Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Happy New Year Essay on Agency

I have only very recently read Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. It’s hard to read. I’d pretty much been avoiding it because I haven’t believed that anyone seeming to champion our brave new digital future could be worth reading. Boy, was I wrong.

There is plenty of information up here on this blog about why I might avoid writing that announces itself that way. I have long since decided - on the basis of youthful epiphany really - where I stand on (what feel to me to be) the absurdities of AI/digital intelligence. In brief, it’s the either/or nature of digital, and the gap that hides between digital machinery and our lived existence. What’s hidden is that we aren’t really separable from all else in the cosmos, while digital is. And our connections go well beyond what can be measured and quantified. So any digital simulacrum can’t be real. Digital reality is logic fully abstracted from any substrate. There is only yes and no.

I’ve long since given up on any definitive determination about whether my youthful epiphany was genuine or the random synapse firing of psychotic detachment from reality. I mean the epiphany has continued to make sense to me, but I have yet successfully to communicate it to a single other soul. And so I must remain agnostic as to its truth value; that epiphany of mine.

But I must agree with Haraway. She pushes the man/machine connection way back before digital machinery, but also manages to envision a ton of hope for all good things post-digital! Like doing away with gender bias for starters. That excites me. Too!

So now I’m fixated more on agency. For instance, Natalie Jermijenko, whose work I admire, uses agency as shorthand for what she’s about. I feel no dissent in her audiences, and so I keep my mouth shut, but am I alone in my misgivings?

What we call agency starts with random in my cosmology. An irrational impulse precedes the rational choice, and choice becomes rationalization. Full Stop. There’s lots of neurological research to support this conclusion.

Some are bothered by the apparent lack of conscious agency entailed by this insight. I’m not. I have found in it connectedness to the cosmic other. I distinguish random from meaningless, along with my Chinese cousins. Consciously unknowable is not the same as meaningless.

There are limits to mind’s reach, and so I am happy to leave many of my own decisions to random processes. NOT my driving and healthcare decisions, for God’s sake! But my reading decisions, say. Why prefigure what you’re going to read by what you already know? How can you learn that way? Of course, I do quickly discard anything that’s not well-written or sensible. I’m (mostly) not stupid.

Well, in my life and family now I am trapped by lack of agency. After receiving a modest inheritance upon my father’s death - by modest, I mean it’s equal to about two years of my earning power, and I’m at least three years from a decidedly modest retirement possibility - I’d felt that I’ve been working away for others and never for myself. Ultimately, I was working for The Man, of course, but my daughters are grown and way more competent about managing their lives than I am mine, and I felt responsible to do something with and about my considerable endowments. I decided to retire from an economy premised on little choice for those who aren't rich. Even then, they seem to have bypassed choice altogether, trapped in the joys money brings and blind to what it does to those who lack choice.

Of course I find myself on the far end of competency of a sudden, due to age; which lent a sudden urgency to the exercise of agency, not so much because the end is near as because my grasp on what I spent so long attaining is growing ever weaker.

So, my local dilemma is that I have friends and family who are considerably better off than I am. They often surprise me with their generosity. But just as often, I am lured, as it were, into socializing above my (non) pay-grade, and then stuck with the bill and resentment. Invitations never seem couched in any understanding of my limitations. Or at least I don’t find it. That’s likely because they see me exercising choice they don’t feel thy have. I often hear wistful sighs about how nice it would be to inherit money. That is despite my decidedly modest life-style (a term I detest, life-style, but there you go!)

If you're not seeing irony in all this, then you're not reading well. I know how packed I am with social capital. I know that I'm well within the one percenters of agency on the planet. And yet I feel robbed of it by my financial betters, who place the onus on me to affirm our friendship by my ready acceptance of something I nearly always would very much love to do.

I wish I had the choice to decline without any implication of declining offers of friendship. In other words, I think the onus on them is to clarify (make an offer to host or not) and not on me to ask. I think it's awkward to ask if I will have to pay, since that's the same as asking them to pay for me, really.

This is all fine until things get a little tricky. Like what if someone offers me something that is so far beyond my life-style and so attractive that I would loathe to refuse it. Especially when to do so would be to disappoint the one making the offer. A matter of not wanting to be in "debt" for me, but maybe something more for those who lack agency in general.

Without going into a long disquisition into the social harm of the outsized income distribution we are reintroducing to our once more democratic polity, I would like to suggest that to retain the agency of delighting someone can sometimes rob that person of agency they require. I mean everyone knows the feeling of not wanting to destroy someone else's delight at a gift you'd really prefer not to have gotten. Especially Christmas lately, where all those I know and love have everything that they could possibly want or need. Sheesh!

And that includes me! No matter how much I may appreciate offers of things I cannot buy myself, I am happy with my choice to opt out from a consumerist culture that is wrecking the planet. And when I say "the planet," I mean that web of connections which conditions my pre-agency whimsy. I need the substrate of natural contingency to feel any agency at all. Otherwise, might as well let the AI make ALL the decisions.

That's my point. Human agency requires letting go of intelligence, since that isn't how we exercise agency anyhow (just NOT for driving, OK?) but it also requires that there be more than an artificial decision tree.

Intelligence conditions decisions by exclusion most likely. But it doesn't hardly ever make the decisions.

In other words, agency means letting go of some prerogatives while it requires the agency of some inhuman other. That thing which the religionists destroy by naming the patriarchal other their men require.

Sorry, just had to get that final dig in.

So anyhow, like any tools, of course there is no inherent evil to digital tools. But they do seem to seduce us away from agency, rendering invisible all sorts of choices that are made for us. At the current moment, those choices mostly guide our purchasing decisions.

And speaking of purchasing, that's where we've always relinquished agency in our measuring of want against need. Our seeking now for lowest price against all sorts of externalities not billed may constitute a kind of abdication of moral choice. Especially when one of the externalities not billed is our own purchasing decisions, which are owned elsewhere to enormous profit for the vectorialist owners, not of the means of production now, but rather of the decision trees for consumption.

They read my mind before I do. Damn!

Am I looking for a cosmic universal moral code? Indeed I am, and I make so bold as to suggest that such a thing is far more likely than the discovery of some universal code for natural law. I posit merely a direction for life's evolution, no different, essentially, from time's direction.

Time-keeping is apparently tough to locate in the brain, or so I learned by watching an interesting documentary cued up on Delta airlines. In the physical world, time is more accurately measurable than any other constant, they say. And so where is the connection between mind and matter. It would seem to be a matter for some social accord.

Time's direction seems as arbitrary - a conspiracy of everything - as does existence generally. Our social keeping of time may be as dependent on machines as anything else about us. It certainly does seem to have been a hallmark - in lock-step really - of our recent technological advances. And that fact gets so easily overlooked when folks claim whiz-bang amazement at how fast we've exploded in our advance and "understanding."

A simple moral code expresses direction toward or away from love. By abdication, we are and have been moving in a deadly direction, toward destruction of our living substrate. What could be more immoral than that?

Celebrants of progress express what amounts to faith that we will continue our ameliorative breakthroughs to include even remedy for our own predations on the planet. That reduces our current responsibility to just keep on keeping on, and damn the harm we cause along our way. Because our descendants will resolve our shortcomings (just as they will inherit our debts).

I find that hard to distinguish from just not caring at all. Or in other words, we've lost our moral code. That's not to blame the scientists. It's to blame the sellouts. Well, that and the religionists, who mostly say abdicate your responsibility to my formulation for God. Morally, I don't see any distinction from abdication to the truth we think we'll find someday by means of the scientific method.

But, as I said hereinabove, a moral code is discernible in the cosmos. We're just not looking for it. We're looking to absolve ourselves of responsibility, not to find it!

Happy New Year!

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