When talking on Tribune magazine’s ‘Political, Theory, Other’ podcast in support of his 2021 book ‘Revenge of the Real’, Benjamin Bratton makes a series of interesting, important and provocative side-points about contemporary technology in the course of discussing the main thesis of this book.
Along the way, he reflects on the residual distrust and deep suspicion of technology amongst the left-leaning humanities and philosophy scholars. He sees this as a legacy of what he characterises as the ‘boomer theory’ that arose from opposition amongst the class of ’68 to the Cold War, Vietnam and other horrors seen by theorists of this time to arise from the misapplication of technology and science. This knee-jerk opposition to all things technological continues today – fuelled by those still theoretically rooted in (‘tyrannised by’) this generational mindset. Bratton frames this as a ‘Manichaean battle’ between a presumed dominance of rationalism, science, technology and war on one hand, and a preferred alternative of intuition, interpretation, culture, allegory, experience and peace on the other. This polarisation still clouds current conversations about the politics of AI, how to address issues of climate change, biopolitics and a general capacity to imagine what might come next.
Bratton also makes the point that this residual technophilla amongst left-leaning intellectuals has collapsed recently into a creeping Sinophilia – evident in many commentators’ current horrified fascination with ‘Chinese AI’, ‘Chinese surveillance’ and other ‘otherings’ of Chinese technosociety. As he puts it in the book, we are witnessing a post-Western modernity where “anxieties about technology are projected into anxieties about China”. In contrast, Bratton observes that one sensible outcome of the COVID pandemic would be for Western actors to show willingness to learn from East Asian technological processes and practices – not least the handling of the pandemic in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.
Extending a theme from his previous book (‘The Stack’), Bratton also stresses the importance of developing “an understanding that the political, cultural, economic conundrums, crises, and circumstances that we find ourselves are inevitably planetary in nature”. This stresses the point that any issues around technology and society must be defined, articulated and imagined in planetary terms. Here, Bratton reasons that it is not possible (‘by some sort of ontological turn’) to somehow rescale and reduce the complexity of these issues down to the more familiar level of the nation state or other local institutions that we have to hand. Instead, we need to ground our discussions of new technology within genuinely connected understandings of the precarious and precious nature of life at a planetary level. In a mundane sense, then, this involves a realisation of how even the most ordinary digital practices are inherently related to worldwide concentrations of carbon dioxide, rare-earth minerals and other elemental matters …
“The table of the elements becomes politicalised in a way in which the underlying chemical and biological reality of the world itself becomes the point of our attention and that we [need to] learn to see ourselves as an emergent condition from it, rather than as something that exists in some kind of transcendental bubble”.
Finally (around 43 minutes into the interview), Bratton makes a provocative attack on conventional common-sense understandings of the data-economy and surveillance capitalism – in particular calls from critical commentators for pushback in the form of increased privacy and protection of individual data sovereignty . Bratton reasons that all these arguments are missing the point. First, he reasons that the idea of understanding a society simply as an aggregation of self-sovereign autonomous individuals is wrong. Second, he contends that the giant archive of social media ‘stuff’ is not actually data that is capable of allowing “a society to sense itself, model itself and act back on itself”.
In this sense, Bratton does not deny that there are “manipulative and pathological relationships” between platforms and their users. Moreover, he agrees with the idea that individuals should not be personally associated by any state or platform with their digital trace data and their associated behaviours and social interactions. Instead, Bratton’s main point is that proponents and critics of current data economy need to move quickly on from (inadvertently) perpetuating a view of datafication that is rooted in an understanding of autonomous individuals all possessing a ‘trove of personal data’ that is at a later point captured and extracted from them by predatory platforms. In fact, Bratton argues that the fact that we have chosen to intensively deploy planetary-scale computation for the modelling and prediction of consumer behaviour is “one of the world historical misuses of a technology that one can imagine – a kind of catastrophic own-goal”.
As such, Bratton’s main problem with the surveillance capitalism thesis lies in the ways in which it privileges individualisation as the core unit of analysis for planetary computation. In this sense, he has little time for critics who argue that surveillance capitalism needs to be combatted through some form of counter-weaponization and further privatisation of individual data – reasoning that these critiques simply fall into the trap of reinforcing the fundamental problem of individualisation. Bratton describes this a ‘cartoonish’ caricature of surveillance capitalism ‘that we read in the Guardian every day’. Most importantly, it distracts attention from alternate forms of data use:
“putting all these resources toward all this stupid stuff makes it very, very difficult to do the things that we should be doing with [technology] in the first place”
Instead, Bratton stresses the need to direct our efforts into extending the use of technical systems for planetary forms of calculation, sensing, and abstraction that would otherwise not be possible. Here, Bratton points to the use of computation in the services of earth sciences as one good example of how data should be prioritised – with computer-driven data analysis underpinning the fundamental capacity of the earth sciences to detect, model and ultimately document the phenomenon of climate change. As such, the resources of Google and Facebook (as well as the efforts of their critics) should be directed toward these planetary-scale ends. As Bratton concludes:
“I’m not arguing that we need more data, I am arguing that we need better data, and that we are producing the wrong data”.
 At one point in the interview, Bratton dismisses criticism of surveillance capitalism as the dominant mainstream ‘theory of the internet’ amongst the Atlantic legal establishment (such as Harvard Law School), and other elites. He suggests this stems from a realisation amongst these elite actors that technical systems are now producing de facto forms of sovereignty that these legal systems are used to providing and monopolising for themselves.