In August 2020, a video went viral on social media claiming it to be of the ‘King of Bahrain’ and his robot. A man wearing a thwab (robe) was referred to as the king and the 8 feet robot following him as his bodyguard. The post also mentioned the features of the robot, who supposedly spoke six languages, was armed with an electric teaser, three hidden machine guns which had enough ammunition to fight 1,050 men and was equipped with a laser guided sniper machine gun. The cost of the robot was mentioned as $7.4 million.
The video was shared, liked and retweeted more than a million times through social media platforms. Appreciation as well as apprehension came up regarding the post from the ‘clicktivists’. (Clicktivism is activism based on liking, commenting and sharing stories on social media, presumably for a cause).
There were people who expressed their desire to avail the technology for their personal use. There were also a large number of people who critically analyzed the post, visualizing the dystopia of technology. The post was later checked by various fact-checking platforms. It turned out to be of a robot show held in Dubai in 2019.
What we must contemplate is the mechanism which propagates information, images and videos which appear to be real. There is a disappearance of the principle of reality because of the increase of artificial images and information by news, media and the entertainment industry. It becomes impossible to draw a distinction between what is real and what is not!
The concern revolving around the robot, which has astronomical technological capacity of warfare, as a means to provide security to an individual, is not what we are seeking. What we must contemplate is the mechanism which propagates information, images and videos which appear to be real in a specific context. There is a disappearance of the principle of reality because of the increase of artificial images and information by news, media and the entertainment industry. It becomes impossible to draw a distinction between what is real and what is not!
There is an attempt to control and capture human behavior, consciousness, the human body and being, through social media platforms. The use of digital algorithms by the market and the State, and the manner in which the process facilitates surveillance and the manufacture of docile bodies at an individual level, has facilitated the entire process.
Technology and Control: The juncture of history in which we presently live in is dominated by the digital forces. Scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff, a professor in the Harvard Business School, call it ‘surveillance capitalism’ in the new era of capitalism. A phenomenon which tends to exploit human nature as a product of the market forces by analyzing their behaviour. Other notice the phenomenon of ‘algorithmic governmentality’, whereby the individual body and mind are being controlled and governed in order to ‘totalize power’ over the populace.
From hacking elections to hacking individuals, the digital media equipped with ‘Big Data’ and artificial intelligence has become an apparatus to ponder upon. There is an attempt through social media to mine and store data about individual behavior and bodily features, whereby the quantity of data collected becomes a quality for algorithms generated through artificial intelligence. This processed data is then run through profit-generating models. The profit generating motive of the whole system demands the individual’s ‘subjectification to the system’. This is done by stimulating a certain desired consciousness at a psychic level in individuals which results in the control of human behavior as per the demands of the market.
The digital media, when it came into existence, appeared as an avenue which would democratise the society. It had the possibility to create a domain where information and knowledge would be available to everyone on neutral grounds. Information as a resource was considered to be immortal, as it does not get used up when consumed. It can be easily copied and reproduced. On the contrary, in reality, the entire process was incorporated into business models which used the digital time spent by the users as a product in itself and used it as a means to fulfill various kinds of ends.
The State has started to use the means of algorithms for policing or ‘algorithmic policing’. The process is to identify and locate the ones who it believes to be beyond the domain of ‘normality’ the State has created. Rectification and tracing of ideological deviants, the ones who dissent, or those who might dissent, is done by this process.
Videos, photos and information such as the case of ‘King of Bahrain’ is flooded into social media forums which receive viewership in millions. The mushrooming of viewership is a subject of the algorithmic clone of each user, created by artificial intelligence. While constructing the clone multiplicities in which the individual exists, from preferred colour, food, gender and music, to geographical movement and location, everything is mapped.
The process replicates the multitude of an individual in the virtual space and then feeds in the calculated information which artificial intelligence predicts. Thus, the human being becomes a mere puppet in the hands of the master who controls the technology.
State and Technology: The tryst between forms of State power and technology has existed ever since social structures have existed. The phenomenon has strengthened in the past century, be it World War 1 and II, or the era of the Cold War and beyond. The State in contemporary times uses this phenomenon to its optimal levels. It tends to manufacture consent and legitimacy in the minds of the people. It also solidifies the ideological position by passing the person’s digital preferences through information which suits the current ideological position of the individual.
Thus, there is a scheme to manufacture consent without letting the subjects know.
The State has also started to use the means of algorithms for policing or ‘algorithmic policing’. The process is to identify and locate the ones who it believes to be beyond the domain of ‘normality’ the State has created. Rectification and tracing of ideological deviants, the ones who dissent, or the ones who might dissent, is done by this process. A recent example of the phenomenon comes from the North East Delhi riots case. The State is reportedly inspecting 40 gigabytes of data secured from student activist Umar Khalid’s digital time. Thus, the use of the technological apparatus created by the market is being used to discipline and punish and to legitimise the Police State even further.
The data which society assumes to be authentic has, at various occasions, failed. The Indian Express published a story on June 26, 2020, titled ‘Wrongfully accused by algorithm, US man’s arrest technological bias’. The story talks about Robert Julian-Borchak Williams who was arrested from his lawn as a culprit of shoplifting during the recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in America. He was picked up because he is a black man with a heavy built, similar to the blurry picture captured by the surveillance camera. The facial recognition algorithm detected it was him. Julian was later released as he produced an alibi.
The case of Julian is not the only one. There are numerous examples where the algorithms fail to capture humans, since humans exist not as a finite element, rather in a multitude of flux which has uncertainties and multiplicities. The State policing and the political use of these algorithms do pose a serious problem. A widely seen Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ too presents various issues of what scholars call ‘Big Data Capitalism’ or ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. The recent row in India regarding Facebook and allegations of propagating hate speech and bigotry is another example.
In the chapter ‘Panopticism’, in Michel Foucault’s book ‘Discipline and Punish’, Foucault talks about how in a pandemic, State surveillance and the attempt to discipline the populace increases, giving the example of 17th century plague in Europe. During the pandemic we have witness the strengthening of surveillance apparatuses too. In India, the situation is apparently no different.
There is a lot of discontent regarding data protection coming out of mobile apps such as Arogya Setu which allegedly intrudes into private spaces. We also see a rise in digital time used by the population which enhances the probabilities of surveillance and control.
The control of technology in the 20th and 21st century consolidated the exploitative forces, and has curtailed civil rights and liberties of the people. One key debate in the 21st century is the right to privacy; that it has been infringed by the State and the market by the use of digital surveillance and control.
There is an urgent need to check the control and misuse of the mined data through more stringent data protection laws, which could bring it to the control of the ‘commons’. Or else, the society of the future may end up in various kinds of dystopias turning real. Indeed, there is a clear possibility that through total control on an individual basis, a state of ‘technological totalitarianism’ can be established.