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They Inch Towards Total Technological Control


It would seem as if Martin Heidegger’s warning against the ‘essence of technology’ – Gestell, or Enframing – a way of thinking that frames everything we think of, do, and aspire to, in terms of parameters of optimal use or control, was no illusion, judging by evidence of such attempts today. Apparently engineering researchers at Northwestern University have managed to develop and construct the first flying microchip in the world. But instead of implementing this astonishing feat for the improvement of people’s lives, the opposite seems to be the case. 

In a move that casts George Orwell’s 1984 in a distinctly passé light, these well-nigh invisible flying objects will be programmed and used by organisations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) for population surveillance, to detect so-called ‘thought crimes’ on the part of citizens. Needless to spell out, this will be done with a view to controlling people in a failsafe manner, anticipating supposed ‘criminal’ action before it is committed. 

This news highlights one of the values of science fiction: anticipating what may, and often does, transpire in real social space, as is the case here. Anyone familiar with Steven Spielberg’s noir science fiction film of 2002, Minority Report, would recognise here the real-world counterpart of the film’s narrative, which revolves precisely around the ability to detect ‘criminal’ thoughts and intentions in the minds of individuals before these crimes – notably murders – are committed. The difference is that in Spielberg’s film the ability to sense, and anticipate, future crimes belongs, not to technical devices, but to three clairvoyant humans (called ‘precogs’), on whose psychic anticipatory capacities the members of the ‘Precrime’ police unit depend. 

Evidently the control freaks of today want nothing as potentially fallible as humans, no matter how psychically gifted, to monitor and control fickle, potentially rebellious people – in Minority Report some divergent ‘reports’ on the prognosticated crimes occur among the ‘precogs,’ precluding absolute certainty of control; hence the film’s title. As if total surveillance via ‘flying microchips’ is not enough, it is reported (see link for ‘flying microchip,’ above) that Bill Gates has patented his ‘exclusive right’ to ‘computerise the human body,’ so that its capacity to act ‘as a computer network’ can be fully utilised. Not only that, but the patent envisages utilising human bodies as power sources for devices coupled to them. As stated in the patent application,

Methods and apparatus for distributing power and data to devices coupled to the human body are described. The human body is used as a conductive medium, e.g. a bus, over which power and/or data is distributed. Power is distributed by coupling a power source to the human body via a first set of electrodes. One or more devise [sic] to be powered, e.g. peripheral devises [sic], are also coupled to the human body via additional sets of electrodes. 

According to the video report (on ‘flying microchip’), civil liberties groups monitoring innovations in technology have, understandably, expressed their concern over the attempt to patent human body parts, ‘in this case skin,’ and argued that it ‘should not be in any way patentable.’ They have also raised the question, whether individuals would have the right to decline the use of such technology. As the saying goes, I would be willing to bet the farm that such refusal by those whom the technocrat neo-fascists (including Gates) see as ‘lesser mortals’ would not be tolerated by them (if they are in a position to decide the issue, which I sincerely hope would not be the case when push comes to shove). 

Again the prescience of science fiction manifests itself here, specifically concerning the use of human bodies for the generation of power. Recall the cyberpunk science fiction movie, The Matrix (1999), directed by the two Wachowskis (when they were still brothers; they are now transgender sisters), with its hyper-technologised depiction of a dystopian future eerily resembling what has been taking shape around us lately. The relevant aspect of The Matrix’s narrative – pertaining to the utilisation of the energy generated and stored in human bodies, which Gates wants to patent – concerns the division between two classes of people, the ‘blue-pilled’ variety and their far less numerous ‘red-pilled’ counterparts. 

The former includes the vast majority of humans, who live in an AI-generated, simulated reality, while lying in pods, from where they supply energy to the world run by the intra-cinematic ‘Matrix.’ By contrast, the red-pilled group, who have (been) awakened to the horror of their blue-pilled condition, comprise the rebels who have launched a relentless struggle against the ‘Matrix,’ which turns out to be an encompassing computer-programme keeping (blue-pilled) humans captive while drawing on their physical and psychical energy to keep this elaborate simulation running. 

The resemblance with the present state of affairs in the extant world should not be overlooked: we may not literally be lying in pods, with our life-energy being surreptitiously drained to power the world, but – particularly since 2020, although it goes much further back – most people have been successfully blue-pilled by the technocrats. These virtual somnambulists go about their daily business, blissfully unaware that the media (the real-world ‘Matrix’) constantly maintain the illusion that things are occurring according to a certain causality, which red-pilled individuals know not to be the case. 

Just as in the film Neo (an obvious anagram of the ‘One’) is rescued from his blue-pill incarceration by Morpheus (‘Fashioner;’ ironically the god of sleep and dreams, who here acts as the agent for waking up), who offers him a red pill which enables him to join the revolt against the ‘Matrix,’ so, too, the masses who are still oblivious of the status of their ‘reality’ as a media-generated simulation today, need to be given a ‘red pill’ to wake up. Fortunately for them, an organisation such as Brownstone is there precisely for dispensing red pills to those who are receptive to their availability.

The lesson? Even if technological control (over the media, among other things) is constantly tending towards the optimal, this is unlikely to be attained, ever, given the innate desire on the part of at least some humans, to resist such complete control. 

One may wonder why some individuals seem to be resistant to the Siren call of technology, which appears to offer users more power than they have ever enjoyed (despite, in fact, often disempowering them in the end), while others cave in as soon as this temptation rears its alluring head. The post-structuralist philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, may enlighten one here. 

In a fascinating book translated as The Inhuman (1991), this perspicacious thinker contrasts two kinds of ‘inhuman;’ the one is perceptible in what he saw as the ‘inhuman’ system of (technological) ‘development’ at the time, which has the effect of ‘colonising’ people’s minds (does that sound familiar?), while the other inhuman, paradoxically, could rescue us from such psychic colonisation. Somewhat like the red and blue pills in The Matrix. This is how Lyotard formulates the difference between these two kinds of ‘inhuman’ (1991: 2): 

Which would make two sorts of inhuman. It is indispensable to keep them dissociated. The inhumanity of the system which is currently being consolidated under the name of development (among others) must not be confused with the infinitely secret one of which the soul is hostage. To believe, as happened to me, that the first can take over from the second, give it expression, is a mistake. The system rather has the consequence of causing the forgetting of what escapes it. But the anguish is that of a mind haunted by a familiar and unknown guest which is agitating it, sending it delirious but also making it think – if one claims to exclude it, if one doesn’t give it an outlet, one aggravates it. Discontent grows with this civilization, foreclosure along with information. 

Unless one is familiar with psychoanalysis, the full significance of this passage, situated in the relatively brief, but intellectually dense Introduction to the book, would probably escape one. The last sentence is a condensed allusion to one of Freud’s masterpieces, Civilization and its Discontents (1929), where the latter argues that, as civilizational history progresses, humanity’s discontent nevertheless persists, given the conflict between human drives or instincts (which have to be satisfied, lest they find another, disastrous, expression), on the one hand, and the repression of these, which unavoidably goes hand in hand with being ‘civilized.’ The parallel that Lyotard draws here, which implicates the ‘foreclosure’ of ‘information,’ entails an uncompromising critique of the so-called information society (ours). 

What does this amount to? First, ‘foreclosure’ in psychoanalysis is a stronger term than ‘repression.’ The latter refers to the process by which materials that are unacceptable to the psyche are banished to the unconscious, but which can, with the help of a skillful psychoanalyst, be brought to consciousness. ‘Foreclosure,’ on the other hand, denotes the process by which an experience is not merely stowed away in the unconscious, but banished from the psyche in its entirety, irretrievably. 

Lyotard’s point? The much-vaunted information society is witness to a colossal loss of psychic richness in people, because of the impoverishing effects of informational processes, which are accompanied by time-saving mechanisms, in the process interfering with the mind’s ability to savour and reflect on what confronts it. Lyotard explains (p. 3):

Development imposes the saving of time. To go fast is to forget fast, to retain only the information that is useful afterwards, as in ‘rapid reading.’ But writing and reading which advance backwards in the direction of the unknown thing ‘within’ are slow. One loses one’s time seeking time lost. Anamnesis [from the Greek for remembering] is the other pole – not even that, there is no common axis – the other of acceleration and abbreviation. 

Anamnesis is what happens during psychoanalysis, in so far as the analysand or patient, through free association, recollects memories that are pertinent to those crucial events she or he has repressed, and have to be dredged up for a ‘cure’ of sorts to occur. The entire thrust of contemporary culture is in the direction of its antithesis; namely, radical forgetting, or foreclosure, with the consequence that, instead of getting closer to that elusive ‘thing within’ – which writers, artists, and thinkers have been trying to understand, describe or theorise since the dawn of literate history – we are simply banishing it from the purview of our intellect. 

 Lyotard’s argument is therefore intimately related to time – which is the thoroughgoing theme of The Inhuman – but also to education, which has today become a central theme of reflection since the devastating consequences of recent lockdowns for education have become apparent. Recall the second kind of ‘inhuman’ referred to in the first citation from Lyotard, above – ‘the infinitely secret one of which the soul is hostage,’ as opposed to the inhuman system of technological development. It may come as a surprise to note that, as Lyotard explains in the Introduction in question, this inhuman is actually (paradoxically) constitutive of what makes us human, and in a very familiar sense, which bears on education. 

It is no secret that, unlike other animals, the human ‘rational animal’ requires to be educated to actualise her or his potential as a human being. Dogs and horses (and some other creatures) can be trained, as opposed to educated, but like other animals they come into the world endowed with a set of instincts that enable them to survive from very shortly after being born.

Humans are different, and would perish unless their parents or caregivers gave them scrupulous attention and care, for a considerable time, through what is called education. Before a child acquires communicable language, they are akin to little Freudian instinctual ‘Ids’ on legs – tiny bulls in China shops, which is probably why Lyotard talks elsewhere of the ‘savage soul of childhood.’ 

Hence, one cannot begin to conceive of educating a child unless one presupposes that, preceding any noticeable fruits of such education, there is this ‘infinitely secret’ inhuman in every child, that has to be fashioned into something human. Except…as Lyotard reminds one, even the most thoroughly humanistic education can never colonise this primordial inhuman exhaustively. Something of it must remain, forever, in the deepest recesses of the human psyche, otherwise – and this is the French thinker’s trump card – how could one explain the capacity of human beings to resist attempts to suppress or ‘colonise’ them by means of an interpellating ideology or dystopian measures of (technological) control? 

Not that this capacity, which all humans latently possess, is actualised in the case of all human beings – witness the relatively small (but growing) group of people across the world who have drawn on their deeply-rooted ‘inhuman’ to reclaim their humanity in the face of an inhuman attempt to rob them of their humanity. In this sense the ‘unknown guest’ within us, which sometimes ‘agitates’ us and ‘sends us delirious,’ is the precondition for remaining human, absurd as it may seem. 

Unsurprisingly, this capacity to summon our ‘inhuman’ has also been explored by science fiction. To refer to only one such instance, a thorough discussion of which is linked above, Andrew Niccol’s dystopian, futuristic movie, In Time (2011), tells the story of a young man who discovers his own ‘inhuman’ when afforded the opportunity to thwart the time-hoarding elites and bring them to justice. 

Let me explain briefly what this means. ‘In time’ here indexes a 22nd-century world where money has been replaced by time, genetically engineered into humans, with a digital time clock on every person’s wrist, which starts running backwards (from a digital year initially granted to everyone) as soon as they turn 25. Should the clock reach zero, one dies, and the only way to prevent this, is to work, and get paid in the currency of time which is added to your body clock.

The world is divided into ‘time zones’ in a specific sense, where the time billionaires live in the centre, and as one moves out from there, one passes through time zones in decreasing levels of time wealth, until you get to the zone of the poorest, who never have more than 24 digital hours to their credit. If full technological control of humanity is conceivable, this is it. But don’t underestimate the secret ‘inhuman’ lodged in the human soul…

When Will, our protagonist, is gifted 116 years (one can transfer one’s time to others) by a time-wealthy, suicidal man, he resolves to attempt the ostensibly impossible, namely to traverse the time-society until he reaches the central zone, where those who have accumulated time to the point of virtual immortality live, to enact justice. I won’t spoil the story by divulging all the details of his mission – aided by a beautiful female sidekick, as usual.

Suffice to say that, given the well-nigh impossible nature of his quest – imagine how many obstacles the elites would have placed in the way of anyone with the temerity to challenge their time monopoly – it is only someone who is able, in Lyotard’s terms, to delve into their own psyche and gain access to the precondition for rebellion – their irrepressible ‘inhuman’ – who would attempt what seems to be an impossible task: to overthrow the tyrannical, technologically time-exploitative elites. There is a conspicuous lesson here for us, today.

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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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