a response to “Big Data and the ‘Physics’ of Social Harmony” by @doctaj; also Notes towards ‘Criticality as ideology’;
by Sebastian Benthall
I’ve been thinking over Robin James’ “Big Data & the ‘Physics’ of Social Harmony“, an essay in three sections. The first discusses Singapore’s use of data science to detect terrorists and public health threats for the sake of “social harmony,” as reported by Harris in Foreign Policy. The second ties together Plato, Pentland’s “social physics”, and neoliberalism. The last discusses the limits to individual liberty proposed by J.S. Mill. The author admits it’s “all over the place.” I get the sense that it is a draft towards a greater argument. It is very thought-provoking and informative.
I take issue with a number of points in the essay. Underlying my disagreement is what I think is a political difference about the framing of “data science” and its impact on society. Since I am a data science practitioner who takes my work seriously, I would like this framing to be nuanced, recognizing both the harm and help that data science can do. I would like the debate about data science to be more concrete and pragmatic so that practitioners can use this discussion as a guide to do the right thing. I believe this will require discussion of data science in society to be informed by a technical understanding of what data science is up to. However, I think it’s also very important that these discussions rigorously take up the normative questions surrounding data sciences’ use. It’s with this agenda that I’m interested in James’ piece.
James is a professor of Philosophy and Women’s/Gender Studies and the essay bears the hallmarks of these disciplines. Situated in a Western and primarily anglophone intellectual tradition, it draws on Plato and Mill for its understanding of social harmony and liberalism. At the same time, it has the political orientation common to Gender Studies, alluding to the gendered division of economic labor, at times adopting Marxist terminology, and holding suspicion for authoritarian power. Plato is read as being the intellectual root of a “particular neoliberal kind of social harmony” that is “the ideal that informs data science.” James contrasts this ideal with the ideal of individual liberty, as espoused and then limited by Mill.
Where I take issue with James is that I think this line of argument is biased by its disciplinary formation. (Since this is more or less a truism for all academics, I suppose this is less a rebuttal than a critique.) Where I believe this is most visible is in her casting of Singapore’s ideal of social harmony as an upgrade of Plato, via the ideology of neoliberalism. She does not not consider in the essay that Singapore’s ideal of social harmony might be rooted in Eastern philosophy, not Western philosophy. Though I have no special access or insight into the political philosophy of Singapore, this seems to me to be an important omission given that Singapore is ethnically 74.2% Chinese and with Buddhist plurality.
Social harmony is a central concept in Eastern, especially Chinese, philosophy with deep roots in Confucianism and Daoism. A great introduction for those with background in Western philosophy who are interested in the philosophical contributions of Confucius is Fingarette’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Fingarette discusses how Confucian thought is a reaction to the social upheaval and war of Anciant China’s Warring States Period, roughly 475 – 221 BC. Out of these troubling social conditions, Confucian thought attempts to establish conditions for peace. These include ritualized forms of social interaction at whose center is a benevolent Emperor.
There are many parallels with Plato’s political philosophy, but Fingarette makes a point of highlighting where Confucianism is different. In particular, the role of social ritual and ceremony as the basis of society is at odds with Western individualism. Political power is not a matter of contest of wills but the proper enactment of communal rites. It is like a dance. Frequently, the word “harmony” is used in the translation of Confucian texts to refer to the ideal of this functional, peaceful ceremonial society and, especially, its relationship with nature.
A thorough analysis of use of data science for social control in light of Eastern philosophy would be an important and interesting work. I certainly haven’t done it. My point is simply that when we consider the use of data science for social control as a global phenomenon, it is dubious to see it narrowly in light of Western intellectual history and ideology. That includes rooting it in Plato, contrasting it with Mill, and characterizing it primarily as an expression of white neoliberalism. Expansive use of these Western tropes is a projection, a fallacy of “I think this way, therefore the world must.” This I submit is an occupational hazard of anyone who sees their work primarily as an analysis of critique of ideology.
In a lecture in 1965 printed in Knowledge and Human Interests, Habermas states:
The concept of knowledge-constitutive human interests already conjoins the two elements whose relation still has to be explained: knowledge and interest. From everyday experience we know that ideas serve often enough to furnish our actions with justifying motives in place of the real ones. What is called rationalization at this level is called ideology at the level of collective action. In both cases the manifest content of statements is falsified by consciousness’ unreflected tie to interests, despite its illusion of autonomy. The discipline of trained thought thus correctly aims at excluding such interests. In all the sciences routines have been developed that guard against the subjectivity of opinion, and a new discipline, the sociology of knowledge, has emerged to counter the uncontrolled influence of interests on a deeper level, which derive less from the individual than from the objective situation of social groups.
Habermas goes on to reflect on the interests driving scientific inquiry–“scientific” in the broadest sense of having to do with knowledge. He delineates:
- Technical inquiry motivated by the drive for manipulation and control, or power
- Historical-hermeneutic inquiry motivated by the drive to guide collective action
- Critical, reflexive inquiry into how the objective situation of social groups controls ideology, motivated by the drive to be free or liberated
This was written in 1965. Habermas was positioning himself as a critical thinker; however, unlike some of the earlier Frankfurt School thinkers he drew on, he did maintained that technical power was an objective human interest. (see Bohman and Rehg) In the United States especially, criticality as a mode of inquiry took aim at the ideologies that aimed at white, bourgeois, and male power. Contemporary academic critique has since solidified as an academic discipline and wields political power. In particular, is frequently enlisted as an expression of the interests of marginalized groups. In so doing, academic criticality has (in my view regrettably) becomes mere ideology. No longer interested in being scientifically disinterested, it has become a tool of rationalization. It’s project is the articulation of changing historical conditions in certain institutionally recognized tropes. One of these tropes is the critique of capitalism, modernism, neoliberalism, etc. and their white male bourgeois heritage. Another is the feminist emphasis on domesticity as a dismissed form on economic production. This trope features in James’ analysis of Singapore’s ideal of social harmony:
Harris emphasizes that Singaporeans generally think that finely-tuned social harmony is the one thing that keeps the tiny city-state from tumbling into chaos.  In a context where resources are extremely scarce–there’s very little land, and little to no domestic water, food, or energy sources, harmony is crucial. It’s what makes society sufficiently productive so that it can generate enough commercial and tax revenue to buy and import the things it can’t cultivate domestically (and by domestically, I really mean domestically, as in, by ‘housework’ or the un/low-waged labor traditionally done by women and slaves/servants.) Harmony is what makes commercial processes efficient enough to make up for what’s lost when you don’t have a ‘domestic’ supply chain. (emphasis mine)
To me, this parenthetical is quite odd. There are other uses of the word “domestic” that do not specifically carry the connotation of women and slave/servants. For example, the economic idea of gross domestic product just means “an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident institutional units engaged in production (plus any taxes, and minus any subsidies, on products not included in the value of their outputs).” Included in that production is work done by men and high-wage laborers. To suggest that natural resources are primarily exploited by “domestic” labor in the ‘housework’ sense is bizarre given, say, agribusiness, industrial mining, etc.
There is perhaps an interesting etymological relationship here; does our use of ‘domestic’ in ‘domestic product’ have its roots in household production? I wouldn’t know. Does that same etymological root apply in Singapore? Was agriculture in East Asia traditionally the province of household servants in China and Southeast Asia (as opposed to independent farmers and their sons?)? Regardless, domestic economic production agricultural production is not housework now. So it’s mysterious that this detail should play a role in explaining Singapore’s emphasis on social harmony today.
So I think it’s safe to say that this parenthetical remark by James is due to her disciplinary orientation and academic focus. Perhaps it is a contortion to satisfy the audience of Cyborgology, which has a critical left-leaning politics. A Harris’s original article does not appear to support this interpretation. Rather, it only uses the word ‘harmony’ twice, and maintains a cultural sensitivity that James’ piece lacks, noting that Singapore’s use of data science may be motivated by a cultural fear of loss or risk.
The colloquial word kiasu, which stems from a vernacular Chinese word that means “fear of losing,” is a shorthand by which natives concisely convey the sense of vulnerability that seems coded into their social DNA (as well as their anxiety about missing out — on the best schools, the best jobs, the best new consumer products). Singaporeans’ boundless ambition is matched only by their extreme aversion to risk.
If we think that Harris is closer to the source here, then we do not need the projections of Western philosophy and neoliberal theory to explain what is really meant by Singapore’s use of data science. Rather, we can look to Singapore’s culture and perhaps its ideological origins in East Asian thinking. Confucius, not Plato.
* * *
If there it is a disciplinary bias to American philosophy departments, it is that they exist to reproduce anglophone philosophy. This is point that James has recently expressed herself…in fact while I have been in the process of writing this response.
Though I don’t share James’ political project, generally speaking I agree that effort spent of the reproduction of disciplinary terminology is not helpful to the philosophical and scientific projects. Terminology should be deployed for pragmatic reasons in service to objective interests like power, understanding, and freedom. On the other hand, language requires consistency to be effective, and education requires language. My own personal conclusion on is that the scientific project can only be sustained now through disciplinary collapse.
When James suggests that old terms like metaphysics and epistemology prevent the de-centering of the “white supremacist/patriarchal/capitalist heart of philosophy”, she perhaps alludes to her recent coinage of “epistemontology” as a combination of epistemology and ontology, as a way of designating what neoliberalism is. She notes that she is trying to understand neoliberalism as an ideology, not as a historical period, and finds useful the definition that “neoliberals think everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized capitalist market.”
However helpful a philosophical understanding of neoliberalism as market epistemontology might be, I wonder whether James sees the tension between her statements about rejecting traditional terminology that reproduces the philosophical discipline and her interest in preserving the idea of “neoliberalism” in a way that can be be taught in an introduction to philosophy class, a point she makes in a blog comment later. It is, perhaps, in the act of teaching that a discipline is reproduced.
The use of neoliberalism as a target of leftist academic critique has been challenged relatively recently. Craig Hickman, in a blog post about Luis Suarez-Villa, writes:
In fact Williams and Srinicek see this already in their first statement in the interview where they remind us that “what is interesting is that the neoliberal hegemony remains relatively impervious to critique from the standpoint of the latter, whilst it appears fundamentally unable to counter a politics which would be able to combat it on the terrain of modernity, technology, creativity, and innovation.” That’s because the ball has moved and the neoliberalist target has shifted in the past few years. The Left is stuck in waging a war it cannot win. What I mean by that is that it is at war with a target (neoliberalism) that no longer exists except in the facades of spectacle and illusion promoted in the vast Industrial-Media-Complex. What is going on in the world is now shifting toward the East and in new visions of technocapitalism of which such initiatives as Smart Cities by both CISCO (see here) and IBM and a conglomerate of other subsidiary firms and networking partners to build new 21st Century infrastructures and architectures to promote creativity, innovation, ultra-modernity, and technocapitalism.
Let’s face it capitalism is once again reinventing itself in a new guise and all the Foundations, Think-Tanks, academic, and media blitz hype artists are slowly pushing toward a different order than the older market economy of neoliberalism. So it’s time the Left begin addressing the new target and its ideological shift rather than attacking the boogeyman of capitalism’s past. Oh, true, the façade of neoliberalism will remain in the EU and U.S.A. and much of the rest of the world for a long while yet, so there is a need to continue our watchdog efforts on that score. But what I’m getting at is that we need to move forward and overtake this new agenda that is slowly creeping into the mix before it suddenly displaces any forms of resistance. So far I’m not sure if this new technocapitalistic ideology has even registered on the major leftist critiques beyond a few individuals like Luis Suarez-Villa. Mark Bergfield has a good critique of Suarez-Villa’s first book on Marx & Philosophy site: here.
In other words, the continuation of capitalist domination is due to its evolution relative to the stagnation of intellectual critiques of it. Or to put it another way, privilege is the capacity to evolve and not merely reproduce. Indeed, the language game of academic criticality is won by those who develop and disseminate new tropes through which to represent the interests of the marginalized. These privileged academics accomplish what Lyotard describes as “legitimation through paralogy.”
* * * * *
If James were working merely within academic criticality, I would be less interested in the work. But her aspirations appear to be higher, in a new political philosophy that can provide normative guidance in a world where data science is a technical reality. She writes:
Mill has already made–in 1859 no less–the argument that rationalizes the sacrifice of individual liberty for social harmony: as long as such harmony is enforced as a matter of opinion rather than a matter of law, then nobody’s violating anybody’s individual rights or liberties. This is, however, a crap argument, one designed to limit the possibly revolutionary effects of actually granting individual liberty as more than a merely formal, procedural thing (emancipating people really, not just politically, to use Marx’s distinction). For example, a careful, critical reading of On Liberty shows that Mill’s argument only works if large groups of people–mainly Asians–don’t get individual liberty in the first place.  So, critiquing Mill’s argument may help us show why updated data-science versions of it are crap, too. (And, I don’t think the solution is to shore up individual liberty–cause remember, individual liberty is exclusionary to begin with–but to think of something that’s both better than the old ideas, and more suited to new material/technical realities.)
It’s because of these more universalist ambitions that I think it’s fair to point out the limits of her argument. If a government’s idea of “social harmony” is not in fact white capitalist but premodern Chinese, if “neoliberalism” is no longer the dominant ideology but rather an idea of an ideology reproduced by a stagnating academic discipline, then these ideas will not help us understand what is going on in the contemporary world in which ‘data science’ is allegedly of such importance.
What would be better than this?
There is an empirical reality to the practices of data science. Perhaps it should be studied on its own terms, without disciplinary baggage.