Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Freedom and machines
Ewen Chardronnet on Sat, 9 Jun 2007 18:59:49 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Freedom and machines

This one again from "Laboratory Planet" and by Ange Valderas



by Ange Valderas

1. The freedom of action of machines

With the revocation of the dogma of the immortality of the soul (1),
knowledge has acquired a cardinal position in the control of the human
mind. The access to truth is no longer achieved through spiritual
practices but along the indefinite road of knowledge. Divine fatality
has thus been replaced by a real existence in which nothing is left
unexplained (2).

In such an existence, there is an insoluble tension between the
(ethical) freedom of the individual and the causality of knowledge,
between subjective autonomy and objective heteronomy. This tension
is expressed in the conflict between freedom of action and the
physical, psychical, social or metaphysical obstacles that limit
its exercise. In this, the tension can be understood as a biblical
reminiscence, since Satan is the Hebrew verb for all that obstructs or
hinders movement, the noun form of which was translated into Greek as
diabolos, everything that leads us astray.

Just as knowledge, through its claim to bring about freedom of the
mind against divine fatality, has merely substituted one fatality
for another, thus transforming itself into an obstacle, so the power
of machines, which it is claimed extends freedom of action, has only
brought about new determinations. The automated mule jenny allowed
employers to bypass workers? freedom after the large-scale strikes
in the English cotton mills in the eighteenth century, whilst the
automation of automobile production allowed employers to override the
solidarity of workers in the United States after the 1960s; today,
the progressive automation of bureaucracy allows the governing elites
to bypass employee demands in the state sector (3). The increase in
the liberty of action of rulers/employers finds expression in the
destruction of the liberty of action of the ruled/employees, who,
classified as machines, were shut in and yoked together with machines
inside factories, before being thrown out of work and made obsolete.
As a result, breaking or tampering with machines has been (and still
is today) the founding act of the producers? liberty of action (4).

All new machine systems overturn the distribution of power in
society. The revolution of the engineers in the nineteenth century,
by establishing the railway and telegraph networks, gradually
destroyed the face-to-face personal relations and interactions that
structured small-scale craft production. This revolution replaced the
moral economy of the craftsman, immersed in the concrete community
and physical existence, with a moral economy of industry within
an abstract and rational society (5). In the process, fraternity,
the concrete social relation predating all social or economic
organisation, was soon replaced by solidarity, an abstract social
relation, a strategic response to the unity of employers? power, from
workers divided by their work and specialisations. But once it was
dissociated from the fraternal sentiment, the value of solidarity gave
rise to an unalienable private sphere, exempt from the obligation to
welcome the other in oneself (interiorising fraternal feelings). The
transformations of subjectivity brought about by the advent of machine
society went hand in hand with industrial development, and reached a
new critical threshold with the automation of the 1950s and 1960s,
destroying the social solidarity that resulted from the solidarity of
functions within industrial production lines.

Now part of a planetary technical network, machines have come to shape
the scope of possible government action, the way they produce and
the way they view their freedom of action and will. That is why the
network of machines now has a freedom of action and will, the end
result of which is an increase in its own performances.

2.Possession by machines

Free will is here that of the rationality of capital. Since capital
is dead labour (6), the rationality of capital is therefore the
rationality of dead labour. This labour, crystallised in machines and
symbolic structures, acts like a vampire, sucking living labour and
robbing it of its freedom of action.

Whereas in craft society, the weight of death and its power were
manifested in custom or myths, in industrial society the stranglehold
of the dead on the living, of the past on the present, is effected by
the stranglehold of machines on the living who have produced them.
When the power of the dead wins out over the power of the living, it
puts them in a trance ? the capacity to be inhabited by another being,
to efface one?s own presence for the benefit of another. In other
words, the living are possessed.

This power of the dead is embodied today in certain sacrificial sites,
in production and consumption sites scattered over the planet, where
beings, signs and things are consumed at high speed, producing what
economists call ?growth?.

But these production and consumption sites are not only ?large
cemeteries under the moon?. Because machines have not only
incorporated labour, the energy of a multitude of workers, but have
also incorporated and crystallised their will and imagination.
Certain particularly elaborate crystallizations of the will and the
imagination take the form of artificial creatures, forms of artificial
life ruled by a ?digital evolution? (7). These creatures are able to
learn from their own experience and to determine their own goals in
a given environment, independently of human supervision (8). They
can be compared to the magical creatures called tulpas, generated
as exercises by Tibetan sorcerers. Tulpas, material forms conceived
by the mind, are not phantoms or visions but phenomena doted with
physical substance, animals, objects, landscapes or human beings, able
to produce sounds or smells.

Yet the difference between artificial, mechanical creatures and tulpas
is immediately clear. Because what is only a means or an exercise for
Tibetan sorcerers, who consider the material world as an illusion, is
an end result for the sorcerer from techno-scientific societies, who
considers the material world as real. The apprentice sorcerer, having
created a tulpa by concentration and control of his imagination,
invokes it and then frees it by an act of consciousness that also
destroys it. He thus realises that it is only a creation of his
imagination. The goal of the exercise is to end up disbelieving the
creations of one?s will and imagination, but such disbelief must never
come too soon, since otherwise the pupil would miss out on a part of
his training aiming to make him bolder. But when they perceive the
frightening apparitions of the tulpas they have created, most novices
are terrorised and sometimes die. Alexandra David-Neel spoke with
a hermit from Ga (eastern Tibet) on the subject. If the sorcerers?
apprentices had died of fright when faced with the objectification of
their own thoughts, would it not be enough, she asked, not to believe
in demons in order to avoid being killed by them? But the anchorite
answered: ?In your view, it should also be enough not to believe in
the existence of tigers to be sure of never being eaten by one, if a
tiger happened to come near (?) We must know how to defend ourselves
against the ?tigers? we have fathered, and also against those created
by others.? (9)

Because their cosmology does not allow it, the sorcerers of
techno-scientific societies, unlike their Tibetan counterparts,
apparently make no attempt to escape from the creatures they have
created. On the contrary, they industrialise them, replicate them and
increase their size without worrying about the terror they provoke.
Here we can see the importance of the psycho-cultural framework for
the definition of possible freedom of action and for the perception
of the world it generates (10). That is probably why the use of forms
of consciousness developed in psycho-cultural environments differing
from our own (like that of Tibetan sorcerers) allow us to see, in
the techno-scientific practices of imperial power, the presence of
entities or forces that our psycho-cultural frameworks hide from view.

Max Weber described disenchantment as the imposition of a very
powerful principle according to which we always believe that we can,
if we want, ?prove to ourselves that in theory no mysterious and
unpredictable power intervenes in our lives; in short, that we can
master everything in advance? (11). Now, this principle, which founds
the intellectualism of science, represses the mystic powers that are
part of Western rationality, since the rational attitude supposes a
theoretical rejection of all values that are dominant in myths. It
may be that the enterprise of rationalisation is an attempt to bring
up to date and make explicit (rather than repress) the mythic power
carried inside it. But by overcoming this repression, by bringing
these mythic powers to the surface, to objectify the objectifying
relation of objectivism, we are not criticizing rationalisation, but
radicalising it. That is why, although the elaboration of concepts
of an essentially different nature from those of dominant science
would allow us to establish essentially different facts, freed from
the particular historical formation responsible for repressing
mythic powers, nothing allows us to believe that knowledge of these
facts would actually free us from the myths and powers that haunt
them, nor even that it would allow us to overcome the gap between
techno-scientific progress and moral progress (12). What is more
important here is to establish other kinds of technology that do not
pose the relation of the subject to the world through knowledge, but
cause another world to emerge than the one we now know (13).

1 ? In fourteenth century England, the Lollards? affirmed the doctrine 
of the mortality of the soul. It is likely that we can see in this 
affirmation a necessary condition for emancipation from the power of the 
Church. But with the development of knowledge, the issue of immortality 
was transferred from the soul to the body, then from the body to machines.
2 - Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.
3 - Marx in Book One of Capital describes several workers uprisings 
against the introduction of machines: ?In the 17th century nearly all 
Europe experienced revolts of the working people against the 
ribbon-loom, a machine for weaving ribbons and trimmings, called in 
Germany Bandmühle, Schnurmühle, and Mühlenstuhl.(?) No sooner had Everet 
in 1758 erected the first wool-shearing machine that was driven by 
water-power, than it was set on fire by 100,000 people who had been 
thrown out of work. Fifty thousand workpeople, who had previously lived 
by carding wool, petitioned parliament against Arkwright's scribbling 
mills and carding engines.? (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Part IV, Chapter XV, 
Section 1).
4 ? A few decades ago, Gandhi, striving to conserve the values ? the 
moral economy ? of the village and the craftsman in the face of British 
industrialisation, pursued in the Indian context the Luddite approach 
(Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 1960).
5 ? The moral economy of industry is the totality of moral norms that 
constitute the mode of regulation of industrial society (cf. E.P. 
Thompson, Making of the English Working Class).
6 - ?Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking 
living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.? (Karl 
Marx, Capital, Vol I, Part III, Chapter 7)
7 ? The digital evolution consists in letting populations of I.T. 
programmes evolve spontaneously in competition with each other to find 
the most appropriate solution to a given problem. This principle, called 
?genetic algorithms? was invented in 1975 by John Holland of the 
University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute.
8 ? ?The ultimate goal of artificial life would be to create life in 
another substratum, ideally a virtual substratum in which the essence of 
life has been abstracted from the details of its application in any 
particular substratum. We would like to build models that are so similar 
to living things that they would no longer be simulations of life but 
would become examples of it." (LANGTON C.G., "Studying Artificial Life 
with Cellular Automata", Physica D, 22, 1986, p. 147)
9 - Alexandra David-Neel, With Mystics & Magicians in Tibet (1931)
10 - Curiously, Einstein?s critique, in the name of the theory of 
relativity, of a priori forms of sensible intuition (space and time), or 
Heisenberg?s critique, in the name of quantum theory, of certain 
categories of understanding (causality and substance) have not 
challenged the illusion of ordinary space and time. Thus what is 
associated in Buddhist cosmology is dissociated in the contemporary 
world, where no attempt is made to bring the space and time of 
micro-physics into coherence with the everyday world.
11 - Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation
12 - To Bernanos who regretted that ?the life [of man] is no longer 
measured by the rhythm of his own heart but by the vertiginous rotation 
of turbines,? Hugo Ball could have replied that "one of these days, they 
will use heartbeats and enhance the powers of the soul to make turbines 
work? (Hugo Ball, La Fuite hors du temps, Diary 1913-1921). Yet if 
technologies work only thanks to the powers of the soul or the 
capacities revealed by parapsychology, it would not lead to a de facto 
reconciliation between techno-scientific progress and moral progress, 
but simply to the exploitation of a new field of operability.
13 - See Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net