Hegel in A Wired Brain
eBook - ePub

Hegel in A Wired Brain

Slavoj Žižek

  1. 208 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

Hegel in A Wired Brain

Slavoj Žižek

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Slavoj Žižek gives us a reading of a philosophical giant that changes our way of thinking about our new posthuman era. No ordinary study of Hegel, Hegel in a Wired Brain investigates what he might have had to say about the idea of the 'wired brain' – what happens when a direct link between our mental processes and a digital machine emerges. Žižek explores the phenomenon of a wired brain effect, and what might happen when we can share our thoughts directly with others. He hones in on the key question of how it shapes our experience and status as 'free' individuals and asks what it means to be human when a machine can read our minds. With characteristic verve and enjoyment of the unexpected, Žižek connects Hegel to the world we live in now, shows why he is much more fun than anyone gives him credit for, and why the 21st century might just be Hegelian.

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The Digital Police State

Fichte’s Revenge on Hegel

Where do we stand today with regard to our social freedom? The prospect of the thorough digitalization of our daily lives combined with scanning our brain (or tracking our bodily processes with implants) opens up the realistic possibility of an external machine that will know ourselves, biologically and psychically, much better than we know ourselves: registering what we eat, buy, read and watch, and discerning our moods, fears and satisfactions, the external machine will get a much more accurate picture of ourselves than our conscious Self which, as we know, doesn’t even exist as a consistent entity. Yuval Harari, who deployed this vision,1 points out that our “Self” is composed of narratives which retroactively try to impose some consistency on the pandemonium of our experiences, obliterating experiences and memories which disturb these narratives. Ideology does not reside primarily in stories invented (by those in power) to deceive others, it resides in stories invented by subjects to deceive themselves. But the pandemonium persists, and the machine will register the discords and will maybe even be able to deal with them in a much more rational way than our conscious Self. Say, when I have to decide to marry or not, the machine will register all the shifting attitudes that haunt me, the past pains and disappointments that I prefer to sweep under the carpet. And why not extend this prospect even to political decisions? While my Self can be easily seduced by a populist demagogue, the machine will take note of all my past frustrations, it will register the inconsistency between my fleeting passions and my other opinions – so why should the machine not vote on my behalf? So while brain sciences confirm the “post-structuralist” or “deconstructionist” idea that we are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that these stories are a confused bricolage, an inconsistent multiplicity of stories with no single Self totalizing them, it seems to offer (or promise, at least) a way out which is due to its very disadvantage: precisely because the machine which reads us all the time is “blind,” without awareness, a mechanical algorithm, it can make decisions which are much more adequate than those made by human individuals, much more adequate not only with regard to external reality but also and above all with regard to these individuals themselves, to what they really want or need:
Liberalism sanctifies the narrating self, and allows it to vote in the polling stations, in the supermarket, and in the marriage market. For centuries this made good sense, because though the narrating self believed in all kinds of fictions and fantasies, no alternative system knew me better. Yet once we have a system that really does know me better, it will be foolhardy to leave authority in the hands of the narrating self. Liberal habits such as democratic elections will become obsolete, because Google will be able to represent even my own political opinions better than myself.”2
One can make a very realist case for this option: it is not that the computer which registers our activity is omnipotent and infallible, it is simply that, on average, its decisions work substantially better than the decisions of our mind: in medicine, it makes better diagnoses than our average doctor, etc., up to the exploding algorithmic trading on stock markets where programs that one can download for free already outperform financial advisers. One thing is clear: the liberal “true Self,” the free agent which enacts what I “really want,” simply doesn’t exist, and fully endorsing this inexistence means abandoning the basic individualist premise of liberal democracy. The digital machine as the latest embodiment of the big Other, the “subject supposed to know,” which operates as a subjectless field of knowledge …
There is, of course, a whole series of questions that persist here. Harari is aware of them: “In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information … In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.”3 Can this ignoring be done by a “blind” machine or does it require a minimal form of subjectivity?
There is a long tradition, in philosophy and in the sciences, of denying free will, but doubts about free will “don’t really change history unless they have a practical impact on economics, politics, and day-to-day life. Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament.”4 Harari points out how even popular champions of the new scientific world like Dawkins or Pinker, after writing hundreds of pages which debunk free will and freedom of choice, end up supporting political liberalism.5 However, today, “liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals,’ but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?”6 So if development will render homo sapiens obsolete, what will follow it? A post-human homo deus (with abilities that are traditionally identified as divine), or a quasi-omnipotent digital machine? Singularity (global consciousness) or blind intelligence without awareness?
Immersion in singularity is just the first option. The second option: if machines win, then “humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.”7 This decoupling of intelligence and consciousness confronts us again with the enigma of consciousness: in spite of numerous rather desperate attempts, evolutionary biology has no clear answer to what is the evolutionary function of awareness/consciousness. Consequently, now that intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, “what will happen to society, politics and daily life when nonconscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”8
The third and most realist option: a radical division, much stronger than the class division, within human society itself. In the near future, biotechnology and computer algorithms will join their powers in producing “bodies, brains and minds,” with the gap exploding “between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not”: “those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.”9 The main threat is therefore that of the rise of a
small and privileged elite of upgraded humans. These superhumans will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, which will allow them to go on making many of the most important decisions in the world … However, most humans will not be upgraded, and they will consequently become an inferior caste, dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans … Splitting humankind into biological castes will destroy the foundations of liberal ideology.10
However, this splitting into casts will also not be as straightforward as it may appear. How will the new elite be defined? Will the elite be a special upgraded biological cast with superhuman abilities (which means that its members will also be controlled and genetically manipulated), or will they be exempted from control while controlling and manipulating others? Probably both at the same time. In the suburbs of Shanghai there are already clinics where rich Western couples go to genetically check and manipulate their offspring before children are born – to what extent will the new elite then be able to control the digital and biochemical/genetic machines that control them? We don’t have the space here to deal with the vast domain of biogenetic interventions destined to create new post-human entities – here is the title and subtitle of an El País report: “Spanish scientists create human-monkey chimera in China. The team led by Juan Carlos Izpisúa injected stem cells into the animal embryos as part of research aimed at finding a way to grow organs for transplants.”11 Note the usual humanitarian justification – we are really doing it to grow organs for transplants, and not for the much more obvious reason to enhance (or diminish) human capacities in order to create post-human perfect workers or soldiers. This idea has a long history in the twentieth century: back in the late 1920s, none other than Stalin for some time financially supported the “human-ape” project proposed by the biologist Ilya Ivanov. The idea was that by way of coupling humans and orangutans, it would be possible to create a perfect worker and soldier impervious to pain, tiredness and bad food. (In his spontaneous racism and sexism, Ivanov, of course, tried to couple male humans and female apes, plus the humans he used were black males from Congo since they were supposed to be genetically closer to apes – the Soviet state financed an expensive expedition to Congo.) Of course, when the experiments failed, Ivanov was liquidated.
In popular terms, the prospect that opens up here is that of a new police state – what kind of police state? We should return here to Hegel and his polemics with Fichte. Fichte is often ridiculed not only for his subjective-idealist postulate of the absolute I’s self-positing (a philosophical version of Baron Münchhausen’s claim that he saved himself from the swamp in which he was drowning by pulling himself up by his own hair); he is also regularly denounced as the precursor of the modern police state which totally controls its citizens. His own words seem to confirm this scathing judgment:
In a state with the kind of constitution we have established here, every citizen has his own determinate status, and the police know fairly well where each one is at every hour of the day, and what he is doing … In such a state crime is highly unusual and is preceded by a certain unusual activity. In a state where everything is ordered and runs according to plan, the police will observe any unusual activity and take notice immediately.12
Zdravko Kobe, in his concise description of Fichte’s well-ordered state, is thus right to claim that, in it,
the police turns out to be omnipresent. It is not merely that, as he famously proposed, every person should carry an identity card with his or her picture inside, so that the police could identify anyone on the spot, or that bills of exchange should be printed on special paper accessible exclusively to state authorities, which would make counterfeiting virtually impossible. In order to protect citizens from crime in an effective way, the police should, Fichte claims, also put major emphasis on the prevention of transgressions and direct its activities not only against actual injuries but also against their very possibility … The final objective of police regulations is thus to establish a transparent order that would render unlawful actions materially impossible.13
Already in his first book published in 1801, Hegel rejected Fichte’s “preventive intellect and its coercive authority, the police,” and denounced Fichte as a control freak: “In Fichte’s state every citizen will keep at least another half dozen busy with supervision, and so on ad infinitum.”14 In the unpublished fragments on the German constitution from 1802/03, he reiterated this critique:
It is … a basic prejudice of those recent theories which have been partially translated into practice that a state is a machine with a single spring which imparts movement to all the rest of its infinite mechanism, and that all the institutions which the essential nature of a society brings with it should emanate from the supreme political authority and be regulated, commanded, supervised, and directed by it.15
In contrast to Fichte’s “pedantic craving to determine every detail,” Hegel claimed that “the state should rather establish a clear distinction between what is essential to its existence and unity and what can be left to chance and arbitrary will”:16 the state should “demand of the individual only what is necessary for itself,” and “grant the citizens their living freedom and individual will and even leave considerable scope for the latter”:17
The center, as the political authority and government, must leave to the freedom of the citizens whatever is not essential to its own role of organising and maintaining authority … nothing should be so sacred to it as the approval and protection of the citizens’ free activity in such matters, regardless of utility; for this freedom is inherently sacred.18
Advocates of Hegel like to quote such passages to quell the suspicion that he was a proto-totalitarian admirer of the State. However, the prospect of digitalization of our lives throws a new light on this opposition between Fichte and Hegel: it is as if the moment of Fichte’s revenge against Hegel has arrived. When Hegel mockingly remarks that, in Fichte’s state, “every citizen will keep at least another half dozen busy with supervision, and so on ad infinitum,” we cannot help but notice that this refutation of Fichte’s vision on empirical grounds no longer holds: with a complex digital network permanently registering our activities, the control envisaged by Fichte is today not only possible but largely already a fact. The digital registering of all our acts (plus of our health, our reading habits, our opinions and dispositions …) ultimately aims precisely at predicting our violations of the law and then acting preventively to make it impossible for us to do it.
What makes things even worse is the fact that there is an important difference between Fichte’s project of police control and today’s emerging reality of digital control: Fichte’s vision remains “totalitarian” in the standar...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Title Page
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction: “Un jour, peut-être, le siècle sera hégélien”
  7. 1 The Digital Police State: Fichte’s Revenge on Hegel
  8. 2 The Idea of a Wired Brain and its Limitations
  9. 3 The Impasse of Soviet Tech-Gnosis
  10. 4 Singularity: the Gnostic Turn
  11. 5 The Fall that Makes Us Like God
  12. 6 Reflexivity of the Unconscious
  13. 7 A Literary Fantasy: the Unnamable Subject of Singularity
  14. A Treatise on Digital Apocalypse
  15. Notes
  16. Copyright