The Human Botnet

In the first of her Massey lectures for the CBC, collected in The Real World of Technology, Canadian polymath Ursula M. Franklin draws a distinction between two different modes of technologically-aided work, holistic and prescriptive. Holistic technologies are those that reserve agency to the individual worker over the product of their work, even when they’re collaborating with a group. Think of the synthesizer, which extends the musician’s ability to fashion an entire work of music, though it’s often played alongside other instruments.

Prescriptive technologies, on the other hand, are those that constrain work, usually in order to harness collective labor. That mode of work has technical benefits, of course — the interchangeability of machine parts, for example — but also social consequences. As Franklin writes: “When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager.”

The assembly line has long been emblematic of prescriptive organization — dozens of people, each performing their own narrowly constrained task, with very little scope for individual discernment or creativity — but as digital technologies proliferate, new prescriptive modes arise. For example, scientists have recently taken to deploying digital games in order to coax laypersons into doing the iterative work of solving scientific problems. The act of playing such a game is not strictly prescriptive, of course, but the entire rationale behind such gamified strategies is to nudge people toward narrowly tailored work. They are, perhaps, prescriptivizing, to coin a term.

Which brings me, lamentably, to Steve Bannon. A new book, Devil’s Bargain, examines his role in mobilizing young, disaffected, white men behind the candidacy of Donald Trump. Bannon seems to have stumbled onto prescriptive strategies for swaying politic campaigns during his post-Goldman Sachs tenure as a speculator in virtual products and currency.

There’s a sense in which Bannon’s business model was inherently prescriptivizing. It centered on massively multiplayer online games, a technology that can be played expressively, and which might therefore seem to lean toward the holistic end of the spectrum. But the players hired by Bannon’s company were paid to focus on a single activity, accumulating in-game loot that could then be sold to other players for offline money. While a game like World of Warcraft builds in affordances for a broad range of activities, the business organized play toward a narrow range. Its tendency was to put a holistic technology to prescriptive ends.

Bannon’s eureka moment came backlash from other players sank his business. As Devil’s Bargain author Joshua Green told Fresh Air,

the lesson [Bannon] took away from that was that these rootless white males who spend all their time online actually had what he told me was “monster power” to go out and [effect] change, and that they operated at a kind of sub-rosa level that most people didn't see. So when he moved over to Breitbart News a couple years later, one of his goals he told me was trying to track these people and radicalize them in a political sense, which is basically what wound up happening.

It may be that part of what made that population so ripe for radicalization was their amenableness to prescriptivization. After all, their complaint hadn’t been that he had converted their game into a job, but rather that, in doing so, he was enabling “filthy casuals” who were willing to buy in-game equipment rather than grind for it.

Little wonder, then, that much of their political action hinged on message transmitting technologies (the subject of the second of Franklin’s Massey lectures), and specifically on the duplicative function of those technologies. So while there may be some holistic element to, say, the production of a Pepe the Frog meme, much of the actual work of spreading political messages through memes is narrowly prescriptive: posting, reposting, “liking,” — in general, throwing bodies behind all of the duplicative and promotional functions built in to social media platforms. Much the same goes for the pile-on strategies the worst offenders used to attack the political opposition. Their individual contributions weighed for less than their willingness to perform the same basic tasks en masse.

Given Green’s anecdote, it’s tempting to see this as the application of the gold farming model to politics, but I’d say there’s a more apt analogy: the botnet. The “monster power” that Bannon set out to wield is the result of harnessing the work done by a group that, almost by definition, doesn’t mind the prescriptivist grind so long as it’s presented as a kind of game. They may see themselves as players, but as Franklin put it, “In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance.”