Category Archives: Philosophy

Alien Technology (2)

Feuerbach, like Marx, also had a hipster beard.

(…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?

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Alien Technology

Things are pretty strange, it’s got to be said. But are they actually alien? (image credit Kim Hunter)

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.

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The Neoliberal Inevitability of Vegetarian Hegemony

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It’s a tofu taco bowl. Sure it is.

The election of Donald Trump may signal a slap in the face for our neoliberal orthodoxy, but it’s certainly not a death blow. It remains to be seen how effective he will be in disrupting the stasis that has gripped western liberal democratic governance for much of the past quarter century. That it requires disruption is certainly true; reform, at least. But it remains unclear what will replace it other than a ball of resentment and anger. Just as Rick Page declared that ‘hope is not a strategy’ in 2001, the same can be said of anger. But what has that got to do with vegetarianism? Stick with me.

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Facebook as a Form of Life?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

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.

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Trump/Brexit: Popular Legitimacy and the Rule of Law

Morten Morland's cartoon from The Times, November 4th.

Morten Morland‘s cartoon from The Times, November 4th.

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday on what it called ‘a coup’ against the Supreme Court. The death of Antonin Scalia earlier this year, and the Republican Party’s refusal to entertain a replacement has rendered the previously nine, now eight judge court unable to resolve some important cases, split evenly as they are between four generally liberal and four generally conservative justices. The GOP Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump, has recklessly attacked other institutions in his scorched earth strategy that followed his poor showing at the debates, including the Military, the FBI, the President, the Federal Reserve, and the Media. Early on in the campaign, he attacked a judge who ruled against him, claiming the judge was biased because he was Mexican-American. He has threatened to jail his opponent if he wins, he has consistently attacked and undermined the electoral process itself, and encouraged voter suppression.  Every pillar of democracy in America has been weakened by Mr Trump’s candidacy whether he wins or not, and people love him for it.

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The Temper of the Machine

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Temper – Tempus – Temporal: Machines are clocks, but they have no temper.

I had the pleasure this week of addressing the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of Digital Citizenship, which, rather than addressing the narrow construct of person-state relationship, instead took in a broad sweep of life in the digital world. Part of a series themed around the constitution, it focused on issues of growing up a teenager in the digital world, data protection (there were a lot of lawyers in the room, not least my fellow presenter Oisín Tobin of Mason Hayes & Curran), privacy, artificial intelligence and the politics of all that. In two hours, it was a hurried skip across disciplines and dystopias, which illustrated in equal measure the interest and enthusiasm people have for addressing the issue (there was barely a seat left in the hall), and the strange paucity (it seems to me, at least) of opportunities that there are to pursue in particular the ethical, policy, and political implications of our digital lives. Convened by Dr John Morrison, the Academy Chair of the Ethical, Political, Legal and Philsophical Committee, and expertly chaired by Dr Noreen O’Carroll, perhaps this is the beginning of an attempt to address that.

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Algorithmic Governance and its Discontents

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Dr Rónán Kennedy Chairs a session at the Algorithmic Governance workshop at NUI Galway

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.

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The Political Philosophy of The Blockchain

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The blockchain is a computerised public ledger that assures contracts and other transactions. It could save us all!

Property, and – as philosophers might refer to it – the claim to possession and ownership of externalities, has long been a source of some disquiet. Jean Jacques Rousseau in the Second Discourse (The Discourse on Inequality) begins the second part with the dramatic opening line ‘[t]he first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.’ Plato before him and Marx later both advocated collectivisation, but Rousseau was no communist. The reality of what man had become made such reconstruction impractical. Yet the concept of property has led to inequalities that threaten capitalist society. Slavoj Zizek suggested that ‘…today’s global capitalism [may] contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction…’ including what he called ‘…the inappropriateness of private property…‘ especially intellectual property. Rousseau’s prescription was The Social Contract, and the abstraction of the General Will, an investiture of political legitimacy in the sovereign.

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The General Will And Predictive Analytics

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Zamyatin’s hero D-503 seemed quite pleased with his personal dystopia.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 work The Social Contract is in many respects an answer to his earlier work on inequality from 1754. In his discourse on inequality, he elaborated on the concept of amour propre, from which all inequality derived.  This amounted to a kind of egotism, or self-love of a particular kind, not what he calls amour de soi-meme, or love of oneself, which is a more visceral, base, defensiveness or protectiveness. The amour de soi-meme is a natural basis for self-preservation, much one could say as the spikes on a porcupine represent that animal’s amour de soi-meme.  The amour propre is the basis, he says, for honour, deriving as it does from a sense of esteem, something that is relative (to other people) and created by society.  Hobbesian vainglory, Platonic thumos, Freudian egoism, even Nietzschian supremacism – there are other incarnations of this concept, and in responding as he did in the Social Contract to this particularly human (and male) characteristic in The Social Contract, Rousseau extended the concept in The General Will. Continue reading

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National Security and the Legitimacy of the State

Edward Snowdon

Edward Snowdon: His revelations (though not new) have launched an avalanche of introspection and head scratching.

The New York Times and the Guardian have been digging ever deeper into the activities of the US National Security Agency or NSA following the leaking by Edward Snowdon of information about how they were spying both on countries and ordinary people at home.  Hot on the heels of the Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks diplomatic cables episode, there has been a constant flow of stories reporting on nefarious activities of spooks and governments, embarrassing opinions, and the mechanisms by which international diplomacy and spying are conducted, though Wired Magazine had got there first.   There are numerous angles to all of this.  There is the technology problem, an Orwellian, Kurtzweilian post-humanist dystopia where technology trumps all, and big data and analytics undermines or redefines the essence of who we are and forces a kind of a re-evaluation of existence.  There is the human rights problem, the balancing of the right to privacy and – generally speaking – an avoidance of judgement of the individual by the state, with the obligation to secure the state.  This issue is complex – if for example we have an ability to know, to predict, to foretell that people are going to do bad things, but we choose not to do that because it would require predicting also which people were going to do not-bad things, and therefore invade their privacy, is that wrong?  Many people said after 9/11 ‘why didn’t we see this coming?’ Which leads to the question – if you could know all that was coming, would you want to know?

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