“… knowledge itself disintegrates into the information generated by fully automated calculation, and into fixed capital, which, along with ‘big data’, forms the hyper-synchronized associated milieu – or what I call the digital Leviathan” –Bernard Stiegler1
Computation and automation are relentlessly reshaping the political world order on a planetary scale, eroding national and personal sovereignties and spawning new forms of governance. Along with the climate crisis, their exponential rise – one of the greatest issues of our time – demands a fundamental shift in our understanding of the political realm. Unlike climate change, sovereignties are social constructs, whether national or personal, whether a question of geopolitics or self-determination, and should be negotiated.
It is upon us if this process will ultimately lead to societies controlled by algorithms that utterly influence our individual decisions. It is a topical question whether, and how, we define our personal and national sovereignties in a post-surveillance information society. How shall we delegate decision-making to partly or entirely automated, statistically-driven software capable of machine learning, while keeping an acceptable degree of self-determination intact?
What is the role of art practices in this ontological shift, a shift that doesn’t emerge independently, but has to be catalyzed?
Machinic Leviathan was conceived as an assembly of people and artworks dealing with political systems and experiments that attempt to rewrite systems of sovereignty by devices grounded in alternative technologies. Each one – whether in reference to Blockchain, cybersocialism, or the algorithmic generation of national symbols – understands the digital technology of our time not as a tool, but as a significant and autonomous factor in the organisation of society.
Leviathan, the 1651 work by Thomas Hobbes, envisions the State as a giant that towers over the landscape, its body composed of humans, the members of society, whose rights are transferred to the sovereign, its head. If we continue to conceive of the state as a beast today, then the infrastructure of computation, too, must form part of its body, resulting in what can only be thought of as a cyborg of today’s political theory.
The Leviathan was recently brought back into the spotlight by the reaction of governments to the pandemic, and propelled various reactions, all agreeing on the topicality of (re)negotiating a social contract with the reference to the theoretical groundwork provided already in the 17th Century: “We have just been reminded of the starker Hobbesian trade-offs with state power during the lockdowns.”2
By some, the situation the COVID-19 pandemic brought is seen as revealing, and provides an occasion to scrutinize and compare democracies with other political systems: “Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.”3
The pandemic accelerates processes of digitisation, and, as Yuk Hui describes, the “subsumption by the data economy”.4 It might even reveal itself in a certain sense as a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next”5, but it seems to bring various setbacks with itself when it is an excuse for arbitrary legislation, while the public attention is focused on an illness, and while other deficits and pre-lockdown matters withdraw to latency.
Just as beast and sovereign6 (Hobbes’s Leviathan is both) are above the law, so too are today’s rapidly advancing digital systems, in cases where policy has yet to catch up with technology. The new opportunities for statistical analysis afforded by big data, network externality, self-produced online traces, user profiling, micro-targeting, and real-time supercomputing leave the average citizen with little hope of directly and imminently grasping the ‘social reality’.
At this point, it seems clear that the establishment of technological sovereignty is the very basis for maintaining democracy as we know or imagine it. People who use technology are increasingly defined as users, and ultimately, as the product itself, contributing monetisable data and even labor to the profit of tech companies.
Though not a new idea, the option of making self-determined choices that impact and shape both individual technologies, and the social and economic processes in which they are embedded, is still more wish than reality.
Revealing artistic projects can raise awareness, contributing to very much needed ontological shifts towards the intertwined relation of technology and power, i.e. via looking at our present from an imaginary future, or to reinterpret past procedures of decision-making.
The latter approach was chosen by Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan for the piece The Democracy Device. This full-sized, digitally printed model of the ancient Greek jury allotment device known as the kleroterion, is an artefact produced using computational methods. Ironically, computational methods also lie at the root of the very conversation the object embodies: the role of computation in the rise – or decline – of democracy.
In antiquity, the kleroterion was used for the purposes of jury selection, helping a community avoid bias by rendering choices perfectly random. Modern computing devices, by comparison, are utterly different in the way they function, their essence being one of programmability. What the two have in common, rather, is their application to political decision-making, whether by nullifying personal interest or, in the case of modern computing, manipulating users’ opinions by collecting their data, often without consent, and/or targeting them with persuasive content.
To date, archeology has discovered only incomplete specimens of the kleroterion: a circumstance that could be seen as symbolic of the erosion of democracy itself. If democracy today is undergoing the same process, the cause is not a mechanical device, but the ways in which contemporary information technologies have come to be used and abused.
Besides the analysis of today’s democratic decision-making processes, and perhaps the assumption that technology has always had an influence on them, history can be made backwards as well. The artist collective Elli Kuruş in their series of video lectures History of Political Operating Systems 304 – Revision Materials, encompassed in an installation including a coffee machine, look back on our present from a speculative future perspective. Today’s fiscal systems and nation states are depicted as a short, gloomy episode from the past, as products of a barely comprehensible period of dysfunctionality and manifold systemic deficits, in comparison with a global digital society, where the state is the ultimate service provider of the digital realm. The lecturer’s exaggerated tenor to convey his message objectively emphasizes even more the absurdities of societal and political techno-fixes and techno-utopian dreams.
We don’t necessarily need to travel into imaginary futures to encounter the quest to algorithmically enhance administration, as it is not without antecedents: various attempts having already been made to produce machines that could automate governance under the egis of cybernetics. Both Cybersyn in Chile, and the Soviet attempt to set up a National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing (OGAS), serve as examples of computation-aided decision making, neither of which was ever fully realised.
In After Scarcity Bahar Noorizadeh investigates Soviet Cyberneticians from the 1950s, when cybernetics was labeled as imperialistic pseudo-science, to the 1980s, when all its attempts and research goals came to nothing. As the artist formulates: “If history at its best is a blueprint for science-fiction, revisiting contingent histories of economic technology might enable an access to the future. Vindicating this other internet, the lecture presents the economic application of socialist cybernetic experiments as extraordinary to financial arrangements and imaginations of our time.”7
The approximation to cybernetics could be understood as a historical groundwork for a specific type of knowledge production, and could be framed in a platform for sharing knowledge to foster critical thinking and sovereign decision making. Situation Room, a project by Pablo de Soto originally conceived with Hackitecktura, and its first iteration was a temporary hacklab. Inspired by the notion of “really useful knowledge”8, Situation Room gathers, visualizes, maps, and evaluates data and information: it is a temporary structure of shared knowledge, that accumulates thematically curated digital commons for citizens, who wish to engage with its content.
The impact of technological sovereignty is not limited to citizens, however, and, at present, neither the material infrastructure of computation, including that employed in the accumulation of data, nor the natural resources needed to sustain it seems to interfere with the integrity of nation states. However, the eventuality of the computational ecosystem’s having a significant impact on the power relations between states looms ever on the horizon.
Machinic Leviathan was conceived for the OFF-Biennale Budapest, due to have opened on the 24th of April 2020, and is now postponed until 2021.
Cover image: Poster motif of the planned exhibition Machinic Leviathan by Márk Fridvalszki.
1 Bernard Stiegler, The Neganthropocene, Ed, translated, with an introduction by Daniel Ross, London: Open Humanities Press, 2018. 210.
2 Christian Oliver, Of Leviathan and lockdowns: Thomas Hobbes is emerging as the philosopher of the pandemic, but was he really advocating a superstate? 04.30.20, In:
3 David Runciman, Coronavirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power, 03.27.20, in: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/27/coronavirus-politics-lockdown-hobbes
4 Yuk Hui, One Hundred Years of Crisis, in: e‑flux Journal #108 – April 2020
5 Arundhati Roy, ‚The pandemic is a portal‘, in: Financial Times, 04.03.2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
6 Based on Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Volumes I–II, ed. Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).
7 Bahar Noorizadeh on her sci-fi essay, After Scarcity.
8 “The notion of “really useful knowledge” emerged at the beginning of the 19th century alongside the workers’ awareness of the need for self-education.”- from the curatorial concept of the exhibition Un saber realmente útil / Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW (What, How and for Whom) at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Madrid.