Vinoth Ramachandra

Kafkaesque Questions

Posted on: November 5, 2013

The continuing disclosures, thanks to Edward Snowden, of the global extent of American spying programs are faintly humorous. One would love to know, for instance, what possible benefits American governments have gained from ten years of listening in to Angela Merkel’s phone-calls, and how it has served the public interest (which, after all, is what governments are for)?

This is the kind of question that should be raised in the media, let alone in introductory university classes in moral philosophy. A truly fascinating question has to do with the central (and sometimes exclusive) place many ethicists and moral philosophers give to the notion of individual “autonomy”. This, it is often claimed, is what grounds the language of human rights. However, Ms. Merkel’s autonomy was in no way violated by the secret surveillance on her. She was not constrained or restricted in any way. And, yet, most of us sense that she was morally wronged. Is it possible to make sense of that sense of being wronged by invoking “autonomy”? Or does it require a robust notion of intrinsic personal dignity?

Wherever dignity is abused, trust decays and relationships suffer. Questions about dignity are what come to the fore in all discussions about technology. Does the development and use or this particular technology respect or diminish personal dignity? A broader question is an old one, but nevertheless one that takes us to the core of moral reasoning: does our capability to perform an action obligate us to do so? This is more than asking whether the end justifies the means. It is asking whether the means are all that exist.

It is technological development which lies at the heart of advanced economies. Technology carries a seductive momentum of its own; and in the absence of any countervailing social vision to the idolatries of “national security” and “economic growth”, how is it possible to resist that momentum, or even divert it towards greater goals? The NSA is a vast data-gathering bureaucracy. With its supercomputers and myriads of private security firms to which “intelligence” is outsourced, no single human being know what is going on. Assigning responsibility becomes difficult if not impossible. All we have is a vast impersonal system that assumes a life of its own as the technology it has developed takes over the mindless quest towards absolute security.

These questions about technology move us beyond the politics of “right” and “left” which have been largely irrelevant in the advanced economies. Technology is no longer about gadgets and machines. It is a totalizing system, the environment in which the citizens of these countries (and any of influenced by the forces of globalization) conduct their lives. We are all cyborgs now; not in the biological sense of carrying devices implanted within us, but in the functional or cultural sense of being totally dependent on devices all the time (try going for 24 hours without a wristwatch, cell-phone, car or computer). Technologies shape and control us more than, it seems, we do them.

George Orwell’s Big Brother metaphor and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon are often mentioned in discussions on surveillance. But I suggest that a more fitting image to describe the NSA comes from the novels of Franz Kafka, particularly The Trial and The Castle. Writing a generation or so before Orwell, Kafka hauntingly depicted the helplessness and uncertainty experienced by the individual before an all-encompassing, faceless bureaucracy. The system has grown to such proportions that the boundary between human and machine has disappeared. Bureaucracy and technology are thus intimately linked. Both exalt the spirit of techne, the reduction of life and work to rule-following behaviour.

I mentioned, in my last Blog post, the frustrating experience of obtaining visas to rich countries, where the entire process is “outsourced” to intermediaries. The latter are taught to blindly follow a set of procedures in dealing with applications but cannot respond to individuals in exceptional situations. Nothing would be missed if these intermediaries were to be replaced by robots, and that is probably how things will develop, given the cost-cutting ambitions of Western governments today. It is not surprising that the Pentagon is pouring huge sums into the production of robots and drones for battle field use- the ideal soldier of the future will be another Adolf Eichmann, but made of electronic circuits not blood vessels.

I write this on the day the Indian Space Agency has launched a satellite to Mars. It is the latest manifestation of the Indian technocratic elite’s infantile understanding of what makes for a “Superpower”. While India’s Constitution is liberal and democratic, its politicians and military-industrial establishment share the same mind-set as the North Korean regime when it comes to national priorities.

India is a country rich in innovative talent, but “imitating the West” is what the middle-classes aspire to in their consumption habits. There are plenty of amazing technical inventions that the poor in India have come up with and which could be marketed around the world (See http://www.ted.com/speakers/anil_gupta.html). But thinking “outside the box” is not the long suit of India’s military-funded technologists; so much easier to be propelled along by the momentum of a politics that identifies “national prestige” with imitating hi-tech US industries.

Once again, the “why” questions get buried under the “how”.

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6 Responses to "Kafkaesque Questions"

Reminds me of Jacques Ellul.

It seems to me that we now all inevitably living in the nightmare scenario described by both George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.
Furthermore because the humanly created world is patterned by a relentless process of pattern patterning there is nothing anyone can do about this. Or put in another way the current totalitarian and totalizing scenario has an almost unstoppable momentum driving it – even the momentum of three millenia of patriarchal culture and its drive to gain total power and control over everyone and everything.

Fred, I believe human beings have agency and to describe the flow of history as a closed totalitarian system is to give up hope. There are a few things those of us who care can do. Go on a technology-fast, create communities of resistance, and invest more directly in gardening, backyard farming (growing some of the food we eat) and making things (e.g. tables) with our hands that we use in every day life. This a great way to break the hold the system has on us. Taking action like is costly but worthwhile.
Death and destruction will not have the final word, bodily physical resurrection will…

Nice Philip!

[…] comes from a really interesting post by Vinoth Ramachandra on technology, surveillance, and humanity.  He goes on to […]

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