Invasion of the black boxes

They suck.

Hans-Georges Arp painted this image long before Big Data came to invade every human space, private and public.

Now amorphous entities like digital amoebae suck our minds and souls dry of predictive nutrients. Obscenely intimate, these ethereal blobs snuggle up to absorb and commodify the digital detritus of our progress through the age of surveillance capitalism.

If you look hard, you can discern the inputs and outputs, but the algorithmic machinations at the centre of this process are often compared to the famous “black box” of the behavioral psychologists — the notion that you can describe, even understand, behavior in terms of its inputs and outputs without knowing what’s happening in the mind that turns one into the other.

As artificial intelligence (AI) grows ever-more sophisticated, ever-more adept at mining ever-greater masses of data, merely human minds are left scratching our heads in its wake.

Basically, so long as the process coughs up profitable commodities in terms of predictive products, it matters naught how those predictive products have come to be. Right? 

‘Smart homes’ and ‘smart cities’ are fast becoming all the rage, all their surfaces and spaces soaking up data, where they aren’t feeding it back into their inhabitants, ever-better serving their material happiness and security needs, even as they shape these individuals and groups in ways that make their behavior ever-more predictable and thus more susceptible to effective management.




Look around the city to see all the ways these friendly digital guardians have snuggled into our habitations in the service of ever-more secure happiness.  Here’s a passage from the working draft of Resurrections, the third novel in the MAGIC CIRCLES series. The initial chapters are set in a city in a future not far removed from the world we inhabit now.

A housefly lands on K.T.’s arm and she snatches at it, catches it on the take-off and flings it hard against the deck. It twitches in the dust and then lies still. She looks closely to make sure. Yes, it’s a housefly. Swatting a fleye, on the other hand, would qualify as destruction of City property. Small potatoes, what with everything else she and her comrades have in mind.
You see more houseflies than storks in the City, though not that many more. To the east and the west, bristles of antique CCTV cams gawk every which way from atop relic utility poles. Those eyes are the most obvious ones. You rarely spot the gizmos you have to worry about. Most you never see. Especially the ones that creep inside you.


The City is encrusted with bright digital lichen and hi-tech fungi. Beneath the dome, the urban landscape is loosely patterned with schooling propagandads, two-way data flow pimped up with pure glitz for the sake of glitz. Clouds and currents pass like tones or moods this way and that across the babble, inviting cityzns to dip into one or another style quorum, to school with the like-minded.

The City wears its animated motley with festive exuberance. Why not? Nearly the entire cityznry lies under lockdown, transparent to official observation, wide open to COM’s arsenal of sneaky devices. The City pulses and purrs with satisfaction at the prospect of total control. It throbs and flashes, sparkles and writhes, all the while smoothly cycling Chinese and English versions of the hullabaloo. The greatest surveillance machine in history reflects upon itself in all its manifold machinations.

And K.T. surveils right back at it.

In The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff suggests that machine intelligence expresses its essential nature as “the ultimate tapeworm”:

… machine’s intelligence depends upon how much data it eats. In this important respect the new means of production differs fundamentally from the industrial model, in which there is a tension between quantity and quality. Machine intelligence is the synthesis of this tension, for it reaches its full potential for quality only as it approximates totality.

And, not far down the road, City Operations Management (COM) aims for total ‘contingency control’–an end to anything resembling surprise or adventure. All accident and error, any real novelty, becomes anathema. Not long after that, Mildread–MOM’s terrifying totalitarian personality alter–tries to lock the whole world down, first of all, and then bring the process of creative emergence to a close in this entire universe plus some number of adjacent worlds.  All in the interests of maxhappiness and absolute security, of course.

It’s all there, authoritatively recorded in MAGIC CIRCLES.