Friday, October 17, 2014


Suppose many orthodox social and political narratives are either completely false or far more inaccurate than we have hitherto supposed. It’s not much of a supposition, but I’m thinking of narratives based on old-fashioned generalisations about human behaviour.

From similar causes have arisen those notions which are called universal or general, such as man, dog, horse, etc. I mean so many images arise in the human body, e.g., so many images of men are formed at the same time, that they overcome the power of imagining, not altogether indeed, but to such an extent that the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals (eg colour, size etc.) and their fixed number, and only that in which all agree in so far as the body is affected by them is distinctly imagined.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics (Boyle translation)

We are all familiar with the weaknesses of what Spinoza called universal or general notions. As he says, they are substitutes for a level of individual detail we cannot possibly attain. We have to use generalisations, clambering around their many pitfalls as best we can.

Yet modern search engines and databases have already acquired a level of individual detail about many aspects of our lives and habits. They have moved on from the ancient and intractable situation where the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals.

So Spinoza's point is being made obsolete by technology, by huge modern databases which are not constrained by our ancient need to generalise. Not surprisingly their information is valuable enough to be sold to third parties. With safeguards it is said, but who believes that?

So generalisations are no longer necessary for those with deep pockets. We know it of course, but how do we deal with it?

How might we acquire such information ourselves without a government’s ability to twist arms? The short answer is that we can’t. The information isn’t likely to appear in books either because there is too much of it and the financial return would be inadequate. Neither is it likely to appear in academic literature for the same reasons.

So for global corporations and presumably governments, Spinoza’s problem is rapidly becoming outdated. The big hitters don’t need his universal or general notions. They have at their fingertips a colossally detailed corpus of information about human behaviour which lies well beyond the reach of most ordinary folk.

What do they know that we don’t?

How to manipulate our behaviour in order to ensure bovine social and political attitudes? Almost certainly, so the only political answer is smarter voting.

Oh oh – not smarter voting again. Rats.


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Sackerson said...

To misquote EM Forster: "Only disconnect."

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I'm not sure we can. There are too many advantages and the disadvantages are mostly out of sight at the moment.