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Facebook becomes meta: rehearsal for a digital totalitarism?

By Biagio Carrano 5 Novembre 2021

Those who believe that Mark Zuckerberg by launching Meta wants us to forget his credibility problems, perhaps by getting us to go back to playing with avatars as in Second Life, have little understanding of the Menlo Park giant’s strategies. [Versione italiana qui]

Instead, the inception of Meta Platforms Inc. underlies an attempt to achieve a radical transformation of the human condition as it has been defined since the use of writing in the last 5,500 years. Just as writing represented a leap in the ability of homo sapiens to understand himself, think about the world and relate to it, so too the vision and goals of Zuckerberg, as well as of most Silicon Valley theorists, from the Singularity of Raymond Kurzweil, director of engineering at

Google, to the transhumanist perspectives disseminated by philosophers such as Nick Bostrom, no longer concern the development of enormously profitable enterprises, but the claim to impose a new anthropological leap – the definition of a new human condition based on new technologies that will no longer define an organic totality but a digitised one.

The digital veil of Maya

This leads to the total subsumption of the human being in a pervasive, ubiquitous, highly sensory-dense infosystem, “collapsed” as when in astrophysics there is an enormous thickening of subatomic particles, because, as philosopher Cosimo Accoto explains, it is the result of “sensing, networking, mining, sorting and rendering operations that will also evoke, from time to time, saturating synthetic environments of high and other dimensionality (x-reality)”.

As a consequence, the way we work and produce will also change, as will the global value chain, which we have always imagined and represented as a horizontal sequence, but which we will have to imagine more as a stack made up of various stratifications: physical and digital, conceptual and virtual.

Accoto suggests that value will be produced by ‘value collapses’, i.e. as a result of value stratifications capable of merging with each other at a given time to offer a radically innovative experience or service: no longer a high-speed train, but teleporting; no longer a university course on a PC screen, but an astrophysics lesson flying at the speed of light between planets and galaxies.

These are not illusions of an amusement park, after which, some naive realists might think, we will return to our concrete and difficult everyday existence. Today, not even the barista down the street has a naive realist attitude towards the world. Not only do we all know that reality is not as it appears to us, but that it is also the result of multiple cognitive filters. Two centuries ago, one of the masterpieces of Western philosophy opened with this warning:

It then becomes clear and certain to him (a man) that he does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents; and this is himself.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 1818, first book)

We are now well beyond wearables, the devices that datify the human body as a constant source of data. The RayBan glasses made by Facebook in collaboration with Essilor Luxottica are the first example of a prosthesis that is no longer intended to imitate the senses, but to enhance them. The transition from glasses to microchips installed directly in the retina will be a short one. Also, the transition from virtual reality gloves to sheaths for using our whole body for datafication and interacting better in this augmented reality will be short. The datafication of the world will not only concern the extraction of data from our lives, but the symbolic and sensory apparatus that has defined the relationship of the human being with the world will be supplemented by a new layer of contents and interfaces that will end up adding a new veil of Maya, to quote the Vedas, again through Schopenhauer. But we will be forced to wrap ourselves in this digital veil of Maya, if we do not want to live as outsiders or social outcasts at all. Just as today, those who do not have a mobile phone number risk not even being able to access the State’s digitized registry services, we cannot exclude that the drive of Zuckerberg and his Californian buddies will be to push us to live ‘first and foremost’ in their metaverse.

The overcoming of the mobile Internet that still characterizes the 4G phase of digitalization takes place through what Zuckerberg calls the embodied Internet – the Internet is no longer in our pockets, but we become part of the Internet. The virtual body takes over from the real body. While up to now the virtual body has been a shadow, a data-driven wake of the actions of the real body, we are witnessing a reversal of the relationship: the virtualized subject takes the center of experience thanks to Augmented and Virtual Reality that enables the digital body to have experiences that are precluded to the physical body. This is not a new reflection for the most experienced left-wingers. In his 2018 text “L’algoritmo sovrano“, Renato Curcio pointed out that “For the first time in the history of our species (…) human experience is no longer predominantly carried out in the space-time of bodies in relation to each other but is also and simultaneously projected into a virtual space-time. We are invested by two asymmetrical processes regulated by different logics that impose on us, willingly or unwillingly, a radical and permanent dissociation of identity (…)“. But Zuckerberg makes the leap beyond (Meta, precisely, in ancient Greek) this dissociation by giving the digitalized body a primacy it did not have until now.

The infosystem in which the digital bodies of Meta’s users will operate will not only be the result of the interaction between the technological infrastructure (5G and 6G, virtual and augmented reality, wearables, and so on) and the 3D apps developed and hosted by this digital environment, but will also depend on how much businesses, institutions and citizens accept this new human condition.

Noah Yuval Harari recently sounded the alarm about the risk that human beings will soon be ‘hacked’ by the artificial intelligence tools developed and put to use by the big global oligopolists of the Information and Data Economy. The only way to deal with this, according to Harari, is a general agreement among sovereign states to impose rules on these global oligopolists and their ability to extract data from the lives of individuals. Although it appears to be a frontier proposal, Harari’s call, compared to the goals Zuckerberg promises to achieve in Meta, seems like a call to good manners.

Can we still control the GAFAMs?

Source: Statista

The shareholders of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), the big global oligopolists of the digital age, and of all the companies involved in data capitalism, are today spreading a new argument to claim their huge profits: not only, traditionally, they would be the recognition of their merits, but they represent the resources needed to pursue a project of transformation and supposed improvement of humanity.

This is a very strong argument: to continue to impose and make the global public accept the regulatory Wild West, scandalous tax exemptions, policies hindering competition and innovation, data mining in order to implement the ‘logical anticipation of objective developments‘ (as Hannah Arendt feared about totalitarianism in the early 20th century), in exchange for a better and even longer and healthier life for hundreds of millions of people.

This is a totalitarian attitude, in a twofold sense: as an orientation to map people’s lives from birth to death, from waking up to goodnight; as an ambition to propose a meaning and a direction to the lives of those who rely on these info-environments, in some way replacing both rites and religions, as well as the modern state sovereignty and its services.

The power of GAFAM and the whole system of companies working to realize their ambitions is no longer just a matter of industrial economics, competition, protection of consumers and their privacy, regulation, as if we were dealing with gas or information. If 50 years later, between the 1930s and the 1970s, the oil and telecommunications oligopolies could still be tackled with relatively similar instruments. The same cannot be said for realities such as GAFAM for three reasons:

  •  their global scale and their ubiquity, which hardly allows themselves to be bogged down by the regulations of a specific country;
  • the constant expansion of their areas of impact and surveillance in individual lives;
  •  the dataism ideology, in which the principles of the market and the stock exchange are overtaken by a teleology that justifies all conduct in a Faustian interpretation of their role.

The biggest mistake politicians and economists have made is not understanding that applying analogy schemes and solutions that have more or less worked in other sectors does not make sense in this case. 

Responding to Facebook’s challenge by citing the success of the break-up of the AT&T monopoly and the creation of Baby Bells, a 30-year old case, means failing to understand the ideas that drive the depths of companies such as Facebook, Google, and hundreds of thinkers united by a transhumanist vision, which does not only imply, as is commonly thought, a cyborg outcome for human existence, but a rethinking of what we call ‘reality’.

This totalitarian horizon cannot be countered only by a stale critique of the limits of development, based on the exhaustion of natural resources that digital expansion has so far speeded up rather than reduced. We have to start from the observation that not only the institutional and regulatory system, but also the entire elaboration of man’s thought about himself from his beginnings to the present day, the entire sapiential and rationalistic apparatus, is not keeping pace with the technological acceleration underway. One should ask oneself whether, as in the case of military technologies that are kept hidden so as not to terrify mankind, it would not be appropriate to at least try to slow down certain developments (or, at least, their delivery) while waiting to fully understand the consequences. A simple solution would be to allow certain technologies to be introduced in certain countries (admittedly, cynically, they would be a kind of a guinea pig countries), while the more mindful countries, often at the same time the most attractive markets, could assess the impact and in the meantime equip themselves to manage these innovations.

Technology is not an autonomous process, but is always the result of political choices, even, if not especially, when politics lets it develop in ways that are, at first sight, deemed as ‘free’. Countries like Russia and China have shown that Google and Facebook are not perfect services that impose themselves in every market, but totalitarian infosystems, politically supported by the US, that inevitably come into conflict with authoritarian or tout court totalitarian forms of state. So-called liberal democracies should understand that their protection of liberist freedom could be reversed into allowing digital totalitarianism everything. And, paradoxically, some of the fiercest and most argued critics of digital totalitarianism come from right-wing politicians and thinkers, based on classical (and sometimes trivial) libertarian assumptions, while American liberals have often distinguished themselves by their collateralism to the policies and objectives of GAFAM.

Indeed, a certain moderate and compatibilist European left-wing still lives under the illusion that technological progress is a factor in the liberation of human beings, without understanding that every technology immediately poses a relationship of domination. The challenge today is not simply to be aware of the many shapes of this new domination, but to develop brand new conceptual tools to cope with that. 

Useful book and links

Marc Andreessen, Why the software is eating the world, 2011, https://pdf4pro.com/amp/view/why-software-is-eating-the-world-1bb986.html

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarism,  Schocken Books, 1966

Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, on Software and Sovereignity, The Mit Press, 2016

Renato Curcio, L’Algoritmo Sovrano. Metamorfosi identitarie e rischi totalitari nella società artificiale, Sensibili alle Foglie, 2018

Arnold Gehlen, Man. His Nature and Place in the World, Columbia University Press, 1987

Raymond Kurzweil, The singularity in near, Viking, 2005

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence, Oxford University Press, 2014

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0. Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Milano, Penguin, 2018

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Profile Books, 2019 (my review here, in Italian)

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