I pick up the phone and go Execute

27 12 2012

Are we always already cyborgs?

Sorry for the Heideggerianism, but it’s tough to talk about ontology and technology without bringing in the Nazi Gasbag, specifically, his Question Concerning Technology and, for that matter, Letter on Humanism.

What’s set off this spasm of speculation? A bit in Crooked Timber on a piece by Noah Smith about cyborg techs. Chris Bertram was snarking on economists in his bit, but the, um, question concerning (cyber) technology is taken up with some vigor in the comments.

One question, of course, is the one ol’ Marty throws at us: what is it to be a cyber-human? Can one even be a cyber-human? He, the master of despair, would say No:

In truth. . . precisely nowhere does many today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in attendance on the challenging forth of enframing that he does not grasp the enframing as a a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, from out of his essence, in the realm of an exhortation or address, that he can never encounter only himself.

As I paraphrased this elsewhere (okay, my dissertation), “There can be no peaceful coexistence between technology and humans because the ways of technology, in the course of enframing humans, prevent them from being fully human.”

This drives Heidegger over the edge: “We have only purely technological conditions left. It is no longer an earth on which human beings live today.”

To which I responded, more or less, Bosh.

Heidegger’s concept of enframing helps us to see how caught up we are already in a techno-scientific world, that we are not separate from the technologies we create and use, and, as such, are shaped by the techs themselves. But as acute as Heidegger was in diagnosing technoscience, his prognostic skills for humans were warped by his own, ah, idiosyncratic understanding of history, and rather complete misunderstanding of actual humans.

And even the acuity of his diagnosis is marred by its partiality, that is, that he treats technological practices as somehow more forbidding and final than every other social practice that ever existed before.  In other words, he gets the transformational powers of technology, but in assigning the power to the techs rather than to the nexus of social practices which produce them (although he does go forward from the techs to the practices they produce) he misses the continuing human presence in the tech practices themselves.

This line of thinking leads rather easily to Foucault and his much-quoted bit—“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we already have something to do”—as well as to Donna Haraway’s admonition that “We cannot pretend we live on some other planet where the cyborg was never spat out of the womb-brain of its war-besotted parents. . . . Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden.”

In other words, this is how we are, and how we are today is as human as we want to be.

Two further points: One (and this was going to be the main point of this point until I sidetracked myself, and hm, maybe I really should make that a separate post), the real excitement about cyber-techs is about the dream of control—and it is the dream, not the tech, that is the worry.

A précis for that separate post:  A computer, its parts and software can all be patented and their use, to some extent, controlled, but what we think when we’re away from the computers remains with us, is beyond the control of any owners or managers. I don’t know if implants would make us more productive, but they would certainly make us more manageable.*

The concern, I’d argue, lies more with the management than the implant.

*Note: This is not necessarily an argument against all implants, and the speculative future post will dig around the nuances of cyber-techs and practices, but, y’know: précis.

Two, it’s not at all clear that we much care how human we are or could be.

Heidegger bemoaned the concealing power of techs—to do is not to think—but it’s doubtful than many people in the history of people have ever spent much time pondering being. Maybe cyber-techs will hide us irrevocably from ourselves, but it’s also just possible that in thinking about how we incorporate these techs into ourselves, we’ll wonder not just about the techs, but about us.

I doubt it, but what the hell: one can always hack the hack.


They’re clouding up the images of my perfect day

27 07 2009

Two things.

One, I don’t much like how much morality infects politics. The rules, the norms, the players, the goals, are not the same.

Yes, I’ve read Foucault (oy, have I read Foucault), and I don’t think he’s in the main wrong about the creative repression of power in all spheres of life. That said, the  circulations of power are distinct, and even amidst such power moves, there are phenomenon which manage to corral meanings to themselves counter or even indifferent to dominant narrative. Thus, morality and politics each generates its own terms of existence.

Geek-speak out of the way, I am therefore bumfuzzled by my reaction to the question of whether a legal market in solid organs (kidneys, mainly, tho’ perhaps also partial livers) ought to be set up.

I have long opposed organ sales, oppose the sale of blood and plasma, and give the hairy eyeball to the sale of human eggs and sperm. (I’m also not crazy about the patenting of biological material, nor of whole creatures, as, for example, genetically engineered mice.)

But is this due to a general skepticism toward capitalism, a critique which begins in the sale of a person’s labor and which can, by logic, extend to the sale of a person’s parts? If so, the opposition is grounded in the ontological claims of socialism and would therefore be, politically speaking, acceptable.

(Never mind that the ontological claims of any political or economic theory are likely to be shot through with moralisms. That’s another post.)

No, my problem is that while I am generally skeptical of capitalism, I think my opposition to the sale in body parts can be—dammit!—traced to an unspecified moral unease.

Even this wouldn’t be problematic were I not also—or at least, until very recently—adamantly opposed to legislation to legalize organ sales.

You see the problem: impermissible moral/political comingling!

I have a wide anarchistic streak (which at various points runs parallel to various libertarian arguments), but I also don’t trust capitalist-markets to protect and promote the basic conditions of existence necessary to a human life.

But what of a regulated market? Or even a socialist market? Could such a regulated social market perhaps avoid the problems associated with the current system (organ shortages, black market sales, exploitation of organ sellers) without amplifying or otherwise legitimizing the horrors of those black market sales?

(There’s also the question of whether those (as a class) in need of an organ in any way deserve or have rights to organs—but, again, another post.)

I’d still be leery of even a well-run regulated social market (which could be configured in a variety of ways), but the leer would be merely moral; as a political matter, I don’t know that I could oppose it.

Dammit. My biases are clashing. I hate that.

Two. On the uselessness of most political and social commentary.

(I know, given what I just wrote, this is rich.)

I was laying in bed this morning listening to NPR and a promo aired about US policy and China and India and . . . *click*

Like it fucking matters, I thought. This group says jump UP and that one DOWN and then SIDEWAYS and DIAGONALLY and then someone suggests perhaps we should discuss this in terms of diving rather than jumping and everyone goes Oooh, how contrarian or revisionist or just plain crackers.

The Chinese & Indian leadership will do what it will do and the people will do what they will do and we’ll all occasionally look at one another and say So that’s what’s going on and be utterly and completely wrong—or maybe even utterly and completely right—and we’ll never know, one way or the other.

It’s not that I think political analysis or political action is useless—my heretical side has not yet overtaken its orthodox counterpart—but that for it to be of any use, it must be specific, oriented in a particular direction, and always always always aware of its own limits.

Natural scientists work off the null hypothesis, and statisticians build error into their calculations. Politics is a hell of a lot more complicated and unstable than physics (except, perhaps, in its quantum form, and even then. . . ), but pundits are a hell of a lot more arrogant than physicists in describing their reality.

Oh, christ, I’m about to go off on a digression on scientism and the misguided adoption of physical models of knowledge by the social sciences and the wretched belief that to understand is to control, but, y’know, it’s late and I’d really just wrap this all up.

So a shortcut: By all means, try to understand. By all means, share that understanding. But fer the love of pete, don’t think this means anything beyond the understanding itself.

But I don’t suppose one gets to be a pundit by regularly declaring, ‘But I could be missing something. . . .’