Can Cyborgs Dream of Social Ecology?

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By Nikos Vrantsis. The current article has originally been published in the anthology “Enlightenment and Ecology. The Legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st Century” (ed. Yavor Tarinski).

A recent study published in the journal of the American Philosophical Association[1] examined the hypothesis of extended cognition, according to which external devices such as smartphones should be considered part of our cognitive processes. The essay reaches a rather radical conclusion, proposing for devices to be legally and ethically treated not as mere objects but rather as extensions of the body.

It is news to nobody that our devices are more than single objects. The psychological and biological transformations brought upon us by cyber-capitalism pose ontological reconsiderations. Our personal and collective histories are encapsulated and archived into devices, sim cards, hard drives or cloud.

No one is surprised when thinkers argue that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains that can help those left alive to assemble our traces and reconstitute our post-mortem digital replica. Others, concerned of the judicial innovations needed forJustice to adapt to our brave new world, suggest that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of ‘extended’ assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property.

These exemplar philosophical, scientific and judicial reconsiderations of the elements that constitute the core of their discourse reveal the seismic impact that technological omnipresence brings upon the very perception of our selves and our societies. What is now their focal point is not the Cartesian “Ego” but a self on technical support, a mixture of biology and technology, a being that resembles a cyborg rather than a human.

What is striking is that this particular technological progress registered in global, cyber-capitalism is welcomed as a natural phenomenon or a predetermined progress that is not to be questioned; it is not technology that needs to adapt and fit into our constituted discursive systems, but rather the systems’ attempt to adapt in order to embrace technological determinism. The sound absence or muteness of any question interrogating whether technology has actually been serving ideals is due to the inherited poverty of such ideals. Any cyber innovation is welcomed as long as it serves the production of profit and commodification of everything; the current form of cyber-monarchism is compatible with the predominant cultural logic of neoliberalism and its goal-setting. A cyborg is the product of that process, and the ideal being to inhabit the hyper-real scene of images and spectacles and a world treated as a sum of data.

Murray Bookchin was one rare exception of skepticism in the general atmosphere formed by unapologetic evangelists of technological progress. Far from being a luddite, he was rightly questioning why and how technology is registered into societies, to serve what goals, causing what side-effects. He foresaw the potent relation between technological progress and extensive hierarchies of extractive consumer capitalism and how technological innovation could be transformed into a more refined tool of exploitation, manipulated by an ideology of unrestrained and unregulated competition in the pursuit of profit and power at the expense of democracy, society, individuals and the environment: I feel that we are confronted with a revolution of monumental importance and while this revolution is in the hands of capital and the state, its impacts upon society could very well be devastating. I cannot foresee that it will benefit human society or the ecology of our planet as much as is will be utilized for domination and hierarchy, which is what all technological innovation, to one extent or another, has always been utilized for (Bookchin on K.I.O).[2]

Far from being a neutral force to bring universal reason to our unreasonable world, cyber-capitalism has produced the means of global transmission of fake news, hate speech, conspiracy theories facilitated by algorithms to reach prefabricated audiences. Computation was a prerequisite for the financialization of Capital that now moves unrestrained, able to manipulate the political hardware that needs to be upgraded in cyber-darwinian terms. States and Cities adapt and transform into agents of this de-territorialized force that dictates the course of actions to be followed at the expense of human, social, labour and environmental rights. Political parties cannot anymore articulate a vision that goes beyond balanced budgets, structural reforms and austerity measures, to please the standards set by hedge funds and Markets. Cities are no longer the “genii locurum” of modernity; they are diminished into landscapes of spectacle and a cluster of instagramable sites for touristic consumption. Official institutions are now pawns in a geo-darwinian arena, trying to make all things necessary in an extremely competitive environment to attract unrestrained investors. Geo-darwinism is the atmosphere that dictates institutional adaptation, just like darwinism is the ideological atmosphere that builds the personal agenda of individuals.

Bookchin was much more that a thinker reflecting on the impact of cyber-capitalism. What makes his corpus and thought a nodal point of reference in critical theory is his attempt to challenge the epistemological hegemonism of Darwinism that identifies individuals and institutions. Neoliberalism is another episode in the series of atmospheres established upon the symbolic and literal survival of the fittest. However, for Bookchin, Darwinism is not the moral tale nature provided to humanity rather a projection of our societies onto nature; it is the narrative that we chose to listen to, silencing all other narratives: We must emphasize here that the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human and in the structuring of the natural world into a hierarchical chain of being (Bookchin,2006:38)

To counter social darwinism’s focus on the individual struggle of species to fit into a competitive environment, he focuses on the ideals of collaboration and diversity necessary to sustain an ecosystem as a whole. And even though, to him nature is neither moral nor immoral he considered our choice of narrative crucial for the quality of our social formations and relational constructions. His narrative of Social Ecology counters competition as the undisputed element that define every face f nature: The Promethean quest of using technology to “dominate nature” is replaced by the ecological ethic of using technology to harmonize humanity’s relationship with nature (Bookchin, 1977:79).

Beyond the proposal to adapt our judicial codes in order to treat someone who breaks a smartphone and wipes its contents as if they had caused their victim a head trauma, I propose that we should articulate more fundamental questions that interrogate the epistemological basis that sustains the cyber-capitalistic dogma and will examine its cost on our already deficit democratic systems, on societies, people, and the environment.

It would not be meaningless to mark on this interrogation according to the criteria set by traditional liberal thought. The messengers of cyber-capitalism always refer back to the sacred liberal discourse of individual rights. However, a careful philosophical interrogation might reveal the inconsistency of the neoliberal turn and cyber-capitalism to the fundamentals even of liberal thinking. This system cannot hold even when evaluated according to the criteria it has set to itself. Privacy, the buzzword and sacred concept of traditional liberal thought, is violated not by a French or Spanish Monarch or a totalitarian state, but by the intrusion of spectacle brought though external devices that calls us to feed an oligopoly of massive tech players with data and power. One the other hand, the technological omnipresence constructs a particular digital public world that is glued with envy, jealousy, competition and unrestrained consumption. This destruction of the public sphere has an unprecedented ontological impact. To Bookchin, the individual who is denied the opportunity to exercise self-administration in the public sphere suffers an attrition not only of self-consciousness but also of selfhood: The shrivelling of the public sphere is followed by the shrivelling of the private sphere—that inviolable area which is presumably the last refuge of the individual in an overly centralized and bureaucratized society. The ego, increasingly desiccated by the aridity of the social sphere becomes fit material for mass culture, stereotyped responses, and a preoccupation with trivia. (Bookchin, 1977:77)

Cyber-capitalism give way to what we can, at all rights now, call cyber-monarchism. Cyber-monarchism requires full attention and personal engagement, constantly surveils us and reshapes even the most private of our private time. Devices exercise brain functions and occasionally substitute them. They ‘know’ whom we speak to, when we speak to them, what we said, where we have been, our purchases, photos, biometric data, even our notes to ourselves—and all this dating back years. Our always available profiles narrate the story of ourselves, our walls are where we publish our emotions, our apps trace our transactions, monitor our meetings, store our memories, map our tastes and preferences, prefabricate the content we are instructed to be looking for. Privacy is not anymore a reflective space time, rather a continuation of spectacular intrusion. We are nurtured in our isolated cyber-bubbles that sustains technological monopolies. And our devices are essential hardware for the hegemonism of an indefinite software that not simply pleases desires but prefabricates these desires and teaches isolated cyborg-beings what to desire, and how to desire it.

The digital sphere is a hyper-real world that has substituted the actual one. Cybertech, no matter the initial intentions, has become a means provided to create a monoculture of cloned individuals reproduced to infinity. This prevailing force, rearranges the meaning of the previous systems, melts down limits and rewrites the codes of subjects, objects, symbols and the relation between them. It has incorporated everything and has colonized even the dreaming life of the population. Architectural hybridism, the melting down of the distinction between left and right in traditional politics, the commodification of political struggle, the blurring of the limits between individual privacy and publicity, are all phenomena of the rewritten codes of reality.

Even rage gave way to hopelessness, the defining emotion of a generation whose every move is anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it even happens. For now, we all know that we are just another piece of spectacle, that every move is a cliche scripted in advance; even realizing this is a cliche. Innovation is no longer possible. All that is left is to imitate dead styles and practices.

Mass spectacle, facilitated by cyber-monarchism, tragically affects our linguistic skills as well. The cultural production of this generation suffers from word-poverty, a phenomenon that is better described not as dyslexia rather as post-lexia (Fisher,2009). The speed of visual sequences, the bombarding of pictures, hyperreality has nurtured a generation that can fully process visual data, without being able to articulate words. A slogan is more efficient in this fast-paced digital world. But in the lack of words we lack the understanding of what is happening to us and the world around us.

We lack even the most elemental skill that defines us as humans: self-reflection. What is considered sacred for liberal traditional thought, the “Ego”, is now being lost: The Hellenic interpretation of “human” as self-consciousness and self-realization in the private sphere of life recurs throughout western thought from Descartes to the contemporary existentialists. A highly individualistic subjectivism is the intellectual hallmark of philosophy in the modern era. (Bookchin,1977:76)

In cyber-monarchsim, the sacred “ego” of liberalism is narrowed down to three interrelated subjects: Producer of data, creator of content, consumer of prefabricated desires in a digital social sphere sustained by envy. This subject does not anymore have the property of his own private thoughts. It identifies itself through its right to provoke envy. A self that is narrowed down solely to these neoliberal subjectifications cannot be politically active, socially present and self-conscious. Even ideas and thoughts of subversive qualities are assimilated by this massive system and are transformed into commodities. Uprising is transformed into spectacle, poverty into commodity, violence into noir fiction, revolution into a performance, alternativeness into a touristic landscape, punk and hip-hop into a lifestyle one buys into.

Revisiting Bookchin’s corpus may help one grasp the connection between the technological omnipresence and the enormous poverty of the self. Eventually, the rise of crypto-fascist tendencies within the tech industry bears witness to the failures of the ‘digital revolution’ whose promises never came to pass. Following his line of thought, we can start question the human, social, political and environmental cost brought by this technological omnipresence and its unapologetic hegemony. And despite the fact that such a critical plan to interrogate cyber-monarchism and neoliberalism according to their own claimed criteria, is not what Bookchin was engaged in, the outcome of such an inconsistency is related to the problem of scale that he thoroughly examined.

We, the disillusioned masses, are (facing) the results of a defaulting project that cannot anymore hide the side effects of its total domination and we are looking for alternatives. Environmental catastrophe is one such side effect. It might look as climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being concealed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. However, the relationship between techno-capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental, neither is it going to be solved by a set of applications. The sequence of images and lifestyles running on social platforms need aggressive exploitation of natural resources: We must deal with the fact that we are now faced increasingly with social extremes in terms of the future of our planet. Either society will be totally restructured along highly democratic lines, guided by the radical principles of social ecology with their challenge to hierarchy and domination as a whole, or, the ecological deterioration of the planet will “stress not only our resources, but also our democracy” (Bookchin,1992:10).

Another side effect is the mental health epidemic. The system of selfishness, social darwinism and unapologetic competition that laughs at any reference on the importance of community and togetherness reveals the correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism. Moreover, the treatment proposed is even more revealing of the naturalisation of extreme individualism. Mental health is considered privatized and the person is the one responsible to resolve its own psychological distress. The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, techno-capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Another crucial side effect is the proliferation of a peculiar bureaucracy. Cyber-capitalist ideologues excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional inefficiency. With the triumph of cybercapitalism and neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete. Yet, instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate at the expense of the already malfunctioning institutions of representative democracy.

In view of these deadlocks, a search for an alternative is a crucial collective demand. However, the incapacity of democratic institutions to even regulate banks that were considered to big and embedded to the system to fail after the financial crisis, led to deeper political disappointment and made the hope of a viable alternative seemed impossible. Bookchin’s reflections on scale and beneath the State “small” and “human” ecosystems actually provides such an alternative. His system of thought was not a reflection on techno-capitalism. It was a reflection on contexts and frameworks. Far from rejecting technological innovation, he questioned the context and framework into which this innovation was registered: The question in effect is whether society would be organised around technology or whether technology would be organised around society. Our answer can be obtained by examining the new technology itself with a view toward determine if it can be scaled to human dimensions. (Bookchin, 1971:35)

Against this neoliberal cultural dessert of individual clones reproduced to infinity, Bookchin’s social ecology invites us to reflect on scale and create self-governed communities, ethic social ecosystems that embrace diversity that set their own political norms, criteria and goals. He examines the potential of a human habitat, scaled to human dimensions at least as far as social institutions and communities are concerned. To Bookchin, scale is not merely a matter of dimension rather of a space of qualitative social and political virtue. Small, in Bookchin’s view makes sense as long as it is human, meaning that it allows for individual control over the affairs of the community and the exercise of individual human powers in the social realm: A human habitat minimally presupposes human scale, that is to say, a scale that lends itself to public comprehension, individual participation, and face-to-face relationships. (Bookchin, 1977:78)

Social Ecology is one basic alternative against the obvious contradictions of techno-capitalism. For Bookchin, the political subject cannot be formed into official institutions and heteronomous representations. Eventually though, any such human ecosystem, must include its own political infrastructure, institutions, interpersonal relations and guiding values that justify the use of the word human(Bookchin, 1977).             

In the case of cyber-capitalism the proliferation of free trade agreements as well as efforts at a WTO plurilateral on e-commerce intend lock the default of de facto data ownership rights being solely that of the collectors of data. In view of this dead end, a series of studies make a case for collective rights over the economic resource of data. They propose a framework for community data ownership as being necessary for economic justice.[3]

For Social Ecology, the locus of government, the process of governing, the goal reach as well as the truth according to which governance is taking place are all examined by the diverse people that participate and sustain their collective ecosystem. However, an alliance with official institutions is not to be rejected per se. Scalar political alliances between human habitats, neighbourhoods, eco-social communities in the urban and the rural and municipal authorities as well as parties that recognise the limits of representative democracies and are willing to provide space for social movements can facilitate a move beyond the neoliberal cyber monarchism that thrives on exploitation and social monoculture. It is, however, in this context beyond or rather beneath the State and the Market, that the three-dimensional individual of the neoliberal monoculture can be deconstructed.

Bibliography

Murray Bookchin. “The Concept of Ecotechnologies Ecocommunities,” In Habitat, an International Journal. Vol 2, (Pergamon Press, 1977), pp.73-85.

Murray Bookchin. “A Green Economy or Green Economics?,” In The Newsletter of PEGS. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Penn State University Press, 1992), pp.9-10,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/20710558

Murray Bookchin. A Discussion on ”Listen, Marxist!, transcription by Jonas Holmgren, 1970
https://www.marxists.org/archive/bookchin/1970/ discussion.htm

Murray Bookchin, “Liberatory Technology,” In Our Generation, quarterly, (Montreal: Canada, 1971).

Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology and Communalism, (San Francisco: AK Press, 2006).

K.I.O. Interviews Murray Bookchin. “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

                http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/raddemocracy.html

J. Adam Carter & S. Orestis Palermos, “Is Having Your Computer Compromised a Personal Assault? The Ethics of Extended Cognition,” In Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Volume 2, 2016, pp.542-560

Fisher, Mark. (2009). Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009).

P.J. Singh & J. Vipra, “Economic Rights Over Data: A Framework for Community Data Ownership” In Development 62 (2019), pp.53–57.

[1] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-american-philosophical-association/article/div-classtitleis-having-your-computer-compromised-a-personal-assault-the-ethics-of-extended-cognitiondiv/AD3872F46DFB86C0A949A9CBD9A15EEC

[2] http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/raddemocracy.html

[3] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41301-019-00212-5

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