An Alternative Map of the Universe, London – conceived by artists and curators, Niccolò Moronato, Jessica Taylor, Abbas Zahedi – presented a series of events at the Guest Projects gallery/exhibition space (28 October – Friday 1 November).

The synopsis of the program was:

Departing from Niccolò Moronato’s body of work Firmament, which looks at stars and constellations from the alternative perspective of a planet 40 light years away from us, An Alternative Map of the Universe is a collaborative effort to bring together artists who use mapping as a way of responding to current realities or imagining new ones for the future. Together, this group of artists will attempt to find a way to communicate in spite of and in response to the disparate systems that govern our existence today. Through the staging of works, performances and screenings, our aim for this programme is to encourage individuals to consider questions such as: What is space? Is space even real? Who is space for? Who holds power in space? What constellation do we find ourselves in?

As part of the events, GovTech Lab’s Dr. Emre Kazim was invited to join Dr. Paul O’Kane (Central Saint Martins) to talk on ‘Technologies of Togetherness’.

Emre’s presentation can be found below:

Hi All – Thank you for hosting this discussion on the Technologies of Togetherness.

Perhaps I should begin with a few words about myself. I work in the department of Computer Science at University College London as a research fellow. Although I am based in an engineering department my background is in philosophy, and more specifically ethics. One of my roles is to work in conjunction with people who are developing the new digital technologies (AI, Blockchain, Internet of Things, big data analytics, etc) that are having such a revolutionary effect on how we live our lives. In this context I can be said to be working on ‘digital ethics’, which is an emerging field that is highly interdisciplinary. The idea of working with a group of people that have different expertise comes from an acknowledgement of the fact that the impact/consequences of such technologies cannot be addressed from the perspective of a single discipline. We are all effected, and thus must all be part of the conversation.

Indeed, it is thought that the development of these technologies is for the betterment of humankind; to make things easier, more efficient, more equal, more just, etc. As we have seen via recent events, the development of these technologies is not straightforwardly ‘good’; democratic manipulation, automation and the loss of jobs, ‘killer robots’, social conditioning, and alienation, have all caused a vibrant debate to occur as to ‘where things are going’.  

Turning now to the title of the discussion today, namely, the technologies of togetherness, I want to first say that it is pertinent that this is taking place in a space dedicated to art – artistic space and practice. Art can be thought of the realm of discovery and problematisation. It can be thought of as the realm of poetics and imagination. This is vital because we are dealing with, for want of a better word, ‘futurism’. What kind of world will come to be? And more importantly, what kind of world do we want to bring about?

With respect to the effect of the technology itself, within the context of ‘togetherness’, I want to discuss concerns that occupy my mind that are very much unresolved.

  1. We are dealing with a paradox.

With the advent of new digital technologies, we are highly interconnected. The technology itself is allowing people to communicate without the constraints of time (letter/telegrams vs instant messaging/calls), space (the cyber world has collapsed the problem of distance) and wealth (these technologies are ubiquitous and cheap – a recent study showed that, despite having large pockets of poverty, India is the one of the worlds most connected societies in terms of mobile phone/internet use). The argument here is that the possibilities of togetherness have never been so apparent and frictionless.

However, there are two problems that need to be thought about:

i. Yet, as many sociologists and anthropologists have shown, there is a profound form of alienation occurring. Alienation, as a result of the ‘technologizing’ of society (mechanisation, automation, etc), has been a critique of technologies since the 1920s (most famously in the work of Heidegger and the subsequent Frankfurt Critical School) i.e. this is a traditional critique of modernity and technology that has transferred into the modern world. In a rather grim statistic, one report suggested that 1 in 5 men in the UK do not have friends. 

ii. Interconnectedness is not collapsing traditional forms of collective identity – race, nation, class, etc. – rather it is leading to deeper forms of tribalisation. Echoing and encasing phenomena are resulting in more and more niche identity formation; counter to civic consciousness or universalised notions of a community of humans.

Hence the paradox is that the frictionless and hyperconnectivity brought about by new digital technologies is in some cases leading to a disintegration with respect to social cohesion.

2. What does it mean to be human in the age of new digital technologies?

Novel technologies have spurned ‘futurist’ philosophies and ideologies, one of the most famous of which is trans-humanism. I read this as the idea that humans can somehow transcend their bodies (from embodied to disembodied experiences) – read here as the subjectivities of people’s places in space and time (their race, gender, physical state, etc.). The limits of our bodies are being eroded; we can ‘travel’ instantaneously through cyber space, we can augment our limited memories with seemingly infinite recording and offsetting to the ‘cloud’, etc., perhaps at some future point we will be able to upload our consciousness to the cyber realm and even defy death itself! In fact, the constructed avatar can be read in romantic terms as the ultimate form of self-curation and self-fashioning. A radial subjectification of Self, plastic and re-cast at will.

Notice that the idea of the what it is to flourish is under debate – traditionally there is an idea that communal existence is vital to human meaning. In much of the utopian views, such as transhumanism etc. the emphasis is on the individual – by becoming less dependent on other humans (creating one’s own bespoke cyber world) – less and less human contact is needed. One can buy things online without facing people in a traditional shopping environment (or even self-checkout), diagnosis via a machine as opposed to a doctor, etc… More and more ‘autonomy’ and less dependence. 

This view is contrasted by the image of the feeble or ailing human being, crouched before a screen, isolated, whose existence is mediated by an interface. Rather than experiencing transcendence, this human is subject to cyber forces of curation and disciplining (in the Foucauldian sense), subject to powerful algorithmic manipulation, nudging the individual into a cast that operates according to some kind of market logic.

This rather bleak picture is supported by the prevalence of cyber personalities who have replaced traditional celebrity; these personalities are highly constructed and dominate the ‘space’ with images and subjectivities, which become more and more extreme (dare I say unrealistic) notions of what it means to be a successful human being. The extremities are required because the audience is so vast and desensitised – to be ‘seen’ in the cyber world is no small task. Rather than leading to a transcendence of the human body, such interaction has led to a proliferation of psychological conditions of alienation, loss of self-esteem and an image of perfection that is impossible to fulfil.

With respect to togetherness, there is a long history of philosophical thought (initiated by Hegel) that argues humans form their identity through mutual recognition – the kinds of ways we interact determine how we view ourselves; our dignity and self-worth are dependent upon mutual respect and intersubjectivity. And the question is raised concerning what role physicality plays in this: intimacy with the material – is, at least for me, central to human development; it is the origin of self-awareness as it forces one to understand the body as the basic unity of self and its continuous dependency and vulnerability in the face of nature (i.e. the material). It seems that the immateriality, which was traditionally the realm of the transcendent and spiritual, has been bastardised precisely because it lacks the movement from the material (the body as a point of departure) to the spiritual (immaterial).  

3. Truth and Agency – Problems of Authenticity

The final point I want to discuss is the notion of agency: what does it mean to be free and what does this have to do with truth.

Recently I came across this joke:

A duck peers into a pond and sees a fish:

Duck: how’s the water down there?

Fish: what the hell is water?

The fish is so immersed in the water that it becomes something that the fish is unaware of. The encasing and background conditions of the fish’s existence – the very thing that sustains it, is unbeknown to the fish itself. Now consider plucking the fish out of the water – how dreadful and traumatic an experience this would be!

I want to make an analogy to some force plucking ourselves out of a world dominated by the new digital technologies; I wonder if we would experience this as the fish experiences a loss of its habitat?

The problem occupies me because we have a strong commitment to ideas of freedom; being free is something that premises our political culture and even ideas of what it means to be a human. In the cyber world, in a world of automation, to what extent will be able to exercise our freedom?

One reply is that freedom is exercised in order to realise happiness and that these technologies are means by which to achieve happiness. What does it matter if we have curtailed some notion of radical freedom for higher goods? In fact, we trade freedom for convenience all the time, and we base much of our notions of the social contract precisely on an interplay between limiting some forms of actions in order to access higher goods (safety, stability, rule of law, welfare, etc.).

This leads us into the realm of science fiction, Matrix type scenarios. In some sense, the question as to why we should be, or would be, compelled to take the red pill (purportedly: reality, knowledge, truth … suffering) over the blue pill (purportedly: security, happiness, ignorance … illusion)?  

Indeed, we have the philosophical thought experiment of a brain-in-a-vat; if our brains were transferred into a vat that could somehow stimulate such that all of our experiences would be the same, would there be any way for us to think of this situation as undesirable? In fact, if the vat were constructed such that it stimulates a ‘reality’ that is more pleasurable than the embodied existence, would it not be desirable?

Allow me to provide another example; there is a growing field called emotional AI, where AI are trained to interact with a person’s emotions. Let’s think about empathy: imagine a psychopath who desires other people to be emotionally dependent upon them. Imagine that the psychopath realises that the best way to do this is to appear empathetic, such that a perception of the psychopath in other people emerges that holds them as a great listener, a caring and loving person i.e. empathetic. Phenomenologically there is no way to distinguish how the psychopath behaves from someone who is genuinely motivated by empathy and care. By analogy, emotional AI (empathetic AI) are not ‘intentional’ but such AI can do all the same as a person who has an intention to be empathetic.

 In the context of togetherness we might think there is a technological solution to the problem the technology has created – emotional AI can (apparently) do all the work that friendship, family and society is suppose to.

Are we OK with this? Is there something wrong with this picture? I, certainly, am deeply troubled by this.

Emre Kazim can be contacted at ekazim@cs.ucl.ac.uk