Butler’s Erewhon

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon was first published in 1872. (In other words, the seventy-third year of the 19th century.)  The following excerpt is from the Modern Library edition of 1927, pp. 227-29.

“…[t]he writer went on to say that he anticipated a time when it would be possible, by examining a single hair with a powerful microscope, to know whether its owner could be insulted with impunity.  He then became more and more obscure, so that I was obliged to give up all attempts at translation; neither did I follow the drift of his argument.  On coming to the next part which I could construe, I found that he had changed his ground.

“‘Either’, he proceeds, ‘a great deal of action that has been called purely mechanical and unconscious must be admitted to contain more elements of consciousness than has been allowed hitherto (and in this case germs of consciousness will be found in many actions of the higher machines)–or (assuming the theory of evolution but at the same time denying the consciousness of vegetable and crystalline action) the race of man has descended from things which had no consciousness at all.  In this case there is no a priori improbability in the descent of conscious ( and more than conscious) machines from those which now exist, except that which is suggested by the apparent absence of anyting like a reproductive system in the mechanical kingdom.  This absence however is only apparent, as I shall presently show.

“‘Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life.  The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man.  The largtest of them will prpbably greatly diminsh in size.  Some of the lowest vertebrata attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organized representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the sixe of machines has often attended their development and progress.

“‘Take the watch, for example; examine its beautiful structure; observe the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks that preceded it; it is no deterioration from them.  A day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present time are not diminishing in bulk, will be superceded owing to the universal use of watches, in which case they will become as extinct as ichthyosauri, while the watch, whose tendency has for some years been to decrease in size rather then the contrary, will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

“‘But returning to the argument, I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something far different to what they are at present.  No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward.  Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it?  And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?'”

The Smartphone’s Effect on the Brain and Marcuse’s ‘Technological Rationality’

I reference a March 10, 2018 article in the Business Insider in this article.  It is titled “This is what your smartphone is doing to your brain–and it isn’t good”.  Ultimately, one must move away from the positivistic paradigm that is all but ubiquitous now, with its bias towards the quantifiable.  This will to obectivity is the real problem with the Western drive for knowledge, and statistics forms the basis for its raison d’etre.  Nevertheless I am going to cite a telling statistic from this article:  An alarming statistic.  One that should make one rouse oneself from one’s slumber and ask with urgency “What is happening to me?”  But the system itself, as it effects deeper and deeper inroads into the psyche, militates against such realizations.

What force in the human soul can be held responsible for this erosion of selfhood?  To address this question, I make recourse to the thesis of Siegfried Kracauer, as propounded in his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of Film (1947), which posits that a mythic figure in the run-up to National Socialism’s triumph in Germany, as embodied in a large cohort of the populace, reflected in the popular films of the day, the Somnambulist, a being without personal will, doing the bidding of a slavemaster, was the eminence grise behind Hitler’s rise to power.  Caligari, from the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the puppetmaster who decides who is sane and who is not but is himself insane, finds his patsy in the Somnambulist, who, under hypnosis, goes out to rid Caligari of his enemies by murdering them.  Kracauer borrows a page from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who believed that most people lead what he called an “inauthentic” existence, estranged from self and only going throught the motions of lived experience. Something deep in the soul predisposes the “average person” toward manipulation by outside forces, evidence of a split in the personality which denigrates the present moment and privileges the Beyond.  In this state of soul the individual gravitates unknowingly towards oblivion while at the same time believing he or she is a fully autonomous being.

Now I return to the statistic I referred to at the beginning of this essay:  86% of Americans with smartphones (which is almost everyone above 10 years old) say they check their phones “constantly.”  And for most it is not a pleasant experience.  According to the writer of the article, this cohort is seriously “stressed out”.

But this state of affairs didn’t just pop into being in 2007 with the introduction of the smartphone into American society.  Certain salient implications of our burgeoning technology were early recognized, 77 years ago, by Herbert Marcuse, whose notion of “technological rationality” appears as a doleful harbinger of our time and the time after our time.  Here is a quote from Jeffrey Ocay’s article “Technology, Technological Domination and the Great Refusal” on the phenomenon of technological rationality:

“For Marcuse, technological rationality refers primarily to the assigning of mental powers to the apparatus that calls for unconditional compliance and coordination.  In
other words, technological rationality means the subordination of thoughts to
the machine process so that it is no longer the individual that directs the
machine but the other way around.

“According to Marcuse, technological rationality arises when, in the
medium of technology, culture, politics, and the increasing power of the
economic system merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or
repulses all alternatives.  This eventually ‘extends to all spheres of private and
public existence,’ integrating all authentic opposition and absorbing all
alternatives.  In this way, technology, which is originally an external power
over nature, has been internalized by the individuals. Here, reason has lost its
meaning because the thoughts, feelings, and actions of men are shaped by the
technical requirements of the apparatus which demands compliance and
adjustment.  Thus, the human psyche is transformed into mere biological
impulses which make the individual a passive agent of production as well as
reduce the individual into mere spectator who adjusts to the technical
processes of production. Consequently, technological rationality dissolves
critical thinking and replaces it with the idea of compliant efficiency, which
results in the individual’s submission to the apparatus without any form of
mental and physical opposition.”

One grants at the outset that this technology does have undeniable benefits.  But it’s becoming increasingly clear that these benefits function as a shield, causing the mind sufficiently immersed to downplay what drawbacks there may be.  Marcuse shows that this progression towards the reduction of the mind to a mere mechanism, an appendage  of the technological apparatus, can’t be successfully addressed by recourse to such tepid techniques as advocated by, for example, the Center for Humane Technology.  It is a classic case of too little, too late.   Only by fully rejecting technological rationality’s hold on the psyche can the downward spiral towards personal dissolution be stopped.  The Zone (see Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design for an exhaustive discussion of the psychodynamics of The Zone) is a fearsome place.  The global “subordination of thoughts to the machine process” is too high a price to pay for this technology’s benefits!

The Drive for Knowledge

In the late 19th century a peculiar tendency began to see the light of day.  One may call it the critique of truth.  It is summarized in One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s early essays, “On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral sense”: “Considered as an unconditional duty, truth stands in a hostile and destructive relationship to the world.”  To assert that such a statement is provocative would be the understatement of the century.    It cuts to the very core of the modern Western enterprise.  It asks a very deep question indeed:  What is the significance of the quest for truth?  One could argue that this quest can only give birth to a culture that is characterized by a fundamental disunity, in that no distinction is made between the great and the small, what is better and what is worse, what is conducive to integration that is based in human values and what is not.  As such the scientific drive for truth aims at utter nihilism.  Such is the conundrum:  Either pluralism reigns with its tendency for cultural disunity or the intrinsic hierarchies are allowed to coalesce and hard authoritarianism is the likely outcome, at least without some insight into what could constitute some alternative to our mechanistic concepts of the necessity of coercion, as embodied in the concept of Human Law. In liberal democracy, many people aspire to become something more than an expresion of the values of mass culture.  But the ultimate authority granted to those ideas which have the highest number of adherents without regard for the coherence or nobility of these ideas, thus becoming complicit with the scientific truth drive in its disregard to the difference between great and small.  One example of how this truth drive fragments our integrity is the electronic, internet-connected baby monitors that have come on the market recently.  Mother uses her smartphone to remotely monitor her baby at home.  This is a seemingly helpful and benign aid to mother’s peace of mind at first look but many firsthand accounts of how this tool actually works reveal a far different reality.  Alerts come to the mother’s attention with the slightest change in breathing, a bit of fussing that 99% of the time is normal baby behavior, etc.  Companies are in fact exploiting irrational insecurites of the parents to generate data for profit.  Is one really better off with this sharper picture of the baby’s behavior?  This, in addition to aiding and abetting the incessant culture of tracking in general with its implications of the erosion of human autonomy and privacy.  I now return to the potential distinction between the small and the great that the will to absolute truth undercuts.  The quandary deepens every day:  We have no recourse to human values in a system that elevates the motley to the ultimate position of authority.  Where the distinction between small and great is not recognized, no culture can survive.  And so it becomes the signal goal of the exit from the nightmare of history to determine what is great in the soul, a people, a culture.  This necessitates a willingness to forego the attainment of certain kinds of truth, in my example, the “truth” of constantly knowing what is happening in the baby’s crib when more intermittent monitoring would actually yield a more realistic evaluation of baby’s needs.  Illusion trumps truth in creating a better spiritual state of being for all concerned.  Of course, this principle extends to all tracking, entrainment, enmeshment in mechanistic cultural entities, the Internet of Things perhaps being the ultimate expression thereof.  One will know all things happening at all times.  Is this conducive to human flourishing?  The scary thing is that this entity can become the unifying element of culture at the level of the motley.  What is great is defined as the incoherent.  This is institutionalized madness.

Persuasive Technology

Most of them actually think they’re operating in the public interest.  Interactive psychological persuasion, as practiced according to the Fogg Behavioral Model, won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, as they put it.  Trouble is, what one wants to do isn’t always in one’s own ultimate best interest.   For a particularly sobering case in point, consider the Las Vegas gambling system, as depicted by Natasha Dow Schull in her 2012 book Addiction by Design.    The most hard-core gamblers won’t even move away from the electronic one-armed bandit to go to the bathroom.  I don’t mean that they hold it until they leave and go home to do their business.  No, they just go on the spot where they’re sitting in front of the console, into a cup, or worse.  And it’s not about winning money.  They play to get into “the zone”, a psychological state of  personality effacement.  From the book:  “As machine gamblers tell it, neither control, nor chance, nor the tension between the two drives their play; their aim is not to win but to continue.”  We are dealing, in other words, with a system “in which time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process”, as Schull puts it.  Schull avers that this is the realm of the psychoanalytic “death drive”.  I don’t believe I need point out the parallels between Las Vegas gambling and the protocols of the internet, with persuasive design leading the way for both enterprises.  It’s all there at the website of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford for those of you with an interest in the nuts and bolts.  BJ Fogg, originator of the Fogg Behavioral Model  (FBM), also has several websites devoted to the cause of personality modification.  Motivation–Ability–Trigger.  This is the simple protocol Fogg employs.  It’s all about ease.  And please keep in mind, It’s easier to effect a socially accepted behavior than one that is less socially accepted, as the Fogg model points out.  Why go against the current?  You’re just wasting your effort!  The Gospel of Efficiency dictates that one should not expend counterproductive effort, no matter what.  Your fitness tracker will alert you when you have crossed the line.  Feel like doing something, thinking something, that less than 30% of the public accepts?  Better think twice!  Or better yet, download the app that stops the thought from appearing in the first place!  In such a way will universal harmony be spread all across the earth.  Stanford Persuasive Technology Labs have a goal of establishing world peace in 30 years.  We are engineering on a grand scale now.

Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre

Have you heard the news?  There’s not good rockin’ tonight!  The Guardian April 11–the US House hearings.  Guardian reports:  “The [Cambridge Analytica] data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by the Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan. The Democratic congressman Eliot Engel of New York asked if Facebook planned to sue Kogan, Cambridge University or Cambridge Analytica.   Zuckerberg said legal action was being considered and added: ‘What we found now is that there’s a whole programme associated with Cambridge University where … there were a number of other researchers building similar apps. We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.’

Zuckerberg was presumably referring to Cambridge University’s psychometrics centre, which media reports have suggested worked with Cambridge Analytica on ways to predict human behaviour, although the university denies this.”

And, Mr. Zuckerberg of course has known about this for some time, contrary to his implications in the above quote, as was discussed at the Hearings today.

The Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  From the Cambridge University Psychometrics Center website:

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Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

That section near the beginning where he talks about how people become attached to what he calls “communities of opinion.”  “This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true.  Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.  Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.” And so it becomes apparent that conformity was a serious problem in the American character even in 1841, a supposition confirmed by de Toqueville.  Somehow the self-trust that inheres from our earliest days undergoes a serious erosion.  When society with its power of indignation against the contrary individual becomes aroused, when the unintelligible brute force of society is made to growl and mow, this force first stands defensive, and then almost always subsequently collapses.  And so, if this state of affairs disturbs us,  we are led back to the primeval source of our early penchant for self-reliance to attempt to repair its eviscerated foundations.  “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.  We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition whilst all later teachings are tuitions.  In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.”

What an indictment of the present Weltanchauung.  At about this same time, that is, 1841, Comte’s Positivism was taking its position at the forefront of the Weltanschauung of its time. (What a fertile time this was!  All the psychomachias we are dealing with today found a crossroads here!)

The place where analysis cannot go.  That place that Comte disparaged to the point of utter derision.  But we return instead again to “Self-reliance”:  “We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause.”  This is the position of Positivism in a nutshell.  Subjectivity is untrustworthy.   Therefore, let us abandon it entirely as anything legitimate.  Everything must be looked at from the outside.  Only the dispassionate observer is the true discoverer of truth.  Our whole system of science is founded upon this principle.  But Husserl has established that the egologic is the only legitimate starting-point.  We do not have the luxury of the God’s-eye point of view.  Or we didn’t, until now.  However, this God has much more the characteristics of the society which growls and mows than that of Jehovah the giver of the Just Law.  This God’s ways are mysterious.  Even its creators don’t really know how it works.  How does the algorithm determine which YouTube video to play next?  Only your hairdresser knows for sure.

Emerson then segues into the sublime irrational.  “And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably, cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition.  That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this.  When good is near you, when you have life in yourself,–it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; –the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new.”


World Without Mind–Chartbeat

Poor Franklin Foer.  What did he think journalism was?  The pact between the journalist and the reader is a sycophantic one.  “What does the reader want?” is the guiding idea, and has been since the newspaper’s inception.  Not “what does he need?” Detorus that have happened at various junctiures were little more than window dressing, as I will articulate below.  If the reader wants his or her suppositions confirmed, for those oh-so-nebulous reasons locked deep in the unconscious, that Saddam Hussein is a global menace, it’s not going to matter that the objective evidence to the contrary is out there for the grasping.

This takes us to page 138 of Foer’s book, World Without Mind, and a little trot around the seamy mind of that other Facebook guy, Chris Hughes.  “Chris had learned the science of virality from a site called Upworthy…Upworthy didn’t produce much of anything original.  It plucked videos and graphics from around the Web, usually obscure stuff, then gave them headlines that made them appealing to the widest audience…psychologists had discovered that a state of unquenchable curiosity could be cultivated [italics mine–dw]…Upworthy designed headlines to make readers feel an almost primal hunger for information just outside their grasp.  It pioneered a style–with it called the ‘curiosity gap’–that explicitly teased readers, withholding just enough information to titillate the reader into going further.  Classic example: ‘9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-blowiing Fact.’  Six million readers couldn’t contain themselves and followed that link. (The mind-blowing fact: income inequality is far worse than most Americans think.)”  Of course saturation soon set in and Upworthy and their imitators had to find other ways of attracting eyeballs.  I  believe it is safe to say that they are managing to stay one step ahead of the hapless information consumer.  It wasn’t long before even the Washington Post and, yes, The New Republic were practicing their versions of this technique.  Foer calls this form of journalism “snackable content”–charts, lists, videos, quick stuff that appealed to the bored at work crowd.  The presentation had to be Fast and Fun.  Are you getting nauseated yet?  I didn’t think so.  “Clicks would rain down upon us if only we could get over ourselves and post the same short clips from The Daily Show as everyone else, framed by an appealing headline and perhaps a conscience-salving paragraph or two of analysis.”  That serious stuff that had a vogue from the 1940s to the 1970s? The kind wherein journalists would attempt to write the news without partisan bias?  When was that ever anything but a “conscience-salving paragraph or two” to put a veneer of respectability upon a sow’s belly?  The internet has just hastened the trajectory towards the tawdry.  You know you want it.  “That myth (that journalism was fundamentally a public-spirited enterprise) is in the process of being shredded.” is how Foer himself puts it.

Back to World Without Mind:  “One of the emblems of the new era hung over my life at the New Republic.  It dogged me across my day.  Every time I sat down to work, I surreptitiously peeked at it–and I did so as I woke up in the morning, then a few minutes later when I brushed my teeth, and again later in the day as I stood at the urinal…my master was called Chartbeat, a site that provides editors, writers, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of Web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article.  The site pretty clearly implied that journalism is a competition, a popularity contest.  The site’s needle made us feel as if our magazine were a car, showing us either sputtering up the hill of a poor traffic day or cruising to a satisfying number.”  Foer relates that Chartbeat has taken hold in virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog.  Not mine.  “Chartbeat has come to hover over the newsroom”, in Foer’s words.   They even have telescreens set up in all the offices in all the publications of note showing Chartbeat’s statistics.  But this is democracy, isn’t it?  It’s just that the pretense that there is something else involved in the liberal project, the quest for truth one might call it, is all gone now.  Our way of life is based in the popularity contest, and it’s merely being baldly acknowledged.  I ask the reader to think on the consequences of this phenomenon, and relate it to events of the past few years and decades.