It is often said philosophers are either late when it comes to comment upon new technological innovations or in advance, that is, so early that they actually seem to predict them. When they are late, it’s usually because they prefer to carefully examine the new innovations in order to achieve insightful analysis, and when they foresee such discoveries, it arises from an ethical concern over the direction the world is taking.
In other words, their insight is not expressed by envisioning the day a software company manages to predict the future by scanning information from the internet and therefore framing our freedom, but rather by working through the existential consequences these innovations might have upon our life.
This is probably why among Martin Heidegger’s greatest concerns when it came to technological innovations was the formation of existential conditions where, as he said, the “lack of emergency is the only emergency”. In this condition human beings would be completely “uprooted” from the earth, that is, “framed” (“Ge-stell“) by a technological power they are no longer able to control.
As it turns out, the software company Recorded Future (which has recently been praised by Wired, the MIT Technology Review and other media outlets, after the CIA and Google invested millions in their services) seems to be offering its clients something similar: a world where emergencies, that is, future events, can be calculated in advance. But how does this start-up actually function, and why are the German philosopher’s concerns relevant to its services?
Recorded Future is based in Gothenburg and has offices in London, Boston, Arlington and New York. A team of 20 computer scientists, statisticians and experts in linguistics “calculate” the future. While Yahoo, Google and Bing use links to connect and rank different web pages, Recorded Future goes further by scouring (in real time) thousands of available information sources such as blogs, websites and Twitter comments in order to find “invisible links”, that is, relationships among actions, people and institutions that refer to related events in the future.
“Recorded Future is based in Gothenburg and has offices in London, Boston, Arlington and New York. A team of 20 computer scientists, statisticians and experts in linguistics ‘calculate’ the future.”
Even though this might not seem particularly relevant, considering that we can also predict next week’s weather by searching through different weather stations, if we look at the amount of data this company is capable of analysing and relating in just a few hours, it becomes clear it can obtain better data than public internet users have access to.
The information we need to predict whether tomorrow it will rain is limited by the number of weather sites available, but sites that might refer to upcoming anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East are infinitely more numerous given the political, economic and military aspects of these sorts of events.
After mining from the web all the related people (“Bashar al-Assad”), places (“Syria”) and activities (“military interventions”) that refer to a possible demonstration, Recorded Future uses algorithms to predict when and where a demonstration will occur.
An example of a predicted demonstration is available in a video on the company website which illustrates how its powerful engines monitor these protests not only in the Middle East, but also in South America and North Africa. The fact that Google and the CIA have already invested millions in this company is an indication that it will be used to conserve certain interest against others as the example above indicates.
The different fee levels for the customers of Recorded Future are probably related to the quality and quantity of information they wish to purchase, making this, and similar companies, at the service of the wealthiest and most powerful.
Lack of emergencies
From a philosophical point of view, the most interesting feature of all this is not that these demonstrations can be predicted, but rather how technology has finally uprooted and dislodged man from the world, that is, has given human existence to a power beyond human control. The secured, comfortable and calculated environment that allowed the creation of society has now become so functional and rationalised that we cannot help but become victims by existing in it.
This existential dilemma does not arise from the fact that it’s finally possible to organise all the things the web already knows about the future, which could certainly become useful to prevent diseases or famine, but rather that a private company now means to know everything, that is, all human projects.
We have entered an age where only those framed within the approved interests of Recorded Future clients will be able to live freely, that is, without being predicted. But how free is an existence that is completely revealed to the modern “lack of emergencies”?
As Heidegger explained, emergencies do not arise when something doesn’t function correctly, but rather when “everything functions … and propels everything more and more toward further functioning”. It’s within this logic that as soon as something critical to the interests of those who can afford it fails to function, Recorded Future will alert its customers, who will then take the appropriate measures to conserve the previous condition.
In sum, Heidegger’s concerns over a world lacking “emergencies” more than 50 years ago was meant to point out how technologies such as that employed by Recorded Future (and similar companies) aim to avoid the future, that is, to change the world.
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009) and most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.