1 Alienated intelligence: The private interests of the “World Brain”


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 (For users experiencing issues, please feel free to comment on the version posted on Google Docs. A brief overview of the project is here.) 

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In less than half a century, the number of digitally-networked users went from zero to more than a billion. Along with this expansion came numerous developments that dramatically expanded the activities users could undertake individually or collaboratively through these technologies. Scholars and media commentators lauded the way these networks were transforming social, economic, cultural, and intellectual practices at a global scale. By 2006, ordinary networked individuals had the power, in theory at least, to communicate or collaborate with almost a quarter of the world’s population. The infrastructure for a democratic, global intelligence had arrived and the world seemed to be making use of the opportunity.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Cyberneticist Francis Heylighen observes that much of the enthusiastic discussion pertaining to a networked world is informed by the idea of a “global brain,” or a “metaphor for (the) emerging, collectively intelligent network that is formed by the people of this planet together with the computers, knowledge bases, and communication links that connect them” (274). Though not all discourse about networks refers directly to this metaphor, it usefully conveys the broadly-accepted idea that networked digital technology is advancing a collaborative, democratic, and freely-shared form of global intelligence. In 2006, two books were published that lucidly articulated many of these hopes: legal scholar Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and media scholar Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. In these two different texts, Benkler and Jenkins highlight how unlike one-way media forms of the past, networked digital technologies expand knowledge production to everyday individuals by enabling them to easily distribute, analyze, access, share, remix, track, and comment upon information-based goods. They argue that these new communicative affordances advance democratic freedom, make culture more participatory, and improve human well being. These general theories persist today, and are still being newly adopted by evolving industries and institutions alike. They are supplemented by more recent enthusiasms born over the emergence of artificial intelligence systems that have been largely developed and deployed via the networked technologies they describe. In 2016, media commentator Kevin Kelly published The Inevitable, which waxes utopian about what he argues is the inevitable emergence of a globally-distributed artificial intelligence. This ubiquitous hybrid intelligence, he assures us, will reduce the need for human labor, provide solutions for problems beyond the reach of human cognition, and improve all areas of human life. Though his ideas may seem far-fetched, it is worth noting that artificial intelligence is already instrumentalized broadly, and represents a 1.25 billion dollar industry.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Altogether, these accounts paint a rosy picture of our developing infant world brain. They are important, too, for articulating positive, and perhaps even historically-new activities enabled by networked digital technologies. However, they do not pay sufficient attention to the economic model that supports the development and availability of the media that enables the social practices they praise. In particular, they ignore the way in which the monetization of “dataveillance,” or the continuous monitoring of user activity for capitalist purposes, acts as one of the core supports of networked digital activity. Though this economic model does not directly interfere with the practices they describe, it raise a number of questions that challenge or complicate their enthusiastic claims.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This chapter will explore how this model of dataveillance potentially “alienates” the “world brain,”—or the intelligence generated by user activity—from the users themselves in that it is instrumentalized for the private interest of corporations rather than the user or the public. To contextualize the accounts of networked digital technologies, I will begin with a brief overview of historical notions that can be seen as related to our concept of the “world brain” before examining the theories offered by Benkler, Jenkins, and Kelly.  I will then offer an overview of dataveillance and demonstrate its pervasiveness in the trends and activities these writers describe. With a new appreciation of the implications of dataveillance, I will conclude with a re-evaluation of their claims and argue that a new framework needs to be developed that can help us analyze networked digital activity in light of its current alienating qualities.

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