I had an interesting conversation today with Sen. Warner’s office. This TPP thing is like a Kafka novel absent the breezy nonchalance.
A Discussion with Jack Abramoff: Ten Years On
Biased Pluralism, the Tragedy of the Commons and the Demise of American Democracy
By Norman Ball
“…society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good–by means of his conscience.”—from ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, by Garrett Hardin
By this time, the particulars of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s now-decade-old crimes have been well-documented, fully aired and even Hollywoodized. He’s served his time and continues to pay his debt to society in the form of sizeable restitution.
That said, not everyone feels obliged to extend Abramoff forgiveness—an altogether personal and defensible position. (At this point, I reserve the weight of my derision for the system itself which, on the day of Abramoff’s sentencing, barely slowed to slap its own wrist. The usual legalized bribery meet ‘n greets in the form of Congressional fundraising events proceeded that very evening.) Suffice to say, Jack Abramoff remains a polarizing figure in many quarters.
This interview endeavors to move the ball forward, soliciting Abramoff’s observations on the business of lobbying today. After all, his activities led in large part to the law federal lobbyists presently operate under, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA), amendment to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA). More on this later.
Interested readers are also urged to reacquaint themselves with the historical particulars of the affair (as this interviewer did), including interviews with 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, Russia Times (RT) and C-Span2 AfterWORDS as well as Abramoff’s own book, Capitol Punishment (2011).
Norm: Good afternoon Jack and thank you for joining us.
Jack: My pleasure.
Norm: Perhaps you’ll indulge me for a moment with a preamble.
Norm: There was a study released last year by Princeton and Northwestern University professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page respectively, which sought to examine empirically-derived political data from the period 1981 to 2002, specifically 1,779 enacted policies over that period. (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens; Perspectives on Politics / Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581; Copyright © American Political Science Association 2014).
We won’t delve statistical analyses and methods here except to say the study was peer-reviewed. The key finding was that the 90th percentile of the population (by income) was fifteen times more likely to have its preferences reflected in policy decisions than was the 50th percentile. This led Gilens and Page to conclude that average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process. In short, we inhabit an oligarchy with only the barest democratic façade.
The good news is that 1) we now have an empirical protocol for quantifying relative influence as a function of socio-economic status and 2) we possess rigorous academic confirmation of a reality which registers a big ‘duh’ with the average Joe. As this is not a televised interview, I’ll note for the reading audience your jaw didn’t exactly hit the ground either. Nonetheless I’ll ask you anyway. Are you surprised at just how lop-sided and anti-populist these findings are?
Jack: I am not surprised at all. In almost every human endeavor, the elite have more impact and influence than the average person. Political influence in the United States can be acquired either by dedicating time and effort to making your voice matter, or by buying that influence and impact. Those who are more wealthy have more discretionary income and those among that group that are politically inclined are more able to expend those resources than the rest of us. Similarly, those activists who have politics in their blood have more time than the rest of us to spend impacting policy.
Norm: I should note that the academic community was caught off-guard for the most part by these findings as they suggest a heretofore-aberrant form of democracy that travels under the moniker ‘biased pluralism’. Perhaps you could recommend to the American Political Science Association a good lobbyist to get democracy back on track.
Jack: I’ll see if I can find them someone [laughs].
Norm: You’re on record as not being a big fan of publically funded elections. Could you elaborate on your misgivings with this approach?
Jack: The money in the system that I believe needs to be removed is the money spent by people seeking some special favor or interest from the government, and their advocates, otherwise known as lobbyists. My belief is that, if you want something for yourself from a public servant and give that public servant money or something of value, then you have, in essence, bribed that public servant.
So, if I could wave a magic wand and change the campaign finance system, I would eliminate the ability of lobbyists and their clients to give any money at all within the federal system, including Super PACs. If someone wants to give money for any other reason, including admiration of a candidate’s positions on issues other than those that impact that donor’s pocketbook, I have no problem with their giving whatever they want.
The truth is, of course, that virtually all big dollar donors on the Left and Right have a quid pro quo in mind. Removing them from the system would dramatically reduce the amount of money in politics. I favor this over publically funded elections for several reasons. Primarily, I don’t believe public funding has any chance of becoming law. The Right is against it – as they generally oppose expansion of government, and since it would, at some level, put the decisions to fund campaigns in a public official’s hands. That is anathema to conservatives.
Even if this could somehow become the law, I would be opposed because the folks most likely to benefit from public funding would be the cadre of political consultants. You would find hundreds of shadow candidacies springing up, as consultants and lobbyists rushed to rake in the new bucks.
Finally, I am personally opposed to forcing someone to fund ideas that they find abhorrent. Of course, one could argue that most people fund things they find abhorrent currently, but that does not make it right.
Norm: In ‘Capitol Punishment’, you zero in on the profound moral confusion plaguing the system: “Contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it’s legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure, it’s the way the system works. It’s one of Washington’s dirty little secrets–but it’s bribery just the same”.
Forgive me, but this seems more like a dirty big secret whose roots may extend beyond the system, springing from the culture itself. In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously asserts ‘greed is good’ in true upside-down fashion. Have we lost touch with what constitutes the unconscionable?
Jack: If bribery was the only sinful behavior our society embraced, we would be living in a very different world. The hallmark of modern society is our ability to convince ourselves that aberrant behavior is normal and acceptable. We see this is almost every facet of our lives. With bribery, the sophistry is fascinating. Because our politicians are not accepting bags full of cash, they somehow feel they are not being bribed. Worse, if most members of Congress were compelled to take a lie detector test querying whether they thought they were being influenced by the money they receive, they and their denials would pass with flying colors.
Norm: In your CSPAN interview, you expressed surprise at how unconcerned our elected officials appear to be at the abysmal 11% approval rating of Congress as an institution. Might it be because the incumbency reelection rate is 96%? (Source of both stats: Politifact.com, November 11, 2014). How can we send the institution of Congress packing when we’re so enamored of our own local hero?
Jack: I think the problem is that most people view politics much like they view the weather: it stinks, but there’s not much we can do about it. People have come to the conclusion that the nation is too big and the forces that impact our policies too powerful that their voices are now too small to matter. They are wrong of course. But that depressing attitude has now become the default reaction that permits the powerful to run roughshod over our lives. The only way people can push back, they feel, is polling negatively against Congress as an institution. It’s very sad, especially since it doesn’t have to be like this.
Norm: You suggest a radical approach for separating power from money. HLOGA’s cooling-off periods (between public and private sector employment) are, in your opinion, simply not enough. Rather, Congress and their staffs should be precluded forever from entering the lobbying business. Such patrician forbearance seems more apropos to Plato’s Republic than the Land of the Wagging Styrofoam Index Finger. So I must ask, respectfully, are you pulling our index fingers? Everyone knows philosopher-kings never clinch the nomination.
Jack: Could it be achieved? Of course. Will it be achieved? Probably not because there is no well-funded movement to make it a reality. In our nation, things don’t just happen. They happen because smart, powerful and motivated people push them. I have been pushing a political plan to make some of the changes that are needed, but that plan requires funding to fight the battle in Washington.
Most of the people who dedicate resources to politics are terrified by the proposals we have presented, so they are not going to help. There are very few who have resources and are willing to spend them to change the system. Until there are resources, there won’t be change, sadly. To change this playing field, we first have to take control of it.
Norm: Would you care to guestimate what percentage of Congress endures the indignities of public office for the chance to spin through the revolving door into the highly lucrative influence game at some later point or is the Senate gym just that darned well-appointed?
Jack: It’s hard to estimate that percentage, but it’s far higher than it should be. When I was lobbying, it seemed like 90%, but now I’m not sure. One of the problems for future lobbyists – otherwise known as Congressmen – is that there are so many of them already out there lobbying. Since most Congressmen are used to pampered treatment and consider business development unsavory, many are not good business generators. Without the business, the lobbying jobs are more difficult to get. Maybe they should run training seminars for Congressmen to teach them how to get business and otherwise prepare for their next career. I’m kidding of course!
Norm: Black humor is allowed. I understand you observe a strict Orthodox kosher diet. Hopefully my analogy’s not too unpalatable. But let’s say someone enters my hamburger joint whereupon I suggest they try my new jumbo burger in lieu of the anemic single-patty burger they typically order. The customer agrees. I’ve successfully ‘peddled them upstream’ to a higher price and higher calories. Have I exerted undue influence or merely practiced good salesmanship? What was Willy Loman but a door-to-door lobbyist?
Jack: Of course we are all salesmen at some level. A kid convincing her parents to let her use their car; a spouse convincing her mate that her parents need to feel welcome over the weekend; an employee seeking a raise from a boss. We are all constantly selling and selling is lobbying
Norm: Ninety years ago, Edward Bernays’ Crystallizing Public Opinion explored techniques for compelling Americans to buy loads of stuff which invariably ended up stacked in their garages. Indeed without two-car garages the economy might have stalled decades ago. There seems to be something quintessentially American, if not downright patriotic, about buying and selling—an activity which you equate to lobbying. Shop influence ‘til you drop?
Jack: It’s not just an American phenomenon. It’s human nature. The reason lobbying is seen as American is because we enshrined the right to lobby –petitioning our government– in our founding charter. Most other nations had periods where petitioning their sovereign resulted in beheadings. In America, just as eventually it became nearly impossible to succeed at a criminal or civil court proceeding without the assistance of an attorney, petitioning the government became difficult without the services of a lobbyist. Like attorneys in court, lobbyists know the rules of procedure and the deciders better than the average person. In America, assisting people petitioning the government because an industry called lobbying, but not just in America. Europeans posit the delusion that they don’t have lobbyists, that no one in their nations can come in from the outside and influence their public servants. It’s absurd and untrue.
Norm: Speaking of free markets, I think a lot of small government folks would cheer your observation that lobbying is more about defense than offense, that is, getting the government off a client’s back as opposed to winning them an unfair advantage.
Jack: First, I believe that most lobbying is good lobbying. I define good lobbying as lobbying where the lobbyist does not use money to create an unleveled playing field. Bad lobbying is a small percentage of the lobbying at a federal level. Most lobbyists in Washington don’t have the money to play the game in a pernicious way. Thus, they are left fashioning their petitions based on the merits of their arguments, as it should be. As for offense or defense, because of entropy it’s generally easier to destroy than build. In the lobbying context, stopping something from happening is much easier than making it happen, mainly because there are usually ten ways to stop something for every one way of getting it done.
Norm: Resuming the marketplace theme, I’m a baker. I get up at 5 am, ply my wares and drop into bed exhausted at 9 pm. Lacking the time and energy frankly to ‘petition the Government for a redress of my grievances’, I form a Bakers Association with my fellow merchants. We hire an agent to press our professional (read: special) interests on Capitol Hill. This agent then proceeds to lay awake at night imagining—if not even contriving—our industrial-grade grievances.
But hang on. Since when did the commons become little more than a big piñata to be swung at by a hundred self-interested rolling-pins? Why is it not enough simply to be an American? If everyone re-baselined back to unleveraged citizenry instead of hiring seditious agents to obtain a leg up, would we not have something more akin to majoritarian pluralism?
Jack: We could all be ‘simply Americans’, without anyone needing to protect our interests, if the government was not involved in every aspect of our lives, making decisions that impact our livelihoods and lives. Also, we could all be ‘simply Americans’ if everyone agreed to do it. We don’t live in such a society. We live among human beings, not angels. Some of us are going to be aggressive and use any means we can to get what we want, usually at someone else’s expense.
I write in my book about a fictional picture-frame-making company suddenly confronted with legislation that would put it out of business. After presenting the narrative, I ask whether the business should just ignore the new law and fold up or try to lobby to protect itself. It’s not the business-owner’s fault a new law is on its way to destroy his enterprise. Therefore, how can he be blamed for hiring a lobbyist?
Moreover, I ask, which lobbyist would serve his interests best? The lobbyist who is an expert in picture frames, or the lobbyist who plays golf each week with the Senator coming after their industry? The problem is not the picture frame company. Nor is it the lobbyist. The problem is the Senator, not to mention a government so gargantuan and overextended that there is no shortage of work for the tens of thousands of lobbyists traversing the byways of Washington DC.
Norm: Under majoritarian pluralism isn’t influence always ‘undue’ as the former more effectively averts a tragedy of the commons scenario?
Jack: Influence is a tool, like cash or a gun. It can be used for good or for evil. We don’t live in a society so simple that the removal of lobbyists will give birth to heaven on earth. Lobbyists are a symptom of the problem of too much government. Of course, half the nation believes there’s not enough government. This lack of cohesion enables the lobbyists to find plenty to do.
Norm: It’s fascinating how this debate invariably circles back on ideology. Is there an unexploited Tea Party issue lurking in here somewhere?
Jack: Absolutely. More government means more lobbyists. Limited government means less. The ideological implications are undeniable.
Norm: In the wake of the Obama Administration’s 2009 Executive Order 13490 which precluded lobbyists from the Administration while unleashing a de-registration trend, opinions differ on just how material this unregistered phenomenon became.
For example in my recent interview with Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, he suggests the exodus has been vastly overstated. Whereas James Thurber of the Center for Responsive Politics is more critical, saying, “most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the lobbyist-registration system. In your opinion, to what extent has lobbying, in effect, gone off-balance sheet?
Jack: First, let me mention that, while as a lobbyist, I disdained the work that Craig Holman and Public Citizen did, now that I am reformed, I realize Craig and his colleagues are real heroes. They are one of the only groups that has any real impact in this space. Craig is not only a great guy, he’s also one of the most effective lobbyists I know – and I mean that as a compliment!
But yes, I think lobbying is far too off-balance sheet. Even the act that regulates the lobbying industry –the LDA –and the changes provided in HLOGA still allow people who are lobbying to legally avoid registration. That’s how former US Senator Tom Daschle was able for so long to lobby and not register. That’s how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was able to proclaim with a straight face that he wasn’t a lobbyist, when he was lobbying Congress on the Health Care Act—as an historian! Most of the work done for clients is not actual lobbying. It’s strategizing, preparing, researching, etc.
As for the Obama rules prohibiting lobbyists from entering his Administration, I have a few thoughts. I was against this, because if you are trying to put together a talented group of public servants, you cannot exclude lobbyists, since they are often far more knowledgeable about issues than are the public servants. My approach would be that, once you enter the Administration, you can’t return to the lobbying world.
Norm: So, a one-way, one-time revolving door? And yes, agreed. Craig Holman is a true warrior for the undivided public interest.
Jack: Exactly. That would enable those who are talented to enter and really serve the public. Those who want to enter the government to burnish their lobbying credentials – so they can charge more when they exit – would be precluded. This would only work with forced recusal from any matter that you lobbied on previously.
Also, you would have to outlaw huge payments that companies make to their employees before they enter the government – an advanced bribe. This was the case with the current Secretary of Treasury, Jacob Lew, who had a provision in his Citibank contract that he was due a mammoth bonus should he leave for a highly placed government job. The only thing more aggravating than that abuse was how those in the media who otherwise are concerned with corruption ignored this one for fear of offending Obama and their friends on the Left.
Norm: There’s another untagged carp in the lake, the unlobbyist who isn’t even a deregistered or former lobbyist, but rather a single-shingle wannabe in a cheap suit working an undisclosed business development contract. Of the tin men in his midst, veteran lobbyist Howard Marlowe recently had this to say:
“We in the lobbyist profession register, and the public and media can at least find out who we work for, what the issues are that we’re hired to work on, and what we’re getting paid.”— Howard Marlowe, 35-year Washington lobbyist, Bloomberg, April 3, 2014
Law360 was even blunter:
“More nefariously, some [unlobbyists] may not register simply because they doubt they will ever be caught.”—from ‘Criminal Referral of Alleged ‘Unlobbyist’ Is A Wake-Up Call’, Law360, July 31, 2014
Extending the analogy, let’s say this old guy with a cane bamboozles people into thinking he’s a retired granddad with loads of spare time and an unerring sense of civic duty—except he invariably has sales literature stapled to the back of his grandfatherly appeals.
HLOGA seems to impute ethics transgressions onto clients and Congressmen, and not just to the unlobbyist who sucks them in. What I’m asking is, are Congressmen obligated to vet and toss bogus lobbyists out on their ears for flogging thinly disguised (and implicitly undisclosed) economic interests?
Jack: I am uncertain whether there is a legal obligation for Congress and their staff to check the registration of lobbyists. Frankly, we need a new law that requires registration as soon as someone makes even one lobbying contact for pay. The requirements for registration in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) are far more explicit than for LDA.
Norm: Rather than chase the high-profile Senators and Congressmen whom you found to be rather lazy and self-absorbed, you wooed the hard-working staffers instead who remain, let’s face it, the nuts and bolts of legislative production. This afforded you a powerfully incentivized ‘Trojan Horse’ workforce until such time as they came to work for you directly. Is it fair to say you essentially turbocharged the revolving door back in the day?
Jack: Yes that’s fair to say. You see, the insiders’ class has an unparalleled ability to move seamlessly from government to the lobbying world. These folks know all the players from the time they were in government, and, believe me, they get their calls returned. They are better able to get favors granted than outsiders and have every advantage possible. Stopping the revolving door would be devastating to the insider lobbyists and would do a lot to level the playing field.
Norm: You suggest smart lobbyists quickly figure out the latest reforms and devise techniques to get around them. Are we dealing with a whack-a-mole dynamic, that is, any reform bill can at best be effective for a few years after which fresh reforms become necessary?
Jack: There is never going to be a perfect law in this arena, because there are legitimate concerns that are opposed and have to be considered. Free speech is at odds with undue influence here. We can’t destroy our rights to free speech, but we must deal with undue influence. So, every remedy will likely need updating and adjustment as it is implemented. That’s okay. We live in a society of adjustment. Just take a look at our tech advances. We are constantly readjusting.
Norm: As you brought up technology, there’s much talk of traditional lobbying moving to a more technology-driven and social-media-based model. What effect do you see technology having on the future of lobbying in America?
Jack: Until and unless this system is reformed dramatically, while there will be a role for social media and technology enhancing the lobbying, it won’t change the paradigm that powerful insiders will control the playing field. They will control the social media and tech role in politics as well. Social media and tech are tools, every bit as much as polling and phone banking are tools. The tools will change, but the powerful will stay in power, until there is systemic change.
Norm: F. Scott Fitzgerald would be offended Jack if I didn’t press you a bit on how your second act is faring. Hopefully you have good news and fresh initiatives to report.
Jack: Norm, I’m just trying to do my best on the playing field I’m on today. I am doing what I can to speak about these important issues and to encourage citizen action, but I am limited in my ability to make things happen because I am not a man of resources these days. That’s okay, though. One of the biggest lessons I had to learn through my scandal was that it’s all right to lose. In the old days, I never lost and wouldn’t even consider losing as acceptable. That is an arrogance at odds with my faith and being a good citizen, but in those days, it didn’t matter to me. Today, I realize that I might lose, including on this issue. I hope we can do something, but if not, I am working hard on saying: ‘It’s okay’.
Norm: Thank you Jack. It’s been a pleasure. I wish you all the luck in your future endeavors.
Jack: Thank you, Norm.
In his February 18 essay appearing in The Guardian, ‘How I Became an Erratic Marxist’, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis cites his intermittent mentor, Karl Marx:
“If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery, how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”
This smugly circular quote exposing capital’s counter-intuitive enslavement to labor is taken from the 1847 essay “Wage Labour and Capital”, a twenty-year precursor and prefiguring of Das Capital; it speaks to the awkward and venerable slow-dance between Labor and Capital, specifically the latter’s unswerving determination to exploit surplus value until it ends in the annihilation of all parties.
One wants to say, ‘silly communist, no capitalist is that stupid as to denude the market of consumers by annihilating them at their workstations. What’s a consumer after all but a worker on his day off?’ And indeed most factory owners are no doubt singular and rational actors. However, being left to oneself makes a vacuum not a market as historical processes enjoy expressing themselves in aggregates. The macroeconomics of unimpeded capitalism betrays all the collective wisdom of a bovine stampede. So yes, capitalism is that self-destructive. Nonetheless we’ve devised remedies to help shave the wrenching peaks and valleys. Take for instance the swimmingly successful ZIRP monetary policy or Paul Krugman’s favorite cardiovascular exercise, Keynesian string-pushing. Moving on.
Soon, we will be stared in the face by the ultimate Marxian annihilator (of Hollywood Terminator complexion and proportion), a game-changing machine that promises to obliterate the age-old division between Labor and Capital. May we survive the healing of the breach, though it’s not clear how exactly. This machine will arrive courtesy of transhumanism which, if its proponents are to be believed, will combine the best of Man and Machine (sure sounds like the end of Man to me.) Whether this is a marriage made in heaven or at the end of a shotgun depends on which man or woman you happen to ask.
What the transhumanists are implying, in not nearly enough words, (and absent human referenda) is that the central crisis of capitalism, overproduction, will be mitigated in the final analysis, not by socialized amelioration of the subsistence wage, but by the elimination of wages, which is to say, by the elimination of labor itself. By now any worker bee worth his pollen should be abuzz with anxiety.
Like the bridge species preceding us (the existentially amphibious lungfish) Man is poised to pass the baton to a precocious bucket of sentient bolts, after which the former will duteously wither away. What, they haven’t spelled out the withering away part to you? Shame on those breathless transhumanist cheerleaders. Obsolescence and maladaptation are hallmarks of the evolutionary record. We could ask a Dodo bird. But that’s sort of the point. There are no longer any Dodo birds to ask.
Our incipient witherings are encountered daily on the telephone. In recent months, who hasn’t found themselves questioning whether the voice on the other end is man or machine? Sometimes it’s a man resembling a machine. Other times it’s a cleverly solicitous oncoming locomotive headed for the Keatsian soul. Please don’t attempt this at home, but I’ve devised my own Turing Test, saying things like ‘man, your wife’s a real hottie’ just to test my phone partner’s reaction. If I’m greeted with a chaste and polite ‘thank you, could you repeat that request please’, I know I’m the sole monkey over a barrel.
The sudden bumper crop of sociopaths is an evolutionary vanguard set out to emulate machine-implacability. Prospective employers of the future will use the Reverse Turing Test to ensure our compatibility with digital colleagues (‘cause you wouldn’t want to offend an overly sensitive microprocessor.) Soul slows the work-line. Empathy is gunk between the wheels. The blithest de-humanizees in our midst are converging, with Darwinian purposefulness, on their tin-can overlords in order to win for themselves a brief stay of euthanasia. The most soulful in our midst revolt at this whole prospect and, one way or another, beg off. We’ve been losing a lot of free spirits lately.
Heidegger was among the first to express a paranoia that’s since become the dystopian staple of books and movies. Technology is an enabling, up-close assassin that only feigns service to Man, the better to take our measure and cement our fatal dependency. It’s really its own weird thing whose demon is Azazel, sidling up to us on the way to certain defeat in a final epic battle. That traitor in our midst, transhumanist Hugo de Garis, has admitted as much. Is anybody still inviting him to weekend cook-outs?
“ I believe that humanity will split into two major ideological camps, one in favor of building artilects (the “Cosmists”) and those opposed (the “Terrans”). I believe that the ideological disagreements between these two groups on this issue will be so strong, that a major “artilect” war, killing billions of people, will be almost inevitable before the end of the 21st century.”
Who’s kidding whom? Technology’s barely concealed telos has always lain beyond us, in the post-human (the term ‘transhuman’ is both disingenuous gloss and euphemistic misdirection). Of course technology needed us—we, this great masochistic army of Sorcerer’s Apprentices—to attain its promontory. Unfailingly solicitous, it worked hard at bestowing upon us what Jack Nicholson’s Joker called a bevy of wonderful toys, mechanized entreaties that curried to an ancient line of character defects: (laziness) efficiency; (sloth) leisure; (avarice) productivity, (greed/pride) prosperity. On occasion, some bright Isaiah would point out technology’s troubling shadow-forms: acid rain, greenhouse gases. Invariably the coddled masses, drunk on their need for speed, would steer recalcitrant seers back to 0-50 mph in six seconds. The wind in our hair was pure seduction.
De Garis reminds us how, though we marvel at the aerodynamic miracle of mosquitos and that their feats still resist replication in the human laboratory, we routinely swat them from our arms nonetheless. Should we expect some sentimental forbearance from the coming Artilects simply because they borrowed our shoulders, as we, in our turn, stood on the striving gills of daredevil fish? It risks chauvinism, but we are a singularly remarkable species. Yet should our aggravation (or superfluity) factor grow to exceed our ability to elicit awe, creaturely fear or banal Chia Pet sentimentality in our clever little Frankensteins-to-come, who’s to say the swatter won’t be turned against us?
So we are perilously beyond quaint Marxian-isms such as equitable allocations of surplus value between human classes. Oh the humanity! Airborne drones will monitor billions of aimless human drones for a while. Yet the Panopticon is almost certainly pondering a post-surveillance phase for all this surplus labor. Anyone for Soylent Green?
Protean deflationary forces have been loosed all across the globe signaling a marked and profound disinterest in labor at any price. The capital-intensive means of production in this information age aren’t very intensive anymore. Industries can be replicated on desktops. Of course we’ve been instructed to cheer these productivity gains while refraining from the obvious question: if labor’s services are no longer required, even at the subsistence wage, then surely the non-existence wage lies dead ahead.
Labor is poking up like a sore thumb. Whether the whack comes through benign or malign neglect remains to be seen. However it’s not a stretch to envision neo-feudalistic city-states with Hobbsian badlands lurking just beyond patrician moats for the ‘extraneous’ 95% of the planet. Just ask Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon. A canny algorithm is worth a hundred factories of sweating bodies. Math never sleeps. Even better, it requires no bathroom breaks.
We’re not in the grip of a cyclical downturn, nor even a secular collapse. We are converging on the cessation of mass economic activity as generations have known it. All that jostling inter-human, auction-value and price signaling stuff is being curtailed. Varoufakis has noted the extraordinary nature of the predicament too: “Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.” So great is his concern in fact that he’s abandoning Marxist leanings of a lifetime just to help hold the continent together.
Transhumanism’s heralded Era of Endless Bounty and Leisure (a wonderful entreaty worthy of bumper sticker memorialization) will not be broadly shared. The hyper-exceptionalist predilections of the elite simply won’t allow such magnanimity, even it were technically and economically feasible. Next year, the top 1% will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth. This wealth will never trickle back down. Rather it will evaporate, relinquishing its use-value to become little more than a gilded invitation to access some gated enclave on Earth. Wealth was but an interim ladder, a scorekeeping unit of measure to be retracted up the wall of the City-State at the worst possible moment. We badlanders will be left to make do in the world beyond Leviathan’s gates.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made a splash recently at Davos with his quip about the vanishing Internet. Frankly, he does creepy better than obtuse, as when he all but begged the question: what the hell are the rest of us still hanging around for?
“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
Strip a man of his keyboard and all that remains is a blinking cursor and his wordless nightmares. Perhaps we are the dead already—carbon-based anachronisms awaiting the Insidious Hand of benign neglect to make our post mortems official. Have we overstayed into the Silicon Era such that an Artilect now wants our seat on the bus? Google approaches as a guillotine dressed in geek’s clothing.
Humor us Mr. Schmidt. For you see, typing (or writing, as Truman Capote might allow for the better tappers in our midst) helps us to converge on where you seem dead-certain we already live. Yes, we’re slow, but interiority is such a tough habit to kick. Google Earth is a marvel to be sure. Yet there is no small number of keen minds for whom the non-locality of consciousness defies GPS coordinates. We might even live to survive your Panopticon and have a laugh about it on the Otherside. So I’d be careful with that hubris. Some trans-human demigod could swat you absently like a four-eyed mosquito. Then where would your stock options be?
Schmidt is a particularly bad bad actor. He slips easily into an exasperated tone when asked to wax eloquent on that last stubborn fly in the ointment, humanity. It was as clear in the long faces at Davos as it was in Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s withering glare when Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put food for Greece’s children before George Soros: We’ve become a vastly populated nuisance. They want us out of here so badly, it hurts.
Imagine Zeus running out of thunderbolts and having to fall back on pushing strings. There would have been a mutiny on Mount Olympus faster than you could say Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem—maybe even faster. Quantitative Easing never got anyone a job who wasn’t already on the BIS Christmas card list. Austerity is a boot out to squash a colony of bugs. In their ham-fisted efforts at herding us, the elite’s faltering touch is showing. Long term, this may be good. Short term, it’s incredibly perilous. Never embarrass a faltering elite in broad daylight. Their numbers are too few, and their cognitive hold over We of Far Larger Numbers too tenuous for open monetary farce to prevail for long. You’re only asking for WW3.
Mass denouement has been underway for some time now.
Sigmund Freud’s nephew Eddie Bernays (the inventor of Public Relations) saw us as little more than bracketed swirls of subterranean appetites to be mined and monetized. Our irrational pleasure centers were invaded subliminally. This led to what cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han calls the Neuronal Age where overactive receptors create unnatural fatigue; a sense of helplessness against outside entreaties presides. And boy do we have the pounds to show for myriad uninvited entreaties. People now routinely eat themselves to death. Speaking of entreaties or at least odious treats, no one ever woke up yearning for a Twinkie until a Twinkie was first made to exist and then advertised onto our burgeoning list of manufactured pleasures.
Yes, victimology can be overdone. Nonetheless we were helped along mightily by cues we never had the explicit option of refusing. Maybe Mom didn’t love us enough or Dad was a little too stern. Was it the market’s right to sell into our unfillable holes, banishing us forevermore to the husky section of Sears? But for another hug Mommy and our asses would look just fine in these jeans. Over the ensuing period, the will to power swept through humanity like a hundred-year war. We’re looking weary and ripe for supersession.
Something is dying to usurp us and usher in the post-consumer age. The anthropic economy was an unoiled rack of Newtonian gears and pulleys shuttling supply towards demand, groping in the dark for equilibriums, one month producing too much, the next month too little. The surveillance apparatus is not being constructed to better serve us in the sense of a market perfecting its answerability to consumer demand, although that remains the party line. They’re not cataloging our retinas to sell us cereal, in short. For one thing, we are dismally predictable and not nearly the unique snowflakes we often fancy ourselves to be. The average Internet user visits no more than a few dozen unique sites per month. They know us more than well enough by now.
Analyst Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently estimated U.S. tech company losses due to government spying programs could amount to $35 billion by 2016. This is a decidedly post-economic development couched disingenuously as an undesirable consequence. Frankly my dear, what spook gives a damn? Even Senator Wyden noted the suspicious absence of alarm:
“When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington gets up at arms. But, even today, almost no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the U.S. economy.”—from October 8, 2014 Public Forum
This current slow-motion global economic collapse is not scheduled for either a happy ending or a people-pleasing recovery. No, the final business cycle is an abyss-by-design. We are being ‘descended into’ transient serfdom on the way to superfluity. The main actors, Central Banks, are wringing their hands in premeditated angst as they stagger about ‘trying everything’ alas to no avail; all pure theatre to keep the masses spellbound and agape.
All currencies are collapsing against the USD after which the latter will perform the very last swan dive. Then structured (price-signal) economics will vanish. The economy is being put out to pasture. Mad Max barter might play a role on wild, wide stretches of highway. But for the most part, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will be replaced by the Panopticon’s Invisible Eye.
The great underlying tension that girded capitalism for decades was something akin to the Keystone Cops. Capital was forever teasing out the maddening vagaries of human want, often with humorous results. The landscape is littered with Edsels and New Coke. Nothing was wasted though. These misfires fed powerful feedback loops. The ultimate goal was never for Capital to please man, but for Man to furnish Capital with the ultimate prize, perfect control. Otherwise, what a way to run a railroad, chasing every Tom, Dick and Harry as though their appetites amounted, in some qualitative sense, to a covetable hill of beans.
Market research, product placement and needs assessment were midterm gestures until manufactured consent could perfect the ultimate gloved fist of demand implantation. Rather than stooping to glean the silly ramblings of the man on the street—as if that mattered—real power looked forward to the day when it would know what the man wanted before he articulated the desire for it. This is Huxleyian dystopia. Consent becomes the organizing principle on the way to the final solution.
Capitalism was the interim stalking horse the Bankers used to perfect the Final Mousetrap. Widely available prosperity was the inducement that coaxed the best minds into an endgame endeavor that ultimately they nor their families would live to partake. And to think we fell for the myth of sustainable upward mobility! Who can’t feel it in the air? There is a sense now they have all that they need. It’s written all over Schmidt’s smug mug. Covert technology is thirty years ahead of what’s in the public realm.
You see, it was never about serving markets. It was about serving up servitude. The mark of the beast might get you a Twinkie when total submission becomes the new coin of the realm. Relax. Most people will enjoy the final act and they say Diet Soma is low in calories. Only the poets will suffer.
Until death do us part, comrade.
Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata’, [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
—President Obama, 7 June 2013
One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The ‘promotion’ from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God’s infinitude a little more each day?
The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported,
“…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent.”
This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.
Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.
That said, I can’t help but think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today’s Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.
Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being’s seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, “collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency—Rilke’s word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That’s why the latter can’t find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”:
Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower… but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.
—(C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)
Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung’s subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior ‘authenticities’.
Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus’ hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus’ travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus’ punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn’t look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.
There’s existential philosophy; then there’s existential practicality. We compound Big Data’s overhang by adding to it daily. However, it’s in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls ‘knowing the now’ (“We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche” Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity’s accumulated now‘s form Big Data’s past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.
The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura’s how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service’s Teresa Pritchard in a recent exchange called it Dino’s Albatross:
“…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value.”
Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.’‘— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.
Big Media’s Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats’ infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective ‘unobserved’ level. Yes of course, the poets’ by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.
Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo’s may have bought you a dystopia that’ll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn’t leggo.
The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? “Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo’s leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there’s no going back.
Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is ‘soul’ ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That’s provided the ineffable (that transcendent, ‘extra-data’ realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much:
“Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.” (“Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)
Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:
“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”
— “Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.
Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?:
“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.”
Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor that encourages shoplifting and prevents equitable compensation. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.
In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.” (“What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp”; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)
The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.
Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought.
Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold, anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?
Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, those same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook.
Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense, data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation? Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper.
No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our heart beats. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices.
Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions, e.g., perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.
In his 1994 essay, “The Future of the Book”, Umberto Eco reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries: “We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”
Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices, many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.
For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a Russia Today interview (4 December 2012), whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:
“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” (William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”)
On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course, part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there, too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.
Alas, profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus), while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr. Orwell?
Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard, again:
A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena. Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.
Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011) projects 40 percent growth in global data generation per annum versus five percent growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing.
How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize that the security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact, is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only two percent of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98 percent more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount, one suspects, to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa.
Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or, as Sven Birkerts characterizes, the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:
“…a parallel realm… [that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe? or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other”? Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:
“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed.
Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly, “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance.
But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead and leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus, it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground, once again.
I’m also prompted to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale that no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s a whole human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism —how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.
In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.