“Any Sufficiently Advanced Police State…”
“…Is indistinguishable from a technocratic priestly caste?”
— Ingrid Burrington and Me, 04/17/15
As I said the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about death, lately, because when two members of your immediate family die within weeks of each other, it gets into the mind. And when that’s woven through with more high-profile American police shootings, and then capped by an extremely suspicious death while in the custody of police, even more so, right? I’m talking about things like Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and the decision in the Rekia Boyd case, all in a span of a few weeks.
So I’m thinking about the fact that everyone’s on the police bodycam trip, these days, especially in the USA–which, by the way will be the main realm of my discussion; I’m not yet familiar enough with their usage and proliferation in other countries to feel comfortable discussing them, so if any of you has more experience with and references to that, please feel free to present them in the comments, below. But, for now, here, more and more people are realizing that this is another instance of thinking a new technology will save us all, by the mere virtue of its existing. But as many people noted at Theorizing The Web, last week, when those in control of the systems of power start to vie for a thing just as much as those who were wanting to use that thing to Disruptpower? Maybe it’s not as disruptive a panacea as you thought.
We’ve previously discussed the nature of the Thick Blue Wall–the interconnected perspectives and epistemological foundations of those working on the prosecutorial side of the law, leading to lower likelihoods of any members of those groups being charged with wrongdoing, at all, let alone convicted. With that in mind, we might quickly come to a conclusion that wide proliferation of bodycams will only work if we, the public, have unfettered access to the datastream. But this position raises all of the known issues of that process inherently violating the privacy of the people being recorded. So maybe it’s better to say that bodycams absolutely will not work if the people in control of the distribution and usage of the recordings are the police, or any governing body allied with the police.
If those members of the authorities in charge of maintenance of the status quo are given the job of self oversight, then all we’ll have on our hands is a recapitulation of the same old problem–a Blue Firewall Of Silence. There’ll be a data embargo, with cops, prosecutors, judges, union reps getting to decide how much of which angles of whose videos are “pertinent” to any particular investigation and yeah, maybe you can make the “rest” of the tape available through some kind of Freedom Of Information Act-esque mechanism, but we have a clear vision of what that tends to look like, and exactly how long that process will take. We’re not exactly talking about Expedient Justice™, here.
So perhaps the real best bet, here, is to provide a completely disconnected, non-partisan oversight body, comprised of people from every facet of society, and every perspective on the law–at least those who still Believe that a properly-leveraged system of laws can render justice. So you get, say, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a PUBLIC defender, an exonerated formerly accused individual, a convicted felon, someone whose family member was wrongfully killed by the police, a judge, a cop. Different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, perceived disabilities. Run the full gamut, and create this body whose job it is to review these tapes and to decide by consensus what we get to see of them. Do this city by city. Make it a part of the infrastructure. Make sure we all know who they are, but never the exact details of their decision-making processes.
This of course gets immediately more complicated the more data we have to work with, and the more real-time analysis of it can be independently done, or intercepted by outside actors, and we of course have to worry about those people being influenced by those bad faith actors who would try to subvert our attempts at crafting justice… But the more police know that everything they do in every encounter they have with the public will be recorded, and that those recordings will be reviewed by an external review board, the closer we get to having consistent systems of accountability for those who have gotten Very used to being in positions of unquestioned, privileged, protected authority.
Either that, or we just create a conscious algorithmic system to do it, and hope for the best. But it seems like how I might have heard that that was a sticky idea, somewhere… One that people get really freaked out about, all the time. Hm.
All that being said, this is not to say that we ought not proliferate body cameras. It is to say that we must be constantly aware of the implications of our choices, and of the mechanisms by which we implement them. Because, if we’re not, then we run the risk of being at the mercy of a vastly interconnected and authoritarian technocracy, one which has the motive, means, and opportunity to actively hide anything it thinks we ought not concern ourselves with.
Maybe that sounds paranoid, but the possibility of that kind of closed-ranks overreach and our tendency toward supporting it–especially if it’s done in the name of “order”–are definitely there, and we’ll need to curtail them, if we want to consistently see anything like Justice.
As most of you know from personal experience or from reading or hearing about it, it’s been a deeply intense few weeks. For me, alone, there were deaths and conference presentations and more deaths, and then more conferences.
The most recent of these deaths was my uncle– more like a brother to me– two weeks ago, and his funeral last week. I’ll talk more about the implications of that and the thoughts I’ve had in context with its timing, in a later post. For now, I want to talk about the most recent of these conferences: Theorizing The Web.
Because of the work we’ve been doing, here, I was invited to sit on a panel and have a fantastic conversation about Magick and Technology with four extremely impressive women: Ingrid Burrington, Deb Chachra, Melissa Gira Grant, and Karen Gregory; Anna Jobin was our hashtag moderator, keeping an eye on the feed, and passing along questions, and particularly pertinent comments. Spoiler Alert: The conversation was great.
In order to know exactly HOW great, here’s our Theorizing the Web talk, “Under Its Spell: Magic, Machines, and Metaphors”:
If you enjoyed watching or listening to that, please spread it around to your friends and colleagues.
In addition to this, I was offered several really amazing opportunities, this weekend, in terms of collaboration, creation, and the disposition of things that I’ve looked at and admired for a few years now. I need to do some serious thinking on all of these things, but the offers are there, and they’re huge, and amazing.
The after party for TtW15 was at the loft space for Verso Books. The picture at the top is the view from their window. The picture below is the view from underneath a chunk of bridge, in a place that used to be known as Stabber’s Alley. It’s a wonderfully liminal space in between several connected-but-not areas of town. We spent some time down there, when we needed a break from the party. Eight, then seven, then eight again magicians and technologists and artists hanging out and talking about architecture and space and time and magic and death.
The rest of this weekend’s talks also all dovetailed with a number of research avenues about systematized bias and algorithmic intelligence, as well as a number of deeply magical moments of synchronicity and discussion. Click that link, and also check twitter for the hashtags #ttw15 and #a1, #b1, #c1, etc., to see the concurrent discussions. The full program listing is here.
We’ll be taking a wander down those roads, in the near future, including the start of a conversation about biased algorithmic systems of control, sometime tomorrow.
Today I want us to talk about a concept I like to call “The Invisible Architecture of Bias.” A bit of this discussion will have appeared elsewhere, but I felt it was high time I stitched a lot of these thoughts together, and used them as a platform to dive deep into one overarching idea. What I mean is that I’ve mentioned this concept before, and I’ve even used the thinking behind it to bring our attention to a great many issues in technology, race, gender, sexuality, and society, but I have not yet fully and clearly laid out a definition for the phrase, itself. Well, not here, at any rate.
Back in the days of a more lively LiveJournal I talked about the genesis of the phrase “The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” and, as I said there, I first came up with it back in 2010, in a conversation with my friend Rebekah, and it describes the assumptions we make and the forces that shape us so deeply that we don’t merely assume them, we live in them. It’s what we would encounter if we asked a 7th generation farmer in a wheat-farming community “Why do you farm wheat?” The question you’re asking is so fundamentally contra the Fact Of Their Lives that they can’t hear it or even think of an actual answer. It simply is the world in which they live.
David Foster Wallace, in his piece “This is Water,” recounts the following joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys; how’s the water?’
“And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
That reaction is why it’s the Invisible Architecture of Bias, because we don’t even, can’t even think about the reasons behind the structure of the house—the nature of the reality—in which we live, until we’re forced to come to think about it. That is, until either we train ourselves to become aware of it after something innocuous catches the combined intersection of our unconscious and aesthetic attention—piques our curiosity—or until something goes terribly, catastrophically wrong.
We’ve talked before about what’s known as “Normalization”—the process of that which is merely common becoming seen as “The Norm” and of that norm coming to be seen as “right,” and “good.” Leaving aside Mr. David Hume’s proof that you can’t validly infer a prescription of what “ought to be” from a description of what merely is, normalization is an insidious process, in and of itself. It preys upon our almost-species-wide susceptibility to familiarity. One of the major traits of the human brain is a predilection toward patterns. Pattern making, pattern-matching, and pattern appreciating are all things we think of as “good” and “right,” because they’re what we tend to do. We do them so much, in fact, that we’ve even gone about telling ourselves a series of evolutionary Just-So Stories about how our ability to appreciate patterns is likely what accounts for our dominance as a species on Earth.
But even these words, and the meaning behind them, are rooted in the self-same assumptions—assumptions about what’s true, about what’s right, and about what is. And while the experience of something challenging our understanding of what’s good and right and normal can make acutely aware of what we expected to be the case, this doesn’t mean that we’re then ready, willing, and able to change those assumptions. Quite the opposite, in fact, as we usually tend to double down on those assumptions, to crouch and huddle into them, the better to avoid ever questioning them. We like to protect our patterns, you see, because they’re the foundation and the rock from which we craft our world. The problem is, if that foundation’s flawed, then whatever we build upon it is eventually going to shift, and crack. And personally, I’d rather work to build a more adaptable foundation, than try to convince people that a pile of rubble is a perfectly viable house.
In case it wasn’t clear, yet, I think a lot of people are doing that second one.
So let’s spend some time talking about how we come to accept and even depend on those shaky assumptions. Let’s talk about the structures of society which consciously and unconsciously guide the decision-making processes of people like departmental faculty hiring committees, the people who award funding grants, cops, jurors, judges, DA’s, the media in their reportage, and especially you and me. Because we are the people who are, every day, consuming and attempting to process a fire hose’s worth of information. Information that gets held up to and turned around in the light of what we already believe and know, and then more like than not gets categorized and sorted into pre-existing boxes. But these boxes aren’t without their limitations and detriments. For instance, if we want to, we can describe anything as a relational dichotomy, but to do so will place us within the realm and rules of the particular dialectic at hand.
For the sake of this example, consider that the more you talk in terms of “Liberty” and “Tyranny,” the more you show yourself as having accepted a) the definitions of those terms in relationship with one another and b) the “correct” mode of their perceived conflict’s resolution. The latter is something others have laid down for you. But there is a way around this, and that’s by working to see a larger picture. If Freedom and Restriction are your dichotomy, then what’s the larger system in which they exist and from which they take their meaning?
Now some might say that the idea of a “larger structure” is only ever the fantasy of a deluded mind, and others might say it is the secret truth which has been hidden from us by controlling Illuminati overlords, but at a basic level, to subscribe to either view is to buy the dichotomy and ignore the dialectic. You’re still locked into the pattern, and you’re ignoring its edges.
Every preference you have—everything you love, or want, or like the taste of, or fear, or hate— is something you’ve been taught to prefer, and some of those things you’ve been taught so completely and for so long to prefer that you don’t even recognise that you’ve been taught to prefer them. You just think it’s “right” and “Natural” that you prefer these things. That this is the world around you, and you don’t think to investigate it—let alone critique it—because, in your mind, it’s just “The World.” This extends to everything from gender norms; expectations regarding recommended levels of diet and physical activity; women in the military; entertainment; fashion; geek culture; the recapitulation of racism in photographic technology; our enculturated responses to the progress of technology; race; and sexuality.
Now, chances are you encountered some members of that list and you thought some variant on two things, depending on the item; either 1) “Well obviously, that’s a problem,” or 2) “Wait, how is that a problem?” There is the possibility that you also thought a third thing: “I think I can see how that might be a problem, but I can’t quite place why.” So, if you thought things one or two, then congratulations! Here are some of your uninvestigated biases! If you thought thing three (and I hope that you did), then good, because that kind of itching, niggling sensation that there’s something wrong that you just can’t quite suss out is one of the best places to start. You’re open to the possibility of change in your understanding of how the world works, and a bit more likely to be willing to accept that what’s wrong is something from which you’ve benefitted or in which you’ve been complicit, for a very long time. That’s a good start; much better than the alternative.
Now this was going to be the place where I was going to outline several different studies on ableism, racism, sexism, gender bias, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. I was going to lay out the stats on the likelihood of female service members being sexually assaulted in the military; and the history of the colour pink and how it used to be a boy’s colour until a particular advertising push swapped it to blue; and how recent popular discussion of the dangers of sitting/a sedentary lifestyle and the corresponding admonishment that we “need to get up and move around” don’t really take into account people who, y’know, can’t; and how we’re more willing to admit the possibility of mythological species in games and movies than we are for their gender, sexual, or racial coding to be other than what we consider “Normal;” and how most people forget that black people make up the largest single ethnic group within the LGTBQIA community; and how strange the conceptual baggage is in society’s unwillingness to compare a preference and practice of fundamentally queer-coded polyamoury to the heteronormative a) idealization of the ménage-a-trois and b) institution of “dating.”
I say I was going to go into all of that, and exhort you all to take all of this information out into the world to convince them all…! …But then I found this study that shows how when people are confronted with evidence that shakes our biases? We double down on those biases.
Yeah. See above.
The study specifically shows that white people who are confronted with evidence that the justice system is not equally weighted in its treatment across all racial and ethnic groups—people who are clearly shown that cops, judges, lawyers, and juries exhibit vastly different responses when confronted with white defendants than they do when confronted with Black or Hispanic defendants—do not respond as we all like to think that we would, when we’re confronted with evidence that casts our assumptions into doubt. Overwhelmingly, those people did not say, “Man. That is Fucked. Up. I should really keep a look out for those behaviours in myself, so I don’t make things so much worse for people who are already having a shitty time of it. In fact, I’ll do some extra work to try to make their lives less shitty.”
Instead, those studied overwhelmingly said, “The System Is Fair. If You Were Punished, You Must Have Done Something Wrong.”
They locked themselves even further into the system.
You see how maddening that is? Again, I’ve seen this happen as I’ve watched people who benefit from the existing power structures in this world cling so very tightly to the idea that the game can’t be rigged, the system can’t be unjust, because they’ve lived their lives under its shelter and in its thrall, playing by the rules it’s laid out. Because if they question it, then they have to question themselves. How are they complicit, how have they unknowingly done harm, how has the playing field been so uneven for everyone? And those questions are challenging. They’re what we like to call “ontological shocks” and “epistemic threats.”
Simply put, epistemic threats are threats to your knowledge of the world and your way of thinking, and ontological shocks are threats to what you think is Real and possible. Epistemic threats challenge what you think you know as true, and if we are honest then they should happen to us every day. A new class, new books, new writings, a conversation with a friend you haven’t heard from in months—everything you encounter should be capable of shaking your view of the world. But we need knowledge, right? Again, we need patterns and foundations, and our beliefs and knowledge allow us to build those. When we shake those knowledge forms and those beliefs, then we are shaking the building blocks of what is real. Once we’ve done that, we have escalated into the realm of ontological shocks, threats, terror, and violence.
The scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith seals Neo’s mouth shut? That’s a prime example of someone undergoing an Ontological Shock, but they can be more subtle than that. They can be a new form of art, a new style of music, a new explanation for old data that challenges the metaphysical foundations of the world in which we live. Again, if we are honest, this shouldn’t terrify us, shouldn’t threaten us, and yet, every time we encounter one of these things, our instinct is to wrap ourselves in the very thing they challenge. Why?
We’re presented with an epistemic or ontological threat and we have a fear reaction, we have a hate reaction, a distaste, a displeasure, an annoyance: Why? What is it about that thing, about us, about the world as it has been presented that makes our intersection with that thing/person/situation what it is? It’s because, ultimately, the ease of our doubling-down, our folding into the fabric of our biases works like this: if the world from which we benefit and on which we depend is shown to be unjust, then that must mean that we are unjust. But that’s a conflation of the attributes of the system with the attributes of its components, and that is what we call the Fallacy of Division. All the ants in the world weigh more than all the elephants in the world, but that doesn’t mean that each ant weighs more than each elephant. It’s only by the interaction of the category’s components that the category can even come to be, let alone have the attributes it has. We need to learn to separate the fact of our existence and complicity within a system from the idea that that mere fact is somehow a value judgment on us.
So your assumptions were wrong, or incomplete. So your beliefs weren’t fully formed, or you didn’t have all the relevant data. So what? I didn’t realise you were omniscient, thus making any failure of knowledge a personal and permanent failure, on your part. I didn’t realise that the truth of the fact that we all exist in and (to varying degrees) benefit from a racist, sexist, generally prejudicial system would make each and every one of us A Racist, A Sexist, or A Generally and Actively Prejudiced Person.
That’d be like saying that because we exist within and benefit from a plant-based biosphere, we ourselves must be plants.
The value judgement only comes when the nature of the system is clear—when we can see how all the pieces fit together, and can puzzle out the narrative and even something like a way to dismantle the structure—and yet we do nothing about it. And so we have to ask ourselves: Could my assumptions and beliefs be otherwise? Of course they could have, but they only ever can if we first admit the possibility that a) there are things we do not know, and b) we have extant assumptions preventing us from seeing what those things are. What would that possibility mean? What would it take for us to change those assumptions? How can we become more than we presently are?
So, I’ve tended to think that we can only force ourselves into the investigation of invisible architectures of bias by highlighting the disparities in application of the law, societal norms, grouped expectations, and the reactions of systems of authority in the same. What I’m saying now, however, is that, in the face of the evidence that people double down on their biases, I’ve come to suspect this may not be the best use of our time. I know, I know: that’s weird to say, 2600 words into the process of what was ostensibly me doing just exactly that. But the fact is this exercise was only ever going to be me preaching to the proverbial choir.
You and I already know that if we do not confront and account for these proven biases, they will guide our thought processes and we will think of those processes as “normal,” because they are unquestioned and they are uninvestigated, because they are unnoticed and they are active. We already know that our unquestioning support of these things, both directly and indirectly, is what gives them power over us, power to direct our actions and create the frameworks in which our lives can play out, all while we think of ourselves as “free” and “choosing.”
We already know that any time we ask “well what was this person doing wrong to deserve getting shot/charged with murder/raped/etc,” that we inherently dismiss the power of extant, unexamined bias in the minds of those doing the shooting, the charging, the judging of the rape victim. We already know that our biases exist in us and in our society, but that they aren’t called “biases.” They aren’t called anything. They’re just “The Way Things Are.”
We don’t need to be told to remember at every step of the way that nothing simply “IS” “a way.”
But the minds of those in or who benefit from authority—from heteronormativity, and cissexism, and all forms of ableism, and racism, and misogyny, and transmisogyny, and bi-erasure—do everything they can—consciously or not—to create and maintain those structures which keep them in the good graces of that authority. The struggle against their complicity is difficult to maintain, but it’s most difficult to even begin, as it means questioning the foundation of every assumption about “The Way Things Are.” The people without (here meaning both “lacking” and “outside the protections of”) that authority can either a) capitulate to it, in hopes that it does not injure them too badly, or b) stand against it at every turn they can manage, until such time as authority and power are not seen as zero-sum games, and are shared amongst all of us.
See for reference: fighters for civil rights throughout history.
But I honestly don’t know how to combat that shell of wilful and chosen ignorance, other than by chipping away at it, daily. I don’t know how to get people to recognise that these structures are at work, other than by throwing sand on the invisible steps, like I’m Dr Henry Jones, Jr., PhD, to try to give everyone a clearer path. So, here. Let’s do the hard work of making unignorable the nature of how our assumptions can control us. Let’s try to make the Invisible Architecture of Bias super Visible.
1st Example: In December 2013 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.
“Intruder” was a cop.
Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are found.
Guy was out on bail pending trial for drug charges, but was cleared of murder by the grand jury who declared that he performed “a completely reasonable act of self-defence.”
Guy is white.
2nd Example: In May 2014 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.
“Intruder” was a cop.
Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are not found.
Guy is currently awaiting trial on capital murder charges.
Guy is, of course, black.
Now I want to make it clear that I’m not exactly talking about what a decent lawyer should be able to do for the latter gentleman’s case, in light of the former case; I’m not worried about that part. Well, what I mean is that I AM WORRIED ABOUT THAT, but moreover that worry exists as a by-product in light of the architecture of thought that led to the initial disparity in those two grand jury pronouncements.
As a bit of a refresher, grand juries determine not guilt or innocence but whether to try a case, at all. To quote from the article on criminal.findlaw.com, “under normal courtroom rules of evidence, exhibits and other testimony must adhere to strict rules before admission. However, a grand jury has broad power to see and hear almost anything they would like.” Both of these cases occurred in Texas and the reasoning of the two shooters and the subsequent events on the sites of their arrests were nearly identical except for a) whether drugs were found, and b) their race.
So now, let’s Ask Some More Questions. Questions like “In the case of the Black suspect, what kind of things did the grand jury ask to see, and what did the prosecution choose to show?”
And “How did these things differ from the kinds of things the grand jury chose to ask for and the prosecution chose to show in the case of the White suspect?”
And “Why were these kinds of things different, if they were?”
Because the answer to that last question isn’t “they just were, is all.” That’s a cop-out that seeks to curtail the investigation of people’s motivations before as many reasons and biases as possible can be examined, and it’s that tendency that we’ve been talking about. The tendency to shy away in the face of stark comparisons like:
A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a white guy turned up drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is cleared of murder by a grand jury.
A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a black guy turned up no drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is put on trial for murder by a grand jury.
At the end of the day, we need to come up with methods to respond to those of us who stubbornly refuse to see how shifting the burden of proof to the groups of people who traditionally have no power and authority only reinforces the systemic structures of bias and oppression that lead to things like police abuses and juries doling out higher sentences to oppressed groups for the same kinds of crimes—or lesser crimes, as in the case of the trail record of the infamous “Affluenza” judge—as those committed by suspects who benefit from extant systems of authority or power. We need to get us to compare rates and length of incarceration for women and men who kill their spouses, and to not forget to look at the reasons they tend to. We need to think about the ways in which gender presentation in the sciences can determine the kinds of career path guidance a person is given.
We need to ask ourselves this: “What kind of questions am I quickest to ask, and why is it easier to ask those kinds of questions?”
Every system that exists requires the input and maintenance of the components of the system, in order to continue to exist. Whether intentional and explicit or coincidentally implicit—or any combination of the four—we are all complicit in holding up the walls of these structures. And so I can promise you that the status quo needs everyone’s help to stay the status quo, and that it’s hoping that some significant portion of all of us will never realise that. So our only hope is to account for the reality structures created by our biases—and the disgraceful short-sightedness those structures and biases impose—to find a way to use their tendencies for self-reinforcement against them, and keep working in our ways to make sure that everyone does.
Because if we do see these structures, and we do want to change them, then one thing that we can do is work to show them to more and more people, so that, together, we can do the hard and unending work of building and living in a better kind of world.
“Men And Women Appear To Suffer Pain Differently. So Do Blacks And Whites. Modern Medicine Has Trouble Even Talking About It.”
‘Paradoxically, the same groups accused of insensitivity often were also said to respond to pain with insufficient stoicism. Black people’s supposed indifference to pain was used to justify colonization and slavery; at the same time, slaves were often accused of overreacting to pain. Bourke looked as far back as the 18th century and found that some groups were accused of widely disparate kinds of “improper” pain responses practically all at the same time. “It’s a really a Catch-22,” she said. “They’re either not really feeling, and it’s just reflexes, or they’re feeling too much and it’s exaggerated or it’s hysterical.’ http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/06/14/don-feel-your-pain/cIrKD5czM0pgZQv7PgCmxI/story.html
‘“Affluenza” Judge Gave 14-Year Old Black Boy 10 Years in Prison for a Far Lesser Crime’
“Girls and boys’ differing understanding of when to talk, when to be quiet, what is polite and so on, has a visible impact on the dynamics of the classroom. Just as men dominate the floor in business meetings, academic conferences and so on, so little boys dominate in the classroom – and little girls let them.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/classroom_talk.shtml
“NPR- Casting Call: Hollywood Needs More Women” “My theory is that since all anybody has seen, when they are growing up, is this big imbalance – that the movies that they’ve watched are about, let’s say, 5 to 1, as far as female presence is concerned – that’s what starts to look normal. And let’s think about – in different segments of society, 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn’t that strange that that’s also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we’re actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you’re an adult, you don’t notice?” -Geena Davis http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=197390707
PBS “Language Myth # 6: Women Talk Too Much” “No, they don’t. Rather, they don’t in every situation. Social context and relative power determine who talks more, men or women. Janet Holmes sets the record straight and establishes the reasons for the lingering myth of female chattiness. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 1999.)”: http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/prejudice/women/
When you take a long look at the structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it becomes somewhat apparent that Arthur C. Clarke understood (though possibly without knowing that he did) that 1: humans have been cyborgs since fire, pointy sticks, & sharp rocks; and 2: the process of cybernetic enhancement has only ever been an outgrowth of the kind of symbiosis developed via natural selection.
First demonstrated via the influence of the Monolith on the tribe of Australopithecus and then more explicitly stated in the merger of Commander Dave Bowman and HAL into HALMAN, the opening fourth of Clarke’s quadrology is the first step along a road toward something that would later come to be seen as fundamental to the then-nascent study of cybernetic organisms. Though the term “cyborg” was coined in the 50’s and 60’s, a fuller investigation of the implications of cyborgs would take another 40 years to come to light. The perspective of “Cyborg Anthropology” has taken root through the works of thinkers like Donna Haraway, Amber Case, Klint Finley, and Tim Maly, and it has provided insights at an intersection which, in hindsight, we think ought to have been—but most certainly was not previously—obvious.
In the explicit connection of the cyborg with the anthropocene era, we force ourselves to acknowledge that every human endeavour has been an outgrowth of the dialectic, pattern-centred process of mediation and immediation—of creating new tools to do new (or old) work, and then integrating those tools more and more fully within our expectation of how a “normal” human looks and behaves. Normal humans use tools, at all. Normal humans communicate via standardized language. Normal humans write. Normal humans have a cell phone, a Facebook, a web footprint centred around their purchasing history and social interactions and shared location data; and the implication of this mode of thinking (aside from the obvious judgments made about any “abnormal” human) is that once these become “normal,” they will then havealways been normal. It’s just that we’re somehow only just now coming to realize it.
The myth of progress causes humans to seek this determinative Change-Toward, where the idea of “the process of becoming” acts as the modifier of an unspoken, possibly unknown Object State. We are, to steal a Sneaker Pimps title, “Becoming X.” But this teleological view is inconsistent with what we know of nature and the process of adaptation [insert something here about the aforementioned inherently Abrahamic roots of Transhumanist thought and the uninvestigated opposition of adaptation to this determinism]. The question “What are we becoming?” is alluring, but restrictive. We Are Becoming. Life is that process of transmutation from one state to the next. Paradoxically, self-conscious life is so enmeshed in that moment of present-mindedness that we simultaneously cannot a) maintain an awareness of the process of our becoming—that is, of ourselves as anything other than we are and “always have been”—and b) help BUT look to the future of what we desire to become.
We’re consumed with the idea of what we might someday come to be, or what we “will” be. Imagine if, instead, we became aware of the process of ever-present change and self-creation, and modified our future-looking to act as a recognition of our adaptability. Then we’d see that the Monolith didn’t do anything but place our hand and that sharp piece of bone in just the juxtaposition we needed, in order to understand that we were capable of understanding. If the monolith makers in this tale are desirous of anything, it is of the flourishing of adaptable, changeable life—not of a particular Kind of that life, but merely of its existence and expression, throughout the cosmos. In this way, one set of adaptable, self-reflective consciousness goes on to provide the means for the arising of another, and on and on. The Monoliths are tools to create tools which will use tools to create tools to use tools to create tools… But it is equally true that those tool-creating tools are, in the words of Kant, ends in themselves. In fact, they necessarily must be. Their only goal is to flourish and propagate and create the kind of reality in which more of the same can find purchase. They are, thus, to be valued for what they are, because what they are IS what they do.
But this isn’t the end. Haraway said she’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess, and I once retorted “It Can Always Be Both.” Both cyborg nature and apotheosis are about the self-directed, rising spiral of adaptation. In order for that to be true, we have to recognise that nature itself isn’t a passive state of being, but an ever-evolving, constant becoming. Nature adapts so constantly, so thoroughly that it looks like no change has taken place, until—thousands of years later—the differentiation is so vast that it boggles the mind. But now? Now the pace of evolution is so accelerated (or perhaps our ways of looking have simply become able to parse more, more usefully) that we may be able to see it in action. We can tell that there is work being done, in nature, to “refine” itself, all the time, and we can, finally, seek to model ourselves after it.
We may get to the point where the manipulation of the hearts of stars or the molecular composition of gas giants is as easy for us to contemplate and execute as the building of an engine. We may reach a stage where we understand the fabric of space-time as intimately as our own skin, flesh, and bones. We may yet understand how a word or a gesture made at the right time or place can cause ripples and actions in faraway places in what seems like an instant. Mechanisms once thought to be the purview fantasy are coming to us, again, through the applications of science, but this is not to say that technology accomplished what magic could not. Magic is a lens through which to see and interact with the world. It is a set of concepts and symbols which usefulness are determined by their meaning and vice versa. For many adherents, the lens is used for as long as it works, no more and no less, and when it stops working, the next lens is brought to bear. Systematically, technological viewpoints are magic we like to explain.
Whether wearing bear shirts and calf’s blood or lab coats and implanted magnets, the constant becoming of reflexive adaptation is the only thing we’ve ever been—the only thing anything has ever been. This is, in a real sense, the best thing we can ever hope to be. But if the human species has any “final form,” maybe one day someone will look at us and realise that, my god, we’re full of stars.
Hello there, I’m Damien Williams, or @Wolven many places on the internet. For the past nine years, I’ve been writing, talking, thinking, teaching, and learning about philosophy, comparative religion, magic, artificial intelligence, human physical and mental augmentation, pop culture, and how they all relate. I want to think about, talk about, and work toward, a future worth living in, and I want to do it with you. I can also be found at http://Technoccult.net (@Techn0ccult).