Here is the translation on English of Giorgio Griziotti’s contribution to the seminar “Algorithms and capital”, held at Goldsmith College, january 20th, 2014.
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The question is no longer deciding whether or not to develop biological engineering practices but how to use these techniques. The struggle is now over the alterative paradigms of bios and the multitude is called to battle over the idea and the reality, the model and language of the body that it wants to give to the General Intellect.
– Toni Negri
The Monster’s Desire: from the Circus to the Political Laboratory
The use of technology is the fundamental axis of the metamorphosis caused by the fusion of life and labor in cognitive capitalism. A metamorphosis that affects the inborn/acquired pair where the latter, in Darwin’s nature vs. nurture, is the environment’s “nutriment”, from mother earth to language.
For more than a century, the speculative debate on this binomial has fueled discussion and analysis in philosophy, psychology, medical research and human sciences and it is the foundation for a disciplinary organization of society – even the Nazi regime used it as the keystone of its destructive philosophy.
The society of control organized by cognitive capitalism is instead directly based on the manipulation of these two elements. According to neoliberal dogma, they are important as fundamental components of human capital or, better yet, of a human who, becoming capital, must earn time to live. In order to impose this economic rationality, the financial oligarchy that holds global power is directly involved with the processes of measuring the bios with behavioral and genetic alteration. The inborn and the acquired are hit by a technological tsunami while neurosciences, genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence and robotics all come into play.
In Europe, a mercenary political class, subject to a financial élite that forces it to privatize welfare, no longer has any margin for exercising their antiquated socialdemocratic mediations; a new strategy of control over life and society, based on technological subjection and the generation of debt, has replaced it.
As far as nurture is concerned, digital and biohypermediatic technologies, also associated with discoveries in neurosciences, are what intervene in how we feel, perceive and understand the world. They are used in evermore subtle and articulated ways in strategies for influencing framing, business and governance.
Within the great tendencies of capitalism, and sometimes in apparent opposition to the dominant oligarchy, libertarian currents take on a new bent in Silicon Valley and actively participate in this strategy, facilitating the voluntary adoption of the instruments of control in exchange for the illusion of individual liberty.
The case of cryptocurrencies – whose creation is based on software, algorithms and network technologies that, at first glance, seem autonomous from global financial institutions and national and private banks – highlights certain ambiguities and the mixing of genres. Without going into a detailed analysis, the Bitcoin project (BTC) is based on an anonymous peer to peer production of money and is made relatively safe through a cryptography based on specific public algorithms; its code is under an open source license and it uses the principle of network computing. These aspects put it into the same category as great cooperative projects and collective socio-technological innovations that come from the hacker community, just like Linux.
Due to its open source characteristics, BTC gives way to forks, derivations that allow the implementation of other digital currencies; there are around 40 for now. Probably, the goal at the origins of BTC were to prosper as a tool of exchange outside the control of oligarchical institutions and to free transactions from commissions, exactions and market limits.
Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly what is happening. In this phase, instead, this cryptocurrency is above all used as an instrument of accumulation of financial speculation. The convertibility with classic currencies (starting with the Yuan and US Dollar) and a production that is algorithmically limited in quantity and time in some ways reproduce the role of gold as reserve currency. The metaphor also extends to the terminology used and to a certain gold rush mythology that is based on that of videogames. Like the extraction of gold, the production of cryptocurrencies (not by chance defined as “mining”) requires a great quantity of electrical energy and computational power, which are then respectively consumed and produced by powerful PCs, derived from those dedicated to gaming, to work at maximum regime.
The key criteria of BTC is found in the principle of an extraction of currency proportional to computational power but without having any of the principles that would be inscribed in the social code of an algorithm for a currency of the common. This is precisely why the experiment can’t break free from an innate capitalist immutability based on the guiding role of profit in the distribution of labor and social organization. BTC merely shifts the register. Leveraging technology, it is gaining support within the hacker and P2P movements. For the moment, it rather seems to be drawing them into the sancta sanctorum of finance, massively training hackers for trading, proposing a speculative race through an algorithmic production of “autonomous” money. Today, the technical abilities of hackers constitute an advantage but the computational power, and therefore hardware investment, becomes more and more preponderant. This is already the case of BTC, which is only minable today with special, dedicated computers that cost (tens of) thousands of dollars. This without taking into account digital corporations, new or old, that have been “inspired” by this process to launch their own currencies in the future. It is possible that these experiments are “disrupting”, but for the moment they seem to be part of the vast sector of the peer to peer cooperation activities that are subsumed by capital according to the unchanging principle: “For things to remain the same, everything must change“.
Despite this, the experience of BTC has the merit of having opened the way and the debate over the possibility of creating a truly autonomous digital money with the scope of creating a currency of the common that takes into account three essential elements, according to the economist Carlo Vercellone, hardwired into its algorithms and its implementation:
· The impossibility to accumulate and thus impeding it from becoming the object of speculation. Consequently, it must lose some of its value over time. It would therefore be a currency that melts down, a “demurrage charged money”.
· Mitigating workers’ dependency on the economic restrictions that force them to sell their labor power and therefore wage relations themselves; thus reducing precarity.
· Allowing, on these premises, for more free time and resources for developing alternative forms of cooperation based on the common pooling of knowledge, production and, in any case, on exchange networks that exclude the logic of profit. Participation in networks where a currency of the common circulates implies adhering to these principles, whether participants are individuals, businesses or institutional subjects, as in the case of certain alternative currency models experimented with on a local level.
The current transformation of electronic money from an autonomous tool into financial speculation explicitly demonstrates the importance and political centrality of algorithms in exploiting multitudinary cooperation.
Complementarily, other algorithms that are not open but proprietary, secret and protected by copyright, already play a greatly influential role in producing knowledge according to a logic that uses predetermined criteria to establish what is shown and to whom it is shown. PageRank, Google’s famous algorithm that determines the rating and therefore importance of a website, allows for the valorization of a site’s visibility on the net. This capacity to create and dominate the classification market of the network’s atoms has made Google the most influential corporation of the digital era.
Google has now set its eyes on the financial goals of being the world’s leading advertising agency with a consolidated 55 billion dollars of annual revenue, more than double that of the conglomerate that best represents pre-internet advertising, born from the fusion of Publicis and Omnicom.
This oligarchical power and extremely rapid accumulation of data now allow Google to pursue a strategic objective that is even more ambitious in entrepreneurial terms: they aim to lead the race to format humans beings themselves to make us more and more a function of cognitive capitalism and the transformation of our lives into merchandise.
PageRank’s algorithm manages to produce surplus value of our network activities and reveals the potential of mathematical models able to approximate human behavior to the point of shaping it.
EdgeRank follows the road opened by its predecessor. Facebook’s (FB) algorithm intervenes more directly in relations, creating a rank based on which it autonomously decides what appears in the News Feed of every member of the social network. EdgeRank establishes a relative value of all the posts from our “friends”, using a certain number of parameters and criteria aimed at quantifying our relations. “Affinities” are measured by counting “likes”, and the frequency and type of contact with our “friends” who publ