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From Data-vidual back to Individual: The Art of Authenticity in the Age of Big Data

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Common in AI research circles of the 1960s and early 1970s was the optimistic idea that everything concerning the operations of the human mind and behavior can be formalized as such an ‘effective procedure’. Biological and socio-political man is a much more complex, and, above all, embodied being.

In Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence (1965), Dreyfus criticized leading artificial intelligence researchers for not fully grasping the “little understood human mind.” He went on to develop a systematic critique in What Computers Can’t Do (1972), in which he argued against common assumptions in AI research holding that man’s cognitive processes could be emulated in algorithmic code, and that computers could thus be turned into intelligent machines. The root cause of the error that most AI technophiles make, according to Dreyfus, is a lack of understanding of the fundamentally different nature of man and machine, which leads to serious moral issues concerning humanity, and is thus the reason why he insisted until his death in April 2017 that we should reflect on the concept of man more deeply and philosophically in the current age.

At the dawn of personal computing and the Internet in the early 1990s, some scholars envisioned the transition from the notion of ‘individual’ to ‘dividual,’ within the broad societal change from modern ‘disciplinary society’ (as defined by Michel Foucault) to what Deleuze coins ‘the society of control’. In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords (…).  Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks” (Deleuze 1992, p. 5).

Man is a social being, and therefore entwined with greater frameworks. He is part of a group. There grows an entire industry in late-capitalist society to assist you, both online and offline, offering a range of products and services which allow you to identify with the group or lifestyle you aspire to.

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One of the vital roots of the Western concept of authenticity is the idea of personal freedom of choice—an authentic human being makes his own choices. According to Socrates, this ‘self-doing’ is thought as a combination of reflection and action, which forms the core of each individual’s personal responsibility, be it towards God or society—his conscience. The Western concept of authenticity is strongly connected to the old Greek antiquity, in which one should know and analyze one’s own motives, emotions and actions.  The self-reflection of the ‘be-and-do-you-yourself’ human being, the ‘authentic’ human, took place unambiguously within the cultural, political and spiritual institutions of the society of which one was an individual, undivided, part; an ‘atom,’ the smallest particle of a larger whole. In a similar vein, the Western culture has, for a very long time already, understood the individual human person as the smallest common denominator of society, and not as a loose, unconnected particle.

This brings us back to the concept of man as aggregate of data. Living in today’s network society, how can this new type of individual—or ‘dividual’ in Deleuze’s terms—that is primarily known (and knows himself) as aggregate of data and functions, still be called authentic?

For what if the new tracking methods are used (or abused) by marketers and planners not so much for assisting the individual ‘Self’ to grow and thrive, but to control collectives of ‘Selves’ as linked atoms in money-making structures called target groups? One could see this as the ultimate victory of the economization of our culture, which translates everything that occupies us into transactions based on quantifiable values, and which considers every aspect of our lives as a function of the market.

It is the victory of the ‘third-person perspective’ of man. Some scholars even suggested to add a ‘fourth-person perspective’—that of being totally immersed in a virtual other, of virtually experiencing being someone else [a kind of new, upgraded version of Sherry Turkle’s early idea of ‘the Second Self,’ by which she first described life on the screen (Turkle 2005)].  For if “the commodified self” is a self compiled from the offerings of the supermarket of life, then that raises the question of whose standards and values are built into that ‘off-the-shelf’ self: those of the consumer or those of the producer, those of the individual or those of ‘governmentality’ (Foucault’s term for how governments produce citizens).

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As human-beings develop the technology, the technology forms them in return. It is a constant leapfrog” (Bruinsma 2015, p. 127). The grammars of action inscribed into the algorithms that govern our dealings with and within digital technologies are not neutral. Designers should force themselves to be more explicit in their methodology about the implicit, hidden values they project onto future users of their products. Each product inevitably mediates how people perceive the world, how they behave—and each product inevitably adds bias to this perception.

We need a fine balance between the classical ideal of the authentic human, with his personal freedom of choice, and the ‘society of control,’ with its tendency to reduce us to our data.  The disconcerting aspect of a concept of man as aggregate of data is that it implies that man can only function within the categories—or grammars of action—which enable the processing of these data.

If everything has become ‘outside’ (as a result of the third-person perspective on man and his self-awareness as aggregate of data), the authentic ‘inside’ position of an individual who critically reflects on himself is fatally weakened. Thus, knowing oneself, today, calls for an intensified reflection on the individual’s responsibility with regard to his technological alter ego. An active pondering of the dizzying condition of the individual as quantum rather than atom, constantly switching between his authentic ‘first-person perspective,’ his humanly insufficient ‘second-person perspective’ (his conditionally deficient ability to empathize with others), and the ‘third-person perspective’ that allows him to externalize himself as commodity. If we don’t reflect on what this means to us, humans, and the world that we build together—technology and all— we threaten to lose sight, not only of the distinction between man and machine that was so dear to Dreyfus, but of the space for authentic reflection and agency.

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If our grammars of action are written solely from the viewpoint of the computer’s protocols, we run the risk of becoming ensnared in ever-tightening algorithmic straightjackets that control our lives, and foreclose the optimal conditions for a well-functioning, democratically organized “telematic society” that Vilem Flusser already advocated in the 1980s.  The fundamental redesign of public space and the private realm is too important to be left to the coders and the institutional and commercial interests they serve.

We cannot delegate our own authentic consideration of good and evil to the technologies, institutions and interests of which we are an integral part, but into which we do not want to dissolve completely.

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Ayse Kok
Ayse completed her masters and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO, and the EU. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Bosphorus University in her home town Turkey. Furthermore, she is the editor of several international journals, including those for Springer, Wiley and Elsevier Science. She attended various international conferences as a speaker and published over 100 articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. Having published 3 books in the field of technology & policy, Ayse is a member of the IEEE Communications Society, member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Security & Privacy, member of the IEEE IoT Community and member of the IEEE Cybersecurity Community. She also acts as a policy analyst for Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research. Currently, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley where she worked as a researcher for companies like Facebook and Google.

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