Alex Pentland on Datafying the Social for Frictionless Cybernetic Governance

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Anna-Verena Nosthoff and Felix Maschewski:

"Not only Noveck and Khanna aim to disrupt conventional politics and allegedly antiquated notions of freedom. Even worse, certain Silicon Valley pioneers, and also the director of the MIT Media Lab Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, openly proclaim an agenda which leaves behind both negative and positive conceptions of freedom. Rather, we are dealing with an entirely transformed notion of freedom which is only realized through being potentially regulated when necessary. It is freedom as framed by Stafford Beer: ‘The freedom we embrace must yet be in control.’ Even more straightforward is the manner in which the management cyberneticist continues – the wording is indeed uncannily reminiscent of Parag Khanna’s and, as we will see, Pentland’s: ‘We have to become efficient in order to solve our problems; and we have to accept the threat to freedom that this entails – and handle it.’

Another problem with Pentland’s agenda to datafy the social can best be described by the media philosopher’s and mathematician’s Dieter Mersch’s recent diagnosis and critique of cybernetics. As Mersch argues, throughout the history of cybernetics the notion of participation has been reduced to merely equal access (this could also be said of Shannon’s mathematical understanding of communication). As Mersch reminds us, participation stems from the Latin ‘participatio’ and originally means ‘Teilhaftigmachung, Teilnahme, Mitwirkung [contribution]’. According to the media theorist, the concept itself however rests on a certain ambiguity, as it does not specify what participation relates to or how far it goes, or what it encompasses: ‘The ‘Mit-’ [with] in ‘Mitsein’ [being-with] remains as indeterminate as the forms of participation’. Mersch claims that particularly cybernetics rests on a reduced understanding of participation, thus implying a limited notion of both the social and the political, which are neither deducible from a sole technical infrastructure or logistical setting nor necessarily follow from it. As is particularly evident regarding current forms of the social – such as ‘social’ networks – the exclusive focus on technical infrastructure and coordination almost automatically reinforces the predominance of mathematics and a mathematical imaginary, thus producing what German sociologist Steffen Mau has recently termed a ‘metric We’.

This becomes especially evident with regard to Pentland’s neo-cybernetic vision of what he terms ‘social physics’: whereas his governance approach essentially rests on participation, it is not at all concerned with what Mersch (drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy) refers to as the ‘Mit-’ of ‘Mitsein’: a shared dimension of the social that cannot be (technically) constructed but is always precarious, a horizon at best which is still to come. As such, Pentland’s vision of governance illuminates the difference between sociopolitically rich and sociopolitically limited notions of participation. Seen from a political viewpoint that considers individual autonomous judgment as a necessary precondition for self-determined political participation, Pentland’s behavioristic focus on the homo imitans and on adaptable behavior is particularly alarming. Close to what Obama advisor Sunstein has popularized under the rubric of ‘nudging’, that is, a form of choice architecture that seeks to subconsciously influence or push human behavior in ‘more reasonable’ directions, Pentland seeks to influence the interrelations between humans. He distinguishes this ‘peer-to-peer behavior’ from ‘individual behavior’. The former largely rests on adaptation, a term that became extremely popular during the rise of cybernetics as a science (for instance, in the works of W. Ross Ashby and Norbert Wiener).

Pentland wants to shape the social fabric by implementing quantifiable incentives that modify interactions. Such a focus on the network is, according to him, twice as efficient as focusing on an isolated individual. One of Pentland’s experimental examples refers to the attempt to raise the overall activity level of a group during a lazy winter. Two groups existed: one in which people were rewarded with a specific amount of money according to their activity level and a second one in which people were assigned buddies. In the second group, a reward was given not when one had maximized one’s own activity level but if one’s buddy increased his or her activity. In other words, your buddy was rewarded for you being active and vice versa. Pentland’s experimental results showed that the second group was far more effective given the extent of interactions between people and the structures of mutual control and responsibility established between them.

What becomes evident here is a shift from depicting the human as capable of autonomous judgment to behavioristic models that have given up on the idea of the autonomous decider. Indeed, this holds not only for the shift from homo oeconomicus to what is now deemed behavioral economics in economic theory; the same occurs in political theory, which long rested on the idea of the individual as a rational decider or the picture of the enlightenable citizen, but is now considered a ‘system’ even by political theorists and sociologists (examples are the German sociologist Armin Nassehi, who recently argued for a smart steering of the social or political scientist Philip Howard in his Pax Technica). The individual is no longer conceived as an entity, but depicted as a ‘divisum’, as Günther Anders termed it very early on: dissociable, divisible and partly shapeable, whereby the distinction between activity and passivity becomes obsolete. To return to the issue of freedom, even though the implementation of choice architectures and the redesign of what Pentland terms ‘the social fabric’ are far from directly determining or immediately violating free choice – Sunstein and Thaler have repeatedly emphasized that they seek to preserve ‘freedom’, thus calling their approach ‘libertarian paternalism’ – they seem hardly compatible with either positive or negative freedom precisely because influence on individual behavior works primarily on the subconscious level."


More information

  • Pentland, Alex, Social Physics. How Social Networks can make us smarter. London: Penguin Books, 2015.