Automatic democracy

Behind the libertarian propaganda for a direct (live) democracy, capable of renovating party-based representative democracy, the ideology of an automatic democracy is being put in place, in which the absence of deliberation would be compensated by a ‘social automatism’ similar to that found in opinion polls or the measurement of TV audience ratings." 

That’s from Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb, most of which consists of his dire warnings against technological developments we’ve yawningly come to take for granted. (It reads like an ultraparanoid Nicholas Carr book.)  

But the passage above struck me as a way to understand Facebook and other platforms’ preoccupation with automated personalization. Currently they use archives of previous behavior, predictive analytics, and evershifting proprietary algorithms to shape the user’s information environment, target ads, and redraw the horizon for what the suer may think is possible in the world. Zeynep Tufekci, among others, has pointed out the way this can be used to shape voters’ choices or engineer consent. Virilio has anticipated this possibility and takes it to its logical conclusion, in which the surveillance data on a user will be algorithmically processed to yield their opinions on various political questions and will effectively cast their vote for them, without their having to bother, let alone consent to participate. This would simply be a totalization of the logic of governance by opinion poll — only no one would need to be polled, no conscious deliberation on the part of the polis would be necessary, and preferences would be presumed to be revealed through patterns of ordinary behavior. 

According to the positivist epistemology of Big Data, this would allow citizens’ "true” political desires to be captured without being manipulated by advertising and so on. But of course that would warrant politicians to pursue a perpetual, unending campaign of psychic manipulation. Instead of freeing individuals from politics, this would inescapably establish the latent politics in every last gesture a person makes; it would force people to recognize that anything that can be captured as data is always already a political matter, a matter of power. (Measurement connotes a power relation.) 

That is already true, but automated, algorithmic politics would make it unmissable.


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