Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Conclusion: Markets Without Materiality

The Machinery of Freedom: [A] Guide to Radical Capitalism, a book first published in 1973 and reprinted many times since, has a unique status among the advocates of the “anarcho-capitalist” viewpoint championed by a number of American technology enthusiasts. Its author is the economist and professor of law David Friedman. With chapters like “Sell the Schools,” “Sell the Streets,” and “Police, Courts, and Laws -– on the Market,” The Machinery of Freedom manages somewhat extraordinarily to make Milton Friedman -– the enormously influential Nobel Prize winning economist, Reagan Administration economic policy advisor, quintessential exemplar of the Chicago School, and the author’s father –- appear to be merely moderate in his own advocacy of “free market” ideology. A number of key figures for my dissertation, like Vernor Vinge, Tim May, and Max More (founder of the “Extropian” movement of market libertarian technophiles discussed by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in their essay “California Ideology,” as well as by Paulina Borsook in her book Cyberselfish) all have repeatedly named Friedman’s book as a key inspiration for their own work. In a more recent work of his published online, a book entitled Future Imperfect, Friedman has responded in kind, dedicating the volume to Tim May and Vernor Vinge.

Among other things, David Friedman stages a confrontation in Future Imperfect rather like the one that has preoccupied so much of my own dissertation, between advocates of “Strong Privacy” like the Cypherpunks I discuss in Chapter Two and advocates of “transparency” like David Brin, who I discuss in Chapter Three. In terms that strongly evoke those of the “Cypherpunk’s Manifesto” by Eric Hughes, Friedman writes: “If I communicate online… using encryption, I can be betrayed only by the person I am communicating with. If I do it using an online persona… with no link to my realspace identity, not even the people I communicate with can betray me.” Therefore, he concludes that the “strong privacy” made possible by ubiquitous unbreakable digital encryption “creates a world which is, in important ways, safer than the one we now live in.” He characterizes what he means by “safety” here more specifically as “a world where you can say things other people disapprove of without the risk of punishment, legal or otherwise.”

But Friedman begins to fret in a rather Brinian vein that “[i]t does no good to use strong encryption for my email if a video mosquito is sitting on the wall watching me type and recording every keystroke.” Contemplating this scenario yields the perplexing prediction for Friedman that “cyberspace” might emerge as a realm “with more privacy than we have today,” as distinguished from a “realspace with less,” or, as he goes on to put the point, the arrival of “a world where physical actions are entirely public, [and] information transactions entirely private.” Later, he frames this starkly as “[t]he conflict between realspace transparency and cyberspace privacy.”

Friedman then proceeds from assumptions that will have become all too familiar to us by now: Freedom is identified with private voluntary transactions, voluntary transactions are identified with explicit contracts and radically privatized market relations, and the primary threats to the free play of this edifying market order are identified as the public depredations of Big Brotherly governments. Or, as Friedman puts these points: “Although private parties occasionally engage in involuntary transactions such as burglary, most of our interactions with each other are voluntary ones.” On the other hand, “[g]overnments engage in involuntary transactions on an enormously larger scale.” If “government is merely a particularly large and well organized criminal gang, stealing as much as it can from the rest of us” then “individual privacy against government is an unambiguously good thing.” He then assures us that, “[M]ost Americans appear, judging by expressed views on privacy… to consider privacy against government as on the whole desirable, with an exception for cases where they believe that privacy might be used to conceal crimes substantially more serious than tax evasion.” That tax evasion is an unserious crime clearly goes without saying...

And so, the dilemma for the market libertarian is that “strong privacy in a transparent society requires some way of guarding the interface between my realspace body and cyberspace. This is no problem… where the walls of my house are still opaque. It is a serious problem [where] every place is, in fact if not in law, public.” Since Friedman has connected the traditional distinction of the public from the private so insistently to a further distinction of the materiality of what he calls “realspace” from an apparently dematerialized, informational “cyberspace” it is perhaps not so surprising as it might initially seem to find that he conjures up the cyberspatial here through an image of domesticity in particular.

It is intriguing to observe the lengths to which Friedman then goes to defend against the imagined penetration of this private domestic space by transparency. He writes: “If we are sufficiently worried” -– what, me worry? -– “about other people hearing what we say, one solution is to encrypt face to face conversation.” He continues on, and with considerable detail:
With suitable wireless gadgets, I talk into a throat mike or type on a virtual keyboard (keeping my hands in my pockets). My pocket computer encrypts my message with your public key and transmits it to your pocket computer, which decrypts the message and displays it through your V[irtual] R[eality] glasses. To make sure nothing is reading the glasses over your shoulder, the goggles get the image to you not by displaying it on a screen but by using a tiny laser to write it on your retina. With any luck, the inside of your eyeball is still private space.

Here the private realm has retreated into the body’s inner precincts, come to rest in that most delicate and vulnerable of organs (apart, of course, from the privates themselves), presumed proscenium to the inner theater of the mind, presumed window on the soul -– the human eye. And with this retreat into the eerily immaterial eye, Friedman retraces the disembodiment and dematerialization through which he would otherwise formulate the privacy he valorizes.

“[S]ince most of us live most of our lives in realspace,” the material world, the world menaced by the prospect of Brin’s technoconstituted transparency, we live in what threatens to be “a very public world.” But cyberspace, conceived by Friedman as a dematerialized “virtual reality,” promises the preservation and, better, the radical augmentation through strong encryption techniques of a private (and privatized) world. As Friedman rather breathtakingly goes on to put the point: “[I]f deep V[irtual]R[ealty]… giv[es] us a world where all the interesting stuff happens in cyberspace and realspace activity consist[s] of little more than keeping our bodies alive, it will be a very private world.”

To grasp the extent to which Friedman’s privatized virtuality relies for its force on a denigration of bodily life and of materiality as such, notice that he disdains even the “realspace” paraphernalia of goggles, gloves, earphones, and the like that typically accompany futurist representations of virtual reality technologies. “[I]f we can… figure out how our nervous system encodes the data that reaches our minds as sensory perceptions, goggles and headphones will no longer be necessary.” Note the dematerialization performed by the formulation in which “sense” (“sensory perceptions”) is treated merely as the form in which “data” is “encode[d]” by a “system.” We have in fact already arrived at the virtual reality conjured up explicitly in the next sentence, in which one could, Friedman proposes, simply “[p]lug a cable into a socket at the back of [the] neck for full sense perception of a reality observed by mechanical sensors, generated by a computer, or recorded from another brain.” In such a world, writes Friedman, “most of the important stuff” –- again that curious phrase –- “consists of signals moving from one brain to another over a network, with physical acts by physical bodies playing only a minor role. To visit a friend in England there is no need to move either his body or mine -– being there is as easy as dialing the phone.”

Strictly speaking, of course, dialing a telephone is scarcely a disembodied experience, England geographically exists whether or not we happen to be there, a socket at the back of the neck might be expected at the very least to tickle occasionally, the computers and electrons on which cyberspaces are variously instantiated are in fact material, information is, indeed, always and indispensably instantiated on a material carrier of some kind, and the electrochemical dispositions of the physical organ we call the brain are likewise physical.

Even if we sensibly defer discussion of the poetical and spiritual places some readers might be inclined to go on to from here, the curiosity of the spectacle Friedman’s argument is making of itself here is surely available to us all. Robert Heilbroner has famously described economists as “the worldly philosophers,” as collaborators in the most relentlessly materialist humanist tradition on offer. And here, to preserve the norms and assumptions of political economy an heir to that tradition, one who has described as his chief contribution to it simply that he takes some of that tradition’s commonplace assertions to “their natural conclusions,” finds that he must denigrate the very material and bodily foundations on the basis of which that tradition has always defined itself and distinguished itself from all others. To retain what he takes to be a political economist’s conception of worldliness, a political economist finds he must disdain the world.

For Katherine Hayles, information theory from its inauguration in the early twentieth century has rested definitively on the forceful distinction of information from materiality, and on the subsequent denigration of the material term of that distinction. Hayles proposes that we characterize as “virtuality” the condition that prevails in a culture such as our own, in which the assumptions of classical information theory have penetrated into conceptual domains, public practices, and forms of knowledge far more generally. Hayles has noted any number of expressions of what she takes to be the foundational gesture of information science.

First, she notes the distinction posited as early as 1948 by Claude Shannon, between message and signal. “A message has an information content specified by a probability function that has no dimensions, no materiality, and no necessary connection with meaning. It is a pattern, not a presence. Only when the message is encoded in a signal for transmission through a medium,” she goes on, “does it assume material form. The very definition of information, then, encodes the distinction between materiality and information.”

In the altogether different register of molecular biology, Hayles points to the contemporary view that “the body is said to ‘express’ information encoded in the genes. The content is provided by the genetic pattern; the body’s materiality articulates a preexisting semantic structure. Control resides in the pattern, which is regarded as bringing the material object into being.” Again, pattern is valorized while materiality, which Hayles repeatedly figures as “presence,” is denigrated.

On Hayles’ compelling account, the cultural condition of virtuality continually reiterates the gesture of an erasure of the body, continually makes recourse to reductive accounts of communication as information flows or a play of patterns which disavow the definitive embodiment of these experiences. It will probably be clear by now that I share Hayles’ concern about these denials of materiality in so much information theory. It is no accident that in choosing privacy as the site for my own intervention I have foregrounded a discursive site no less freighted with the urgencies and troubles of bodily life. Nevertheless, I think it is important to emphasize that there are more ways to be material than just the ways in which biological bodies are, and so that we should be careful not to treat such embodiment as synonymous with materiality as such. Nor, more crucially, should we describe dematerialization always through the language of disembodiment –- as sometimes Hayles seems to do. I worry for example that a comment such as that “[b]ecause they both have bodies, books and humans have something to lose if they are regarded solely as informational patterns” in fact re-enacts in its parallelism some of the very evacuation of embodied subjectivity that elsewhere Hayles takes such pains to resist.

I am also troubled by what seems to me an occasional drift into a curious conservatism that likely inheres in her singular focus on the materiality of bodies as always a presencing and hence, possibly, less an open futurity. This “conservatism” can be a matter as simple as the occasional argumentatively key reference to “the body,” as though there were only one kind of body to be had (all the more conspicuous since elsewhere Hayles is careful in her effort to trouble such a reduction). But it can play out in even quite central programmatic formulations as well. As witness: “Central to the construction of the cyborg are informational pathways connecting the organic body to its prosthetic extensions. This presumes,” Hayles presumes, “a conception of information as a (disembodied) entity that can flow between carbon-based organic components to make protein and silicon operate as a single system.”

From this, Hayles draws the moral that “[w]hen information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy, for the materiality in which the thinking mind is instantiated appears incidental to its essential nature.” It is not clear to me why it is better to describe as a kind of disembodiment what might look instead like a prosthetic proliferation of the ways in which material bodies can be in the world. Just why would the prosthetic troubling of “the” normative body be analogized to information’s loss of its “body”? Again, I share Hayles’ concern that it is too commonplace for information theory to deny that information is always instantiated in a material carrier, or at any rate to insist naively that its material “form” is immaterial to information’s “content,” but I wonder about appeals to emphatically nostalgic intuitions of normative bodily materiality in particular in fortifying this claim. It seems to me especially perplexing to suggest that something about the recognition of a variety of viable material bodies (including cyborg bodies) would contribute to what seems to me the different and deeper confusion of a human with a computer.

While the socially intelligible body registers the force of normative constraints, it seems to me to be crucially open to variation and subversion. Further, I insist that along with a concern about the materialities of various embodied subjectivities, we should be likewise compelled to register the material realities of the public worlds in which these material bodies find themselves. If Hayles rightly calls attention to the dematerialization of subjectivity in information theory, I will insist that there is a complementary and no less momentous dematerialization and dismissal of political realities (like heterogeneity and unpredictability) in information theory as well. And this is a tendency that looks to me to facilitate often disastrously reductive analyses of political phenomena in an informational mode – from economism to game theory to “memetics” to evolutionary sociology.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt describes the “living together of people” as the “indispensable material factor in the generation of [political] power” [emphasis added]. I read this in light of Judith Butler’s reading of Marx’s first Thesis on Feuerbach, in which she suggests: “If materialism were to take account of praxis as that which constitutes the very matter of objects, and praxis is understood as socially transformative activity, then such activity is understood as constitutive of materiality itself…. [T]he object materializes to the extent that it is a site of temporal transformation. The materiality of objects, then, is in no sense static, spatial, or given, but is constituted in and as transformative activity.” Here I find a helpfully nonspatializing conjuration of what Arendt would describe as the “public realm” and of the action it incubates and consists of (Arendt’s phrase, remember, is a significant one for a dissertation about the politics of agency in an era of digital networks: “the web of relations”). It is, then, to this double evacuation of the materiality both of subjectivity and of “publicity” that I recur in my own view of the ways in which information theory likely frustrates or confuses our efforts to accommodate, say, democratic values and intuitions about public goods to the transformed circumstances of a newly emerging “information age” of digital networked media.

For Katherine Hayles the essential gesture of virtuality is the privileging of information over a materiality from which it has already first been decisively but profoundly problematically distinguished. And the quintessential figure through which she illustrates what she takes be “wildly implausible… wrongheaded and dangerous” in this gesture tends to be the roboticist Hans Moravec who, in his book Mind Children, proposes a certain “fantastic scenario.” According to Moravec, writes Hayles, “human beings are essentially informational patterns rather than bodily presences. If a technology can replicate the pattern, it has captured all that really matters in a human being.” For Moravec, replicating this pattern while at once destroying the brain of a human being so “replicated” constitutes a kind of “transfer” of that human being from one material instantiation to another. As Hayles rather vividly summarizes the proposal, “[a]s ‘you’ are transferred into a computer, the trashed body is left behind, an empty husk. Once ‘you’ are comfortably inside your shiny new body, ‘you’ effectively become immortal. For when that body wears out or becomes obsolete, ‘you’ can simply transfer your consciousness to a new model.”

I agree with Hayles that such a proposal appears to rely on a number of questionable and disturbing assumptions. Among these: that science has a clear sense of what consciousness is in the first place, that what amounts to a sloppy wet gland can be treated as indistinguishable from what passes for a computer in our contemporary understanding of these things, that technologies can in fact be counted upon to function smoothly, that metaphors of reproduction map seamlessly onto metaphors of travel, and so on. I even agree to a point that for some, including possibly Hans Moravec himself, “the information/matter dichotomy maps onto the older and more traditional dichotomy of spirit/matter” with the consequence that “the contemporary privileging of information is reinforced by [certain] religious yearnings and beliefs that have been around for a long time and that are resonant with meaning for many people.”

But it seems to me no less significant that in Moravec’s scenario the “replication” of a pattern is to be treated as the “transfer” of a person from one kind of a body to another rather than her destruction and then replacement by some sort of copy only because there presumably exists some “objective” perspective from which the original and the copy are taken to be in some significant sense indistinguishable from one another. Presumably, the testimony from this “objective” perspective might fail to confer the status of “transfer” rather than “destruction and replacement” should the copy herself testify to a subjective discontinuity in her own experience of the process or sense of identification in its aftermath. But whether or not a host of separate “subjective” and “objective” perspectives testified to the sufficient similarity of the patterns discerned before and after the procedure to interpret its outcome as a “transfer” of identity from one bodily substrate to some other body or medium, it is rarely discussed and incomparably more difficult to imagine that the public or intersubjective negotiation of all these many different perspectives and their testaments would likewise issue out in the compelling sense of a continuous identity over the course of its worldly travels.

For me, Moravec’s informational construal of the self paradoxically privileges as material an objectivity over both a subjectivity and intersubjectivity that are then dematerialized and denigrated. I offer up this proposal simply as a complement to Hayles’ thesis, rather than an objection to it. And, likewise, as a complement to her characteristic figure of Hans Moravec’s fantastic scenario of a surgeon uploading a somehow disembodied consciousness into an imperishable digital form, I offer up by way of conclusion the tableau of David Friedman’s no less fantastic uploading of homo economicus into a somehow depoliticized privacy to shore up the market order as my own curious and characteristic figure.

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David Friedman said...

I gather from a quick look at your blog that you pride yourself on close and careful reading. Checking your comments on my Future Imperfect, they do not support that view. You write:

"If “government is merely a particularly large and well organized criminal gang, stealing as much as it can from the rest of us” –- and apparently Friedman takes this stipulation as uncontroversial"

I do not see how you can suppose I take that stipulation as uncontroversial, given the rest of the passage—which you of course omit. What I wrote was:

"The implications depend on one’s view of government. If government is the modern equivalent of the philosopher king, individual privacy simply makes it harder for government to do good. If, on the other hand, a government is merely a particularly large and well organized criminal gang, stealing as much as it can from the rest of us, individual privacy against government as an unambiguously good thing. Most Americans appear, judging by expressed views on privacy, to be close enough to the latter position to consider privacy against government as on the whole desirable, with an exception for cases where they believe that privacy might be used to conceal crimes substantially more serious than tax evasion."

That should make it entirely clear that I do regard the proposition as controversial--that there are two alternative extreme views, both held by some, with most Americans somewhere between, but closer to one extreme than the other.

Dale Carrico said...

"You know, you are absolutely right about this -- that was sloppy writing. What I had in mind was just to point out that this rightly rather controversial view of government as kleptocratic in its essence is one that you seem eagerly to endorse yourself. I'm happy to delete it (it's a needlessly snarky minor distraction from the thrust of my reading in any case), and neither will it find its way into any subsequent revision of the text that, with luck, might find its way to print."