"All of this is an argument for systems literacy." Flickr/Gergely Schmidt. CC-BY-2.0.On its opening day, the Friendly Fire conference asked: are digital non-/citizens the status quo? Two prolific speakers were looking for answers: the artist James Bridle, whose visionary project, Citizen Ex, reflects digital citizenship; and the coder/thinker Eleanor Saitta, whose work explores the potential of radical democracy and consistently challenges the blindspots of digital avant-gardes. Here Saitta reflects the politics of citizenship with regards to the rampant digitalisation of people's lives – be they citizens or not.
Krystian Woznicki (KW): Our offline and online lives have become inseparable, hence citizenship nowadays is inseparable from digital citizenship. Following the Snowden disclosures, there has been a growing awareness of the workings of the governmental-corporate power nexus – the backend of citizenship, so to speak. From your point of view, what are the most important implications of this trend when it comes to conceptualizing the neoliberal state in the "post-Snowden world" (as you have once termed the states of affairs)?
Eleanor Saitta (ES): The inseparability you point at is the single most important thing to understand about the impact of the internet on political life – that the internet does not exist as a separate entity from a political perspective. There is only life and power, not digital and non-digital life and power.
Much of the current furore around the use of targeted advertising for political manipulation is happening in the absence of understanding of existing targeted advertising practices.
All of the actors to whom we might wish to entrust the reproduction and management of society operate under a set of perverse incentives that direct them to ends other than that which society more broadly might wish for. For instance, many of the organizations building large-scale social (and real) infrastructure now operated under the logic of venture capital, expecting a 20x return in three to five years while accepting a 95% failure rate. Likewise, the various terrains that form the basis of those actors' operations have affordances and preferences that shape and constrain their options. Some of these are themselves designed affordances; some of them are inherent in the channel (e.g. the digital channel) via which a given terrain operates. Digital data, for instance, can be easily reproduced, regardless of the system that the data are embedded in.
Engagement with the specificity of systems is necessary for even informed comment on systems, let alone change (unless one is already acting from a position of significant embedded authority). For instance, much of the current furore around the use of targeted advertising for political manipulation is happening in the absence of understanding of existing targeted advertising practices. This occurs in all directions – lawyers failing to understand intelligence practices that occur outside the edges of law, engineers refusing to admit the possibility of regulation, theorists failing to look at the lived experience of organizers who have attempted change in practice, etc.
All of this is an argument for systems literacy. It feels odd to be making an argument for basic literacy in the midst of what feels like an emergent crisis, but the alternative is professionalization or vanguardism, neither of which has been fit for purpose.
I realize that you're interested in an answer framed in the situation of the world, and I'm giving you a response of the work we must do to see that situation, but I think that is the point. Process, not product. I'd love to have a set of theoretical answers, but the last few years have been an excellent test-bed for theory, and there is nothing that destroys theory faster.
KW: The production of "kill lists" and "no fly lists" is symptomatic not only of emerging database rationalities but also of something that one could call algorithmic states of exception – formations of power that turn "false positives" into the collateral damage of information societies: that practically anyone could be find her or himself on such a list that – before the fact – destabilizes citizenship as we know it and – after the fact – literally renders people's lives worthless. Is it actually possible to preserve "capacities" of citizenship under these conditions?
ES: I don’t think these lists are as symptomatic of our state of affairs. Rather the fact that every decision, every touch point with any structure of authority, becomes completely tracked and completely contingent. The state of exception becomes total and permanent, and as such ceases to exist. Database rationality is a way of seeing people rooted in the information processing capabilities of the 1970s. In engineering, we say that every time you increase the scale of a system by three orders of magnitude, it becomes a completely different system along the way. Lists do not scale above a few hundred thousand people.
The actual rules of society shift and multiply and become purely embedded in and inextricable from their implementation. In more rights-preserving societies, citizens are permitted to view those implementations in detail, to appeal their decisions and petition to change the general function of such implementations. In less free societies, implementations become more opaque, designed to preserve deniability and caprice.
Every decision, every touch point with any structure of authority, becomes completely tracked and completely contingent. The state of exception becomes total and permanent, and as such ceases to exist.
All sociotechnical infrastructural systems serve multiple ends. Intent and design of modern, developed systems present only a subset of intents and interactions to the user in their messaging and emphasize different things to different users in different contexts. With sufficiently complex systems, this is inevitable and necessary – it's how we manage the complexity of society, even in contexts where the users (citizens or not) are sufficiently educated to understand the full complexity given time.
The notion of invariant rights that is provided to balance out any violations within the system post facto becomes unworkable under this logic. This is the same transition we've seen when looking at the reliability of complex systems. Our existing governance models are similar to the initial rounds of product liability brought in to compel manufacturers to test their systems for safety and to build to adequate tolerances. With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the military industrial complex realized that this was inadequate to produce reliable outcomes, and holistic system dynamic safety engineering was created as a discipline (an initial intellectual effort significantly greater than the Manhattan project itself).
Software introduces combinatorial complexity into even system systems reliability problems, and partially-soft systems can only be effectively managed in flow and by processes that understand and integrate the system dynamics of their entire context. Increasingly, high-reliability systems have to contend with scenarios where they cannot wait for the system to fail and then fix individual failure modes ("for every rule, a body"), and are learning how to build systems that manage negative outcomes that cannot happen even once. None of this has been translated to governance, but the task of managing and even of defining rights in the context of a society with significant social automation will require such a translation.
KW: In your work, you have been repeatedly concerned with ways of creating counter-power – insurgent forms of citizenship, if you wish. One of your suggestions that you have brought forth with Smári McCarthy at the 29th Chaos Communication Congress is to overwrite the protocols of the governmental-corporate power nexus. Could you explain the concept of the "protocoletariat" and could you explain how to collectively embark upon this venture?
It's telling – for instance – that the public bitcoin and etherium communities have come to be largely populated by folks who do not believe they have a duty to correct the social externalities their work imposes on the world.
ES: The notion of the protocoletariat comes from the observation that both governance and the functioning of social infrastructure are a set of processes, performed by some set of actors embedded in society.
Typically, those actors are institutions, but this isn't necessarily entirely required. A decentralized network can execute a protocol that collectively performs a process. Memory of events over time is an institutional function, not a network function, but there is no reason why the archive must perform the protocol.
It's a lovely idea, and one I'm still fond of. That said, as I mentioned above, the governance of decentralized systems in a manner that can rigorously preserve invariants is not yet well understood.
It's telling– for instance – the public bitcoin and etherium communities have come to be largely populated by folks who do not believe they have a duty to correct the social externalities their work imposes on the world. This problem will recur until we understand decentralized governance. I welcome experiments taken in good faith and with the understanding that things like social benefit and human rights are not abstract or ignorable. Until those experiments happen (or until we start to understand how to manage rights in a post-database society) we will not have the precise knowledge required to effectively carry out the governance of decentralized systems.
The documentation of the Berliner Gazette’s Friendly Fire conference is available here.
The German version of this interview is available on Berliner Gazette.