The Political Event Horizon

by rsbakker

Cognition Obscura (II) is still up on the blocks. I’m literally on the final stretch of TUC – I’m guessing I’ll have the (monstrously huge!) first draft completed in a two weeks time – and it has been tyrannizing my output. But still, I’ve resolved to post something on TPB at least once a week, no matter how slim or anodyne.

A few months back I had an opportunity to talk to Paul Glimcher at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo about the prospect of his work being used by corporations and other large institutions to more effectively steer consumer (or voter) decision-making. He actually never answered the question, electing instead to critique Neurofocus, the marketing giant I had raised as an example, and whose work I have cited several times here on TPB. (I raised this same question to Dennett a couple of years ago, and strangely enough, he elected to do the same thing, which was imply that the methods and technologies employed by Neurofocus, if they work at all, are about to superceded by the real thing). Glimcher had presented a paper reviewing the way his lab had demystified the so-called ‘choice paradox’ (popularized by Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less), effectively explaining in neuromechanical terms why it is the surfeit of alternatives, or greater degrees of consumer freedom, tend to make us more miserable. The full story is complicated, but it basically boils down to the neural architecture of the brain and the way choice relevant contextual clutter actually dims the clarity of desired options. But I urge everyone to take a close look at what Glimcher is up to – his thumbnail sketch of neuroeconomics is outstanding – and to consider what the science might look like in fifty year’s time, given the kinds of resources this field of research commands.

I mention this because I seem to be bumping into Nick Land and ‘Accelerationism‘ all over the web, this notion that arcane philosophical bickering – of the kind found here – will actually have any role in the social and economic upheavals to come. The big problem I have with the debate – as far as I understand it, at least – is that it remains mired in what might be called ‘continuity bias,’ and so has no real grasp on the nature of our collective dilemma. Everyone seems to think that we are dealing with a technologically mediated social and economic transformation, when it seems clear to me, at least, that we are actually witnessing the beginning of a biological revolution, the next great twist in Evolution itself. So I thought it worthwhile to repost, “The Posthuman asEvolution 3.0”:

So for years now I’ve had this pet way of understanding evolution in terms of effect feedback (EF) mechanisms, structures whose functions produce effects that alter the original structure. Morphological effect feedback mechanisms started the show: DNA and reproductive mutation (and other mechanisms) allowed adaptive, informatic reorganization according to the environmental effectiveness of various morphological outputs. Life’s great invention, as they say, was death.

This original EF process was slow, and adaptive reorganization was transgenerational. At a certain point, however, morphological outputs became sophisticated enough to enable a secondary, intragenerational EF process, what might be called behavioural effect feedback. At this level, the central nervous system, rather than DNA, was the site of adaptive reorganization, producing behavioural outputs that are selected or extinguished according to their effectiveness in situ.

For whatever reason, I decided to plug the notion of the posthuman into this framework the other day. The idea was that the evolution from Morphological EF to Behavioural EF follows a predictable course, one that, given the proper analysis, could possibly tell us what to expect from the posthuman. The question I had in my head when I began this was whether we were groping our way to some entirely new EF platform, something that could effect adaptive, informatic reorganization beyond morphology and behaviour.

First, consider some of the key differences between the processes:

Morphological EF is transgenerational, whereas Behavioural EF is circumstantial – as I mentioned above. Adaptive informatic reorganization is therefore periodic and inflexible in the former case, and relatively continuous and flexible in the latter. In other words, morphology is circumstantially static, while behaviour is circumstantially plastic.

Morphological EF operates as a fundamental physiological generative (in the case of the brain) and performative (in the case of the body) constraint on Behavioural EF. Our brains limit the behaviours we can conceive, and our bodies limit the behaviours we can perform.

Morphologies and their generators (genetic codes) are functionally inseparable, while behaviours and their generators (brains) are functionally separable. Behaviours are disposable.

Defined in these terms, the posthuman is simply the point where neural adaptive reorganization generates behaviours (in this case, tool-making) such that morphological EF ceases to be a periodic and inflexible physiological generative and performative constraint on behavioural EF. Put differently, the posthuman is the point where morphology becomes circumstantially plastic. You could say tools, which allow us to circumvent morphological constraints on behaviour, have already accomplished this. Spades make for deeper ditches. Writing makes for bottomless memories. But tool-use is clearly a transitional step, ways to accessorize a morphology that itself remains circumstantially static. The posthuman is the point where we put our body on the lathe (with the rest of our tools).

In a strange, teleonomic sense, you could say that the process is one of effect feedback bootstrapping, where behaviour revolutionizes morphology, which revolutionizes behaviour, which revolutionizes morphology, and so on. We are not so much witnessing the collapse of morphology into behaviour as the acceleration of the circuit between the two approaching some kind of asymptotic limit that we cannot imagine. What happens when the mouth of behaviour after digesting the tail and spine of morphology, finally consumes the head?

What’s at stake, in other words, is nothing other than the fundamental EF structure of life itself. It makes my head spin, trying to fathom what might arise in its place.

Some more crazy thoughts falling out of this:

1) The posthuman is clearly an evolutionary event. We just need to switch to the register of information to see this. We’re accustomed to being told that dramatic evolutionary changes outrun our human frame of reference, which is just another way of saying that we generally think of evolution as something that doesn’t touch us. This was why, I think, I’ve been thinking the posthuman by analogy to the Enlightenment, which is to say, as primarily a cultural event distinguished by a certain breakdown in material constraints. No longer. Now I see it as an evolutionary event literally on par with the development of Morphological and Behavioural EF. As perhaps I should have all along, given that posthuman enthusiasts like Kurzweil go on and on about the death of death, which is to say, the obsolescence of a fundamental evolutionary invention.

2) The posthuman is not a human event. We may be the thin edge of the wedge, but every great transformation in evolution drags the whole biosphere in tow. The posthuman is arguably more profound than the development of multicellular life.

3) The posthuman, therefore, need not directly involve us. AI could be the primary vehicle.

4) Calling our descendents ‘transhuman’ makes even less sense than calling birds ‘transdinosaurs.’

5) It reveals posthuman optimism for the wishful thinking it is. If this transformation doesn’t warrant existential alarm, what on earth does?

Okay, so that might not be my most lucid post. But the idea is pretty straightforward: physiology, the primary enabling constraint of behaviour, is about to fall into the clutches of behaviour. The primary enabling constraint of behaviour is in the process of becoming a product of behaviour. Think of the combinatorial explosion brought about by our increasing ability to overcome environmental constraints on our behaviour. The combinatorial explosion to come, I think it’s fair to say, handily lies beyond our ability to cognize. There simply is no horizon of expectation that we can depend on…

So what does this mean for politics? What does ‘politics’ mean for that matter? Is a ‘post-posterity politics’ – a politics shorn of expectation – even possible? Or are all politics simply palliative at this point? Are we marooned with a negative or apophatic politics, a kind of quietistic intellectual exercise where we inventory all the things that politics can no longer be?  Or is there time yet for the kind of cultural and political ‘triage’ I endorse, the demand that one immediately engage outgroup interests in their own cultural idioms, because today is likely already too late.