Algorithmic Government:

the Problem IS the Technology

Facebook  vs. China:  The radical opacity of Big Data systems is intrinsic to the technology – we need an ontological critique of technology

by Jaime del Val –  22nd March 2018  –  © Jaime del Val – 2018


Gobierno algorítmico: el problema radica en la propia tecnología, no solo en su uso

La opacidad radical de los sistemas Big Data es intrínseca a la tecnología algorítmica. El caso Cambridge Analytica no es más que la punta del iceberg de lo Facebook hace cada día con sus algoritmos secretos de perfilado comportamental. Casi todas las empresas tecnológicas hacen lo mismo según sus posibilidades. Los gobiernos dependen de ellas para usos más expresamente coercitivos, como China con su sistema Big Data de crédito social, pero la centralización y opacidad es la misma. Ante el avance del gobierno algorítmico hace falta una crítica ontológica de la tecnología algorítmica, no solo de su uso.


March 2018 will perhaps be remembered as the start of the downfall of Facebook. Or maybe not.

Many of us knew at least since January 2017 the complex link between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, the Kosinski algorithm for personality profiling through Facebook likes, the Russian influences and the Trump and Brexit campaigns[1].

The new scandal issued by some international newspapers in March 2018 comes up at the same time as Putin´s re-election and news about the massive face recognition system implanted by China, related to a social credit plan via a system called Face++.[2]

This allows some considerations to be made as to the entanglements between these phenomena, and their dynamics.  First of all it speaks about the non-neutral character of technology.

Is there an intrinsic difference between the politics of Facebook, of the Russian government, the Chinese government and the US government in relation to the expansion of unprecedented modes of social control? Or are they implicit in the technological paradigm?

On the one hand the use of Russian government trolls did of Facebook during the 2016 US presidential election camapaigns already exposed a complex interrelation between the presumed neutrality and defence of freedom of the network and totalitarian will to undermine democracies on behalf of Putin, as something exceeding a flaw in the network, but intrinsic to its operationality.

Now consider China´s attempt to control 1.400 million people through Big Data face recognition, related to the technology of the corporation called Face++, to a social credit system, and to Alibaba’s credit system, a system of “paying with the face”: is this intrinsically different from the way Facebook constantly processes data from 2.200 million profiles, their photos and videos and many other data, manipulating their desires unconsciously? In terms of opacity and centralised control they are pretty similar. Of course the Chinese government wants to exercise explicit coercion. But in turn Facebook disguises the opacity of its control behind a fake promise of global freedom making control desirable as much as unknowable.

The problem is not just the Cambridge Analytica link. Facebook is constantly using the information it has to modulate future desires, monetize users, send personalised publicity, etc: a mode hypercontrol promoted as the ultimate  freedom on the planet, as smart, and sexy, as enhancing our experience and realizing our potentials, based on accepting conditions by default, bypassing consent, in a culture of compulsive clicking.

Google does pretty much the same. All companies do according to their capacity. The problem is core to the technological paradigm itself.

Who has more power and opacity, Facebook or the NSA? The NSA needs Facebook, but not the reverse. The NSA cares about 300 million people, the chinense government about 1.400 million, Facebook has information control, and direct influence over 2.200 million profiles. The Chinese government have perhaps some programmes of explicit coercion in mind, but doesn’t Facebook exercise implicit coercion? The Cambridge Analytica case exposes some if its possibilities. It’s just part of the tip of the iceberg.

Facebook represents the already operative reality of a new mode of algorithmic world governmentality that needs to be accounted for. China´s is another expanding model, more explicitly coercive, whose technological paradigm bears striking resemblances to Facebook’s. Russia seems to partake of both models, while influencing, partly via Facebook, the futures of the US and the EU.

When Snowden brought out his case against the NSA (again, he is now under asylum in Russia) the focus of the debate was biased on governmental control. Now at last corporate control, and its entanglement with governments (Russian Interests, Trump and Brexit) is in the centre of the debate, and this has deeper ontological dimensions, related to the technological paradigm itself. This takes onto-ethical debates in new directions yet to be accounted for.

The Metabody Project outlined since its start in 2013 many of the problems implicit in the paradigm, all of which it’s more urgent than ever to take further, challenging the will to total control implicit in algorithmic technologies and their ongoing reduction of experiences, perceptions, bodies and movements to calculable worlds of preemption.



[2] It also happens after 2017 having been the year with more deaths by drugs overdose in the US, around 70.000 (as many as the deaths of the Vietnam war or of Sendero Luminoso in Peru between 1980 and 2000) and the most violent year in Mexico, with over 27.000 murders.