Escape the Tyranny of Algorithms by Leading a Life of Poiesis

by Jalees Rehman

“Accused not of crimes they have committed, but of crimes they will commit. It is asserted that these men, if allowed to remain free, will at some future time commit felonies.” —From “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick

In the science fiction short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick, mutant “precogs” are able to see one to two weeks into the future and their precognitive prophecies are decoded by a computer which then passes on the analyzed data to the Precrime police which pre-emptively arrests would-be perpetrators prior to them committing a crime. In the story-line, the idea of multiple futures is proposed, which explains why crimes can indeed be averted because the pre-emptive arrest leads to a shift in the time path towards an alternate future in which the crime does not place. But the story raises the fundamental question of how a man can be arrested and imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit if indeed the alternate future begins upon his arrest. This dilemma of pre-emptive arrest is one of the many questions pondered by the Austrian philosopher Armen Avanessian in his most recent book “Miamification“.

“Miamification” is basically a journal written during Avanessian’s two week stint as an artist-in-residence in the city of Miami in the fall of 2016, just weeks before the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Each chapter of the book represents one day of his stay in Miami, containing musings on so many topics that it feels more like a bricolage than a collection of traditional philosophical essays. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing filled with several digressions and side-notes, reflects not only the journal-like nature of the book but perhaps also our contemporary fragmented intellectual discourse of snappy phrases and soundbites that are so well-suited for social media conversations. The book cover of the German edition lists several of the topics Avanessian ruminates about: Trump, Big Data, Beach, Pre-emptive Personality, Make American Great Again, Immigration, Climate Change, Time Complex, Post-Capitalism, Post-Internet, Recursion, Déjà-vus, Algorithms – just to name a few.

Understandably, none of these topics are exhaustively discussed in this short book, and some readers may struggle with the Ideenüberflutung (idea flooding) that one encounters in each chapter. But each short chapter provides the reader with the lingering pleasure of having continuous food for thought and questions to ponder for weeks to come.

Even though the chapters are not thematically structured, common themes do appear throughout the book. “The Disappearance of the Subject” is one such theme that was recently discussed in a brilliant essay by Adrian Nathan West. Another central theme is that of temporal discordance.

“Miamification” begins with physical and biological manifestations of temporal discordance, one that many who have traveled across time zones can easily relate to. Avanessian experiences jet-lag after flying from Berlin to Miami but his jet lag is not limited to having difficulties sleeping or waking up early. When reading his emails, he feels that he is continuously lagging behind. The work day in Europe is nearly over while he is just getting started and people appear to be expecting responses in real-time. This temporal disconnect between expectations and reality may also undermine our ability to think through complex ideas. We need time to analyze and ponder concepts but the reality of being perpetually connected to the world by our smartphone exposes us to continuous emails and social media pings which prevent us from devoting the necessary time. Avanessian also observes other absurd examples of temporal discordance in Miami. Instead of enjoying a swim in the warm water, many tourists appear to be more obsessed with taking selfies of themselves standing in the water so that they may capture this moment for posterity – delaying gratification in order to subsequently enjoy the memory of a time when they decided to forgo gratification.

After watching the movie “Minority Report” (loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story) on his third day in Miami, Avanessian broadens his inquiry into our relationship with time. Even though contemporary police forces do not use mutant precogs to prophecy the future, we are surrounded by computational algorithms which aim to predict the future. Law enforcement agencies heavily rely on predictive algorithms to identify individuals who are at risk of committing terrorist acts in the near or distant future. Corporations such as Amazon prompt us with products that we could purchase based on algorithms that analyze our past purchases. At what point do these algorithms become self-fulfilling prophecies? Are individuals who are continuously monitored and questioned by law enforcement perhaps more likely to radicalize? At what point do online “suggestions” by algorithms become a subconscious mandate to buy consumables in order to remain true to our past self?

The temporal assault occurs at several fronts: Surveillance agencies and corporations use predictive algorithms about our future behavior to define and create present behavior. But these algorithms are rooted in past behaviors – thus limiting our ability to change. At the same time, we are being bombarded with clickbait, social media posts and sensationalist news – all appear to glorify and obsess about the present. Their rapidity does not allow us to analyze them in the context of the past or the future. Lastly, we are seeing the rise of reactionary forces in many countries of the world who conjure up bizarre images of a glorious past that we ought to be striving towards. Avanessian specifically mentions Donald Trump and his supporters in their Make American Great Again fervor as an example – weeks before the 2016 presidential election in the USA.

How do we best handle this dysfunctional relationship with the Past (reactionary and revisionist glorifying of the past), Present (barrage of mindless and meaningless information about the present) and the Future (predictive algorithms which predetermine our future instead of allowing us to define our own future)? Lead a poetic life. Avanessian uses the word poetic in the original Greek sense: Poiesis – to create and produce. Poiesis requires some degree of disconnecting ourselves from the algorithms which are dictating our behavior. Corporations prompting us to buy certain products as well as political extremists goad us into algorithmic behavior. For example, scandalous and sensationalist tweets with racist statements lead to an understandable backlash and visceral reactions by those who are opposed to racism. But this recursive cycle ends up undermining our ability to be creative and escape the algorithmic life.

Poiesis creates the unexpected and unpredictable and thus generates a reality that eludes predictive algorithms. Art, music, literature, philosophy, science provide poietic paths but the challenge for us is to integrate these poietic paths into our social, economic and political lives. Political poiesis may be especially important in our current time to counter the rise of the far right. One of the reasons for the success of the far right political movements is that they conjure up images of a glorious past as well as the supposed danger of a bleak future unless society returns to the status quo of the glorious past. But progressive movements now have the opportunity to offer a poietic vision of the future.

One such poietic success in the United States during the past decade has been the revolution in the perception of access to healthcare as a right. In most countries of the developed world, all members of society have enjoyed access to universal healthcare for several decades. Up until recently, Americans accepted the fact that they might face bankruptcy and denial of health insurance coverage if they were afflicted by a devastating disease such as cancer. Through the joint efforts of patients, healthcare professionals, community organizers, politicians and most importantly – citizens from all socioeconomic backgrounds – American society began to recognize access to healthcare even for those with pre-existing medical conditions as a human right. Townhall meetings, marches and door-to-door engagement, medical journal articles, new collaborations across communities and professions were all needed to bring about this change. The sheer scale of the efforts and the creativity of the proponents took right-wing opponents by surprise who had assumed that the American public would stick to its traditional distaste for anything that resembled a universal healthcare system that was so common in other industrialized countries. All subsequent efforts by right wing politicians to abolish the fundamental achievement of the universal healthcare movement to enshrine the right to obtain medical insurance despite pre-existing medical conditions have failed. The success of the movement could serve as an inspiration for all who struggle under the yoke of algorithmic and reactive behavior. Our willingness to dream and create can allow us to break the algorithmic mold.

Reference

Avanessian, A. (2017). Miamification. Merve Verlag.

This book is also available in an English translation published by Sternberg Press.

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