‘By our algorithms we shall know them’

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Radical Philosophy 191 is out now, including two contributions of particular interest to me as I continue to grapple with the surveillance apparatus that (mis)informs US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  This has come into sharper view after Obama’s rare admission of not only a strike in the FATA but of a mistake in targeting – though his statement was prompted by the death of an American and Italian hostage not by the previous deaths of innocent Pakistanis.

First, Grégoire Chamayou‘s ‘Oceanic enemy: a brief philosophical history of the NSA‘ which traces a path from the sonic surveillance of submarines off Barbados in 1962 to ‘pattern of life’ analysis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and which – not surprisingly – intersects with his Theory of the drone in all sorts of ways:

‘The premiss is the same as before: ‘in environments where there is no visual difference between friend and enemy, it is by their actions that enemies are visible.’ Today the task of establishing a distinction between friend and enemy is once again to be entrusted to algorithms.’

Second, Claudia Aradau‘s ‘The signature of security: big data, anticipation, surveillance‘ shatters the crystal balls of the intelligence agencies:

‘We are not crystal ball gazers. We are Intelligence Agencies’, noted the former GCHQ director Iain Lobban in a public inquiry on privacy and security by the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament (ISC) in the wake of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance….

I argue here that the disavowal of ‘crystal ball gazing’ is as important as the image of finding the clue through the data deluge in order to locate potential dangerous events or individuals in the future. Intelligence work is no stranger to the anticipation of the future – rather, it justifies itself precisely through the capacity to peer into the future in order to prevent or pre-empt future events from materializing. Big data has intensified the promise of anticipating the future and led to ‘exacerbat[ing] the severance of surveillance from history and memory’, while ‘the assiduous quest for pattern-discovery will justify unprecedented access to data’. ‘Knowledge discovery’ through big-data mining, and prediction through the recording of datafied traces of social life, have become the doxa of intelligence and security professionals. They claim that access to the digital traces that we leave online through commercial transactions or social interactions can hold a reading of the future. They repeat the mantra of data scientists and private corporations that the ‘digital bread crumbs’ of the online world ‘give a view of life in all its complexity’ and ‘will revolutionize the study of human behaviour’.

Unlike statistical technologies of governing populations, big data scientists promise that through big data ‘we can escape the straightjacket of group identities, and replace them with more granular predictions for each individual’. To resist their unreasonable promise of predicting crises, preventing diseases, pre-empting terrorist attacks and overall reshaping society and politics, I recast it as divination rather than detection. Big-data epistemics has more in common with the ‘pseudo-rationality’ of astrology than the method of clues. As such, it renders our vocabularies of epistemic critique inoperative…

‘There is nothing irrational about astrology’, concluded Adorno, ‘except its decisive contention that these two spheres of rational knowledge are interconnected, whereas not the slightest evidence of such an interconnection can be offered.’ The irrationality of big-data security is not in the data, its volume or messiness, but in how a hieroglyph of terrorist behaviour is produced from the data, without any possibility of error.

You can obtain the pdfs of both essays by following the links above – but they are time-limited so do it now.

One thought on “‘By our algorithms we shall know them’

  1. Pingback: Digital capture and physical kill | geographical imaginations

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