Category: Philosophy

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 “The General Will And Predictive Analytics”

National Security and the Legitimacy of the State

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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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Habermas and the Crisis of The European Union

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Juergen Haberman: The German neo-communist informs a considerable part of German thinking on Europe, though one suspects from his writing that he is not too pleased with German strategy on the Crisis.

I’ve been reading Juergen Habermas slim volume The Crisis of the European Union: A Response, and I have to say that it is an exceptional read.  Not only is it very accessible – important, if you’re trying to send a message to politicians – but it is equally concise.  These are big thoughts, and grand ideas, and it is easy to get bogged down.  Highly recommended to everyone reading this – if you’re interested in my blog, Habermas is a must.  These are some of the notes I took on the Preface.

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Sovereignty, Poverty and Interdependence

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Seán Lemass, Taoiseach of Ireland 1959-1966. Lemass believed Ireland had given up its sovereignty to the International Community in the years after World War II.

Ireland has had a well documented, rather turbulent recent economic history.  Following on from the bursting of the property bubble and the attendant banking collapse, an extraordinarily myopic political decision to nationalise the exposure of the banks led to a sovereign debt crisis, and, ultimately, a bailout from the troika of the IMF, ECB and European Commission.  Apart from the loss of money, there was plenty dramatic wailing about the loss of National Sovereignty, and references to the War of Independence and the heroes of 1916 and ‘is this what they died for?’ rhetoric.  There was even a nuance to the sovereignty question, in that the country had lost her economic sovereignty, whatever that meant.

Now, politics has always had an uneasy alliance with the propriety of language, bending it to its will as any situation may have seen fit.  The distinction between economic sovereignty, and other sovereignty, one supposes, is that while we’re not necessarily allowed to award pay rises to civil servants, we are still permitted to invade England.  At least we have that, I guess.   Of course, the extent to which we are – truly – permitted to invade England is limited in exactly the same way as our freedom to spend money has been limited.  It is not a flat prohibition on action through coercive or other power that has limited what Ireland as a State can do; it is the threat of exclusion from international systems upon which we have become irrevocably dependent that limits our action.

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Systemic Issues: Marx, Python, Equality and Capitalist Doom

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Karl Marx. The man had his moments.

Charles Moore’s article in the Telegraph yesterday caused something of a stir. Equality, he said, was not really a good thing at all. What’s that you say? He must be an elitist! How uncool is that! Well, essentially he was arguing that in the context of women in the army, and in particular on the front line of the army, that it was one step too far. Women just are not as strong as men, and therefore shouldn’t be there. His argument weakened when he extended it into civil partnership, defining marriage in terms of the legal structures for its dissolution, which appears to me to be something of a non sequitur. In essence, Moore misses the point that ‘unconventional’ couples are not seeking access to the institution, but rather to its attendant rights; indeed, they are seeking to fundamentally alter the institution, and make it more inclusive, rather than simply more equal.

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Zizek’s Technological Post-Humanism and Anonymous

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Anonymous: Abstract Technological Representation of the Excluded

As mentioned in my last post, Zizek identifies four apocalyptic antagonisms that threaten the liberal democratic status-quo.  They are ecology, technology, property and equality.  In relation to the technological post-human dystopia, Zizek attributes a leadership role to Ray Kurzweil, a noted thinker in technology futurism.  There are two kinds of post-humanism, it appears – a kind of robotic, artificial intelligence future as described in the fiction Asimov and the Terminator movies, and a bio-genetic technological Armageddon  of which I’m less familiar.

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Global Political Movements

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Zizek’s ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’

On the plane to New York I was reading an interesting article in the Economist on The Politics of The Internet, that asked the question whether Internet activism could develop into a ‘real political movement’.  It was an interesting sentence construction, one that presupposed how politics should work, and that the real effect of significant change may not be within the system – in the form of a political party, one that spans borders – but with the system itself.  For example, open source software should not succeed at all based on the market based assumptions of equity distribution.  It succeeds in spite of the system, not because of it.  At the same time, I’m reading Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, notwithstanding his pathological fear of footnotes.

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