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Article Jonas Guigonnat TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOCRATS - December 2018

Freedom: The Digital Leash of Neoliberalism

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

Believing the (online) news, the changes we are witnessing are unseen in history. The digital revolution created new ways to interact with each other and with society. Some say that this process will bring humanity to a higher level of civilization, while others insist on the dangers, and see the possibility of new dystopian futures arising (as some Pandemic writers did in this issue). Another fear concerns the way politicians are using those technological innovations and putting the world order at risk. Some of its guardians are ringing the alarm. Others have already transformed themselves, and thus the political system itself.

Old World vs New Political Claims

Even in the short period of the past 200 years, the political arena gave birth to many concepts that we nowadays take for granted. Liberalism, socialism, representative democracy, or the idea of national identity itself, for example, are born out of historical earthquakes that touched the old continent in the nineteenth century. At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the old European monarchic network tried to reestablish the sphere of influence they had before the French Revolution. Economic instability, famines and new revolutions in the 1840s ended their ambition. Technological developments, industrialization, neo-imperialism and population growth were forcing the hand of all political actors. They were adapting to the circumstances.

In the twentieth century, things changed as radically as a century earlier. At the end of WWII, only two types of political organization survived the ideological battle that began in the 1920s. On one side, the democratic world was represented by one of the real “winners” of the war, the United States. On the other winning side, looking toward the “east,” Russia created the Soviet Union, incorporating countries which it had claimed after the war in Eastern Europe and imposing the communist political regime.

Unstoppable Changes

But even in those two political and ideological entities, things continued to change, and the political realm saw many movements rise and fall since the 1960s. Marxist ideas have been ostracized since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, but in the 1960s and 70s, they were often used by feminists and civil rights movements. Representative democracies had to adapt to permanent migration movements from Asian and African countries since the beginning of the decolonization process in the late 1940s. New technological innovations also changed the way populations in the western world saw their life, with most Europeans and North-Americans beginning to experience a welfare unknown thus far in history. Out of those changes, neoliberalism developed itself using the ever-growing mass consumption culture to its advantage.

The technological revolution, which began in the 80s, turned bureaucrats into technocrats. For the last 40 years, this new kind of politics learned not only how to govern and keep its influence, but also how to use welfare and technology as a warranty for its own existence. Neoliberalism seems to be using the tools of the digital age to swallow the possibility of significant democratic changes.

The Technological Spring

At first, it is tempting to see the internet as an objective platform for expression. The only problem is that its algorithms are built by humans, who cannot really be seen as objective beings, to say the least. Google or Facebook, for example, are built with a purpose, and that is simply to keep making profits. It may seem irrelevant in the political realm, but some recent events show that such a simple purpose is able to instigate large-scale political crises.

The most discussed example in the debate about the influence of tech companies on international politics is the Arab Spring in 2010. We know now that Facebook’s algorithm used politically loaded publications from the student movement in Egypt to literally set things on fire. It was automatically sent to groups with radically opposite political opinions. But why? The algorithm didn’t try to create hate on purpose, it was just built with the scientific knowledge that negativity is a powerful vector of communication. In other words, it was the simplest way to reach the goal of the company: create more adhesion to the medium, whatever the cost, to optimize profit.

But we are free to choose. At least that is what we are told continuously, for neoliberalism is based on individual responsibility. Freedom itself needs to be taken into perspective, considering it never really exists on its own. The way we interact with the society in which we live defines the essence of our freedom, to the point that we are allowed to claim it.

Photo by Ali Tareq

Online Freedom, Political Serfdom

Neoliberalism is particularly effective because it changed the way values are communicated. The old top-down type of interaction has been abandoned to such an extent, that the exchange of ideas and claims between power structures and the population now happen from below. It doesn’t mean that politicians are listening directly to “the people” – we would be aware of it – but that they give different communities enough attention to understand their whereabouts. How that flow of information is transmitted, and what happens to it afterward, shows how the freedom we are granted is defined.

Do you have the feeling that politicians really do listen to what you have to say? Considering the underlying assumption of this question (that answers it already), is it possible to believe that politicians are even interested in what interests us? For insofar they need us to legitimate them, they obviously need to know what we want to hear, if they want to be elected at least. Let’s imagine a system, like neoliberalism, within which politicians choose to stimulate the use of new technologies that give them access to a considerable amount of the information they require. Without regulation, for example, private companies would be able to create virtual databanks about the personal life of anyone using one of their products. Let’s imagine again what politicians will be able to accomplish with such insights.

To Consume Or To Be Consumed?

There again a wise mind would say that we are free to be a part of this new reality or not. But there again one may underestimate how well prepared the digital tsunami is. The boys of Palo Alto weren’t only successful because their products eased the way we interact with the world on itself. The advertising industry had, since the 1920s and the beginning of the mass consumption society, developed an expertise in the art of subliminality. Influenced by the entertainment industry, every effect of advertising on the public has been analyzed. From colors, shapes and shadows, to sounds, silences and musical breaks. One of their greatest achievements is to have created desires that seem instinctive and recognizable for most, although it is the results of a century of innovation in advertising techniques. When tech companies made their entrance, this knowledge was just ready to be grasped.

The scale on which the #humanity is expanding shows how successful mass consumption techniques are, particularly when they are used in the digital realm. Without a political leash to control it, we are exposed permanently, every day less able to escape. Our time becomes occupied to such an extent that it seems difficult to take a look at the world around us from a distance. Technology is used again and again to that end, always stimulating the active participation of the consumer. Given a free pass, tech companies were even able to reinforce the traditional way of consuming – using our time and energy to purchase a projection of what we really desire – with a new activity: ourselves being the product and the buyer at the same time. Long live the digital realm!

Photo by Jerin J

The Ghosts Of Our Time

And then what? Shouldn’t we just accept that things worked out that way? Aren’t we “lucky” to live in such an insouciance? We are, after all, living in a time where freedom has been expanded more than ever before. The #humanity is seeking peace, so why would we put it into question? Considering that things around us are not naturally themselves, but the result of a human construction, we should be cautious to believe those statements. Yes, life is a lot more livable for most peoples in Europe or in the US than it was even 60 years ago. But at what costs? We are to believe, then, that our society is the result of progress. It is however obvious that, without the period of colonization and both world wars, this civilization of progress would never have existed. Blood and oppression were the price still being paid.

Without entering the debate about the political and economic independence of African and Asiatic states, it is obvious that the oil coming from the Middle-East and minerals from the whole African continents are a crucial piece of the welfare puzzle. Without low-cost workers of many ages, making shoes, clothes or computers in Asia for American and European companies, our material world would be quite different. In their discourse, developed countries affirmed that their aim is a worldwide prosperity. The facts are telling another story and show how the richness of a few is built on the misery of many others. But still, we are free to choose. At least that’s what we are told, still.

Alternative Scenarios?

Out of this quite pessimistic scenario, the fact that individuals and small groups are still thinking about how to use these new technologies remains, too. Yes, it seems that Big Brother is watching us, and has been for quite a while already, still, not everyone is following the leader blindly. The digital realm is now a fact. Let us take advantage of it then, little by little, influencing the choices that are made. Patiently, with distance, almost stoically, but actively at the same time. If we refuse the world vision as it is presented to us and dare to think out of the screen, neoliberalism might be beaten at its own game and be forced to change and adapt to survive.

Then again, the question of what to believe will be asked and some claims will have more impact than others. Our freedom would be defined quite differently and would open up possibilities that are not understandable for the #humanity. The time of the ?humanity will finally have come.

Max Muller THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

The Window in the Prison

Written by Max Muller

The movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former French editor-in-chief of Elle fashion magazine. At the age of 43, he suffered a massive stroke. After having spent twenty days in a coma, he woke up to find himself a hostage of his own body. Although his mental faculties remained intact, he was almost entirely paralyzed. As a sufferer of locked-in syndrome, he could only move his eyelids. The near-complete paralysis was irreversible.

What fascinates me about people who become severely handicapped later in life is the level of mental strength they possess that enables them to carry on with their lives. I am especially impressed when patients manage to overcome this significant hurdle and achieve something great despite their corporeal limitations.

In this piece, I aim to come to an understanding of the psychological process that shaped Bauby’s perseverance.

The Misery of Immobility

After discovering his inhibited state in a remote hospital in Berck-sur-Mere, Bauby understandably became deeply distressed. When the doctors told him about his rare condition and the modern techniques that had been developed to extend his life, he was hardly impressed.

“This is life? Do you call this life?” a voice in his head exclaimed.

Henriette, his speech therapist, tried a new communication system with him. As she read out the letters in the order of the frequency of their use in French, he blinked when she reached the appropriate letter. To her horror, the first sentence Bauby constructed was, “Je veux mourir” (“I want to die”).

The misery was amplified when his physiotherapist Marie used a mirror during their speech lessons. As is revealed in the movie later on, Bauby used to be quite the womanizer and had good looks. Upon seeing his stiffened face, he was mortified.

Living with Regrets

Later, the source of Bauby’s sadness transferred from a preoccupation with his own disability to the regrets caused by his inability to redeem his past mistakes. He was especially saddened by his past mistreatment of his ex-girlfriend Celine, who was also the mother of his three children. Bauby left her and their offspring for another woman. When Celine and his children finally visited him in the hospital, he came to realize that, in his new state, he could not make up for the neglectful way he acted towards them in the past.

Something similar happened when a person called Pierre Roussin visited him. Bauby once gave up his seat on a flight to Hong Kong to him. By a twist of fate, the plane ended up being hijacked and Roussin was held hostage in Beirut for over four years. After his release, Bauby never contacted him. Meeting Roussin again brought back those memories, and guilt.

Photo by Jimmy Chan

Other Prisoners

Although Bauby never contacted Roussin, the man was compassionate enough to give Bauby encouragement in the hospital. Roussin compared his former, precarious situation to being in jail, or even in a tomb. Like Bauby, he too was often desperate, angry, and depressed. In order to remain sane, he recited the classes of grand cru wines he used to enjoy back in France. Roussin likens his hostage situation in the past with Bauby’s predicament in the present, and offers some wise words of advice: “Cling to your own humanity and you will survive.”

Roussin was not the only one to try revitalizing Bauby by comparison. Bauby’s father aimed to enhearten him also.

“We are both in the in the same boat,” he revealed to his son during a telephone call. “I’m trapped in this apartment, and cannot go up or down the stairs…we both have locked-in syndrome.”

Those words of encouragement from both Roussin and his father offer a way for Bauby to connect with others, even though they don’t suffer from the same affliction.

As the Dutch saying goes: “Shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

Bauby furthermore interprets his own condition as being stuck in a small diving bell (a device used to explore the depths of the sea). When imagery of this device is shown in the movie, it is always accompanied by the name “Noirtier de Villefort.”

Notiertier de Villefort was a character in Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 book “The Count of Monte Cristo” who also suffered from the condition we now call locked-in syndrome. Bauby had started to re-read the book a week before his stroke.

The Way Forward  

The fact that there were people close to him who were willing to spend their time and energy to improve Bauby’s state of mind gave him an important mental boost.

However, the efforts of other people alone were not sufficient to transform Bauby’s outlook on life. An internal leap of perspective was necessary, too. That shift occurred when Bauby recognized the facilities he had retained, and to what extent those capabilities could enrich his life. The change of perspective is marked by one of the observations the voice in his head narrates:

“I have decided not to pity myself any longer. Two parts of myself have not been paralyzed: my imagination and my memory. Imagination and memory are what I must use to escape my diving bell. I have realized I can imagine anything, anyone, anywhere.”

His insight – that he can harness his remaining facilities to take a peek from the window in his prison – is empowering to Bauby. He could imagine himself visiting the women he loves, make his childhood dreams come to life, and realize his ambitions as an adult.

It is probably no coincidence that these memories and fantasies usually heavily involve his sense of touch – after all, the syndrome also bars him from feeling anything with his skin. Thus, he imagines stroking his hands through his children’s hair, devouring oysters, and kissing beautiful women. These imaginary sensations allow Bauby to remember what it is like to be entangled in the midst of the world as a sensing body.

The decision not to pity himself any longer was materialized when he allowed his children to visit him. His inner voice reasoned, “Even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”

So on the one hand, he reaches out to his children by being physically there for them. On the other hand, he retains his connection to his family via his heightened sense of imagination and his memories.

Clinging to One’s Humanity

The power of the capabilities he had re-discovered and his past experiences as the editor-in-chief of Elle came in handy particularly when he was reminded of a contract he had signed with his publisher. The publisher sent a woman by the name of Claude Mendibil to transcribe his thoughs. The recording process culminated in the publication of the autobiography on which the movie is based.

Although this process was long and arduous, it reinvigorated Bauby. He was able to harness the full extent of his memory, imagination, and his writing capabilities. Furthermore, it allowed him to look deeply into himself and contemplate his past actions, something he perhaps did not have the time for, or neglected to do, when he was not yet paralyzed. Thus he was able to turn his syndrome around from what he initially perceived as a stumbling block into a strength. Finally, he dutifully followed Roussin’s advice. The writing process allowed him to re-conceive himself as a human being with all its flaws and strengths.

To conclude, the movie reveals the intricate connections between the state of the body and the state of the mind. Though, initially, it seemed obvious that it was Bauby’s body that was the main source of inhibition in his paralyzed state, it turned out that his mentality was a formidable stumbling block for the achievement of happiness and success as well. By overcoming this obstacle, he was able to write a now classic book and reconnect with those he held dear.