Earlier this month, in a piece for Dezeen, Sam Jacob offered a thoughtful and provocative take on the NSA’s Prism program of internet surveillance. In an argument reminiscent of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of solutionism, though from an architect’s perspective, Jacob portrays Prism as a manifestation of the idea that society is a logical system that can be engineered to function in an optimally efficient manner or to otherwise fulfill a set of explicit specifications. Society is, in other words, a design project:
Prism tells us something about design in the twenty-first century. And it’s certainly not its logo [which] recalls that Mitchell and Webb sketch featuring two SS officers wondering if the skull logo on their caps might suggest that they are actually the baddies. It tells us that design is increasingly about systems, increasingly about processes and the way these interface with the real world. Prism is part, I would suggest, of the realm of design thinking. …
Design thinking is marked by the scale and scope of its operations. Rather than isolating particular problems, it attempts to survey the whole scenario. It conceives the field of operation as the system rather than the object. And in this, it transforms the designed world into an ecosystem. Design thinking treats this synthetic ecosystem as its project, attempting to redesign it according to particular goals, to achieve its desired outcomes.
Jacob sees design thinking as an outgrowth of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, in a 1995 paper, called the Californian Ideology, a utopian philosophy born of “a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism” and reflecting “a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.” The Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron argued, is rife with contradictions. Jacob speculates that the disclosure of Prism — by a disillusioned libertarian technologist, no less — may mark the moment when the contradictions become unmistakable and unsustainable.* Prism is the “black mirror” of the Californian Ideology’s self-congratulatory pursuit of “an open-access, digital democracy”:
If design thinking is part of the triumph of The Californian Ideology, part of the way that digital culture is remaking the world, is Prism its Waterloo? Perhaps it is the moment Californian digital culture turned inside out, the point when these apparently pro-libertarian entities melded to become one with the state, a strange new version of the military-digital-industrial complex cooked up out of acid-soaked West Coast radicalism and frictionless global capitalism.
It may well be the moment digital culture turned inside out, but it’s not shaping up to be any sort of Waterloo. The emerging Snowden narrative—disgruntled “hacker” steals information from a store of government data that was itself essentially “hacked” from the servers of innocent internet firms—actually serves to mask over the contradictions inherent in the Californian Ideology. The government comes off as incompetent, particularly when it comes to the sacred art of handling data, and the internet firms, their chastity belts only slightly askew, seem like the victims of clumsy governmental overreach. The fact that the narrative may be more or less accurate certainly doesn’t detract from its credibility.
Rather than being undermined, the idea that the social ecosystem needs to be designed and programmed by benevolent corporations (with friendly logos) acting in an open marketplace without government interference may end up gaining more traction. And of course accomplishing that social programming will require more data, which means even more surveillance, of one sort or another.
*A revised version of Jacob’s article, stripped of all mention of the Californian Ideology, has been published by Wired. Of historical interest is Wired founder Louis Rossetto’s response to Barbrook and Cameron’s paper.
Photo by citymaus.