We live in techno-cultural habitats. Tethered via smartphones to digital networks, databases and their algorithmic power. Our lives, bodies and expressions becoming increasingly sensible to machines. Platforms like Google and Facebook are increasingly a kind of infrastructural underlay for private life and public culture. These platforms are historically distinctive as advertising-funded media institutions because rather than produce original content they produce platforms that engineer connectivity. If the ‘rivers of gold’ that once flowed through print and broadcast media organisations funded quality content for much of the twentieth century, they now flow through media platforms where they fund research and development projects in machine learning, robotics, and augmented reality.
The critical thing to observe in this shift is media shifting its apparatus of power from the work of just representing the social world, to the work of experimenting with lived experience. The aim of a media platform is not just to narrate human life, but rather to incorporate life within its technical processes. This is a unique event in media history: institutions that invest not in the production of content but in the sensory and calculative capacities of the medium. At the heart of this process is not so much the effort to ‘connect’ people, or to enable people to ‘express themselves’ – as the spin from techno-libertarian-capitalist platform owners would have us believe – but rather, at the heart of these platforms is the effort to iron out the bottlenecks between lived experience and the calculative power of digital media. If we could distil the Silicon Valley project down to one wicked problem it is how to build a seamless interface between the neural activity of the brain and the digital processing of computers.
If we look at algorithmic and machine learning, augmented reality and bio-technologies they all point us in the direction of making neural activity of the brain – what we experience as life, narratives, consciousness, moods, problem-solving, vision, aesthetic and moral judgments – a kind of non-human information.
What are the forces driving this project?
The ideology of computer engineers and Silicon Valley might suggest liberation, of somehow liberating the human consciousness from the confines of the living body, from the limits of biology itself, and perhaps even from the material structures that govern human experience on the planet – politics, economics, violence. But, this libertarian techno-human ideology obscures the basic political economy of Silicon Valley. These processes are driven by massive inflows of capital. And, that capital comes because governments and marketers see these technologies as intruments for exerting control over life itself. Of course, in some important ways we should see the media engineering taking place at Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on as the extension of hundreds of years of humans experimenting with the development of tools that capture, store, transmit and process data.
Especially from the 19th century onwards, with the development of technical media like telegraph, phonographs and cameras, we have been engaged in an industrial process of extending human expressions and senses in time and space. And, from the twentieth century media technologies have been at the heart of the exercise of power in our societies. First, they were industrial machines that shaped how mass populations understood the world they lived in. And, then, as the twentieth century went on, media became computational. From the mid-twentieth century engineers began to imagine media-computational machines that could control living processes through their capacity to capture, store and process data.
This is a profound cultural change. Media become technologies less organised around using narrative to construct a shared social situation, and more focussed on using data to experiment with reality. Within this media system participation is not only the expression of particular ideas, but more generally the making available of the living body to experiments, calibration and modulation. Media platforms do not enable political parties, news organisations, brands to make somehow more sophisticated ideological appeals.
Platforms seem to take us into a media culture that functions beyond the ideology – media do not just distribute symbols. The increasingly sense, affect and engineer our moods. They can sense and shape the neural activity in our brain. In time, they dream of becoming coextensive with the organic composition of our body. This system does not depend on persuading individual actors with meanings as much as it aims to observe and calibrate their action. It depends less on exerting control at the symbolic level, and more on governing the infrastructure that turns life into data.
With the advent of media platform we find ourselves asking not just how media shape our symbolic worlds, but how they sense and affect our moods, bodies and experience of reality. To contend with this is we need to think about media as a techno-cultural system, one that does not only involve humans addressing other humans, but humans and data-processing machines addressing one another. As we ‘attach’ media devices to our bodies, in addition to whatever symbolic ideas we express, we also produce troves of data that train those machines and we make ourselves available as living participants in their ongoing experiments.
A critical account of the engineering projects and data processing power of media platforms has, I suggest, three starting points.
Firstly, the politics of the user interface: How does everyday user engagement with a media platform generate data that trains the algorithms which increasingly broker who speaks and who is heard?
Secondly, the politics of the database: How do media platforms broker which institutions and groups get access to the database? If the first concern attends to the perennial public interest question of ‘who gets to speak’, then this concern attends to the new public interest question of who gets to experiment?
Thirdly, the politics of engineering hardware: How do we understand the relationship between media and public life in an historical moment where the capacity of media to intervene in reality goes beyond the symbolic?
In particular, what will be the public interest questions generated by artificial intelligence and augmented reality? These technologies will take the dominant logic of media beyond the symbolic to the simulated. Media devices will automatically process data that overlays our lived experience with sensory simulations. Media become not so much a representation of the world, but an augmented lens on the world, customised to our preferences, mood, social status and location. The critical political issue then for those of us interested in how media act as infrastructure for human societies, is how to account for the presence and actions of media technologies as non-human actors in public culture and human habitats.