The possibility of a digital police state: Hegel, Fichte, Mejias, Couldry, Bauman and Sloterdijk

In a debate about Fichte’s conception of the police state, Hegel took issue with the logistical demands involved in such over-weaning control of a population. However as points out on pg 28 of Žižek’s Hegel In A Wired Brain, Fichte’s vision seems eerily prescient when we consider the possibilities for control inherent in digitalisation:

When Hegel mockingly remarks that, in Fichte’s state, “every citizen will keep at least another half dozen busy with supervision, and so on ad infinitum,” we cannot help but notice that this refutation of Fichte’s vision on empirical grounds no longer holds: with a complex digital network permanently registering our activities, the control envisaged by Fichte is today not only possible but largely already a fact. The digital registering of all our acts (plus of our health, our reading habits, our opinions and dispositions …) ultimately aims precisely at predicting our violations of the law and then acting preventively to make it impossible for us to do it.

This is something which Ulises Ali Mejias and Nick Couldry convey in their account of the horizon of digital social control. Their focus is on the possibility for economic extraction inherent in this, as they describe on pg 26. In this sense we could see social media as a weirdly banal application of this control over social feedback mechanisms, with the darker potentials only becoming visible in something like China’s social credit system.

Platforms create an interface without historical precedent: an interchange in which social life in its open-ended variety interfaces seamlessly with the forces of economic extraction. This seamlessness is not natural any more than data is naturally raw. It must be constructed through the painstaking removal of barriers to data flow within and between platforms; seamlessness is an achievement, in part, of software that enables platforms to produce “the social” for capital.

I find Žižek’s account of this debate really helpful because it historicises these ambitions, helping us see that was once an unfeasible conception has become feasible. I recall Bauman making a similar point in his keynote address at Re:publica in 2015 in a discussion about the staffing of the Stasi but I’m not sure if this discussion made it into one of his books.

There’s a parallel idea in Sloterdijk’s Infinite Mobilisation which was originally published in 1997 but has recently been translated into English. His concern is with how “modernity promises us a world in which things turn out as planned because people are able to accomplish what they want–and if not, they are able and willing to learn” (pg 1).  He sees the shift to post-modernity in terms of the bursting of this kinetic bubble, as our unintended consequences and endless limitations comes to seem ubiquitous. However has digital technology reawakened our belief in the ‘kinetic utopia’?

This project nature of the modern era stems from the grand assumption that we will soon be able to control the world to such an extent that nothing continues to develop unless we wisely choose to maintain it with our own actions. The modern project is thus established on the basis of a kinetic utopia–something that has never been explicitly articulated: the total movement of the world is to be the implementation of our plans for it. The movements of our day-to-day lives become progressively identical with the movement of the world itself; the process of the world as a whole increasingly resembles an expression of our lives–things occur as planned because that which occurs is increasingly an event of our making.”