“One implication is that 25, 50, 250 years from now, we become a kind of clinical-trial society in which empirically driven decisions are constantly popping up. But by clinical-trial society, I mean all sorts of questions, because the information net becomes so rich — and the capacity to understand or deconvolute that information, because of computational power and because of A.I.-dependent algorithms, becomes so rich — that we begin to subject aspects of human behavior, human selves, that were previously considered outside the realm of assessment to a kind of deeper clinical assessment.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee in roundtable discussion with Regina Barzilay, George Church, Jennifer Egan, and Catherine Mohr in “From Gene Editing to A.I., How Will Technology Transform Humanity?” New York Times Magazine. November 16, 2018.
This discussion strikes me as terribly naïve and would have benefited from the perspective of someone like James C. Scott. Legibility on the scale imagined here may benefit the average person, but it will primary serve the interests of capital. It will be an instrument of social control and a catalyst of inequality, as Egan points out.
Another issue? What kind of human beings will be created when we start becoming a manufactured product? And what of those born outside this process? Will people whose DNA hasn’t been scrubbed to acceptable norms be second-class citizens? Who decides what those norms will be?
Technological utopianism is just as bad as any other fundamentalism. Science and knowledge will always be serving someone’s agenda, and while the benefits may trickle down, it shows a series lack of historical perspective to imagine it will primarily benefit those on the receiving end.
“‘Are you against the ‘liberal order’ which guaranteed peace and stability, and other wonderful things for so long?’ The obvious answer is that your much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.”
—Pankaj Mishra in an interview with Francis Wade, “‘The Liberal Order Is the Incubator for Authoritarianism’: A Conversation with Pankaj Mishra.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. November 15, 2018.
The fact that authoritarians are propped up by other authoritarianisms is commonly understood. Pointing to terrorists, pirates, criminals, and The Other in all their manifestations has always been a way to legitimize the rule and draconian practices of the elite.
But, liberal ideas like “human rights,” “rule of law,” and so forth are given a free pass on a more critical review of when they are applied and who benefits. What do these terms mean in a society where 1/3 of black men spend some time in prison? What do they mean when the bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen are made and dropped from planes sold by the United States?
When you understand that concepts like human rights and rule of law don’t apply equally to everyone, as is suggested by the name on the tin and how it is used, then it is easy to see the relationship of liberalism with other forms of fundamentalism. Free market fundamentalism is one obvious manifestation. But, rule of law and legal positivism is no less of a fundamentalism, one that doesn’t track well with reality when one can get past the surface and take a more critical look.
It’s an interesting point that liberalism is the fertile soil in which authoritarianism grows.
This interview with Helen Nissanbaum on privacy as a social good and how managing dataflows is a better way to think about it than consent is worth a read. These ideas are explored in greater detail in her book, Privacy in Context.
h/t Schneier on Security.
“When we are clear-eyed about the fact that what we think of as our individual self is really a hodgepodge of artifice, and not really our self, that can be both freeing and terrifying. Our ego constantly chases fleeting needs, which is why an identity based on that ego is fleeting, and happiness based on feeding that ego is fleeting. I think true happiness is probably only attained by the release of ego, which is ironically our ego’s greatest fear. In Eric, I try to capture the horror and freedom of what it might be like to actually erase your ego. It’s all in the book’s opening quote from the Beach Boys: ‘Hang on to your ego / hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight.'”
—Tom Manning quoted in an interview with Sarah Heston, “Magical Los Angeles: An Interview with Tom Manning.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. September 29, 2018.
You can order Eric (or his other graphic novel Runoff) via the author’s website, or ask your local library to order or get it on loan.
“Another function of these civilizational trances is the inoculation of the masses from outsider disturbances. This is achieved by hardening the audience to them, administering small doses of carefully excised and polished versions of their rabid and incomprehensible accents, smooth postcard images of toxic wastelands, little commercial apocalypses for atrophied imaginations.”
—Cergat Boş & Elytron Frass, “Interviews with Anonymous Personas.” 3:AM Magazine. September 4, 2018.
Break out of your civilizational trance. Open up to outsider disturbances, and exercise your atrophied imagination.
Reading through these interviews, on one level, there are ideas I haven’t seen before, such as xenofeminism and the possibility of cyborgs as a vehicle for transcending gender and patriarchy. On another level, I keep getting whiffs of word salad, as if there’s a coy game going on in the background. Is it that I’m just not getting this part because I lack the basic intelligence or worldview / theoretical framework? Is this meaningless word salad? Is it something else? All of which is part of the fun.
The casual mention of various books and authors keep sending me down unexplored paths in the literature jungle. It can take some time to cut through the thicket of the conversation and the references providing some context for it. But, it makes for an interesting journey.
In short, delightful. Recommended.
Reference: Anon is Not Dead: Towards a History of Anonymous Authorship in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain
“‘So how do you change things? Subversion: that’s how. Who does it best? Madison Avenue; they get people to buy things that are bad for them every day…That’s what we wanted to do, use subversion to sell people things that they don’t know they want.’
…But to dismiss Devo as nostalgia compilation fodder is to overlook a body of work that feels prescient in both style and substance, rife with critiques of consumerism, right-wing ascendance, Midwestern paternalism, corporate monoculture, and geopolitical hysteria…We were a self-proclaimed canary in a coal mine warning people about the emerging dangers of technology as a god to be worshipped, rather than as a tool to be exploited, and the centralized Corporate Feudal State that seemed to be barreling full speed ahead…
Because we thought rock and roll was dead already. We thought rock and roll had been used up, and it was intellectually vapid, and there was no reason for it to continue. ”
—Mark Mothersbaugh in an interview with Andrea Domanick. “The Truth About Devo, America’s Most Misunderstood Band.” Vice. August 29, 2018.
Devo-lution is upon us. Not much new besides the book. Still, interesting if you didn’t know much about them and sympathize with their message, as I do.