Life and Death … Continues!

September 9, 2020, 11:30 a.m. corner of 24th and Folsom, “Red Sky Day”

… [Capitalism] only exists because every day we wake up and continue to produce it. If we woke up one morning and all collectively decided to produce something else, then we wouldn’t have capitalism anymore. This is the ultimate revolutionary question: what are the conditions that would have to exist to enable us to do this—to just wake up and imagine and produce something else? —David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules (p. 89)

… money loses its grip on the social mind. Would our skills, our knowledge, and our competences be canceled by this sudden, apocalyptic event? Not at all, of course. We would be the same as we are now. Engineers would be able to build bridges, doctors would be able to heal sick people, and poets would be able to create their imaginary worlds. Exactly as it is now, and possibly better. —Franco “Bifo” Berardi, AND: The Phenomenology of the End (p. 262)

Yesterday I wanted to share the news about my health and likely recovery. I’m really touched by all the comments here and on Facebook—the latter pretty hilarious after I disparaged it. But that is what it’s been good for, hearing from friends near and far who I don’t get to see or talk to very often. So while I’m definitely ratcheting down my FB time to less than an hour, or max two, per week, I’ll keep poking in from time to time…

The simulation of social life, which Facebook is probably the biggest example of, is one of the themes of this post, picking up from where I left off yesterday. I started quoting Bifo in the previous post, and we’ll hear a good deal more from his book AND: The Phenomenology of the End in this one, too. His book fits together well with several other books I read recently, including David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House: 2015); Inhuman Power: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Capitalism (Pluto Press: 2019) by Nick Dyer-Witheford, Atle Mikkola Kjøsen, and James Steinhoff;and Alone Together by Sherry Turkle(Basic Books: 2011).

Widespread trauma is wreaking havoc on everyday life and it’s difficult to imagine that we won’t be suffering the consequences in new forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years to come. The brutal racism and misogyny aggressively pushed by the Trumpists, focused and amplified on a daily basis by the Big Toddler himself, steadily wears everyone down—by design. But this is only symptomatic of deeper changes that have been going on much longer. The accelerating decay of society itself, unfraying a little further every day, is rooted in a catastrophic collapse in empathy and kindness. The coarseness of the current regime has reinforced it, but the kind of casual brutality we have been calling out (whether committed by police, ICE officers, or the ongoing bombing of civilians with U.S. armaments across the world) could not have gone on a two-decade frenzied expansion without the silent complicity of a substantial part of the population. We can point to 9/11 as a pivot point where hatred, xenophobia, and proud stupidity began to ride high in the saddle. But the coarsening of our culture and degradation of mutual respect and social interdependence goes back at least to the days that I came of age in the early 1970s. The criminality of the Nixon administration’s war in Indochina, the deliberate assault on Black and Brown America by government murder and the bogus War on Drugs, and the defunding of housing, education, and eventually welfare, all have depended on a visceral rejection of connectedness between different parts of our society.

Twitterdom, 11:45 am, Sept. 9 2020, Red Sky Day

The arrival of digital media accelerated these older and deeper dynamics. Writing a decade ago, clinical psychologist and science critic Sherry Turkle cited an analysis based on 14,000 college students from 1980-2010 that showed a dramatic decline in interest in other people that emerged around the year 2000. “Today’s college students are, for example, far less likely to say that it is valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings. The authors of this study associate students’ lack of empathy with the availability of online games and social networking…” (Alone Together, p. 293) Bifo’s attempt to grasp what he characterizes as a neurological mutation taking place across society pushes him to similar insights:

Beyond certain limits, the acceleration of experience provokes a reduced consciousness of stimulus, a loss of intensity that concerns the aesthetic sphere, that of sensibility, and also the sphere of ethics. The experience of the other becomes awkward, even painful, as the other becomes part of an uninterrupted and frenetic stimulus, and loses it singularity, intensity, and beauty. The consequence is a reduction of curiosity, and an increase in stress, aggressiveness, anxiety, and fear… (p. 187)…there is a link between connectivity and loss of empathy; there is a link between connectivity, precarization of labor, and a loss of solidarity. There is a link between connectivity and suicide. (p 110) … When the referent is cancelled, when profit is made possible through the mere circulation of money, the production of cars, books, and bread becomes superfluous. The accumulation of abstract value is made possible through the subjection of human beings to debt, and through the predation of existing resources. The destruction of the real world starts from this separation of valorization from the production of useful things, and from the self-replication of value in the financial field…. The destruction of the existing world … is exactly what is happening under the cover of the so-called financial crisis, which is not a crisis at all, but the transition to self-referential financial capitalism. (p. 162)

David Graeber has been one of the more thorough and trenchant critics of the capitalism that has dominated the world in the 21st century. Sadly, he died recently, memorialized in an online carnival of appreciation. I met him a few times, though we never had a substantive conversation, which seems a bit weird since his “Bullshit Jobs” is so close to the things I’ve been writing going back to the Processed World days. When I read the epigraph at the top of this post I thought he was quoting me! I am sure I’ve said those exact words dozens of times going back decades. I thought his epic Debt: The First 5,000 Years was super interesting, if a bit rambly, and I worked in some of my reactions to it in a blog post about the Gift economy back in 2013. Anyway, his role in Occupy Wall Street among many other places that he popped up (look at the outpouring of grief and love for him on that memorial site!), put him in the heart of many of our more interesting contemporary social upheavals. Soon after he died I picked up his book The Utopia of Rules that I’d bought a while ago but hadn’t read. It’s an often hilarious and well composed polemic about how much bureaucracy has become the structure of our lives, regardless of which political reform or anti-paperwork act or social movement succeeds. The structuring of life provided by bureaucracy serves to narrow human experience in a way that parallels the narrowing of life online.

Bureaucracies, I’ve suggested, are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity—of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence. This is why even if a bureaucracy is created for entirely benevolent reasons, it will still produce absurdities. (p. 81)

The culmination of bureaucratic absurdity lies in our inability to consciously make a world of our own choosing. Why do we continue to make the world as it is, rather than the world we want? For Bifo there is a process underway rooted in digitization, and it is provoking a cognitive mutation among humans:

The abstract perfection of the digital world is the arrival point of this late modern trajectory: abstraction of finance from production, abstraction of work from activity, abstraction of goods from usefulness, abstraction of time from sensuousness. (p. 84) … The process of capitalist abstraction has progressively eroded the potency of concrete activity: digital financialization constitutes the final limit of this disempowerment and the economic framework of a biopolitical transformation that forces cognitive activity to mutate and that shapes the physical matter of the neural substratum itself. This transition from the sphere of historical humanism to that of evolutionary automatism can be described as building a kind of neuro-totalitarianism. The cognitive mutation induced by digital technology is a path in that direction. (p. 278)

Sherry Turkle was writing about the social consequences of computerization around the same time we started Processed World 40 years ago. Her ongoing work as a clinical psychologist attuned her to the same cognitive shifts Bifo alludes to above. In her 2011 book Alone Together, already a decade ago, she identified the alluring attraction of computer-mediated communications for all the usual reasons: the ability to invent a new self to present via online profiles, the reduction of complexity in interactions, the capturing of attention with the endorphin-charged rewards of multitasking and immersion.

…immersed in simulation, it can be hard to remember all that lies beyond it or even to acknowledge that everything is not captured by it. For simulation not only demands immersion but creates a self that prefers simulation. Simulation offers relationships simpler than real life can provide. We become accustomed to the reductions and betrayals that prepare us for life with the robotic. (p. 285)

Life with the robotic—are you preparing for it? I can’t say I am, but the argument percolating through Turkle’s work, Bifo’s, and especially the analysis of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Inhuman Power all point to an emerging world where we are being reshaped to fit the machinic world, rather than machines being produced to enhance our human lives.

The authors of Inhuman Power, two of whom I had the pleasure of seeing present an early version of their analysis at a conference to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Marx’s Capital at Hofstra University a few years ago, are steeped in the same autonomist Marxist thought from which Bifo emerged (he was part of Radio Alice in Bologna during the height of autonomist revolt in late 1970s Italy). Surprisingly, refreshingly—albeit depressingly—they hold up one of the central arguments of the autonomists to critical scrutiny informed by how they understand Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to be progressing. Whereas a central pillar of the autonomist (or post-operaismo, post-workerist) adaptation of Marxism was to grasp the concept of General Intellect and turn it inside out by situating it among living, breathing people, Dyer-Witheford et al reverse the process and put Marx’s original attribution of general intellect back into the hardware where he had it.

Post-operaismo’s anthropic, rather than machinic, conception of the general intellect not only inverts Marx’s own formulation but is unable to account for actually-existing applications of AI. In addition, emphasizing a human general intellect leads to an overestimation of the ease with which revolutionary subjectivities, such as Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude,’ can mobilize against AI-capital. The question of class power today requires a detailed analysis of what AI can really do, whether for or against labor. (p. 67) Just as Marx felt it necessary to specifically mention the then-new types of the means of communication and transport (steamships, railroads, and the telegraph) because of their pivotal role in enabling large-scale industry, we single out the means of cognition as the factor which might come to define a new mode of cybernetic production. In establishing the means of cognition, capital would, without metaphor, gain the ability to think and perceive. (p. 62, italics added)

If their analysis is right, the implications go much further. If capital can emulate the ability to think and perceive (ignoring the nagging but irrelevant question of whether or not machines are “conscious”), then the long-term block on unfettered accumulation presented by recalcitrant or uncooperative or inefficient workers, or at least the physical limitations of their bodies, looks surmountable. In terms of a world based on advanced digitization, where the quantity and speed of incoming information often exceeds the capacity of the typical human to digest and respond expeditiously, functional artificial intelligence looks like a key tool to take full advantage of the new productive capacities.

Framing modernity as an information explosion which escalates with the computer, Microsoft laments: ‘In the midst of this abundance of information, we’re still constrained by our human capacity to absorb it.’ The notion is that the shift to a data-centric mode of production is underway and that, as Marx argued about large-scale industry, the tech industry will not be able to ‘stand on its own feet’ until it creates for itself an ‘adequate technical foundation.’ This foundation is infrastructural AI—the means of cognition. (p. 52)

At the cutting edge of corporate attempts to overcome this we predictably find Amazon. In a recent article called “Humanly Extended Automation or the Future of Work Seen through Amazon Patents” by Alessandro Delfanti and Bronwyn Frey, the authors take a look at the technologies described by Amazon in their various publicly accessible patent applications. Addressing the same cognitive overload problem described by Microsoft above, the authors find Amazon facing “Excessive ‘cognitive load’ that could result in ‘agent confusion’ … tackled by a variety of aids such as visual or tactile cues that reduce the amount of information workers have to deal with. These include lights pointed… vibrations on bracelets… [or helpful] arrows indicating the shortest route to a certain shelf … layered onto a workers’ visual field through augmented reality visors.”

When I wrote Nowtopia I included an extended section on the General Intellect, arguing within the stream of autonomist theory that an emergent fraction of the working class (broadly understood) was beginning to challenge capital’s domination of science and technology in a number of ways, largely based on practical work outside of wage-labor. Outlaw bicycling, free software, community gardening, all exemplified appropriations of practical, technical skills to ends that weren’t pecuniary or commercialized. In doing so, they were pieces of a larger appropriation of the technosphere, building blocks of a new non- or anti-capitalist General Intellect in which science and technological applications would be shaped by people to harmonize with natural systems, and would eventually subsume the market-driven science and its technological developments produced by a self-serving capitalist class. I think Bifo shared my enthusiasm for this framework though he argues it was already over by the time I was writing about it. After the defeat of the movements against international capital at the turn of the last century, he concluded that that version of the General Intellect had been defeated by militarism and the old way of life:

When the engineer is linked to the artist, he produces machines for the liberation of time from work and for maximum social usefulness. When the engineer is controlled by the economist, he produces machines for the entanglement of human time and intelligence with the iteration of the maximization of profit, and the accumulation of capital. (p. 198)… In the years marked by mobilization against the institutions of global governance such as the WTO, the IMF, and the G8, among others, cognitive workers took the lead in a wide movement erroneously labeled anti-globalization. In fact, this was the first global movement, and it was directed against capitalist globalization, not against globalization itself. (p. 194) … The process of self-organization of the general intellect that was implied in the dotcom experience and in the process of the shared creation of the Internet was sapped and overthrown by the coercive privatization of the products of collective knowledge and by a process of definancing and privatizing public educational institutions. A dismantling of sorts of the general intellect has been underway since the beginning of the new century. The Bush wars restored the primacy of the old military economy, subjecting the new technology to old military systems. This has led to the submission of the general intellect. (p. 195)

In 2020 it’s a lot harder to argue that there is a liberatory movement of people escaping wage-labor and reinventing the technosphere based on their own practical appropriation of skills and know-how. The actual workplace—where I haven’t had to go for over 30 years—is more dystopian now than we could ever imagine in the heyday of Processed World. Dyer-Witheford et al describe how sociometric badges, keyboard counters, email scanning, location tracking, motion sensors, and voice and facial recognition technologies detecting shifts in efficiency and mood minute to minute are now normal in workplaces. Yikes! This observation leads to a dire summary:

At the very moment when recompositionary initiatives around the social factory seem most important for anti-capitalist politics, these have been rendered far more difficult by the attention-shattering impact of algorithmic advertising, the chilling effect of Machine Learning-informed mass surveillance, and inflammatory fake news, toxic chatbots, cyber-warfare and other forms of ‘weaponized AI propaganda’. AI thus contributes to the transformation of the internet from a potential arena for the ‘circulation of struggles’ to one dominated by the circulation of commodities, the surveillance of resistances and the destruction of class solidarities. (p. 101)

My pal Ian Alan Paul has been doing great work trying to come to grips with how the pandemic is going to be taken advantage of by the engineers of capitalist restructuring.

When bodies of all kinds can be connected as isolated nodes on a network, remaining deeply reliant upon and subject to shifting algorithmic command and demand structures, the value of any single body approaches zero as every node on the network can be algorithmically swapped out and replaced with any other. The cybernetic management and distribution of labor and commodities allows for the economy to draw on the population only as needed, while effectively abandoning the waste that is the remainder… The massive deterritorialization of labor spurred on by the pandemic response has allowed for the implementation of a newly flexible organization of work that frees capitalism and the capitalist state of any responsibility for life in general as long as the economy survives.

As we try to come to grips with the world being designed around us, we will do well to keep in mind the admonition of Delfanti and Frey to put “Human labor—the input it provides to machinery and the value it generates—at the center of analyses of automation.” Bifo despairs of the possibilities of resistance, even though since he wrote his book, we’ve seen massive social revolts from Black Lives Matter in the U.S. to the movement for a new constitution in Chile, mass protests against police violence in Nigeria, and more.

Workers become precarious when contracts and laws no longer protect them, when they must look for work continuously, and negotiate their own working conditions and salary. However, I think that the core transformation underlying the process of social precarization, and paving the way for the destruction of the links of solidarity between workers, is to be found in the psychological and cognitive sphere. The weakening of language, its reduction to an operational mode, is the cognitive and emotional condition of the current process of precarization of life in social space. (p. 242) … For struggles to form a cycle, laboring bodies must be in spatial proximity, and in an existential, temporal continuity. Without such proximity and continuity, cellularized bodies lack the conditions to experience the kind of affectivity that enables social solidarity. Behavior can only become a wave when there is continuous proximity in time, which info-labor no longer allows. (p. 207) … The conditions of social solidarity, togetherness, long-lasting collaboration in the same place of work, and urban proximity, have been dissolved. (p. 212)

Here Bifo is clearly overgeneralizing, since not everyone, not even a majority, of the world’s population is engaged in info-labor. I tend to agree that revolts among the technically adept are crucial to reinventing the world on a healthy basis. I also agree that proximity and continuity and trust are basic ingredients without which it’s difficult to imagine powerful movements of social antagonism. That said, it is easy to despair in these dark days of 2020, the pandemic raging hotter than ever, the election only days away that may seal the planet’s fate… and my own health still something of a question mark going forward, even if I’m fully committed to at least another four decades of flourishing… I’m going to give the last word to the thoughts my pals concluded Inhuman Power with, and this came just after they reject the AI + UBI fantasies of the Left Accelerationists:

The alternative form of communist ‘inhumanism’ is ecological. To struggle for human autonomy from capital is also to struggle for a recognition of the ecological and cosmic human enmeshments and imbrications that capital obscures and obliterates: to recognize that, in actuality, ‘we have never been autonomous’. It deposes the fixity of the human by attending to the species’ dependence on, and imbrication in, other living systems, rather than re-centering analysis and politics upon the machines some humans have created to dominate other humans and the natural world. In this regard, capital’s AI gambit is perhaps human, all too human: communism must play otherwise. (p. 161)

1 comment to Life and Death … Continues!

  • Jeffrey T Goldthorpe

    I am too overworked now to respond to ideas in your latest post, but glad to see them.

    I have witnessed such determination, clarity, and stamina from you the past forty years clearing a path for an anti-authoritarian movement without ever falling into sectarianism, City Hallism, or despair, so I imagine you will heal yourself with the same spirit.

    I am in that generational cancer demographic now, watching friends and family all around me develop different versions of this disease. But I’ve been amazed at the recoveries I have seen, and the lives renewed. Know that I am ready to help if need be.  I am wishing you only the best, and courage, my friend.
    Jeff Goldthorpe

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