I have a piece in The New Inquiry, entitled 'The Data Sublime', exploring the strange everyday appeal of technologies of surveillance and control. My tentative hypothesis is that there is something psychoanalytic going on here, involving the desire to be dominated by incomprehensible data analytics, which liberal assumptions about 'trade-offs' (between freedom and security, or autonomy and convenience etc) completely overlook. Here's a chunk:
The notorious Facebook experiment on “emotional contagion” was understandably controversial. But would it be implausible to suggest that people were also enchanted by it? Was there not also a mystical seduction at work, precisely because it suggested some higher power, invisible to the naked eye? We assume, rationally, that the presence of such a power is dangerous. But it is no contradiction to suggest that it might also be comforting or mesmerizing. To feel part of some grand technocratic plan, even one that is never made public, has the allure of immersing the self in a collective, in a manner that had seemed to have been left on the political scrapheap of the 20th century.
Contrary to the liberal assumptions of rational-choice theory, the place of digital media in our society seems less about enhancing freedom than helping us — in the words of the Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm — escape freedom. Fromm worried that individuals would flee liberalism for authoritarianism. The warm feeling I received from being driven through the dark as a child would have looked to Fromm like a primary ingredient of possible fascism, should a leader manage to rekindle that same emotion in me. Today, however, it is less charismatic autocrats that threaten to evoke this feeling than a web of largely incomprehensible technological infrastructure.
Common to both the charismatic leader and smart technology is their ability to evoke what Immanuel Kant described as the “sublime,” which, he argued, arises as a result of human cognition being utterly overwhelmed by an aesthetic experience. First we cower in terror, but then we quickly realize that everything is still okay. The discovery that the individual can survive, in spite of being overpowered, brings intense pleasure.