Who am I? Here, now. What is it to be free? Who am I on and off the screen?
Who am I? Here, now. Am I more than the sum of my desires? More than the sum of those who seek to mold and direct my desires?
What if I am only a Humean being, in perpetual physiological flux – “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity.”
What if, as neuroscientists say, feelings are too quick for thought to capture?
“Thinking is the rider; affect is the elephant.”
Does that mean whatever I may say about what I feel, my mind has already been made up? But how can I know who I am if I do not know what I truly feel?
The algorithm rushes to my rescue. My smart device can tell me what I want before I even knew I wanted it! It knows from its infra-red reading of my facial blood flow. It knows from the patterns my history of choices makes – patterns I cannot discern.
“Hi! I’m Woebot, your friendly robot friend, and I’m ready to listen!
Everybody could use someone like me.”
Well, maybe not everybody. After all, Woebot’s cognitive behavioral therapy program isn’t real therapy. But the program scales so well!
And think of those poor “folks in remote areas with no access to traditional therapy.”
What if they could actually feel happier?
Happy workers = productive workers. Happy is good.
Consider Paro, the furry seal who cries softly while an elderly woman pets it.
Or Pepper, a humanoid who waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises.
“Robots have the run of Tokyo’s Shin-tomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents. The Japanese government hopes it will be a model for harnessing the country’s robotics expertise to help cope with a swelling elderly population and dwindling workforce.”
Is artificial intimacy real intimacy? Is unhappiness a fair price for motivated political action – wanting to change political, social, and economic conditions that may be causing my unhappiness?
Is it even right to speak of unhappiness in terms of cost? Must my choices remain a captive of ‘optimal market efficiency’?
“One’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness – that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it cannot fit into any classification and the omission of which sends all systems and theories to the devil.”
As a Humean being I am simultaneously everything and nothing I feel: the sum of every fleeting intensity, but with no means of making myself whole.
Like Stefan, the 1980s character in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, who tells his father, and later his therapist, after getting strange messages on his video screen: “I am being controlled by someone or something in the future called ‘Netflix’.”
The joke is that we, the viewers, have indeed been controlling his choices, telling the screen which plot point to follow at various junctures in the story.
Just as someone might be controlling us?
As Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Hypothesis” asserts – the world is not simply illusion, it’s an elaborate video game:
“We would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.”
Ah! No wonder this hyper-postmodern, digital baroque culture of ours is awash in paranoid schizophrenic fantasies.
If authenticity could be simulated would I know? Would I want to know?
And there it is: the digital baroque obsession in a nutshell.
Who am I? What’s real?
What do I know of being otherwise?
Is a bot as good as a living soul to share presence with?
How do I know what I want is what I want and not what Netflix (or Amazon or Google or Facebook) wants me to want?
He who controls the platform on which images move and data flow, controls the economy of desire – of which politics is but a subset.
But there is no Eros in the algorithm. Eros is incalculable.
It can be neither contained nor predicted.
Eros begets inefficiency.
Culture is the last resort of freedom, or the agency of its demise.
What is it to be free? Who am I on and off the screen? In what sort of economy?
Are there alternatives to the scarcity-based, market-driven, efficiency-seeking economy that I typically find myself in?
What if I lived in an economy of abundance driven by the quest for meaning?
An economy of incalculables: love, justice, empathy, compassion, beauty.
Humean being, with its swirling flux of affective intensity well serves neo-liberal, efficiency maximizing, digital baroque, hyper-postmodern society.
Human being, by projecting incalculables into an uncertain future from every fleeting now, operates as well within an economy of abundance.
What possibilities might be contained within this now, and the next?
What kind of self, what community, am I helping to make?
Identity, culture, and politics are inseparable.
Identity, power and freedom are inseparable.
A key function of culture is to provide conditions for safe play, so that I may experiment with my freedom.
What is it to be otherwise, to feel as another?
I begin with trust in the moment.
Who am I here, now, among others?
Do you help make me who I am? Do I help make you who you are?
My answer may require that I bracket prior nows, in order to let alternatives arise.
What do the moments before and after mean given what this lived moment has shown?
The great gift of culture in a free society is to provide the tools I need for thoughtfulness, to experiment with my freedom, to make it meaningful in time and place among others.
To ask: what might it mean to be among others in an economy of abundance?