Business / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 1

Freedom’s Changing Shape

Freedoms Changing Shape

Image Credit: Richard Greenhill and Hugo Elias.
Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand
, 2007.

The geopolitical maelstrom’s now broadening danger derives from multiple goads toward isolated self-interest’s entrenched confusion. Fanatical simplifications emerge in response. When heightened political anxiety and jingoistic aggression polarize public discourse, nuance gives way to verbal reductions, petrified options, and emotional mania. Trump’s backdoor entry to the White House exacerbated already-extant political displacements. His assumption of government authority reinforced intractable cultural hatreds and has increasingly given permission for expressions of violence. Capitalism has steadily widened the distance between modest middle-class well-being and the grotesque wealth of transcendent victors. Economic inequality creates indignity, envy, distrust, and the erosion of civil norms. Add to that global disruptions in the Middle East, migrant invasions of Europe, growing thermonuclear threats, and growing assaults on the value of an autonomous press and, absurdly, on the central responsibility of shared intellectual objectivity (with its self-conscious limits and constraints): a toxic quagmire eroding pragmatic expediency and philosophical conscience bubbles up to inhibit informed critical give-and-take.

The Reagan-Thatcher era successfully altered post-Second World War economic agendas. Abiding middle-class interests were sacrificed to escalating capital transfers that enhanced wealth-building at the top. Unions came under siege. Government programs that supported ordinary needs of the populace in general shrank or dwindled under inflationary pressures. Thomas Piketty’s definitive analysis of that treat (discussed below) outlines the financial stakes and rolling momentum dividing class aspirations and outcomes. The result has been a realignment of concrete human possibilities among each stratum of economic, racial, cultural, and educational corners in the United States. George W. Bush’s post-9/11 Iraq invasion squandered still unaccounted trillions of dollars while enforcing the advance of a de facto military state mindset. The third prong of a covert war to shrink the cultural arena where personal political choice and energy reside has gained traction ever since limits on private contributions to political campaigns
were rescinded by the Supreme Court.

In sum, the concept of freedom is a profoundly problematic ideal that – under growing pressure from antagonistic wealth, network disinformation agendas, the welter of cyber-idiocy and its carefully-manipulated malice – threatens to reduce “freedom” to a term of illusory hope thwarted by vast odds. Before this gloomy outlook petrifies into cynical distress, enabling energies and practices with pragmatic force need interventionary clarification.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century advances a micrological global analysis of the current economic quagmire. Decades of recurrent war, and the worldwide depression that separated the two major conflicts, reduced economic inequality with turbulent social and institutional changes enacted in the western sphere in order to cope with a half-century’s dislocations of economic power and political authority. Piketty projects no obvious return of such a large-scale economic adjustment. Political capital that allowed that revamping of resources and inclusion of ruined European partners and defeated nations (Japan) is no longer available. That enormous restructuring of debt and investment will not present itself anytime soon. The postwar logic of expanded human rights with enhanced access to wealth-building skills and social leverage drove that redistribution, but it ended with the ascension of Reagan and Thatcher. That logic was successfully challenged, and blunted, by appeal (and enforced legal obstacles) to market values: the spurious assertion of “free” and “fair” entrenched rights for “open” economic competition. The romance of international postwar repair and its compassionate subtext of Enlightenment rationality devoted to humane social and economic justice has been countered across the last forty years of reactionary obstruction. A now-resurgent anti-romance of infinite accumulation and predatory exploitation of labor and natural resources – set to widen its scope, deepen its fascist grip with Trump’s narcissistic forays into cultural, political and legal darkness – does not promise a long-running nationalist triumph. But it does arrive at a remarkably complex moment of international political and military instability.

Bracketing, temporarily, the planet’s increasing ecological peril: Trump’s vigilante assertion of American withdrawal from global economic cooperation, armed with a promise of military (and nuclear) engagement at will, creates a vast schizophrenic “aggressive retreat.” Such an abdication leaves energies of emergent disorder to consume what might correctly be called future human space and its potential to wiggle, or squabble, its way toward increased constructive social and political stability. It is, of course, precisely that now at stake: the enhanced reality of international cooperation. Whether it be for the sake of saving earth’s fragile ecosphere, to resist a growing upsurge of chaotic military devastation, or to absorb and check ongoing population displacements, all efforts to address such grim outcomes of temperamental stupidity and political blindness are fully under siege.

The unnoticed fly in right-wing ointments to “save” capitalistic hegemony is just beginning to plant its larval offspring. Automation has replaced a large percentage of human labor, but it continues to evolve and expand institutionally, increasing its footprint in every domain where repeated pragmatic rigor, unswerving precision, and cost ratios are significant. In 2017, the domain of knowledge production and implementation is within sight of a dominant paradigm not easily (or likely to be) dismissed: artificial intelligence.

The complexity of this emergent reconfiguration of intellectual work and both the creation and dissemination of knowledge is beyond this citation of its looming presence. One might point to Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near (2006) as a cultural watershed for increased awareness of AI’s adventurous incursion into all things human. Despite its messianic inflations, that text roused interest in a field that should not be overlooked by anyone who cares to comprehend the quickly-evolving circumstance of information enhancement, data proliferation, and emerging institutional shocks in every field of study (in the great majority of universities). An “AI Era” is well-underway.

Its essential features are rapidly transforming themselves, but to Kurzweil’s prophecy that three related fields of research will reside at the center of this century’s intellectual advances – genetics; robotics; and nanotechnology – I’ll add a fourth that I believe promises to revamp every field of knowledge: biocentric cognitive integration. Robert Lanza’s two books Biocentrism (2009) and Beyond Biocentrism (2016) are the central texts, but no exploration of AI’s trailblazing, seemingly eccentric, and truly challenging projections is dialectically on course if it avoids the work of Nick Bostrom at Oxford, (see Superintelligence, 2014).

All of that means to suggest, with motivated daring, that whatever we consider to be “the present moment’s” cultural, institutional and epistemological centers of gravity are threatened by a growing tsunami of networked information exchanges increasingly shaped by sharp departures from information creation and their impact on economic and political realities. To bring this change underway to a pointed note: the ability to do things, create knowledge, disseminate information, craft deeper, more transformative questions and epistemic frameworks, is certain to revise what we commonly mean by
freedom . . . conceptual, imaginative, and empirical. Ordinary conceptions of “human freedom” in its multiple iterations will undergo significant changes – both deformative and destabilizing as well as life-enhancing and communally integrative. Such large-scale transformations take considerable time to percolate through the complications and resistances of institutional reality. Yet, given the rapidity with which the Internet permeated social and cultural reality (conscious behaviors, no less), I suspect that tectonic shifts now moving quickly will arrive with disruptive as well as creative outcomes.

In sum, fundamental assumptions and expectations of economic experience will be jolted to such a degree, I suspect, that new openings for conceptual and political intervention may be possible as well as equally probable challenges and blockages. Freedom’s pragmatic valences will be (and to some degree are already) subject to explicitly scrutinized differentiation, redefinition, and experimental, doubtless necessary, alterations. My point is that the artificial intelligence juggernaut will upset a great deal economically and institutionally . . . politically, too. The enigmatic surd in this expectation remains with willful actors engaging whatever forceful shape existential and political “freedom” might muster against the reduction of human power to cyber-manipulation, domestic and workplace roboticization, genetic pessimism, and nanotechnology’s insidious operational control of individual and collective regimes.

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