The great mystery of our present behaviorist-digital moment, with all of its attendent surveillance, constraints and cultural impoverishments, is the question of why we not only submit to it, but actively embrace it. Given that Western societies continue to conceive of themselves as 'liberal', in the sense of being founded on some sense of contract between free individuals and a coercive state (regardless of how plausible this characterisation is), the rush to a future of 'smart' objects and 'predictive' software would appear to contradict core tenets of who we consider ourselves to be.
I'm currently reading Cass Sunstein's Choosing Not to Choose. This is an important text in this context, not because it answers the question I've just posed, but because it demonstrates the various acts of theoretical chicanery and sociological self-delusion that are necessary to keep the idea of liberalism alive, in a society that is gleefully abandoning Enlightenment notions of subjective agency. Like Weimar liberals or contemporary neoliberals, Sunstein shields himself from his historical circumstances by clinging all the harder to that which must be true (in his case, the notion that choice is the a priori). I'll be publishing a review in due course.
I can think of two or three routes we should explore, when seeking to understand why we might embrace a post-liberal, always-on, high surveillance future.
The first is, as I explored in this New Inquiry essay, that relinquishing subjective agency or consumer sovereignty is experienced as a profound existential relief. There is comfort to be found in giving oneself over to analytical powers that one cannot comprehend, almost like a form of post-socialist melancholia. To be a citizen of the 'smart city' is to be integrated into a form of collective intelligence, where the individual no longer has to think or decide. The outsourcing of individual choice allows us to immerse ourselves back into society, and to abandon the burdensome requirement to take constant decisions.
The second related answer is that behaviorism reinstates quasi-bureaucratic norms, that we wrongly believe we have out-grown. The ideology of 'flexibility', 'creativity' and 'entrepreneurship' celebrates heroic, self-authored individuals, who act outside of any normative paradigm. Behaviorism, with the help of apps and nudges, allows us to maintain this collective self-delusion, while also ensuring that we retain some semblance of sanity (by constraining arbitrary freedom) and that society remains faintly governable.
If we were to drop the Schumpeterian-Nietzschean fantasy, of a society of constant self-transformation (a fantasy that really oughtn't to survive a short visit to any shopping mall or office, but somehow manages to), then we wouldn't need nudges and apps to provide us with - whisper it - rules for how to behave in practice. Instead, we might be able to debate normativity in a more honest and public fashion. That, however, seems impossible, hence the need for clandestine methodologies, interventions and half-remembered neuroscientific facts.
I have a third hypothesis, that I've been musing on a lot recently, partly inspired by reading Josh Cohen's The Private Life. This is that smart technologies and social media promise us what we most crave: a psychological mirror.
A whole essay, maybe even a book, could be written about the simple question with which facebook succeeds in conducting social research on several hundred million people, without so much as an incentive: "what's on your mind?" I wonder how much thought goes into that question, consideration of alternatives, whether it remains the right one, and why. After all, leaving algorithms aside, that's the question on which facebook's entire business depends. Get that question wrong, and nothing else quite works.
"What's in your mind?". "How are you?". "What's on your brain?". "What are you thinking?" (woh there, Descartes!). "What are you feeling?" (that's a bit more like it). "What's happening" (twitter's lawyers might have things to say about that). "What's going on?" (Marvin Gaye's lawyers might have things to say about that). And so on. But no: it has to be "what's on your mind".
The much-discussed rise of wearable technology, combined with 'quantified self' apps and habits, is clearly predicated on the idea that there is a 'truth' about oneself, and that self-surveillance is the way to discover it. One such product, Realifex, takes this to an almost romantic extent, where an app promises to reveal truths about oneself that nobody else could ever know, nor need ever know (problems of 'private language games' would arise, were it not for the fact that, of course, the data is not entirely private to the individual, but crunched by a company).
Cohen argues in The Private Life that, contrary to popular (and even some Foucauldian) conceptions of it, psychoanalysis is not a project of knowledge or of revelation of some inner truth. It is rather a process through which we learn to live with our own mysteries, frustrations and unknowable depths. In an age of crass empiricism, where everything must be 'mined', Cohen argues that some things will always remain 'in the dark'. Honesty would mean recognising this.
I guess we now live in a largely post-psychoanalytic age, where the inner reaches of the self are deemed knowable through fMRI or self-quantification. We no longer search for truth or explanations from therapy, but by donating more and more data to social media platforms, wearable technologies and smart objects. The Faustian pact appears to be this: if you are willing to give away liberal autonomy, in return you will be told the truth about yourself. The more freedom we relinquish, the more facts we will receive about our bodies, minds and behavior.
Leaving aside the severe epistemological problems in all of this, it poses a question that interested Nietzsche and Foucault (and, in a different way, Cohen): what is it you really want, when you say you are looking for self-knowledge or psychological truth? Are you paranoid that, as per the narrator in Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, you might fundamentally be something of a loser? And why would you want to 'know' that exactly? Psychoanalysis has one major advantage over neuroscience or behavioral interventions, in being able to reflect on why it is even worth doing in the first place, and the types of misunderstandings and follies that might have led people towards it.
I don't suggest that quantified-selfers or enthusiasts for smart technology do not reflect on what they are doing. Clearly they are not simply hamsters in a cage. But their narratives tend simply to reinforce the practice, to the effect that "I realise that I'm not drinking enough water, and that that effects my sleep, which is why I have this app which... etc" or "I was wondering if my commute was effecting my moods, and so I decided to find out.. etc" or, at best, "I know that I'm quite a lazy person, so I decided to download this app which... etc". The source of the will-to-know or will-to-change is not even noticed, let alone questioned.
The epistemological flaws in positivism have been explored endlessly. What I think need studying right now are its psychoanalytic seductions and disappointments, and the way in which purveyors of 'smart' technologies and data analytics carefully nurture this promise of self-disclosure. For the good of the industries behind these tools, every disappointment will be framed as a reason to mine even more data, to monitor even more behavior, as if the 'truth' of the self is only ever one more app away (just like neoliberal nirvana always needs just a bit more competition to be realised). But if this endlessly delayed gratification eventually runs out of steam, then a far more interesting question could come to the fore: who wants to know?