Reflexivity, contingency and platforms

I enjoyed this recent paper by David Beer on what he terms ‘the looping of the social‘. This is a useful way of framing the recursive character of social life in which the outcome of a process feeds into the unfolding of a subsequent process. There is nothing inherently technological about this process, in so far as that how we act in a given situation is always conditioned by the inherited outcomes of past situation. What makes digital technology significant is not the looping itself but multiplication and acceleration of this looping, such that we face “not a single or unified set of processes, but multiple feedback loops cross-pollinating – or cross-data-pollinating – and implicating other feedback loops”. As he puts it later in the essay, “the increase in the presence of data-informed analytics along with the layering of feedback has accelerated and heightened that recursivity, as well as producing new forms and opportunities for recursion to be implemented”.

The insertion of data infrastructures across the lifeworld means that the whole range of actions we engage in are likely to generate data which, through processes of data linkage and the mediation of algorithms, curl back upon our present situation and shape how we act and how systems act in relation to us. Beer presents a kaleidoscopic vision of ‘data coils’ curling back upon each other in an ever accelerating recursive process:

The presence of these feedback loops, in effect, adds extra steps into social life. A staggering of social processes occurs that goes far beyond the recursions that have long been part of social life. Where algorithms are present then actions are taken based upon, informed by or shaped by the presence of data from previous actions. In this sense, and with these extra steps informed by previous steps, the many and vast integrations of data, analytics and algorithms lead to a society defined by feedback loops and processes of recursivity. Circulation upon circulation. Loop upon loop. A multiplied repeating of algorithmic processes has built up over time.

The recursive society emerges when data gathering is so integrated that there is no point of origin – everything is already implicated by loop upon loop of data processing. Contemporary analytic processes are working with data that is at least partly a product of previous analytic steps. What we think of as ‘our data’ are really an amalgamation of previous data processes. Imagine extrapolating this outwards to include all data-led systems and all forms of algorithmic social ordering.

He draws the distinction between singular loops and overlapping coils. He doesn’t explore the point but one could suggest the former are amenable to reflexivity i.e. with the relevant knowledge and inclination to reflect I can recognise how a particular system I engage with creates outputs which feed back into future engagement with it. These conditions of (a) relevant knowledge (b) inclination to reflection can become objectives for collective action which seeks to expand the scope of technological reflexivity (our capacity to make purposive decisions about how we use technology) through initiatives which increase platform literacy (our understanding of how digital platforms shape the parameters of our action). My concern is that Beer frames this in a way which means ‘overlapping coils’ diffuse into a distributed system of power upon which we could never achieve any analytical purchase. The Foucauldian approach of his Data Gaze book feels very strong in this imagery, even if the use of Yuk Hui’s work takes him in a different direction:

The inclusion of contingency means that the established loop can potentially spiral in different directions depending on those contingent conditions. Here the presence of the loop is recursive in that it is looping but is not simply a fixed replication of earlier loops. The way that loops are impacted by contingent arrangements varies in form and context

Reflexivity is one of these contingencies. I argued some time ago, using Maruyama’s cybernetics, that you can understand reflexivity as a vector of deviance-amplification. The capacity of the subject to act otherwise is crucial here, in the sense of the contingency of re-action rather than an unbound subject freely choosing from an infinite range of possible responses. To think about reflexivity sociologically invites us to ask the question of what we can meaningfully say about the conditions under which certain kinds of reactions are more likely than others, suggesting there are differences of degree in how entangled particular people are in particular data coils at particular points in time. In this sense I think Beer poses a false dichotomy between the infinite loop of endless coils and an antiquated fixation on singularity which fails to grapple with the kaleidoscopic reality of a comprehensively datafied society. We can give up on the ‘search for beginnings’ without diffusing our relations with technology into an endless flow.

I take his point to be that the intensity of the recursivity which platformisation gives rise to signals a fundamental shift in the character of sociality, with the designation ‘recursive society’ indicating the epochal character of this transition. It forces us to recognise this character in how we account for social life ensuring this now crucial dimension isn’t missed. This is significant because of the implications it has for how we study the recursive society. As he puts it, “the problem of recursivity is perhaps the biggest issue now facing any attempt to grasp the structures, experiences and connections of the social world”.

The epistemological challenge here is clear, with the corporate opacity of digital platforms making it even harder to generate knowledge about recursive processes which operate simultaneously across multiple dimensions. The political challenge is even clearer, in the sense that exercising transformative agency in a strategic and durable way becomes far more difficult under these conditions, in the sense that means and ends are themselves inflected through recursion. The ontological challenge is less clear to me, in so far as that I’m not convinced recursion operating through data coils is fundamentally different from the historical character of any social action, even if the speed and diffusion of this process has changed immensely.

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