The ultimate proof of Brechin’s thesis can be had in today’s Washington Post which describes the phenomenal, dazzling wealth in the City by the Bay, named after the humble Francis of Assisi. We see via this piece that the Great Queen of the Pacific Basin, the Colossus, home of “tech”, presses on to the profitable colonization of the globe and enslaves humanity to the production of valuable bits, for which no recompense is returned to the producers and deception reigns supreme.
The Bay Area is home to more billionaires per capita than anywhere on Earth, one out of every 11,600 residents, according to Vox. The entire region, as far as two hours away, has been affected by spiraling real estate prices. Venture capitalist John Doerr has claimed that the area’s economic growth is “the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history.”
But today’s Bay Area is much much more powerful than it was in the period Brechin describes.
Think of the last 40 years in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. We started out with dumb, electronic kits and hardware that only the passionate nerds were capable of using. By the 80s, the PC and the Macintosh went mainstream, and a generation of people learned to use them at home and in the office. Bill Gates’ famous proclamation of a “PC on every desktop” had become if not true, then true enough for the times, by the mid 1990s. Professionalization of Information Technology followed, with certificate programs available for people like me, and Microsoft Office training for white collar workers.
But that wasn’t enough. The Microsoft stack, as it were, didn’t scale well enough. It could go global, but going global with a single stack required a lot of work. It required, in effect, an Arendtian-like concept of administration over the spaces the Microsoft stack created on our screens at the time. It required people to look at the software & hardware as tools to an end, not the end in and of itself. And it allowed for trusted administrators to create trusted screens at work, if not at home.
It was at this time that the Free & Open Source Software movement, Silicon Valley, Netscape, and the US Department of Justice stepped onto the scene. Pressing an anti-trust case against Microsoft in the waning days of the Clinton Administration suddenly became a high priority. True, Microsoft had intended to embrace, extend, and extinguish Netscape by bundling Internet Explorer, but in retrospect, was that such a bad thing?
As the subsequent years have proven, and as has been repeatedly pointed out by the tech press, the “network effect” of users joining one “platform” has produced the same end: monoculture. Only this present monoculture is devoid of any semblance of Microsoft’s top-down organizational approach, let alone the trust signals inherent in that organizational model. Rather, the new platforms profit by a flat network model, where no trust signals can be discerned for even educated people. Therefore, bad ideas, the subversive speech in Arendt’s orderly and administrative public square, get equal or greater rank than good ideas on our screen.
Trust can still be had on screens, of course, but notice it’s been sequestered away for use only in the workplace of white collar office buildings. Out there, in the real world, on the frontier San Francisco created, the screens operate by an entirely different set of rules. They operate as if to colonize, as if to capture and draw one into a casino floor. And as most commentators repeatedly point out, today’s ✨innovation✨ are a direct result of the antitrust case pressed against Microsoft.
Zoom out a bit, and the sweep of history takes shape. We punished Microsoft as if they were the railroad tycoons of old. This gave rise to Google, Facebook, et al, which, as Zuboff eloquently points out, had to figure out quickly how to monetize their businesses. What emerged from that -in the context of neoliberal impulse to grow markets without attendant political controls- were the colonization machines of our present dystopia.
I think of a colonization machines as a physical device that contains something akin to Frank Pasquale’s “blackbox.” A blackbox is something that records inputs, but its outputs can’t be understood if we were to pry one open and watch it at work. Many use this framing; algorithms are the blackbox and no one is quite sure how they work. All we know is that black boxes take inputs and produce outputs. The core logic is mysterious, we’re told.
But I think there’s a deception in this framing. Because in the past, we could go and look at what went into any statistical model. We could go to a university and interview statisticians or social scientists about their statistical assumptions. But that’s not true any longer. Because those things have been bundled up & compiled -quite deliberately- into a machine-readable software binary that no mere mortal can interpret. The idea of a “black box” then, is deceptive.
It’s deceptive because there is a logic at work inside the black box. The logic in the black box could exist in a real physical place, a place where we could inspect it, such as on a chalkboard. But we’re not told that. We’re just told they are magical black boxes. So, in effect, these colonization machines, when combined with black boxes, become new & unquestionable gods, or BF Skinner-like algorithmgods as I like to think of them.
What are the effects of these new algorithmgods on a global scale? Well, we -as in Arendt’s public- don’t quite know for sure because those effects -those costs on society- are cloaked in other words and time-delayed. When Microsoft Researcher Jaron Lanier spoke with Nilay Patel last month, Lanier carefully danced around the effects of the algorithmgods. You had to listen very closely for the tell, but there was a tell when he said the line between algorithmic recommendation and a behavioral prediction are so diffuse and blurred as to be meaningless.
What does this mean? It means the algorithmgod can shape human behavior by showing the human things meant to influence her behavior. And it means the algorithmgod has been and is right now, at this very moment, shaping human behavior by showing things to humans, around the world. The algorithmgods are directing a grand pageant, like a wizard, and influencing human choice on a scale never contemplated by the newspaper barons of old, like Hearst. When you think of the algorithmgods, think of Mickey Mouse in the creepy fascistic 1940 Disney Masterpiece, Fantasia, where Mickey dons a Wizard’s hat and forces then clones an army of brooms to do his bidding.
Practically speaking, the costs of the algorithmgods are undiscoverable. We don’t know when the anti-vaccine movement started its (long? short?) climb up the hockey stick of Silicon Valley’s progress. We don’t know when supremacist ideas -once hidden & shamed in obscure localities of physical spaces- crawled out from the obscurity and began infecting other desperate young people. We don’t know when flat earth became a thing, we only know that it is a thing, thanks to the Algorithmgods of Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, and San Francisco, home to more billionaires than any other place on the planet.
There are more billionaires in that place because they know the answers to these and all other questions. Because the data harvesters and miners of the Bay Area instrument and monitor both the inputs and the outputs to Pasquale’s black box. They measure and instrument ala Bentham’s Panopitcon. On top of all that, they’ve provided pleasing ✨razzle dazzle UI✨ interfaces to addict the poor and the uneducated, to draw them in, to give the machine, San Francisco, and the United States, more of themselves. This parallel world is one in which the law is based on Bentham’s utilitarian ethics and applies almost universally. And Washington DC -indeed, the entire imperial eastern seaboard- enjoys what San Francisco has done very much.
Because colonizing the globe with new money-making algorithmgods was the intention from the beginning.