Cloudy Logic

Cloudy Logic

by Robin James

“When personal identity is experienced and understood as a matter of forecasting, “the adage ‘be yourself’ assumes an ironical meaning,” Adorno claims. Such forecasting doesn’t predict the future; Adorno argues that it crafts the future in the image of “the established ways of life,” “the life of those whom it embraces.” The profiles are designed to produce the identity or frame of mind that they supposedly just describe.”
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“Whereas mass media tries to mass-produce standardized audiences, algorithmic media adapts to users—music-streaming services and Facebook’s Timeline algorithm “learn” what content optimizes individual users’ engagement and “tailor results according to user categorizations based on the observed web habits of ‘typical’ women and men,” Cheney-Lippold argues. Through this feedback loop of observation and adjustment, social media produce the identity categories—like “typical” men and women—it claims to merely observe.”
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“Forecasting itself cannot be an exact science, and it doesn’t even aspire to be. Its goal isn’t accuracy, per se, but the avoidance of noisy dissonances with real life that call the reliability of the underlying ideological framework into doubt. What makes forecasting pseudo-rational is its offer of a nominally objective, systematic account of the “delusions” (in Adorno’s words) necessary to live in a capitalist society. ”
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“Pseudo-rationality obscures the irrationality of social norms and makes what ought to feel outrageous seem completely down-to-earth. In its current big-data form, it rationalizes what Charles W. Mills, in The Racial Contract, calls the “cognitive dysfunctions” that make white-supremacist society fully functional.”
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“Though, as Adorno pointed out, a newspaper column could only “pretend” to tailor the content of each sign’s horoscope to users’ needs, wants, wishes, and demands, big data and social media overcome the limitations of mass media and allow forecasting to fully realize its capacity to tailor categories and output to observed user behavior. Scaled up in size and in processing power, big data could be the realization of what Adorno called “the potential danger represented by astrology as a mass phenomenon.””
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“Prioritizing data—irregular, unreliable data—over human reporting, means putting power in the hands of an algorithm.” As Adorno puts it, “The cult of God has been replaced by the cult of facts.” ”
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“The apparent objectivity of the stars or the data cloud intensifies forecasters’ existing biases, allowing them to be passed off as neutral and matter-of-fact. ”
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“Fitness-tracking systems thereby build dominant ideas of health, embodiment, ability, and activity into the hardware, the software, and the algorithms embedded within them.”
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“Forecasting repackages old-fashioned ideas as unprecedentedly objective knowledge, in part by sweeping inconsistencies under the rug of “individual responsibility.” To pass the social system off as an objective artifact determined by (quasi-)scientific processes, forecasting has to scapegoat “irresponsible” individuals for failing to live up to the terms of the forecast. Adorno writes that “the constant appeal of the column to find fault with oneself rather than with given conditions” is evidence of “the implicit but ubiquitous rule that one has to adjust oneself continuously to commands of the stars at a given time.” When forecasts end up being inaccurate, the fault lies not in the prediction methodology but the individual’s failure to adjust to the forecaster’s advice.”
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“[…], self-tracking apps are “a single-serving ‘solution’ to a much larger collective problem”—they encourage individuals to fix themselves rather than collectively address problematic social norms.”
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“Adorno explains how this can seem empowering but really isn’t: “The idea that the stars, if only one reads them correctly, offer some advice mitigates the very same fear of the inexorability of social processes the stargazer himself creates.” It reinforces the neoliberal myth of individual responsibility for social problems and misdirects our attention toward dumbed-down superficial solutions to complex social problems. For example, framing problems of political economy, class, and race as an “obesity epidemic” assumes both that obesity is a problem and that it is a problem that can be solved by modifying individual behavior (diet, exercise).”
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“Because, as Read notes, “the operative terms” in this theory of human life “are no longer rights and laws but interest, investment, and competition,” cost-benefit calculus updates old unfashionable beliefs in things like human rights with a supposedly much more objective and effective belief in the market.”
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“Adorno echoes political theorist Andrew Dilts’s claim in “‘Entrepreneur of the Self’ to ‘Care of the Self’,” that this cost-benefit calculus itself has a price—it “sacrifice[s] any possibility of being critical.” Cost-benefit calculus works because everything is reduced to the common denominator of “private interest,” so the big-picture factors that would call into question why some choices seem better than others are necessarily factored out of this equation.”
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“Like neoliberal economic theory, in which, as Read writes, “individualized, market-based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions,” “Astrological Forecasts,” Adorno writes, “implies that all problems due to objective circumstances … can be solved in terms of private individual behavior or by psychological insight, particularly into oneself, but also into others.”

And this is where big data comes in. […]”
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” “Becker insists that economic analysis does not require ‘actual rationality’ at all, but is perfectly consistent with a wide array of irrational behavior. All that matters is if firms, households, or individuals act (drawing directly from Milton Friedman) ‘as if’ they are rational. That is so long as they respond to ‘reality’ and adjust their (even irrational) behavior, it is ‘as if’ they had in fact made a rational calculation.” Rationality, from the neoliberal point of view, is simply another word for predictability.”
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“In this way, homo economicus is a microcosm of big data: Both embody the same pseudo-rationality, a type of calculation that brings even the most irrational choices, behaviors, and patterns “down to earth.” Just as Astrological Forecasts makes its readers in the image of its own pseudo-rationality, big data makes its prosumers in the image of its pseudo-rationality.”
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“Down-to-earthness is precisely the problem with forecasting: It only ever reproduces society and its most conventional norms, values, and practices. All that data up in the cloud opens no new vistas; it just repackages tired social, political, and economic institutions (white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy) in new, hip abodes on more seemingly solid ground. Could we use big data and social media to shoot for the stars, to produce knowledge and types of sociality that transport us from this unjust world to a better one? That’s hard to predict. ”

From The New Inquiry

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