As happens so often these days, it was a phrase that passed by quickly in the stream of messages, but somehow stuck in the mind. Most of the messages flow by leaving the lightest impression. Other fragments have sharp and jagged edges and they tend to get caught on the walls of thought. They stay there forming an irritant until you can get your hands on them and disentangle them from the mesh. This time, it was a short broadcast from Doc Searls that went like this:
“The time has come to choose your species. If you’re just what you own, you’re veal.”
These phrases linked to longer developments of the idea in the posts: “Let’s All Be Spotted Hawks” and “A Sense Of Bewronging.” In the spotted hawks post, Searls contrasts a video in which people are defined by what they own and the way Walt Whitman defined and talked about himself in his long poem “Song of Myself.” The key bits being Whitman’s expression of the infinite Kantian interior:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.”
I’m not defined by what I own, the inside of me is as big as all of the big, mysterious outdoors. The other post addressed the issue of who can process big data and why that matters when you’re the one emitting the data exhaust. What does it mean when you can no longer read your own tea leaves, but require the mediation services of fortune teller with access to real-time sense making algorithms that operate across multiple big data archives? How can we possibly make an unaided decision? Without computer-based augmentation, our puny human decision is bound to be suboptimal. When we take a close look at our desires, do we see a desire for a machine that knows our desires better than we do? Here’s Searls’s take:
“Sorry, but no. My Web is not their Web. I’m tired of being shown. I’m tired of “experiences” that are “delivered to me. I’m tired of bad guesswork—or any guesswork. I don’t want “scarily accurate” guesses about me and what I might want.
What I crave is independence, and better ways of engaging—ones that are mine and not just theirs. Ones that work across multiple services in consistent ways. Ones that let me change my data with all these services at once, if I want to.
I want liberation from the commercial Web’s two-decade old design flaws. I don’t care how much a company uses first person possessive pronouns on my behalf. They are not me, they do not know me, and I do not want them pretending to be me, or shoving their tentacles into my pockets, or what their robots think is my brain. Enough, already.”
It was the word “veal” that supplied the jagged edge to Searls’s message. In a sense, “veal” is the right answer to a slightly different but related question. If we start with “You are what you own” and move backwards in time, past Walt Whitman. We could end up with “You are what you consume” or as it was more commonly stated “You are what you eat.”
Inevitably, these days, this brought Timothy Morton into the conversation. Specifically his essay “Beautiful Soul Syndrome.” Big data and technology is being applied to a Romantic era conception of the consumer:
Now this mention of plate glass is not accidental, because plate glass is a physical byproduct of a quintessentially Romantic production, the production of the consumerist. No the consumer, but the consumerist, that is, someone who is aware that she or he is a consumer, someone for whom the object of consumption defines their identity, along the lines of that great Romantic phrase, invented once by the gourmand Brillat-Saverin and once again by Feurerbach, “You are what you eat.” Now this phrase implies that the subject is caught in a dialectic of desire with an object with which it is never fully identical, just as Wile E. Coyote never catches up with Roadrunner in the cartoon. If Wile E. Coyote ever did catch Roadrunner, he would eat Roadrunner, at which point Roadrunner would cease to be Roadrunner and would become Wile E. Coyote. There is in effect, then a radical ontological separation between subject and object. And yet and at the same time, consumerism implies a performative identity that can be collapsed into its object, so we can talk of vegetarians, hip hop fans, opium eaters, and so on.
The plate-glass shop window of the Romantic era is transformed in the contemporary commercial Web into the idea of three screens and a cloud. The shop window is now the small screen in your pocket and is called mobile e-commerce. Searls’s use of the word “Veal” implies that when we buy into the value of computerized personalization based on algorithmic interpretations of our data exhaust, we’re abandoning the expansive Whitman-esque view of the self and instead chowing down on the self as a calf constrained in the industrial process of producing veal. The word “veal” is meant to provoke a reaction of disgust. It ties a form of mechanized cruelty to a sanitary, abstracted computerized process.
Again, here’s Timothy Morton on consumerism:
Romantic consumerism can go one step higher than the Kantian aesthetic purposelessness of window-shopping, when it decided to refrain from consumerism as such. This is the attitude of the boycotter, who emerges as a type in the proto-feminism of the Bluestocking circle in the 1780s and 1790s, and which Percy and Mary Shelley, and many others, continued. The specific product boycotted was sugar, which was sentimentally described as the crystallized blood of slaves. By describing it thus, the boycotter turned the object of pleasure into an object of disgust. In order to have good taste you have to know how to feel appropriate disgust, how to turn your nose up at something. So the zero degree performance of taste would be spitting something disgusting out, or vomiting. So the height of good taste performativity is abstaining from sugar, and spice if your are one of the Shelleys, who held correctly that spice was a product of colonialism. (Their vegetarianism was thus not only anti-cruelty, but also anti-flavor.)
Oddly, there seems to be a direct correlation between the quest for sugar and spices to give flavor to our food and the quest to squeeze the flavorful bits and patterns out of the big data emitted by crowds of internet users. But instead of real spices, we have synthetic spices. It’s like the relationship between laughter and the laugh track added to television comedy. The algorithms that have been constituted as our selves try out all the possible permutations in advance and deliver a small selection set for us to consume. The jokes are provably funny, the laughter pre-laughed and all that’s left for us to do is click “ok.”
Morton might call this the automation of consumerism-ism:
In brief, Romantic consumerism is window-shopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincy are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincy figured out that you didn’t need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life.
Searls’s complaint about the “guess work” of these personalization systems points to the gap between a computer simulation of a consumer who wonders what it would be like to consume this item or that, and the person who wonders. And at the point where the personalizations become “scarily accurate”? we enter the uncanny valley. Who are we when an algorithm consistently makes choices that are more typical of what we might do than we do?
It comes down to whether one thinks that the gap between canned laughter and laughter can be closed, whether the uncanny valley can be crossed and that it’s the promised land that we’ll find on the other side. Or as we loop back to replay the tunes of the Romantics with cloud-based algorithms, will we find ourselves lodged within the thought experiments of Mary Shelley. Her novel “Frankenstein” gives us a different and disturbing glimpse of what may lie on the other side of the uncanny valley.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!–Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.