thoughts on elon, part 5

5. Anti-social networks: ‘our id writ large’


From this angle, more interesting than Tesla or SpaceX, more interesting than the Boring Company, is Neuralink, Musk’s most fantastical if not science fictional entrepreneurial venture, devoted to developing so-called ‘direct’ means of interaction between the brain and the computer. No doubt we have every reason to be sceptical about his proclamations of imminent progress in this field, and he does seem to buy rather too heavily into the cognitivist fable according to which the brain can survive its somatic death by ‘uploading’ its informational contents to some or other device, apparatus or cloud.


Nevertheless, it is also obvious that Musk is no fool: he understands very well, for example, that we have always been co-existent beings. An individual is an individual with his or her tools, today his or her smartphone, and a collective is the same: a company, for example, is for Musk just a ‘cybernetic collective of people and machines’. We are technical beings through and through, both individually and collectively, and Musk’s integrated perspective is not so far removed from what Stiegler calls simple exorganisms (‘I and my tools’, ‘I and my house’, ‘I and my phone’) in their relationship to complex exorganisms (companies, cities, galleries, geographical societies, countries, and so on).

Another way of saying that humanity has always been co-originary and co-existent with technics is to say, as Musk does, that there has always been a ‘tertiary layer’. What does he mean by a tertiary layer? In relation to what is this a tertiary layer? For Musk, it is a question of the structure of the brain and nervous system. The primary and secondary layers are endosomatic: they are the limbic system, which, moving too quickly, is something like the animal brain, and the cerebral cortex (or the neocortex), which is the cogitating brain, more or less. The latter is still, as Musk says, ‘mostly in service to the limbic system’: behind the uses we make of our cortex, there most often lies, at least in part, an attempt to satisfy the finite needs of the limbic system, fundamentally focused on genetic survival and transmission – on what Whitehead calls the ‘necessary work of life’.


Nevertheless, for human beings, this secondary layer can achieve relative independence from the primary layer that is the limbic system, and this relative autonomy of the cortical is achievable in a situation where, furthermore, these two layers have, for the kinds of beings that we are, always existed alongside this tertiary layer, which is like a prosthetic envelope through which the individual brain relates to other brains, to tools, and to itself. And in fact, although Musk doesn’t quite say this himself, it is only through the relationship between the secondary and tertiary layers that this relative independence from the primary layer is achievable (either in evolution or in the life of the infant equipped with Winnicott’s transitional object).


With phones, computers and the internet, we find ourselves living today with what Musk calls a ‘digital tertiary layer’, but throughout the history of civilization (which for Musk is the history that begins with writing), what is crucial is that this interface between the brain and the tertiary layer has always been indirect, requiring a circuit of exchange operating through a medium (a support) that can be, in this history of civilization, language, painting, writing, sculpture, cinema, radio, television and so on: the Neuralink project is to facilitate the emergence of a direct interface between these three layers that would amount to a neurotechnological bifurcation from what Simondon calls psychic and collective individuation and towards a new regime of individuation, that is, a fundamentally new relationship between what Stiegler calls endosomatization and exosomatization.


And Musk is also no fool when confronted with the anti-social misery and unhappiness produced by social networks. When asked, he can see perfectly clearly and from his own experiences that today’s AI is, ‘in large part, our id writ large’ – that is, in his terms, the limbic system writ large, at the expense of the cerebral cortex. Or to put this once again in Stiegler’s language, these anti-social networks systematically, algorithmically and performatively target the drives, inscribing themselves into the limbic layer and at the expense of desire (in the broadest possible sense), ultimately destroying our capacity for reason. Musk, then, has a sense of the existing and coming dangers, and for this reason he fears that the slow speed of data flow and data transfer between brain and machine means that when superintelligent AI appears, it will acquire an unbeatable advantage over these brains, hindered by their slow connections to the tertiary layer. For Musk, it is therefore this problem of ‘bandwidth’ between brain and digital tertiary layer that urgently needs to be resolved.


What seems odd, if not contradictory, is that Musk can see perfectly clearly that the AI we have right now is inscribing itself into the limbic system, giving rise to the crowd psychology and herd-like politics of scapegoats and post-truth that is the ‘id writ large’: he can see this, and yet he has not one real word to say about how and why some more direct interface with our desires and drives would get around the problem of these connected brains being targeted and hijacked in an even more intense and accelerated way. He does not seem to see that this id writ large is the direct result of the attempt by Facebook et al. to use their indirect but still powerful connections to these brains in order to eliminate everything incalculable about ‘limbic resonance’ (which is the synchronization of limbic systems, according to A General Theory of Love). The paradoxical and dangerous result is a kind of hyper-synchronization that no longer resonates at an individual level yet produces seismic disruptions at the collective level.

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