Issue 1/2018 - Asoziale Medien?
Our internet age makes history obsolete. The past is fluid. We cannot even recreate data searches from one minute to the next on internet platforms including Google. The more absorbed we become by virtual reality, the further a fixed world recedes. The modern Newtonian world comprised of matter-in-motion yields to probabilities, risk, and reflexively transforming patterns. We also have been abruptly removed from four centuries of Western liberal capitalism in which private property promised to resolve material scarcity and deliver human freedom. Instead we now accept that we are free to consume, and everyone is equal because no one’s insatiable desires can be met. Private property is no longer valued because it leads to mutual improvement through exchange. Now it simply assures those who have property, and the means to defend it, can secede from democratic and public control of resources.
This article has three goals. It recounts the history of capitalist political economy that by the twenty-first century has resulted in neoliberal markets and illiberal democracies. Global industry-wide monopolies replace perfect competition and populism eclipses liberal electoral politics. I examine the ideas informing these post-liberal practices. Second, I propose that we are living in a virtual reality like the science fiction film Matrix in which the boundaries of our world are set by the limits of our imagination. Our collective ability to create imagined futures is collapsed to a reductionist physics that denies that either meaning or ideas can play a causal role in shaping our common destiny. Finally, I offer a few thoughts about how to resist submitting to our new status as consumers of virtual reality sold by global media and information cartels.
Classical, Progressive, and Neoliberal Capitalism 1650-2007
From the seventeenth century of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, culminating in the Anglo-Franco revolutions, to our preceding century of World War II and the Manhattan project shaped by Alan Turing and John von Neumann, westerns have celebrated free markets as the best way to secure individual self-betterment. Yet throughout, capitalism was a contested field. In the 1800s, the noble lifestyle of gentry and the republican path of virtue in conquest yielded to bourgeois capitalists who pursued profit and accumulation. In the 1800s bourgeois worries that the working class would claim the same rights to political participation newly granted to property owning males fueled the retrenchment of liberalism. Karl Marx was at the forefront of the battle. He argued that the surplus value generated by laborers should be distributed so that workers would not remain at the level of subsistence wages. Of his two solutions, the less radical one turning to trade unions, as opposed to social revolution, largely prevailed in the west. Thus, in the twentieth-century west, although challenged by two world wars, the fruits of market capitalism were extended to include all ranks of society. The period from 1950 to 1970 stands as a golden era of free market democracy with generally inclusive and stable economic growth. This sustained the development of large middle class in the US and Europe. The legacy of F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, committed to the Four Freedoms from fear, want, and for speech and worship, conjoined with Keynesian macro-economic steering to moderate government spending in the service of a full employment economy, governed this period. Internationally the Bretton Woods system ensured that stable exchange rates avoided volatility in global markets.
This of course is both a succinct and optimistic narrative that oversells the positive image of progressive liberalism in market exchange and democratic government. It neglects the looming Cold War threat of immanent nuclear destruction. This was attended by the development of the nuclear security state and a new military-industrial complex to research, develop, and manufacture thousands of thermonuclear bombs and their delivery systems. This synopsis also ignores the engagement of the US in numerous conflicts including in Korea and Vietnam. And it overlooks the sentiment among elite members of the Mont Pèlerin Society founded in 1947 that socialism and Keynesian should be curtailed, and a perfectly free market order should be enacted worldwide.
Although not initially successful, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, professors establishing the Chicago School of Economics, oversaw a sea change in economic theory. This Ordoliberal reaction to progressive liberalism was made possible by the Hungarian physicist John von Neumann and the Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern. They created game theory which proposes that individual rationality is epitomized by strategic competition among all individuals over scarce resources. According to this theory, strategic action characterizes all rational decision-making. Rational decisions are made by evaluating risks and maximizing expected gain in relentless competition with others. Von Neumann, who also worked on quantum thermodynamics, treated the value individuals compete over on par with temperature in physics. It exists objectively in the world on a single scale that can measure every possible outcome, much like the height of mercury on a thermometer. Von Neumann always simply treated this value in terms of money, as many game theorists have since.
Game theory was historically inseparable from the development of neoliberalism.1 It provided a means to model nuclear security as well as individual choices and how they aggregate into collective outcomes. It fit with the Chicago School’s commitment to methodological individualism, holding that all group actions must distill down to individual decision-making. As game theory, also referred to as rational choice, became mainstream in social science by the 1980s, various schools of thought celebrated its convenient association of individual choice with freedom. Game theory was helpful for proving that there can be no statement of a public will or interest that arises from individual choice. However, the theory is purely analytic. Its deductions are a product of its assumptions that reinforce the belief that rational individuals cannot voluntarily cooperate, keep promises, or uphold rules when breaking them maximizes personal gain.
The extent to which strategic rationality, and the view that it is impossible to exit a Hobbesian state of nature due to the necessity of engaging in ceaseless competition, cut to shreds classical liberal theory that spanned from Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant to Robert Nozick and John Rawls cannot be overestimated. Fundamental theoretical elements of classical liberalism were rendered nonsensical by game theory. These elements are voluntary consent to agreements personally made and the commitment to uphold them, along with the no-harm principle that provided a bright line test between the perfect and imperfect duties. According to its deductive analysis of the assumption of individual strategic expected utility maximization, free riding is rational, voting is irrational, and collectively rational participatory governance is impossible. The political scientist Fareed Zakaria has argued that illiberalism is the product of nations that have not developed to have limited constitutional government with safeguards against either populist or elite tyranny.2 However, an equally plausible thesis is that the widely accepted anti-liberal teachings of game theory weakened traditional defenses of classical and progressive liberalism. The ideas that consenting to rules is not associated with voluntary compliance, and that all actors alike seek to break rules and enter into coercive bargaining to maximize individual gain, have been fully normalized as rigorous findings of game theory.
The New Atheism: Information, Computation, and Atomism
Possibly every era has its skeptics. Following Nietzsche those daring to doubt all traditions and norms deem themselves to be courageous and noble. In the early twentieth century Bertrand Russell wrote a pamphlet on atheism suggesting that those relying on religious faith are too weak to navigate the yawning nihilism of existence. Individuals must postulate their own purpose and meaning. We are today confronted by rebooted form of atheism. This goes beyond announcing the death of God. Instead it reports that consciousness is an illusion. There is no free will. Humans and artificially intelligent agents are equivalent, only differing in the complexity of their functions. There is no ghost in the human form that animates people. In the words of a leading critic of this now mainstream worldview, human beings are nothing but “meat computers.”3
Understanding this proposed worldview, and how it intersects with post-modern neoliberal capitalism, is helpful for breaking free from its reductionist gaze. As recounted above, this current model of market freedom transforms autonomous citizens with rights of personhood into consumers. Having money, the more the better, is elevated to defining what it means to be free. Opposite formulations, such as self-mastery, democratic participation, or moral responsibility, are derided as being a product of past errors: aesthetic religious self-denial, Jean Jacque Rousseau’s general will, and Kant’s confusion that humans are motivated by reason instead of desire. Religion, democracy, and ethical self-governance are superstitions from preceding centuries.
The new demigods of human intelligence are John von Neumann, Alan Turing and Claude Shannon. Von Neumann, whose looming brilliance presided over the development of the atomic bomb and its unleashing against residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scarcely needs an introduction. Additionally, he axiomatized quantum theory, was a founder of computation and formalized strategic rationality—game theory—with the Austrian economist Morgenstern. Alan Turing grasped the importance of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems for computation and was vital to the Allies’ WWII code-breaking exercise against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Claude Shannon developed information theory as a means to measure the transmission of signals using a metric with the equivalent mathematical formalism to that expressing entropy in thermodynamics.
These figures invented the triad of strategic rationality, computation, and information theory. Following their lead, contemporary theorists argue that the universe is built out of information and acts as a gigantic information processor. Game theory intersects with entropy because both assume that there is a bounded number of possible world states, or outcomes, of physical processes. These processes may be directly caused or be the outcome of randomness. Consider that a go game has 10120 paths to completion. Alternatively, the universe now is believed to be comprised of 1080 atoms. Thus, theorists have postulated that given sufficient computational power, and an initial state of the universe, as in the case of go, a computer could calculate the numbers of different potential outcomes and their probability distributions. Game theory provides a means of analyzing how systems with reflexive decision-makers, who know their own preferences and the preferences of other actors, may evolve, and similarly charts these potential developments over all possible outcomes. Reflecting this, von Neumann and Morgenstern state, “the immediate concept of a solution is plausibly a set of rules for each participant which tell him how to behave in every situation which may conceivably arise.”4 Game theory, information theory, and quantum thermodynamics are united in analyzing how systems evolve, and what possible configurations they may exhibit, given initial conditions and the actions of individual parts.
This worldview is self-confident because it wholly obeys the laws of physics. It recognizes no properties, phenomena, or experiences that cannot be reduced to these laws. Given the concordance of von Neumann, Turing, and Shannon’s theories with the narrow confines of physical law, and these theorists’ success in providing the ideational infrastructure for our information age, attempting to think outside the box of strategic rationality, information theory and entropy seems impossible. Before opening up this box to broader horizons, its confines must be comprehended. Information theory anchors our age leading some theorists to argue that we are in the midst of a fourth cultural upheaval on par with the Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian revolutions. Today information theorists, potentially best characterized by the contributions of von Neumann, Turing, and Shannon, suggest that the experience of consciousness self-direction is an illusion. It is not just that humans lack a soul given by God. It is that consciousness is no more than a shadow effect of material processes that dictate its contents prior to awareness.
Shannon’s theory is strictly about the transmission of information by a sender and the reduction of uncertainty by the receiver who strives to accurately obtain the signal. Uncertainty is represented by entropy. If we do not know what state of the world occurred or will occur, then this is reflected by a total entropy of 1. If we knew a past state of the world, or a future state, our uncertainty is 0, and hence the entropy is 0. But here information is solely the transmission of data, or signals that could be represented by a binary code of ones and zeros. Entropy refers to our confidence in clearly receiving a message with high fidelity and low entropy, or vice versa. Information itself has no meaning, it only refers to the symbols of the code or language being transmitted. Thus, the transmission of information is observer independent, and meaning which is observer dependent is irrelevant. The significance of the information, and its being subject to interpretation by agents seeking access to information, is inconsequential to information theory. Whereas meaning is experiential and exists as mental phenomena, information is a physical aspect of the universe subject to quantification. Moreover, some cognitive scientists argue that meaning and phenomenal consciousness must be associated with definite brain states that can be mapped and scanned. They propose that insofar as meaning serves any causal role in sustaining action, it must be encoded in physically existing information.
Turing contributed to defining the meaning of an algorithm. Computable algorithms satisfy four conditions: they have a finite set of instructions stated in finite set of symbols; when executed without error they always produce the same result in a limited number of steps; they could be executed by a human without machine assistance; and, significantly, they need not be intelligible to the one who calculates. Thus, a key aspect of Turing’s definition of a computer is that the machine or agent performing the computation must not be assumed to have any intelligible grasp of the problem being solved. As we know, algorithms are essential to computation. Now they are increasingly being used to automate governance, and are even being augmented to incorporate machine learning. Furthermore, the computational theory of the human mind, in which it is no more than a means of information processing to maximize chances of survival, is the field of much current scientific investigation. It is paralleled by a theory of mind as information processing. If minds owe their entire existence to information processing, then as artificial intelligence becomes more capable we could be led to believe that there is little, and possibly, no categorical distinction between it and the human brain. That humans can reason by understanding, and having an intelligible grasp of the significance of their subject matter, is deemed inconsequential to this new view of rationality that is inseparable from computer science.
Von Neumann postulated that he could build a computer that could perform any function that we could set for it. Humans playing strategic games are no different from computers, other than that people fail to exhibit perfect rationality. Game theory was formalized to capture the perfect strategist, and it remains a dominant manner in which social scientists define rationality. Yet by this model, actors must compete with each other to maximize gain that is ultimately finite and directly related to their success in surviving and achieving goals. Although von Neumann captures diachronic causation in game theory, he fails to address synchronic causation, or the causal role played by the specific configuration of the entire system or universe on the development of a particular causal chain. Even in the case of visual perception of light, the large-scale configuration of the universe, including starlight, can be vital to what an individual perceives and the meanings ascribed to that experience. Another way to consider synchronic causation is to envision a system, such as a volume of gas held in a pressurized volume. Studying the movement of each atom of the gas independently, and when they interact, does not assist in understanding how simply changing the pressure of the entire system alters individual atom’s movement. The latter approach takes the perspective of holism that, in considering human society, could account for systemic patterns in terms of shared socio-economic conditions rather than individual choice. Holism, class-interest and emergent social patterns are dismissed by the methodological individualism upheld by game theory.
Who could stand in the way of these self-confident developments of the leading minds of the twentieth-century? The power and validity of their ideas seems to be self-evident from the development of informational processing, artificial intelligence, and brute force of weapons of mass destruction. However, it helps to realize that there is a battle over the significance of these theories because their implications are potentially so profound. This trio now has the effective impact that meaning is causally superfluous to action; intelligibility is irrelevant to problem solving; and the whole is entirely the product of particles or waves that necessarily obey the laws of physics. Neither can we better explain individual agency by grasping global configurations of the system, nor do we contemplate that emergent properties could arise from characteristic patterns exhibited by the system. Thus, we have information without meaning, computation lacking intelligibility, and atomism excluding holism.
The quantum information scientist Scott Aaronson argues that this world view challenges human free will and he proposes a counter argument based on quantum entanglement and free states. He further specifies how this reduced conception of human agency fits comfortably with a doomsday scenario that accepts the inevitability of destruction of humanity due to the lack of free will. This follows because our current manner of computing probabilities, called Bayesian statistics, attempts to deduce the relative frequency of events and future probabilities according to experience with a reference class of similar occurrences. We could imagine projecting human’s survival millions or billions of centuries into the future along with our achievement of intergalactic travel. In this case, given that we have only had missile technology and space capability for just over half a century, from the perspective of relative frequencies our current human existence it seems statistically unlikely that we exist only now rather than centuries in the future. The implication is that if our existence is average, we must exist on a much shorter timeline that makes it much more likely that given the existential threat of global warming and nuclear war, in addition to population growth, that “civilization kills itself off in the very near future.”5 However, this analysis denies free will and thus reinforces the likelihood of this doomsday prediction by eliminating the recognition that the human’s future is both undetermined and open with possibilities.
These existential positions articulated in information theory, computer science, and strategic rationality are inseparable from neoliberal capitalism. It behooves today’s corporate giants to be able to predict human behavior in order to tailor products to consumption. Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook profit from storing vast quantities of data about not only the statistical behavior of individuals, but also the precise idiosyncratic conduct of targeted individuals, in order to provide them services. Research shows that individuals act differently if they believe they have freewill as opposed to when they are sure that their action is predetermined. Yet big capital gains nothing by fostering practices or narratives aiding in the development of people as autonomous beings with the capacity for individual and collective self-determination. Apple seeks to introduce face recognition software on its phones to capture users’ facial patterns as they react to sensory input made available to them on Apple’s platform. Google tracks every keystroke by users in order to tailor make their experience of virtual reality in keeping with its goals to maintain market share. Facebook is moving into the third world to be residents’ only portal for accessing the internet, and imposes its “community standards” on users. Individual and collective self-determination does not promote the interests of these corporate megaliths.
Given the increasing deadlock on human experience by these giant creators of virtual reality that leaves little room to opt out, enormous creativity must be exercised to achieve constructive resistance and emancipation. Mark Zuckerberg seeks to be everyone’s benevolent Big Brother. Amazon strives to anticipate and satisfy every consumptive desire. Facebook and Apple both propose to predict actors’ choices long in advance of their personal decisions. These platforms have already contributed to eroding the public sphere conducive to democratic self-government. Yet their popularity remains unparalleled. They exemplify the light side of neoliberal capitalism. Its dark side is characterized by the ultimate need of force to maintain property rights which are proposed to be extended to every atom of physical reality and every byte of data.
We can draw lessons learned from Shannon, Turing and von Neumann, and understanding how their impact is to deny meaning, avoid intelligibility, and reject holism. Some elementary principles may assist in resisting the ultimate colonization of consciousness with the drive to automate the social through a seamless interface of humans with information technologies. It is helpful to recognize that as we are increasingly drawn into relations with and through the media of artificial intelligence and information technologies, we must lower ourselves to their level. We lose intelligible grasp of the big picture, and our ability to create and interpret nuanced meanings, beyond “I like this,” is evacuated. Since meaning is superfluous to information, when we interact with computational arrays and databases, our own ability to systematize and react to information begins to seem on par with the capabilities of AI. Yet Facebook is not a public sphere any more than the attribution of “liking” something is a meaningful act. Twitter is not the fourth estate of the free press because it, alongside other social media companies, extend the freedom of expression to include known falsehoods. While we are told that we are predictable and hence lack free determination of choice because data repositories of our past behavior accurately anticipate our futures, this is only because the intimacy we share through digital platform rivals any we had with our cherished relatives, friends, or partners. If intimate relatives and friends studied our every act with equally minute scrutiny, hypothetically they too could anticipate our actions. Additionally, the currently popular idea that agency is the function of the mechanics of individual behavior, rather than simultaneously the product of synchronic causation, or the infinite uniqueness of moments of experience against the background of the entire universe, renders the value of all experience fungible, and ultimately monetizable. Existence becomes repeating experiences of phenomena catalogued into reference classes of events.
Thus, the distribution of individual awareness and private meanings to diverse digital platforms, and the mediation of relations with corporations and individuals through electronic media, challenges our ability to be mindfully present in what we do. Yet mindful awareness is associated with fulfillment, contentment, and tranquility. Agents may set apart time to be mindful and choose to be a consumer of informational media rather than being consumed by it. We can assert mindfulness against the trending tendency to cast it aside as an epiphenomenon of material existence.
We can recognize that face-to-face, and even voice mediated communication, is a world apart from that related electronically. This is because bodily-incorporated conversation involves I-You recognition with an immediacy that permits unpredictable horizons of meaning and actions that they could inform. Whereas the goal of strategic communications is to send signals that trigger receivers to act in a way conducive to furthering speakers’ goals, in dialogue horizons of meaning and vistas of personal narrative can develop in unexpected ways that may become the source of previously unimagined future worlds. Reciprocal dialogue has the aim of mediating meaning in which achieving ulterior goals, or treating others as means to one’s own consumption, is an alien concept.
We can see that rational expectations assume a closed universe of possibility that in all likelihood is postulated as a means to conquer the otherwise open horizon of potential. This is much as the Frankfurt School critical theorists proposed that mid-century logical positivism is nothing other than “mythic fear [of the unknown] turned radical.”6 As Scott Aaronson has argued, there is no law of physics that denies the possibility that even within our own physical brains, quantum free states entangled with the birth of the universe render the hypothesis of closure premature. Thus, even with sufficient processing power we would not be able to know and predict the various permutations and likely outcomes of the 1080 atoms proposed to compose the entire universe. Arguing in league with Aaronson, the philosopher Alfred Mele confronts experiments designed to demonstrate that humans lack free will by calling their conclusions into question.7 He marshals effective arguments that even in the case that the universe was fully determined by the laws of physics, humans can still have freedom of will because, if we make decisions in accordance with well-thought out reasons or moral concepts, our choices remain the determined product of our judgments.
Against the neoliberal creed which at its base is cynical for rejecting individual and collective self-determination, viewing freedom as consumption, and discarding meaning and understanding as immaterial to agency, I offer the following manifesto. Against the turn to cynicism following capitalism’s inability to solve the problem of scarcity, and increasing pessimism in asserting that all individuals are equal in being unable to satisfy all their desires, we have four sturdy pillars. The laws of physics cannot deny the consequences of moral choice, which reflects an understanding of the significance of our actions for other individuals and treating them as ends in themselves, rather than merely means. Freedom of will and the capacity for ethical judgment, whether sustained by a “compatibilism” that accepts the causal role of human judgment, the openness of possibility due to quantum free states, or simply the likely infiniteness of the universe, is essential to human dignity. People have the freedom to uphold agreements and promises, and need not free ride on collective ventures. Individual and collective decision-making reflecting constituents’ interests are possible in both private and public bodies.
1 Cf. S. M. Amadae, Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy, Cambridge University Press 2015.
2 Cf. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, W. W. Norton & Co. 2007.
3 Scott Aaronson, "The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine." arXiv preprint arXiv:1306.0159 (2013). https://arxiv.org/pdf/1306.0159.pdf.
4 John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Princeton University Press 1944, p. 31.
5 Aaronson, "The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine”.
7 Cf. Alfred R. Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, Oxford University Press 2014, and Aspects of Agency: Decisions, Abilities, Explanation, and Free Will, Oxford University Press 2017.