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Technology: Weapon of the People - Brownstone Institute

Technology: Weapon of the People


In an essay titled “Looking forward, looking backward,’ philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg writes (in Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity, The MIT Press, 2010, p. 61; my emphasis, B.O.): 

The utopian and dystopian visions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were attempts to understand the fate of humanity in a radically new kind of society in which most social relations are mediated by technology. The hope that such mediation would enrich society while sparing human beings themselves was disappointed. The utopians expected society to control modern technology just as individuals control traditional tools, but we have long since reached the point beyond which technology overtakes the controllers. But the dystopians did not anticipate that once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them. We can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today. How far it will be able to develop is less a matter for prediction than for practice.

This essay was published almost 15 years ago, and it is striking that, even then, Feenberg was keenly aware of the need for a ‘politics of technology,’ of which he perceived the glimmerings at the time. From this excerpt it is apparent that the rest of the essay addressed the diametrically opposed evaluations of the mediating role of modern technology in society in the late 19th and early 20th century, evaluations that are subsumed under the headings of ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian.’ 

These divergent approaches were accompanied by optimism and pessimism, respectively, regarding the ability of human beings to keep technology in check, but the italicised sentences reflect a different, hopeful, and novel realisation, articulated by Feenberg himself. Here I would like to reflect on the implications for today of his belief, ‘that once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them.’ There are indications that this is indeed happening, as evident in the fact that, contrary to the desire of the Davos ‘elites’ to, and their belief that they could, control the (largely internet-based) news, this is increasingly not the case. (More on this below.) 

What does Feenberg mean by ‘inside the machine’? A lot hinges on how one understands this, and in order to do justice to the ambiguity of this statement, I believe that it is imperative to understand the meaning of the ancient Greek concept of the pharmakon (when applied to technology), which means both ‘poison’ and ‘cure,’ and from which the English terms, ‘pharmacy’ and ‘pharmaceutical’ are derived. 

As most people know, pharmaceutical products are literally pharmaka (plural of pharmakon)– they have to be used with circumspection, otherwise they may have an adverse effect on one’s health instead of a curative one. In the practice of homeopathy this is even clearer – the preparations received from a homeopath for curing, say, anxiety, or an itchy skin, are usually based on miniscule amounts of substances, such as belladonna (deadly nightshade), which are poisonous, but nevertheless work for their assigned medicinal purpose when taken in small quantities. 

As Jacques Derrida has demonstrated, in Plato’s work, the Phaedrus – which deals mainly with the concept and nature of love – the concept of the pharmakon is used against the sophists, who were paid teachers of rhetoric in ancient Greece, unlike philosophers, who did not expect payment for the knowledge they shared with people. In the dialogue, Plato’s Socrates appeals to an Egyptian myth to persuade his friend, the eponymous sophist, Phaedrus, that writing is like a dream-image, compared to the reality of things like justice, when captured in speech, because writing represents a futile attempt to capture the meaning of words spoken between people, which are animated by the truth of the directness and decipherable intention of the speaker. 

Employing the notion of ‘Plato’s pharmacy’ (in his book, Dissemination), Derrida demonstrates that, in fact, Plato thought of writing as a pharmakon (poison and cure), insofar as he claims (through Socrates) that, compared to the directness of speech, it is at best a secondary, graphic ‘reminder’ of what one knows, but at the same time he valorises ‘what is truly written in the soul’ (‘for the sake of understanding’), thus paradoxically revealing his (unacknowledged) positive evaluation of ‘what is written’ as something that preserves truth. Hence, although warning against writing as a secondary, unreliable copy of speech, he simultaneously redeems it as a repository of truth in the soul or psuche. Hence the status of writing as pharmakon

The elaboration on the meaning of pharmakon, above, will serve as backdrop to inform the discussion of contemporary media as pharmaka. Recall that at the outset I pointed out – given Feenberg’s observation, that a ‘politics of technology’ was possible once humans were ‘inside the machine’ – that his expectation appears to be borne out by what has been happening in the mediascape of late; namely, that greater numbers of people appear to be using the ‘machine’ in the shape of internet-based websites, to assert their critical position regarding the global political crisis. By ‘political’ – an adjective that ineluctably implicates power relations and power struggles – I obviously mean the global struggle between the ‘empire’ of lies and tyranny, and the growing rebellion, or ‘resistance,’ and truth-telling against the former. 

If this statement is redolent of George Lucas’s Star Wars movie series, it is no accident. Particularly the first one, where the rebels face the daunting task of destroying the empire’s ‘death star’ – by homing in on the only vulnerable part on its gigantic spherical surface with a rebel starfighter and accurately launching a missile at it – has clear allegorical significance for what we, the members of the resistance, face today. I am convinced that those of us fighting the cabal have already uncovered several such vulnerabilities in the armour of the technocrats.

So where is the pharmakon in all of this? Earlier I alluded to the so-called ‘elites’ no longer controlling information and news through the media (if they ever did). Why do they no longer ‘own the news?’ Because the pharmakon has asserted itself. Remember how it manifests its paradoxical character of being poison and cure at the same time?

In Derrida’s analysis of writing (as opposed to speech) in Plato’s work it turned out that it is never simply a ‘poison’ (as Plato believed), but simultaneously a ‘cure’ insofar as it preserves precisely that which is valorised in speech (namely, meaning and truth), which can be brought to presence again out of its putative ‘absence,’ initially perceived in writing. The same goes for contemporary media as pharmaka

 On the one hand the (mainstream) media, which (as red-pilled rebels all know) routinely trots out all the officially ‘approved’ news and information – that is, propaganda in the purest sense of information deliberately formulated to persuade consumers that the world displays the character of a specific, pre-interpreted state of affairs. This is the news that the ‘elites’ have control over. Their mistake was to believe, blindly and dogmatically, that this ‘news’ was exhaustive, which, in their closed universe, it probably is. 

The truth is, however, that the official news constitutes the ‘poison’ portion of information – not merely because, from the perspective of the resistance, its poisonous features can be discerned. If this were the case, the resistance could be accused of being merely biased, and an epistemological stalemate would obtain.

But crucially, a scrupulous examination of the news as presented by the official news sources – CNN, MSNBC, BBC, the New York Times, and so on – and a comparison of this ‘approved’ version of events with what is encountered in the alternative media – Redacted, The People’s Voice (on Rumble), the Kingston Report, Alex Berenson’s ‘Unreported Truths,’ Real Left, The HighWire, many, if not most Substack sites, and of course Brownstone Institute, to mention only some – soon discloses the mendacity of the mainstream narrative. Such deception is incommensurate with what the alternative media give one access to, and this state of affairs instantiates what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls a differend (a situation where the epistemic criteria underpinning the respective arguments of two or more parties in a dispute are completely irreconcilable). 

But surely this comparison, by itself, merely reveals the same suspected bias mentioned earlier? This would be the case, were it not for an essential, demonstrable difference between the poison aspect of the contemporary information scene and its cure aspect. This vital difference is not that difficult to discern. It comes into view with the regular appearance on alternative news or discussion sites, of investigative reporters ‘on the ground’ as it were, as opposed to the mainstream reporting of events – which arguably show that Western media are the ‘most corrupt in the world,’ according to Redacted, with substantiating evidence; for example, that CNN must get permission from Israel to publish news about the Gaza conflict.

In other words, news is routinely censored to ensure that it is in accordance with the official version of events. In contrast with this propagandistic practice, the alternative media typically give viewers or listeners access to eyewitness accounts (see link above) of newsworthy occurrences, as well as (more frequently) presenting evidence to support a dissenting stance on certain issues. Such evidence is not presented in the legacy media, for obvious reasons. 

An example of alternative media furnishing the requisite evidence pertaining to a newsworthy topic is the discussion, supported with documentary substantiation, of the (controversial) MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) programme in Canada, on Clayton and Natali Morris’s Redacted news site. Here they provide evidence of Canadian doctors’ ‘revolt’ against the programme, which has been expanded to provide procedures for ‘assisted dying’ – previously extended to terminally ill patients – to those who suffer from non-life threatening chronic physical conditions, as well as mentally ill patients. This kind of critical discussion is highly unlikely to feature on mainstream news and discussion sites, particularly since it is arguably not difficult to perceive this programme as the outcome of a depopulation agenda. 

Understandably those parties hellbent on exercising censorship and control over the alternative media go out of their way to warn users against visiting those websites where one is likely to discover alternative accounts of the misleading news supplied by mainstream sources. 

Such alternative websites include the ones found on the open access platform, Rumble, where censoring of content is not carried out, in stark contrast with YouTube. Sometimes the attempts to prevent users from gaining access to sources where sorely needed information, unavailable on official websites, may be found, reach ludicrous proportions. 

For instance, in South Africa anyone using Google as a search engine cannot even access Rumble; one has to make use of non-censoring search engines such as Brave. Similarly, in European countries and in Britain the Russian news site, RT, is blocked so that citizens in these countries cannot gain access to what, surprisingly, turn out to be refreshingly informative, divergent accounts of events around the world. Part of the reason for this is the fact that RT makes use of correspondents living in other parts of the world.

But independent journalists, who are increasingly being threatened with legal action and even prison sentences (the most recent instance of which is Tucker Carlson, who had the ‘audacity’ to travel to Russia to interview Vladimir Putin), are fighting back against the empire. The cure, which is inseparable from the poison side of the pharmakon, is asserting itself, but one should remind oneself that this is not a state of affairs which will ever disappear. One must, of necessity, always maintain a vigilant stance against those who will not let up in their attempt to impose their tyrannical will upon the rest of us. 

The good news, from the perspective of those who are engaged in lifting the obfuscating fog constantly being spread over actually unfolding events, is that – according to Natali and Clayton Morris – mainstream media are being ‘killed,’ as reflected in dwindling digital audience numbers. These statistics apply to audio-visual media such as CNN and Fox News, as well as to print media, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal

In sum, while the poisonous aspect of the media pharmakon has not nearly exhausted its toxic potency, the curative side has incrementally been gaining strength and therapeutic effectiveness, as reflected in the anxiety of the ‘Davos elites,’ detectable in their worry, that they no longer ‘own the news.’ They thought they had it all under control, but were caught unawares by the unexpected power of the alternative media – those ever-expanding digital spaces of the machine inhabited by the resistance. 

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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