Technocreep by Thomas P. Keenan

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Imagine: You leave your house for work and the light sensor over your door records the time and snaps a picture. You hop into your car and before it will start a quick substance-abuse check is performed as you hold the steering wheel. Once you’re allowed to drive, your car’s “black box” records your speed and braking habits, and sends a graph to police analysts and your insurance company. Your car and Android pass on your GPS coordinates to some unknown Authority and to Google, who turns around and sells the information to target marketers. At a traffic light your licence plate is recorded, along with a thermal image showing how many passengers are in the car. In addition, an unseen drone overhead zooms in your face and reads its mood and ‘tone’ and matches it up against that day’s ‘known threat types’ in a disposition matrix. Still sitting at the light, you look left to see a teen in the next car wearing Google Glasses and recording your face; indeed, a few moments later, Instagram notifies you that your expression has been entered in a daily polling contest and already has 5 up-thumbs. Your car radio senses your rising anxiety and begins playing some easy listening tunes to calm you. Dread of work begins to envelop you—having to face the eye scanner to enter the building and the finger-print scanner to log on to your PC, and where you’ll be careful of how you answer emails, extra conscious of how you speak on phones, afraid to use the coffee machine, because it counts your cups and sends stats off to a work productivity study with unknown ramifications. And the coworker in the cubicle opposite you keeps flashing you a proud new prosthetic vagina that was extruded from a 3D printer at home. You decide to call in a sickie and turn the car around. Sensors and alarms go off. Your car questions your move. An app pops up on your Android and scans your features. You make it home, the light sensor recording your return, alone. You go into the kitchen and the fridge immediately calls out that ‘milk is low’ and your open laptop has a pop-up list of items needing replenishing that your fridge has passed on. You piss and the toilet tells you how many blue flushes are left. You take to bed and curl up in the foetal position, your blanket warming to an ‘optimal soothe’. Your bedroom lights read your distress and come on and a floating voice asks you over and over if you are okay, while simultaneously passing the moments on to your insurer, which immediately alerts a counsellor, whose voice in the room now says you need to spend more and sends you a scrip for Valium and a set of discount coupons that you hear arrive in your Inbox with a mystical ding

Once upon a time this vision qualified as dystopic and its message cautionary. But as Thomas P. Keenan makes clear in Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy, we have entered a new Kuhnian paradigm that doesn’t necessarily include a future for the human species—at least as we know it. As Keenan puts it, the digitalization of humanity is now as unstoppable as climate change. Its impact can be reduced with certain uncomfortable adjustments, but the lag in any collective action will make it utterly reactionary and useless.

Keenan lays out the evidence calmly, methodically and without polemics: he lets the evidence speak for itself. This is not to say the book is devoid of humour—far from it! But his wit, like his politics, takes a back seat to the civil and civic-minded purpose of his endeavor. In 15 separate but related areas of human activity, Keenan provides examples of the way technology is bleeding over into the very essence of human life. He makes a convincing case that humans’ capitulation to the Machine has been, like the switch of data transmission from analog to digital, welcome, blind and unstoppable. And we have been hurtling along ever faster since.

Thomas Keenan is himself a lifelong technologist, with roots in the birth of modern computing in the 1950s, so his understanding of the current landscape carries the weight of developmental insights. He expresses his thesis more as a set of observations than as a theoretical proposition. He begins by stating his purpose:

So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us.

Far from warning the reader about the imminent doom, a la Orson Welles’ infamous Martian Invasion radio broadcast, Keenan assumes an intelligent readership and presents his case in a provocative but personal manner. “This book,” he writes, “is about the unseen ways in which technology is already changing our lives.”

Then we come to technology and what is ‘creepy’ about it. The term ‘creepy’ is popularly associated with dark sexual auras that play on one’s fears, but Keenan has a more nuanced take, likening it to what Freud describes as “The “Uncanny.” In his essay by the same name, Freud describes “a quality of feeling” and “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” a world of ‘doubles’ shadows and the occult, or what Julia Kristeva calls the magical realm of the ‘semiotic’ that precedes object-relations and the ‘symbolic’; the realm of the infantile. The ‘creepy’ seems to activate the ‘uncanny’ presence of that archaic realm of doubles, of objects brought to life by the mechanisms of desire.

Thomas P. Keenan

Thomas P. Keenan

What follows in Keenan’s book is a grand parade of creepiness: Intelligence Creep, in which ‘the line between machine and human thinking is blurring’ and we are confronted with the unsettling experience of an object exhibiting realistic human behaviour; Camera Creep—whether thermal imaging that can ‘see’ through buildings and surveillance systems to thwart terrorism is being co-opted by commercial interests; Image Creep, whereby ‘your face is becoming a key that unlocks a vast amount of personal information about you’; Sensor Creep, with its Internet of Things that conspire to anticipate (your) needs and desires; Tracking Creep, with its ubiquitous RFID chips and real time bidding by corporates for ‘access to your eyeballs’; Sensation Creep, with its Pavlovian popcorn piped in to make you desire; Bio Creep, with its DNA profiling and databasing; Body Creep, with its fingerprint scanners and promise of coming-soon ‘software-based humans’; Time Creep, such as the time-lining of one’s everyday existence so that every moment is accounted for; Government Creep, not only with mass surveillance but with the manipulation of collected data for political purposes; Deception Creep, wherein language is drained of meaning and ‘you never really know who or what to believe anymore’; Physible Creep, as with 3D printers which imply that ‘now, within reason, anything can be anything else; Child Creep, where overexposure to the Internet is destroying the privacy of childhood; Pet Creep, where cosmetic testicles help repair the damage done a pet’s spayed ego; and, Robot Creep, whether allowing kids to hack the nervous systems of ants or robotic sex workers replacing human prostitutes.

What is most cause for concern in the area of Intelligence Creep, where quantum and neural network technologies abound, is that despite still requiring human sequential input the “apparent paradox is that many computer programs have already surpassed the comprehension of any one human mind.” It should be clear that such paradoxes represent a real danger, once you get past the euphoria of Geek bliss and narcissism. For such programs are capable of locking us out of key systems we put them in charge of overseeing.

With Image Creep it is as if the predatory male gaze, which has offended and objectified people for millennia, has suddenly run amok—as if, in Freudian terms, the ego had been universally subsumed by the super-ego, leaving no middle ground between the id’s chaos and the super-ego’s authority. It begins with Google Glass, says Keenan, with everyone recording everyone else and all of it stored, tracked and analyzed by forces inimical to freedom and privacy. So advanced is facial recognition software that, when combined with a technology like Google Glass, one can expect “that you will soon be able to point smartphones at someone and learn quite a bit about them in real time.” This likelihood has already spawned a counter-industry in ‘facial weaponization’. One company, Realtime Glamofage, “helps people create masks with weirdly-morphed versions of their actual face, hoping to bedevil the recognition software.” Do we want to live in a world where every day is Halloween and our identities are the treat to be fought over by corporate predators hungry for a taste of your face?

Perhaps the most disturbing Creeps, however, are in Keenan’s Bio and Body categories, where final physical and psychical barriers are breached, and the synthesis of operator stimulant on operant flesh is most fully realized. The celebratory hoo-ha that resulted from the astonishing work of the Genome Project, with its definitive and triumphant production of DNA sequencing knowledge, is also the stuff of totalitarian wet dreams, a yearning eugenicist’s Siegfried moment. This DNA capture begins at birth in a hospital, when samples of blood are drawn from the newborn, put on filter paper and stored. Keenan puts it in all its inglorious perspective: “In fact, newborn screening may actually be the Holy Grail that many governments have been lusting for – a national database of all its citizens.” The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may be the proverbial tip of a melting iceberg.

Another study under way by technologists delves into the nature of human memories and how they can be manipulated by external stimuli. Keenan cites Steve Ramirez, a researcher from the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics, who says, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviourally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” That is, it’s possible to make a sensible, rational person suddenly terrified of the Bogey Man. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively working on truly invasive “narrative network” technologies that can essentially hijack a brain, the way remote assistance controllers can now take over the functions of a pre-wired automobile, planting false memories and performing other tricks of the mind.

In perhaps the single most warped example of coming creepiness, Keenan cites contemporary French philosopher Rebecca Roche, who sees a time when, say, a prisoner’s mind can be uploaded to a computer and their mental cycle manipulated. By such means, she notes with only a touch of French jocularity, one could take the mind of a killer sentenced to 1,000 years and provide the equivalent experience of imprisonment in something like eight hours. As Roche puts it, “the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation.” Keenan adds, rather less dryly, “So that vicious serial killer or hardened terrorist could be home in time for supper.” And he doesn’t say it, but presumably a way will be found to reconstitute the victim’s body, their memories downloaded from the cloud.

This, of course, leads to other philosophical considerations. If such memory manipulation, along with the synthetic reconstitution of the body (or a trade-in for a better model), is probable in the middle future, then it raises questions of immortality, and a kind of time travel. But if time travel happens in the future, wouldn’t it already be happening now, our descendants revisiting old stomping grounds, and, if so, what then constitutes the real?

Given the enormous stakes of all this technocreeping, one might expect considerable popular resistance to the current war on privacy. For, whatever else it may be, the War on Terror, with its unleashed global surveillance apparatus, most certainly is, in effect, a war on subjectivity and the private, whereby the government watches all and feeds their corporate sponsors, who turn around and manipulate the desires of the universal gaze. “Aside from the occasional blinking light,” Keenan says of the surveillance apparatus, “they tell us nothing. We tell them everything.” And yet, aside from the usual roundup of leftwing complainers, there seems to be a resounding celebration of the Internet of Things, with its ubiquitous sensors and data recordings, designed to tell us what we need; we don’t seem to mind apps that allow a nosy neighbour to point an iPhone at someone’s home and see what the occupants are doing; most will blithely accept being sprayed with GPS nano chips the way they now shrug at being sprayed with insecticide by flight attendants as they enter highly-restrictive countries, such as Australia. A lot of the acceptance has to do with how the invasiveness is packaged, of course. As Keenan points out, a sensor that casually allows you to monitor your neighbor “would have been greeted much differently if they had called it the ‘Anne Frank Finder.’” Perhaps, but then again, this is the age of irony.

Keenan, a deeply experienced technologist who has worked for both government and private interests, reckons that the deterioration of resistance to digitalization and the consequent dehumanization of personhood, which is summed up in the actions of the computer conquistadors, have been steady and irresistible since the 1950s. Keenan is not the only observer of this trend, of course. French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul’s seminal work, The Technological Society (1954), described how the tools and techniques of technology have gone from being an important means to an end (i.e., the betterment of the human condition through the gradual development of civilization) to becoming an end in themselves, and in the process the dialectical activity which has defined humanity and given it breadth and reason has been subsumed into technological activity, from which there is no escape. The system is the solution, Marshall McLuhan once said (a meme Bell Telephone was quick to co-opt and use in its ads of the mid-70s), and the system no longer requires politics, or the staggering inefficiencies of democratic choice.

Perhaps the weakest part of Keenan’s Technocreep comes when he sets up some cursory counterarguments to his thesis. He ventriloquises the optimist dummy who notes only, in so many words, ‘but technology will save and enhance humanity—by curing cancer, replacing body parts, lengthening our lives, keeping us safe and entertained!’ Perhaps Keenan felt that any reader who had gone through his book and reached this late stage of his study and still maintained a blind optimism was probably too delusional to worry with further reasoning. Likewise, he poses the commonly heard pop tart’s lisp, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ And rather than get into a debate about tossing the Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of privacy, to the wind, he merely reminds his lispeners that today’s model citizens could easily be tomorrow’s national security threats.

Keenan closes his book by offering up a chapter meant to lift the spirits, presumably, with a series of steps that techno-citizens can take to reduce their vulnerability to the System: various ways to ward off trackers, digital predators, government snoops, neighbourly eavesdropping, and the whole carnivalesque rompin’ stompin’ of the machine matrix of processed desire. Some of his advice includes living your digital life in a sandbox, using encryption to store data and communicate, and living with multiple identities. But such precautions, such necessary fortressing and deceiving, serve to accentuate the notion that real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality. Keenan’s remedies hardly inspire confidence. After all, these solutions suggest a fait accompli whereby democracy is finished and future survival depends on how one adjusts to the Machine’s requirements. Perhaps it is as philosopher Donald Verene posits in his essay, “Technological Desire,” (Verene, 1984):

Things in history, like human lives themselves, come to ends. The question is not the reform of technological society; it is the question whether human meaning is possible in its world… The technological society reduces the human spirit to desire, just as an individual life can be reduced to one of its dimensions.

Though one might be inclined to draw a similar conclusion after reading Keenan’s work, the book is clearly written with activists in mind. Indeed, it concludes with an exhaustive reference section that allows the reader to re-trace the author’s steps and access primary materials to study. In that sense, at least, it ends on an upbeat note.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance writer, currently residing in Australia. After a few years as a technical trainer in operating systems and computer networking, he returned to his first love: Literature. He is focusing on fiction, poetry and essays, and trying to finish a novella. His non-fiction work has been published in the US, Australia and the Czech Republic. More from this author →