The Coded Life: The New “No Exit”
“The Matrix is real” trope is well-worn. The idea that we are caught in a world that is a simulacrum of the real one derives from philosophical thought experiments about dream worlds and evil demons.
What is unique to The Matrix, however, is the idea that the simulated world is constituted by code.
Such a scenario seems rather far-fetched. Isn’t it more accurate to say that the real world—with its reliance on machine code, algorithms, HTML5 and CSS, and blockchain technology—is driven by code in how we rely on various platforms and applications to do things? But to say it’s constituted . . . ?
Constitution (in this existential sense) means that whatever is doing the constituting is actually making, creating, or forming that which is constituted. So to say that code is constituting the real world seems to forget that code derives from the real world and does not make it.
Let me try to convince you otherwise. The way our life relies on coded mediums results in a no-exit scenario in which we become derivative of the code in some way.
Being Optimized by SEO
Many of us are familiar with search engine optimization (SEO). As someone who is self-employed and relies on a website for business, I’ve been trying to learn more about SEO to help boost the visibility of my blogs, consultation work, and podcasting.
The task is thoroughly daunting—in both soft and hard respects. Soft: the actual writing of website content relies heavily on how one words ideas. I come from a generation of writers where the background belief is that good writing will sell itself. SEO has changed what counts as “good” to a large extent because it controls access to material by its ranking criteria . . . and that’s where the hard stuff comes in.
Using various analytical tools can range from trying to solve the perennial problem of determining organic keyword rankings by Google, to figuring out how to find and analyze your website traffic data to determine visitor behavior and preferences.
In short, the SEO-driven form of internet-mediated communication is significantly affecting content. Even if you think that you have a good message to sell, it might not be said in the right way with respect to search ranking, bounce rate, and visitor retention.
While listening to a Search Talk Live podcast with Jason White, a SEO director for PMG Digital Agency, I began to see in a more comprehensive way how our lives are essentially encoded. Because the majority of what we do—whether for business or pleasure—is linked to use of the internet in some way, that means our lives are basically represented and then simulated by the data traces we leave when searching, clicking, and buying (and not buying).
SEO tools are constantly collecting and ciphering this data so that website owners and businesses can maximize their profits, subscriptions, etc.
You may be laughing at this realization: “Well, duh! Of course our life is like that!”
I wonder, nonetheless, how much we realize what is at stake.
KPI stands for Key Performance Indicators. They include criteria—such as revenue, client retention, conversion rate—that allow businesses to determine how well they are performing. KPIs feed directly into analysis of internet traffic since a great deal of business is done online.
As any SEO analyst will tell you, SEO only works so long as you have a definite goal or set of goals—drive more traffic to your site, get more subscriptions, reach a higher click-rate or ranking . . . KPIs therefore figure directly into identifying SEO improvements.
In this sense, KPIs will determine the content one finds on the internet. The knock-on effect is that while they help businesses be successful, in dictating what we find and what we read, KPIs will inevitably influence the content writers write . . . even philosophical blogs since what philosopher does not want to see their blog visited and read?!
Can the script be flipped? Perhaps.
Whatever the case, such resolve begins with a clear critical and philosophical view to what is taking place beneath our noses. So let’s look at Key Philosophical Indicators that might tell us something about the quality and trajectory of our lives.
Consider three points from the history of philosophy made respectively by Paul Ricoeur, Karl Marx, and Martin Heidegger.
Reality Is Human
Ricoeur makes the point that the creative capacity of humans can change what we think is real about the world. There may be an immutable rock-bottom substratum to this world, but humans can do quite a bit to make that substratum very different in all its manifestations.
What must be the nature of the world . . . if human beings are able to introduce changes into it?
Ricoeur, From Text to Action (2007: 135)
Human creation is not epiphenomenal, or simply cosmetic. Creative change also means changing the way we live, act, exist, and persist. So, for example, the predominance of the automobile has led to a whole host of changes we take for granted—not just the mechanical and industrial dependencies on the materials required by automobile use and consumption, but also how it has changed the way we dwell.
Roads designed for car travel and congestion shape the landscape: essential services are not measured in proportion to the human body (how far we can walk) but by driving distance; even anxiety has taken a new twist with respect to road rage, the lack of driver etiquette (because we’re all in a rush), and the fear of being a passenger (amaxophobia) in situations that amplify the consequences of lack of control.
Our creative capacity therefore serves to change things to better suit our needs; but in doing so, it changes how we act and relate to others and the world itself.
Controlled by the Means of Reproduction
Karl Marx noted the prolific effect of our creative power in terms of how we reproduce the conditions or our existence—that is what we take to be socially necessary to live.
Today, that means the more we rely on the internet, the more we take the internet to be just a fact of the way we live in the real world. But unlike other kinds of things—like cars, books, clothes—the internet by design works in ways we cannot readily see.
Enabling what you see in your browser is coding. And while this code is functional, it is also a translation and record of our lives as they are lived. It is this living record that allows those who have access to it to further design websites to predict and reinforce how you will behave in order to capture your attention.
A naïve thought? Borderline conspiracy theory?
I'm not advocating the idea that there is any one person or group behind the scenes with a nefarious intention or grand plan. Rather, it is much like an invisible technological hand in which simple desires and outcomes for business success refashion our world and transform the scope of potential for our actions and decisions. As Google states, it does so in three ways:
acquiring our attention
tracking our behavior to retain this attention
converting this attention to fit with KPIs
Your Feedback Does Not Matter
This brings me to a final thought. Heidegger, who is often taken to be a pessimist about technology (I think his story is more complicated than that), once characterized technology in terms of a cognitively closed loop. The term “feedback”, which we use so much today, purports to offer external, critical views on a topic. But actually, feedback is a looping of the same information or data back into itself.
This confusion of meaning is not trivial and suggests something of our situation. For Heidegger, the dominance of technology risks a certain loss—our inability to think and act freely from the ends for which technology is employed (i.e. meeting KPIs).
In this sense, the internet and its coded record present a very interesting and serious challenge. For what is recorded and reproduced means the one medium through which we conduct most of our lives will simply encourage existing behaviors and preferences—albeit in new forms.
So the echo chamber effect of social media and newsfeeds runs deep. The worry is that there is no red or blue pill, as in The Matrix. There is no choice to awaken cognitively or remain intellectually asleep because that choice will have already been predicted and made actionable in advance by the things you encounter.
In the coded life, a choice for freedom is really only a moment of acquisition; it is a choice in favor of conversion for some KPI existing now or in the near future.
On this point (tongue in cheek), this blog is no different. If you have made it this far (since this blog violates the 1000 word rule), you might as well share and subscribe. You're committed. Why not be converted?
Or perhaps Heidegger was right to ask the question, “Can there be a free relation to technology?”
About the Author
Dr Todd Mei is a public philosopher and business consultant at Philosophy2u who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. He was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, he is also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, he can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.