Posthuman Economics: The Empire of Capital

Maybe what haunts posthumanism is not technology but utopian capitalism, the dark silences long repressed, excluded, disavowed, and negated within the Empire of Capital.  Franco Berardi’s The Uprising grabs the history of art and capital by the horns as the slow and methodical implementation of the Idealist program. By this he means the dereferentialization of reality – or what we term now the semioitization of reality: the total annihilation of any connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, mind and world. Instead we live in a world structured by fantasy that over time has dematerialized reality.

In economics it was Richard Nixon (1972) who cut the link between financial capital and its referent, the gold standard which subtly dematerialized monetarism of the neoliberal era. This slow vanishing act of reality into its digital matrix has in our time become so naturalized that we have forgotten how much our lives are enmeshed in fictions divorced from even the illusion of reality. As Berardi will put it:

The premise of neoliberal dogmatism is the reduction of social life to the mathematical implications of financial algorithms. What is good for finance must be good for society, and if society does not accept this identification and submission, then that means that society is incompetent, and needs to be redressed by some technical authority.1

He speaks of the moment when the newly elected Greek President Papandreou actually had the audacity to question the EU’s austerity program and was summarily ousted by the new entity, The Markets, and replaced with a consultant from Goldman-Sachs. He asks calmly, What is this blind god, the Markets?

Markets are the visible manifestation of the inmost mathematical interfunctionality of algorithms embedded in the techno-linguistic machine: they utter sentences that change the destiny of the living body of society, destroy resources, and swallow the energies of the collective body like a draining pump. (Berardi, 32)

In this sense we are already being run by the machinic systems of math and computation at the core of our economic system. As he tells it the humans behind the system are not fascists, yet they allow society to be enslaved by a mathematical system of economics and financialization, which is clean, smooth, perfect, and efficient. The financial orthodoxy would have you believe that all things should act efficiently. Like all orthodoxies it offers comfort and guidance, but, as orthodoxies do, it also has the power to wound those who cannot follow its dogmas or who resist its rituals of conformity. It is technological because it has primarily to do with making things work, and it is particularly apparent in the contemporary emphasis on quantifiable productivity and associated fears of waste, especially the waste of time.2

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once developed his theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.3 Thinking of flow and efficiency one discovers the key is the concept of flow-of information or of goods, for example-and the role of efficiency in preventing disruptions. This suggests that beneath the zeal for efficiency lies the desire to control a changing world, to keep an optimal and peak level of flow going at all times in society and combatting and preventing anything that might disrupt that flow.

In Berardi’s mathematization of society we’re no longer consumers and users, but have instead become as Bruce Sterling tells us in The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Thingsparticipants under machine surveillance, whose activities are algorithmically combined within Big Data silos” (Sterling, KL 30). So that in this sense we are no longer embodied humans, but are instead bits of data floating among the wired worlds of our digital economy. But a fascinating aspect of the Internet of things is that the giants who control the major thrust within its reaches Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft could care less about efficiency. No. They in fact don’t bother to “compete” with each other because their real strategy is to “disrupt”. Rather than “competing” – becoming more efficient at doing something specific – “disruption” involves a public proof that the rival shouldn’t even exist.(Sterling, KL 212-216)

The basic order of the economic day is coded in the language of noir dime novels. “Knifing the baby” means deliberately appropriating the work of start-ups before they can become profitable businesses. “Stealing the oxygen” means seeing to it that markets don’t even exist – that no cash exchanges hands, while that formerly profitable activity is carried out on a computer you control. (Sterling, KL 224)

Yet, underneath all the glitter and glitz is the hard truth of reality. If the Internet of things is a neo-feudal empire of tyrant corporations disrupting the flows of efficient commerce in a bid to attain greater and greater power and influence, then the world of austerity and nation states outside the wires is preparing for the barbarians. As Berardi relates it outside the cold steel wires of financial digi-tyranny we can already see the violent underbelly of the old physical body of the social raising its reactionary head: nation, race, ethnic cleansing, and religious fundamentalism are running rampant around the globe. While the digital-elite pirate away the world of finance the forgotten citizenry outside the digital fortress are preparing for war in the streets: despair, suicide, and annihilation living in the austerity vacuum of a bloated world of wires.

Maybe Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming for our century:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The Uprising. (Semiotext(e), 2012)
2. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Locations 29-32). Kindle Edition
3. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (Kindle Locations 214-216). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Utopia or Hell: The Future as Posthuman Game Strategy

 

There was no question; the dead thing in the gutter was one of his clones. – Jeffrey Thomas, Punktown

As I was thinking through the last chapter in David Roden’s posthuman adventure in which a spirit of speculative engineering best exemplifies an ethical posthuman becoming – not the comic or dreadful arrest in the face of something that cannot be grasped 1, I began reading Arthur Kroker in his book Exits to the Posthuman Future, who in an almost uncanny answer to Roden’s plea for new forms of thought – to prepare ourselves for the posthuman eventuality, tells us that we might need a “form of thought that listens intently for the gaps, fissures, and intersections , whether directly in the technological sphere or indirectly in culture, politics, and society, where incipient signs of the posthuman first begin to figure.”2 We might replace the use of the word “figure” with Roden’s terminological need for an understanding of “emergence”.

Rereading Slavoj Zizek’s early The Sublime Object of Ideology he will see a specific battle within the cultural matrix in which scientists and critics alike have a tendency to fill these gaps, or unknowns with complexity and an almost acute anxiety of that which is coming at us out of the future. He says that there is always this dialectical interplay between Ptolemaic and Copernican movements. The Ptolemaic being the form that simply shores up the past, solidifying and reducing the complexities of the sciences to its simplified worldview, while the Copernicans always opt for fracturing the old forms, for opening up the world to the gaps that cannot be evaded in our knowledge, to allowing the universe to enter us and challenge everything we are and have been.

The Gothic modes of fiction seem to follow and fill these uncertain voids and gaps with the monstrous rather than light when such moments of metamorphosis and change come about. Fear and instability shake us to our bones, force us to resist change and seek ways to either turn time back or to put the unknown into some perverse relation to our lives, darkening its visions into complicity with the inhuman and sadomasochistic heart of our own core defense systems. One might be reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s remembrance of Mary Shelley’s famous Frankenstein in which his own repetition of her story in a postmodern mode has the creature awaken into his posthuman self with a sense of loss: “

This possibility is now , of course, as defunct as the planet itself. With all biology in tatters, the outsider will never again hear the consoling gasps of those who shunned him and in whose eyes and hearts he achieved a certain tangible identity, however loathsome. Without the others he simply cannot go on being himself— The Outsider— for there is no longer anyone to be outside of. In no time at all he is overwhelmed by this atrocious paradox of fate.

This sense of ambivalence that he fills at having attained at last something outside of humanity returns with a darker knowledge that becoming other he can no longer harbor what he once dreamed, he has become the thing he dreaded. Cast out of the biological tic he is free, but free for what? No longer human he is faced with the paradox of who he now is: and, that he has nothing to which his mind can tend, no thoughts from the others, the humans; no libraries of philosophy, ethics, history, literature. No. He is absolutely outside of the human; alone. Is this solipsism or something else? Even that classic work by the Comte de Lautremont Maldoror in which the ecstasy of cruelty is unleased cannot be a part of this world of the posthuman. What if the mythology of drives, of eros and thanatos, love and death, the rhetoric flourishes of figuration, else the literalism of sadomasochism no longer hold for such beings? How apply human knowledge and thought to what is inhuman? As Ligotti will end one of his little vignettes:

And each fragment of the outsider cast far across the earth now absorbs the warmth and catches the light, reflecting the future life and festivals of a resurrected race of beings : ones who will remain forever ignorant of their origins but for whom the sight of a surface of cold, unyielding glass will always hold profound and unexplainable terrors. (ibid)

This sense of utter desolation, of catastrophe as creation and invention, is this not the truth of the posthuman? Zizek will attune us to the monstrous notion that Hegel’s notion of Aufhebung or sublation is a form of cannibalism in that it effectively and voraciously devours and ‘swallows up’ every object it comes upon.4 His point being that the only way we can grasp an object (let’s say the posthuman) is to acknowledge that it already ‘wants to be with/by us’? If as Roden suggests we as humans are becoming the site of a great experiment in inventing the posthuman then maybe as Zizek suggests its not digestion or cognition, but shitting that we must understand, because for Hegel the figure of Absolute Knowledge, the cognizing subject is one of total passivity; an agent in which the System of Knowledge is ‘automatically’ deployed without external norms or impetuses. Zizek will tell us that this is a radicalized Hegel, one that defends the notion of ‘process without subject’: the emergence of a pure subject qua void, the object itself with no need for any subjective agent to push it forward or to direct it. (ibid, xxii)

This notion that the posthuman as ‘process without subject’ that has no need of human agents to push it, direct or guide it takes us to the edge of the technological void where our human horizon meets and merges with the inhuman other residing uncannily within our own being, withdrawn and primeval.

Engineering Our Posthuman future

Chris Anderson , in his ‘The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete’  argued that data will speak for themselves, no need of human beings who may ask smart questions:

With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves. […] The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years. Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence . Data without a model is just noise. But faced with massive data, this approach to science— hypothesize, model, test— is becoming obsolete.5

So what is replacing it? Luciano Floridi will tell us that it’s not about replacement, but about the small patterns in the chaos of data:

[One needs to ] know how to ask and answer questions’ critically, and therefore know which data may be useful and relevant, and hence worth collecting and curating, in order to exploit their valuable patterns. We need more and better technologies and techniques to see the small-data patterns , but we need more and better epistemology to sift the valuable ones.6

So if we are to understand the emergence of the posthuman out of the relations of human and technology we need to ask the right questions, and to build the technologies that can pierce the veil of this infinite sea of information our society is inventing in the digital machines of Data. Data itself is stupid, what we need are intelligent questioners. But do these intelligent agents need to be necessarily human? Maybe not, yet as Floridi will suggest:

One thing seems to be clear: talking of information processing helps to explain why our current AI systems are overall more stupid than the wasps in the bottle. Our present technology is actually incapable of processing any kind of meaningful information, being impervious to semantics, that is, the meaning and interpretation of the data manipulated. ICTs are as misnamed as ‘smart weapons’. (Floridi, KL 2525)

Descartes once acknowledged that the essential sign of intelligence was a capacity to learn from different circumstances, adapt to them, and exploit them to one’s own advantage. And, many in the AI community have followed that path thinking it would be a priceless feature of any appliance that sought to be more than merely smart. In our own time the impression has often been that the process of adding to the mathematical book of nature (inscription) required the feasibility of productive, cognitive AI, in other words, the strong programme. Yet, what has actually been happening in the real world of commerce and practical science of engineering is something altogether different, we’ve been inventing a world that is becoming an infosphere, one that is increasingly well adapted to ICTs’ (Information & Communications Technologies) limited capacities. What we see happening is that companies in their bid to invent Smart Cities etc. are beginning to adapt the environment to our smart technologies to make sure the latter can interact with it successfully . We are, in other words, wiring or rather enveloping the world with intelligence. Our environment itself is becoming posthuman and in turn is rewiring humanity. (ibid. Floridi)

ICTs are creating the new informational environment in which future generations will live and have their being. The posthuman is becoming our environment a site of intelligence, we are we are constructing the new physical and intellectual environments that will be inhabited by future generations. For Floridi the task is to formulate an ethical framework that can treat the infosphere as a new environment worthy of the moral attention and care of the human inforgs inhabiting it:

Such an ethical framework must address and solve the unprecedented challenges arising in the new environment. It must be an e-nvironmental ethics for the whole infosphere. This sort of synthetic (both in the sense of holistic or inclusive, and in the sense of artificial) environmentalism will require a change in how we perceive ourselves and our roles with respect to reality, what we consider worth our respect and care, and how we might negotiate a new alliance between the natural and the artificial. It will require a serious reflection on the human project and a critical review of our current narratives, at the individual, social, and political levels. (Floridi, KL 3954)

James Barrat in his book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era tells us he interviewed many scientists in various fields concerning AGI and that every one of these people was convinced that in the future all the important decisions governing the lives of humans will be made by machines or humans whose intelligence is augmented by machines. When? Many think this will take place within their lifetimes.7 After interviewing dozens of scientist Barrat concluded that we may be slowly losing control of our future to machines that won’t necessarily hate us, but that will develop unexpected behaviors as they attain high levels of the most unpredictable and powerful force in the universe, levels that we cannot ourselves reach, and behaviors that probably won’t be compatible with our survival. A force so unstable and mysterious, nature achieved it in full just once—intelligence. (Barrat, 6)

As Kroker will admonish we seem to be on the cusp of a strange transition, situated at the crossroads of humanity, and the future presents itself now as a gigantic simulacrum of the recycled remnants of all that which was left unfinished by the coming-to-be of the technological dynamo – unfinished religious wars, unfinished ethnic struggles, unfinished class warfare, unfinished sacrificial violence and spasms of brutal power, often motivated by a psychology of anger on the part of the most privileged members of the so-called global village. The apocalypse seems to be coming our way like a specter on the horizon, not a grand epiphany of events but by one lonely text message at a time. (Kroker, 193)

The techno-capitalists want to enclose us in a new global commons of intelligent cities to better control our behavior and police us in a vast hyperworld of machinic pleasure and posthuman revelation, while the rest of humanity sits on the outside of these corrupted dreamworlds as workers and slaves of the new AI wars for the minds of humanity. Bruce Sterling in his latest book The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things says we’re already laying the infrastructure for tyranny and control on a global scale:

Digital commerce and governance is moving, as fast and hard as it possibly can, into a full-spectrum dominance over whatever used to be analogue. In practice, the Internet of Things means an epic transformation: all-purpose electronic automation through digital surveillance by wireless broadband.8

Another prognosticator Jacque Attali who supports the technological elite takeover in this world of intelligent systems, tells us that in the course of the twenty-first century, market forces will take the planet in hand. The ultimate expression of unchecked individualism, this triumphant march of money explains the essence of history’s most recent convulsions. It is up to us to accelerate, resist, or master it:

…this evolutionary process means that money will finally rid itself of everything that threatens it — including nation-states (and not excepting the United States of America), which it will progressively dismantle. Once the market becomes the world’s only universally recognized law, it will evolve into what I shall call super-empire, an entity whose structures remain elusive but whose reach is global. … Exploiting ever newer technologies, global or continental institutions will organize collective living, imposing limits on the production of commercial artifacts, on transforming life, and on the mercantile exploitation of natural resources. They will prefer freedom of action, responsibility, and access to knowledge. They will usher in the birth of a universal intelligence, making common property of the creative capacities of all human beings in order to transcend them. A new, synchronized economy, providing free services, will develop in competition with the market before eliminating it, exactly as the market put an end to feudalism a few centuries ago.9

The dream of the global elites is of a great market empire controlled by vast AI Intelligent Agents that will deliver the perfect utopian realm of work and play for a specific minority of engineers and creative agents, entrepreneurs, bankers, and space moghuls, etc., while the rest of the dregs of humanity live in the shadows controlled by implants or pharmaceuticals that will keep them pacified and slave-happy in their menial tier of decrepitude as workers in the minimalist camps that support the Smart Civilization and its powers.    

Yet, against this decadent scenario as Kroker suggests what if the counter were true, and the shadow artists of the future or even now beginning to enter the world of data nerves, network skin, and increasingly algorithmic minds with the intention of capturing the dominant mood of these posthuman times – drift culture – in a form of thought that dwells in complicated intersections and complex borderlands? He envisions instead an new emergent order of rebels, a global gathering of new media artists, remix musicians, pirate gamers, AI graffiti artists, anonymous witnesses, and code rebels, an emerging order of figural aesthetics revealing a new order, a brilliantly hallucinatory order, based on an art of impossible questions and a perceptual language as precise as it is evocative. Here, the aesthetic imagination dwells solely on questions of incommensurability : What is the vision of the clone? What is the affect of the code? What is the hauntology of the avatar? What is most excluded, prohibited, by the android? What is the perception of the drone? What are the aesthetics of the fold? What, in short, is the meaning of aesthetics in the age of drift culture?(Kroker, 195-196)

This notion of drift culture might align well with David Roden’s call for a new network of interdisciplinary practices that combine technoscientific expertise with ethical and aesthetic experimentation will be better placed to sculpt disconnections than narrow coalitions of experts. One in which the ‘Body Hacker’ with her self-invention and empowerment toward a self-administered intervention in extreme new technologies like the IA technique…(Roden, KL 4394). Kroker will call this ‘body drift’:

Body drift refers to the fact that we no longer inhabit a body in any meaningful sense of the term but rather occupy a multiplicity of bodies— imaginary, sexualized, disciplined, gendered, laboring, technologically augmented bodies. Moreover, the codes governing behavior across this multiplicity of bodies have no real stability but are themselves in drift— random, fluctuating, changing. There are no longer fixed, unchallenged codes governing sexuality, gender, class, or power but only an evolving field of contestation among different interpretations and practices of different bodily codes. The multiplicity of bodies that we are, or are struggling to become, is invested by code-perspectives. Never fixed and unchanging, code-perspectives are always subject to random fluctuations, always evolving, always intermediated by other objects, by other code-perspectives. We know this as a matter of personal autobiography.(Kroker, KL 53)10

 This notion that we are becoming ‘code’ is also part of the posthuman nexus. As Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge in Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life tell us this sense of the pervasiveness of the environment enclosing us is becoming posthuman is termed ‘everywhere’: the ubiquity of computational power will soon be distributed and available to the point on the planet… many everyday devices and objects will be accessible across the Internet of things, chatting to each other in machinic languages that humans will not even be aware of much less concerned with; yet, we will be enclosed in this fabric of communication and technology of Intelligence, socialized by its pervasiveness in our lives. Instead of the old Marxian notion of being embedded in a machine, we will now be so enmeshed in this environment of ICTs that they will become invisible: power and governance will vanish into our skins and minds without us even knowing it is happening, and we will be happy.

Luis Suarez-Villa in his recent Globalization and Technocapitalism tells us “the ethos of technocapitalism places experimentalism at the core of corporate power”, much as production was at the core of industrial corporate power, undertaken through factory regimes and labor processes. And , much as the ethos of past capitalist eras was accompanied by social pathologies and by frameworks of domination, so the new ethos of technocapitalism introduces pathological constructs of global domination that are likely to be hallmarks of the twenty-first century. As Floridi will tells us, we are already living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized ( space ), and correlated (interactions). Although this might be interpreted, optimistically, as the friendly face of globalization, we should not harbour illusions about how widespread and inclusive the evolution of the information society will be. Unless we manage to solve it, the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums (Floridi, 9).

 Welcome to the brave new world. As our drift and code culture, digital immigrants in a sea of information slowly become inforgs and are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. (Floridi, 16-17)

What remains of our humanity is anyone’s guess. The Inforgasm is upon us, the slipstream worlds of human/machine have begun to reverse engineer each other in a convoluted involution in which we are returning to our own native climes as machinic beings. Maybe a schizoanalyst could sort this all out. For me there is no escape, no exit, just the harsh truth that what is coming at us is our own inhuman core realized as posthuman becoming, an engineering feat that no one would have thought possible: consciousness gives way to the very machinic processes that underpin its actual and virtual histories.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 4399-4401). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Kroker, Arthur (2014-03-12). Exits to the Posthuman Future (p. 6). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
3. Ligotti, Thomas (2014-07-10). The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein (Kindle Locations 397-399). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
4. Slavoj Zizek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso 1989
5. Anderson, C. (23 June 2008). The end of theory: Data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired Magazine.
6. Floridi, Luciano (2014-06-26). The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (Kindle Locations 4088-4089). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
7. Barrat, James (2013-10-01). Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (p. 3). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Sterling, Bruce (2014-09-01). The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things (Kindle Locations 8-10). Strelka Press. Kindle Edition.
9. Attali, Jacques (2011-07-01). A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century . Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.
10. Kroker, Arthur (2012-10-22). Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 53-60). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.