intersectionality

All posts tagged intersectionality

[This is a in-process pre-print of an as-yet-published paper, a version of which was presented at the Gender, Bodies, and Technology 2019 Conference.]

 

INTRODUCTION

The history of biotechnological intervention on the human body has always been tied to conceptual frameworks of disability and mental health, but certain biases and assumptions have forcibly altered and erased the public awareness of that understanding. As humans move into a future of climate catastrophe, space travel, and constantly shifting understanding s of our place in the world, we will be increasingly confronted with concerns over who will be used as research subjects, concerns over whose stakeholder positions will be acknowledged and preferenced, and concerns over the kinds of changes that human bodies will necessarily undergo as they adapt to their changing environments, be they terrestrial or interstellar. Who will be tested, and how, so that we can better understand what kinds of bodyminds will be “suitable” for our future modes of existence?[1] How will we test the effects of conditions like pregnancy and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in space, and what will happen to our bodies and minds after extended exposure to low light, zero gravity, high-radiation environments, or the increasing warmth and wetness of our home planet?

During the June 2018 “Decolonizing Mars” event at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, several attendees discussed the fact that the bodyminds of disabled folx might be better suited to space life, already being oriented to pushing off of surfaces and orienting themselves to the world in different ways, and that the integration of body and technology wouldn’t be anything new for many people with disabilities. In that context, I submit that cyborgs and space travel are, always have been, and will continue to be about disability and marginalization, but that Western society’s relationship to disabled people has created a situation in which many people do everything they can to conceal that fact from the popular historical narratives about what it means for humans to live and explore. In order to survive and thrive, into the future, humanity will have to carefully and intentionally take this history up, again, and consider the present-day lived experience of those beings—human and otherwise—whose lives are and have been most impacted by the socioethical contexts in which we talk about technology and space.

[Image of Mars as seen from space, via JPL]

This paper explores some history and theories about cyborgs—humans with biotechnological interventions which allow them to regulate their own internal bodily process—and how those compare to the realities of how we treat and consider currently-living people who are physically enmeshed with technology. I’ll explore several ways in which the above-listed considerations have been alternately overlooked and taken up by various theorists, and some of the many different strategies and formulations for integrating these theories into what will likely become everyday concerns in the future. In fact, by exploring responses from disabilities studies scholars and artists who have interrogated and problematized the popular vision of cyborgs, the future, and life in space, I will demonstrate that our clearest path toward the future of living with biotechnologies is a reengagement with the everyday lives of disabled and other marginalized persons, today.

CYBORGS AND MENTAL HEALTH[2]

The idea of systematically using technological and biochemical interventions to help a human person regulate their bodily processes to adapt to life in space takes its start from the work of two men: Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Even at a young age, Clynes’ work always seemed to engage with feedback and modulation and the interplay of different systems, and a correspondence with physicist Albert Einstein encouraged him and gave him the social cache to build a music career.[3] But in 1956, Clynes by chance met Dr. Nathan S. Kline, who was then the Director of the Research Center of Rockland State Hospital, where they both worked.[4] It was through this meeting that the two would become longtime collaborators and would come to coin one of the most resonant technoscientific imaginaries and conceptual tools of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: The Cyborg.

Oddly, neither Kline’s New York Times (NYT) obituary, nor his biographies at The Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research and the International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology mention his role in coining the term “cyborg,” even though Clynes was drawn to Kline in large part due to the latter’s work on neurochemistry and the groundbreaking development of antidepressants.[5] Kline’s work on anti-depressants was specifically about the human use of exterior sources of neurochemicals to self-regulate their systems, and it was precisely this work which informed the later dream of unconscious chemical adaptation to any environment. Kline’s work on antidepressants stemmed from his recognition that certain neurotransmitters were not being produced by the brains of patients with certain types of depression. Kline sought a way to either induce the production of these chemicals, or to provide them from an outside source, in doses and at intervals which would allow them to more easily integrate into a human body.[6]  Kline envisioned this process as one of the intentional regulation of organic bodily systems, through specific chemical interventions.

Clynes and others saw much wider potential value in this work, especially as in the late 1950’s and early 1960, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were in the throes of both the Cold War at the Space Race. Each superpower sought to become the first to put a human being into space, to claim it for their nations and the people therein, and it was in this context that Clynes and Kline wrote the paper “Cyborgs and Space,” and coined the term “Cyborg.”[7] In this paper, Clynes and Kline described a cyborg (a portmanteau of “cybernetic organism”) as a being which would have the means to regulate and alter previously autonomic bodily processes, through the use of chemical alterations, in a cybernetic feedback loop. The paper was largely a theoretical exploration of how we might use chemical biotechnological interventions to regulate autonomic nervous and pulmonary function, and also to make unconscious certain intentional functions and processes.[8] A cyborg would be able to survive the rigors of space travel—such as increased gravitational forces and radiation, long lightless stretches, and bodily degradation—by regulating the chemical processes of their body to adapt to each new situation, as necessary.

But as the Space Race wore on, and more and more humans actually went into space, there was an increasingly smaller focus on the alterations and adaptations that would be necessary to survive in space, and greater public emphasis placed on a narrative of the triumphalism of the human will and ingenuity. The narrative regarding humans in space became primarily about those who had “the right stuff,” rather than a question of what we would have to do in order to adapt and thrive, and so the image of the cyborg fell away and was altered. And a whole suite of possibilities for how we might have understood—and treated—different kinds of embodiment altered, along with it.

As Alison Kafer discusses in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip, feminist and ecological discourses in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s gave rise to widely-read theorists such as Donna Haraway who use the “cyborg” concept in a rhetorical mode that locks it to particular ideals about bodily integrity and outdated notions like “Severe Handicaps.”[9] (Below, we’ll discuss how, in her Robo Sapiens Japanicus, Jennifer Robertson relates this to the Japanese concept of Gotai, or “Five Body.”)  Kafer links this discussion to the history of how Kline and Clynes’ work on neurochemical antidepressants at the Rockland Institute was very likely predicated on testing and treating patients—both via drugs and instrumental interventions—against their will. Additionally, throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, Rockland was subject to multiple accusations of patient mistreatment and mismanagement, including physical abuse, malnourishment, and even rape.[10] While it certainly might not have be the case that any of those more horrifying things happened under Kline and Clynes’ direction, they did happen on their watch, and the culture of testing institutionalized patients without their consent was widespread in the United States, well into the 1970’s.[11]

[Portrait Image of Nathan S Kline: A monochrome photograph of an older white man wearing glasses and dark suit, white shirt, and tie]

Throughout the long history of eugenics in the United States, ideas about what constitutes the “right kind” of person—be that on the basis of ethnicity, gender, physical or mental ability, or all of the above—led to events in which people institutionalized against their will were forcibly sterilized due to claims of their reduced “fitness” and mental facilities. People with uteri were given forcible hysterectomies and people with testes were chemically or physically castrated, and certain people were simply put to death because they were seen as “unfit” to ever reintegrate with society. All of these things happened starting at very early ages and as one might guess, issues of race complicated every facet of them. As Harriet Washington notes in her book Medical Apartheid:

Unfortunately, a black child is more likely than a white one to have his parent completely removed from the informed-consent equation. Black children are far more likely than whites to be institutionalized, in which case the parents are often unable to consent freely or are not consulted at all.[12]

Often, and to this day, children judged as even possibly having a higher likelihood “mentally unfitness” are just aborted outright, as in the case of Iceland and the Netherlands’ use of in vitro imaging technologies to determine whether or not a child has Down Syndrome.[13]

Kafer’s discussion of the Rockland Institute’s depredations serves to illustrate that even some of the most foundational work and well-respected researchers have been party to monstrous practices in order to make their discoveries. Even as Clynes and Kline’s ideal of the cyborg developed out of a concern for mental health and recognition that the human body was not developed to fit the niche of outer space, they did their work in a context built upon the degradation and predation of disabled and forcibly institutionalized persons. This understanding of marginalized persons as resources to be used or situated embodiments to be emulated has been unfortunately persistent, and it has changed the way we think about what a cyborg ought to be. Rather than being about recognizing that, as researcher of the intersection of philosophy, technology, and disability Dr. Ashley Shew has put it, we would all be disabled in space, and so would all need some form of cybernetic system of interventions to survive, a myth of the elite, perfectible human took root.[14] There are number reasons why that is, and many implications for what it’s come to mean.

CYBORGS AND DISABILITY[15]

In the last three decades, as things like the internet captured the public imagination, more theorists explored the image of the human as increasingly entangled with technology. Theorists of biology, sociology, and scientific history, such as Donna Haraway, came to use the notion of the cyborg as a way to describe how human lives may become entangled with nonhuman entities and systems.[16] At the same time, the understanding of a cyborg as some superhuman fusion of human and machine was being taken up and reinforced by popular culture, creating a what Shew, above, calls “Technoableism” and what anthropologist of  robotics and  Japanese culture Jennifer Robertson calls “Cyborg-ableism.”[17] In Techno- or Cyborg-Ableism, technologized bodies are ostensibly lauded as “superior,” but only by still being marked out as other.

Shew’s paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability” explores how ableism, expectations, and particularities of language serve to marginalize disabled bodies.[18] Shew takes her title from the fact that most technological “solutions” designed for people who don’t use their legs are intended to facilitate their engaging the world as if they did. Many if not most things in human societies are designed to be used within a certain range of height that assumes the user is standing; if your default mode is sitting, then your engagement with the vast majority of the world will be radically different. This is just one example of what is known as the social construction model of disability, which says that it’s not the physiological differences themselves which disable, but rather the ways that spaces, architectures, and simple basic societal assumptions limit how a person is expected to intersect with the world and what kind of bodymind they “should” have.[19] Shew notes that, while we tend to think of cyborgs as some seamless integration of technology and bodies, wheelchair and crutch users consider their chairs as fairly integral extensions and interventions, as a part of themselves. The problem is that the majority of societies assume different things about these different modes. Shew mentions a friend of hers:

She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.

But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.

She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.

She has/is as recovered as she can get.[20]

Shew is one of many researchers who have discussed that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and that those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance, because they’re classed not as assistive devices, but as vehicles. Shew says what most people who don’t have use of their legs want is to have access to the same things that people who do have the use of their legs have. Because ultimately, in around the time it takes for Apple to come out with a new iPhone—around about eighteen months—a person who has developed a disability—lost the use of their legs, the use of their sight, the use of their hearing, the use of their arms, whatever—will come to engage and to adapt to that new lived physical reality as normal. Many societies think about disability as a life-altering, world-changing thing—something that lasts forever and nothing will ever be the same for you—but the fact the matter is that humans are plastic, adaptable, and malleable. We learn how to live around what we are, and we learn it very quickly.

All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”

Humans became seen as those creatures which self-analyze and then alter and adapt themselves based upon said self-analysis. Many philosophers of technology have argued that we are always technologically mediated, and that that mediation shapes and is shaped by our physiological and sociocultural experiences, and elsewhere, I’ve explored the questions of identity that come along with Ship-of-Theseus-like questions of bodily integrity that do not quite fit into this work.[21] Suffice it to say that even as promises of becoming “more than” human have flooded the public imagination, they have been met with equally ardent cries of “but if you lose a part of your body, you’re not really you!” Either of these positions serves only to erase and marginalize the real lived experiences of disabled people, for the sake of some assumption about what the human bodymind “should” or even just might be. Even into the twenty-first century, cyborgologists such as Amber Case, a self-described “Cyborg Anthropologist,” have argued that, thanks to augmented reality, smart phone devices, and the generally ubiquitous integration of technology in to the daily life of the modern human being, “We Are All Cyborgs Now.”[22] But something crucial gets lost, here, when we obfuscate or elide the real experiences of people with disabilities from the conversation about cyborgs and cybernetics.

In her pieces “Dawn of the Tryborg” and “Common Cyborg,” Jillian Weise specifically hones in on a great deal of the  foundation for the modern mythology of cyborg experience, including that which comes out of perspectives like Haraway’s and Case’s.[23] The idea that anyone with a smartphone or with a particular conceptual relationship to the world is automatically a cyborg, Weise says, does violence to the very real lived experience of people with prosthetics or artificial organs or implants that keep them alive. Those latter interventions need maintenance to keep them functional in the face of damage, to prevent life-threatening infection, and to adjust them for day-to-day changes, and while they are not necessarily “sexy,” they are a truer example of what the term’s originators thought it would mean to be a cyborg. “Tryborgs,” on Weise’s view, are those people who want all the glitz and glory of being interconnected with technology, without any of the practical implications. They are the transhumanists who believe that we will all be able to upload our consciousnesses and change our shape, at will, with no muss and no fuss. They want to be the inspirational figures, without having to suffer any losses or do any of the messy upkeep and maintenance, to get there. And they exist in many cultures.

[Port-A-Cath Chemo Port (Images from Cancer.gov {Left} and MySamanthaJane.com {Right})]

Jennifer Robertson’s Robo Sapiens Japanicus consists of a close investigation of Japan’s historical cultural engagement with robots, and her sixth chapter, “Cyborg-Ableism Beyond The Uncanny (Valley),” deals specifically with Japanese notions of disability, mental health, and cyborg-ableism.[24] Though she doesn’t directly consider of the roots of the cyborg concept, beyond Haraway and back to Kline and Clynes, Robertson delves into things like the removal of disabled veterans from streets for 1964 Olympics, the creation of the first Paralympics in 1948, the fact that one out of six people in Asia and the Pacific is born with some form of disability, and that Japan only ratified the UN’s and drafted its own disability protection legislation after many years and a great deal of foreign pressure.[25] And even with that pressure, Robertson says, it was only with the 2016 enforcement of these laws that all governmental institutions and private-sector businesses were required to remove the social barriers for people with disabilities.[26] Before then, many disabled athletes weren’t allowed to train with able-bodied teammates, and had to raise their own money to purchase prostheses, at which point many of them, if they were successful, got accused of exploiting their disability for monetary gain.[27] In this way, Robertson highlights a cultural indifference to or dismissal of disabled people, even as governments and businesses focused on and developed robotic prostheses.[28]

In a cultural sense, the desires to either fit in or to use technology to become “more” and “better than” are what tend to drive cyborg-ableist concerns. Robertson discusses Tobin Siebers and the concept of able-bodied passing, comparing it to queer folx and “straight passing;” in each case there are transitive and intransitive forms of passing, where one is either actively effacing their difference/otherness, or merely benefitting from outside observers simply not recognizing said.[29] To that end, many may choose to make their disability (or their queerness, or both) unignorable by way of stylized prostheses; in fact, much in line with Shew’s assertions above, while people who’ve recently lose a limb may start off wanting a lifelike replacement, they tend to shift to wanting something that works and feels better, rather than just looking a particular way. [30] So are stylized prostheses better understood as empowering or distracting? On the one hand, there is something empowering about the use of a prosthetic to reshape and change the way the outside world can understand you; on the other hand, “prosthetics can divert attention from the disabled limb to its replacement.”[31] But this replacement, in itself, can be a source of discomfort for able-bodied folx.

In the section “What is (and is not) the uncanny valley?” Robertson explores Masahiro Mori’s concept of Bunkimi no tani which Robertson translates as “the valley of eerie feeling,” rather than the more familiar “uncanny valley.”[32] Paired with shinwakan no tani or “familiar feeling valley,” Mori describes this as a kind of suddenly and shockingly frustrated expectation, when one is in the process of encountering and reinforcing increasingly familiar things. This concept depends heavily on Mori’s assumptions about what would constitute an “average, healthy, person” and what Robertson labels his “almost callous indifference toward disabled persons.”[33] In Mori’s graphs and descriptions of the Valley, he includes sick disabled people as on the upward curve of the “eerie,” moving away from  corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands.[34]

While many people have taken the uncanny valley as some kind of gospel law, Robertson contends we should, rather, expect that the constituency or even presence of an uncanny valley would be a highly subjective thing, based on factors such as “physical and cognitive abilities, age, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education, religion, and cultural background;” and, indeed, Mori himself has said that it was meant only as an “impressionistic” guide.[35] Humans can adjust to and come to accept and embrace the unfamiliar and designers can avoid the uncanny valley, and many people on earth live in situations where injury illness and death are not “sudden and unfamiliar” or “eerie,” but rather are unfortunately everyday occurrences. But Mori’s response, and much of what is seen in the Japanese exoskeleton market, is just another example of Gotai, the traditional Japanese understanding that a “whole” or “normal” body is made of five constituent parts in combination: either the head, two arms, and two legs, or the head, neck, torso, arms, and legs.[36] This theory holds that anything that breaks this form breaks the person, a perspective which firmly binds these notions of “completeness” to notions of mental health.

Hirotada Ototake’s book Gotai Fumanzoku or “incomplete/unsatisfactory body” (English title: “No One’s Perfect”) is an autobiography about his tetra-amelia syndrome which prevented his arms and legs from developing during his gestation; stressing his “Normality” and his desire to be treated equally.[37] But, Robertson notes, the kind of whole-body championed by the Japanese culture exoskeletons are not ways for people like Ototake to regain Gotai, and that there’s a difference between prosthetics that replace a limb and those that “enhance” an existing but disabled one.[38] Robertson, here, in a move similar to but not directly referential of Kafer, touches on Haraway’s use of cyborg as a metaphor for relationality and reflexivity, and, offers a critique of Haraway’s seeming to conceive of “disability” as a singular category rather than the multiform variable conditions that can be linked under this label.[39] This, along with transhumanists like Max More and Natasha Vita-More’s ableist notions of what the “perfect” body should be, feeds into narratives that comprise this vision of cyborgs as a somehow “perfected” humanity.

But cyborgs were conceived as a means for humans to live in space, a situation which, again, would be a combination of constantly-dangerous processes of keeping close track of minute changes in the bodyminds of the astronauts and their relationship to their environment—processes that are already well-known to, e.g., diabetics or people with peripheral neuropathy. For a person within those lived experiences, always being aware of the state, position, and integrity of their body is always already a life-or-death scenario, in ways that have to be learned and mimicked by people who are otherwise able-bodied. Had we maintained disabled people’s stories as a part of the mythology of the cyborg, from the beginning, Western societies might now have a better relationship with concepts of disability and mental health. This relationship might have easily arisen from the recognition that most if not all disabled people are cyborgs, just as all spacefaring humans must become cyborgs, and that this, as Clynes and Kline understood, is precisely because all spacefaring humans will become disabled by the very act of existing in space. Which means that, in essence, spacefaring humans currently do and will continue to experience the social construction of disability.

[Members of the Gallaudet Eleven chat in the zero-g aircraft that flew out of Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.; Credits: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection]

But since we have not, in fact, reinforced that chain of understanding, contemporary theorist would be well served to presently explore the situated and lived experiences of people with different configurations of bodyminds, and to listen to what they know about themselves. As Shew has noted, those people who have experience with orienting themselves to the world via pushing off of surfaces or using their arms as primary means of propulsion would be better positioned move in weightless environments and to teach others new strategies to do the same. Because, ultimately, people with disabilities are often already interwoven with their technologies, in ways idealized by technologists, but their lived experience is not recognized and appreciated for what it is. If we take these lived experiences and incorporate the people who embody them, in conjunction with the original intent of the notion of the cyborg, we might have the beginning of a system by which we can rehabilitate the notion of the cyborg—but overcoming the historical trends that have led us here will take a great deal of work.

CYBORGS AND MARGINALIZATION

While it has long been assumed that the future of humanity would have to adapt both its forms and conceptual relations to multiform and multimodal embodiments, through our explorations we have come to understand how the category of the cyborg, which should have made fertile grounds for this expanded understanding, has instead become a site of disenfranchisement. As we’ve seen, Kafer’s project in Feminist, Queer, Crip aims to reframe disabled people as cyborgs because of their political practices rather than their bodies,  that enframing of politics, embodiment, and biotechnological intervention has roots and mirrors in other persistent forms of marginalization. Those other roots of racism and misogyny give rise to several questions such as, “Whose bodies will we make subject to or deign to include in tests for space exploration?” More to the point, if we are meant to the cyborg in terms of people whose embodiments are already technopolitically mediated, then who can and should we understand as cyborgs, now? Because there is a crucial difference between a group of people who have “disnormalized” themselves, and group which has been othered by people who don’t know or understand their lived experience.

Again, there are multiple sites of marginalization which can be demonstrated as having a force-multiplying effect on how people with implants, prostheses, or biochemical injection or ingestion regimens are either accepted or disenfranchised by the society in which they live. We can borrow, here, the framework of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s Intersectionality theory, to help make sense of this:

…problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. (Emphasis added.)[40]

Crenshaw centers Black women, here, but this isn’t to say that only Black women can be intersectional subjects. Rather, she uses Black women as an example of how groups of people that have been cast as only one kind of identity (Black, Woman) would be far better understood as the center of an intersectional process. Might we think of trans folx who sit at the center of their identities, biomedical technologies such as hormone replacement therapies (HRT) or binders or packers, of societies expectations about how their bodies ought to present and behave, and public technologies such as airport scanners of as cyborgs?[41] If so, they would have vastly different valences of legibility and operation than, say, a diabetic with an insulin pump—though similar ones to a person with an ostomy bag.[42] If we work to understand people in an intersectional way, we can recognize the many vectors for different kinds of oppression, in the world, and understand that even those intersectional subjects with shared component roots will have different particularities of expression and avenues by which we might redress their needs—a recognition that has been sorely and consistently lacking in much of our public discourse, to date.

When we again explore the histories of eugenics and medicalization, we find that even up to this point in the 21st century, there are well-regarded researchers and even textbooks on biomedical ethics which barely touch on these issues, let alone on understanding them through a lens of intersectionality of oppression. For instance, Francis L. Macrina’s Scientific Integrity is in its fourth edition, and yet still seems to lack any substantive contextual discussion of changes made in the history of research ethics standards and practices—such as what actually happened in the Tuskegee syphilis trials. Macrina mentions that the trials took place, and even the nature of the population on which they were conducted, but he does not at any point mention the fact that researchers targeted the study’s population because they were Black, and were therefore conceptualized as resources.[43] While it is, perhaps, unfair to expect Macrina to touch on every nuanced concerns of every human subject trial, the assumption that social features are not worthy of discussion serves to reinforce a whole host of other assumptions about things like the objectivity of testing criteria or the clarity of explanations in gaining informed consent. These assumptions, if ever scrutinized at all, would simply not hold up. At the very least it is clear that the Tuskegee patients, like Henrietta Lacks, were not seen or understood as being worthy of clear explanations of what was being done to them. After all, if they understood, they might have said “no.”

Focusing on the history of biomedical experimentation on populations of the forcibly institutionalized or systemically disenfranchised, and African American or female-presenting bodies, in particular, would do wonders to highlight the fact that the long-term effects of the trials were more than just some blanket distrust of medical experimentation, throughout American society. The trials in Tuskegee, Alabama fit into a longstanding pattern of treating Black bodies as resources to be used and as objects to be othered, dehumanized, and intervened upon in whatever ways the dominant society at the time has happened to see fit. And Black bodies are not the only ones.  Imagine if textbook writers such as Macrina more often took the time to discuss and contextualize events like how the government and medical providers tricked Black people in Mississippi into receiving vaccinations, or the forced sterilization of Black women, or how the intersection of mental health and institutionalization of women in general led to them being experimented on and sterilized at higher rates, or the long-term ethical and social implications of classifying certain people as “morons.”

More and more, the effects of these kinds of historical objectification are understood as linked to lowered health outcomes, higher rates of chronic illness, and greater morbidity for Black people and women in the United States, and a longstanding history of thinking of the neurodivergent and people with mental disabilities as “less than.” The omission of these discussions from textbooks and other broad public discourse exemplifies a persistent failure to fully contextualize the history and implications of these events. That this failure presents in so many ethical sub-disciplines might help to explain how people have so often managed to convince themselves that testing on marginalized populations without their informed consent can be said to serve the “greater good.” More often than not, “professional ethics training” or any other kind of take on the humanities within business or the so-called hard sciences becomes synonymous with a particular understanding of how not to get sued. The perspectives that get passed along are those of experts in the field in question, be it business, technology, medicine, or what-have-you. Leaving the social science and humanities training of students to people who were only ever trained in this narrow, subdisciplinary fashion is precisely what leads to the continual dismissal of ethical, moral, and sociopolitical considerations, and said dismissal then, in turn, gives rise to Technoableism.


[“Bladerunner” Created by Oliver Wetter / Ars Fantasio]

If various groups want to change bodily forms and embodiments, or even just change the way that we all interact with the planet on which we currently live so that we might survive the next 30 years, then they will have to radically reconsider how our sociopolitical forces and the elements of our lived experience impact the decisions we make about the science we do and tools we create. The historical positioning of the lived experiences of marginalized people in terms of race, gender, disability, and so on has meant that while we are more than happy to test and degrade certain people for their embodiments, we have been less than willing to allow those same to shape and direct the technoscientific discourse of which they have forcibly been made a part. This distinction, though unarticulated, matters a great deal, and its effects and implications run rampant throughout every facet of our society.

CONCLUSION

If humans do manage a future in which they travel into and live in space, they will need to change the kinds of embodiments and relations they have in order to survive; to do this, they will need to think in vastly different ways about the nature of technological and scientific projects they undertake. Our societal future imaginings are rife with assumptions about what kind of people are best suited to exist and these have been shaped by the historical positioning and treatment of many marginalized groups. Left unexamined, these assumptions and precedents will likely mutate and iterate into each new environment into which humans spread, and affect every engagement of human and nonhuman relationships. But, if we bring a careful, thorough, and intentional consideration to bear on the project of weaving together biomedical, interpersonal, sociopolitical, and technomoral concerns, then we might be better suited to both do right by those we’ve previously oppressed and agilely adapt to the kinds of concerns that will face us, in the future.

As Haraway discusses in her (flawed but possibly still salvageable) “Cyborg Manifesto,” the language of the cybernetic feedback loop does not belong only to humanity as a way to describe its own processes—cybernetic theory and the myth of the cyborg are also frameworks which can be used to describe the cycles and processes of nature, as a whole.[44] Through this understanding, Haraway and others have argued that all of nature is involved in an integrated process of adaptation, augmentation, and implementation which, far from being a simple division between the biological and technological is, instead, a reflexive, co-productive process. Using the theorists and examples above, I’ve argued for an understanding of biotechnological intervention and integration as the truth of our existence with and within technology. Our bodies and minds are shaped by each other and exist as bodyminds, and those bodyminds dictate and are shaped by the technologies with which they interact.

In order to carefully construct and live within vastly complex systems, it will be crucial to understanding the lived experiences of those whose embodiments and bodyminds have placed them at a higher likelihood of being marginalized by those who demand a “right kind” of lived experience. Only by allowing them to create a world out of the lessons of their lived experience will we be better able to intentionally craft what this system and its components will learn and how they will develop. What should characterize our understanding of the cyborg, then, is the reflexive, adaptive relationship between the sociotechnical, sociopolitical, ethical, individual, symbolic, and philosophical valences of our various lived experiences.

The point in saying that “Cyborgs Have Always Been About Disability, Mental Health, and Marginalization” is not to say that the category of the cyborg should be Disclosed to cyborg anthropologists and philosophers who say “we have always been cyborgs.” Rather, it’s about highlighting the fact that a category which was invented specifically to address the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed people has been co-opted and transformed into a tool by which to erase the experiences of those very same people. We can, and indeed should, still make use of the Harawayan cyborg, the metaphor for entanglement and enmeshment, both as individuals and communities, but we must do so in a way that honours both the original meaning and the evolution of the concept. We must recognize that disabled people, the neurodivergent, trans folx, Black lives, women, queer individuals, and those who sit at the intersection of any number of those components comprise individual lives and communities of experience which are already attuned to changing and adapting to suddenly hostile environments, and it is these kinds of lives which should stand at the vanguard of how we understand what it means to be a cyborg, moving forward. Because the concept of the cyborg was never about a perfectible ideal, it was always about survivability, about coming into a new relational mode with ourselves, our society, and our world.

[1] “Bodyminds” comes from Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” in Hypatia 30, 2015.

[2] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “A Brief Historical Overview of Cybernetics and Cyborgs,” written for History of STS, Spring 2018

[3] Clynes, Manfred. (1955-10-02). “Simple analytic method for linear feedback system dynamics”. Transactions of the American Institute for Electrical Engineers

[4] Madrigal, Alexis C.. “The Man Who First Said ‘Cyborg,’ 50 Years Later.”

[5] Gruson, Lindsey. “Nathan Kline, Developer of Antidepressants, Dies.” The New York Times. February 14, 1983. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/14/obituaries/nathan-kline-developer-of-antidepressants-dies.html; Blackwell, Barry. “Nathan S. Kline.” International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology, June 13, 2013. http://inhn.org/profiles/nathan-s-kline.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics (September 1960), 26-27, 74-76. http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf

[8] Clynes and Kline “Cyborgs and Space.”

[9] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. pg. 105, 111—115; Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, And Socialist-feminism In The Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature New York; Routledge. 1991.

[10] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. pg. 126—128

[11] Cf, Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid; Tuskegee University, “About the USPHS Syphilis Study.” https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/centers-of-excellence/bioethics-center/about-the-usphs-syphilis-study; Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; New York: Crown Publishers, 2010

[12] Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006. pg. 293

[13] Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Obstetric Ultrasound and the Technological Mediation of Morality: A Postphenomenological Analysis.” Human Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Postphenomenology Research (Mar., 2008), pp. 11-26; Springer. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40270638

[14] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars.” Technology and Disability. November 11, 2017. https://techanddisability.com/2017/11/11/technoableism-cyborg-bodies-and-mars/.

[15] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5162; “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5087.

[16] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto”

[17] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars”; Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018.

[18] Shew, Ashley. “Up-Standing Norms.” IEEE Conference on Ethics and Technology, 2016.

[19] See Rosenberger, Robert. “The Philosophy of Hostile Architecture: Spiked Ledges, Bench Armrests, Hydrant Locks, Restroom Stall Design, Etc.” 2018.

[20] Shew, Ashley, in correspondence, 2016.

[21] Cf. Don Ihde, Albert Borgmann, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Evan Selinger, and other post-phenomenologists; Williams, Damien Patrick “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” “Go Upgrade Yourself,” appearing in Futurama and Philosophy, Courtland D. Lewis ed.

[22] Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” TED Talks. December 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now.html

[23] Weise, Jillian “The Dawn of the ‘Tryborg.’” November 30, 2016. NEW YORK TIMES. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/opinion/the-dawn-of-the-tryborg.html?_r=1#story-continues-1; “Common Cyborg.” Sep 24, 2018. GRANTA. https://granta.com/common-cyborg/; Also Cf. Joshua Earle’s “Cyborg Maintenance: A Phenomenology of Upkeep” presented at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology.

[24] Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. pg. 146—174

[25] Robertson. pg. 146

[26] Ibid. pg. 148

[27] Robertson. pg. 149

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. pg. 150

[30] Ibid. pg. 152

[31] Robertson. pg. 150

[32] Ibid. pg. 153—154

[33] Ibid. pg. 155—156

[34] Ibid. pg. 157

[35] Ibid.

[36] Robertson. pg. 168—169

[37] Ototake, Hirotada. Gotai Fumanzoku (“Incomplete Body”). Tokyo: Kodansha. 1998; No One’s Perfect. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2003.

[38] Robertson. pg. 170—171

[39] Ibid.

[40] Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” https://philpapers.org/rec/CREDTI

[41] Hoffman, Anna Lauren. “Data, Technology, and Gender: Thinking About (and From) Trans Lives”

[42] Dowd, Maureen. “Stripped of Dignity.” New York Times. April 19, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/opinion/20dowd.html; Crawford, Alison. “Disabled passengers complain of treatment by airport security staff.” CBC News. Sept. 27, 2016.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/catsa-airport-travellers-complaints-security-1.3779312.

[43] Macrina, Francis L. Scientific Integrity: Text and Cases in Responsible Conduct of Research. (Third Edition). Washington, D.C.: ASM Press, 2005. pg. 92.

[44] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature.

 

Kirsten and I spent the week between the 17th and the 21st of September with 18 other utterly amazing people having Chatham House Rule-governed conversations about the Future of Artificial Intelligence.

We were in Norway, in the Juvet Landscape Hotel, which is where they filmed a lot of the movie Ex Machina, and it is even more gorgeous in person. None of the rooms shown in the film share a single building space. It’s astounding as a place of both striking architectural sensibility and also natural integration as they built every structure in the winter to allow the dormancy cycles of the plants and animals to dictate when and where they could build, rather than cutting anything down.

And on our first full day here, Two Ravens flew directly over my and Kirsten’s heads.

Yes.

[Image of a rainbow rising over a bend in a river across a patchy overcast sky, with the river going between two outcropping boulders, trees in the foreground and on either bank and stretching off into the distance, and absolutely enormous mountains in the background]

I am extraordinarily grateful to Andy Budd and the other members of the Clear Left team for organizing this, and to Cennydd Bowles for opening the space for me to be able to attend, and being so forcefully enthused about the prospect of my attending that he came to me with a full set of strategies in hand to get me to this place. That kind of having someone in your corner means the world for a whole host of personal reasons, but also more general psychological and socially important ones, as well.

I am a fortunate person. I am a person who has friends and resources and a bloody-minded stubbornness that means that when I determine to do something, it will more likely than not get fucking done, for good or ill.

I am a person who has been given opportunities to be in places many people will never get to see, and have conversations with people who are often considered legends in their fields, and start projects that could very well alter the shape of the world on a massive scale.

Yeah, that’s a bit of a grandiose statement, but you’re here reading this, and so you know where I’ve been and what I’ve done.

I am a person who tries to pay forward what I have been given and to create as many spaces for people to have the opportunities that I have been able to have.

I am not a monetarily wealthy person, measured against my society, but my wealth and fortune are things that strike me still and make me take stock of it all and what it can mean and do, all over again, at least once a week, if not once a day, as I sit in tension with who I am, how the world perceives me, and what amazing and ridiculous things I have had, been given, and created the space to do, because and in violent spite of it all.

So when I and others come together and say we’re going to have to talk about how intersectional oppression and the lived experiences of marginalized peoples affect, effect, and are affected and effected BY the wider techoscientific/sociotechnical/sociopolitical/socioeconomic world and what that means for how we design, build, train, rear, and regard machine minds, then we are going to have to talk about how intersectional oppression and the lived experiences of marginalized peoples affect, effect, and are affected and effected by the wider techoscientific/sociotechnical/sociopolitical/socioeconomic world and what that means for how we design, build, train, rear, and regard machine minds.

So let’s talk about what that means.

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I talked with Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Curt Hopkins, for their article “4 obstacles to ethical AI (and how to address them).” We spoke about the kinds of specific tools and techniques by which people who populate or manage artificial intelligence design teams can incorporate expertise from the humanities and social sciences. We also talked about compelling reasons why they should do this, other than the fact that they’re just, y’know, very good ideas.

From the Article:

To “bracket out” bias, Williams says, “I have to recognize how I create systems and code my understanding of the world.” That means making an effort early on to pay attention to the data entered. The more diverse the group, the less likely an AI system is to reinforce shared bias. Those issues go beyond gender and race; they also encompass what you studied, the economic group you come from, your religious background, all of your experiences.

That becomes another reason to diversify the technical staff, says Williams. This is not merely an ethical act. The business strategy may produce more profit because the end result may be a more effective AI. “The best system is the one that best reflects the wide range of lived experiences and knowledge in the world,” he says.

[Image of two blank, white, eyeless faces, partially overlapping each other.]

To be clear, this is an instance in which I tried to find capitalist reasons that would convince capitalist people to do the right thing. To that end, you should imagine that all of my sentences start with “Well if we’re going to continue to be stuck with global capitalism until we work to dismantle it…” Because they basically all did.

I get how folx might think that framing would be a bit of a buzzkill for a tech industry audience, but I do want to highlight and stress something: Many of the ethical problems we’re concerned with mitigating or ameliorating are direct products of the capitalist system in which we are making these choices and building these technologies.

All of that being said, I’m not the only person there with something interesting to say, and you should go check out the rest of my and other people’s comments.

Until Next Time.

Last week, I talked to The Atlantic’s Ed Yong about new research in crowd sentiment tipping points, how it could give hope and dread for those working for social change, and how it might be used by bad actors to create/enhance already-extant sentiment-manipulation factories.

From the article:

…“You see this clump of failures below 25 percent and this clump of successes above 25 percent,” Centola says. “Mathematically, we predicted that, but seeing it in a real population was phenomenal.”

“What I think is happening at the threshold is that there’s a pretty high probability that a noncommitted actor”—a person who can be swayed in any direction—“will encounter a majority of committed minority actors, and flip to join them,” says Pamela Oliver, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There is therefore a good probability that enough non-committed actors will all flip at the same time that the whole system will flip.”

We talked about a lot, and much of it didn’t make it into the article, but one of the things that matters most about all of this is that we’re going to have to be increasingly mindful and intentional about the information we take in. We now know that we have the ability to move the needle of conversation, with not too much effort, and with this knowledge we can make progressive social change. We can use this to fight against the despair that can so easily creep into this work of spreading compassion and trying to create a world where we can all flourish.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/65/Argentina_-_Mt_Tronador_Ascent_-_65_-_Casa%C3%B1o_Overa_glacier_%286834408616%29.jpg/640px-Argentina_-_Mt_Tronador_Ascent_-_65_-_Casa%C3%B1o_Overa_glacier_%286834408616%29.jpg

[Argentina’s Mt Tronador Casaño Overa glacier, by McKay Savage]

But we have to know that there will also be those who see this as a target number to hit so that hey might better disrupt and destabilize groups and beliefs. We already know that many such people are hard at work, trying to sow doubt and mistrust. We already have evidence that these actors will make other people’s lives unpleasant for the sake of it. With this new research, they’ll be encouraged, as well. As I said to Ed Yong:

“There are already a number of people out there who are gaming group dynamics in careful ways… If they know what target numbers they have to hit, it’s easy to see how they could take this information and create [or increase the output of the existing] sentiment-manipulation factory.”

The infiltration of progressive groups to move them toward chaos and internal strife is not news, just like the infiltration (and origin) of police and military groups by white supremacists is not news.

And so, while I don’t want to add to a world in which people feel like they have to continually mistrust each other, we do have to be intentional about the work we do, and how we do it, and we have to be mindful of who is trying to get us to believe what, and why they want us to believe it. Especially if we want to get others to believe as we do

This research gives us a useful set of tools and a good to place to start.

Until Next Time.

This summer I participated in SRI International’s Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. The meetings were held under the auspices of the Chatham House Rule, which means that there are many things I can’t tell you about them, such as who else was there, or what they said in the context of the meetings; however I can tell you what I talked about. In light of this recent piece in The Boston Globe and the ongoing developments in the David Slater/PETA/Naruto case, I figured that now was a good time to do so.

I presented three times—once on interdisciplinary perspectives on minds and mindedness; then on Daoism and Machine Consciousness; and finally on a unifying view of my thoughts across all of the sessions. This is my outline and notes for the first of those talks.

I. Overview
In a 2013 aeon Article Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem,” and there’s been some skepticism about it, elsewhere. I’ll just say that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be. If we manage to generate at least one mind that is similar enough to what humans experience as “conscious” that we may communicate with it, what will we owe it and what would it be able to ask from us? How might our interactions be affected by the fact that its mind (or their minds) will be radically different from ours? What will it be able to know that we cannot, and what will we have to learn from it?

So I’m going to be talking today about intersectionality, embodiment, extended minds, epistemic valuation, phenomenological experience, and how all of these things come together to form the bases for our moral behavior and social interactions. To do that, I’m first going to need ask you some questions:

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[Direct link to Mp3]

[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

The audio transcript is below the cut. Enjoy.

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What is The Real?

I have been working on this piece for a little more than a month, since just after Christmas. What with one thing, and another, I kept refining it while, every week, it seemed more and more pertinent and timely. You see, we need to talk about ontology.

Ontology is an aspect of metaphysics, the word translating literally to “the study of what exists.” Connotatively, we might rather say, “trying to figure out what’s real.” Ontology necessarily intersects with studies of knowledge and studies of value, because in order to know what’s real you have to understand what tools you think are valid for gaining knowledge, and you have to know whether knowledge is even something you can attain, as such.

Take, for instance, the recent evolution of the catchphrase of “fake news,” the thinking behind it that allows people to call lies “alternative facts,” and the fact that all of these elements are already being rotated through several dimensions of meaning that those engaging in them don’t seem to notice. What I mean is that the inversion of the catchphrase “fake news” into a cipher for active confirmation bias was always going to happen. It and any consternation at it comprise a situation that is borne forth on a tide of intentional misunderstandings.

If you were using fake to mean, “actively mendacious; false; lies,” then there was a complex transformation happening here, that you didn’t get:

There are people who value the actively mendacious things you deemed “wrong”—by which you meant both “factually incorrect” and “morally reprehensible”—and they valued them on a nonrational, often actively a-rational level. By this, I mean both that they value the claims themselves, and that they have underlying values which cause them to make the claims. In this way, the claims both are valued and reinforce underlying values.

So when you called their values “fake news” and told them that “fake news” (again: their values) ruined the country, they—not to mention those actively preying on their a-rational valuation of those things—responded with “Nuh-uh! your values ruined the country! And that’s why we’re taking it back! MAGA! MAGA! Drumpfthulhu Fhtagn!”

Logo for the National Geographic Channel’s “IS IT REAL?” Many were concerned that NG Magazine were going to change their climate change coverage after they were bought by 21st Century Fox.

You see? They mean “fake news” along the same spectrum as they mean “Real America.” They mean that it “FEELS” “RIGHT,” not that it “IS” “FACT.”

Now, we shouldn’t forget that there’s always some measure of preference to how we determine what to believe. As John Flowers puts it, ‘Truth has always had an affective component to it: those things that we hold to be most “true” are those things that “fit” with our worldview or “feel” right, regardless of their factual veracity.

‘We’re just used to seeing this in cases of trauma, e.g.: “I don’t believe he’s dead,” despite being informed by a police officer.’

Which is precisely correct, and as such the idea that the affective might be the sole determinant is nearly incomprehensible to those of us who are used to thinking of facts as things that are verifiable by reference to externalities as well as values. At least, this is the case for those of us who even relativistically value anything at all. Because there’s also always the possibility that the engagement of meaning plays out in a nihilistic framework, in which we have neither factual knowledge nor moral foundation.

Epistemic Nihilism works like this: If we can’t ever truly know anything—that is, if factual knowledge is beyond us, even at the most basic “you are reading these words” kind of level—then there is no description of reality to be valued above any other, save what you desire at a given moment. This is also where nihilism and skepticism intersect. In both positions nothing is known, and it might be the case that nothing is knowable.

So, now, a lot has been written about not only the aforementioned “fake news,” but also its over-arching category of “post-truth,” said to be our present moment where people believe (or pretend to believe) in statements or feelings, independent of their truth value as facts. But these ideas are neither new nor unique. In fact, Simpsons Did It. More than that, though, people have always allowed their values to guide them to beliefs that contradict the broader social consensus, and others have always eschewed values entirely, for the sake of self-gratification. What might be new, right now, is the willfulness of these engagements, or perhaps their intersection. It might be the case that we haven’t before seen gleeful nihilism so forcefully become the rudder of gormless, value-driven decision-making.

Again, values are not bad, but when they sit unexamined and are the sole driver of decisions, they’re just another input variable to be gamed, by those of a mind to do so. People who believe that nothing is knowable and nothing matters will, at the absolute outside, seek their own amusement or power, though it may be said that nihilism in which one cares even about one’s own amusement is not genuine nihilism, but is rather “nihilism,” which is just relativism in a funny hat. Those who claim to value nothing may just be putting forward a front, or wearing a suit of armour in order to survive an environment where having your values known makes you a target.

If they act as though they believe there is no meaning, and no truth, then they can make you believe that they believe that nothing they do matters, and therefore there’s, no moral content to any action they take, and so no moral judgment can be made on them for it. In this case, convincing people to believe news stories they make up is in no way materially different from researching so-called facts and telling the rest of us that we should trust and believe them. And the first way’s also way easier. In fact, preying on gullible people and using their biases to make yourself some lulz, deflect people’s attention, and maybe even get some of those sweet online ad dollars? That’s just common sense.

There’s still some something to be investigated, here, in terms of what all of this does for reality as we understand and experience it. How what is meaningful, what is true, what is describable, and what is possible all intersect and create what is real. Because there is something real, here—not “objectively,” as that just lets you abdicate your responsibility for and to it, but perhaps intersubjectively. What that means is that we generate our reality together. We craft meaning and intention and ideas and the words to express them, together, and the value of those things and how they play out all sit at the place where multiple spheres of influence and existence come together, and interact.

To understand this, we’re going to need to talk about minds and phenomenological experience.

 

What is a Mind?

We have discussed before the idea that what an individual is and what they feel is not only shaped by their own experience of the world, but by the exterior forces of society and the expectations and beliefs of the other people with whom they interact. These social pressures shape and are shaped by all of the people engaged in them, and the experience of existence had by each member of the group will be different. That difference will range on a scale from “ever so slight” to “epochal and paradigmatic,” with the latter being able to spur massive misunderstandings and miscommunications.

In order to really dig into this, we’re going to need to spend some time thinking about language, minds, and capabilities.

Here’s an article that discusses the idea that you mind isn’t confined to your brain. This isn’t meant in a dualistic or spiritualistic sense, but as the fundamental idea that our minds are more akin to, say, an interdependent process that takes place via the interplay of bodies, environments, other people, and time, than they are to specifically-located events or things. The problem with this piece, as my friends Robin Zebrowski and John Flowers both note, is that it leaves out way too many thinkers. People like Andy Clark, David Chalmers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, John Dewey, and William James have all discussed something like this idea of a non-local or “extended” mind, and they are all greatly preceded by the fundamental construction of the Buddhist view of the self.

Within most schools of Buddhism, Anatta, or “no self” is how one refers to one’s indvidual nature. Anatta is rooted in the idea that there is no singular, “true” self. To vastly oversimplify, there is an concept known as “The Five Skandhas” or “aggregates.” These are the parts of yourself that are knowable and which you think of as permanent, and they are your:

Material Form (Body)
Feelings (Pleasure, Pain, Indifference)
Perception (Senses)
Mental Formations (Thoughts)
Consciousness

http://www.mountainsoftravelphotos.com/Tibet%20-%20Buddhism/Wheel%20Of%20Life/Wheel%20Of%20Life/slides/Tibetan%20Buddhism%20Wheel%20Of%20Life%2007%2004%20Mind%20And%20Body%20-%20People%20In%20Boat.JPG

Image of People In a Boat, from a Buddhist Wheel of Life.

Along with the skandhas, there are two main arguments that go into proving that you don’t have a self, known as “The Argument From Control” (1) and “The Argument from Impermanence” (2)
1) If you had a “true self,” it would be the thing in control of the whole of you, and since none of the skandhas is in complete control of the rest—and, in fact, all seem to have some measure of control over all—none of them is your “true self.”
2) If you had a “true self,” it would be the thing about you that was permanent and unchanging, and since none of the skandhas is permanent and unchanging—and, in fact, all seem to change in relation to each other—none of them is your “true self.”

The interplay between these two arguments also combines with an even more fundamental formulation: If only the observable parts of you are valid candidates for “true selfhood,” and if the skandhas are the only things about yourself that you can observe, and if none of the skandhas is your true self, then you have no true self.

Take a look at this section of “The Questions of King Milinda,” for a kind of play-by-play of these arguments in practice. (But also remember that Milinda was Menander, a man who was raised in the aftermath of Alexandrian Greece, and so he knew the works of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and more. So that use of the chariot metaphor isn’t an accident.)

We are an interplay of forces and names, habits and desires, and we draw a line around all of it, over and over again, and we call that thing around which we draw that line “us,” “me,” “this-not-that.” But the truth of us is far more complex than all of that. We minds in bodies and in the world in which we live and the world and relationships we create. All of which kind of puts paid to the idea that an octopus is like an alien to us because it thinks with its tentacles. We think with ours, too.

As always, my tendency is to play this forward a few years to make us a mirror via which to look back at ourselves: Combine this idea about the epistemic status of an intentionally restricted machine mind; with the StackGAN process, which does “Text to Photo-realistic Image Synthesis with Stacked Generative Adversarial Networks,” or, basically, you describe in basic English what you want to see and the system creates a novel output image of it; with this long read from NYT on “The Great AI Awakening.”

This last considers how Google arrived at the machine learning model it’s currently working with. The author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, discusses the pitfalls of potentially programming biases into systems, but the whole piece displays a kind of… meta-bias? Wherein there is an underlying assumption that “philosophical questions” are, again, simply shorthand for “not practically important,” or “having no real-world applications,” even the author discusses ethics and phenomenology, and the nature of what makes a mind. In addition to that, there is a just startling lack of gender variation, within the piece.

Because asking the question, “How do the women in Silicon Valley remember that timeframe,” is likely to get you get you very different perspectives than what we’re presented with, here. What kind of ideas were had by members of marginalized groups, but were ignored or eternally back-burnered because of that marginalization? The people who lived and worked and tried to fit in and have their voices heard while not being a “natural” for the framework of that predominantly cis, straight, white, able-bodied (though the possibility of unassessed neuroatypicality is high), male culture will likely have different experience, different contextualizations, than those who do comprise the predominant culture. The experiences those marginalized persons share will not be exactly the same, but there will be a shared tone and tenor of their construction that will most certainly set itself apart from those of the perceived “norm.”

Everyone’s lived experience of identity will manifest differently, depending upon the socially constructed categories to which they belong, which means that even those of us who belong to one or more of the same socially constricted categories will not have exactly the same experience of them.

Living as a disabled woman, as a queer black man, as a trans lesbian, or any number of other identities will necessarily colour the nature of what you experience as true, because you will have access to ways of intersecting with the world that are not available to people who do not live as you live. If your experience of what is true differs, then this will have a direct impact on what you deem to be “real.”

At this point, you’re quite possibly thinking that I’ve undercut everything we discussed in the first section; that now I’m saying there isn’t anything real, and that’s it’s all subjective. But that’s not where we are. If you haven’t, yet, I suggest reading Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?“ for a bit on individually subjective phenomenological experience, and seeing what he thinks it does and proves. Long story short, there’s something it “is like” to exist as a bat, and even if you or I could put our minds in a bat body, we would not know what it’s like to “be” a bat. We’d know what it was like to be something that had been a human who had put its brain into a bat. The only way we’d ever know what it was like to be a bat would be to forget that we were human, and then “we” wouldn’t be the ones doing the knowing. (If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Witch books, in his Discworld series, think of the concept of Granny Weatherwax’s “Borrowing.”)

But what we’re talking about isn’t the purely relative and subjective. Look carefully at what we’ve discussed here: We’ve crafted a scenario in which identity and mind are co-created. The experience of who and what we are isn’t solely determined by our subjective valuation of it, but also by what others expect, what we learn to believe, and what we all, together, agree upon as meaningful and true and real. This is intersubjectivity. The elements of our constructions depend on each other to help determine each other, and the determinations we make for ourselves feed into the overarching pool of conceptual materials from which everyone else draws to make judgments about themselves, and the rest of our shared reality.

 

The Yellow Wallpaper

Looking at what we’ve woven, here, what we have is a process that must be undertaken before certain facts of existence can be known and understood (the experiential nature of learning and comprehension being something else that we can borrow from Buddhist thought). But it’s still the nature of such presentations to be taken up and imitated by those who want what they perceive as the benefits or credit of having done the work. Certain people will use the trappings and language by which we discuss and explore the constructed nature of identity, knowledge, and reality, without ever doing the actual exploration. They are not arguing in good faith. Their goal is not truly to further understanding, or to gain a comprehension of your perspective, but rather to make you concede the validity of theirs. They want to force you to give them a seat at the table, one which, once taken, they will use to loudly declaim to all attending that, for instance, certain types of people don’t deserve to live, by virtue of their genetics, or their socioeconomic status.

Many have learned to use the conceptual framework of social liberal post-structuralism in the same way that some viruses use the shells of their host’s cells: As armour and cover. By adopting the right words and phrases, they may attempt to say that they are “civilized” and “calm” and “rational,” but make no mistake, Nazis haven’t stopped trying to murder anyone they think of as less-than. They have only dressed their ideals up in the rhetoric of economics or social justice, so that they can claim that anyone who stands against them is the real monster. Incidentally, this tactic is also known to be used by abusers to justify their psychological or physical violence. They manipulate the presentation of experience so as to make it seem like resistance to their violence is somehow “just as bad” as their violence. When, otherwise, we’d just call it self-defense.

If someone deliberately games a system of social rules to create a win condition in which they get to do whatever the hell they want, that is not of the same epistemic, ontological, or teleological—meaning, nature, or purpose—let alone moral status as someone who is seeking to have other people in the world understand the differences of their particular lived experience so that they don’t die. The former is just a way of manipulating perceptions to create a sense that one is “playing fair” when what they’re actually doing is making other people waste so much of their time countenancing their bullshit enough to counter and disprove it that they can’t get any real work done.

In much the same way, there are also those who will pretend to believe that facts have no bearing, that there is neither intersubjective nor objective verification for everything from global temperature levels to how many people are standing around in a crowd. They’ll pretend this so that they can say what makes them feel powerful, safe, strong, in that moment, or to convince others that they are, or simply, again, because lying and bullshitting amuses them. And the longer you have to fight through their faux justification for their lies, the more likely you’re too exhausted or confused about what the original point was to do anything else.

Side-by-side comparison of President Obama’s first Inauguration (Left) and Donald Trump’s Inauguration (Right).

If we are going to maintain a sense of truth and claim that there are facts, then we must be very careful and precise about the ways in which we both define and deploy them. We have to be willing to use the interwoven tools and perspectives of facts and values, to tap into the intersubjectively created and sustained world around us. Because, while there is a case to be made that true knowledge is unattainable, and some may even try to extend that to say that any assertion is as good as any other, it’s not necessary that one understands what those words actually mean in order to use them as cover for their actions. One would just have to pretend well enough that people think it’s what they should be struggling against. And if someone can make people believe that, then they can do and say absolutely anything.


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And thank you.

 

(This was originally posted over at Medium, [well parts were originally posted in the newslettter, but], but I wanted it somewhere I could more easily manage.)


Hey.

I just wanna say (and you know who you are): I get you were scared of losing your way of life — the status quo was changing all around you. Suddenly it wasn’t okay anymore to say or do things that the world previously told you were harmless. People who didn’t “feel” like you were suddenly loudly everywhere, and no one just automatically believed what you or those you believed in had to say, anymore. That must have been utterly terrifying.

But here’s the thing: People are really scared now. Not just of obsolescence, or of being ignored. They’re terrified for their lives. They’re not worried about “the world they knew.” They’re worried about whether they’ll be rounded up and put in camps or shot or beaten in the street. Because, you see, many of the people who voted for this, and things like it around the world, see many of us — women, minorities, immigrants, LGBTQIA folks, disabled folks, neurodivergent folks — as less than “real” people, and want to be able to shut us up using whatever means they deem appropriate, including death.

The vice president elect thinks gay people can be “retrained,” and that we should attempt it via the same methods that make us side-eye dog owners. The man tapped to be a key advisor displays and has cultivated an environment of white supremacist hatred. The president-elect is said to be “mulling over” a registry for Muslim people in the country. A registry. Based on your religion.

My own cousin had food thrown at her in a diner, right before the election. And things haven’t exactly gotten better, since then.

Certain hateful elements want many of us dead or silent and “in our place,” now, just as much as ever. And all we want and ask for is equal respect, life, and justice.

I said it on election night and I’ll say it again: there’s no take-backsies, here. I’m speaking to those who actively voted for this, or didn’t actively plant yourselves against it (and you know who you are): You did this. You cultivated it. And I know you did what you thought you had to, but people you love are scared, because their lives are literally in danger, so it’s time to wake up now. It’s time to say “No.”

We’re all worried about jobs and money and “enough,” because that’s what this system was designed to make us worry about. Your Muslim neighbour, your gay neighbour, your trans neighbour, your immigrant neighbour, your NEIGHBOUR IS NOT YOUR ENEMY. The system that tells you to hate and fear them is. And if you bought into that system because you couldn’t help being afraid then I’m sorry, but it’s time to put it down and Wake Up. Find it in yourself to ask forgiveness of yourself and of those you’ve caused mortal terror. If you call yourself Christian, that should ring really familiar. But other faiths (and nonfaiths) know it too.

We do better together. So it’s time to gather up, together, work, together, and say “No,” together.

So snap yourself out of it, and help us. If you’re in the US, please call your representatives, federal and local. Tell them what you want, tell them why you’re scared. Tell them that these people don’t represent our values and the world we wish to see:
http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
http://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

Because this, right here, is the fundamental difference between fearing the loss of your way of life, and the fear of losing your literal life.

Be with the people you love. Be by their side and raise their voices if they can’t do it for themselves, for whatever reason. Listen to them, and create a space where they feel heard and loved, and where others will listen to them as well.

And when you come around, don’t let your pendulum swing so far that you fault those who can’t move forward, yet. Please remember that there is a large contingent of people who, for many various reasons, cannot be out there protesting. Shaming people who have anxiety, depression, crippling fear of their LIVES, or are trying to not get arrested so their kids can, y’know, EAT FOOD? Doesn’t help.

So show some fucking compassion. Don’t shame those who are tired and scared and just need time to collect themselves. Urge and offer assistance where you can, and try to understand their needs. Just do what you can to help us all believe that we can get through this. We may need to lean extra hard on each other for a while, but we can do this.

You know who you are. We know you didn’t mean to. But this is where we are, now. Shake it off. Start again. We can do this.


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[Originally Published at Eris Magazine]

So Gabriel Roberts asked me to write something about police brutality, and I told him I needed a few days to get my head in order. The problem being that, with this particular topic, the longer I wait on this, the longer I want to wait on this, until, eventually, the avoidance becomes easier than the approach by several orders of magnitude.

Part of this is that I’m trying to think of something new worth saying, because I’ve already talked about these conditions, over at A Future Worth Thinking About. We talked about this in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” “Any Sufficiently Advanced Police State…,” “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences,” and most recently in “On the European Union’s “Electronic Personhood” Proposal.” In these articles, I briefly outlined the history of systemic bias within many human social structures, and the possibility and likelihood of that bias translating into our technological advancements, such as algorithmic learning systems, use of and even access to police body camera footage, and the development of so-called artificial intelligence.

Long story short, the endemic nature of implicit bias in society as a whole plus the even more insular Us-Vs-Them mentality within the American prosecutorial legal system plus the fact that American policing was literally borne out of slavery on the work of groups like the KKK, equals a series of interlocking systems in which people who are not whitepassing, not male-perceived, not straight-coded, not “able-bodied” (what we can call white supremacist, ableist, heteronormative, patriarchal hegemony, but we’ll just use the acronym WSAHPH, because it satisfyingly recalls that bro-ish beer advertising campaign from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.) stand a far higher likelihood of dying at the hands of agents of that system.

Here’s a quote from Sara Ahmed in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, which neatly sums this up: “[S]ome bodies are ‘in an instant’ judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.”

At the end of this piece, I’ve provided some of the same list of links that sits at the end of “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” just to make it that little bit easier for us to find actual evidence of what we’re talking about, here, but, for now, let’s focus on these:

A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing
2006 FBI Report on the infiltration of Law Enforcement Agencies by White Supremacist Groups
June 20, 2016 “Texas Officers Fired for Membership in KKK”

And then we’ll segue to the fact that we are, right now, living through the exemplary problem of the surveillance state. We’ve always been told that cameras everywhere will make us all safer, that they’ll let people know what’s going on and that they’ll help us all. People doubted this, even in Orwell’s day, noting that the more surveilled we are, the less freedom we have, but more recently people have started to hail this from the other side: Maybe videographic oversight won’t help the police help us, but maybe it will help keep us safe from the police.

But the sad fact of the matter is that there’s video of Alton Sterling being shot to death while restrained, and video of John Crawford III being shot to death by a police officer while holding a toy gun down at his side in a big box store where it was sold, and there’s video of Alva Braziel being shot to death while turning around with his hands up as he was commanded to do by officers, of Eric Garner being choked to death, of Delrawn Small being shot to death by an off-duty cop who cut him off in traffic. There’s video of so damn many deaths, and nothing has come of most of them. There is video evidence showing that these people were well within their rights, and in lawful compliance with officers’ wishes, and they were all shot to death anyway, in some cases by people who hadn’t even announced themselves as cops, let alone ones under some kind of perceived threat.

The surveillance state has not made us any safer, it’s simply caused us to be confronted with the horror of our brutality. And I’d say it’s no more than we deserve, except that even with protests and retaliatory actions, and escalations to civilian drone strikes, and even Newt fucking Gingrich being able to articulate the horrors of police brutality, most of those officers are still on the force. Many unconnected persons have been fired, for indelicate pronouncements and even white supremacist ties, but how many more are still on the force? How many racist, hateful, ignorant people are literally waiting for their chance to shoot a black person because he “resisted” or “threatened?” Or just plain disrespected. And all of that is just what happened to those people. What’s distressing is that those much more likely to receive punishment, however unofficial, are the ones who filmed these interactions and provided us records of these horrors, to begin with. Here, from Ben Norton at Salon.com, is a list of what happened to some of the people who have filmed police killings of non-police:

Police have been accused of cracking down on civilians who film these shootings.

Ramsey Orta, who filmed an NYPD cop putting unarmed black father Eric Garner in a chokehold and killing him, says he has been constantly harassed by police, and now faces four years in prison on drugs and weapons charges. Orta is the only one connected to the Garner killing who has gone to jail.

Chris LeDay, the Georgia man who first posted a video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, also says he was detained by police the next day on false charges that he believes were a form of retaliation.

Early media reports on the shooting of Small uncritically repeated the police’s version of the incident, before video exposed it to be false.

Wareham noted that the surveillance footage shows “the cold-blooded nature of what happened, and that the cop’s attitude was, ‘This was nothing more than if I had stepped on an ant.'”

As we said, above, black bodies are seen as inherently dangerous and inhuman. This perception is trained into officers at an unconscious level, and is continually reinforced throughout our culture. Studies like the Implicit Association Test, this survey of U.Va. medical students, and this one of shooter bias all clearly show that people are more likely to a) associate words relating to evil and inhumanity to; b) think pain receptors working in a fundamentally different fashion within; and c) shoot more readily at bodies that do not fit within WSAHPH. To put that a little more plainly, people have a higher tendency to think of non-WSAHPH bodies as fundamentally inhuman.

And yes, as we discussed, in the plurality of those AFWTA links, above, there absolutely is a danger of our passing these biases along not just to our younger human selves, but to our technology. In fact, as I’ve been saying often, now, the danger is higher, there, because we still somehow have a tendency to think of our technology as value-neutral. We think of our code and (less these days) our design as some kind of fundamentally objective process, whereby the world is reduced to lines of logic and math, and that simply is not the case. Codes are languages, and languages describe the world as the speaker experiences it. When we code, we are translating our human experience, with all of its flaws, biases, perceptual glitches, errors, and embellishments, into a technological setting. It is no wonder then that the algorithmic systems we use to determine the likelihood of convict recidivism and thus their bail and sentencing recommendations are seen to exhibit the same kind of racially-biased decision-making as the humans it learned from. How could this possibly be a surprise? We built these systems, and we trained them. They will, in some fundamental way, reflect us. And, at the moment, not much terrifies me more than that.

Last week saw the use of a police bomb squad robot to kill an active shooter. Put another way, we carried out a drone strike on a civilian in Dallas, because we “saw no other option.” So that’s in the Overton Window, now. And the fact that it was in response to a shooter who was targeting any and all cops as a mechanism of retribution against police brutality and violence against non-WSAHPH bodies means that we have thus increased the divisions between those of us who would say that anti-police-overreach stances can be held without hating the police themselves and those of us who think that any perceived attack on authorities is a real, existential threat, and thus deserving of immediate destruction. How long do we really think it’s going to be until someone with hate in their heart says to themselves, “Well if drones are on the table…” and straps a pipebomb to a quadcopter? I’m frankly shocked it hasn’t happened yet, and this line from the Atlantic article about the incident tells me that we need to have another conversation about normalization and depersonalization, right now, before it does:

“Because there was an imminent threat to officers, the decision to use lethal force was likely reasonable, while the weapon used was immaterial.”

Because if we keep this arms race up among civilian populations—and the police are still civilians which literally means that they are not military, regardless of how good we all are at forgetting that—then it’s only a matter of time before the overlap between weapons systems and autonomous systems comes home.

And as always—but most especially in the wake of this week and the still-unclear events of today—if we can’t sustain a nuanced investigation of the actual meaning of nonviolence in the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy, then now is a good time to keep his name and words out our mouths

Violence isn’t only dynamic physical harm. Hunger is violence. Poverty is violence. Systemic oppression is violence. All of the invisible, interlocking structures that sustain disproportionate Power-Over at the cost of some person or persons’ dignity are violence.

Nonviolence means a recognition of these things and our places within them.

Nonviolence means using all of our resources in sustained battle against these systems of violence.

Nonviolence means struggle against the symptoms and diseases killing us all, both piecemeal, and all at once.

 

Further Links:


A large part of how I support myself in the endeavor to think in public is with your help, so if you like what you’ve read here, and want to see more like it, then please consider becoming either a recurring Patreon subscriber or making a one-time donation to the Tip Jar, it would be greatly appreciated.
And thank you.