Ursula LeGuin’s outstanding novel The Dispossessed begins with the simple line ‘There was a wall.’ It is a setup to a binary exploration of us and other, rich and poor, anarchist and industrialist, on two different planets, Urras and Anarres. Walls are physical structures just as they are dividing lines; LeGuin’s wall was of ‘uncut rocks roughly mortared.’ Others are literal blocking mechanisms, such as the walls of prisons, to keep people in, and the walls of old towns, to keep people out. Still others are borders, political objects designed to designate territory and zones of control. These are man-made impositions on the earth, statements in technology announcing our collective will.
Later this week I’m speaking to the UCC conference on Eco-cosmology, Sustainability and a Spirit of Resilience, on the subject of ‘Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy’, about the challenges of modernity and computational epistemology. Here’s a sneak peak.
In his 1966 work The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes in his preface a passage from Borges to establish his objective. Quoting Borges, who in turn refers to ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, the section describes a classification of animals as being ‘divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In a later lecture recalled by Laurie Taylor, Foucault lambasted the impulse to capture and mount every butterfly in a genus and lay them out on a table, to highlight minute differences in form and colour, as if trying to solve God’s puzzle. Continue reading “Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order”
In 2012, I began looking at State Legitimacy as a political entity under attack from globalisation and technology. At its core, my thesis was that the nation state was being re-cast in new dimensions, beyond geography and ethnicity, into brands, global culture, and digital communications. This was a more intellectual evolution, beyond the physical, into deeper concepts of identity. The possibility of deviance, of what Foucault or Zizek might call perversions, presented an opportunity for reduced anxieties and improved conditions for all of us.
Do you know what progress means? Do you know what technology is? Many elements of cultural structure have been so consistent and unchallenged now for so many years that we may have landed in a kind of intellectual stupor. Our self-awareness has dissipated, and our alienation has become so complete that we have almost become meta-brands, brands of brands, images of images, pictures of pictures. Our pandemic mimesis denies innovation and inspiration, and only increases the penalty for deviance, or perversion. Self-knowledge has become a curse, something denies us membership of society, leading us to post-truth, and ‘fake news’.
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.
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!’
The High Church of Technology has made a pronouncement, as is the business of major world religions, on the goodness of novelty. The new, the upgraded, and the shiny are to be venerated, while the old, the obsolete and the dusty are for the defeated and the underprivileged of our species. All buy the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface! All shun the Blackberry, and the desktop computer. It’s not just a technology thing, it’s a capitalist thing, of course; it’s difficult to separate the two these days. It’s all a far cry from the origins of silicon valley in the cradle of the counter-culture, and the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of anarchist tooling up of people to enable them to defend and articulate their personal freedom. Perhaps it’s an irony, perhaps a betrayal of a more fundamental human inevitability, and maybe, deeper still, the ultimate realisation of the Protestant ethic: it may be that technology binds us to fate far more than it liberates us, because of the choices that we have made. As Ken Cukier has put it, what is at stake now is the whole notion of human volition.
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’”