BEFORE DATA FULLY TAKES OVER: SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The world is moving from modernisation to dataisation, from religion as we know it now to dataism, from capitalism to surveillance capitalism, and from all classes being useful to capitalism to the emergence of a class “useless” to it. With the onslaught of these seismic shifts, we need to sociologically and philosophically re-evaluate our orientations, including political or religious orientations, and determine which one best allows us to adapt to the new dataist political economy, while inculcating values that guide us to alleviate inequality, poverty and social problems.
How will the social problems of the Muslim community, comprising mostly Malays, fare in the political economy in the years to come? Malays had been portrayed as lagging behind with doubtful loyalty by the end of the 1990s. The Malay/ Muslim community was highlighted as an ethnoreligious community besieged by an array of social problems vis-à-vis other communities. The “Malay Problem”, which was a blanket term for an array of social problems that the Malay/Muslim community faced, was first brought up by Malay leaders in 1971 in a seminar on Malay Participation in National Development organised by Majlis Pusat Singapura together with the Community Study Centre. Among the problems highlighted during the seminar were educational underachievement, drug abuse, disadvantaged and dysfunctional families, poor socio-economic standing, and low skills of Malay workers. Some of these problems are long-standing issues till now. Problems recently highlighted by the government, commentators, and the Malay intelligentsia include “radicalisation, more professionals losing their jobs and a significant over-representation of Malays in crime and drug statistics as well as the prison population” to be fought by the community, and the “possibility of a permanent underclass of two to three generations with multiple family problems” in view of an increase in the number of Malays living in rental flats.
When we examine the roots of all these social problems, the negative effects of the current capitalist political economy, as well as the adverse consequences of the economic ideology of neoliberalism have often been highlighted as prime structural causes. But we need to keep up to date with the times and the rapid technological and scientific advances. When Karl Marx provided his critique of capitalism, he studied the scientific and technological advances of his time – steam engines and machines that would be rudimentary by our modern-day standards. We are moving towards a new type of capitalism, which requires a thorough study of the technological and scientific advances that are now beginning to dominate as the modes of production. These advancements include artificial intelligence, dataisation, automation and bio-technological inventions.
These new scientific and technological advancements have enabled a new form of capitalism – surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalism as a “new form of information capitalism aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control”. Zuboff, who came up with the concept of surveillance capitalism, explained it as “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data” which are then “computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioural futures markets”. It is also deeply akin to colonialism. Like the colonisers who declared the lands they landed on as theirs, from which to exploitatively extract value upon its “[m]odernisation is the process by which data produced by Google users as theirs to reap profit and to use to control the new markets produced by the extraction and processing of the data. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and many other tech giants and smaller players are the big surveillance capitalists in this new dataist political economy. Even governments are playing the game “as the intelligence agencies and other powerful forces in Washington and other Western governments were more disposed to incubate and nurture the surveillance capabilities coming out of the commercial sector”.
Surveillance capitalism differs greatly from its predecessor in terms of what ordinary workers can do about the exploitation that comes with it. During the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites revolted against the machines, but more specifically, the industrial capitalists who owned the modes of production in 1812 England. They threatened the authorities so much that 14,000 soldiers were dispatched to the heart of England to quell the revolt. Closer to us today, taxi drivers from Paris to Jakarta revolted against Uber and Grab due to their livelihoods being threatened by the first surveillance capitalists in the transport-sharing market. Measures were taken against the drivers, but compromises were made in the drivers’ negotiations with capitalism. But the 1812 Luddites and modern-day taxi drivers were only a threat with compromises made because they were still useful to capitalists. The day will come in surveillance capitalism when workers’ pleas to negotiations, whether peaceful or violent, can be substantively ignored (although they might quell the violence) because workers have devolved from being a ‘useful’ class to a ‘useless’ class, no longer serving any use for the surveillance capitalists.
FROM MODERNISATION TO DATAISATION: THE PLIGHT OF THE “USELESS” CLASS
Syed Hussein Alatas wrote that modern scientific knowledge covering all aspects of human life is introduced at varying degrees, first in the Western civili[s]ation, and later diffused to the non-Western world, by different methods and groups with the ultimate purpose of achieving a better and more satisfactory life in the broadest sense of the term, as accepted by the society concerned”. But we have moved on from modernisation to dataisation, which I define as the process by which human behaviour, personality, thoughts and feelings are converted into data to be processed, analysed and used to predict and influence the behaviour, thoughts and feelings of those who interact with data, consequently converting data to other forms of capital such as economic, social and psychological capital, but not necessarily for the well-being of individuals and community.
In this process of dataisation, the social problems that affect many marginalised individuals and communities may exponentially worsen. Inequality between the surveillance capitalists and their allies who own or administer the new modes of production, that is, the processing, use and analysis of data in surveillance capitalism, and the rest of us will widen. Many will fall into what Yuval Noah Hariri calls the “useless” class. Artificial intelligence, automation and dataisation will render many ordinary workers “useless” in the new political economy. Think, for example, of the Grab driver who will be replaced with self-driving cars which can communicate with each other and reduce accidents due to the removal of human error. Furthermore, they are no longer a consumer, user or producer, but a product, every single time they interface with data touchpoints such as Google or Instagram, or even government and non-governmental applications. More and more people will join the ranks of the “useless” class and as “AI continues to improve, even jobs that demand high intelligence and creativity might gradually disappear”. The cognitive and emotional stamina needed to continually learn new skills and adapt to the exponential automation and artificial intelligence revolution will wane in the onslaught of these structural processes, increasing inequality and exacerbating social problems.
QUESTIONING THE RELEVANCE OF OSSIFIED OR REVIVALIST RELIGIOUS ORIENTATIONS: PROGRESSIVE ORIENTATIONS IN A DATAIST POLITICAL ECONOMY
Religion has always played an important part in guiding us with its values and played a part in alleviating social problems, poverty and inequality. But Hariri goes on to say that dataism will threaten to replace religions as we know them now. Religion is the worship of God. Secular humanism worships humans. Dataism worships data. In the past, those of us who are religious might turn to asatizah (religious scholars) who mediate interpretations of religious sources such as the Quran and hadiths for guidance in making decisions. For those who are not religious, they may turn to their inner secular feelings and consciousness of being human to make those decisions. But now, inhuman data intelligence helps us make decisions and race to know us better than we know ourselves. Think of the time when you are going on a holiday and the travel app recommends hotels for you to book. Or, when you are looking for a life partner and the dating app matches you to potential suitors according to the data the platform gathers about you.
But I disagree with Hariri. It is not religions which will remain irrelevant, but certain religious orientations. For the traditionalists, who see traditions as rigid or static, and seek to maintain traditionalistic order and ideology despite being detrimental for society’s well-being, and for revivalists who seek to overhaul the existing order in a utopian bid to Islamise institutions and the state, dataism does render them irrelevant for progress and well-being. Why go for traditionalistic asatizah, who generally do not have a deep understanding of the latest scientific and technological advancements affecting their congregation (much less produce scientific or technological knowledge and creations), when advanced algorithms can offer the best way forward for the decisions you have to make based on big data? Why participate in the revivalist Islamisation project when data allows you to traverse virtual realities in the metaverse, take on multiple gender, ethnic, national, or even religious identities, beyond just one Islamic identity?
It is the progressive orientation which will adapt the most in this new dataist political economy and spark important questions to ask. Traits of the progressive orientation include epistemological and methodological openness and fluidity, emphasis on socio-historical and contextualist approaches to Islamic texts, social and gender justice, non-patriarchal hermeneutics, solidarity with marginalised and oppressed communities, and engagement with the plurality of critical and progressive agendas from different cultures and traditions in a critical, creative and dynamic manner.
The progressive orientation results in mental and emotional dexterity and agility, as well as a humility that will spur adaptability in the new dataist political economy and alleviate social problems.
The progressive orientation in the Islamic tradition also emphasises Sufi ethico-moral philosophy, or Islamic humanism, premised on the identification with the full humanity of all human beings – where all members of the human race have this same intrinsic worth because each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being: wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhi  . Islamic humanism will spur proponents to alleviate social problems and inequality in the era of surveillance capitalism as Islamic humanists strive to uphold the God-given right to dignity and intrinsic worth of the underprivileged and less fortunate.
Progressives are also very different from liberal Muslims in that liberal Muslims are not critical of modernity and “display an uncritical, almost devotional identification with modernity, and often (but do not always) [bypass] discussions of colonialism and imperialism” whereas progressive Muslims are critical of modernity and colonialism.
Progressive Islam can also be defined as “an orientation in Islamic beliefs and practices that is conditioned by and results in moderation” and where this moderation is “founded on the balance between extremes”. The progressive orientation is found when the balance between two extremes is maintained, such as the balance between knowledge-practice, nativism-Orientalism, internal-external, inclusive-exclusive, tradition-modernity, exoteric-esoteric, worldly-other worldly and freedom-coercion. This moderation is achieved by “drawing not only from classical and modern Islamic tradition but also other civilisational and religious traditions, particularly those that are critical and liberation, that speak truth to power, and that operate in a decolonial mode of knowledge”. This epistemological plurality coupled with an attitude of criticality and liberation will drive those with a progressive orientation to diagnose and solve social problems which include inequality and poverty brought about by surveillance capitalism and a data-centred political economy.
With the above traits, progressive and humanistic religious orientations will thrive in the onslaught of dataism, dataisation, and surveillance capitalism, and produce contextualised, socio-historically relevant knowledge, practices and creation. This orientation’s religious humanism also amalgamates interdisciplinary fields due to its epistemological pluralism, which can attend to the social dimension of religion in alleviating social problems, inequality and poverty.
BEATING ALGORITHMS WITH SPIRITUALLY INSPIRED PROGRESSIVE AND HUMANISTIC ORIENTATIONS
We must avoid the trappings of technological determinism and let technology determine our fate and strive with spiritually empowered agency to keep our progressive and humanistic orientations thriving to adapt to the new dataist political economy. Algorithms are racing to know us better than we know ourselves to the profit of surveillance capitalists. We have to know ourselves better and faster than them. We need to beat the negative effects of surveillance capitalism with spiritually inspired progressive and humanistic orientations of Islam. Only then can religion, as an institution, and its adherents, as agentic changemakers, remain relevant in a new world of dataism, dataisation and surveillance capitalism, and serve as a bulwark against the aggravation of social problems brought about by the new dataist political economy. ⬛
1 Suratman, S. “Problematic Singapore Malays”: Sustaining a Portrayal. Leftwrite Centre, 2010. p. 1
2 Abdul Rahman, N. A. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Prospect of Development of Muslim Personal Law in Singapore. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2014. p. 48
3 Ahmat, S., and Wong, J. Malay Participation in the National Development of Singapore – Seminar on Malay Participation in the National Development of Singapore. 1970
4 Heng, J. More Malay families living in rental flats. The Straits Times. 2016, May 11; Toh, Y. C. Shanmugam says job loss, crime and drug use among key issues. The Straits Times. 2017, April 2; M. Yusof, Z. Malay/Muslim community leaders call on Community to fight Drug scrouge. The Straits Times. 2017, April 30
5 Zuboff, S. Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilisation. Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 15. 2015. pp. 75-89
6 Laidler, J. Harvard Professor Says Surveillance Capitalism Is Undermining Democracy. The Harvard Gazette. 2019, March 4. Retrieved from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/03/harvard-professor-says-surveillance-capitalism-is-undermining-democracy/
8 Klein, C. The Original Luddites Raged Against the Machine of the Industrial Revolution. HISTORY. Accessed 2022, May 18 at: https://www.history.com/news/industrial-revolution-luddites-workers
9 Alatas, S. H. Religion and Modernization in South-east Asia, in Modernization and Social Change: Studies in modernization, religion, social change and development in South-east Asia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 1972. p. 22
10 Harari, Y. N. Why Technology Favors Tyranny. The Atlantic. 2018, August 30. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/yuval-noah-harari-technology-tyranny/568330/
11 Hariri, Y. N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Penguin Random House UK, 2015. pp. 366-369
12 Duderija, A. The Imperatives of Progressive Islam. New York: Routledge, 2018. pp. 4-9; Abdelgafar, B. Thriving in a Plural World: Principles and Values of the Singapore Muslim Community. Singapore: MUIS Academy, 2018. p. 51
13 Duderija, A. Progressive Muslims – Defining and Delineating Identities and Ways of Being Muslim. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 2010. pp. 127-136
14 Safi, O. What Is Progressive Islam. ISIM Newsletter 13, 2003. pp. 48-49
16 Alatas, S. F. The Meanings and Objectives of Progressive Islam, in Alternative Voices in Muslim Southeast Asia, by Saat, N. and Ibrahim, A. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2020. pp. 97
17 Ibid, pp. 98-101
18 Ibid, p. 113
Faris Ridzuan is a research officer at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He had previously worked as a policy officer in public service and a policy manager in a leading tech company. He graduated with first class honours in Sociology with a minor in European Studies from the National University of Singapore. He volunteers and participates actively in the social service sector and civil society.