Tamsin Shaw on “The New Military-Industrial Complex of Big Data Psy-Ops”

Reading Shaw’s article in the New York Review of Books I reach a point where the question seems to be begged. This is not the same as raising questions.

Shaw raises questions around the ethics of dual-use research: research that has a potential military application as well as an application in civil society. She cites Martin Seligman’s research into “learned helplessness”, electrocuting dogs into a state of obliviousness to repeated shocks, and the psychological theories of depression and resilience that came from it. She cites the positive psychology movement Seligman founded and its research into love–and resilience, and other positive personality traits. She cites the turn funding took, under Seligman’s initiative, after 11 September 2001, to diversity research as a counter to the tendency to contract and magnify diverse viewpoints into the single worldview of extremism. She cites the boost given this strain of research, ostensibly concerned with human well-being, by the datasets available from social media–the Big Data enabled by machine surveillance.

Shaw also cites the net benefit of research with a potential for and with real high human cost–hence net in cost-benefit terms, that undertaken into tumours and the effects on the human body of radioactivity in military weapons, with its payoff in cancer treatments. The same sort of net benefit can be seen from research into diseases caused by military-grade bio-agents, in the manufacture of weaponised viruses, which she cites.

Citing these reversals and their reversals, from resilience under psychological torture, to resilience as a personal survival technique, from biological weapons to techniques of resisting infectious disease, from love technique, to love technique, and back, Shaw shows there is an assumption at work about the capacity of humans for rational thought: “a great deal of contemporary behavioral science aims to exploit our irrationalities rather than overcome them.” The dual-use research concerned with technologies of behavioural modification, persuasion, influence or nudging, assumes a constituency available to be so directed, controlled, even to their benefit, and manipulated. It assumes, for our erstwhile democracies, a nonrational constituency–the community of those who do not know better; the community of those who do not know at all.

The question-begging comes down to this notion of the individual rational agent, the responsible voter, as a presumption of the democratic setup and as being presupposed by the positive ethical field of political democracy. (It need not be pointed out that economics, as the science, pseudoscience, developed under the auspices of such as the Chicago School, support the assumption of nonrational choice, but is that economics then anti-democratic?)