Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Questioning the Quantified Life

Into the Whirlpool

How Predictive Data Put Brainwashing on the Spin Cycle

Rebecca Lemov

Digital binary computer code whirlpool; Robert Eastman/Alamy Stock Photo.

One of the first attempts ever made to add up every single thing in one place occurred in Ireland from 1655 to 1656. Petty’s Down Survey, so called because it “laid down” all important information, measured Ireland’s shape and size accurately for the first time. Yet the surveyers did well to proceed with caution in carrying out this probing numerical exercise, intended to assist appropriation of the land by English merchants and ex-soldiers, because only a few years earlier a data-gathering colleague had encountered wrathful Irish villagers who “would not have their country discovered.” So strongly did they resent this intrusion that they decapitated the would-be surveyor. Still, after Petty’s Down, accurate tabulation proceeded more quickly, and, by the time of John Adams’s 1680 Index Villaris, 24,000 towns and villages back in England had submitted to the encompassing embrace of measurement.11xAs accounted in Paul Slack, “Government and Information in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 184, no. 1 (August 2004): 36–38, Note that the Irish villagers’ resentment arose because the surveyors were English and had recently occupied Ireland with a view to “enclosing” the Irish lands for appropriation by English merchants and ex-soldiers. The sense that every person and every place should be amenable to being counted was not yet fully inculcated, but it would be.

Today, most people are frequently subjected to counting, of course. Our takeout orders, our opinions about those takeout orders, and the steps we take across the room—all of this, and so much more, is logged and fed into the “surplus behavioral data” stores that Shoshana Zuboff has so carefully traced in her examination of what she has labeled “surveillance capitalism.”22xShoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2019). Stranger yet, efforts to gather up massive amounts of personal information—to count widely, deeply, and broadly—are today largely shrugged off. We know, and yet we don’t know. Data is siphoned almost constantly—we feed it into the machines, and the “computational factories,” as Zuboff calls them, go to work. Perhaps the most curious part of this arrangement is that surveyor demise rarely follows. Increasingly intimate details of our lives are surrendered, bits at the very edge of scrutability and far beyond the now-obliterated edges once called privacy. Until recently, objection was deemed eccentric. Professors who specialized in media studies continued to post pictures of their children’s violin lessons and soccer games online, hardly seeming to know why or professing to know better. Meanwhile, in the name of increasing human agency, new techniques are subjecting your “choice points” to external controls, whether commercial or political. As a result, your likes and dislikes now end up shaping the choices with which you are presented, predicting your behavior and increasing in accuracy as more time-on-device engagement and closer-to-real-time tracking takes hold. It could all be said to amount to a mild if pervasive form of brainwashing.

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