Data Technologies Colonize the Ontological Frontier

September 19, 2017

Writing recently in Medium, Salvatore Iaconesi — a designer, engineer and founder of Art is Open Source and Human Ecosystems — offers an extremely important critique of the blockchain and other data-driven network technologies.

While recognizing that these systems have enormous potential for “radical innovation and transformation,” he astutely warns against their dangerous psychological and cultural effects. They transfer entire dimensions of perception, feeling, relationships, trust-building, and more — both individually and collectively experienced — into algorithmic calculations. The System becomes the new repository of such relational epiphenomena. And in the process, our very sense of our shared agency and intentionality, relationships, and a common fate begins to dissolve.

In their current incarnations, the blockchain and related network-based technologies start with the ontological presumption that everything can be broken apart into individual units of feeling and action. Our character, viewpoints, emotions, behaviors, are more are all translated into data-artifacts. This is the essential role of data, after all – to distill the world into manipulable, calculable units of presumably significant information.

Think that you are a whole human being?  Forget it.  Data systems are abstracting, fragmenting and filleting our identities into profiles that we don’t even control. A simulacrum of our “real identities” is being constructed to suit new business models, laying the foundation for what Iaconsi calls the “transactionalization of life.” As he writes:

Everything is turning into a transaction: our relationships, emotions and expressions; our ways of producing, acquiring and transferring knowledge; communication; everything.

As soon as each of these things become the subject of a service, they become transactions: they become an atomic part of a procedure.

Because this is what a transaction is: an atom in a procedure, in an algorithm. This includes the fact that transactions are designed, according to a certain business, operational, strategic, marketing model.

This means that when our relationships, emotions, expressions, knowledge, communication and everything become transactions, they also become atoms of those business models whose forms, allowances, degrees of freedoms and liberty are established by those models.

“Everything, including our relations and emotions, progressively becomes transactionalized/financialized, and the blockchain represent an apex of this tendency. This is already becoming a problem for informality, for the possibility of transgression, for the normation and normalization of conflicts and, thus, in prospect, for our liberties and fundamental rights, and for our possibility to perceive them (because we are talking about psychological effects),” according to Iaconsi.

How does this process work?

By moving “attention onto the algorithm, on the system, on the framework. Instead of supporting and maintaining the necessity and culture of establishing co-responsibility between human beings, these systems include “trust” in procedural ways. In ways which are technical. Thus, the necessity for trust (and, thus, on the responsibility to attribute trust, based on human relations) progressively disappears,” he writes.

Therefore, together with it, society disappears. Society as actively and consciously built by people who freely decide if and when to trust each other, and who collectively agree to the modalities of this attribution.

What remains is only consumption of services and products. Safe, transparent and all. But mere transactionalized consumption. Society ends, and so does citizenship: we become citizen of nothing, of the network, of the algorithm.

These are not technical issues, but psychological ones, perceptive ones. And, thus, even more serious.

As soon as I start using them [blockchains], as soon as I start imagining the world through them, everything starts looking as a transaction, as something which is “tokenizable”….Technology creates us just as much as we create technology.

In short, the radical atomization, objectification and financialization of human relationships begins to dissolve the very idea of a shared society.

Institutions and other people disappear, replaced by an algorithm. Who knows where trust is at/in! It is everywhere, diffused, in the peer-to-peer network. Which means that it’s nowhere, and in nobody.

In a weird way it is like in call centers: they are not really useful for the client, and they completely serve the purpose minimizing bother for the companies, letting clients slipping into the “procedure” (which is synonym with algorithm), and avoiding them from obtaining real answers and effects, in their own terms outside of procedures.

These are all processes which separate people from each other, from institutions, organizations, companies, through the Procedure.

Citizens of everywhere. Citizens of nowhere and nothing.

So what might be done?

Iaconsi talks about the Third Infoscape, which is drives from the concept of the Third Landscape.  He writes that in the Third Landscape, “where ‘technicians’ see ‘weeds,’ the Third Landscape sees opportunity, biodiversity, an open source media which is a reservoir for the future of the planet, which does not require energy to maintain, but produces energy, food, knowledge, relations.”

Citing Marco Casagrande, Iaconsi argues that data and information should not be “laid out geometrically, formally, as in gardens, but more like the woods and wild nature, in which multiple forms of dimensions, boundaries, layers and interpretations co-exist by complex desire, relation and interaction, not by design.”

This, of course, implies “a different kind of technology, a different kind of science, with a different imagination to support it.” It also implies that we begin to speak not just of technology design, but of “sensibility, imagination and aesthetics.”

Iaconsi’s critique reminded me of Montreal-based communications professor Brian Massumi’s important 2015 book, Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception.  His basic thesis is that the national security state, in its perpetual fight against terrorism, has telescoped its political priorities into a new ontological paradigm. It seeks to validate a new reality through what he calls “ontopower.” This is “the mode of power embodying the logic of preemption across the full spectrum of force, from the ‘hard’ (military intervention) to the ‘soft’ (surveillance).”

The point is that perception of reality itself is the new battleground. Power is not just carried out in overt state or policy settings – legislatures, courts, the media. State power wants to go beyond messaging and framing the terms of debate. It has deliberately moved into the realm of ontology to define the terms of reality itself. In the national security context, that means that nefarious terrorist threats exist potentially everywhere, and thus the logic of preemptive military action (drone killings, extra-legal violence, etc.) is thus fully justified. (Cf. the film Minority Report.)

Massumi writes:

“Security threats, regardless of the existence of credible intelligence, are now felt into reality. Whereas nations once waited for a clear and present danger to emerge before using force, a threat’s felt reality now demands launching a preemptive strike. Power refocuses on what may emerge, as that potential presents itself to feeling.”

So if ontopower is arising as a new strategy in national security agencies, it should not be surprising that a related mode of ontopower is being developed by Silicon Valley, which is a frequent partner with the national security state.

The new frontier in Big Tech is to leverage Big Data to obtain unassailable market dominance and consumer control.  Naturally, the surveillance state envies this capacity and wants to be dealt into the game. Hence the tight alliances between the US Government and Silicon Valley, as revealed by Snowden. Now that the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and others have secured political and economic supremacy in so many markets and cultural vectors, is it any wonder that such power is itching to define social reality itself?


Teaser image credit: Art as Open Source website.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs at, and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Tags: big data, open source, peer-to-peer relationships