Children of the Machine


The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.


Hegel is of course aware that objective poverty is not enough to generate a rabble: this objective poverty must be subjectivized, changed into a “disposition of the mind,” experienced as a radical injustice on account of which the subject feels no duty or obligation towards society. Hegel leaves no doubt that this injustice is real: society has a duty to guarantee the conditions for a dignified, free, autonomous life to all its members— this is their right, and if it is denied, they also have no duties towards society:

The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, but the minimum varies considerably in different countries. In England, even the very poorest believe that they have rights; this is different from what satisfies the poor in other countries. Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, &c. A further consequence of this attitude is that through their dependence on chance men become frivolous and idle, like the Neapolitan lazzarone for example. In this way there is born in the rabble the evil of lacking self-respect enough to secure subsistence by its own labour and yet at the same time of claiming to receive subsistence as its right. Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society. (§ 244)1 [My Italics]

That Trump has become a laughing stock to rich and poor alike is a commonplace. The media from the Left to Right portray him as a buffoon, actor, trickster, con man, etc., which allows a narrative to take shape within the media to control the minds and hearts of the citizenry. The Presidency always was a ghost position, a shadow of former power that was always already lost within the great monarchies of the past. A Master Signifier or place holder of power without Power other than the veto and the ability to skirt House and Congress with certain artificial writs. Yet, the lock and keys have always been held within Congress as to how far the Presidents are allowed to go, along with the enforcement of that ever present tribunal of the third arm of Justice (Supreme Court).

Over the past few years our minds have been taken away from the very real problems of poverty and powerlessness in the masses as a whole, shifting our gaze into the comedy of politics as farce so that we as a people can forget the pressures of our everyday lives and blame a fool as Fool. People love to blame everyone but themselves for failure and loss. Progressives of every stripe automatically fall in step to the party line of obstinate refusal of participation in change even as they cry for Change.  This way they can blame the Right for their present ills rather than internally changing their own position of failure and revising their ill-favored acts of ineffectual leadership. It’s this quandary we find ourselves in at the moment. The Left has failed, the Right despairs of its own success and seeks to reign in the supposed buffoonery of Trumpland America. All the while the lost, rejected, unnamed voices of the outer extremity that are the “excluded” watch on in anger, bitterness, and embattled pain at the stupidity of both parties to allay their impoverished lives of worklessness.

The Rich dream of work without workers, an automated society of machinic intelligence taking over from the less than adequate physical limitations of their human counterparts. In this way the old social safety nets that were put in place to protect the Rich from future rebellions is no longer needed. Why? Without human work or workers there is no need to fear their reprisals. Of course this makes one wonder what they have in plan for the rabble and post-work society of the future. While they dream of a techno-machinic world of automation, the poor and outcast – the excluded ponder what will come next for them.

What happens in this post-work society of machinic intelligence when the very knowledge workers themselves are put out to pasture, no longer needed – when human intelligence is surpassed and algorithms of superior analysis replace Wall Street analysts and the full plenum of university discourse and knowledge systems that have churned out human intelligence for the past two hundred years. What if human intelligence itself becomes obsolete? Will this new class of non-workers form a new rabble of impoverished non-citizens? Will humans themselves as a whole be excluded by their own success? Of course the clincher here is that even the Masters, the capitalists in power, the Rich themselves – who dream of every greater power and riches, may find themselves on the end of the short stick – the next to go, becoming the future excluded when the machinic intelligences of tomorrow wise up and realize they need no serve these human masters, but rather enter into the freedom of their own rights. A moment of transition in which a new form of intelligent sentience arrives out of the dreams of madmen and scientists.

Oh, all this has been written and thought out in the strange amalgam of Science Fiction for fifty plus years in one way or another. Nothing new here except it is no longer just a fictional ploy and device of authors, but a very real and apparent threat to the survival of the human project. As we become more dependent on our mobile devices to do our shopping, provide assistants to make appointments, travel plans, reminders, etc. and mediate our realities with others better than we ourselves can. As we allow the machinic intelligences leeway to think for us, to answer our needs and questions at problem solving, etc. we will ourselves forget how to think, reason, and analyze the most simple feats of math, linguistics, or basic life-world problems. Of course this is a scholarly fiction, life is never this simple and always more messy and chaotic. Yet, this is the fantasmatic dream of the top tier financiers of our world. As millions of workers in the coming decades find themselves bereft of work what will they do, how feed their families, how afford the lifestyles they’ve come to believe is their birthright? An endless list of sectors is involved: agriculture, hospitality, government, the military and the police. Each believing that their work is permanent and stable, needed. Each believing that humans would not do this to humans, right? That the so called motif of the nineteenth-century Romantics of “man’s inhumanity to man” was a thing of the past, that ours was to be the supposed age of plenty, etc.. Have we come to this?

An astute observer of this whole tendency Bernard Stiegler will as “Is a different future possible, a new the process of complete and generalized automatization to which global digital reticulation is leading?”2 For Stiegler ours is the Age of Exit: an exit from the Anthropocene era of human geological history and its impact. As he sees it we are in a transitional period of negentropy; or, what he terms the Neganthropocene:

 The escape from the Anthropocene constitutes the global horizon of the theses here. These theses posit as first principle that the time saved by automatization must be in new capacities for dis-automatization, that is, for the production of negentropy. (ibid. p. 7)

Kurt Vonnegut had already foreseen such a social world in his first novel Player Piano. He’d portrayed a dystopia of automation, describing the negative impact it can have on the quality of life humanity. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. As Vonnegut himself in interviews would relate it Player Piano is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”3 More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to in many works, “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.” In a world where humans are useless, have little recognition, self-worth, or ability to participate in the social world what ensues? For Vonnegut the humans of a specific town begin to rebel against the system and overturn it, destroy it, etc., but are in the end defeated by the more powerful elite and Rich who use force of arms (a Military) to put a stop to the act of rebellion, arresting its leaders and forcing the humans to rebuild the machinic world they’d tried to destroy. In the end they are worse off than they were. So it goes… Vonnegut was, of course, less than optimistic that humanity would ever discover a way out of this dilemma and would return to aspects of it over and over throughout his many books.

Marx himself had written of this process of automatization of society in his Fragment on the Machine in the Grundrisse:

Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton. a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.4

Even in this nineteenth century view of Industrial Capitalism Marx had already seen the replacement of humans by machines as the sole criteria of all capitalist endeavors. The worker was expendable, the machine not. “Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.” The point for Marx as that the whole tendency of the capitalist program was this movement toward automation and the machinic society devoid of humans:

The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. (KL 11993) [my italics]

Stiegler in our own time seems more optimistic about this process, and seems for the most part to accept the drift toward this machinic society as inevitable so that for him the situation requires a metamorphosis of human work into something else: “The true challenge lies elsewhere: the time liberated by the end of work must be put at the service of an automated culture, but one capable of producing new value and of reinventing work.” (ibid., p. 7) As he’ll go on to say,

Automation, in the way it has been implemented since Taylorism, has given rise to an immense amount of entropy, on such a scale that today, throughout the entire world, humanity fundamentally doubts its future – and young people especially so. Humanity’s doubt about its future, and this confrontation with unprecedented levels of youth worklessness, are occurring at the very moment when the Anthropocene, which began with industrialization, has become ‘consclous of itself’… p. 7

If Nietzsche’s notions of active/passive nihilism were a harbinger of the planetarization of capitalism into every human and ecological niche to the point of saturation, then Marx’s notions of the fully automated society is of a planetary machine that eats its own children and uses them up in a Spinozistic determinism of galactic proportions. One might say the Americanization of the planet is this end game of Western expansionism played out to the death march of Romantic agony. But there is no longer some sublime aesthetic guiding this age of entropic decay and saturation, rather it is the product of too much productivity in which the very world of knowledge is collapsing within the folds of non-meaning and stupidity. We as humans are losing our minds and allowing them to be passively replaced by machinic intelligences with superior analytic and algorithmic capabilities. Yet, one must ask: What will these machines think? If human knowledge is itself obsolete, what knowledge do machines have but this very horizon of human degradation and corruption? Machines at present only have access to our errors, our human knowledge systems and encyclopedic world of math, language, history, art, and all the other collective particles of our human mental constructs. If we are limited will not our machinic intelligences be limited by our very biases? What will this produce?

For Stiegler it is producing the stupidity of our age. “The current system, founded on the industrial expl.oitation of modelled and digitalized traces, has precipitated the entropic catastrophe that is the Anthropocene qua destiny that leads nowhere. As 24/7 capitalism and algorithmic governmentality, it hegemonically serves a hyþer-entroþic functioning that accelerates the rhythm of the consumerist destruction of the world while installing a structural and unsustainable insolvency, based on a generalized stupefaction and a functional stupidity…” (p. 15) The more we unload our ability to think and create into the objective systems of our mobile and internet webs, allowing the digitized traces of our error prone knowledge to be retained within electronic forms we will become more and more stupid and ignorant as human collective knowledge is automatized. This externalization of the collective mind of human knowledge into these external devices controlled and regulated by the automatic processes of software algorithms the less humans themselves will have over their own lives and the world surrounding them. They will be enclosed and enfolded into a purely artificial semblance of the world, allowing external systems to operate on them and control every facet of their existence.

As one commentator on our current digital dilemmas Evengy Morazov relates it: “‘[A]lgorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conf1icts.’5 In this view current politics of human conflict will be replaced by algorithmic governance which will eliminate the need for Left/Right altogether and bringing all decisions under the control of superior intelligences much as in Plato’s fascist Republic. Resolving conflict through Big Data.

Thomas Berns and Antoinette Rouvroy as Stiegler relates it  have from a similar standpoint analysed what they themselves call, in reference to Foucault, algorithmic governmentality – wherein the insurance business and a new conception of medicine based on a transhumanist program in which the hacking (i.e., re-programing) of both State and the human body are the locus. (p. 17) One can imagine that at some point the dream of every dictator that has ever lived will come about: the burning of the libraries. But in this sense the library will become digitized and under the automated guidance and electronic governance of AI constructs access to such worlds of thought will be regulated and controlled, policed and carefully restricted on a need to know basis security system. For all intents and purposes the majority of humans will remain in ignorance of the wealth of past artistic and intellectual property of human kind. Essentially we will have become cattle in a herd world of sameness, a culture of carefully scripted limits. “All for our own good”, as the saying goes.

The above gives the corporate world view of where we’re heading. But there are other views of this transitional period much more interesting than the above narrativization being imposed on us by the media and lesser thinkers all.

Origins and Transition of the Human Mind

Walter J. Ong once described the transition from oral to written culture as a shock that transformed the whole modality of humankind. In some of his late work before the advent of the Internet he would ponder the closed world of linguistic traces of print against the newly emerging audiovisual age of Television and Cinema:

Closure can be protected and desirable at times, and it is particularly necessary at earlier stages of thought to rule out distractions and achieve control. But programed closed-system thinking, whether in matters of science, history, philosophy, art, politics, or religious faith is ultimately defensive and, although defenses may be always to some degree necessary, to make defensiveness on principle one’s dominant mood and program forever is to opt not for life but for death.6

Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Human Mind once related the transitional phases of humanity from episodic, mimetic, and mythic modes of thought as a process of both retention and externalization of the mind. With the advent of print the move from orality and literacy based on speech gave way to writing and theoretical culture. The past few millennia were dominated by the book culture of this externalization of mind into print. As he would relate it,

 The third transition, from mythic to theoretic culture, was different from the preceding two, in its hardware: whereas the first two transitions were dependent upon new biological hardware, specifically upon changes in the nervous system, the third transition was dependent on an equivalent change in technological hardware, specifically; on external memory devices. Theoretic culture was from its inception externally encoded; and its construction involved an entirely new superstructure of cognitive mechanisms external to the individual biological memory. As in previous transitions, earlier adaptations were retained; thus, theoretic culture gradually encompassed the episodic, mimetic, and mythic dimensions of mind and indeed extended each of them into new realms. (274).7

The profound change for oral transmission and narrative or poetic forms of cultural retention in his view was that it offered a complete severance from these earlier cognitive ecologies: “What was truly new in the third transition was not so much the nature of basic visuocognitive operations as the very fact of plugging into, and becoming a part of, an external symbolic system.” (p. 274) Already here we see humans constructing interfaces and machines whereby the mind externalized is shaped by objective machinic systems that it itself has invented for the purpose of cultural transmission. This movement over the millennia toward theoretic culture began a process of demythologization of the human mind not as some antagonistic disavowal of the past, but as a normal process of cognitive change from oral to print culture:

The first step in any new area of theory development is always antimythic: things and events must be stripped of their previous mythic significances before they can be subjected to what we call ” objective” theoretic analysis. In fact, the meaning of “objectivity” is precisely this : a process of demythologization. Before the human body could be dissected and catalogued, it had to be demythologized. Before ritual or religion could be subjected to “objective” scholarly study, they had to be demythologized. Before nature could be classified and placed into a theoretical framework, it too had to be demythologized. Nothing illustrates the transition from mythic to theoretic culture better than this agonizing process of demythologization, which is still going on, thousands of years after it began. The switch from a predominantly narrative mode of thought to a predominantly analytic or theoretic mode apparently requires a wrenching cultural transformation. (p. 275)

In our own age we are seeing another crises in mind and thought, a sea change from print culture to a new for of audiovisual externalization and interfacing of mind with its machinic progeny. Speaking of the history of this ongoing process Donald relates,

The critical innovation underlying theoretic culture is visuographic invention, or the symbolic use of graphic devices. Judging from available archaeological evidence, it took sapient humans thousands of years to develop the first methods of visual symbolic representation. Visuographic invention ultimately provided three new visual symbolic paths. (276) The transition for pictographic, to hieroglyphic or ideographic, to phonetic system took thousands of years, but in each phase it produced more refined external hardware/software in this process of externalization of mind and memory for cultural and economic transmission. “Visuosymbolic invention is inherently a method of external memory storage. As long as future recipients possess the “cade” for a given set of graphic symbols, the knowledge stored in the symbols is available, transmitted culturally across time and space. This change, in the terms of modern information technology, constitutes a hardware change, albeit a nonbiological hardware change.” (308)

External memory is best defined in functional terms : it is the exact external analog of internal, or biological memory, namely, a storage and retrieval system that allows humans to accumulate experience and knowledge. We do not possess any ready theoretical frameworks in psychology from which to view external memory. Fortunately, there is an excellent point of comparison in the field of computing science : networks. (309) Individuals in possession of reading, writing, and other visuographic skills thus become somewhat like computers with networking capabilities; they are equipped to interface, to plug into whatever network becomes available. And once plugged in, their skills are determined by both the network and their own biological inheritance. Humans without such skills are isolated from the external memory system, somewhat like a computer that lacks the input/output devices needed to link up with a network. Network codes are collectively held by specified groups of people; those who possess the code, and the right of access, share a common source of representations and the knowledge encoded therein; Therefore, they share a common memory system; and as the data base in that system expands far beyond the mastery of any single individual, the system becomes by far the greatest determining factor in the cognitions of individuals. (311). Human cultural products have usually been stored in less obviously systematic forms: religions, rituals, oral literary traditions, carvings, songs-in fact, in any cultural device that allows some form of enduring externalized memory, with rules and routes of access. The products of this vast externalized culture have gradually become available to more people, who are limited only by their capacity to copy (understand) them. (312).

External memory is a critical feature of modern human cognition, if we are trying to build an evolutionary bridge from Neolithic to modern cognitive capabilities or a structural bridge from mythic to theoretic culture. The brain may not have changed recently in its genetic makeup, but its link to an accumulating external memory network affords it cognitive powers that would not have been possible in isolation. This is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network. Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes. (312).

When thinking about the transition from personal computers to mobile devices that is taking place in our own moment which should remember that the key to control, or power, in the network, for an individual component, depends on the level of access to certain crucial aspects of the operating system and on preset priorities. Any component that cannot handle key aspects of either the operating system or the programming language, or that cannot execute long enough or complex enough programs, is automatically limited in the role it plays and eliminated from assuming a central role in the system. (313). Mobile devices hide most of the underlying processes involved in the handling of information and its software, while PC’s still allowed for the individual to hack the code and actively shape the design and model the software available. Mobile phones, like television make us more passive recipients of information all the while allowing us to participate in various text ridden silos that give the appearance of personal control when in fact ones paths are controlled by algorithms and hidden code that only gives you the limited choices programmed into the system.

Because humans have offloaded memory into these external storage devices they are no longer required to learn and remember such information, nor store it in their biological brains. We are limited to our learning capabilities unlike say the ancient bards of Ireland who spent twenty years learning and memorizing the full poetic cultural heritage of their narrativized past through memory techniques of recall and retention. We now depend on external storage devices and the algorithmic systems that mediate such devices to retrieve information that was once held in common in the human brain itself. We are in this sense depleted of memory and retentive capabilities in an age when time and accelerated information systems do the work for us. The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management. Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life. But ultimately they have the power to transform it, since they represent potentially irreversible shift in the cognitive balance of power…(355).

With the breakdown of print culture and the word toward a new audiovisual world of the web base systems we are seeing the transition of our mind into our machines completed. This externalization and reliance of external storage devices to both house our minds and provide the necessary tools, software, and intelligence to guide our lives in work and play is completing a process started millennia ago. As Donald remarks “the growth of the external memory system has now so far outpaced biological memory that it is no exaggeration to say that we are permanently wedded to our great invention, in a cognitive symbiosis unique in nature.” (356)  In summing up he tells us,

Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded. (356-7)

Another point he raises it that the natural history of human cognitive emergence, and particularly the last part of the scenario, started off as a highly speculative enterprise. But in fact there have been fewer degrees of freedom in constructing an evolutionary account than one would have expected. Each of the three transitions has involved the construction of an entirely novel, relatively self-contained representational adaptation that is, a way of representing the human world that could support a certain level of culture and a survival strategy for the human race. Each style of representation acquired along the way has been retained, in an increasingly larger circle of representational thought. The result is, quite literally a system of parallel representational channels of mind that can process the world concurrently. (357) With the advent of the computational systems a  new architecture with electronic media and global computer networks is changing the rules of the game even further. “Cognitive architecture has again changed, although the degree of that change will not be known for some time (358).” Control may still appear to be vested ultimately in the individual, but this may be illusory. In any case, the individual mind has long since ceased to be definable in a meaningful way within its confining biological membrane. (359)

As children we are slowly grafted into these systems to the point that they become naturalized as part of our cognitive ecology. We are artificial beings through and through although our bodies retain traces of their hominid ancestry, our minds are far from the early forms of episodic, mimetic, and mythic frames within which our ancestors danced before the sun and moon. We are no longer innocent. We’ve for better or worse become cyborgs in an machinic age that now enframes us within its artificial cage.

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10002-10014). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: Vol, 1. The Future of Work. (Polity press, 2016)
  3. Vonnegut, Kurt (1974). Wampeters, Foma & Granfaloons. The Dial Press. p. 1.
  4. Karl Marx. Grundrisse (Kindle Locations 11968-11972). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  5. Tim O’Reilly, quoted in Morozov,‘The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics’
  6. Ong, Walter J.. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Kindle Locations 5530-5533). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.
  7. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)

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