The Smartness Mandate
Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell
On November 6, 2008, still in the immediate aftermath of the worldwide economic crisis initiated by the US subprime mortgage market collapse, then-chairman of IBM Sam Palmisano delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. The council is one of the foremost think tanks in the United States, its membership composed of senior government officials, members of the intelligence community (including the CIA), business leaders, financiers, lawyers, and journalists. Yet Palmisano was not there to discuss the fate of the global economy. Rather, he introduced his corporation’s vision of the future in a talk titled “A Smarter Planet.” In glowing terms, Palmisano laid out a vision of fiber-optic cables, high-bandwidth infrastructure, seamless supply chain and logistical capacity, a clean environment, and eternal economic growth, all of which were to be the preconditions for a “smart” planet. IBM, he argued, would lead the globe to the next frontier, a network beyond social networks and mere Twitter chats. This future world would come into being through the integration of humans and machines into a seamless Internet of Things that would generate the data necessary for organizing production and labor, enhancing marketing, facilitating democracy and prosperity, and—perhaps most importantly—for enabling a mode of automated, and seemingly apolitical, decision-making that would guarantee the survival of the human species in the face of pressing environmental challenges. In Palmisano’s talk, “smartness” referred to the interweaving of dynamic, emergent computational networks with the goal of producing a more resilient human species—that is, a species able to absorb and survive environmental, economic, and security crises by perpetually optimizing and adapting technologies. 1
Palmisano’s speech was notable less for its content, which to a large degree was an amalgamation of existing claims about increased bandwidth, complexity, and ecological salvation, than for the way in which its economic context and planetary terminology made explicit a hitherto tacit political promise that had attended the rise of smart technologies. Though IBM had capitalized for decades on terms associated with intelligence and thought—its earlier trademarked corporate slogan was “Think”—by 2008 the adjective “smart” was attached to many kinds of computer-mediated technologies and places, including phones, houses, cars, classrooms, bombs, chips, and cities. Palmisano’s “smarter planet” tagline drew on these earlier invocations of smartness, especially the notion that smartness required an extended infrastructure that produced an environment able to automate many human processes and respond in real time to human choices. His speech also underscored that smartness demanded an ongoing penetration of computing into infrastructure to mediate daily perceptions of life. (Smartphones, for example, are part of a discourse in which the world is imagined as networked, interactive, and constantly accessible through technological interfaces, and a smartphone’s touch screen is in fact enabled by an infrastructure of satellite networks, server farms, and cellular towers, among many other structures that facilitate regular access to services, goods, and spatial location data.) But as Palmisano’s speech made clear, these infrastructures now demanded an infrastructural imaginary —an orienting telos about what smartness is and does. This imaginary redefined no less than the relationships among technology, human sense perception, and cognition. With this extension of smartness to both the planet and the mind, what had been a corporate tagline became a governing project able to individuate a citizen and produce a global polity.
This new vision of smartness is inextricably tied to the language of crisis, whether the latter is a financial, ecological, or security event. But where others might see the growing precariousness of human populations as best countered by conscious planning and regulation, advocates of smartness instead see opportunities to decentralize agency and intelligence by distributing it among objects, networks, and life-forms. They predict that environmentally extended smartness will take the place of deliberative planning, allowing resilience in a perpetual transforming world. Palmisano proposed “infus[ing] intelligence into decision making” itself. 2 What Palmisano presented in 2008 as the mandate of a single corporation is in fact central to contemporary design and engineering thinking more generally.
We call these promises about computation, complexity, integration, ecology, and crisis the smartness mandate. We use this phrase to mark the fact that the assumptions and goals of smart technologies are widely accepted in global polity discussions and that they have encouraged the creation of novel infrastructures that organize environmental policy, energy policy, supply chains, the distribution of food and medicine, finance, and security policies. The smartness mandate draws on multiple and intersecting discourses, including ecology, evolutionary biology, computer science, and economics. Binding and bridging these discourses are technologies, instruments, apparatuses, processes, and architectures. These experimental networks of responsive machines, computer mainframes, political bodies, sensing devices, and spatial zones lend durable and material form to smartness, often allowing for its expansion and innovation with relative autonomy from its designers and champions.
This book critically illuminates some of the key ways in which the history and logic of the smartness mandate have become dynamically embedded in the objects and operations of everyday life—particularly the everyday lives of those living in the wealthier Global North but, for the advocates of smartness, ideally the lives of every inhabitant of the globe. This approach allows us to consider questions such as the following: What kinds of assumptions link the “predictive” product suggestions made to a global public by retailers such as Amazon or Netflix with the efforts of Korean urban-planning firms and Indian economic policy-makers to monitor and adapt in real time to the activities of their urban citizenry? What kinds of ambitions permit the migration of statistically based modeling techniques from relatively banal consumer applications to regional and transnational strategies of governance? How do smart technologies that enable socially networked applications for smartphones—for example, the Microsoft Teams app, which enables distributed multisite and multiuser conversation and workflow and is used by 75 million registered users a day (located primarily in the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia)—also cultivate new forms of global labor and governmentality, the unity of which resides in the coordination via smart platforms rather than, for example, geographical proximity or class? 3 Each of these examples relies upon the mediation of networks and technologies that are designated to be smart, yet the impetus for innovation and the agents of this smartness often remain obscure.
We see what is still the relatively short history of smartness as a decisive moment in histories of reason and rationality. In their helpful account of what they call “Cold War rationality,” Paul Erickson and his colleagues have argued that in the years following World War II, American science, politics, and industry witnessed “the expansion of the domain of rationality at the expense of … reason,” as machinic systems and algorithmic procedures displaced judgment and discretion as ideals of governing rationally. 4 Yet at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Cold War rationality gave way to the tyranny of smartness, an eternally emergent program of real-time, short-term calculation that substitutes demos (i.e., provisional models) and simulations for those systems of artificial intelligence and professional expertise and calculation imagined by Cold War rationalists. In place of Cold War systems based on “rational” processes that could still fall under the control and surveillance of centralized authorities or states, the smartness mandate embraces the ideal of an infinite range of experimental existences, all based on real-time adaptive exchanges among users, environments, and machines. Neither reason nor rationality is understood as a necessary guide for these exchanges, for smartness is presented as a self-regulating process of optimization and resilience (terms that, as we note below, are themselves moving targets in a recursive system).
Whereas Cold War rationality was highly suspicious of innovation, the latter is part of the essence of smartness. In place of the self-stabilizing systems and homeostasis that were the orienting ideal of Cold War theorists, smartness assumes perpetual growth and unlimited turmoil; destruction, crisis, and the absence of architectonic order or rationality are the conditions for the possibility for smart growth and optimization. Equally important, whereas Cold War rationality emanated primarily from the conceptual publications of a handful of well-funded think tanks, which tended to understand national populations and everyday culture as masses that need to be guided, smartness pervades cell phones, delivery trucks, and health-care systems and relies on the interactions among, and the individual idiosyncrasies of, millions or even billions of individuals around the planet. Moreover, whereas Cold War rationality was dominated by the thought of the doppelg ä nger rival (e.g., the US vs. the USSR, the East vs. the West), smartness is not limited to binaries. 5 Rather, it understands threats as emerging from an environment that, because it is always more complex than the systems it encompasses, can never be captured in the simple schemas of rivalry or game theory. This in turn allows smartness to take on an ecological dimension: the key crisis is no longer simply that emerging from rival political powers or nuclear disaster but rather, more fundamentally, intrinsically unforeseeable events that will necessarily continue to emerge from an always too-complex environment.
If smartness is what follows after Cold War understandings of reason and rationality, the smartness mandate is the political imperative that smartness be extended to all areas of life. In this sense, the smart mandate is what comes after the shock doctrine, powerfully described by Naomi Klein and others. 6 As Klein notes in her book of the same name, the shock doctrine was a set of neoliberal assumptions and techniques that taught policy-makers in the 1970s to take advantage of crises to downsize government government and deregulate in order to extend the rationality of the free market to as many areas of life as possible. The smart mandate, we suggest, is the current instantiation of a new technical logic with equally transformative effects on conceptions and practices of governance, markets, democracy, and even life itself. Yet where the shock doctrine imagined a cadre of experts and advisers deployed to various national polities to liberate markets and free up resources during moments of crisis, the smartness mandate both understands crisis as the normal human condition and extends itself by means of a field of plural agents—including environments, machines, populations, and data sets—that interact in complex manners and without recourse to what was earlier understood as reason or intelligence. If the shock doctrine promoted the idea that systems had to be fixed so that natural economic relationships could express themselves, the smartness mandate aims instead at resilience and practices management without ideals of futurity or clear measures of success or failure. We describe this imperative of developing and instantiating smartness everywhere as a mandate in order to capture both its political implications—though smartness is presented by its advocates as politically agnostic, it is more accurate to see it as reconfiguring completely the realm of the political—and the premise that smartness is only possible by drawing upon the collective intelligence of large populations.
Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell, The Smartness Mandate, MIT press, 2023, pp. 1 – 6.
1 Sam Palmisano, “A Smarter Planet: The Next Leadership Agenda,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 6, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v = i_j4-Fm_Svs.
2 Palmisano, “A Smarter Planet.”
3 Tom Warren, “Microsoft Teams Jumps 70 Percent to 75 Million Daily Active Users,” The Verge , April 29, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/29/21241972/microsoft-teams-75-million-daily-active-users-stats.
4 Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca M. Lemov, Thomas Sturm, and Michael D. Gordi, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2. Erickson and his coauthors stress that for Cold War authors and policy-makers, the possibility of nuclear war made it imperative that people—or at least military commanders and policy-makers—act “rationally,” in the sense that tendencies to innovate or depart from programmable rules be prevented; the consequence was that “mechanical rule following … become the core of rationality” (31).
5 Though the image of Cold War rationality developed by Erikson et al. is especially useful for our purposes here, we also want to acknowledge alternative histories of temporality and control, many emerging from cybernetics, within the history of Cold War computing. See, e.g., Orit Halpern, “Cybernetic Rationality,” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 15, no. 2 (2014): 223–238.
6 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007). Klein’s book is part of an extensive bibliography of recent critical work on neoliberalism that also includes David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Jamie Peck, Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (New York: Verso, 2014).