In this episode I speak with a prolific writer, William Kherbek. We get into his new book Twenty Terrifying Tales from our Technofeudal Tomorrow in which he steers his theory of technofeudalism over a harrowing, hilarious joyride of new terrain.
Set about fifty years in the future, with titles like Contestant Classes, Designer Neurons and CryptoProphet1, these are of course stories of today. We dig into one of my favorites, Data Self-Partnered and touch on topics like the metatheory of cults, platform business epiphenomena and new cold war Sinophobia.
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Above Twenty Terrifying Tales from our Technofeudal Tomorrow design by Jack Clarke and published from Arcadia Missa London
Bio Habib William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016), New Adventures (left gallery, 2020) and the forthcoming Best Practices (Moist Books 2021). His video-poem playlist/collection/reading retrodiction (2016) was released by left gallery, other poetry collections include Everyday Luxuries (Arcadia Missa, 2018), and 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2018). Twenty Terrifying Tales from Our Technofeudal Tomorrow, a short story collection, will be released by Arcadia Missa in 2021, and an art book, Still Dancing will be released by TLTR Press. Kherbek’s essay “Technofeudalism and the Tragedy of the Commons” (2016) appeared in the first issu of Doggerland’s journal, and he has contributed essays to the “Intersubjectivity” series from Sternberg Press. His writing has appeared in the award-winning Block Magazine, Tank Magazine, Rhizome.org, Berlin Art Link, MAP, Flash Art, Spike Magazine, Sleek Samizdat, AQNB, and a number of other publications.
Keywords data, cult, shadow, platform, story, date, adverts, companies, life, credit, holo, capitalism, marriage, feeling, AI, people
Transcript Not Your Narrative Ep. 3 Data Self-Partnered, one of Twenty Terrifying Tales from our Technofeudal Tomorrow with the author William Kherbek
LP We live in a society where things like hookup, networking and gig apps define a big part of our lives. Devices, need, desire, dopamine. Swipe up. Swipe right. Like. Some call us Generation Generate. And data, is often described as the new oil.
MEDIA CLIP “Human experience as free source of raw material” “Data is like oil for them” “It first became the default economic model in the tech sector. But now we see it moving through the normal economy” “It's their basic resource, they thrive off it” “Big tech companies have been in the spotlight over their far reaching powers” “More data” “Insurance, education, healthcare” “More data” “Retail, real estate, even right back into manufacturing and basic services” “Big data” “Rich predictive signals in our behaviour”
LP Throughout the pandemic, life has been all the more online. And being online, it exerts a force on us in different ways. Pulling us in certain directions. Introducing us to new entities. And it's all being shaped by the feedback loops incentivized by the companies behind the dominant platforms. And fed, by us. In this episode, I speak with William Kherbek, a curious man with a tortured eye and a tortured mind. He's a writer of nonfiction, theory, polemic and art journalism. And he's got a new book at the printers, set to release later this summer. It's called Twenty Terrifying Tales from our Technofeudal Tomorrow. It's a collection of short stories set about 50 years into the future, a time when radical marketization has created a technofeudal world.
GUEST SPEAKER What's technofeudalism?
WK NARRATED BY LP Technofeudalism is perhaps best thought of as something like a set of symptoms, rather than a specific, uniformly defined entity.
MEDIA CLIP An Amazon warehouse worker, or a driver for Uber - these are not well-paying jobs.
WK NARRATED BY LP It draws on the historical power dynamics of feudalism for reference, but it incorporates capitalism. The primary engine of this value creation is the enclosure and commodification of data.
MEDIA CLIP “How they do advertising, how they collect data, how they use the data.” “Data is their business”
WK NARRATED BY LP Data that is enclosed by private entities can then be monetized and essentially infinitely exchanged.
MEDIA CLIP “Now this means that in order to get more and more data they have to constantly be expanding their extraction capacity.”
WK NARRATED BY LP Once data is enclosed the preconditions for technofeudalism are essentially in place.
MEDIA CLIP “But what are the stakes here?”
LP Our emotions. Our identities. Our connections.
LP Good morning.
WK Hello? One two. Can you hear me?
LP Did you ever see the film Her? The Spike...
WK Yeah, Spike Jonze. Yeah, I never saw it. I just knew it was gonna be stupid.
MEDIA CLIP “You have a meeting in five minutes. You want to try getting out of bed? You're too funny.”
WK Actually not too funny.
LP You know the premise of it?
WK Yeah a guy like falls in love with an AI and then like some incel scientists create a sex doll out of her so that he can fuck it. Basically.
LP No, no, no, no, that doesn't happen.
WK That's the... that is it. Like I remember seeing a scene where he's about to put his dick in the hard drive...
LP No, no, no. That's another movie.
WK So what's the actual... because you've actually seen it.
LP He's like recently broken up from his partner he was married to and feeling quite lonely. And you know, going to work but then coming home. And it's work and home and work and home. And he's a very sensitive guy who's just feeling quite lonely.
WK Yeah, 'sensitive incel'
LP I like that.
WK Hey you know, that's my tinder bio.
LP Come again?
WK I said that's that's my Tinder bio. Just kidding No, it's not true. So this Sincel...
LP I'm gonna verify that.
WK It's not true. It's false. My data self might have that but not me.
LP The Data Self - we'll pick up on that again later. So Will and I, we finish watching the trailer.
LP There you go.
WK Just looks horrible, basically.
LP Okay, but like, in contrast to... This, it, doesn't seem so dystopian.
WK I mean, like, what could be more dystopian, right? Like, you know, this guy like literally, is essentially, enslaved by this machine to feed it endless amounts of information so that it can psychically and emotionally manipulate him to some end or other. Some optimization that obviously he eventually acquiesced. I mean, the film should be titled like, 'He Loved Big Brother' that's pretty much what it is.
LP You know, he's really feeling quite good. He's in there feeling more connected than he has to anything in a long time.
WK But like people in cults feel good, right? Like you know if you're in some cult and being you know, listened to and you're given some place and people are like, forming genuine bonds with you or whatever but like it's all in the service of the cult that you're in. Like the whole...
LP What's wrong with cults?
WK You know, I'll refer you to some other podcasts.
WK QAnon Anonymous hosted by Travis View, Julian Feeld, and Jake Rockatansky and Liv, Liv Agar. That'll, that should sort you out.
LP QAnon’s not the only cult.
WK No, but it's the one that has the best podcast about it.
LP I mean, personally, I find cults fascinating. Not necessarily that I want to -I don't- wish to join one, be a part of one, but the dynamics of getting people in and holding people, turning them further in and against the outside world. I... it's still fascinating.
WK I mean, I think yeah, there's, obviously this lurid attraction to them. And, you know, True Crime shows are very popular, you know, deals with stuff that obviously a film like Her is also clearly at some level dealing with this. You know, this notion of becoming dependent on some something that's exploiting you.
LP On that note:
MEDIA CLIP Don't you want devoted followers? Who leave their families for you, give their money to you, give their bodies to you. Give up their lives for you. Consider you God, and will kill for you. “I love you”
LP "I love you"
WK Don't you want to become a cult leader? Since the death of God, there's been a vacancy opened. You could fill that void. Here's how to structure your cult like an onion, with the most benign and helpful features on the outside and the most controlling kooky and evil parts at the secret inner.
LP "the secret inner"
Don't give them time to think. Diminish doubt and commiseration by separating your new recruits from each other. Surround them with happy true believers. So when in doubt, they will tend to do what everyone around them is doing and believe that is normal. Start with a prolonged period of love bombing.
LP "love bombing"
MEDIA CLIP Surround them with unconditional love and attention. Your cult family should act friendly and interested, get information and hone their weak spots. "Tell us about yourself, take this personality test" and then use this information to manipulate them.
LP This is where it gets really interesting.
MEDIA CLIP Gradually over time, you'll begin to shape the recruits behaviour by granting or withholding this love and attention. After they've bonded slowly start making demands
LP Okay, so I think this is a great video. But on the other hand, I'm also thinking, like pretty much every kind of social interaction can become a cult on this level of assessment.
WK I don't know about that. I mean, like, you know, obviously, every human relation has power written into it. But whoever made this video is obviously very aware of the meta theory of how you do these things. I mean, you know, cults try to gather - I mean, this is how data collection works, you know, or how the platform economy works. You gather as much data as you can about someone or something and then you can manipulate them using that. And obviously, there's an emotional dimension to this stuff, personal relationships. But there there will be I think, a more advanced version. I mean, there already is in terms of advertising and stuff. But it will also be an increasing feature of the platform economy. I mean, the social credit system in China is kind of one version of that, but it's not the only one.
LP So what else is there outside of China, because it's like every time when I'm looking up stuff on the internet for surveillance capitalism and maybe even platform capital to a certain sense, but I think it was more surveillance capitalism. It's interesting that, aside from one academic, Zuboff at Harvard, all the videos coming up are essentially about China's credit system. As if this is the only version of surveillance or even platform capitalism, we take it a little further.
WK I mean, I don't even know that I would characterise it as platform capitalism in quite the same way. It's like platform statism in that regard. Right now, a lot of this is like around credit ratings, like, yeah, there's a lot of stuff on smart cities, too. I mean, these are the places where that stuff will take place. But it's it just hasn't reached a level of maturity in North America and Europe in the way that it has in China and other countries that are more centralised. I mean, that's not the main reason, the main reason is new Cold War, Sinophobia. The reason you see all these stories about it. But the credit system is real and the repression that it could licence is quite pernicious, but it's in a state dynamic rather than in a corporate dynamic, which is its primary difference from the way the platform economy functions in the West.
LP Yeah, you've got this story in your new book called Data Self-Partnered, starts on page 55. And conceptually, it really pushes ideas around the increasing interest in our data selves. So like the premise, how the story starts, it introduces the idea of data shadows. And these shadows of our data, essentially the information about us that our online presence brings into existence, they can take on, or they do take on, a life or persona of their own. So in the story, there's a woman who goes to court, she wants to make a case for the rights to marry her data shadow. And even though the case doesn't go through, she doesn't get to follow through with her wish here. What does end up happening is sparking a frenzy on the app dating scene to be able to meet and hook up with your data shadow. I'm curious what what got you to write this story.
WK So a few years ago, in London, there's a company, an insurance company. If you went around London bus stops, there'd be these adverts. So the same actor is playing two parts in this advert. One guy's sort of like, dunking a biscuit in a cup of tea, and the other guy's like doing his taxes or something. And the next section, it's like, "this is Dan and this is Dan's Data Self" And it was like "meet your Data Self"... essentially credit ratings type situation where you could find out about who you look like to companies and lenders and insurers through this process.
MEDIA CLIP “I'm Dan, and I'm his Data Self. We are inseparable. He's a physical manifestation of my financial history. He's made up of things like my transactions, my phone contract, my credit score, stuff like that. He's what companies see when they're deciding whether to offer me credit. And if I need a loan or a credit card, he'll show me what I can get. To us. He even helped us move into a bigger place. Get to know your data self with Experian.”
WK There you have it. So a couple of months before this, I'd listened to a talk by a researcher called Dr. Bev Skeggs at LSE, where she worked on these visualisations of how much data tracking that Facebook does of individuals. And it's ubiquitous. Facebook has its own data gathering mechanisms with, for, facebook itself on its own platform, but it has other means of finding data on other sites about you. Like even if you log out of facebook, facebook has ways of finding out what what websites you're visiting, what information you're putting in to the internet, or, you know, whatever, your emails. Like Facebook has means of external data gathering outside of its own platform in a way that at that point, not many other platforms, companies, really had. And they're still leaders in that sense, that they're really good at gathering that data and of course, selling it on. But the idea is like, you know, if you take that notion of robust data gathering that's out there, it creates this other self, that is the Data Self the insurance adverts were about. And then add a certain veneer of the moment - in the presence of Carl Jung in a lot of the discourse. The idea of the shadow and a lot of his thinking is kind of an appealing joke to throw into it. You know, the data is the shadow. It's a Jungian shadow. But of course, it's just data gathered by corporations. So how that would play out. I think every couple of months, you'll see an article; somebody describes themselves as self-partnered, basically making a commitment to themselves as if a marriage commitment or something like that. Celebrity stories or some random academic does it, and I was just like, you know, what if all these things sort of came together in a kind of much more raw, reified kind of way. It seemed like the logical extension.
LP Data Self-Partnered:
WK NARRATED BY LP "Our shadows were present in jokes, mostly. Our fears rendered inert by our awareness of our own fear. That these beings were more real than we were, that they knew things about us that we didn't. Humour was more of a shield than a sword, a way to convince ourselves that there was no risk, not really, of the shadows creating problems for us. They were distant family members to be recalled on certain occasions, but never sought out casually. They were an abstraction. They were immaterial. They could even be fun. There would be stories on April Fool's Day for example, everybody would laugh: a data clone was chosen as the director of some minor firm, a data clone sports league was being created by an eccentric trillionaire living on an island in an Exception Zone. The first story like this I remembered reading turned out to be true. It was about a woman who had gone to court in the St. Lawrence Firmzone to be allowed to marry her data shadow. It sounded like one of those old privacy campaign stunts we'd heard about from the early years of the century. Some activists would find some absurdity in the laws and push it to what they thought was a humorous extreme, counting on the good sense of society to prevail, but as the courts changed after the Fall of the States, they couldn't assume a benign social gaze would greet these kinds of highjinks. The humour of suing your younger self for libel, or similar, drained away. The story about the data marriage had a lot of interesting strands. The woman who did it was an adjunct professor at a prestigious Uni near Toronto. She had apparently found her data through brokers or through lawsuits or something, and what she found suggested that the person that the web thought she was was much wealthier and more successful than who she actually was. So she worked with some people from her University's computer science lab to create a holo-bot to embody and perform her shadow so that she could converse directly with it. The lab had her recovered data to work with and she gave them some specifics for the kind of personality she wanted her shadow to have. The Shadow could advise her, she told the idea press, to make better life decisions."
LP Much better than she herself does, right? And this is whole premise for her wanting to have legal vows with her data self. That she believes she'll be able to make better decisions about her life. At least then if she married a physical person.
WK Yeah, definitely, definitely some irony there. As usual.
LP Uh-huh. And you go on to write
WK NARRATED BY LP "Announcing her plan on social media got her lots of writing gigs, far more than she'd had before writing about her obscure subajacent academic interest, something to do with language processing, or phonology maybe. A publisher offered her a book deal, her first. I wonder if her data shadow advised her to do the whole thing now that I think back on it."
WK One can, one can speculate. I mean, you know, the idea of distributed computer consciousness was another big theme in the book. You know, what is an AI really? And how far do we trust or believe in them?
LP And it's an interesting point, the whole reason that her lawsuit gets decided against, it's on the grounds that this marriage could not be proven to not be coerced.
WK Yeah, I mean, I guess what that kind of is about is I think people attribute a lot of agency now to like smart this, smart that, devices. But you know, we really don't know what machines know, because we don't know how they know. I mean, I'm kind of more towards the John Searle end of the debate about AI. Rather sceptical about it. But if you were to take a more sort of accepting view of the idea that machine intelligence could exist or would be the same thing as human intelligence, even so the ability to know it would be very difficult. And this smartass judge in the story seems to get that.
LP Quite ironic that indeed the entire structure that he's speaking from and being a proponent of, or at least a key component of is arguably quite coerced.
WK Yeah, fancy that.
LP So you go on to write
WK NARRATED BY LP "Clearly it was a decision aimed at trying to stop people doing financial deals with holo-bots and shadows, but the headlines and think pieces were all about the marriage side of it."
LP Sensationalism, but also new, new terminology here for our technofeudal future. What's a holo-bot?
WK These would be like cut out entities like shell corporations and things like that that would have a personalised appearance or manifestation. Maybe like a holographic spokesperson for a product. A holographic CEO possibly for a company that wants to save money on having a CEO so that they would appoint an AI being there, and then the they wouldn't have to pay the AI, but they would get all the benefits of the CEO. I mean, there are all sorts of ways of interpreting those concepts. But basically, those are business epiphenomena of the technofeudal realm.
LP Alright I'm gonna read on here
WK NARRATED BY LP "The woman lodged an appeal of some kind, but over time I stopped paying attention to the case, but the idea clearly caught on. One day coming back from the office, I noticed in the box park on Berkeley Square that there's now a shop that can arrange dates with other people's digital shadows. Marriage wasn't allowed, of course, but no one could stop these simul-dates.”
LP So what's a simul-date?
WK You know, you're dating a simulacrum. It's meant to have like three possible puns going on there. The date is a simulacrum. So it's kind of a Baudrillardian thing. It's a simulated date, obviously, there's a certain amount of simulation going on on almost any date, as well. And there's just the sense of the being is not real either. And so like, it's those kind of the social, the extratextual and the intertextual meanings of simulation. But, you know, basically, it would be a simulated date with a simulated being in a simulacrum. And of course, it's the meta interpretation about dates in general, in real life.
LP So I read on
WK NARRATED BY LP "Think pieces really started flowing about the topic once other companies got into the act. Pretty soon, there were more shadow dating apps than real ones. 'Data self care' became an expression you'd see on various posts."
LP 'Data self care'
WK Yeah, I mean, you know, obviously, you have to look after your data self. It's, you know, it's probably the more real you.
LP I love this idea. 'Data self care'. Could you imagine what a toolkit or any sort of manifesto for 'data self care' might look like?
WK That's an interesting proposition. I mean, I guess I kind of when I originally wrote it, I thought of it is like, basically, it would be something masquerading as kind of like, almost like, a spa mentality. But it would all be about financial health and stuff like that. Like it would basically would audit your finances and would audit your like spending and stuff and redirect it in such a way that you felt like you were looking after yourself or experiencing some form of personalised attention and care but was in fact, really what you were doing was just improving your credit position. Again, there might be an analogue there somewhere.
LP Absolutely. Yeah. And you go on, this is going to be the last bit or read from this, it's a column that is written, on this. And I quote:
WK NARRATED BY LP "...And who's to say it's any less real than normal dating? In fact, data dating services might be quite a bit more honest than the old fashioned way. Ladies, how many times haven't you found the 'Pro-Self' you meet on a date is quite different creature to the bloke you come back to three months later, when he's speccing in his pants on the sofa and listening to IceTrap at all hours? Sure it might take some getting used to, you're not going to be holding hands with Data DreamBoat while you walk to the village market on the weekend, but look on the bright side; sure., today, you may be stuck at home working while the partner of your dreams is falling for Data You, and that might seem a little bit unfair, but the more interest your data self gets, the more likely advertisers - and, crucially, employers - are to notice. You might be getting a leg up without leaving your sofa. And, the more popular Data You becomes, the more confident you should feel. Take a chance, swipe right to swipe up the social ladder. You might just find someone maybe even the person dating your shadow!"
WK Not even convinced that's not a real article now. Terrifyingly, terrifyingly proximal - some of this stuff.
LP Who wouldn't take that kind of advice?
WK Seriously, right, like you know, this is big sister telling you.
LP There's so many concepts in here. I'd just love to like hit you with some of them and you tell me what this is.
WK I can try. One second while I get a drink of water.
LP 'Love gig'. What's a 'love gig'?
WK That's basically a paid sexual encounter.
LP A paid sexual encounter.
WK Mmmhmm yeah.
LP What's a 'sexgram'?
WK Um, you know, like as a sex-orientated post, that would be probably the kind of... I mean, I didn't, actually I'll be honest, I didn't know exactly what... I mean I know kind of what these things mean. But a sexgram is probably, basically, something between a sex-orientated Snapchat and Instagram post, in some new hybrid platform they're all working from.
LP This podcast is produced and hosted by me, Liv Phoinix. Tune in for the next episode where Will and I continue to touch on Twenty Terrifying Tales. We'll be talking distributed computer consciousness and identity politics. For links and credits from this episode, check out the show notes on www.livphoinix.com that's (spelled out) LIVPHOINIX.com
additional voicing Ayoto Ataraxia of Asian Provocation
music Rememberance by Purple Dive, Downloaded Truth by Marten Moses, Fifty Seven Elements by Marten Moses, Luck of the Draw by Marten Moses, Focal Point by Bruce Brus, Project Blue Book by Craft Case, Subconscious Waves by Bruce Brus, and Wasted Education by Blue Topaz
postscript William Kherbek would like to take the opportunity to apologize to Spike Jonze for conflating his film Her with Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina. Apparently there were several films about men wanting to have relationships, sexual or otherwise, with their computers. William is happy to accept that Ex Machina is the more incel of the two films.
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