Tag: economy of control


Sometimes traffic on this blog draws attention to an old post from years ago. This can be a reminder that I’ve been repeating myself, encountering the same themes over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because I hope to one day compile the ideas from this blog into a book. It’s nice to see what points keep resurfacing.

One of these points is that liberalism assumes equality, but this challenged by society’s need for control structures, which creates inequality, which then undermines liberalism. This post calls in Charles Taylor (writing about Hegel!) to make the point. This post makes the point more succinctly. I’ve been drawing on Beniger for the ‘society needs control to manage its own integration’ thesis. I’ve pointed to the term managerialism as referring to an alternative to liberalism based on the acknowledgement of this need for control structures. Managerialism looks a lot like liberalism, it turns out, but it justifies things on different grounds and does not get so confused. As an alternative, more Bourdieusian view of the problem, I consider the relationship between capital, democracy, and oligarchy here. There are some useful names for what happens when managerialism goes wrong and people seem disconnected from each other–anomie–or from the control structures–alienation.

A related point I’ve made repeatedly is the tension between procedural legitimacy and getting people the substantive results that they want. That post about Hegel goes into this. But it comes up again in very recent work on antidiscrimination law and machine learning. What this amounts to is that attempts to come up with a fair, legitimate procedure are going to divide up the “pie” of resources, or be perceived to divide up the pie of resources, somehow, and people are going to be upset about it, however the pie is sliced.

A related theme that comes up frequently is mathematics. My contention is that effective control is a technical accomplishment that is mathematically optimized and constrained. There are mathematical results that reveal necessary trade-offs between values. Data science has been misunderstood as positivism when in fact it is a means of power. Technical knowledge and technology are forms of capital (Bourdieu again). Perhaps precisely because it is a rare form of capital, science is politically distrusted.

To put it succinctly: lack of mathematics education, due to lack of opportunity or mathophobia, lead to alienation and anomie in an economy of control. This is partly reflected in the chaotic disciplinarity of the social sciences, especially as they react to computational social science, at the intersection of social sciences, statistics, and computer science.

Lest this all seem like an argument for the mathematical certitude of totalitarianism, I have elsewhere considered and rejected this possibility of ‘instrumentality run amok‘. I’ve summarized these arguments here, though this appears to have left a number of people unconvinced. I’ve argued this further, and think there’s more to this story (a formalization of Scott’s arguments from Seeing Like a State, perhaps), but I must admit I don’t have a convincing solution to the “control problem” yet. However, it must be noted that the answer to the control problem is an empirical or scientific prediction, not a political inclination. Whether or not it is the most interesting or important question regarding technological control has been debated to a stalemate, as far as I can tell.

As I don’t believe singleton control is a likely or interesting scenario, I’m more interested in practical ways of offering legitimacy or resistance to control structures. I used to think the “right” political solution was a kind of “hacker class consciousness“; I don’t believe this any more. However, I still think there’s a lot to the idea of recursive publics as actually existing alternative power structures. Platform coops are interesting for the same reason.

All this leads me to admit my interest in the disruptive technology du jour, the blockchain.


Three possibilities of political agency in an economy of control

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.

consequences of scale

Here’s some key things about an economy of control:

  • An economy of control is normally very stable. It’s punctuated equilibrium. But the mean size of disruptive events increases over time, because each of these events can cause a cascade through an ever increasingly complex system.
  • An economy of control has enormous inequalities of all kinds of scale. But there’s a kind of evenness to the inequality from an information theoretic perspective, because of a conservation of entropy principle.
  • An economy of control can be characterized adequately using third order cybernetics. It’s an unsolved research problem to determine whether third order cybernetics is reducible to second order cybernetics. There should totally be a big prize for the first person who figures this out. That prize is a very lucrative hedge fund.
  • An economy of control is, of course, characterized mainly by its titular irony: there is the minimum possible control necessary to maintain the system’s efficiency. It’s a totalizing economic model of freedom maximization.
  • Economics of control is to neoliberalism and computational social science what neoliberalism was to political liberalism and neoclassical economic theory.
  • The economy of control preserves privacy perfectly at equilibrium, barring externalities.
  • The economy of control internalizes all externalities in the long run.
  • In the economy of control, demand is anthropic.
  • In the economy of control, for any belief that needs to be shouted on television, there is a person who sincerely believes it who is willing to get paid to shout it. Journalism is replaced entirely by networks of trusted scholarship.
  • The economy of control is sociologically organized according to two diverging principles: the organizational evolutionary pressure familiar from structural functionalism, and entropy. It draws on Bataille’s theory of the general economy. But it borrows from Ulanowicz the possibility of life overcoming thermodynamics. So to speak.

Just brainstorming here.

what if computers don’t actually control anything important?

I’ve written a lot (here, informally) on the subject of computational control of society. I’m not the only one, of course. There has in the past few years been a growing fear that one day artificial intelligence might control everything. I’ve argued that this is akin to older fears that, under capitalism, instrumentality would run amok.

Recently, thinking a little more seriously about what’s implied by an economy of control, I’ve been coming around to a quite different conclusion. What if the general tendency of these algorithmic systems is not the enslavement of humanity but rather the opening up of freedom and opportunity? This is not a critical attitude and might be seen as a simple shilling for industrial powers, so let me pose the point slightly more controversially. What if the result of these systems is to provide so much freedom and opportunity that it undermines the structure that makes social action significant? The “control” of these systems could just be the result of our being exposed, at last, to our individual insignificance in the face of each other.

As a foil, I’ll refer again to Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, which I’ve begun to read again at the prompting of Pasquale himself. It is a rare and wonderful thing for the author of a book you’ve written rude things about to write you and tell you you’ve misrepresented the work. So often I assume nobody’s actually reading what I write, making this a lonely vocation indeed. Now I know that at least somebody gives a damn.

In Chapter 3, Pasquale writes:

“The power to include, exclude, and rank [in search results] is the power to ensure which public impressions become permanent and which remain fleeting. That is why search services, social and not, are ‘must-have’ properties for advertisers as well as users. As such, they have made very deep inroads indeed into the sphere of cultural, economic, and political influence that was once dominated by broadcast networks, radio stations, and newspapers. But their dominance is so complete, and their technology so complex, that they have escaped pressures for transparency and accountability that kept traditional media answerable to the public.”

As a continuation of the “technics-out-of-control” meme, there’s an intuitive thrust to this argument. But looking at the literal meaning of the sentences, none of it is actually true!

Let’s look at some of the reasons why these claims are false:

  • There are multiple competing search engines, and switching costs are very low. There are Google and Bing and Duck Duck Go, but there’s also more specialized search engines for particular kinds of things. Literally every branded shopping website has a search engine that includes only what it chooses to include. This market pressure for search drives search engines generally to provide people with the answers they are looking for.
  • While there is a certain amount of curation that goes into search results, the famous early ranking logic which made large scale search possible used mainly data created as part of the content itself (hyperlinks in the case of Google’s PageRank) or usage (engagement in the case of Facebook’s EdgeRank). To the extent that these algorithms have changed, much of it has been because they have had to cave to public pressure, in the form of market pressure. Many of these changes are based on dynamic socially created data as well (such as spam flagging). Far from being manipulated by a secret powerful force, search engine results are always a dynamic, social accomplishment that is a reflection of the public.
  • Alternative media forms, such as broadcast radio, print journalism, cable television, storefront advertisting, and so on still exist and have an influence over people’s decisions. No single digital technology ensures anything! A new restaurant that opens up in a neighborhood is free to gain a local reputation in the old fashioned way. And then these same systems for ranking and search incentivize the discovery over these local gems by design. The information economy doesn’t waste opportunities like this!

So what’s the problem? If algorithms aren’t controlling society, but rather are facilitating its self-awareness, maybe these kinds of polemics are just way off base.

economy of control

We call it a “crisis” when the predictions of our trusted elites are violated in one way or another. We expect, for good reason, things to more or less continue as they are. They’ve evolved to be this way, haven’t they? The older the institution, the more robust to change it must be.

I’ve gotten comfortable in my short life with the global institutions that appeared to be the apex of societal organization. Under these conditions, I found James Beniger‘s work to be particularly appealing, as it predicts the growth of information processing apparati (some combination of information worker and information technology) as formerly independent components of society integrate. I’m of the class of people that benefits from this kind of centralization of control, so I was happy to believe that this was an inevitable outcome according to physical law.

Now I’m not so sure.

I am not sure I’ve really changed my mind fundamentally. This extreme Beniger view is too much like Nick Bostrom’s superintelligence argument in form, and I’ve already thought hard about why that argument is not good. That reasoning stopped at the point of noting how superintelligence “takeoff” is limited by data collection. But I did not go to the next and probably more important step, which is the problem of aleatoric uncertainty in a world with multiple agents. We’re far more likely to get into a situation with multi-polar large intelligences that are themselves fraught with principle-agent problems, because that’s actually the status quo.

I’ve been prodded to revisit The Black Box Society, which I’ve dealt with inadequately. Its beefier chapters deal with a lot of the specific economic and regulatory recent history of the information economy of the United States, which is a good complement to Beniger and a good resource for the study of competing intelligences within a single economy, though I find this data a but clouded by the polemical writing.

“Economy” is the key word here. Pure, Arendtian politics and technics have not blended easily, but what they’ve turned into is a self-regulatory system with structure and agency. More than that, the structure is for sale, and so is the agency. What is interesting about the information economy is, and I guess I’m trying to coin a phrase here, is that it is an economy of control. The “good” being produced, sold, and bought, is control.

There’s a lot of interesting research about information goods. But I’ve never heard of a “control good”. But this is what we are talking about when we talk about software, data collection, managerial labor, and the conflicts and compromises that it creates.

I have a few intuitions about where this goes, but not as many as I’d like. I think this is because the economy of control is quite messy and hard to reason about.

Bourdieu and Horkheimer; towards an economy of control

It occurred to me as I looked over my earliest notes on Horkheimer (almost a year ago!) that Bourdieu’s concept of science as being a social field that formalizes and automates knowledge is Horkheimer’s idea of hell.

The danger Horkheimer (and so many others) saw in capitalist, instrumentalized, scientific society was that it would alienate and overwhelm the individual.

It is possible that society would alienate the individual anyway, though. For example, in the household of antiquity, were slaves unalienated? The privilege of autonomy is one that has always been rare but disproportionately articulated as normal, even a right. In a sense Western Democracies and Republics exist to guarantee autonomy to their citizens. In late modern democracies, autonomy is variable depending on role in society, which is tied to (economic, social, symbolic, etc.) capital.

So maybe the horror of Horkheimer, alienated by scientific advance, is the horror of one whose capital was being devalued by science. His scholarship, his erudition, were isolated and deemed irrelevant by the formal reasoners who had come to power.

As I write this, I am painfully aware that I have spent a lot of time in graduate school reading books and writing about them when I could have been practicing programming and learning more mathematics. My aspirations are to be a scientist, and I am well aware that that requires one to mathematically formalize ones findings–or, equivalently, to program them into a computer. (It goes without saying that computer programming is formalism, is automation, and so its central role in contemporary science or ‘data science’ is almost given to it by definition. It could not have been otherwise.)

Somehow I have been provoked into investing myself in a weaker form of capital, the benefit of which is the understanding that I write here, now.

Theoretically, the point of doing all this work is to be able to identify a societal value and formalize it so that it can be capture in a technical design. Perhaps autonomy is this value. Another might call it freedom. So once again I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of science, which has been correct all along.

But perhaps de Beauvoir was naive about the political implications of technology. Science discloses possibilities, the opportunities are distributed unequally because science is socially situated. Inequality leads to more alienation, not less, for all but the scientists. Meanwhile autonomy is not universally valued–some would prefer the comforts of society, of family structure. If free from society, they would choose to reenter it. Much of ones preferences must come from habitus, no?

I am indeed reaching the limits of my ability to consider the problem discursively. The field is too multidimensional, too dynamic. The proper next step is computer simulation.