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.
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.
We live in a perpetual reckoning. It’s a strange place in some respects, and not very forgiving. It’s a place where everything is counted, everything is measured, billed, quantified. I’m talking, of course, about the digital space that we inhabit today, where our politics and our societies function and grow, where our families meet, our groceries are procured, and our priests broadcast Mass.
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.
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.
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.
As Francois Hollande transitions from the bureaucratic administrator of the Fifth French Republic to a wartime leader in the latest instalment of the rolling war on terror, decisions are being made about France. The latest pronouncements – from overbearing surveillance measures introduced in the Summer in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, to the most recent introduction of a three month state of emergency in order to deal with the Paris attacks – diminish democratic governance and accountability, in the short-sighted interests of expediency and national security. But this disaffected progression is not new; perhaps the January and November attacks were more overtly offensive than before, and appear more obvious inflection points, but we must go back ten years to the riots of 2005 to try and understand what is happening. Furthermore, the decisions being made today are not merely reflective of missteps taken in the past, but instructive as to the kind of France that is emerging for the future. And for France, we can read Europe, and Western Liberalism.
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”
Towards the end of Fancis Fukyama’s recent tome, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama makes reference to Frederick Winslow Taylor, a business guru from the turn of the century. Modern Science was being applied to state bureaucracy, and Taylor was at the forefront of what might be termed today as business optimization. ‘[A]dministration,’ Fukuyama explained, ‘was a realm of implementation that could be studied empirically and subjected to scientific analysis….public administration could be turned into a science and protected from the irrationalities of politics.’ (Chapter 41, Political Decay) Reading that piece, I remembered something.
Yevgeny Zamyatin was a writer who George Orwell described as having an ‘intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism.’ His best remembered work “We” is a dark satire on a future state that is authoritatian, vicious, mathematical, and strangely devoid of character and soul. On numerous occasions his narrator refers to Taylor (who died only six years prior to the publication of the book), referring to him as ‘the greatest of the ancients’, an asignation dripping with satire. His methods appear in Zamtayin’s dystopia as cherished principles of the One State regime, moving towards mathematical perfection in the administration of society. Clearly, Zamyatin saw what Fukuyama saw, and while Fukuyama acts as a historian and reports the trend dispassionately, Zamyatin as a contemporary of Taylor clearly saw ‘Scientific Management’ as a dangerous thing.