Algorithmic social manipulation is a reality now. What’s driving this? It’s too easy to say profits without elaborating more. Profiting on what? Through what means? What are the possible repercussions? In my view, the methods by which profits are made for capitalist social media have real social impact. There’s some parallels in data mining and driving improvements in profit extraction and the reduction of cost of production by mechanizing/automating human labor.
The capitalist controls the internals of their company: where to get the materials to produce a commodity, how to organize those materials, who to hire, and how those hired people should be socially organized to produce the commodity. The pressures of a capitalist market economy shape the decisions made by the capitalist in the management of the company and those pressures, among them to increase profitability and to reduce costs, shape the social organization and production process.
It is interesting to me that the means by which the capitalist must measure their success comes in the form the numbers by which their company maintains or increases profitability. The social character of the organization must be made reducible to numbers - to costs, efficiency, output, etc - in order for the capitalist to make it intelligible to the tyranny of these numbers.
There is a reflective process within capitalism by which the capitalist may assess the information about their production. If I may engage in narrating this, the capitalist sees the whole of production as an object and increasingly sees it as a method by which to extract wealth. The social character of production is abstracted away in the calculation of costs and profits. Historically, technological leaps in mechanization and automation have wrought traumatic reconfiguration of the social fabric that it rests on: displacing workers, dramatically changing demanded skill sets, and reduction in purchasing power.
If we take Amazon as an example, they hire warehouse runners who wear specialized bracelets that tell them where an item is and where to put it. There’s time limits on the bracelets that gives them a small window in which to complete their task. The algorithms within secret code demands such a high degree of social organization! It reduced workers to “get order; run to site A; run to site B; place order in box.” What social fluidity remains in such an environment? It isn’t that the social character of production is destroyed in that it is still socially coordinated, but it is destroyed in the suppression of spontaneity or creativity because social organization is so centrally controlled. Even now, robots are increasingly encroaching on this kind of labor.
What about on the other side of Amazon on the site through which the consumers browse and buy commodities? One drive has been towards instantaneous access to a commodity. Amazon, through mass capture of linking consumers to products, doesn’t profit by making a product and selling it to someone. It profits by linking a consumer to a supplier of a commodity they want. Amazon initially started out as an online store to buy books. It didn’t publish books, it didn’t print books, and it didn’t write books. All Amazon did was connect you to those that did.
Amazon also captured a lot of organizing of material supply lines - the actual movement of commodities to the consumer. They use the data of purchasing habits to control how they organize the shipment. From International Business Times:
Amazon utilizes a system known as “chaotic storage,” where products are essentially shelved at random.
The massive capture of consumer data has lead to a system of organization of warehouses where things are placed seemingly at random. Instead of a supply chain dedicated to getting a commodity from factory to stores Amazon has created a supply chain of supply chains to get commodities from factory to consumer and has done it by centralizing consumer data.
Consumer data is extracted. The capitalist casts maps on the consumer data in order to find patterns that it can utilize to drive consumption. This puts the social behavior surrounding consumption under their control. To continue with Amazon, the company takes what you purchased over time and presents you with other items that you might be interested in. Part of how it does this is to find other people who also have similar purchasing patterns and predict what else you might be interested in based on other people’s consumption habits. It might convince you to enter into a new spending spree based on an initial nibble at a suggestion.
From, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”
We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”
A dividual can be spliced up in all different manners, whether by age, race, children, smoking habits, or most frequented restaurant on Thursdays. Those can also be combined with any number of other people to create masses out of pieces of each individual. The capitalist creates maps this way and finds patterns - order through seeming noise - and patterns help drive the value of consumer data. They might deploy algorithms to assist in automating the creation of maps and detection of patterns.
Under a capitalist market economy companies that can coax consumers into predictable consumption habits will be the companies that succeed. Of course, the algorithms deployed and the methods used will be proprietary because they are the secrets by which the capitalist extracts their profits. Part of the value is scarcity of high value maps so when you do find one you keep it secret. If you have an improved method of prospecting gold you don’t just let everybody else know how it is done.
Jacques Camatte noted the restraint of the people against turning the many catastrophes of capitalism “into a catastrophe for capitalism itself.” Why was this? From “Against Domestication:”
The explanation for this is to be found in the domestication of humanity, which comes about when capital constitutes itself as a human community. The process starts out with the fragmentation and destruction of human beings, who are then restructured in the image of capital; people are turned into capitalist beings, and the final outcome is that capital is anthropomorphised. The domestication of humanity is closely bound up with another phenomenon which has intensified even further the passivity of human beings: capital has in effect “escaped”.
Increasingly networked dividuals utilizing capitalist platforms become sites of extraction and this is a process of fragmentation. Platforms (social media, music, purchasing, ride sharing, etc) reshape and tightly control the creation of reality surrounding these modes of consumption. That is to say, a site like Twitter, Facebook, or Amazon creates a subjective experience that constitutes valid parts of people’s social reality. However, instead of assuming a role in a physical space (patient or doctor, teacher or student, customer or worker), you assume a role in a digital space. In social media, for example, you relate to other individuals and make social networks with them. However, the shape of those social networks is largely structured according to what map the capitalist of that network deploys. The necessity of extracting data and finding patterns for profit drives what kind of social reality a platform presents.
To summarize, all of this culminates into algorithmic social manipulation. Manipulation invokes outright agency but it is agency coded by specific social relations. The drive to survive in capitalist market conditions leads to a removal of unpredictable social actions in favor of consistent, predictable, and recordable actions that can be utilized for reducing costs and increasing profits. With the rise in mass collection of consumer data capitalists got a high resolution set of data on their customers, allowing them to act upon the cyclical habits of individuals using their platforms. The consumer directly supplies the recordable as dividuals and using this, capitalism will favor methods of driving consumption that can make that consumption predictable and consistent. Capitalist digital platforms can help construct new social realities that drive these predictable and consistent patterns of consumption.
There are lots of questions that remain, for me. What methods of resistance are there against this kind of tendency (even the socialist parties organize through Facebook!) that allow for the rupture of the present system? How do we escape these systems of surveillance?