Joshua Earle

Thoughtplay
Mid-Term Essay
STS 5305, Fall 2016
Joshua Earle

In 2009, a face-tracking webcam gleefully followed the face of a white woman while completely ignoring the black man seated right in front of it (Frucci, 2009). This was a harbinger of the system we now find ourselves beholden to. Today, I and many others sit in a similar blind spot, invisible to the powers that be. Some of us are here on purpose, avoiding the god’s eye gaze (Haraway, 1991) of the technocracy, slipping away from the panopticon’s (Foucault, 1977) control, resisting the system with a soft luddism to retain our own humanity. Most, however, are sorted here against their will, shunted aside by a system that doesn’t see them. They would be a part of the system, gaining all of the benefits therein if they could, but the webcam of the world follows other faces. Ultimately, we should have seen this coming, but the signs were hidden behind the promise of an easier life, behind the glimmer of the next new way to connect to each other. We allowed this unilateral way of thinking and being to seep into us with little resistance.

While it may have begun, at least visibly, with the webcam all those years ago, the point at which things turned is when our communication devices went internal. Once our connectivity was implanted, and became integrated into our bodies and minds, the war was lost. Through a combination of malice and ignorance, the types of people that were visible to us and our technology shifted. Those who could not or would not adopt this new technology became increasingly marginalized and invisible to the rest of us. Even when philanthropists tried to extend the reach of the technology, there were those that were missed or who refused, afraid of the parts of their lives that they were giving up. Eventually, the philanthropy stopped. Or at least slowed significantly… I still see some people trying to connect those of us who remain outside the system. This has become very rare, however. Now that people are basically born into the system, those who opt out, or are left out, are disappearing. And the desire to recruit those who resist this technology is waning in equal measure.

One might think that we who remain outside the system would scramble when opportunity presented. We live on the margins of society, only in those places where others want not to go, work in places where it is too dangerous to send an expensive drone. However, to be within the system comes with its own risks. There is a singularity of thought that dominates the system. Those who created the system modeled their ideas of thought on how the computers of the time worked. Those ideas persist, shaping how those within the system think. The knowledge, and desires, and biases, infused within the technology became the instruments of how everyone thought. The kind of algorithms that controlled the racist webcam now control how people think and behave. The technology has an obvious politics (Winner, 1980) which shifts thought, and marginalizes those who don’t fit into the expected definitions or shapes around which those algorithms were built. The instruments with which those within the system think hold within them their own knowledge, infused within them by their creators, and evoked through their modes of operation (Baird, 2004) that silently guide people in nefarious ways.

We have been marginalized, but our minds remain relatively free. We have learned many lessons about how minds work, but we are powerless. We are on the margins of society, and have no recourse to change the system. It is too large and too entrenched and has too much inertia for the few of us outside to change. But I can imagine a world where we saw this danger coming, where we found a way to avoid such a linear way of thinking.

I would seem to be an obvious path, too. Transhumanists in the late 20th and early 21st century shaped their thought on evolutionary models (Kurzweil, 2000. Savulescu, 2003). They believed that technology would become the driving factor of human change rather than biology, but they never left the rhetoric of evolution far behind. And yet, as anyone who has studied biology and evolution ought to know, the greater your genetic diversity within a population, the more healthy that population becomes. The opposite is easily seen in the sickly Cheetah, or show dogs that get so inbred that a whole host of physical maladies runs rampant through their lines as we kept them “pure” for the sake of aesthetics. My grandfather told me of a dog he had which was a member of a show line of golden retrievers, but due to the shallowness of the gene pool, had epilepsy, a kink in his tail, and other medical issues throughout his life. The problems of purity have shown up in human populations as well, with the high incidence of hemophilia in the British royal family. Philosophers in the 20th and 21st century talked about the difficulties of reliance on purification (Latour, 1991), and yet, this singular mode of thought has persisted.

Even before the turn of the 21st century, science began to show that the human condition, and in particular, human cognition, was far more complex than a simple eight-pound biological computer housed inside our skull (Gershon, 1998. Wilson, 2004). Another thinker, my grandfather, posited a way of thinking that explores the intra-activity of ideas and identity, and posited that, much like genetic diversity, diversity of ideas and ways of being is necessary to a healthy and growing social and cultural way of life (Earle, 2020). Had we taken my grandfather’s suggestions, there is a way we could have involved a larger portion of the world population, created a culture of inclusion which valued difference and intra-activity, one that would have included even those people who may not have adopted any sort of technological enhancement, because that difference in diffraction with others would have created new ways of being that continued to improve the thought diversity of our culture, protecting our cogno-diversity and against the sorts of famines which are existential threats to monocultures in any context.

If those who pushed for the development of this technology had only taken their own evolutionary rhetoric to heart, we might not be in this situation. Instead, there were metrics and statistics that told us which were the best and most efficient ways of being, and as a society we pushed toward that singular way of being. And yet, only in the interaction between differences can new understanding be made. Only through the mixing of different genomes does the population thrive. Only through the interaction of different ways of being can new possibilities truly be created. Ideas and ways of being diffract through each other, creating new phenomenological events and creations (Barad, 2007). If, like we have created, there is but one way of being; that way merely grows, it cannot change, cannot evolve. And sometime soon, I fear it will meet a challenge it is not ready for and will collapse. I mourn for humankind when that inevitability arrives. At this point I believe it is inevitable. The monoculture of the modern mind that has colonized science and technology (Shiva, 1993) is a ripe target for some form of famine to force the reintroduction of diversity or to force extinction. The only question will be will those of us outside the system get caught in the downfall as well.

We are working on both of those things as we speak. Only once we had become so invisible that the system decided that we were no longer a threat worth controlling, were we able to gather in large enough numbers to begin planning and building a way of life that might both disrupt the system, but also help ensure our survival in the case of a system collapse. We have gathered in many locations, communicating with an older system that is no longer monitored by the system, gathering many ways of being, goals, and types of thought and organization. We are currently producing a new technological paradigm, separate from the system, and inclusive of the various genres of being in our community. While it’s a little like comparing apples to elephants, early measures seem to show that diversity of technologies as well as general performance seems to be improving at a faster rate than the trends that produced the systems. If we continue, we should reach survivability even in the case of a system collapse within a few years, and we may be able to reach our goal of a controlled dismantling of the system within a decade or two. We hope to even include individuals within the system who want to keep their way of life. Our system is built to be inclusive and assimilatory to all potential genres of being. Once we include system individuals, our own system will be improved. We hope to produce a new society which is inclusive, accepting, and improving the way of life of as many people as possible. We will not accept a system-style culture of exclusion and enforced normativity. Not only is the system unfair and immoral, but it is also worse at improving the condition of people and the world at large. We can do better.

Bibliography:

Baird, Davis. 2004. Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. Univ of California Press.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Earle, Joshua. 2020. Genres of Being: The Importance of Difference and Diffraction in an Equitable Science, Technology, and Society. Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage.

Frucci, Adam. 2009. HP Face-Tracking Webcams Don’t Recognize Black People. Gizmodo. http://gizmodo.com/5431190/hp-face-tracking-webcams-dont-recognize-black-people

Gershon, Michael. 1999. The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine. Harper Collins.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2000. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press.

Savulescu, Julian (2003). "Human-Animal Transgenesis and Chimeras Might Be an Expression of Our Humanity". Journal of Bioethics. 3: 22–24.

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind. Zed Books.

Wilson, Elizabeth A. 2004. Gut Feminism. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15 (3). Duke University Press: 66–94.

Winner, Langdon. 1980. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus. 121–36.

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