Bernard Stiegler: Fascism with a Machinic Smile

What is at stake in the new social organization that we must dream, conceive and realize – that is, establish and institute as the therapeia of the new pharmakon – is the time of knowledge…

—Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society

In this sense Bernard Stiegler envisions our exit from the industrial age as a foregone conclusion, exiting from the Fordist and Post-Fordist paradigms, exiting from Taylorism, Keynesianism and the consumerist capitalism which has underpinned our society for decades.  We must organize the economy and society differently, including the elaboration and transmission of knowledge itself. But to get there he sees our need for an epistemic sea change as we enter an age when the end of employment becomes a reality rather than a hype story. The shock of this age will be brutal and deadly for many as we pass through the shock of “generalized automation and therefore robotization” of life, work and society. Stiegler sees this end game being played out even now, and how we anticipate and negotiate this transitional period over the coming decades will decide the fate not only of humanity but of the earth itself. Rather than adapting to the capitalist scenario and its coming explosion of violence we need to adopt a more inventive approach through a restructuring of our academic and political institutions.

Those in power are slowly converging toward a 24/7 computational capitalism that seeks to modulate and control our lives through the information and communications technologies of everyday life: the internet of things. This new form of governance has been termed ‘algorithmic governance’: it seeks through deep machine learning, Big Data, and powerful forms of predictive and analytical search and capture to manipulate our affective lives, capturing our desires and modulating our dreams and aspirations. Playing on our ancient propensity for the irrational, for religious and utopian expectations and dreams this new for of calculated society will provide both a secular and religious ideology of transhumanist immortalism. Offering those who comply and conform to the nomos of its globalized system of algorithmic governance a world of security and plenty. Fascism with a machinic smile.

Short circuiting the political processes that have underpinned the illusion of democratic societies for two hundred years, the new form of global governance through technics and algorithmic prediction unbound from any sovereign nation will enslave us to a system that offers nothing but our loyalty in exchange for total conformity. From birth to death one will become part of a machinic civilization in which implants meant as bio-metric health monitors will track and upload/download data and services into our physical lives 24/7. The shock of such a world system will arrive only after the traumatic conclusion of a staged event that will force humanity to conform to the new nomos (law) of the global society of the future. At least this is the capitalist dream…

Obviously such a world is a dystopic nightmare that only the insane would seek to inhabit, and yet as many in my own generation die off and the new children arising are molded to the integral and systematic infusion of social-media and systems of algorithmic governance by way of mobile phones, apps, and decisioning software that is based on smart systems: AGI, Cloud computing, Big Data, Deep Machine Learning, etc. These young people will not have access to the knowledge base of those like us who lived before the digital age. Those born within the horizon of the digital world will accept at face value that this is the way the world works without questioning it because they will no longer be educated to think for themselves, but rather to rely on intelligent devices to do that for them.

Of course Stiegler as a humanist harbors hope that we can turn this all around, that we can reinvent a more equitable future, that we can reshape technics and technology to guide humanity out of such a scenario rather than being enslaved to it. For Stiegler we are living in a world in which massive data flows of petabytes of information are shaped and governed by both private and governmental agencies to the benefit of a small elite of oligarchs, plutocrats, and transnational corporations who have built a nomos outside the sovereignty of any one nation to curtail or crush. In a sense our future is being programmed for us by machinic intelligences that know us better than we know ourselves.

Sometimes I think: Is this all a fantasy? Are we really living in an age when superintelligent machines will shape and guide the future of human society and civilization? Is this madness? It’s like a nightmare from which I would hope to awaken, and yet there are hundreds of books contesting this very possibility on the Left and Right sides of the fence. It’s not a dream, but a strange and bewildering world that the generation born today will have to understand and change or suffer the consequences. Sadly.

Nietzsche forecast this as the age of completed nihilism, an age when humans have externalized their cultural memory in machines to the point that they had forgotten its meaning. An age when the history of the earth and humanity would be forgotten by the vast masses who had become so enamored of their technological gadgets that reading a book or gazing on a forest had been displaced by the momentary text message binding the human gaze to an electronic world of machinic intelligence. What my friend R. Scott Bakker termed the ‘crash space‘ of our end game is upon us all. That we’ve always worked with very little information about ourselves or our environment is a part of our evolutionary heritage which gave us only enough information to survive and propagate our species. We neglect most of the world around us through eons of evolutionary processes we are barely coming to understand in our own time. Those who are seeking to reverse engineer the brain to build superintelligent systems work within a naturalized and empirical world of scientific know-how that precludes our ethical and moral dilemmas. Guided by the almighty need to know, and the money of vast conglomerates that support these new convergent technologies thousands of engineers and scientists, skilled workers in this digital economy are inventing the very machinic world that might someday replace us. One wonders if all the effort being expended on such projects were spent to develop ways of surviving the coming disastrous results of the Anthropocene what kind of world our children would inherit rather than the one the neoliberal engine of capital seems bent of inventing. Who knows?

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)