Digital Materiality: Supermodern Digital Materialism

The materiality of digital devices is strictly disciplinary down to the chemical level of electronic transmission[1], from sensors to memory to processors to pixels.

ccd sensor structure

Microscopic views of computational circuitry reveal that digital data is reproduced in perfect nano-Taylorist robot factories, row after row of infinitesimal, ultra-specialized machines doing the same thing over and over according to command, as long as current flows. International standards regimes are indispensable to ensure the consistent performance of the components, and to allow these to designed into enormous amalgamations of standardized modules to make up elaborate multi-functional assemblages.

There can be no freedom at the chip fabrication facility, nor at the factory where the specialized components are assembled into the device.  If there were any freedom there, the device would not work.[2]  At the mine head, people work under the most desperate conditions for the merest pittance, sometimes at the end of a gun, often under threat of instant dismissal without the least modicum of health care or other social provision or rights common in the global north where the products are designed[3].  This extreme ‘primitive accumulation’ [4] at the base of the electronics production chain, the enormous discrepancy between what the miners earn and the value they produce in their daily production is the wellspring of all profits in the electronics industry. 

Capital investment in the sector is made with the expectation that the current conditions of extreme exploitation will prevail. Today, this investment is pervasively financialized using advanced investment instruments, derivatives, restructured into assemblages of fintech digital assets of various kinds to be traded arbitrarily and  automatically. Any significant improvement of working conditions, especially salaries at the base of the production chain would be a fundamental shock to the sector, returns would fall dramatically leading investors to look elsewhere to grow their wealth.  

The irrepressible ’freedom’ of the environment, much too large and complex for any existing mathematical model encounters the rigid disciplinary force of techno-industry and produces chain reactions of countervailing force. This anomalous force, it has been argued will disproportionately impact the least economically advantaged. Under capitalism, the explicit or unintentional advantages of every technological development accrue to the already most privileged, the detriments to the already least privileged.   Computation will not save us from climate catastrophe when the material conditions of the reproduction of computationality have become a force of Nature.  

Pervasive computation promises order, the finer the granularity of the computation the more transcendent the order.  This is the “sensor everything” credo of the IoT industry and the smart cities lobby. Sensors are there  to produce freedoms through control, cyber-freedoms where social and economic injustice can be technically mediated.  Your cyber toothbrush will inform your insurance company whether you should be paying higher premium on dental work, thereby compelling you to brush more carefully.[5]   Smart city architecture will respond to you depending on complex analytics of your social-economic data, as a result you may or may not be allowed entry to various locations, the automatic doors may simply not open for you.  Remember that the etymology of “smart” is “Schmerz”, Smart City is “Schmerz” City.  A Smart City is one where disciplinary pain is meticulously inflicted in order to maximize productivity, and recommend, ensure and reward behaviour which conforms to algorithmically defined standards.[6] 

“Algorithmic governance” is invoked as an improvement on social and cultural technologies we have cultivated through much trial and error across centuries.   Certainly,besides their successes these governance technologies in law, custom and tradition have not yet generated a completely just society.  “Sensor everything” promises to propose more advanced models through the massive dataset algorithmic analysis.  However, for the time being and into the imaginable future, these datasets will not only be incomplete, they will merely constitute another technocratic layer of disciplinarity obscuring the problems already endemic to the forgoing and still pervasive models of social production (e.g. “state”, “company”, “cooperative”, “association”).[7] 

The project for democratic participation in governance is being trivialized as real power is more obscured than ever in a realm of semi-transparent “open knowledge” swamping citizens in selected deluges of non-human-readable data while hiding the valuable interpretive algorithms behind intellectual property (IP) firewalls.  The Smart City is a proprietary city we must all become investors or lose out all together.  The democratic voice will become a shareholder’s voice.  Government run by multi-national corporations under obscure copyright software and hardware regimes, is no better than the feudal system capitalism promised and succeeded for a while to improve upon.

Computers are commanded with mathematical codes, down to the most fundamental “machine language” executed on the hardware.  These mathematical codes are abstractions of desired device behaviours, they are prescriptive.   Again, there is no “freedom” here, if there were, the device would not work. All the life-like behaviour, all the human scale interactive interface surfaces we are used to interacting with, from bank machines to games,  are elaborately coded facades of recognizability behind which function, according to the strictest rules, the software command structures.

Computation is thus a highly organized and unfree realm of engineering which is there to provide reliable mechanics to manage processes. In the past few decades computation has increasingly been applied to activities in the civil sphere in the interest of ‘convenience’.  As noted in a previous installment [8], convenience consists of the user adjusting their expectations of the device so that the device can satisfy them.  As such, the desired use of computation become a choice to adjust one’s expectations to what can be provided by the device.    Because computers originate in and operate in a severe and unforgiving environment, unappealing to the average consumer, interface and user experience (UX) design have become essential practices in the software industry.

“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) and “Machine Learning” (ML) attempts to automate UX continuous-delivery redesign efforts towards the “market of one” (Mo1)[9].  Because computer programs do not natively “know” their users, they must acquire information about them through interactions. These interactions may be explicit or implicit. Explicit interactions include: posting on social media, sending a text message or making a phone call, playing games and using apps.  Implicitly, a device has all its data-acquisition capacities always on, the microphone, gyroscope, GPS sensor can learn when and how the user is sleeping, how much they exercise where and when.  Convenience is more mutual than ever, one conforms to the capacities of the device as the device conforms to the predilections and needs of the user, in real time, as long as the sensors are operating. What might have been considered surveillance today is completely conflated with convenience.

Civil surveillance is endemic to the life of every citizen.  Ewa Majewska has described how this surveillance, as well as being an implicit system of patriarchal control can be interpreted as a matriarchal concern for the well being of the citizens.[10]  Today surveillance is no longer merely the realm of state power and identity, but the everyday experience of interacting through networked computation.  As such, enormous amounts of personal data are accrued constantly by any number of private companies who are granted access to sensors on devices where users have installed the applications they need to manage their social and professional lives. 

The 24-hour experience of being human is becoming professionalized through pervasive computational feedback applications. The profession is “officer”.   We check our devices compulsively for the slightest sign that the greater techno-industrial dispositif might need our protection. 



[1] “Computers are perfect instruments to be employed in military and police work because they behave absolutely, invariably according to command protocols. There is no freedom in a computer, if there were any freedom in the computer, it would not work. The implementation of computerization into social, civil sphere as well means that technology more applicable for discipline s being used “freely” the result is a certain militarization of the civil sphere, and uncomfortable overweening transgressions of the state through shared computational protocols into everyday life in the civil sphere. Networked computers truly bring into being a Cyber-social realm where discipline is not only cultural but structural, new forms of freedom will thereby be engendered but ever more informed by computational discipline.”  – Gottlieb, B. (19.12.15) “Structural Challenges to Technological Emancipation 1/3”  here.

[2] “The ‘creative’ ‘freedom’ we enjoy with computers, manipulating highly abstracted and disciplined images and sounds and texts on our devices, is predicated on unfree practices. This unfreedom is central and compulsory, inexorable to ‘free expression’….were programs, strategies and practices to become prevalent which could sustain other less-hegemonic conditions of production, such forms of productions will likely not be able to supply us with the same technological devices, and same techno-scientific vectors we are persistently informed are the unique guarantee of our survival as a species.” – Gottlieb, B. (05.02.14) “A Heavy Heaving Freedom”  here.

[3] Extreme exploitation in the electronics supply chain has been a hot topic in recent years, revealing that there really is no way to reimagine contemporary capitalism without the fundamental injustice of extreme wealth disparity. The Wall Street Journal is no exception in throwing up their hands.

[4] “The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it. The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.”  -Marx, K. Capital Vol. 1,  Part VIII: Primitive Accumulation Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation

[5] A favourite example of techno-solutionism-critic Evgeny Morozov, one instance of it is here.

“People don’t understand what’s at stake….If you use your smart toothbrush, the data can be immediately sent to your dentist and your insurance company, but it also allows someone from the NSA to know what was in your mouth three weeks ago….The monitoring and surveillance are just the indirect consequence of the convenience of a smart shoe or trash can. [Like Gmail], people accept the idea that they get something free, and if privacy is the price, they’ll pay it.”

 – From Morrison, Patt (19.06.13) “Evgeny Morozov, Internet Cassandra”

[6] Ursula Franklin, already in 1989 perceptively criticised how what she described as the “prescriptive” structuring and ordering of computational technologies,  were creating a “culture of compliance”

“The ordering that prescriptive technologies has caused has now moved from ordering at work and the ordering of work, to the prescriptive ordering of people in a wide variety of social situations. For just a glimpse of the extent of such developments, think for a moment about the new “smart” buildings. Those who work in the buildings can have a card with a barcode that allows them to get into the areas of the building where they have work to do but excludes them from anywhere else.”

— Franklin, Ursula (1990/2004) “The Real World of Technology”, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, p.18

Cory Doctorow is waging a battle against “single-purpose computing” ,one of the key features of the IoT (Internet of Things) techno-industrial vision of the future. He elaborates many of the reasons in this talk.

[7] A good example for this is the “Circles” blockchain-based project to provide an autonomous, decentralized, voluntary, altruistic universal basic income.   This is a project which desperately seeks a technological alternative to Keynsianism, charity or some other means of mitigating poverty. Well-meaning though it might be, it imagines that a community of altruists can be sustained purely on the level of code, utterly disregarding the potentially valuable lessons of social history and the many forms of solidarity economic sharing which have been developed, refined and practiced over centuries.

[8]   “We are thrown into a world, a culture, a context already transfused with technical aesthetics, a world of conveniences.  The cultures we are born into are full of compensatory and adaptation methods residual of the many generations of technical revolution and upheaval which occurred through the generations. Marshall McLuhan referred to this as the “environment of services” for which we need a new “ecology”.  The technical environment becomes a second nature of social/human effects wrought by technical processes.”  – Gottlieb, B. (06.06.16) “Digital Materiality: Technical Aesthetics” here.

[9] Hal Varian also calls this “First-degree price discrimination”

“Information technology allows for fine-grained observation and analysis of consumer behavior. This allows for various kinds of marketing strategies that were previously extremely difficult to carry out, at least on a large scale. For example, a seller can offer prices and goods that are differentiated by individual behavior and/or characteristics. … In the most extreme case, information technology allows for a “market of one,” in the sense that highly personalized products can be sold at a highly personalized price. This phenomenon is also known as “mass customization” or “personalization.”

-see Varian, H.  (17.09.01) “High-Technology Industries and Market Structure” here.

[10] Majewska, Ewa (2016) “Hiacynt”, paper presented at  “Strategie Queer 2” Conference in Warsaw, 2-3 June 2016, draft available here