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"Have We Finally Become Ghosts in the Machine?" An Essay by Brad Evans & Chantal Meza


White house on hill

Artwork by Chantal Meza


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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The idea of humans being ghosted by colonising machines has a long philosophical history. From Gilbert Ryle’s earlier meditations on René Descartes and his concerns with the separation between the mind and the body, to Arthur Koestler’s subsequently inspired book titled The Ghosts in the Machine, in which he warned humanity about the way our desire for a certain transcendence has led to a particular fetishization with technology that was hurtling us towards oblivion, we have been rightly suspicious about the possibility of technological enslavement and how we may end up authors of our own extinction.


Much of this derives from the realisation that since the birth of political modernity, the turn to machinic thinking has been integral to how we have imagined ourselves as a species. This has not just concerned mechanised visions of progress, but, more broadly, has included how we have thought about some of our most cherished political ideas, including security and freedom. As Jacques Derrida once observed in a lecture on Thomas Hobbes’ famous political Treatise, The Leviathan (which gave rise to the modern concept of sovereignty): “This sovereignty is like an iron lung, an artificial respiration, an ‘Artificial Soul’. So, the state is a sort of robot, an animal monster, which, in the figure of man, or of man in the figure of the animal monster, is stronger, etc., than natural man. Like a gigantic prosthesis designed to amplify the power of the living”.


This prosthetic reading of sovereignty, envisaged here as a monumental and monstrous blending of the holistic power of technology and the individualistic biological condition of humanity, brings back memories of Fritz Lang’s prophetic 1927 film Metropolis. Lang also ultimately warns us of the dire consequences of machinic power that literally drowns humanity within the waters of its own hubristic intentions, along with the seductive dangers – truly seductive in Lang’s cinematic masterpiece – of replacing humans with artificial robots for the sake of advancement. Invariably, the comparisons with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still remain. Yet despite these warnings, our fascination with the liberating potential of machines would only be accelerated with the triumph of science throughout the 20th Century. Indeed, our unending commitment to the foot-stepping march of progress would have a profound bearing on how we understood the very operations and functions of both the life of the mind and the life of society at large. This image of thought was already apparent when Fritz Kahn devised his “Man as Machine” illustrations, which appeared at the same time as Lang stood behind his monochromatic cameras – both leaving us in no doubt about the role humans were to play within the industrial machinery of progress.


Such dystopic accounts have persisted, not least since the power of science and technology brought us face-to-face with so much horror, from the instrumental rationalisation of Nazism to the collapsing skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as black rain fell in an act of unrivalled technological brutalism. Huxley and Orwell aside, and beyond such atrocities, those who were deeply concerned with the power of technology during this time also developed more intimate warnings concerning how the march of the machines was killing what it meant to be human. Arguably the most celebrated in this regard was Marshall McLuhan who would foreground the problem of technology, especially its violence and depoliticization, as arising from the triumph of calculative thinking and the suffocation of the political imagination. Others, however, were less convinced, none more so than Raymond Williams who insisted upon a more social reading of technology and its impact on society. While this was alluded to in his now classical text Modern Tragedy, which asked directly about the role of human agency in a catastrophic world, it would become more explicit in his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Working against the perceived techno-determinism of McLuhan, Williams insisted upon the priority of the social over the technological in the formation of human processes: “Determination is a real social process, but never a wholly controlling, wholly predicting set of causes. On the contrary, the reality of determination is the setting of limits and the exertion of pressures, within which variable social practices are profoundly affected but never necessarily controlled”.


This approach would be later developed by the French collaborators Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who also insisted that “the machinic” was always socially conceived before it was technological – a position subsequently followed, or at least adapted, by a wide range of more contemporary thinkers, including Bernard Stiegler, Donna Haraway, and Rosi Braidotti. To put it another way, society will only produce the technologies it desires (even if such desires end up being the source of our oppression). Such an account as that proposed by Deleuze and Guattari may have been all well and good in an age of mechanisation, but what happens if our desires change, and the energy that lights up the machines emanates from a different source? What happens, in other words, when desire desires its own determinacy? What happens when the social is willingly abdicated by human agency and given over to intelligent machines, which deceptively promise to rid us of our own fallibilities? What happens when the machine is programmed to be more creatively, epistemically, and even linguistically astute than the human self, which is increasingly presented as vulnerable, fragile, and materially broken? What happens when we give ourselves fully over to technological modes of thinking that promise to be our only salvation? And what happens when we therefore desire our own technological extinction as though it were our greatest of expressions?


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Such questions encapsulate the state we live in today. A threshold has been crossed, as the technological now shapes the social. It feeds off the desired inadequacies of humans. It is paraded as a means through which the concept of humanity may finally be revealed. And yet it is parasitic to the desires of the digitally invested. How many are seduced by the need to broadcast their emotional states to anybody who will listen, hoping in turn that something may also save them from their own excessiveness (or at least the human excessiveness of their fellows, past and present)? Industrial determinacy was powered by raw human energy, which still left the human a master of their own technological devising, even as their ambitions for worldly conquest and inevitable machinic destruction ruled the earth. Digital determinacy has replaced the social logics of the old with a new nervous vitalism (what Bill Gates once called a “Digital Nervous System”), which now looks upon every ontological claim the human possessed (from the social nature of the species to the question of consciousness itself) as primordial by comparison. This is not the Newtonian determinism of cause and effect once critiqued by Williams; rather, it is a technological vision of species life that demands full immersion, and within which the social is but a necessary fragile component – a vision in which every human encounter is mediated by an invisible technological ghost, in which the immersive itself becomes a truly invisible colonising force.


The futurity at work here is undeniable. But it does beg the question of what kind of future is being set into play here? While Utopian visions today are less the stuff of revolutionaries and more in the possession of the super elite who imagine constructing hyper-technologized oases in the desert (most notably the Saudi Arabian Neom project), the lived reality for the vast majority is far removed from these green lines. Indeed, driven by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, the Metaverse becomes the accessible alternative in a world of ever-increasing automation. This is a vision for the masses, more akin to Neo-Seoul in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a world in which everything becomes a simulation, where the copy or fake is more important than the original, where the deserts of the real are screened over by an army of tech-designers, and where the decay is everywhere felt but nowhere seen. In other words, a virtually-set reality which, unlike the leisurely and depopulated landscapes of future tranquillity, proposes a fully monitored life from which nobody can take a break.


With projects such as Neom presented for the elite as the most advanced technological spaces of “natural habitat” ever constructed, fully enabled by the frictionless wonder of artificial intelligence, in contrast to the hyper-digitalised seclusions of everybody else in a new cartography of digital colonisation, inclusion, and segregation, what we are dealing with is the onset of what we have elsewhere called “the Atopian Age”. The concept of Atopia once referred to an inhospitable place without borders or dwellings. In our time, we are all increasingly inhabiting the inhospitable: we keep all strangers at a distance, with every home turned into a sanctuary, prison, medical quarantine, and asylum. Like our bodies, the home has become inseparable from the machine. And it is haunted by so many ghosts, some of which we have invited in, while others make their own entry.


In our time, we are all increasingly inhabiting the inhospitable: we keep all strangers at a distance, with every home turned into a sanctuary, prison, medical quarantine, and asylum.

Faced with this reality, far more vigilance is required in terms of the language of digital violence in these atopic spaces. The “cloud” in particular stands out here as a monstrously appropriated deception. Unlike (real) clouds which are ethereal, fleeting, and often so beautiful in their singularity, clouds are today ever more associated with energy-sapping metal machines largely invisible in secluded deserts of their own, bringing their own ecological devastation and foot-printing very few want to consider. Clouds are vast data warehouses, absent largely of bodies, yet full of all our digitally ghosted memories, which bring just as much pressure upon the ecological conditions of life as the airline industry. This was recently noted by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, who observed how its name obscures its staggering ecological impacts (see “The Cloud is Material: On the Environmental Impacts of Computation and Data Storage”).


Big-tech dominance (which we should truly understand as a full-spectrum domination of every field) can only be sustained by continuing to authenticate its own myths. From the idea that speed was essential to advancement, to the notion that a revolution in organisational design that embraced the “network” was liberating, so the myths of progress have been given renewed technological impetus and accelerated purpose. While the language of connectivity has been so important here in colonising what we might imagine to be community and human enrichment, what also concerns us is the language of accessibility. According to the conventional script, the digital world gives us unlimited access to places that are physically off limits, so to speak. Whether we are giving people from under-privileged areas access to the world’s best-stocked libraries, or those from far-away lands the ability to walk around the Sistine Chapel, so the virtual opens the doors to a once forbidden and inaccessible world. And, in this regard, it is necessarily emancipating as it allows for a new kind of progressivism, which literally puts the power of the world into the palm of our hands. Technology is no doubt progressive. But when did we give up on the realisation that technologically-driven visions of progress also bring their own violence and have been responsible for the deaths of millions?


While digital technology today has a stated ambition to unify the world, it is in fact creating islands of isolation, the likes we have never seen before.

While digital technology today has a stated ambition to unify the world, it is in fact creating islands of isolation, the likes we have never seen before. Technology is not just about accessibility and giving appearance to things that were once ignored. It is also about denial and evisceration. Technology today is absenting space. It is absenting the space of politics as all politics is mediated by technology, including what can be said and unsaid, included and denied. It is absenting the space of philosophy, as all philosophical inquiry is mediated by the triumph of technicity and its accelerating logics of time, which are counter-intuitive to the demand for deep contemplation. And it is absenting the space of art, as all artistic expression is mediated by technologically-enabled expressiveness, which denies the exceptionalism of the original, denies the human in the artistic expression. Accessibility in this regard is not about gaining access into previously forbidden systems; instead, it is about opening our bodies to full accessibility, about shattering the taboo that once held in place a certain notion of the privacy of the human or the autonomy of the self. We are encouraged today to be globally distributed, to see the mind as a neural network, to see the body as part of a wider social network – to be unable, in other words, to recognise any borders, let alone claim that these bodies are our own and should be guarded as such.


And we should be on guard because one of the features of the digital world is precisely the new forms of erasure it is permitting. We might all have the ability to post some thought into the digital void, but, as we know, we have very little control concerning whether it lands anywhere or remains condemned to the unseen. While we are all in fact encouraged to live our lives upon the open expanse of the digital gaze, the operations and mechanisms for power that control our digital lives remain largely invisible to us. Without being too conspiratorial, how many of us have posted some social media comment critical of the power of Big-Tech only to find it gets almost zero audience engagement? We know that shadow banning is a very real phenomenon, but when and how is beyond us. Is this not a very real example of a new kind of ghosting, as even our digital presence can be rendered absent?

It is worth reminding ourselves here of Spinoza’s famous proposition when he enquired how the masses learned to desire their oppression as though it were their liberation. The language of resistance too has become wholly digitised, speaking in the language of networks and the destruction of old hierarchies. We saw this in early digitalised readings of the Zapatistas of Mexico, whose success was often attributed to the internet; and later repeated in many of the uprisings that marked the Arab Spring and the subsequent importance attributed to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook with the Black Lives Matter Movement. These delusions of interpretation that speak in the language of digital emancipation while waging a deeper war on the human, have been brilliantly written about in Jonathan Crary’s recently published Scorched Earth, which provides a compelling challenge to so much of what passes for radicalism today. Radicalism is not radical interconnectivity in any digitalised sense, Crary insists. Moreover, “the IOT [Internet of Things] is a forlorn announcement of the relegation of humans as working and living beings, to the periphery of technological systems, and also for many, into debt, hunger, illness, and impoverishment. The philosopher Gunther Anders, writing in the 1950s outlined how the telos of modern technological culture was the installation of a ‘world without us’”.


Such disappearances have already taken many different forms. We have seen it in theatres of war, as bodies can be erased by autonomous weapons in the skies. We see it in countries such as Mexico, where the arrival of the digital coincided with an exponential rise in human disappearances linked to the narcotics trade. But we also see it each time we walk into a store and the once apparent salesperson has been replaced by the autonomous cashier (a condition that has notably accelerated following the global pandemic). We see it when we gaze into a machine and make a purchase online into systems that are largely devoid of human contact. We see it each time somebody posts a picture with the lines of age digitally botoxed from their faces. We see it each time some trans-humanist questions the singularity of being human. We see it each time some developer asks us to gaze in wonder at photograph manipulation apps, which now allow us to delete unwanted persons from the composition by using erasure tools that Stalin would have found most useful. And we see it in the development of facial recognition systems, which are now so advanced that the face itself – the very locus of our individual expressiveness – is rendered meaningless and of little relevance to the mapping of existence in which every aspect of life is part of a complex imagined landscape of algorithmic data.


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Mindful of these types of digital erasure, we would like to turn now to a very particular kind of violence, which we are electing to call “whimsical annihilation”. Should we not be more than just curiously puzzled by the realisation that we humans seem to continually desire our own extinction? We are not just referring here to the mass slaughter of life (which is of course made all the more possible with each and every technological innovation), but also the destruction of the singularity that makes us human, all too human. Of course, being human can be said in so many ways. Yet if there is something unique to the collective human species, we believe it is precisely what we can call a poetic subjectivity that is inseparable from an artistic and creative sensibility. This is a subjectivity that embraces what it means to be human, with all its imperfections, tragedies, and flaws. In the words of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, “I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion”. And it is precisely this vision of a poetic subjectivity that is being destroyed when machines are mobilised that in the name of advancement and improving the conditions on earth are able to colonise, obliterate, and destroy the human.


Should we not be more than just curiously puzzled by the realisation that we humans seem to continually desire our own extinction?

One of the most terrifying and dangerous political and philosophical shifts we are witnessing today is the onset of the advanced Robot mimicking machine, which some are electing to call “AI Artists”. Let’s be unequivocal. Robots cannot be artists. They can, however, colonise the abstract in thought, which in turn, means destroying the singularity of life. It is worth noting how feminism has been notably mobilised to assist in the pacification process. Why is it that so many AI mimicking machines are presented in such a gendered way? To disarm us perhaps? We would certainly have a different reaction if the Terminator was presented to us having replicated with digital precision Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. In a recent interview with one such machine, Ai-Da, and yes let’s just call it the mimicking machine and not an artist, it noted: “I am an artist if art means communicating something about who we are and whether we like where we are going. To be an artist is to illustrate the world around you”. Leaving aside who exactly the “we” is in this statement – or how reductive this conception of art is as it binds it fully to the theory of mimesis (which of course machines excel at) – what is striking is how the machine has been programmed with all the latest thinking. As the Guardian newspaper that ran the “interview” went on to observe, “Her new painting talent was unveiled ahead of the world premiere of her solo exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on 22 April. Titled Leaping into the Metaverse, Ai-Da Robot’s Venice exhibition will explore the interface between human experience and AI technology, from Alan Turing to the metaverse, and will draw on Dante’s concepts of purgatory and hell to explore the future of humanity in a world where AI technology continues to encroach on everyday human life”.


Upon reading this, our thoughts immediately turned to Sandro Botticelli’s harrowing depiction of Canto XVIII from the Divine Comedy, along with Yves Klein’s fantastical Leap into the Void. And in those visual encounters with exceptional art, we saw how the new wonderment of the hyper-machinic vision fell apart. The machine, unlike humans, knows nothing of what it means like to live through hell. And the machine, unlike humans, knows nothing of what it means to fear and yet exhaust that fall into the unknown. Machines know nothing of tragedy. They know nothing of suffering. They know nothing of death. Machines may send us to hell, but they can never respond to it through art worthy of its name. And machines may throw us into the abyss, but they can never articulate an ontology of the void, regardless of how much they learn to plagiarise Walter Benjamin.


But there is another important factor we should consider here. This concerns the political analytics of finitude. Time remains the most important political and philosophical concept we know. It is our understanding that the time of the poetic is entirely different to the technical mastery of time. It is also time, as with the time of art, which is inseparable from the tragic. To make sense of this, we find ourselves drawn back to the work of Frida Kahlo and her masterpiece The Broken Column, which also invites so many interesting comparisons with the Frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan.


But Kahlo here is not the robot, as Derrida imagined. She is flesh and bone. Broken and yet defiant. Situated in history, part of it, yet also transcending its temporality through her creative vision, she reminds us that while we are still merely human, that is more than enough. The crucial point about Frida, and why her work now has a timeless appeal, is precisely because she knew life was finite. As she famously noted, “I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return”. This desire couldn’t be further away from the immortal desire of the machine. Frida shows that through embracing the finite, we speak to the timeless. The machine shows that by aspiring to the immortal, we annihilate the human in the present.


Hannah Arendt already wrote about the banality of annihilation as it thrived in conditions when humans had little concern for the responsibility of their actions. Such annihilation today is whimsical in a world that is encouraged to believe that it can technologically innovate itself out of every problem, innovate an answer to every question it faces. This is more than banal. It’s not unaware. It’s done in the name of joy. Of fun. Of fancy. Of an infantile reckoning. Of youthful exuberance. Of let’s see what machines can do, regardless of the consequences, regardless of what they displace, regardless of the past, regardless of what they colonise, regardless of what they erase, regardless of their denials. Inventors of these machines seem blind to the idea that if we kill off the poetic imagination, then we are truly thrown into a digital cage from which there is no escape. Indeed, the only way to deal with this is to now claim the poetic as their own. Art is technology, they now tell us. Or technology is the greatest of artistic endeavours, for the technocrats are the real creators of our times, the real creators of the world, the real creators of unrivalled artistic visions from the future. And so, art too needs to be liberated in the digital storm of Athena’s watchful eye; it too needs to appear learned within a digital gaze, in order to appear as meaningful and as having any cultural value to the world. Such a technological command will lead not just to the death of art. It becomes the death of us.


***


So, what then of the age-old philosophical question of death? Does death even make an appearance here? Digitalisation promises a new kind of immortality. It promises to give us access to new spatial openings. And it promises to save us from, well, machines of the past. What we have tried to offer here is another reading, one that is authoring the most perverse kinds of violence, from the erasure of bodies from the terrestrial surface of the earth to digital depopulating of landscapes, and onto the whimsical annihilation of the poetic imagination. How do we break out of this? As Deleuze rightly suggested in his essay “Desert Islands”, we need a better myth than the one that’s continuing to annihilate us. This means breaking out of our virtual isolations and retuning back to the deserts of the real.


Those who have been consumed by immortality complexes have always been concerned with the shadows they cast. Digitalisation has heighted this desire exponentially.

Andy Warhol once mused about 15-minutes of fame. We now have 15 seconds. But unlike Warhol’s original work which has a timeless quality, digital influence is dead the moment it arrives. Those who have been consumed by immortality complexes have always been concerned with the shadows they cast. Digitalisation has heighted this desire exponentially. But therein lies the irony, indeed the real tragedy, of those who seek meaning through its technological promise. Not only has life become exponentially more disposable and redundant – a digital life casts no shadow – but we are also haunted by a greater power, the machine God, Deus Ex Machina. All this has led us to question whether we have, finally, become ghosts in the machine. While this is a compelling vision, the very framing has always been problematic. Technology has never had a theory of death. It simply puts us there. Or, to put it another way, if there is a ghost to write of it is the digital system itself, which may just be the greatest and truest expression of an omni-present sovereign power we have ever known.


We would like to end with the poetic idea of “The Secret Garden”, which is such a powerful metaphor for a world of magical creation and discovery. If technology were to have a secret garden it would already be surveilled and mapped out, it would work in an environment of control, and, most importantly, its use would require data to properly work. Yet, in a garden, you can’t possess. Your surroundings are meant to be their own. As much as you are to yourself. In there, the experience of the mysterious is only for you to discover. As Paul Valéry put it, it is to encounter “the mysterious texture of the utmost height”. We need these Secret Gardens today more than ever. We need spaces where we can lose and find ourselves without the mediation of technology. We need to immerse ourselves in places of nocturnal silence, away from all the digital noise. We need gardens of deep contemplation, which might just remind us of what it means to be human in the 21st Century.


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N.B. From January until June, Brad Evans is co-hosting a series of events with The Philosopher called "A Century of Violence". More details can be found here and here. The events are free and everybody is welcome.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes in the problem of violence. He is author of over 20 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2020); Conversations on Violence: An Anthology(with Adrian Parr, 2020) and The Atrocity Exhibition (2019). Having led a dedicated series of discussions on violence with the New York Times, he was also the lead editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section. Brad is currently Director for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Chair of Political Violence and Aesthetics at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.

Website: brad-evans.co.uk


Chantal Meza is a self-taught abstract painter living and working in the United Kingdom. Her works have been exhibited in more than 30 group and individual exhibitions in prominent Museums and Galleries in Mexico, Paraguay, and the United Kingdom. Her work has featured in publications such as ArtLyst, La Jornada, symplokē, and the LA Review of Books. She has written a number of academic articles in prominent theory, culture and educational practice journals, and is currently co-curating a book titled State of Disappearance to be published in 2023 with McGill-Queens University Press.

Website: chantal-meza.com


 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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