This post is the ninth and final installment of my passing on to both MindBlog readers and my future self my idiosyncratic selection of clips of text from O’Gieblyn’s book ‘God, Human, Animal, Machine’ that I have found particularly interesting. Here are fragments of Chapter 13 from the seventh section of her book, titled "Virality"
The most successful metaphors become invisible through ubiquity. The same is true of ideology, which, as it becomes thoroughly integrated into a culture, sheds its contours and distinctive outline and dissolves finally into pure atmosphere. Although digital technology constitutes the basic architecture of the information age, it is rarely spoken of as a system of thought. Its inability to hold ideas or beliefs, preferences or opinions, is often misunderstood as an absence of philosophy rather than a description of its tenets. The central pillar of this ideology is its conception of being, which might be described as an ontology of vacancy—a great emptying-out of qualities, content, and meaning. This ontology feeds into its epistemology, which holds that knowledge lies not in concepts themselves but in the relationships that constitute them, which can be discovered by artificial networks that lack any true knowledge of what they are uncovering. And as global networks have come to encompass more and more of our human relations, it’s become increasingly difficult to speak of ourselves—the nodes of this enormous brain—as living agents with beliefs, preferences, and opinions.
The term “viral media” was coined in 1994 by the critic Douglas Rushkoff, who argued that the internet had become “an extension of a living organism” that spanned the globe and radically accelerated the way ideas and culture spread. The notion that the laws of the biosphere could apply to the datasphere was already by that point taken for granted, thanks to the theory of memes, a term Richard Dawkins devised to show that ideas and cultural phenomena spread across a population in much the same way genes do. iPods are memes, as are poodle skirts, communism, and the Protestant Reformation. The main benefit of this metaphor was its ability to explain how artifacts and ideologies reproduce themselves without the participation of conscious subjects. Just as viruses infect hosts without their knowledge or consent, so memes have a single “goal,” self-preservation and spread, which they achieve by latching on to a host and hijacking its reproductive machinery for their own ends. That this entirely passive conception of human culture necessitates the awkward reassignment of agency to the ideas themselves—imagining that memes have “goals” and “ends”—is usually explained away as a figure of speech.
When Rushkoff began writing about “viral media,” the internet was still in the midst of its buoyant overture, and he believed, as many did at the time, that this highly networked world would benefit “people who lack traditional political power.” A system that has no knowledge of a host’s identity or status should, in theory, be radically democratic. It should, in theory, level existing hierarchies and create an even playing field, allowing the most potent ideas to flourish, just as the most successful genes do under the indifferent gaze of nature. By 2019, however, Rushkoff had grown pessimistic. The blind logic of the network was, it turned out, not as blind as it appeared—or rather, it could be manipulated by those who already had enormous resources. “Today, the bottom-up techniques of guerrilla media activists are in the hands of the world’s wealthiest corporations, politicians, and propagandists,” Rushkoff writes in his book Team Human. What’s more, it turns out that the blindness of the system does not ensure its judiciousness. Within the highly competitive media landscape, the metrics of success have become purely quantitative—page views, clicks, shares—and so the potential for spread is often privileged over the virtue or validity of the content. “It doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be affected by the meme and provoked to replicate it,” Rushkoff writes. In fact the most successful memes don’t appeal to our intellect at all. Just as the proliferation of a novel virus depends on bodies that have not yet developed an effective immune response, so the most effective memes are those that bypass the gatekeeping rational mind and instead trigger “our most automatic impulses.” This logic is built into the algorithms of social media, which replicate content that garners the most extreme reactions and which foster, when combined with the equally blind and relentless dictates of a free market, what one journalist has called “global, real-time contests for attention.”
The general public has become preoccupied by robots—or rather “bots,” the diminutive, a term that appears almost uniformly in the plural, calling to mind a swarm or infestation, a virus in its own right, though in most cases they are merely the means of transmission. It should not have come as a surprise that a system in which ideas are believed to multiply according to their own logic, by pursuing their own ends, would come to privilege hosts that are not conscious at all. There had been suspicions since the start of the pandemic about the speed and efficiency with which national discourse was hijacked by all manner of hearsay, conspiracy, and subterfuge.
The problem is not merely that public opinion is being shaped by robots. It’s that it has become impossible to decipher between ideas that represent a legitimate political will and those that are being mindlessly propagated by machines. This uncertainty creates an epistemological gap that renders the assignment of culpability nearly impossible and makes it all too easy to forget that these ideas are being espoused and proliferated by members of our democratic system—a problem that is far more deep-rooted and entrenched and for which there are no quick and easy solutions. Rather than contending with this fact, there is instead a growing consensus that the platforms themselves are to blame, though no one can settle on precisely where the problem lies: The algorithms? The structure? The lack of censorship and intervention? Hate speech is often spoken of as though it were a coding error—a “content-moderation nightmare,” an “industry-wide problem,” as various platform executives have described it, one that must be addressed through “different technical changes,” most of which are designed to appease advertisers. Such conversations merely strengthen the conviction that the collective underbelly of extremists, foreign agents, trolls, and robots is an emergent feature of the system itself, a phantasm arising mysteriously from the code, like Grendel awakening out of the swamp.
Donald Trump himself, a man whose rise to power may or may not have been aided by machines, is often included in this digital phantasm, one more emergent property of the network’s baffling complexity…Robert A. Burton, a prominent neurologist, claimed in an article that the president made sense once you stopped viewing him as a human being and began to see him as “a rudimentary artificial intelligence-based learning machine.” Like deep-learning systems, Trump was working blindly through trial and error, keeping a record of what moves worked in the past and using them to optimize his strategy, much like AlphaGo, the AI system that swept the Go championship in Seoul. The reason that we found him so baffling was that we continually tried to anthropomorphize him, attributing intention and ideology to his decisions, as though they stemmed from a coherent agenda. AI systems are so wildly successful because they aren’t burdened with any of these rational or moral concerns—they don’t have to think about what is socially acceptable or take into account downstream consequences. They have one goal—winning—and this rigorous single-minded interest is consistently updated through positive feedback. Burton’s advice to historians and policy wonks was to regard Trump as a black box. “As there are no lines of reasoning driving the network’s actions,” he wrote, “it is not possible to reverse engineer the network to reveal the ‘why’ of any decision.”
If we resign ourselves to the fact that our machines will inevitably succeed us in power and intelligence, they will surely come to regard us this way, as something insensate and vaguely revolting, a glitch in the operation of their machinery. That we have already begun to speak of ourselves in such terms is implicit in phrases like “human error,” a phrase that is defined, variously, as an error that is typical of humans rather than machines and as an outcome not desired by a set of rules or an external observer. We are indeed the virus, the ghost in the machine, the bug slowing down a system that would function better, in practically every sense, without us.
If Blumenberg is correct in his account of disenchantment, the scientific revolution was itself a leap of faith, an assertion that the ill-conceived God could no longer guarantee our worth as a species, that our earthly frame of reference was the only valid one. Blumenberg believed that the crisis of nominalism was not a one-time occurrence but rather one of many “phases of objectivization that loose themselves from their original motivation.” The tendency to privilege some higher order over human interests had emerged throughout history—before Ockham and the Protestant reformers it had appeared in the philosophy of the Epicureans, who believed that there was no correspondence between God and earthly life. And he believed it was happening once again in the technologies of the twentieth century, as the quest for knowledge loosened itself from its humanistic origins. It was at such moments that it became necessary to clarify the purpose of science and technology, so as to “bring them back into their human function, to subject them again to man’s purposes in relation to the world.” …Arendt hoped that in the future we would develop an outlook that was more “geocentric and anthropomorphic.” She advocated a philosophy that took as its starting point the brute fact of our mortality and accepted that the earth, which we were actively destroying and trying to escape, was our only possible home.”