Alienation’s Apotheosis

There are some presentations at our second cohort at the biomedical ethics residency today that made me queasy because of how backwards causation they were. The whole point of having biomedical ethics is to avoid blinding ourselves to the various factors that create the need for medicalization and individualization of the common(s) problems we face with health and illness.

I’m going to say something that might be hurtful to people’s feelings because it might undermine a large part of their career as fruitless or misguided. If you look at East Germany how child rearing was done, you don’t need to imagine how artificial wombs may make people’s lives better – you just need policies that support women. It’s pretty simple.

Some people actually believe that artificial wombs would be more ‘just’ for women. Your ‘product’ would no longer be a human being. And you would no longer have a mother. Is this really the only direction science can take us? Towards dehumanizing ourselves (biologically, ecologically, socially)?

The problem is of course that so many people believe that it’s impossible to actually have a political and social system that supports women that instead they are going to blow up the entire earth in the whole universe in order to make that work around. This logic of the workaround which is so central to most of our technological developments is an industry ploy to not confront that which needs to be confronted, whether it’s perversions of religion the state or our dysfunctional social system.

Unless and until we re-gain a sense of the sacred in our lives and in life, we will not be able to make good decisions, but will keep on doubling down on suffering in ways that we can’t even be aware of. Instead of throwing technology at our problems, as if this technology didn’t arise from our own twisted mentality, and could somehow break free from our own contorted mind, we need to work on addressing the traumas and us individually and collectively which gave rise to the problems for which that technology would have been desired in the first place.

The Tech Megamachine

As annoying as I find Russell Brand on occasion, in this case he makes a good point. The marriage of corporate and state power – technology and the monopoly on violence – which Mussolini called ‘fascism’ and Lewis Mumford called the megamachine, is getting closer and closer to a totalitarian checkmate the likes of which Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. While the purported ends of this power is far different (we hope) in putative democracies than for those dictators, it behooves us not to throw out Lord Acton’s admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That is to say, even in the best case scenario of enlightened despotism, good people can easily become quite unenlightened and arbitrary despots when shoehorned into the role. Or to modulate parlance, Marshall McLuhan understood the hubris that comes with the ability to manipulate. The mediums of communication and expression aren’t only constraining on the degrees of freedom for those bound by them, but also for those who construct them. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When access to more data must be justified through results, then more and more events must be legible as actionable. Otherwise, the justification for such police powers is anemic, and easily refuted, with legitimacy possibly undermined. Thus, technologies of surveillance and violence themselves must give rise to more cases that allow the opportunity for violent intervention, or else risking their claim to providing actual services in the public’s interest.

The Ring commercial Brand reruns here is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has critiqued as building up a personal commodity bubble. Instead of, like any addict, acknowledging that we have a problem, and then working with others maturely to solve it, Amazon’s Ring video doorbell surveillence system markets an exclusively individual solution to what is in reality a preventable collective action problem. Ring’s commercial pitch goes like this: If there are robbers, keep them moving along, not so that they can improve their lives, and change professions, but so that instead of robbing you, they go rob your neighbor’s house!

Such galimatias attempts to gaslight you into thinking that it is inevitable that we live in a fundamentally unsafe world. Because if we believed that we could live in a safer world, we might be able to build that world. And you can bet, that world would not require as many cameras or police.

This gets to the heart of why Ring’s preying on nebulous fears which are brought on by the megamachine itself is so successful as a ploy. Because of the manufactured stochastic crime created by an every-man-for-himself system without safety nets or a healthy welfare state, inequality breeds both blue-collar crime (the type we’re all made to be afraid of) and white collar crime (which kills millions at a time through enforced poverty, impoverishing our environment, and harming our health behind the scenes). This is not to minimize the trauma to people of actual violent crime or thievery. Instead, it is to say that all of this is preventable – and not just by playing an arms race (or evolutionary treadmill) with robbers. Getting smarter systems just makes robbers get smarter, and the same amount of crime occurs.

Amazon’s wish is to make it so that only those opting out of their private neighborhood watch program get robbed, because they will be easier targets. So those opting out for moral, religious, or financial reasons from their racket then become left out of their ‘protection,’ and the insinuation goes, become the targets of least resistance.

“No, I think you’re in the wrong place.” As the video shows, the idea that would-be criminals are only in the “wrong place” rather than needing help for reform and redemption, cements the trope of cleverness. I’m clever because I have the Ring alarm system by Amazon, so I get off fine, but that poor schmuck down the street, well, he’s screwed. Such notions reinforce the tech megamachine, where you keep on having to buy into the racket because crime is inevitable, and just don’t let it happen to you. It is, what Davids Graeber and Wendgrove call a “failure of imagination.” It is capitalist realism, or crime realism, where those evil people out there are uncorrectable, and just bad people, rather than just victims of a broken system. With such pathological thinking comes the inevitability that crime stays constant (or increases, especially in election years!). Manipulating perceptions of crime, and stripping away access to human dignity so things feel more precarious for everyone, is the perfect catfishing for expensive subscription services of mass totalizing surveillance that Foucault could only dream of.

I’d be interested to see data on how many false positives Ring delivers to police; how many times the cameras have been hacked by perverts; how many times leaked clips of children playing have appeared on dark web sites; etc.

Ring touts itself as “Neighborhood Watch for the digital age.” There’s a long, racist history of the invention of Neighborhood Watch programs springing up in response to de-segregation and the policing of white spaces, which continues today. Shawn Fields’ excellent new treatment of this history discusses the abuse of emergency response systems, which rarely fight crime, but often lead to unwarranted police violence.

affording to grieve

We can’t afford to grieve in our contemporary culture. There is literally no space, time, or network to allow for us to process the wrongs done, to atone the righteous rage we feel at a degraded earth and the waste of our own lives. Without the capacity to grieve, how can we authentically rejoice? Maybe that’s the newfound attraction to virtual realities – they are subdued, under our control, and can’t really hurt us (nor elevate us). Joy has become dialed down to entertainment. We’ve become content with blah. Because we can’t grieve.