The Deep Despair Of The Digital Dirigiste

the eternal recurrence of bueller

Imagine giving someone that craves control a level of power they lack in any other context. But they instead are seized with incorrigible gloom and despair. This is the plight of the digital dirigiste.

If your goals make it impossible to attain victory, or anything resembling a steady state, then the world is going to look like its perpetually going to hell in a handbasket. One reason that your goals may make it impossible to attain victory is that they demand a level of control over an adversary that resists this control. That adversary makes it impossible to attain the control you desire, or impossible to attain it at a price you are willing to accept. My post on adversarial dynamics was in part a high-level overview of the nature of the challenge of content control on large platforms. Here I will be far less delicate.

As ErrataSec’s Robert Graham has argued, many people writing on technology problems have the implicit mindset of a director, engineer, or technocrat. Namely, people do not make their own choices. The government or some kind of quasi-governmental authority defines and makes choices for them. Authority has to promote something or ban it. It cannot leave something alone, unregulated, or undirected. Graham analogized this to dirigisme, the philosophy of active government regulation and control of the economy. The notional dirigiste is not a Soviet-style central planner, but is nonetheless assumed to be the primary mover of everyone else’s decision-making.

The digital dirigiste is therefore a figure whose mentality is shaped by both the need to impose rules on others and a identity strongly shaped by pervasive rule-following. If he or she wants to lord over the rest of us, there is an even more tyrannical dictator residing within his or her head barking orders and issuing commands. Perhaps he or she is used to deference because of their capacity to punish, but they themselves fear punishment just as much as they want others to fear the punishments they could inflict. The digital dirigiste is not a totalitarian, to be sure. Rather, they are someone that lives in a world of rules and norms and cannot imagine living any other way.

The digital dirigiste sees a problem with online content and the solution arises naturally – more rules! And digital regulation of varying sorts is a natural temptation for the dirigiste. Code has an implicitly regulatory function (even if it is not self-regulating) over what people can see, hear, and speak. Private platforms more generally exercise dictatorial power over control of speech and behavior. So the dirigiste wants to use this power to filter, prune, and ban. The dirigiste has the ability to shape action online in a way he or she does not offline. Tantalizingly, the dirigiste may even be capable of shaping preferred social identities online in a way that they do not offline due to economic and political constraints.

Or so they think, that is. In fact, the migration of dirigisme to the digital realm produced a quagmire.

For rules to mean something, they must be obeyed. Otherwise they are just useless scraps of paper – or in the paperless world superfluous bits and bytes. The dirigiste finds that while they have the power to regulate and punish, this power never brings them the actual feeling of being in control. They are constantly melting down over this or that new forum in which people are doing things they don’t want and/or posters masking their behaviors under this or that new trick to frustrate automated filters. They’re forever finding Russian bots lurking within Russian bots lurking within Russian bots. It does not matter how many of these threats are worthy of concern, what matters is the attitude towards them.

The dirigiste is constantly in a state of arousal and alert, getting a fight or flight reaction every time the social media client loads on their desktop, tablet, or phone. “Been here a week now, waiting for a mission, getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Pepe squats in the bush, he gets stronger.” As I said in the beginning of this post, its ironic that giving someone such incredible levels of control actually turns them into a miserable shell of their former self. Why? In my post on adversarial dynamics I gave a reason: for someone whose life revolves around rules and predictability, full adversariality would mean abandonment of said organizing structures. They would focus only on countering the adversary, even if it produces schizophrenic behavior.

But there is also a more pertinent way of explaining the problem of adversarial behavior. At the 2018 Remington Park derby, a horse named “Bofa Deez Nuts” beat out the competition. When you watch the video of the race, the announcer is forced to maintain his professional composure as he says “Bofa Deez Nuts” over and over again while calling out each development in the race. By naming the horse Bofa Deez Nuts, one forces the system to execute a pre-determined routine with an unexpected input. The show must go on because rules are rules, even if the result is immature and absurd. Computers and bureaucracies – and computerized bureaucracies – are like that. And here you see why the dirigiste is so miserable.

Every regulatory system has only a limited ability to sanitize its inputs, and poor input handling is generically one of the largest problems in computer security. But part of making a rule, whether it runs on a machine or an organization, is that it is impersonal and general. The more something consists of hardcoded and fragile rules, the more it resembles a incoherent kludge instead of a well-oiled and efficient machine. But if a rule is general and context-indifferent, it can – when given unexpected inputs or sequences of input-output relationships – manifest undesired behavior. Adversaries can learn how to make it do so and frequently do through simple trial and error.

Ironically, the dirigiste is frequently targeted by an unexpected application of their own rule. They unhelpfully dub this circumstance “weaponization.” E.g, the Bernie Bro ‘weaponized’ this or that rule to get your account locked during a social media skirmish. It is not helpful because the consistent application of rules is not weaponization, even if the rules themselves may be dumb and the person applying them may not be acting in good faith. Rules are rules. Just like you have to say “Bofa Deez Nuts” on air if the horse is actually named Bofa Deez Nuts. And every time the dirigiste makes a new rule, they create the potential for another Bofa Deez Nuts moment. Whoops.

Make all of the laws you want, but there is no perfect technology of law enforcement. The dirigiste, however, can only visualize a world where behavior is a function of the direct or implied threat of punishment. Do what I say, or else. Their mantra is “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.” But the most powerful tools are always the bluntest, the equivalent of trying to kill cockroaches in your house by firing shotguns at them or even tossing sticks of dynamite. Because the dirigiste cannot find a way to persuade, incentivize, or otherwise subtly shape behavior in a desired direction they must always resort to such extreme measures.

Worst of all, when the dirigiste goes digital they attract a crew of implacable adversaries that are not motivated by any political goal as much as they are motivated by the appeal of being Ferris Bueller, Bart Simpson, or Dennis the Menace. These people have ideologies, to be sure, but they are often both eclectic in their range and superficial and incoherent in their content. Their identities are defined mostly by the promise of generating Bofa Deez Nuts moments and punking the dirigiste. His or her tears are like manna from heaven to them. It gives them life, energy, and even purpose.

It’s immature, but mindlessly imposing rules is not that much better than mindlessly wanting to flout them. The analogy to fictional children and teenagers is not accidental. Note how so many “moderation is failing” stories begin with a variation of classic headlines about teens using sneaky texting codes to evade parental supervision. Of course almost all of these teen texting codes become outdated as soon as the news stories are published. Either because the world of youth lingo moves fast and/or teens immediately adapt their codes to frustrate parents that read the stories. Foiled again!

This is what makes the world of the digital dirigiste so uniquely bleak and gloomy. Because even if Bueller loses, he wins.

The dirigiste accurately predicts a never-ending stream of rabble-rousers coming up with ways to tweak The Man. Nothing they do will eliminate this threat. Children at least grow up and find something else to do with their lives beyond sneaking out to skateboard, smoke dope, and get laid. But because the relationship between the dirigiste and the rule-breaker is perpetually fixed in a dysfunctional parent-child interaction, no such evolution in status and motivation can occur. It’s nuts. “Deez” nuts, to be more exact. And “bofa” the aforementioned nuts.