Three possibilities of political agency in an economy of control

by Sebastian Benthall

I wrote earlier about three modes of social explanation: functionality, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of what it optimizes; politics, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of multiple agents working to optimize different goals; and chaos, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of the happenings of chance, independent of the will of any agent.

A couple notes on this before I go on. First, this view of social explanation is intentionally aligned with mathematical theories of agency widely used in what is broadly considered ‘artificial intelligence’ research and even more broadly  acknowledged under the rubrics of economics, cognitive science, multi-agent systems research, and the like. I am willfully opting into the hegemonic paradigm here. If years in graduate school at Berkeley have taught me one pearl of wisdom, it’s this: it’s hegemonic for a reason.

A second note is that when I say “social explanation”, what I really mean is “sociotechnical explanation”. This is awkward, because the only reason I have to make this point is because of an artificial distinction between technology and society that exists much more as a social distinction between technologists and–what should one call them?–socialites than as an actual ontological distinction. Engineers can, must, and do constantly engage societal pressures; they must bracket of these pressures in some aspects of their work to achieve the specific demands of engineering. Socialites can, must, and do adopt and use technologies in every aspect of their lives; they must bracket these technologies in some aspects of their lives in order to achieve the specific demands of mastering social fashions. The social scientist, qua socialite who masters specific social rituals, and the technologist, qua engineer who masters a specific aspect of nature, naturally advertise their mastery as autonomous and complete. The social scholar of technology, qua socialite engaged in arbitrage between communities of socialites and communities of technologists, naturally advertises their mastery as an enlightened view over and above the advertisements of the technologists. To the extent this is all mere advertising, it is all mere nonsense. Currency, for example, is surely a technology; it is also surely an artifact of socialization as much if not more than it is a material artifact. Since the truly ancient invention of currency and its pervasiveness through the fabric of social life, there has been no society that is not sociotechnical, and there has been no technology that is is not sociotechnical. A better word for the sociotechnical would be one that indicates its triviality, how it actually carries no specific meaning at all. It signals only that one has matured to the point that one disbelieves advertisements. We are speaking scientifically now.

With that out of the way…I have proposed three modes of explanation: functionality, politics, and chaos. They refer to specific distributions of control throughout a social system. The first refers to the capacity of the system for self-control. The second refers to the capacity of the components of the system for self-control. The third refers to the absence of control.

I’ve written elsewhere about my interest in the economy of control, or in economies of control, plurally. Perhaps the best way to go about studying this would be an in depth review of the available literature on information economics. Sadly, I am at this point a bit removed from this literature, having gone down a number of other rabbit holes. In as much as intellectual progress can be made by blazing novel trails through the wilderness of ideas, I’m intent on documenting my path back to the rationalistic homeland from which I’ve wandered. Perhaps I bring spices. Perhaps I bring disease.

One of the questions I bring with me is the question of political agency. Is there a mathematical operationalization of this concept? I don’t know it. What I do know is that it is associated most with the political mode of explanation, because this mode of explanation allows for the existence of politics, by which I mean agents engaged in complex interactions for their individual and sometimes collective gain. Perhaps it is the emerging dynamics of the individual’s shifting constitution as collectives that captures best what is interesting about politics. These collectives serve functions, surely, but what function? Is it a function with any permanence or real agency? Or is it a specious functionality, only a compromise of the agents that compose it, ready to be sabotaged by a defector at any moment?

Another question I’m interested in is how chaos plays a role in such an economy of control. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that entropy in society, far from being a purely natural consequence of thermodynamics, is a deliberate consequence of political activity. Brunton and Nissenbaum have recently given the name obfuscation to some kinds of political activity that are designed to mislead and misdirect. I believe this is not the only reason why agents in the economy of control work actively to undermine each others control. To some extent, the distribution of control over social outcomes is zero sum. It is certainly so at the Pareto boundary of such distributions. But I posit that part of what makes economies of control interesting is that they have a non-Euclidean geometry that confounds the simple aggregations that make Pareto optimality a useful concept within it. Whether this hunch can be put persuasively remains to be seen.

What I may be able to say now is this: there is a sense in which political agency in an economy of control is self-referential, in that what is at stake for each agent is not utility defined exogenously to the economy, but rather agency defined endogenously to the economy. This gives economic activity within it a particularly political character. For purposes of explanation, this enables us to consider three different modes of political agency (or should I say political action), corresponding to the three modes of social explanation outlined above.

A political agent may concern itself with seizing control. It may take actions which are intended to direct the functional orientation of the total social system of which it is a part to be responsive to its own functional orientation. One might see this narrowly as adapting the total system’s utility function to be in line with one’s own, but this is to partially miss the point. It is to align the agency of the total system with one’s one, or to make the total system a subsidiary to one’s agency.  (This demands further formalization.)

A political agent may instead be concerned with interaction with other agents in a less commanding way. I’ll call this negotiation for now. The autonomy of other agents is respected, but the political agent attempts a coordination between itself and others for the purpose of advancing its own interests (its own agency, its own utility). This is not a coup d’etat. It’s business as usual.

A political agent can also attempt to actively introduce chaos into its own social system. This is sabotage. It is an essentially disruptive maneuver. It is action aimed to cause the death of function and bring about instead emergence, which is the more positive way of characterizing the outcomes of chaos.