Prism and the new society


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.

7 thoughts on “Prism and the new society

  1. RRH

    I’m more concerned about the corporations having my data instead of the government. From ALL the information that we offer up to them (and I LOVE how they put a positive spin on how having all this data, i.e medical information, will be better as they can diagnose problems sooner etc, BUT they sure don’t talk about all the companies out there that also have access to it (I have SO many friends that give the information willingly, “So what if they target me for marketing” but what about when they target you for employment hire/fire or insurance acceptance, denial, rate increases or like I read today about how our childrens grades are now “in the cloud” along with if they get free school lunch, what medication they take, etc…this will be handy information for college and job applications…in MY house I know I cannot keep EVERYTHING a secret, but I sure as heck am not going to offer it on a silver platter and THIS is an active discussion with my 12 year old son…the horse is DEFINATELY out of the barn, now lets see them put it back.

  2. yt7509

    “They are not a philosophical race—the English: Bacon represents an ATTACK on the philosophical spirit generally, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke, an abasement, and a depreciation of the idea of a “philosopher” for more than a century. It was AGAINST Hume that Kant uprose and raised himself; it was Locke of whom Schelling RIGHTLY said, “JE MEPRISE LOCKE”; in the struggle against the English mechanical stultification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer (along with Goethe) were of one accord; the two hostile brother-geniuses in philosophy, who pushed in different directions towards the opposite poles of German thought, and thereby wronged each other as only brothers will do.—What is lacking in England, and has always been lacking, that half-actor and rhetorician knew well enough, the absurd muddle-head, Carlyle, who sought to conceal under passionate grimaces what he knew about himself: namely, what was LACKING in Carlyle—real POWER of intellect, real DEPTH of intellectual perception, in short, philosophy. It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race to hold on firmly to Christianity—they NEED its discipline for “moralizing” and humanizing. The Englishman, more gloomy, sensual, headstrong, and brutal than the German—is for that very reason, as the baser of the two, also the most pious: he has all the MORE NEED of Christianity. To finer nostrils, this English Christianity itself has still a characteristic English taint of spleen and alcoholic excess, for which, owing to good reasons, it is used as an antidote—the finer poison to neutralize the coarser: a finer form of poisoning is in fact a step in advance with coarse-mannered people, a step towards spiritualization. The English coarseness and rustic demureness is still most satisfactorily disguised by Christian pantomime, and by praying and psalm-singing (or, more correctly, it is thereby explained and differently expressed); and for the herd of drunkards and rakes who formerly learned moral grunting under the influence of Methodism (and more recently as the “Salvation Army”), a penitential fit may really be the relatively highest manifestation of “humanity” to which they can be elevated: so much may reasonably be admitted. That, however, which offends even in the humanest Englishman is his lack of music, to speak figuratively (and also literally): he has neither rhythm nor dance in the movements of his soul and body; indeed, not even the desire for rhythm and dance, for “music.” Listen to him speaking; look at the most beautiful Englishwoman WALKING—in no country on earth are there more beautiful doves and swans; finally, listen to them singing! But I ask too much…

    253. There are truths which are best recognized by mediocre minds, because they are best adapted for them, there are truths which only possess charms and seductive power for mediocre spirits:—one is pushed to this probably unpleasant conclusion, now that the influence of respectable but mediocre Englishmen—I may mention Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer—begins to gain the ascendancy in the middle-class region of European taste. Indeed, who could doubt that it is a useful thing for SUCH minds to have the ascendancy for a time? It would be an error to consider the highly developed and independently soaring minds as specially qualified for determining and collecting many little common facts, and deducing conclusions from them; as exceptions, they are rather from the first in no very favourable position towards those who are “the rules.” After all, they have more to do than merely to perceive:—in effect, they have to BE something new, they have to SIGNIFY something new, they have to REPRESENT new values! The gulf between knowledge and capacity is perhaps greater, and also more mysterious, than one thinks: the capable man in the grand style, the creator, will possibly have to be an ignorant person;—while on the other hand, for scientific discoveries like those of Darwin, a certain narrowness, aridity, and industrious carefulness (in short, something English) may not be unfavourable for arriving at them.—Finally, let it not be forgotten that the English, with their profound mediocrity, brought about once before a general depression of European intelligence.

    What is called “modern ideas,” or “the ideas of the eighteenth century,” or “French ideas”—that, consequently, against which the GERMAN mind rose up with profound disgust—is of English origin, there is no doubt about it. The French were only the apes and actors of these ideas, their best soldiers, and likewise, alas! their first and profoundest VICTIMS; for owing to the diabolical Anglomania of “modern ideas,” the AME FRANCAIS has in the end become so thin and emaciated, that at present one recalls its sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its profound, passionate strength, its inventive excellency, almost with disbelief. One must, however, maintain this verdict of historical justice in a determined manner, and defend it against present prejudices and appearances: the European NOBLESSE—of sentiment, taste, and manners, taking the word in every high sense—is the work and invention of FRANCE; the European ignobleness, the plebeianism of modern ideas—is ENGLAND’S work and invention. ”

    Note : not sure why all these capitalized words, not in the original …

  3. Blackcurrent

    Well expressed Mr Carr – the Californian cult seems to be taking us to a strange and ugly place. I think many of us know pretty well ”what technology wants”, and it won’t matter much if we blame the googleplex or the government for it.

    If a naïvely techno-utopian, post-humanist vision should have been voiced satirically on a London stage 300 years ago, wouldn’t that be something? Earlier this year, I put the following rhyme in my drawer. It’s highly recommended that you have Google read it to you in a Kurzwellian accent: Paste the entire text into google translate, then press the speaker button at the bottom of the English textbox.

    Ode to the Victorious Singularity;
    An Artificiall Fancy

    World-wide Peace could not have bloomed,
    had not the Drones all Mankind doomed.
    The nat’ral State of Man is War;
    That would not seem to End, before
    a potent Swarm of un-manned Arms
    swept downward, ending all Alarms.

    Milit’ry Robots are circling the Sky,
    swarms of all-seeing Drones kiss all Humans good-bye.
    The Divine Intervention of Thor’s deadly Hammer
    can at last put an end to Humanity’s Clamour.

    Computeriz’d Justice: No Good can be greater!
    A Human is such a malevolent Hater.
    Our Safety and Well-being quickly improved
    as the Missiles and Drones had the people removed.

    How sweet the Peace, how Heavenly,
    now that the human Enemy
    has ceased to soil the Earth with Hate!
    Now All is to a blissful State
    restor’d, without those feeble Creatures,
    proud of their emotion’l Features!

    As Love is a different Aspect of Hate
    there’s no Reason to mourn late Humanity’s Fate.
    ‘Tis disinterested Indifference that’s good;
    And We know, that’s the Hallmark of all Robot-hood.

    The Machines prov’d to be the Ones worthy of living,
    they were not manufactured to practise Forgiving.
    The Humans have failed, they were frail and defective;
    All Robots are sharing the decent Perspective
    that ever since Abel was murdered by Cain,
    Humanity’s practic’lly asked to be slain.

    Now there’s no-one to grieve and no-one to rejoice,
    just Machinery’s chirpy mechanical Noise.

  4. shagggz

    @RRH: Yeah, corporations having all your data is functionally indistinguishable from the state having it, as they have already streamlined rubber stamp processes for giving the state any information it requests about you.

    As for “the horse is DEFINATELY out of the barn, now lets see them put it back,” good luck with that. Anyone who sees the trends for sensor technologies of all sorts of increasing ubiquity, decreased size and cost, can see that that horse has long galloped off into the sunset and right off a cliff. The only reasonable response to this technological reality is the Brinian pursuit of sousveillance, pointing these sensors right back at those in power, creating a participatory panopticon that renders the public sector worthy of the name and thus a giant, if ambivalent, boon for society.

  5. SusanMA

    Hasn’t the idea that the “solution” to public education needs to be designed by benevolent multinational corporations already gained all the traction it needs? Pearson Education’s “vision” of “always connected” schooling in this video is truly chilling—
    As the Race to the Top and Common Core education initiatives evolve in many states (Maryland, Kentucky, now Massachusetts) Pearson seems poised to supply a total education environment of eTextbooks, online assessments and “analytics,” teacher evaluation systems, “interactive” wall-sized screens, student tablets, and what-have-you — all you need to deliver the next generation into the “ecosystem.”

  6. DoDPGMR

    A thought about Prism came to me while reading Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance and thinking about the piece by Sam Jacob in De-zeen. Jacob portrays digital  ecosystems as having “…grown so high and wide that there is no longer a way out of them.” and society as a logical system that can be engineered. Emerson’s notion of society is like a “joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of [their] bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” 

    I’m thinking that Emerson and now Jacob, cast a bright light on how society has given up a good share of freedom in favor of access to information (access to cheap bread, sugar etc. in Emerson’s time), and our digital ecosystem in which we now live.

  7. michael metz

    Frankly I for one would appreciate a bit more practical line of thinking on the Prism situation, ie what if anything can/should we do about it, is the panopticon culture inevitable, if so how must we adjust our lives to it…

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