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.
Dublin in The Rare Old Times, by Pete St. John, is a beautiful and poignant folk song about Dublin, its history and change. It’s full of pathos, remorse, and nostalgia, a story told by an old man whose identity has been overtaken by time, and made redundant. It’s also a story about technology and its impact on people and culture, and how the architecture of a city can redefine its people.
The song opens with remembrances of heroes and about the city, and the history that is embedded in the walls and structures that made up Dublin – but that is gone now. Memory, it seems, is all that is left. The narrator – Sean – remembers a girlfriend he lost, and a job that became irrelevant as technology made barrel making (coopering) an unnecessary trade. His old house was replaced – by ‘progress’, he says – a word dripping with resentment. His house was a fine house it seems, it served him well, but some external force, some outside actor decided that it would be in the interests of the city, of the society, to have it removed.
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.
Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.
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.
The international system is a complex and convoluted thing, and sets the framework against which States are measured for their effectiveness, righteousness, or other measures that could serve as proxies for legitimacy: transparency, robustness, even happiness, or goodness. According to these indices, Ireland performs reasonably well – very well actually. It is the seventh most ‘unfragile’ country in the world; the eleventh most ‘good’; the 18th most transparent; and the 19th happiest. Most of these indices combine different metrics such as GDP, social metrics like unemployment, education rates, and so on, which tend to mean that Ireland – and other countries – won’t deviate too much from one ranking to the next. So Ireland performs well as a country. However, the combination of the EU Crisis, Brexit, and Trump’s America seem to represent a trifecta of bad things over which Ireland has little or no control, and could send the country hurtling down those indices. So if Ireland has so little control over these shaping factors, is Ireland in fact a legitimate country, a genuinely sovereign power?
Liverpool won yesterday. I don’t like soccer. I don’t watch it (unless Liverpool are playing), I don’t play the game, nor have I any interest in its tactics, development, or the circus that surrounds the professional game. But because Liverpool won yesterday, I feel better today. I have been a fan of Liverpool since I was eight or nine years old, when in order to belong in my class at school, I chose a team (there were two choices; the other was Manchester United. I hate Manchester United.). Even though I’m much older now, and deeply understand the naivety of choosing to support a foreign team playing a foreign game where grown men (often racist, always straight, and sometimes with a penchant for violence) kick a ball around a field, it reaches deep inside of me when they win, and when they lose. Sport is an extremely powerful social force, and in the past thirty years, bankers and politicians have learned how to control that force in an unprecedented way.
Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life’ construction, one which has addled my brain for over a year now, is a philosophical device that allows us to think about life, and what it means, in a layered and constructed form. Human beings, in their pure essence, are not really a form of life, but merely a life-form, shorn as they are of context and relativity. If you take a human, take away everything that is non-essential for the preservation of mere existence – legs, arms and so on, and then replace those organs vital for the maintenance of that state of existence with machines – a mechanical heart, even the parts of the brain that are not required, such as those controlling motor functions. There is very little in the bare, denuded essence of man that is in any respect a form of life. It is mere existence, presence; it may even be argued that while rational potential exists, reason does not, as that potential has no access to nurturing functions. It is only when the human interacts with the outside world, with the world that exists beyond consciousness and the self, that she becomes a form of life.
I had the privilege to participate in a workshop on algorithmic governance this past Friday at my alma mater, the National University of Ireland, Galway, under the supervision of Dr Rónán Kennedy and Dr John Danaher of the Law Faculty. and co-funded by the Colleges of Business and Public Policy. It’s part of a wider program of research grandly titled ‘Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project‘, which promises to tread some fascinating pathways. Comprehensive synopses of the event have already been published by Dr Danaher and one of the speakers Dr Muki Haklay, so I won’t re-do their work, but instead refer to one of the particularly interesting themes that emerged from the work.