[T]he lord is the power over this thing, for he proved in the struggle that it is something merely negative; since his is the power over the other [the bondsman], it follows that he holds the other in subjection.

— G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

Social subjection equips us with a subjectivity, assigning us an identity, a sex, a body, a profession, a nationality, and so on. In response to the needs of the social division of labour, it in this way manufactures individuated subjects, their consciousness, representations and behaviour [...]

Machinic enslavement dismantles individuated subjects, consciousness and representations, acting on both the pre-individual and supra-individual levels.

— Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines

This essay draws on material from German Idealism, second-order cybernetics and sociology as it conducts an analysis of recommendation systems and big data analytics and their effects on and relationships to the societies in which they are embedded. Central to this analysis is the emergence of external observing agencies. These agencies are addressed primarily with reference to von Forester's Conjecture regarding the properties of social systems when viewed from the outside and Maurizio Lazzarato's account of social subjection which – when paired with machinic enslavement – encompasses the workings of contemporary capitalism in its entirety. Through the Hegalian lens that this essay adopts, von Forester's outside observer can be seen to enact an agency equivalent to mastery or lordship as it renders that which it observes – the slave or bondsman – dead matter; the observed system can be read as the product of machinic enslavement: a kind of control that operates at the molar and molecular levels beyond the scope of individual subjectivity and is enforced by a variegated mass of social, technical, economic and linguistic machines – a medley of proto-agencies none of which alone constitute individuated subjects; in its turn, social subjection can be seen to give rise to a bondsmanship whose agency extends further than the distributed agency of machinic enslavement, but only as far as is permitted by its labour on its own materiality.

What you are trying to describe is the relationship of circular causality between the whole (a human community for example) and its parts (the individuals from which it is comprised). On the one hand, individuals are related to each other, and on the other hand they are related to the whole. The bonds between individuals can be more or less ‘‘rigid’’ – the technical term I use is ‘‘trivial’’. The more trivial they are, by definition the less the behaviour of one of them provides information to the observer who already knows the behaviour of the others. I will make the following conjecture: the more trivial the inter-individual relationships, the more the behaviour of the whole will appear to the individual elements from which it is made up as having its own dynamics which escape their control (Von Forester. in Chavalarias 1-2).

For social systems to be predictable, von Forester's conjecture requires that outside observers assume a kind of lordship over these systems. That is, the observer reduces the observed to an object of – from its viewpoint – uncomprehending matter. Chavalarias argues that those who control the large-scale wiretapping operations revealed by Edward Snowden can occupy this position, and easily predict the behaviour of a trivially related multitude. There is a good case to be made that the NSA is host to such an agglomeration of communications and computing machines configured so as to observe an entire social system. This essay refers to these collections of machines as assemblages of lordship, and goes further, to argue that they are also embedded in many large online corporations that make extensive use of recommendation systems, such as Amazon and Netflix; a fortiori social media, as some research suggests that subjects have a 90 % likelihood of following the recommendation of someone known to them, as opposed to the lower but far from insignificant 70% chance of following those of a stranger (Chavalarias 3). The petabytes of data, combed by vast ensembles of statistical processes and machine learning techniques form the loci of Hegelian lordship as interpreted in this essay.

The lord relates himself mediately to the bondsman through a being [a thing] that is independent, for it is just this which holds the bondsman in bondage; it is his chain from which he could not break free in the struggle, thus proving himself to be dependent, to possess his independence in thinghood (Hegel 115).

The bondsman is independent from the lord, but this independence is limited to thinghood – a materiality alien to individuated subjects, instead inhabiting a machinic plane. For the lordship assemblages of predictive analytics, the bondsman is a machinic slave, comprising relations, sets of data and patterns of behaviour. The choices presented to the bondsman are derived from "algorithmic analysis of data streams from multiple sources claiming to offer predictive insights concerning [their] habits, preferences and interests" (Yeung 119). In this state of thinghood, predictive analytics can manipulate the environment of the bondsman, steering their behaviour based on statistical reasoning about their independent responses. For Yeung, predictive analytics assemblages enact a kind of "hypernudge". They systematically "nudge" a bondsman in order to produce choices that are preferred by the "choice architect" (ibid.); nudging is a design-based mechanism of influence whereby control is exerted through the personalised configuration of the choices available to a bondsman. This gives some indication of the degree of power held by the lordship assemblages of predictive analytics over ostensibly independent bondsmen. The lord observes the bondsman as a set of machinic assemblages. These assemblages comprise various concatenations of organs, electronic, mechanical, economic and linguistic machines, enervated tissue, energy-systems and all classes of self-propagating patterns and dynamisms of matter. The bondage of the bondsman consists in part of bonds, ties and grafts between different machines. Among these are sensory-motor-electronic feedback loops, such as those that course through desiring ocular-affective-manual-computational assemblages active in online shopping. They also include neural and electronic control of the dispersal of energy such as the cooling systems of vast data-centres and sweat-glands permeating the softer and more febrile parts of consumption machines. Some assemblages of bondsmanship are so trivial in their relations and mimetic in their constituent behaviours as to be starkly predictable by mere individuated subjects. These include the internet crazes that judder and pulse through the fibrous tissue of a networked society producing planking assemblages, dabbing assemblages and machinic proliferations of slime production.

If these assemblages could be said to communicate, it is not in the signifying semiotics of Ferdinand de Saussure, where subjectivities are structured so as to map signifiers to arbitrary signifieds. Instead, they operate in accordance with what Lazzarato, following Felix Guattari, calls asignifying semiotics. These include "stock listings, currencies, corporate accounting, national budgets, computer languages, mathematics, scientific functions and equations as well as the asignifying semiotics of music, art, etc. [and] are not beholden to significations and the individuated subjects who convey them." (Lazzarato 80) Indeed, these semiotics may find a closer approximation in the more elementary semiological constructions of Charles Pierce such as the iconic and indexical classes of sign that operate by virtue of pure resemblances or traces of material processes. These are but some of the semiotics that pass through the mathematical, logical, algorithmic and economic systems; many others cannot even be approximated by individuated subjects, though at a pre-individial level, these subjects share parts with many machines that are fluent in them.

For the von Foresterian lord's mastery of its machinic bondsmen to be perfect, these bondsmen must be completely predictable at the pre-individual and supra-individual levels. Individuation in the form of social subjection disrupts the totality of the lord's control. This perfection can even be shattered by certain techniques deployed in the very assemblages that seek to predict and control machinic bondsmen. Among these are the psychometric types and social categorisation used in predictive analytics and the clustering of users enacted by the collaborative filtering algorithms in recommendation systems. Such techniques make use of the categories of social subjection: those that bind subjects to particular economic conditions, social practices, regimens of bodily control, outlets for pleasure and so forth. Following Hegel, it is through this individuated labour that the slaves' bonds begin to loosen.

[T]he feeling of absolute power both in general, and in the particular form of service, is only implicitly this dissolution, and although the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware that it is a being-for-self. Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is (Hegel 117-8).

Although the bondsmen's emerging awareness of their inability to change the dynamics of the systems in which they are enmeshed (von Forester) – coupled with the fragility and contingency of their being – grant them immediate consciousness of something that can only be a mediate object to the observing lord, it is their work, their labour that brings them into consciousness. While this fate is arguably better than being mere dead matter, utterly predictable and determined by machinic forces, the subject's state of being individuated is premised on an induction into a system of social categories that steer them into particular domains of labour under capitalism.

Following Lazzarato, much of that by which the lordship assemblages of large-scale surveillance, big data and predictive analytics realise the majority of their control – the asignifying semiotics of mathematics, algorithms, data analysis and financial transactions – bypass the awareness of individuated subjects. The individuated subject is only inculcated into signifying systems that aid in the manufacture of particular fields of work, lifestyles and patterns of consumption. The machinic constitutes and enslaves subjects, but in ways illegible to individuals. Many tools of cognition available to the individuated subject are structured in such a way as to facilitate conspicuous consumption and competition rather than critical thought. Even when such thought is attempted, the subject is trapped amid the intersecting categories of class, race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, religion, academic discipline and so on. Signifying semiotics offers no way out. Self-consciousness is bought – on credit – at the marketplace of social subjection, from a shrewd salesman who persuades the buyer the only choice available is the only choice they ever wanted.

As this essay concludes by returning to von Forester's conjecture, the hapless subjects find themselves enmeshed in increasingly trivial relationships, but due to the semiotic register into which they have been inducted, they suffer from a paucity of means of conceiving of systemic change, even of simply predicting the outcomes of particular actions. One way in which this condition may be ameliorated is to make use of the big data assemblages that are currently largely in the hands of corporations or at the command of the highest bidder. For instance, it is well known that Donald Trump's electoral campaign was aided by predictive analytics but somewhat less so that these techniques were instrumental in Barack Obama's 2012 election (Siegel 213-17). That the assemblages of predictive analytics may serve those situated on both sides of the centre of party politics offers weak support for this conclusion. Nevertheless, the alternative is to be rendered a predictable slave through one's machinic constituents and subject only to a semiotics that drives one to labour. Might individuated subjects develop a machinic literacy? By fostering the ability to use and understand predictive assemblages and access the external observing agency – the lordship – they encapsulate, a subject may wrest themselves further from bondsmanship. Such a move may lead this dialectic of the machinic lord and the individuated bondsman to a synthesis.


Chavalarias, David. "The unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big Data." Big Data & Society. Jan-Jun 2016, pp. 1-11. 2016.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. Signs and Machines. Semiotext(e), 2014.

Hegel, G. W. F., et al. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.

Siegel, Eric. Predictive Analytics: the Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2013.

Yeung, Karen. "'Hypernudge': Big Data as a mode of regulation By design" Information, Communication and Society. Col. 20. No. 1, pp. 118-136, 2016.