Insurgents inside Big Data

Written by ctrlplus and Silvano Cacciari – Italian translation here

Data digital flowIf the ancient augurs at the Roman rulers’ service listened to the shrieks of the birds, in order to express their predictions, divination today is a business of algorythms and statistical analisys models, these being specifically constructed in order to explain the meaning of flocks of tweets in real time. As times changed – with oracles and fortune-tellers now unseated by Big Data analysts – the interest of the people in charge about the future remains undiminished. Especially when the latter risks to be menacingly affected by political disorders, social upheavals and popular uprisings.

Demonstrations, marches and protests always happen during a diffusion of ideas that amplifies collective action and nurtures the subjectivity of its protagonists. The hypothesis of such a viral process of today being more or less fed by social networks like Twitter or Facebook has been at the core of heated arguments for several years: one one hand, studies that recognizes in the social media a beacon for new forms of mobilization and organization abound, on the other hand there is no shortage of invectives by intellectual and activists, based on the belief that such platforms constrain the rage of the users behind the monitor of a computer, thus discouraging real participation.

Protests in numbers

Recently, a research published by three academics, Marco T. Bastos of Duke University, Dan Mercea of City University London and Arthur Charpentier of Université du Québec, contributed to fuel the fire of the quarrel. The goal of the study in question was to manage to precisely define how digital communication influenced the development of the Occupy Wall Street, Spanish Indignados and Brazilian Vinegar protests mobilizations. Yet, in order to test their hypothesis, the three authors did not rely on classic research methodologies (like ethnographical inquiries or qualitative interviews), but they preferred to resort to an artisanal system of Big Data analisys. Using simple tools of data survey, they collected some million tweets, hashtags and posts of Facebook groups that were published during the protests. Later, they cross-referenced them with the figures of the participants in a march, the number of arrested activists during their execution and that of the militants (in the Spanish and Brazilian cases) involved in the acampadas. Finally, they elaborated these data using the Granger test, an econometric model used to statistically produce a relation of causality between variables (in our case, the number of messages posted on the social networking platforms and the effective physical participation in the street riots).

The results of the analysis bring to light conclusions that are worth of an adequate space of reflection in the movements’ everyday life. If the work of the three scholars, on one hand, shows how the vis-à-vis interaction remains the crux of territorial activism, it is also undeniable that social networks perform an important role in its organizational processes. Despite the fact that their impact in each context was different – in the Vinegar scenario the social media influence was starkly inferior in comparison to what happened elsewhere, probably because of a media framework characterized by an absence of integration between the Internet and the broadcast media – status and 140-characters messages appear very far from being that mere digital echo, a self-referential one and without real consequences, chastised by several intellectuals – Morozov above all – in their works.

On the contrary – as asserted by Bastos, Mercea and Charpentier – Twitter and Facebook proved to be pivotal in order to increase the OWS and Indignados’ critical mass, both in regard to the promotion of the initiatives of the movement and for their logistic organization. They are deemed to be so important to make the researchers state that the growth of online political messages associated to a specific protest establishes a fertile analytical ground in order to predict in advance its explosion in the street. To say it in another way, if it is true that Twitter and Facebook are able to shape a revolt, then it is true that a constant monitoring of them could also represent a key element to predict and prevent its birth.

Corrupting the enemy

Dan Braha of the New England Complex Systems Instituite is convinced of that. As author of an analysis of the tweets that went along with the Baltimore uproars last April, Braha claims that, when they are mediated by the web, the riots are easily predictable. The consequence is not only that the deployment of police forces on the ground can be made in a more rational way thanks to the costant surveillance of the social media, but even that the latter could be used as a means to spread panic and false information: an operation to be set with the intent of discouraging participation in street demonstrations. Thus, a fundamental principle of the art of war looks about to get real in the use of the Big Data analyses with public order-purposes: that of influencing and corrupt the decision making patterns of the enemy, that is. He who possesses these abilities is the best warrior, as he is able to defeat the opponent without fighting, by simply frustrating his plans – as Sun Tzu claimed.

Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that not even the Big Data can escape a fundamental passage of the Foucaultian thought developments on the evolution of governmentality: the goal of power is not only to discipline and punish – to repress, that is – anymore, but to organize the population on the territory with the aim of maximize its potential in economic terms. Even if in new terms. An element that enables us to understand how the relation between the political and the economical was overturned in this framework – within an evolution of governmentality intertwined with technological developments – can be inferred here. From Bentham to the memorable text by Deleuze on the society of the control, via Lewis Mumford, the overlapping between surveillance and governmentality is one of the fields of the political’s exclusive dominance. Not by any chance, in its Truth and the juridical forms, Foucault defines Bentham the true inescapable classic of political thought in the Nineteenth century. A field whose hegemony in the strategies of innovation and use of funds, for a long time and in continental Europe at least, has been basically a public one.

Since 2001, instead, the most important institution to deal with Big Data is Gartner Inc. . It is an – obviously – private institution, that was also mentioned during the Snowden affaire and that includes among its clients the federal administration, the military forces and the financial business. An institution that, above all, exercises hegemony – being it at the apex of this research field and in connection with venture capitalism – on the strategies of the federal administration. In this way, the extraction of analyses from the Big Data has a two-fold, classical implication: a military one and a corporate one. And here is the paradigm shift in surveillance processes: here the Big Data are not simply “data”, useful to direct governamental dispositifs, but processes of commodification of the digital sphere that, once organized, generate an economy of scale of remarkable size. According to McKinsey and OCSE assessments, they actually represent the 2% of US and EU GDP, with a 236 % annual growth, at least until the 2020 decade (data provided by NESSI, a mixed public-private project of analysis at EU level about the economic potential of software).

Governance versus politics

Then – when touching the field of the point of view of the power, between surveillance and government – we are in front of something different, in respect to the past. Through the Big Data analysis, governmentality through surveillance ceases to be, according to the classical paradigm, a field of exclusive dominance, and even of symbolic and identity-driven characterization, of the political. On the contrary, it becomes a field where politics are something secondary in respect to the developments of the data commodification. As it was discussed during the Observer Ideas festival and as reported by the Guardian in July 2014, a simultaneity between “growth of the data and death of politics” emerges more and more, because of the algorithmical regulation of the approach to the governance”. And this happens, first of all, because the algorithm (whose use in the big data analysis is regulated by the visual analyis – that is then to be intended as a true science of production) here is a mathematical commoditified process, now a good among other goods. In this way all the ethical cards, the norms and the constitutions look dangerously ineffectual when commodification and technological power occupy the surveillance – that once was considered more resilient than the strongholds of the political.

The economy of information

The Big Data accumulate themselves on a thousand of levels: health, security, weather forecasts, traffic, social relationships, styles of consumption, sexual and political inclinations and economic cycles, financial universe and, indeed, movements. They generate an economy of their processing and, at the same time, they organize the economy accordingly with the criteria that produce their processing. They compose technologies of knowledge in order to facilitate decision processes. A new material and digital axis, and with powerful implications, all to be discovered: in economics as in politics. Where the political does not regulate but looks to be regulated. Even in the choices about the future of the analysis of the movements’ behaviour. Choices which are regulated by pure business, even before being politically made; a business even disguised as PPP (Public-Private Partnership), that is the dress with which the private sector replaces the public one on this ground. In which, if we look at the projects in the making, it looks like, though, that the greatest interest on a continental level is that of putting to the test the profitability of the big data on Islamic radicalism issues. Because today the divination first questions the trajectories of the hedge funds, and then decides whether all of this has a repercussion on a political level. And the market looks to have stated, and who knows what it will state tomorrow, that a greater extraction of value is possible looking to the caliph’s followers rather than the grassroots movements, at the moment. New tools of data analysis – maybe inspired by the work of Bastos, Mercea and Charpentier – are then surely coming.