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Digital Technology Discussion

Digital Technology Discussion


In this, the final week of instruction, Professor Rahimi lectured about the emergence of digital technology and the ways in which ever more aspects of human existence are being reduced to data. As last week’s Heidegger reading might put it, our actions and interactions are being turned into a “standing reserve” that can be accessed by large corporations and used to make money. Your going for a walk becomes someone in Palo Alto’s paycheck. Similarly, in your reading from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff discusses “economies of action,” which she defines (in an earlier part of the book) as the processes by which corporations “intervene in the state of play in the real world among real people and things. These interventions are designed to enhance certainty by doing things: they nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior.” They do this to achieve predictable outcomes and, therefore, “competitive advantage in the new markets for future behavior.” She gives examples of Facebook experiments and Pokémon Go to illustrate these “economies of action.”

Heidegger and Zuboff’s dystopianism seem to be in sharp contrast to readings by authors like Donna Haraway and John Perry Barlow, who consider the possibilities of a future in which technology might enable us to create new relationships and think beyond limits and binaries . . .In many ways, this contrast has been repeated from week to week in this class. We’ve seen utopian visions of human rationality in Rousseau (and critiques of society’s irrationality in Voltaire) contrasted with frightful visions of rationality untethered by morality in Frankenstein. And we’ve seen optimistic views of industrial technology and rational organization of society in Kapp challenged by philosophers like Heidegger and Arendt, who saw the inherently inhumane implications of such mechanistic thinking . . .

This final week, I want you to reflect on the Zuboff reading and write about 200-300 words addressing several of the following questions: Zuboff describes the ways in which tech companies and other profit-seeking firms attempt to learn about us and affect our behavior to make a profit. (This is what she calls instrumatarianism, a method of power that “knows and shapes human behavior toward others’ ends.”) How is the instrumentarianism of tech firms different from the totalitarian policies of the early 20th century? Do its intellectual origins (in Skinner’s writing) remind you of writers like Bacon or La Mettire? Do you even think she is right to present events in such dire terms? Can you think of an example you’ve read about the illustrates (or counter) her argument?

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