Dissolving the Behavioral-Tech-Industrial Complex

It is essential to express this clearly and broadly: The accelerating convergence of technology, behaviorism, and private equity is destructive to life, liberation and freedom of movement.

Image: people using smartphones | Source: ahskorea.com

Prevalence of “smart” devices, artificial intelligence, and non-localized infrastructure in the cloud is a bedrock that supports surveillance culture; the more data-driven technological interactions are normalized, the less their creeping ubiquity feels like an invasion of privacy. Social media celebrates observation of the other, and blurring of boundaries between self and image. As a business model, it is a wholesale engine for marketing, advertising, and data analysis, and flush with capital: Its free energy is our attention.

As we generate data about our behavior through our engagement, we enrich the owners of the social platforms with information about ourselves. Their revenue grows from targeted advertising, which is designed to bend behavior toward consumption, generating more profit for these interdependent industries. A small minority of private equity investors multiply their money and their monopolies through speculation and conglomeration. They also invest in protecting their assets, which over time includes nuanced networks of systemic control.

Those in power employ technology as a sedative distraction for exhausted workers, temporarily satiating their taste for liberation with the pseudo-freedom of screen-dom, in the novelty it offers. These same people employ, fund, and support carceral logics and violence as a means of materially organizing society along contours of fear, discord, and isolation in order to keep workers compounding profit for the few.

Essentially, what is ever-more apparent is a trajectory rooted in extracting from each human body as much capital as possible– labor, data and consumption of goods and services, or if not any of the above, then subsumption into industries that profit from the control of these human bodies– such as prisons, hospitals and now more than ever, behavioral services.

Behold the Autism Industrial Complex, a term introduced by Anne McGuire in War on Autism (2016), and expounded upon by Alicia A. Broderick and Robin Roscigno in their January 2021 paper titled, “Autism, Inc.: The Autism Industrial Complex,” originally published in the Journal of Disability Studies in Education:

“[W]e contend that the central product that the autism economy is producing and marketing for public consumption … is the cultural logic of intervention.”

Broderick and Robin Roscigno, “Autism, Inc.: The Autism Industrial Complex,”
Journal of Disability Studies in Education

This cultural logic is especially rampant in Massachusetts’ recent school district behavior services boom, as reported in The Nation in April 2021. Over the last decade, Boston public schools doubled the number of behaviorists, and now promote ABA as a default setting for all Autistic students.

Since Massachusetts became the 22nd state to mandate insurance coverage of ABA, behavior analysts have tripled and registered behavior technicians have increased tenfold. As the article describes, private equity firms are seeking to acquire “autism services” organizations, capitalizing on what McGuire illustrates in War on Autism: The “body of the autistic child has generated a multibillion dollar ‘autism industrial complex’— public and private investment interests that benefit economically from, and indeed whose very fiscal survival is reliant upon, the existence of, autistic bodies.”

Robotics company Boston Dynamics had a contract with NYPD for Digidog, a robotic police dog, until the NYPD terminated the $94,000 lease in April 2021. 

Image: Boston Dynamics robotic dog | Source: nyt.com

Carceral-imperialist institutions including police, prisons, and military are not interested in defunding, but building into their budgets the newest equipment and weaponry, which are increasingly more based in facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and data analysis.

People designing these devices with these intentions exist in positions of power. Their racial, gender, and ability biases quite literally (consciously and unconsciously) are written into their technologies, and the impetus consistently is policing the most marginalized people – Black, Indigenous, disabled, nonconforming, poor and young folks– who most threaten the inequity imbedded in the status quo. Thus, dehumanizing and controlling these folks’ embodied existence becomes both a motivation and goal of carceral-technological expansionism.

It’s as if those paying police to protect their property are profiting from proffering these high-priced, remote technologies.

As police budgets rise, public school funding falls. If failing schools are privately funded, there exist more opportunities to saturate them with technology contracts, emphasize children’s focus on screen-based (machine) learning, and track how they behave in these interactions. In this pandemic era, it is already apparent that schools are more dependent on screen-based, non-localized, remote learning.

Consider eye contact: A significant focus of applied behavior analysis is converting Autistic children to behave in this neuro-normative way. As artificial intelligence technologies evolve, eye contact and screen interaction might exist in deeper symbiosis.

Take, for example, the recent article in The New York Times about a possible resurgence of Google Glass in training Autistic children to recognize emotions and look people in the face. According to the article, the Google Glass trial “fits into a growing effort to build new technologies for children on the autism spectrum including interactive robots and computerized eyewear,” and these devices “could also measure changes in behavior, something that has historically been difficult to do.”

Image: child wearing Google Glass | Source: nytimes.com

Also published in The New York Times’ recent magazine titled Understanding Autism was content about “biomarkers” of autism, including the chemical composition of baby teeth; how twins look at faces as genetic insight into autism, and early detection of autism with “hope that eventually a tool can be made that would be easily available … perhaps by having parents collect data on their phones.” Oh, and more stories subtly emphasizing the heredity of autism, as well as Autistic people’s economic utility and inclusion working with artificial intelligence in the tech sector.

Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are expanding in relationship with research in genetic causality and human conditionality within the diversity of embodiment. This merger is a red flag for eugenics and supremacy constructs. Why has Science™ become synonymous with extracting information from our natural environments, claiming ownership of observation, and selling it back to the collective? What is lost in these moneyed pursuits of patent, profit, and the politics of peer-reviewed publication?

Notice how the confluence of technology, genetics, and behavior modification is moving the needle earlier and earlier in identifying “divergent” ways of being human.

Though it may appear purely scientific and benign for now, profitizing genetic data and expanding research into causality indicates a prioritization of manipulating what we’re given instead of stewarding what we have. This is a posture of colonization, of enforcing a currency of acceptable humanity, and asserting who is acceptable to be born.

Additionally, debates about “overpopulation” are not really about overpopulation, but about over-intervention, though this is unspoken. Humans have intervened in modifying our environments (including our bodies) in ways that are out of balance with our cyclical and sustaining rhythms of return to self.

But aren’t technological interventions saving lives?

Is modernity both a blessing and a curse?

Where is the line?

I think these questions are misguided. Instead, we need to discernment, in each instance:

What are the intentions and the posture of this intervention, procedure, patent, technology?

When I am honest with myself, in what consciousness am I making this decision, truly?

When we cling to our expectations of “life” so tightly that we choke its natural movement with our desire to contort and extort its form, we actually cling to death.

Our digital dimension has a physical footprint: Although tech monopolies including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft employ greenwashing campaigns about their use of renewable energy to power their data centers, they also are assisting fossil fuel companies with customized algorithms that expedite extraction of non-renewable fuels. They are generating artificial intelligence and artificial capital, with tangible and very real impacts on our climate and planet.

What behaviorism plans to ignore is that the rewards for functioning in an artificial environment are artificial, but the punishments are real: Without a circular, reciprocal, and closed-loop existence of human life on earth, the asymptotic convergence of artificial intelligence, observation, modification, and profit will quite literally bend us at unsustainable angles. Ultimately, the confluence of technology and surveillance leads to our wave function collapse.

Life exists in Indigenous Sovereignty, Black liberation and Disability Justice – in reparative relationships with earth, time, and body. By centering our margins and their intersections, we dissolve culturally calcified denial, white superiority constructs, and the gravity of false acquisition. Divestment from systems of extraction and harm is possible, if we remember the real capacity of nature, which includes us, and if we slow into our attention instead of splice and speed it with technological interventions. These movements free us to meet our embodied needs, rather than eliminate bodies in need.

What actually requires depopulation is the density of data and technological observation-saturation. What actually requires intervention are frameworks of mass-production, linear consumption, and carcerality. What actually requires dissolution is the noise, static, and clutter falsely deemed necessary in the name of progress.

Progress is more like balancing in orbit than conquering the stars.

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7 Responses

  1. Excellent analysis. Very timely article.

    “Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are expanding in relationship with research in genetic causality and human conditionality within the diversity of embodiment. This merger is a red flag for eugenics and supremacy constructs. Why has Science™ become synonymous with extracting information from our natural environments, claiming ownership of observation, and selling it back to the collective? What is lost in these moneyed pursuits of patent, profit, and the politics of peer-reviewed publication? Notice how the confluence of technology, genetics, and behavior modification is moving the needle earlier and earlier in identifying “divergent” ways of being human.”

    The 10,000 year project of human civilisation or empire building is coming to an end. Human life as we knew it – shaped by the anthropocentric myths of “meritocracy”, technological “progress”, and “growth” – is less and less compatible with our daily experiences and with the needs of all the people and other living creatures that we care about https://jornbettin.com/2020/08/09/a-language-for-catalysing-cultural-evolution/.

  2. Such an insightful, liberating post. Now I can see that ABA (and behaviorism in general, I’d suspect) isn’t just wrong in an innocent way. It isn’t just a sincere but mistaken approach to helping people. It may be that to some degree; but at the same time, it is mistaken in a very particular and insidious way: in a way that turns people into profit-generating objects for exploitation and also in a way that promotes splitting humanity into “winners” (who do the exploiting) and “losers” (all the various marginalized peoples you mention). That is truly horrible. Unfortunately, finding ways to turn everything in the world, including people, into exploitable resources seems to be the main thrust of our society. All the incentives run in this direction; and the winners just keep getting better and better at it.

    They also keep getting better and better at disguising it, which is why identifying what is really going on underneath all of that “beneficial” technology and therapy and policing is crucially important. Thanks for speaking up and calling it out so clearly for what it is and for urging us to always treat people as people, not as things.

    So yes, let’s dissolve the Behavioral-Tech-Industrial Complex. I’m 100% up for that.

  3. I am in love with how unapologetically complex and nuanced this piece is. It pulls no punches and speaks the unspoken truth that the Autism industry and autistic experiences are the canary in the mine warning us of the digital totalitarianism to come. Brilliant!

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