I recently attended a large meeting of faculty to discuss graduate students’ evaluation, recruitment and retention.
“Let the data drive your goals,” one of the speakers repeated, mantra-like – with genuine enthusiasm and conviction – and I couldn’t help but wince.
The slogan struck me as symptomatic of what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed a “coup des gens.”
If a coup d’état denotes the illegal replacement of one political system by another, a coup des gens – “gens” meaning “people” in French – is characterized by the forced replacement of human beings by abstract information systems.
In my recent book, “The Terminal Self,” I show how we are increasingly coerced to interact with computer technology in all aspects of our daily lives. Among many other effects, this coerced interaction forces us to sync our cognitive functions to the logic of the computer and feed it endless streams of data, rendering us ripe for constant surveillance and exploitation.
Managing the flows of ‘the new oil’
Data is now used by companies to help them evaluate, rank, select or dismiss potential customers. It can be used to measure medical risk, credit-worthiness, psychological health, job performance, spending habits, food preferences, moods, dating preferences and political views.
As European Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva put it, “personal data is the new oil of the internet and the new currency of the digital world.”
The high value placed on data has ushered in what French sociologist Paul Virilio calls an “informational fundamentalism” – an ideology that exalts digital information as the ultimate good and supreme power to which all must surrender their will, time and common sense.
In order to function efficiently, most institutions must intelligently manage these swelling flows of data. However, the technological capacity to manage vast quantities of data doesn’t necessarily lead to intelligent analysis.
On the contrary, notes media studies scholar Mark Andrejevic, “We have become intelligence analysts sorting through more data than we can absorb.” Individuals simply don’t have the brainpower to sift through the constantly growing flows of information they need to process and mine to make intelligent decisions.
An increasing part of our day-to-day lives requires not just processing the “information bombs” – the emails, messages, breaking news and announcements – that randomly detonate in our daily lives. It also demands that we constantly input information into the system.
Think of the growing number of knowledge workers and professionals in different sectors of the economy who essentially have become data entry assistants. Their jobs primarily consist of feeding always more information to an ever-hungrier digital organism, for reasons that seem obvious but are rarely questioned.
We see it in the granular-level data many public school teachers are now expected to enter about every aspect of their students’ learning. We see it in the endless, and often flawed, surveys professionals of all stripes are asked to complete about their daily tasks, progress and “satisfaction.”
This mind-numbing data entry work deskills knowledge workers, alienates them and betrays a tragic mismanagement of human capital.
The digital Trojan horse
If the duty to enter information is openly enforced at work, it’s covertly induced at home. Whenever we’re leisurely browsing the internet, consulting websites, clicking on links or sharing our pictures, politics and preferences, we’re also – unwillingly and unwittingly – producing gigantic volumes of information. Invisible others then greedily harvest, store, organize and sell this data for the purposes of social control, persuasion and behavior modification.
“On Google, you are what you click. On Facebook, you are what you share,” writes Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser.
This extraction of digital information can influence real human lives. In his extensive analysis of corporate surveillance in everyday life, digital culture scholar Wolfe Christl warns that data-mining companies are wielding personal data to automatically make decisions about people that may worsen existing inequalities.