If there is a figure which stands out as the hero of our time, it is Christopher Wylie, a gay Canadian vegan who, at 24, came up with an idea that led to the founding of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum. Later, he became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign, creating Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool. Wylie’s plan was to break into Facebook, harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles, and then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup. At a certain point, Wylie was genuinely freaked out: “It’s insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”[i]
What makes this story so fascinating is that it combines elements which we usually perceive as opposites. Alt-right presents itself as a movement that addresses the concerns of ordinary white hard-working deeply religious people who stand for simple traditional values and abhor corrupted eccentrics like homosexuals and vegans, but also digital nerds. And now we learned that their electoral triumphs were masterminded and orchestrated precisely by such a nerd who stands for all they oppose… There is more than an anecdotal value in this fact: it clearly signals the vacuity of alt-right populism, which has to rely on the latest technological advances to maintain its popular redneck appeal. Plus, it dispels the illusion that being a marginal computer nerd automatically stands for a “progressive” anti-system position. At a more basic level, a closer look at the context of Cambridge Analytica makes it clear how cold manipulation and the love and care for human welfare are two sides of the same coin. In “The New Military-Industrial Complex of Big Data Psy-Ops,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books[ii], Tamsin Shaw discusses “the part private companies play in developing and deploying government-funded behavioral technologies.” The exemplary case of these companies is, of course, Cambridge Analytica:
“Two young psychologists are central to the Cambridge Analytica story. One is Michal Kosinski, who devised an app with a Cambridge University colleague, David Stillwell, that measures personality traits by analyzing Facebook ‘likes.’ It was then used in collaboration with the World Well-Being Project, a group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center that specializes in the use of big data to measure health and happiness in order to improve well-being. The other is Aleksandr Kogan, who also works in the field of positive psychology and has written papers on happiness, kindness, and love (according to his résumé, an early paper was called ‘Down the Rabbit Hole: A Unified Theory of Love’). He ran the Prosociality and Well-being Laboratory, under the auspices of Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute.”
What should attract our attention here is the “bizarre intersection of research on topics like love and kindness with defense and intelligence interests.” Why does such a research draw so much interest from British and American intelligence agencies and defense contractors, with the ominous DARPA (US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) always lurking in the background? The researcher who personifies this intersection is Martin Seligman: in 1998, he “founded the positive psychology movement, dedicated to the study of psychological traits and habits that foster authentic happiness and well-being, spawning an enormous industry of popular self-help books. At the same time, his work attracted interest and funding from the military as a central part of its soldier-resilience initiative.”
This intersection is thus not externally imposed on the behavioral sciences by “bad” political manipulators but is implied by their immanent orientation: “The aim of these programs is not simply to analyze our subjective states of mind but to discover means by which we can be ‘nudged’ in the direction of our true well-being as positive psychologists understand it, which includes attributes like resilience and optimism.” The problem is, of course, that this “nudging” does not affect individuals in the sense of making them overcome their “irrationalities” perceived by scientific research. Contemporary behavioral sciences rather
“aim to exploit our irrationalities rather than overcome them. A science that is oriented toward the development of behavioral technologies is bound to view us narrowly as manipulable subjects rather than rational agents. If these technologies are becoming the core of America’s military and intelligence cyber-operations, it looks as though we will have to work harder to keep these trends from affecting the everyday life of our democratic society.”
After the outbreak of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, all these events and tendencies were extensively covered by the liberal mass media, and the overall image emerging from it, combined with what we also know about the link between the latest developments in biogenetics (wiring human brain, etc.), provides an adequate and terrifying image of new forms of social control that make the good-old twentieth-century “totalitarianism” a rather primitive and clumsy domination machine. To grasp the whole scope of this control, one should move beyond the link between private corporations and political parties (as is the case with Cambridge Analytica), to the interpenetration of data processing companies like Google or Facebook and state security agencies. Assange was right in his strangely ignored key book on Google[iii]: to understand how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom, we have to focus on the shadowy relation between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies. We shouldn’t be shocked at China but at ourselves who accept the same regulation while believing that we retain our full freedom and the media just help us to realize our goals (while in China people are fully aware that they are regulated). The biggest achievement of the new cognitive-military complex is that direct and obvious oppression is no longer necessary: individuals are much better controlled and “nudged” in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as the free and autonomous agents of their own life… But all these are well-known facts, and we have to make a step further.
The predominant critique proceeds in the way of demystification: beneath the innocent-sounding research into happiness and welfare, it discerns a dark hidden gigantic complex of social control and manipulation exerted by the combined forces of private corporations and state agencies. But what is urgently needed is also the opposite move: instead of just asking what dark content is hidden beneath the form of scientific research into happiness, we should focus on the form itself. Is the topic of scientific research on human welfare and happiness (at least the way it is practiced today) really so innocent, or is it already in itself permeated by the stance of control and manipulation? What if the sciences are here not just misused? What if they find here precisely their proper use? We should put in question the recent rise of a new discipline, “happiness studies.” How is it that, in our era of spiritualized hedonism when the goal of life is directly defined as happiness, anxiety and depression are exploding? It is the enigma of this self-sabotaging of happiness and pleasure which makes Freud’s message more actual than ever.
As is often the case, Bhutan, a developing Third World country, naively spelled out the absurd socio-political consequences of this notion of happiness: two decades ago, the kingdom of Bhutan decided to focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP); the idea was the brainchild of ex-king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who sought to steer Bhutan into the modern world, while preserving its unique identity. Now with the pressures of globalisation and materialism mounting, and the tiny country set for its first-ever elections, the immensely popular Oxford-educated new king, 27-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, ordered a state agency to calculate how happy the kingdom’s 670,000 people are. Officials said they have already conducted a survey of around 1000 people and drawn up a list of parameters for being happy, similar to the development index which is tracked by the United Nations. The main concerns have been identified as psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, living standards, community vitality and ecological diversity… this is cultural imperialism, if there ever was one.[iv]
We should risk here even a step further and inquire into the hidden side of the notion of happiness itself. When, exactly, can a people be said to be happy? In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people in a way effectively were happy. Three fundamental conditions of happiness were fulfilled there. (1) Their material needs were basically satisfied, but not too satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness. It is good to experience a brief shortage of some goods on he market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets). These brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions which reminded people that they should be glad that the goods were generally available; if everything is available all the time, people take this availability as an evident fact of life and no longer appreciate their luck. Life thus went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or shocks, and one was allowed to withdraw into one’s private niche. (2) A second extremely important feature: there was the Other (the Party) to be blamed for everything that went wrong, so that one did not feel really responsible. If there was a temporary shortage of some goods, even if stormy weather caused great damage, it was ‘their’ fault. (3) And, last but not least, there was an Other Place (the consummerist West) about which one was allowed to dream, and even visit sometimes. This place was just at the right distance, not too far, not too close. That fragile balance was disturbed – by what? By desire, precisely. Desire was the force which compelled the people to move on – and end up in a system in which a large majority is definitely less happy…
Happiness is thus in itself (in its very concept, as Hegel would have put it) confused, indeterminate, inconsistent. Recall the proverbial answer of a German immigrant to the US who, when asked »Are you happy?«, answered: »Yes, yes, I am very happy, aber glücklich bin ich nicht…«. It is a pagan category: for pagans, the goal of life is to live a happy one (the idea to live »happily everafter« is already a Christianized version of paganism), and religious experience or political activity themselves are considered the higher form of happiness (see Aristotle). No wonder the Dalai Lama himself is having such a success recently preaching around the world the gospel of happiness, and no wonder he is finding the greatest response precisely in the US, this ultimate empire of the (pursuit of) happiness… Happines relies on the subject’s inability or unreadiness to fully confront the consequences of its desire: the price of happiness is that the subject remains stuck in the inconsistency of its desire. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we »officially« desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.
Do we not encounter a similar gesture in much of Leftist politics? When a radical Leftist party just misses winning elections and taking power, one can often detect a hidden sigh of relief: thank god that we lost, who knows what trouble we would have gotten into if we were to win… In the UK, many Leftists privately admit that the near-victory of the Labor Party in the last elections was the best thing that could have happened, much better than the insecurity of what might have happened if the Labor government tried to implement its program. The same holds for the prospect of Bernie Sanders’ eventual victory: what would have been his chances against the onslaught of big capital?
The mother of all such gestures is the Soviet interventuion in Czechoslovakia which crushed the Prague Spring and its hope of democratic Socialism. Let’s imagine the situation in Czechoslovakia without the Soviet intervention: very quickly, the »reformist« government would have had to confront the fact that there was no real chance for a democratic Socialism at that historical moment. So, it would have had to choose between reasserting party control – i.e., setting a clear limit to freedoms – and allowing Czechoslovakia to become one of the Western liberal-democratic capitalist countries. In a way, the Soviet intervention saved the Prague Spring: it saved it as a dream, as a hope that, without the intervention, a new form of democratic Socialism might have emerged… And did not something similar occur in Greece when the Syriza government organized the referendum against the Brussels pressure to accept austerity politics? Many internal sources confirm that the government was secretly hoping to lose the referendum, in which case it would have had to step down and leave it to others to perform the dirty job of austerity. Since they won, this task fell to themselves, and the result was the self-destruction of the radical Left in Greece… Without any doubt, Syriza would have been much happier if it were to lose the referendum.
So, back to our starting point, not only are we controlled and manipulated, but »happy« people secretly and hypocritically demand to be manipulated for their own good. Truth and happiness don’t go together. Truth hurts; it brings instability; it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?
[i] See https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump.
[ii] All quotes that follow are from https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/21/the-digital-military-industrial-complex/ utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%20Wolves%20Orban%20Cambridge%20Analytica&utm_content=NYR%20Wolves%20Orban%20Cambridge%20Analytica+CID_54761ca178aa65ea5c4a4410b9616c02&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=The%20New%20Military-Industrial%20Complex%20of%20Big%20Data%20Psy-Ops.
[iii] See Julian Assange, When Google Met WikiLeaks, New York: OR Books 2014.
[iv] See »Bhutan tries to measure happiness« (ABC News, March 24 2008).