Anatomy of our planetary skin
The skin of our planetary body is covered by sensors, actuators, wires, radars, cameras, turbines, transistors, and circuits that power modernity. A future without these technologies is unthinkable. On an individual level, the luxuries we enjoy would not exist without them. Accessing the rest of humanity through the black brick we compulsively turn on means relying on the constant whirring of these connective technologies.
This connective tissue we form is of course not without tradeoffs. Largely ignored in our day-to-day lives are privacy violations—ones that we willingly enable. This brings us to the centre of this piece: surveillance. What is it? What is it good and bad for? Will surveillance be necessary for planetary survival?
I propose that by increasing surveillance and emancipating the productive forces of technology and the market, we may be able to rein in existential threats mankind faces, specifically the climate crisis.
Unbundling surveillance: A brief history
‘Surveillance’ broadly refers to the act of watching.
Over the years, it has become somewhat of a convoluted concept, meaning to watch over someone and something. Today, surveillance is seen as an essential arm of governance. The contemporary grandfather of such a formulation stems from the work of 18th-century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Now a clichéd concept, the ‘Panopticon’ was a floor plan for a prison in which the cells were built around the perimeter of the structure. At the centre of this prison would be a guard tower, which would be exposed to one side of each cell, creating the effect that the guards are constantly watching the prisoners.
Such an effect regulates behaviour, good or bad, and is the bedrock of Michel Foucault’s work on disciplinary power, in which subjects are disciplined into passive individuals through various institutions like schools, hospitals, and the government bureaucracy (Ahem, sounds familiar?).
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze went a step further, stating that capitalism and globalisation altered these conventional disciplinary institutions. He suggests that schools, hospitals, and prisons are all increasingly turning into corporations. A ‘control society’ has emerged.
The key difference between control and disciplinary societies is the commodification of bodies in markets, which social psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff expands on in her concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’.
The accidental reverse Rube-Goldberg machine
In The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff’s framework is simple: Corporations extract data from the products they provide (what she terms ‘behavioural surplus extraction’), personalising them and infiltrating our private lives, creating a vicious cycle of consumption and desire.
A parallel to Zuboff’s model and exercise of raw power is the ‘propaganda model’ constructed by theorists Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Here, public consciousness incursions were made by the American government to manufacture consent for the perpetuation of the military-industrial complex. Herman and Chomsky theorised the propaganda model in 1988, explaining the way in which private entities and the government had convinced the general public to give them their express consent to make political and military interventions in Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam and most saliently, Syria.
On this note, in contemporary times, these powers of persuasion have no doubt been diffused. The grip that old money has had over these media apparati has loosened, albeit not entirely. Instead, the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley have painstakingly carved out a piece of this pie. As Zuboff outlines in her magnum opus, the private agglomeration of social surveillance technologies has relinquished disproportionate power to the Valley’s titans. Just like their explicitly statist counterparts, these giants pursue an end separate from that of the public.
Social media networks first started out as fairly innocuous applications. They then morphed into miniature slot machines that trap their users with microdoses of serotonin. Now, they have evolved reverse Rube-Goldberg machines of social division.
In a typical Rube-Goldberg machine, overly-complex parts of a whole combine to do a simple task. As opposed to this, the contraption that surveillance capitalists have fabricated begins with a simple action (a like, a comment). This action then reverberates outwards, sparking genocide and deepening societal fragmentation.
Doubt that? For genocide, look at the extermination of Rohingyas in Myanmar. The rise of Hindu Nationalism in India and the right’s resurgence in the United States both relied on these networks to push apart racial and social groups.
A case of Austrian persuasion
Despite all of this, I ultimately am neither anti-market nor anti-tech. I believe that market-integrated surveillance is good and absolutely necessary.
The leap in human progress we have made in the past century is remarkable. One of the driving forces—no doubt with state intervention—has been the market. The profit motive and the price signal, for all their faults, have emerged as excellent conduits of gaps in progress. They are not without fault, to state it generously, as rabid financialisation and market failures have shown.
At the forefront of this movement of marketism were Austrian economists. Prominent at a time when the spectre of Communism hung over Europe, Ludwig von Mises and his compatriots were the intellectual evangelists of the free market.
A recurring point they brought up constantly was that of the economic calculation problem, a criticism against state-led planning. This criticism refers to the incapacity of state-led planning in markets because no one entity can collect all available information to determine what every other individual needs. They, of course, had been thoroughly vindicated as evidenced by the repeated and extraordinary failures of the Soviet State Planning Committee (or Gosplan), and the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse in 1991.
Surveillance capitalists don’t play by these rules, though.
As journalists Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski lay out in The People’s Republic of Walmart, by achieving a near-oligopoly on behavioural surplus extraction (á la Zuboff, above), these giants have managed to leverage on the data they have collected on us to create a marketplace from which we can buy and sell almost anything at a fair price.
What would the Austrians and Joseph Stalin think of today’s corporate behemoths? Walmart, Amazon, and even Taobao have all achieved what hardline capitalists have said no actor may ever achieve: the (arguably) efficient exchange and catalogue of goods, overseen by a big other through which massive information and physical flows pass.
Building synthetic catallaxy
The market is now a computer. A man-made economy that distributes resources efficiently.
As you read this, these firms compute what is needed, how it is distributed, and facilitate real-time exchanges at lightning speeds. In fact, as recently as 2019, scholars Bibin Wang and Xiaoyan Li came up with a theoretical framework drawing from a wealth of literature to build a “plan-oriented market economy system in the information era”.
Here, design theorist Benjamin Bratton builds on Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s term for the economy—catallaxy. In opposition to ‘economics’, whose etymology describes the management (nómos) of the house (oîkos), the Austrians felt it did not capture what the market really stood for, which is the individual participation of individuals in mutual exchange. Bratton describes this man-made environment as a synthetic catallaxy.
Looping on itself, the recursive function of the market lives and breathes data. By means of its massive sensing capabilities—its alloy planetary skin, nebulous and omniscient cloud-brain, deeply embedded oceanic cords—synthetic catallaxy lives through and among us.
Bratton argues in The Terraforming, that we want an ecological twin operating beside this synthetic catallaxy. What does that mean? By leaning into geological surveillance, we could create models to manage our existence and curb the climate crisis. As Bratton so clearly put, anthropogenic climate change requires an equally anthropogenic response. With careful management, this synthetic catallaxy will price in the externalities that come with production, leading to smaller price distortions and clearer price signals.
In Singapore, a synthetic catallaxy like this has been manifested in the form of Climate Impact X (CIX), a carbon credit marketplace. It is a joint venture led by Temasek, DBS Group, Singapore Exchange, and Standard Chartered. By leveraging on remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, this exchange seeks to “open participation to forests that were previously left out of the climate solution.”
Solving climate calculus
Integrating computation and surveillance into our markets propels us onto a DNA-like trajectory towards deciphering climate calculus through synthetic catallaxy.
Bratton lays it out in The Stack, “… solving the capitalist pricing problem becomes practical.” Such efforts are practical, yes, and it has been done.
As COVID-19 engulfed the world, writer Venkatesh Rao says, “For better and worse, we’ve deployed a vast global disease surveillance system, and a new kind of vaccine technology to police the microbial frontier better.”
We already have embarked on this journey for more deeply assimilated surveillance technologies—and we are gaining ground, fast.
We need more surveillance. I did not stutter. We need more surveillance. The creeping power of humanity’s sensory and surveillance networks will and must unveil virgin domains for extraction, utilisation, and ultimately mastery over dirt.
The modern Alexander need not weep.