Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.
In reading several articles on Friedrich Hayek recently, two words kept coming to mind: absolutism and elegance. Hayek appears to my inexpert reading to have been a highly scientific thinker, one with a good degree of faith in the scientific method. Attached to this is a consciousness of the sublime, a sense that there is a truth to be found in thought, an awareness of a tangible human goal of understanding. There is, in other words, a destination for our species. Continue reading “Hayek’s Absolutism”
Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.
On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.
In 1962, Arthur C Clarke published ‘Profiles of the Future‘, a collection of essays about what would happen next in areas like travel and communications. In a general observation he noted that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Buried in the pithiness of the observation is an acknowledgement that time is important; it takes time to acclimatise yourself to new possibilities, new ways to manipulate nature and the world around us. This is not just restricted to the first sight of the motor car, or listening to a gramophone record: it applies to any new and in some way awesome discovery or realisation. In Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Colson repeats the phrase ‘Tahiti – it’s a Magical Place‘, recalling a memory implanted in his brain during some complicated (and poorly explained) resurrection process after he had been killed in a previous escapade. We can all picture in our minds places that have appeared magical – a beach, a forest, a tree at dawn or the sky on a particularly clear night: there is a sense of wonder and amazement as nature in all her glory wakes us from our plodding lives, and says ‘hey, look what I can do!’
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.
In an almost throwaway comment towards the end of his lecture on Freud, Szelényi suggests that Freud saw civilisation itself as a technology. To begin with, nature and the world is the source of our unhappiness – our discontent – and therefore we seek to assert control over it. This is something that reflects Lewis Mumford (our system that ‘…makes control over physical nature, ultimately control over man himself, the chief purpose of existence’), Murray Bookchin’s ecological worldview, and more recently the laments of Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost and the Object Oriented Ontologists – more on them later. This man versus nature battle, or subject versus object if you prefer, yielded for Freud the civilisation with which we are possessed, one bent on world domination, so to speak. Our system of social relations, our politics, is designed to extend more and more control over the world, and over mankind itself. Our civilisation is a technology, a machine, that is designed towards that end, designed to relieve us of the pain and frustration that nature inflicts upon us, up to and including mortality itself. Morton suggests that we are in fact already governed by what is effectively a primitive Artificial Intelligence, that of industrial capitalism.Continue reading “Freud’s ‘Civilisation as Technology’”
(…continued from Alien Technology)
Marx’ extension of Feuerbach was accompanied by one of his more famous quotations. Writing in the Theses on Feuerbach, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,’ Marx said. ‘[T]he point is to change it.’ Feuerbach concerned himself with the spiritual and theological, while Marx was more revolutionary. How then could one take an abstract concept of alienation and explain how it meant something tangible, more actionable?
The question of technology and our relationship to it is one that has preoccupied me for some time now. It is separate from us as a concept – technology is not, so to speak, human – and yet it is deeply intimate in so many ways, so much as to make us think that our existence is dependent on it, as is our identity; Winner’s formulation of technology as a Wittgensteinian form of life (as I wrote about in my recent thesis) appears to me to be an appropriate joining of the human being and our technology, like Kevin Kelly’s ‘technium’, a kind of skin. But just as it becomes more deeply insinuated into our lives, there is something discomfiting about it, something unnatural, something foreign. Something alien, perhaps.