Fitrah in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Monty Python is hardly the place for great philosophical epiphanies, but sometimes inspiration can be found in the strangest of places. In a particularly humorous sketch of Michael Palin’s character, a spectacled and rather drab accountant comes to ask John Cleese’s character for career advice. Palin’s character is told, after a careful analysis of his personality based on an aptitude test, that the best career path for him is most definitely chartered accounting. At this point, Palin’s character begins to argue relentlessly that he is already an accountant but then proceeds to explain why he no longer wishes to remain so, using the word “dull” at least ten times to describe his profession. Cleese’s character responds to this discontent with the results of the aptitude test, stating very candidly:

“Well, er, yes Mr Anchovy, but you see your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.”[1]

Now, here is the question: is it working in accounting that makes vibrant, colourful individuals transform into monotonous zombies, or is it that the more mundane of us have a proclivity towards working in finance?

The evidence is striking. In a study carried out by Robert Frank in 1993, it was found that economics students tend to be more selfish and self-interested than the average human being.[2] Sitting in lecture halls for hours on end, hearing how human beings are selfish, individualist beings solely interested in increasing their own pleasure (as posited by Rational Choice Theory, or RCT) tends to lead to the numbing of a person’s natural affinity for social cooperation. Critics of RCT have been very vocal about the insidiously manufactured evolution of human beings from Homo Sapiens to ‘Homo Economicus’ (Economic Man). This transition turns us from social beings who give others preference over themselves to self-gratifying pleasure machines, functioning solely as hedonistic, atomistic consumers.

A few economics students not being overly altruistic does not seem like an unmitigated disaster until you realize it is a mere snapshot of a much larger problem. This monoculture of selfish consumerism is not restricted to a few individuals, but in the era of mass globalisation and unrestricted communication through social media, permeates every fibre of being within the body of global society. Over the last decade, Shoshan Zoboff, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, has been very vocal about what she calls “surveillance capitalism”. She describes how the modern market mechanism has taken everything it can possibly snare into its predatory claws and transformed it into a commodity, including the human experience of life itself. With the advent of virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri, firms like Amazon, Google and Apple are constantly absorbing our daily human experiences and transforming them, via algorithms, into datasets to manipulate our deepest psychological impulses. They then use this information to bombard us with adverts, pushing us towards more consumption in a vicious cycle. With this vast record of our deepest and darkest desires, the market becomes infested with informational asymmetry, where one dominant party in a transaction has more information than the other. In standard economics, this allows firms or consumers to have a larger influence over the price-making process compared to the other party. In the case of the modern age, it is the global social media machine dominating the human species. 

This machine has created the greatest inequality of knowledge humanity has ever seen. A recent article in The Economist speaks to this drastic change. With the rise of what is called ‘the internet of things’, firms are now able to ensure they retain pervasive control over their appliances even after having sold them to consumers, becoming sellers of services rather than solid objects. Because firms are also competing with each other to obtain as much information as possible, this market mechanism will eventually lead to an oligarchy of power and a Benthamite Panopticon of control. When you take into account that it was Bentham’s Utilitarian framework that lead economics to the form it is currently, it just looks like everything has come full circle.  Now, an illusion of consent and freedom has cultivated a gigantic informational imbalance where we maintain the illusion of being in charge. Ticking consent boxes makes us assume we are the decision makers, not aware of our inability to do anything other than accept. With this enormous mismatch, tech companies do not just try to read us but instead attempt to mould us into beings they can manipulate for their own financial success. Zuboff calls this consumerization “a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy”. If wealth inequality challenges our political freedoms then knowledge inequality carries even worse implications with its consequential distortion of our basic humanity. Yuval Noah-Harari has even posited that in the future, firms, having attained intimate knowledge of an individual’s psychology, will possibly be able to ‘hack’ the consumers they wish to exploit.[3]

Zuboff thus also speaks very critically about “nudging”, a newfangled idea grounded in behavioural economics where consumers or citizens are encouraged and even influenced subtly to make certain decisions over others.[4] One of the pioneers of this science, Richard Thaler (winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics) calls this “libertarian paternalism,” which could not sound more oxymoronic even if he tried to make it so.[5] However, people are starting to become more aware of this great imbalance and politicians are taking note. With political manipulation via algorithmic interference becoming apparent in both the Brexit vote of 2016 and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, nerves have been shaken. In the recent Democratic debate in the United States, candidate Andrew Yang spoke about how data has now become more valuable than oil and that it is necessary for us to reclaim the information that has been squeezed from us. But the only policy Yang proposes to address data exploitation by large corporations is taxation. Even he cannot think in radical terms that would actually impede data collection.

As our existence becomes reduced to a mass of megabytes stored in a giant data centre somewhere in Arizona, we can muse nostalgically about what we once were; beings who walked upright with a sense of freedom. As al-Ghazali put it so pithily, “We are truly free only when we free ourselves from everything other than God.” This has been an axiom of our species for aeons. Religion (and specifically monotheism) has been continuously fundamental to human beings since the very advent of human societies. It is what defines us as an entity separate from the various animal species that share the earth with us as their home. Ideas of sacrifice, the sacred, and worship recurrently make themselves known throughout the anthropological literature of early and ‘primitive’ societies, with works such as Mary Douglas’ “Purity and Danger” and Atkinson’s “The First Law” laying out the evidence pretty clearly.  Within the common understanding of man as another competitor in the grand struggle for survival, activities such as altruism stand out as an anomalous Achilles’ heel. In the opening chapter of “Islam, between East and West”, Alija Izetbegovic argues that this moral fervour and seemingly innate desire to deify the transcendent is part of what makes us who we are. To be human is to worship and to reject the animalistic tendencies that would force us to conform to the steamroller of materialism. A steamroller that blindly erodes the peaks of the sacred. There are natural instincts present within us that push us to search for greater meaning in the world around us.[6] Some would say that this is the fitrah. In a couple of verses of the Qur’an and in multiple traditions of the Prophet Muhammad , we see reference to a primordial instinct present in man referred to as the fitrah. Amongst the most famous references to it is the following tradition as recorded in Sahih Muslim:

فَإِنَّ أَبَا هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ  كَانَ يُحَدِّثُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَا مِنْ مَوْلُودٍ إِلَّا يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ أَوْ يُنَصِّرَانِهِ أَوْ يُمَجِّسَانِهِ كَمَا تُنْتَجُ الْبَهِيمَةُ بَهِيمَةً جَمْعَاءَ هَلْ تُحِسُّونَ فِيهَا مِنْ جَدْعَاءَ ثُمَّ يَقُولُ أَبُو هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ فِطْرَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

“Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger () as saying:

No child is born but that he is upon natural instinct. His parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or Magian. As an animal delivers a child with limbs intact, do you detect any flaw?” Then, Abu Huraira recited the verse, “The nature of Allah upon which he has set people,” (30:30).[7]

The understandings the scholars took regarding this natural religious state vary. Ibn Taymiyya, a 13th-century thinker and Islamic scholar, made the fitrah the core foundation for his proof of the evidence of God’s existence. He argued that every human being has within them an innate desire a sort of sixth sensepushing them to discover their Creator. This craving for the immaterial foundation of their existence becomes the greatest proof that their appearance in this world has a grand metaphysical origin. Ibn Taymiyyah famously stated:

“Dhikr (Remembrance of Allah) is to the heart as water is to a fish. Don’t you see what happens to a fish when it is taken out of water?”[8]

But if all people needed to do was a little introspection to discover their divine roots, why isn’t everyone a believer? Here’s the catch: as long as the fitrah is untainted, it will submit to the truth. Like a mirror, its reflection is only as good as the cleanliness of its surface. The more dirt it accumulates, the foggier its sight becomes until it is like a blind man clambering wildly in the darkness. If the premodern enfeebling of the soul was analogised to dirt on a mirror, the postmodern metaphor will be more akin to a hall of mirrors. The absurd distortion of the lenses through which we view the world is transforming us into the ‘Homo Economicus Interneticus’ we were all destined to be. Over the last century, we have evolved from human to consumer, and have now finally become a commodity ourselves. What effect this has undoubtedly had on the soul is a terrifying thought.

In his 1936 work, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” John Maynard Keynes spoke about how people tend to base a lot of their decisions on what he called “animal spirits”, instead of rational processes. In order to revive a receding economy, the government needs to first revive this animalistic drive to consume that will then propel the economy back into action.[9] Though he was speaking more at the macro-level, his analysis can also carry over to the micro. However, he was not the first to explain human motivations through an animal-like instinct.

Imam al-Ghazali speaks in his seminal work Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) about how man has a choice. Being a soulful animal residing between the realms of the sensual and the spiritual, he has a duty to utilise the divine gift of knowledge and to attain higher stations beyond the limits of the bestial. The Imam makes it very clear that failure to do so will lead to his descending into animal-like states, one of which is the pig. The pig here symbolises gluttony and lust, the lowest of base desires that Ghazali is adamant we have to transcend beyond.[10] This analysis is taken directly from the Qur’an, where in verse 60 of Surah Ma’idah, we read of a group of wretched people who were punished by God for disobedience by being transformed into monkeys and pigs. Some Muslim scholars are of the opinion that this was not a literal transformation but instead an indication that certain societies imbibe qualities found naturally in these animals, including gluttony and disunity.[11] Anecdotally linked to this are reports of saintly personalities in Muslim history who would stay at home in fear of venturing out and seeing in the streets pigs and monkeys in human clothing, as it were. With gluttonous consumption contributing to over 50 percent of the Chinese economy, it is only fitting that the current year of 2019 is the Chinese Year of The Pig. The fact that 2020 is the Year of The Rat is hardly encouraging.

As social forecasters give us warning of the incoming flood that is the information age in its full glory, those aware of the problem must scramble for safety. Floods are notoriously difficult to manage and control, and this one is no exception. The highest mountains were not enough to protect the son of Noah in his pursuit of refuge, but for Muslims, the Lord of the Mountains is always present. The traditional Islamic view, as laid out by the likes of Imam al-Ghazali in the Ihyaa, has always been one of building society and fellowship rather than isolationism. But these are exceptional times. As the ever-watchful eye of the Sauron-like internet looms largely over us, is it time to take a leaf out of the book of the Sleepers of the Cave and go looking for places to hide? Where can you possibly go that the fitrah-altering gaze of the commodifying internet won’t follow you? In Dave Egger’s 2013 dystopian novel, “The Circle”, one of the characters attempts to escape the all-powerful, deity-like social network that has taken over the lives of most of humanity. The only way he finally escapes its clutches is through death.[12] As distant as such morbid realities seem to us, only Allah knows where the future of technological oligopoly will lead. If not a physical death, it seems that only a social death will save us from a spiritual one.

Works Cited

  1. “Vocational Guidance Counsellor Explained.” Everything Explained Today, Everything.explained.today. 
  2. Frank, Robert H., et al. “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 7, no. 2, 1993, pp.159-171.
  3. Harari, Yuval Noah. “Yuval Noah Harari: The myth of freedom.” The Guardian, 14 Sept. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/14/yuval-noah-harari-the-new-threat-to-liberal-democracy.
  4. Kavenna, Joanna. “Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Surveillance capitalism is an assault on human autonomy.’” The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/04/shoshana-zuboff-surveillance-capitalism-assault-human-automomy-digital-privacy. 
  5. Thaler, Richard H., et al. Nudge. Uitgeverij Business Contact, 2019.
  6. Izetbegovic, Alija. Islam between East and West. 1st ed., American Trust Publications, 1983.
  7. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1292, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2658.
  8. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah. al-Wabil al-Sayyib, Maktabah Dar al-Bayyan, 2006, p. 93.
  9. Keynes, John M. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Palgrave Macmillan, 1936.
  10. al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad Muhammad. Ihya’ ’Ulum al-Din. Matba’ah Mustafa al-Bab al-Halabi, 1939.
  11. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah. Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah. Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996.
  12. Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

About the author: HenriLeon is a guest contributor. He is a diasporic Kashmiri Muslim who happens to be studying economics. His two main loves are Hanafism and LFC, which he does not hesitate to remind people of. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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