This article originally appeared in Vector #288.
By Esko Suoranta
The cyberpunk dystopia is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Western democracies appear to be in crisis. Populist nationalisms are on the rise, while an ever-so-free market tightens its grip on our everyday existence, building vast private siloes of personal data. Climate change is spurred on by the rise of new imaginary currencies, mined from pure mathematics and pumping tens of millions of tons of carbon into the sky. Technologies from space travel to nanotechnology take unprecedented leaps. Meanwhile, in fiction, nostalgia appears to be a prime directive. The imagined futures of the 1980–90s receive reboots which appropriate the aesthetics of the past, but often fail to update its politics in the process: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ghost in the Shell (2017). Against such future-washed conservatism, a counter-project is also emerging. Critics and authors like Monika Bielskyte and Nnedi Okorafor sound the clarion for new ways to imagine the future, and to pave the path for a more equal and sustainable world.
In this context, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016) explores progressive political and economic alternatives in a near-future setting. Part political techno-thriller, part thought-experiment on global micro-democracy, the novel follows four protagonists in the 22nd century as the third global elections loom. In the micro-democratic system, each geographic “centenal,” a unit of 100,000 people, chooses their representatives from a myriad of parties ranging from PhillipMorris and Liberty, to Earth1st and YouGov. Nation states have practically disappeared and the global election process is governed by Information, a descendant of the internet giants of yore, seemingly fused with something like the United Nations. The organization strives for neutral and truthful management of information and a fair administration of the micro-democratic process.
Predictably, political rivals try to play the system for their own benefit, and much of the plot revolves around such schemes. Through their twists and turns, Older highlights the precariousness of information labor in highly networked societies as workers become interfaces of bodies and computer networks, producing a distributed subjectivity. These themes become clear through an analysis of Older’s treatment of her protagonists and her depiction of Information’s custodianship of networked data. Infomocracy conducts an optimistic thought-experiment on the future of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” I aim to show how, for Older, there are two keys to diverting surveillance capitalism in a more optimistic direction. First, the democratization of skills related to information work. Second, the not-for-profit management of data.
Big Other is Watching You
What exactly is surveillance capitalism? Shoshana Zuboff sees big data as the “foundational component” in surveillance capitalism, a “new form of information capitalism” that produces revenue and controls the market through predicting and modifying human behavior (Zuboff 75), a logic encountered in the commercial internet, for example, where it optimizes marketing and sales by testing and cataloging how people respond to user interfaces.
In a classic surveillance model, Big Brother snoops on you, studies his findings, then makes a decision, and takes an action. But in today’s networked societies, things aren’t so simple. Data is used in myriad ways to influence human behavior. Governments collect huge amounts of data in areas like education, welfare, defense, healthcare, policing, and tax. Meanwhile, companies like Google, Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb amass extensive records of computer-mediated transactions of their customers. Crucially, data often moves fluidly between the public and private sectors, and data which is collected for one purpose may be used for another. Opaque algorithms may make decisions based on data which appears irrelevant to the human eye. Furthermore, surveillance capitalism doesn’t just passively observe: it actively solicits user engagement, using what it already knows to try to tease out more. We even surveil ourselves, with technology such as Fitbit, in attempts to manipulate our own behaviors.
For Zuboff, all these developments signify a break with industrial capitalism. Under industrial capitalism, the most influential companies often tried to cultivate a growing and prosperous middle class, who would be both workers and customers for those companies. But as “information civilization” has evolved, global data flows have become commodified in ways that fundamentally alter the relationship between companies and the populations they interact with (Zuboff 80). In particular, under surveillance capitalism, the worker is not the expected customer for data companies. That place has been taken by the advertiser. Whereas previously, workers were able to fight to achieve a certain degree of public oversight of companies’ activities, this oversight has now been eroded. Regulatory legislation has lagged behind the innovations of companies like Google. This shift has led to a “formal indifference and functional distance from populations” that makes information companies increasingly independent of civil society and democratic principles (Zuboff 80).
The shift from industrial capitalism to surveillance capitalism means that the Orwellian Big Brother can no longer act as the “totalitarian symbol of centralized command and control.” Instead, the power structures of surveillance capitalism are better characterized by “Big Other,” extending into all aspects of everyday life. There is “no escape from Big Other. There is no place to be where the Other is not” (Zuboff 82). In contrast to the classically panoptical surveillance architectures, or the hierarchical surveillance of the workplace, we now live in a world where “habitats inside and outside the human body are saturated with data and produce radically distributed opportunities for observation, interpretation, communication, influence, prediction, and ultimately modification of the totality of action” (Zuboff 82).
This saturation of the body with data is closely connected to Pramod K. Nayar’s (and N. Katherine Hayles’s) posthumanist concept of “the human form as an interface rather than a self-contained structure” where “the body is treated as a means of access to the virtual” (Nayar, 64, emphasis in the original). The intertwining of data and bodies results in a shift in the nature of capitalist power. It is surveillance capitalists who enjoy “extensive privacy rights and therefore many opportunities for secrets” (Zuboff 82–83). Thus, it is no longer the means of production that capitalists control, so much as the means of behavioral modification. In surveillance capitalism, the virtual accesses you.
Information and Liberty
There are a variety of point of view characters in Infomocracy, but four could be identified as protagonists. Ken and Yoriko gather intel for Policy1st, Ken as a globe-trotting upstart with hopes of an official position within the party, and Yoriko as a taxi-driver supplementing her earnings in Okinawa as an informer. Then there’s Mishima, a multitalented security officer and data analyst for Information, and Domaine, a dissident working against the institution of micro-democracy and Information, seeing them as essentially undemocratic. All four are characterized as resourceful operatives with a broad set of skills. I will mostly focus on Ken, as he’s the character whose trajectory most clearly showcases the multi-faceted nature of information work and its implications.
In the world of Infomocracy, the transition from Big Brother to Big Other has escalated, but its worst possible effects have been simultaneously mitigated. The near-global obsoleteness of nation states has made their various intelligence operations and national architectures of surveillance less significant than before. At the same time, Information has assumed a global monopoly on amassing, refining, regulating, and publishing data. However, the organization’s non-corporate status, and its mandate to serve democratic ideals, seem to help individuals stay in control of their personal data.
Data technologies have become what Andy Clark calls “transparent” – their interfaces form extensions of human action that “become … almost invisible in use” (Clark 37). Information is charged with safeguarding the data, while enabling people to control which personal data is publicly displayed.³ People in Older’s novel walk around accessing visual and aural feeds constantly, but also broadcasting data about themselves, and all that data is annotated, corroborated, and verified to achieve an adequate level of trust. For example, when Mishima and Ken meet for the first time at a party in Tokyo, her personal Information is “completely mute, an opaque absence of facts and figures in the air next to her face,” as suits a covert security operative (102). Ken’s personal Information, when their night together progresses, displays “his birth control (enabled) and inoculation status (up to date)” (107).
For Zuboff, “populations are targets of data extraction. This radical disembedding from the social is another aspect of surveillance capitalism’s anti-democratic character. Under surveillance capitalism, democracy no longer functions as a means to prosperity; democracy threatens surveillance revenues” (Zuboff 86). Older, on the other hand, engages in a thought-experiment, where the gathering and use of data has advanced radically, but democracy has assumed new forms instead of simply withering away. One such form is the system of micro-democracy, where each centenal votes in a way that directly influences their everyday life. Another is the democratization of privacy rights, that is, increased equality in what data is available for everyone to inform decision making.
Workers in the Posthuman Network
There is a trace, however, of Zuboff’s “disembedding from the social” in the precariousness of jobs held by Older’s protagonists, especially Ken. Mishima is a privileged insider of Information’s organizational monopoly, and Domaine actively seeks to stay out of a mainstream labor culture. But Ken’s career trajectory exemplifies the hardships and insecurity of information workers under surveillance capitalism. Even when Ken is swept up in the thrills of a conspiracy to steal the global election, Older takes care to show how the everyday struggles of precarity are never far away. For example, Ken notes that he does not have “any wealth to speak of” (30); he rationalizes reasons for higher-ups keeping him out of “strategy discussions, even if those discussions are based on his intel” (31); he doesn’t have a clear demarcation between work and leisure as he “doesn’t go on Information these days without opening a minimum of two real-time poll sites” (82); and he attributes his difficulties in sleeping to the fact that his mind “thinks of a million more things” that he should be doing (109). His considerable efforts for Policy1st don’t grant him either stability or rank within the organization. After Ken has accomplished impressive results in advocating for Policy1st in Lima and doing street-campaigning in Chennai, one of the party’s managers lets slips that a promotion is right around the corner: he might become personal assistant to Suzuki, one of the party’s top brass. Ken’s feelings about the prospect are ambivalent at best:
What did he expect, exactly? A real job, he tells himself, disgusted. Something official, in the government. […] But before, when he was nominally a driver, wasn’t he doing everything a personal assistant would? This is a promotion in name only. If he takes it. But what else can he do? This is the problem with not having a real job; when you want to look for another one, nobody knows what you’ve done.
Yoriko’s narrative is another example of precarity. Working for the same boss, Suzuki, she investigates Liberty’s dog-whistling in Okinawa, and gets caught by the rival party’s security personnel. She manages to lie about who sent her and get released. Policy1st then ships her off to remote Amami, but it remains doubtful that she is fully compensated for the dangers she puts herself and her children in.
So Older conjures a world of somewhat curtailed surveillance capitalism, speculative democratic institutions, and continued worker precarity. Her protagonists navigate this world as information workers whose skill in gathering, managing, and understanding data makes them effective professionals in a variety of contexts. Ken’s first mission for Policy1st is to gather information on the ground in centenals that could be persuaded to vote for the party:
[…] to get that intel […] without letting them know that he’s looking for it. To that end, he presents himself as an annoying grad student. This is not entirely untrue; since it’s extremely difficult to lie in your public Information, Policy1st enrolled him in a cheap PhD program. He can put up more or less legitimate credentials and mute the rest of his public Information, as is common in professional settings.
The data Ken displays is not false, but it is misleading, and this is what enables him to complete his mission. He can appear trustworthy and ask questions without raising suspicion or creating bias against his employer. This personal data-gathering is augmented by other similar pursuits to inform policy – within the data/flesh interface, the information worker functions as a collection node.
Right after Ken has met Mishima in Tokyo, the city is struck by a large-magnitude earthquake. The disaster has Ken employ his information worker skills in a different context, as a governmental emergency analyst, collating data on the needs of the people affected. This time, his work sounds more like the data science of the Microsoft Excel-variety: “Ken focuses on his spreads […] he zooms in on the numbers: heated blankets, diaper sizes, bags of rice. Soon, Suzuki told him, the offers of assistance will begin pouring in, and then they’ll need to be able to match them with the needs as quickly as possible” (124). The ability to employ data tools and understand the significance of quantitative data are crucial for the task at hand, and as an information worker, Ken delivers.
Later, he finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to rig the election. He winds up working with Information personnel to uncover and stop the culprits. When the Information network goes down in the middle of the voting process, he is tasked with verifying the votes already cast for possible wrongdoing: “Roz showed him how to check each record for key data points and what forgery indicators to look for, a string of digits that he has to verify each time using a program she’s rigged up” (229). This is not the glamorous cyberhacking of the future. Ken is depicted “crunching some of the ancillary data” (271), running analytics to learn more of the blackout, and later creating a database of fake votes as a decoy by “expanding, embellishing, and keeping careful track of what the correct computer analysis should show” (296). The narrative sticks to mundane descriptions of data analyst’s work.
The details of these different professional situations demonstrate the thought that Older has put into data-driven environments, and what it might take to succeed in them. For example, after the election hackers have been found, Ken finally joins Information as a member of a team that works the story of the election treachery “into every conceivable platform […] talk shows, political features, telenovelas, serials, trade shows, cooking classes, tourist brochures, projection games, documentaries, educational programs, celebrity stalking, encyclopedia entries, and dance contests [and] wandering into virtual plazas and spouting propaganda to whomever he meets there” (360). Only after his remarkable achievements as a freelancer does Information offer Ken a job as a permanent member of a SVAT team (“Specialized Voter Action Tactics” (361)), whose aim is to achieve “better data dissemination in the most underinformed centenals” (378). He is now in a humanitarian role of sorts, depending on social skills as well as analytical ones.
In this sense, Older’s professionals join what McKenzie Wark calls the “avant-garde of organizational practice.” For Wark, industrial laborers held such a position in the early years of the Russian revolution; Wark also offers Kim Stanley Robinson’s “scientific, technical and creative work of hackers” as an analogy. Both examples represent “the labor point of view” that covers “the most advanced, general and complex forms of social activity” to understand and direct societal and ecological human existence (Wark 92, emphasis in original). In contrast to Wark’s examples, Older’s information workers live in the ultra-networked reality of Information. Their practices of existing with and employing data mark them as a possible democratic unit of a functioning world-system, although Older’s vision is still of an Earth profoundly altered by climate change (for example, the centenal of the Adapted Maldives stand on stilts with the original Maldives beneath the ocean). Still, the system of micro-democracy and the abolition of nationalism has led to a period of sustained peace.
Despite their positive democratic potential, Older’s avant-garde data/flesh workers are not left unscarred by their position in a networked environment. They experience what Nayar terms “traumatic materialism,” in which networked posthuman reality marks individual bodies as interfaces that produce a “distributed subjectivity.” This subjectivity is central to the flow of information, produced by “a mix of human and non-human actors” (Nayar 66). Nayar argues that this intersection of the material and immaterial can traumatize the individual body. For Nayar, one example would be Cayce Pollard, the protagonist of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), with her almost supernatural ability to decipher the semiotics of brands and predict their performance on the market, all while suffering from a severe allergy to brand imagery (think Michelin Man or Tommy Hilfiger) (Nayar 66–69).
Older’s Mishima exhibits a talent of observing and analyzing data that resembles Cayce’s traumatizing pattern recognition. And, like Cayce’s, Mishima’s boon comes with a bane, since Mishima suffers from “narrative disorder” (156), where the patterns she perceives can take on a life of their own, resulting in false alarms from “knitting together an unsubstantiated narrative” (81). To be able to function as the skilled security operative/information worker she is, Mishima must keep her disorder in check, but it also gives her an edge in comprehending complex situations and deciding on a course of action. Combined with “her high-level clearance and sophisticated analytical software” she possesses skills bordering on “superpowers” (94). She dedicates herself to Information’s global mission for open access data and the micro-democratic system, but the work proves traumatic.
Significantly, Older also taps into a societal theme of traumatic materialism in addition to the level of individual addressed above. A major driver for the techno-thriller plot in Infomocracy is the near-subliminal plan of Liberty, one of the corporate conglomerate parties, to influence latent impulses of several nationalistically oriented populations to swing the election in their favor. Their operation is designed to appeal to certain demographic and regional populaces, simultaneously staying off the radar from Information and the other parties. Liberty targets specific areas where histories of tense borders and fantasies of national supremacy have a long history – for example, Aceh, Taiwan, Cyprus, and Okinawa – and caters their message to the age-groups who have a personal connection to those discourses. In this way, Liberty taps into generational trauma by means of data dissemination, thus extending the interface between bodies and data over vast and diverse populations. When Information finally confronts Liberty at the end of the novel, party spokesperson Johnny Fabré chillingly sums up the justification for their illicit actions: “Every system must be refreshed from time to time with revolution” (358).
Infomocracy emerges as a thought-experiment for the transition from Big Brother to Big Other and describes key tensions caused by the rise of surveillance capitalism. Nation states have relinquished their monopoly on surveillance and corporations have displaced them as legislators and democratic subjects, but both become subsumed in the near-hegemonic Information. In Older’s interpretation, it is possible to deflect the dystopian future that surveillance capitalism seems to be leading to, but that optimistic project appears to hinge on the abolition of nationalist politics and of surveillance capitalist monopolies like Google and Facebook. In Older’s world, Information is the prime driver of behavioral modification that Zuboff sees at the heart of the surveillance capitalist project, but it strives to do so based on a democratic ideology with communities as stakeholders. In this way, Information’s technological and infrastructural hegemony becomes intertwined in and dependent on the project of rethinking public participation in policy. While Older’s world is not a utopia, and while it raises significant questions concerning the self-regulation of Information itself, it does suggest an alternative to pessimistic societal imaginaries. Finally, Older’s depiction of information workers struggle with precariousness of work and traumatic materialism highlight risks on the road to possible data-driven futures of the labor market. As such, Infomocracy is a central novel in the continued tradition of reimagining work, citizenship, and civilization through speculative fiction.
1. See, for example, Bielskyte’s “Virtual Reality as Possibility Space” at medium.com or Okorafor’s TED talk “Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa.”
2. Significantly, the way Information operates in verifying the data it broadcasts is done by a legion of “Information grunts” (189), that is, professionals the multitude of whose work constitutes the overall breadth and accuracy of data. While algorithms and applications of artificial intelligence are clearly present in Older’s speculative network, she continuously emphasizes the interconnectedness of human and computational labor.
3. Information’s humanitarian mandate in the novel interestingly suggests that data rights, like those outlined in the European Union’s General Data Projection Regulation, are among rights that need a global equity approach to be meaningfully realized.
4. The resemblance to the way in which Facebook data was used to influence opinions around Brexit and the 2016 United States presidential elections is uncanny.
Clark, Andy. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014.
Older, Malka. Infomocracy. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2016.
Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. EPUB ed., London and New York: Verso, 2015.
Zuboff, Shoshana. “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology, 30, 2015, pp.75–89.