The Coming Neurosociety: Control, Brain, And Revolt

Slavoj Zizek mentions Ahmed El Hady’s article on Big Think:  Neurotechnology, Social Control and Revolution in his short work Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept in which DARPA at the behest of the U.S. Government is carrying on a well-funded R&D project based on three strands: narrative analysis; augmented cognition (along the lines of the Iron Man project, etc., to create soldiers with enhanced cognitive capacities); and autonomous robots (aiming to convert a large fraction of the military into a robotic one, which is easier to control , will decrease the economic burden of having military personnel, and will reduce losses in terms of soldiers’ lives).1

The first project Hady describes it DARPA’s narrative networks project seeks to detect potential security threats and to protect vulnerable people from being recruited by terrorists through analysis of people narratives in the context of national security. Yet, the obverse potential of actually using such knowledge to inculcate and control its own populace through these same narrative techniques in a form social engineering, shaping culture and social interactions through exclusionary systems of control and enactment, etc.

The second project AugCog or augmented cognition is based on the enhancement of military personnel, yet could potentially be used on citizens as well to promote “educational neuroscience by controlling the type of information that students receive, by identifying incompetent students and in the more extreme case indoctrinating and enhancing particular aspects of reality on the expenses of other” (ibid.) In one military study being conducted by DARPA through a grant of a $300,000 to a researcher from the University of Colorado at Boulder, to study neuroeconomic models on the way we move (our behavioral or bodily movement) changes when faced with threats they hope to ultimately produce optimal decisions in soldiers, while at the same time providing tactical information and decisional processes to be used against an enemy. As Ahmed states it: “This proposal is about decision making, we want to understand the decision making process,” Ahmed says. “So it stands to reason that if you can understand it, then you can manipulate it, whatever, whoever it is can be manipulated. So it’s not just about our troops, and our side. But it also means you can expand that to the other side as well,” she says. In the same article we learn that In 2009, the Air Force unveiled an effort to research bio-science to improve cognition and “degrade enemy performance” by manipulating the brain’s chemical pathways to “overwhelm enemy cognitive capabilities.”

Even as far back as the 1970’s José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado a controversial figure in neuroscience and professor of physiology at Yale University was acclaimed by “the New York Times Magazine in a cover story as the impassioned prophet of a new ‘psychocivilized society’ whose members would influence and alter their own mental functions”. 2 Delgado implanted radio equipped electrodes, which he termed ‘stimoceivers’, into the brains of several ‘fighting’ bulls and stood in a bullring with one bull at a time and attempted to control the actions of the bull by pressing buttons on a handheld transmitter. In one instance Delgado was able to stop a charging bull in its tracks only a few feet away from him by the press of a button. The New York Times published a front page story on the event, “calling it ‘the most spectacular demonstration ever performed of the deliberate modification of animal behavior through external control of the brain’” (see Dennis).

Neurotechnologies are set to change this with the rise of ‘nanobiochips’ and brain imaging and scanning technologies that will eventually lower the cost of neurological techniques and analysis as well as making the procedures efficient and profitable. Neurotechnologies, combined with wireless sensors, may possibly usher in a communications revolution greater than that caused by the arrival of the transistor and the microchip. Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO), writes that ‘When data from advanced biochips and brain imaging are combined they will accelerate the development of neurotechnology, the set of tools that can influence the human central nervous system, especially the brain’. Although neurotechnologies are likely to be put to therapeutic and medical uses, such as for improving emotional stability and mental clarity, they also open opportunities for intrusive strategies of control and manipulation.3

As Zizek will remind us the goal is to intervene into the actual brain of both enemy and citizen through neurobiological tools and technologies:

DARPA would like to revolutionize the study of narrative influence by extending it into the neurobiological domain. The standard narrative analysis thus takes an ominous turn: the goal is not to convince the potential terrorist through apt rhetoric or line of argument ( or even plain brainwashing), but to directly intervene in his brain to make him change his mind. Ideological struggle is no longer conducted through argument or propaganda, but by means of neurobiology , i.e., by way of regulating neuronal processes in our brain. Again, the catch is: who will decide what narratives are dangerous and, as such, deserve neurological correction? (Zizek, pp. 53-54)

As one critic who also mentions the modes of external or ubiquitous computing and electronic ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) and electromagnetic neurotechnologies: the mind has no firewall, and is thus vulnerable to viruses, Trojan horses, and spam. It is also vulnerable to hackers, cyber–terrorists, and state surveillance. Whilst this may sound a little too far out, they are reasonable questions to ask if technologies are racing ahead of us in order to better get into our heads.4

It’s as if technology is already living in that future and is seeking to bring us into its ubiquitous gaze to better control and shape our desires toward its own goals, not ours. Zizek mentions Lacan’s notion of ‘traversing the fantasy’ in the context of Heidegger’s concept of Gestell (“enframing”), which for Heidegger encompasses the ‘essence of technology’. Zizek will tell us that when Heidegger speaks about the ‘essence of technology,’ he has in mind something like the frame of a fundamental fantasy which , as a transparent background, structures the way we relate to reality. Gestell, Heidegger’s word for the essence of technology, is usually translated into English as ‘enframing’. At its most radical, technology does not designate a complex network of machines and activities, but the attitude towards reality which we assume when we are engaged in such activities: technology is the way reality discloses itself to us in contemporary times. The paradox of technology as the concluding moment of Western metaphysics is that it is a mode of enframing which poses a danger to enframing itself: the human being reduced to an object of technological manipulation is no longer properly human; it loses the very feature of being ecstatically open to reality. However , this danger also contains the potential for salvation: the moment we become aware and fully assume the fact that technology itself is, in its essence, a mode of enframing, we overcome it – this is Heidegger’s version of traversing the fantasy.(ibid. pp29-30)

In our age when the powers that control us seek to use neurotechnologies of both ubiquitous computing and augmentation to shape our desires and private lives how can we become aware of their dark enframing, thereby overcome it? Zizek says we need to traverse the fantasy of our social desires, seek out the gaps and discrepancies, the disjunctions and wounds that bind us to such dark worlds. Most of all it is to awaken from our dark dream of the future and exist in the moment to moment wounds of our lives, accept the fragility and openness of our existence toward that impossible future we are already living in. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 52). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
2. J. Horgan, 2005. “The forgotten era of brain chips,” Scientific American (October), and at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID
=1&articleID=000876CF-CC6F-1331-841D83414B7FFE9F0
.
3. see New Instruments of Surveillance and Social Control: Wireless Technologies which Target the Neuronal Functioning of the Brain Dr. Kingsley Dennis
4. T.L. Thomas, 1998. “The mind has no firewall,” Parameters (Spring), pp. 84–92, and at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/
Parameters/98spring/thomas.htm
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