters of subjective decision-making that cannot be comprehensively and automatically dictated by the objective” data that we have at our disposal. This is an irreducibly political aspect of all appeals to modeling and objectivity in the real world.

The problem with planetary-scale computation is with scale itself. It fails to reckon with what we might call the deep time of facts

Philosophers associated with “neorationalism,” like Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and Peter Wolfendale, theorize how this subjective limit could be overcome by models that interact with reality and learn to account for their own limitations automatically — a speculative version of machine learning algorithms. Bratton’s positive biopolitics too depends on such self-reflexive or recursive processes to decide and enforce “control over what matters.” 

But climate models, for instance, cannot simply be mobilized to “act back upon the climate” without compromising the accuracy of their observations at scale. The computational logics of machine learning and recursion cannot shortcut the meticulous and contentious work of climate science. Effective climate models like the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Coupled Model are designed and validated by comparing their projections with concrete scientific observations in other domains and scales, requiring their manual refinement until they can hope to approximate large-scale phenomena to some degree of reliability. For these models to inform climate interventions would make that impossible. 

A computational intervention that can recursively model the real-world consequences of its oversights remains a speculative fiction. Fantasies about such processes often fail to acknowledge how precisely information systems would have to be designed not simply to make informed observations about the most basic biological facts (like, say, the effects of masks on the probability of respiratory disease transmission) but also to account for site-specific contexts that reframe analysis of these facts, their social implications, and their tendency to change variably in response to targeted interventions (as when people try to “game the system”). 

The problem with planetary-scale computation isn’t, as Bratton and other champions assert, that its potential is compromised by impractical applications, ideological criticisms, and a lack of recursive models. The problem is with scale itself. It fails to reckon with what we might call the deep time of facts: their historical heterogeneity, their capacity to change unpredictably in response to interventions, and their variations across geographical and cultural contexts. Even the historical unfolding of the internet, a symbol of large-scale technological integration across continents and timescales, shocked peoples and polities into diverse geopolitical positions that they are still reckoning with today. At each node of the internet — and in the territories that remain without access to it — the emergence of a planetary technical fact collided with heterogeneous cultural contexts to produce compounded layers of new facts that we are still unearthing.

This is one of the prescient insights from the field of design research and criticism called “postcolonial computing.” Against a tradition of design that seeks technological solutions for cultural problems, postcolonial computing recognizes how culture and technology use shape each other in dynamic interaction. It challenges the expectation that good intentions tend toward good interventions, particularly the more that they are backed by data, and the broader the scale they operate over. When projects proposed for people in other countries, demographics, or socio-economic conditions fail to acknowledge fundamental cultural differences and power relations, good intentions are often rendered obsolete. Today we continue to see how tech platforms built for scale, like the “decentralized” banking platforms designed to be implemented throughout countries in Africa and South America, prioritize their experiments over the people who will be subjected to their drastic changes and failures.

For postcolonial computing, understanding the impact of technological intervention requires a critical commitment to the local — a commitment that more “inclusive” coverage by data collection will never be able to supersede. A thorough commitment to the local is not an escape from acknowledging interdependencies between geopolitical territories, technological platforms, and subjective politics, but a grounded appreciation of how power maneuvers through scales of abstraction to ends that always have a local impact.

Experimentation in science and politics is vital, but its value has an important caveat. Just as scientific observations depend principally on site specificity, political experiments are most equitable when the people they affect have a stake in deciding them. At the basis of every technological intervention, no matter the facts used to justify it, is a subjective decision about what decisions can be made on behalf of others. Data-driven governance cannot automate these decisions away. 

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tante
81 days ago
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"Impersonal, large-scale coordination by models can seem like an escape from subjective politics. It is rooted in a longstanding desire to streamline political thought"
Berlin/Germany
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