Imaginary Playmates

One reason I’m not as opposed to social media as some is that I recognize within Twitter, Instagram and such the venerable humanist tradition of keeping diaries and journals, of exchanging correspondence.

(On this point see the opening chapter of Peter Sloterdijk’s Regeln für den Menschenpark.)

Before, to be sure, diaries were kept private, even secret, often under lock and key. Yet rare the diarist who did not have an inside reader, an interlocutor akin to a child’s imaginary playmate who could eavesdrop on these reflective acts of autobiographical self-constitution.

Now anyone can.

Pascal’s Conditional, Subjunctive Wager

Since the age of sixteen, I have entertained discussions with a friend it would not be wrong to call a theologian. For most of our adult lives, we were out of touch, though he was always in my thoughts, the way everything and everyone have always been in our thoughts when we come to think of them again.

Last year, we renewed contact and, naturally, re-engaged with our debate.

One of his thrusts or parries led me to reflect on other stages of my life in which I had not only concourse but friendship and even intercourse with religious persons, learning to speak the terminology of theology and doctrine with them in order to communicate.

His question turned around Pascal’s wager that each and every human bets that God exists, or not. Given that such might be the case and taking into consideration the infinite gain or loss associated with belief, unbelief or disbelief in said God (an eternity in either heaven or hell), per Pascal any rational person ought to live as if God exists and seek to believe in Him. If God did not actually exist, such a losing gambler would suffer not infinite but mere finite loss, measurable because imaginable, pleasures more likely than not sensual, and measured in the end against an infinity in hell.

Though admiring Pascal’s logic, which contributed to probability theory, I was never happy with his assumption that we could “pretend as if we believe” and God wouldn’t know or care about how false any virtue we thereby attained might be. This attitude betrays my Protestant orientation, since I presume that a relationship with God or even with a god would be not only personal but sincere, without mediation.

Ironically, the most telling description I ever heard of this “knowingness” of God was not from a Christian, rather a Muslim, the Imam of one of the first mosques in North America, Al Rashid, founded in Edmonton in the 1930s. In 1986, I ceremoniously converted to Islam in order to marry Nasrin legally in the eyes of the Iranian government — a legal procedure which facilitated her life and lent her a margin of safety in the early years of the Iranian Revolution, when she had to travel back for family reasons. The Sunni Lebanese Imam who married us and who filled out the documents she submitted to the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa was doubtlessly aware that my conversion was factitious. At one point in our discussions about Islam he assured me that it was not important to him if I were sincere in my conversion, since that was a matter between myself and Allah. Allah would know, when the time came to know, what I really thought.

The notion of a panoptic deity is a terrifying one, even more disturbing than that of a panoptic state, of which one extreme model is the eighteenth century prison which Jeremy Bentham imagined and about which Michel Foucault later wrote. Foucault was the consummate Parisian intellectual, hence bore within the crypto-Protestant strain of Catholic Jansenism which remains strong among that national elite — one reason French Communism sank such deep roots. In his later thought, Foucault shifted towards a more orthodox Catholic perspective, arguing that confession to a human authority was the ultimate instrument of power and also of truth about one’s self, not collective observation of our acts. In other words, truth is institutional, not located in one’s own independent thoughts about oneself, or about God.

This passing, peripheral reflexion on privacy and confession is, I would argue, still relevent in this age of social media, selfies, and mass collection of that upstart deity, data.

Never Turn Yourself In

One doesn’t have to be an avid reader of Michel Foucault to see that our willing participation in social media is a new and invidious form of confession, which he understood as the most intimate instrument of institutional power and control. As we delineate and expose our wishes, wants and needs, our likes and dislikes, we willingly provide the information necessary for our own manipulation and subjugation. We make our selves into subjects, unless we learn instead to simulate, dissemble, bluff, fake, counterfeit, feign or sham. Never tell the truth. Never turn yourself in. That was, after all, the point of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Surplus Value of Data

Data and ownership of it has increasingly become not just the measure but the object and engine of economic and political power. Corporations and states which do not control it on their own are merely producing it for others. From one perspective, data resembles property, property being, as Proudhon put it, theft, theft from the Commons. From another “neo-Marxist” perspective, data is analogous to “work value”. Our activities are the source of every bit of human data out there, but the value obtained from our data activities is alienated from us in the same way the surplus value of labor is extracted from workers in the old industrial order of things. Concern for privacy, typically turning around a question of “bourgeois” individual rights, is only a sideshow compared to the transformation in social relations occurring before our eyes.