narratives in trance

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By ANTÔNIO SALES RIOS NETO*

When a hegemonic worldview comes up against problems, challenges and dilemmas that affect all of its scope spaces, a crisis situation is triggered, in which the validity of the current worldview is questioned.

“Away from the prophet of terror that the clockwork orange announces / loving and changing things interests me more…” (Belchior)

The history of humanity is crossed by long historical epochs, in which, at each epoch, social actors had to interpret the reality in which they were inserted in order to be able to understand and transform it, influencing the various dimensions of human experience: cultural, scientific, ethical, political, economic, religious, etc. It is in this way that a worldview emerges, giving rise to new values, beliefs, assumptions, models, theories and conceptions of nature, which, when sedimented in culture, establish a new way of life for a long time. When a hegemonic view of the world encounters problems, challenges and dilemmas that affect all of its areas of coverage, a crisis situation is triggered, characterized by a feeling of uncertainty, instability, discontinuity, disorientation, insecurity and vulnerability in the face of the present situation. This leads to a long period of transition in which the validity of the current worldview begins to be questioned, thus provoking the need for new readings of reality, until a new worldview is reached and established that overcomes the state of crisis generated by the depletion of the previous worldview.

The last change of historical epoch occurred when agrarianism was overcome by industrialism, during the XNUMXth century. In these transitions between historical epochs, man uses metanarratives (the Enlightenment and Marxism are some examples), which I will call here narratives, which coexist and compete with each other with the objective of establishing a more improved form of coexistence and development for societies. For many thinkers, we are exactly within a transition of historical times and the shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic inevitably reinforces and enhances this perception, expanding with more intensity the debate around the various narratives that propose a new way of human coexistence. As Pope Francis said, “this is not a crisis of change, but a crisis of epochal change”. What then would be the narratives that are trying to herald a new historical epoch?

Next, I try to make a synthesis effort to describe three narratives that seem to me to encompass the universe of alternatives offered to overcome the global crisis situation that we have experienced in recent decades. Are they: Homo dominus, Homo deus e homo complexus, whose central structuring elements, which best represent each narrative today, are, respectively, Capital, Algorithm and Nature. It is important to highlight that both the denomination and the structuring elements that I adopt for each narrative do not follow any philosophical current or scientific orientation. I only use them solely with the aim of trying to make it more didactic and facilitate the understanding of each narrative. As far as possible, I will also point out the scientific references that support them.

homo dominus (the capital)

It is about betting on more of the same, therefore, the discourse that defends the maintenance of the patriarchal culture installed millennia ago. the term “dominus” seemed more appropriate to the explanation of the narrative. It comes from medieval Latin meaning lord, God, owner of a house (domus). Hence the expression derived from Roman law: “in capite alicujus dominari” (the one that stipulates how one should live). Such is the essence of patriarchal culture, which has as its main characteristic the idea of ​​appropriation, understood as man's will to power and domination over himself, over the other, over the truth and over nature.

The structuring element of this narrative, at least in the last 300 years, has been Capital, whose historical and modus operandi were masterfully understood and revealed by Karl Marx. The original meaning of the word comes from the Latin caput (head). Hence the meaning of the adjective capitals: that which is above others, principal, dominant. Thus, Capital became the structuring axis of humanity's way of life, generating the current cosmovision that understands that the universe is a great market. Among the most important thinkers who initially systematized knowledge around this concept, around the 1759th and 1809th centuries, considered the forerunners of the economic worldview, are Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Locke and others. At that time, it was believed that the action of the “invisible hand” (unintentional social benefits) of the market, an idea introduced by Smith in his book Theory of Moral Sentiments (1817), allied to the balance between political forces, defended by the lawyer and former US president (XNUMX-XNUMX), James Madison, would by itself supply popular sovereignty and equal rights, pillars of democracy. In recent decades, the most influential thinkers of this worldview have been economists such as Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Gary Becker, among others (some including Nobel Prize winners in Economics), who help sustain the philosophy of homo economicus, as the philosopher professor at Unisinos, Castor Bartolomé Ruiz, recently said.

History has shown us that the consequences of this economic world view have not been as positive as imagined. In the last four decades, we have observed Capital, in its immaterial, transnational, financialized and globalized version, vigorously guiding this hegemonic view of the world, which is resulting in the doctrine of the new totalizing liberalism (State absorbed by the market), as the philosopher Marilena Chauí has ​​warned. This model has been threatening democratic regimes, hampering the productive economy, devastating the world of work, creating a mass of excluded people and degrading the environment on a scale and speed never seen before. We have reached a level of social inequality unprecedented in human history. As economist Ladislau Dowbor says, “when eight individuals own more wealth than half the world's population, while 800 million people starve, frankly, thinking that the system is working is proof of advanced mental blindness” (extracted from from the book The Age of Unproductive Capital). If this economic view of the world persists, the rationality of Capital will increasingly reinforce the formation of predators insensitive to human misery, transforming society into a large arena where those who eliminate the greatest number of competitors win and the planet into a hostile place that could no longer recovering the environmental conditions that ensure the permanence of human beings.

Homo Deus (the Algorithm)

The narrative here is associated with the technological revolution that began in the mid-70s, when the microchip was invented (1976) by American physicist and co-founder of Intel Corporation, Robert Noyce. From then on, other technological revolutions were triggered in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, new materials, etc. At the same time, there were also radical changes in the forms and means of communication. Thus, the cybernetic view of the world was created, in a way inherited from the mechanical view of the industrial era, initiated in England at the end of the XNUMXth century, which also had the “tool” as the structuring axis of civilization.

Nowadays, this worldview seems to be well articulated and empowered in the thinking of Israeli history professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of a trilogy of best-selling essays: Sapiens – A brief history of mankind, Homo Deus – A brief history of tomorrow and 21 lessons for the 21st Century. After having his books recommended by personalities such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama, Harari gained worldwide notoriety, having even been invited to speak about the future of humanity last World Economic Forum in Davos. Hence the reason for using the name Homo Deus for this narrative that has the Algorithm as its structuring element, whose origin of the term is attributed to the mathematicians of ancient Greece (the sieve of Eratosthenes and the algorithm of Euclid). For computer science, algorithm corresponds to the steps necessary to perform a task to solve a certain type of problem.

From what I could see, one of Harari's central ideas, as interview granted to Folha de São Paulo, on 12/11/2016, is contained in the question that closes his book Homo Deus: “Could it be that organisms are algorithms, and life just data processing?”, to which he responds by saying that, “according to what I know about the scientific establishment today, the answer is 'yes'”, and he goes on to say: “my opinion is that the idea of ​​organisms as simple algorithms has been successful, especially in biotechnology. But I think there is a big gap in this view: consciousness, subjective experiences. We don't have any good scientific models to explain them, which is why I'm skeptical that this view of life is really true. It may be that in 20 or 30 years we will have a model of consciousness in terms of data processing.”

In Harari's view, as discussed in her book Homo Deus, “having raised humanity above the bestial level of the struggle for survival, our purpose will be to make humans gods and transform Homo sapiens into Homo deus” and, to this end, “the elevation of humans to the status of gods can follow any one of these three paths: biological engineering, cybernetic engineering and engineering of non-organic beings”. Thus, biotechnology and artificial intelligence would be in the process of granting “divine” powers to humanity, a bold and unusual vision of the transmutation of the species Homo sapiens em Homo Deus.

It is a proposal that is at least disconcerting and disturbing, as we can observe in demonstrations (Poor Homo Deus) such as that of the Portuguese historian Fátima Bonifácio. According to her, “now it is time for the subordination of man to the machine. For this human resignation to be consummated, the most important asset today is information – data and the respective computer processing. Our conscience is of no account here, which is already dissociated from intelligence. Our emotional and spiritual sensitivity is of no account here. Organisms are algorithms and these have neither feelings, nor conscience, nor spirit. The criterion is now not that of the Good, the Beautiful and the Just, but that of effectiveness, usefulness and functionality. The evacuation of spirit, conscience and aesthetic emotion does not seem to faze Harari, fascinated by the exciting vision of a future Homo Deus”.

Along the same lines, there is also the perception of the writer, lecturer and consultant Augusto de Franco, who has been dedicated to issues related to local development, democracy and social networks. Franco, while doing some critical remarks to the book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he opposes Harari's thinking by stating that “if algorithms are perfect, they will not be better than humans. The human is not surpassed by perfection. Imperfection is part of being human. Artificial intelligence avoids mistakes and, with that, the typically human way of learning, which is by making mistakes. Harari is unaware of the role of random behavior (and with it what we call collective intelligence)”.

This Homo deus narrative reminded me of the Austrian thinker and polymath Ivan Illich (1926-2002), an implacable critic of industrial society, considered, along with Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and other exponents of the Frankfurt School, a precursor of the anti-globalization movement that he denounced the neoliberal capitalist economic regime and the free transit of international financial capital. Illich was a supporter of “cohabitation society”, a society in which the tool should be put at the service of the person integrated into the community and not the other way around, enslaving society as it always has. For Illich, “as I master the tool, I fill the world with meaning; As the tool dominates me, it shapes its structure on me, and imposes on me an idea of ​​myself”. I also remembered the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana, who needs no introduction. For Maturana, “we commonly speak of science and technology as domains of explanations and actions that make reference to a useful reality, making it possible to predict and control nature. (...) In our western culture, we are immersed in the idea that we have to control nature, because we believe that knowledge allows control. But this, in fact, does not happen: knowledge does not lead to control. If knowledge leads anywhere, it is understanding, understanding, and this leads to harmonious and adjusted action with others and the environment.”

Although Harari has been making, in these times of pandemic, a relevant contribution to the world by warning about the dangers of the choice that political actors must make between “nationalist isolation” and “global solidarity”, as far as my perception reaches, it seems to me that the dissonance of the Homo deus narrative resides in the thought of Illich, Maturana and other exponents of the new sciences of complexity. It is also worth mentioning here the warning of the French anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin, for whom “the euphoric madness of transhumanism leads to a paroxysm the myth of the historical necessity of progress and man’s dominion not only over nature, but also over his fate, by predicting that man will have access to immortality and will control everything by artificial intelligence.” If the references associated with this cybernetic view of the world prevail, instrumental rationality will once again guide the current change underway in civilization, generating a culture indifferent to history, science and human subjectivity, committed only to coherence for efficiency, thus indicating a narrative closer to a high-tech version of that Deus Ex Machina of the industrial age.

homo complexus (the nature)

This is the proposal of the new sciences of complexity. the term homo complexus it was borrowed from the conceptions of Edgar Morin, defender of “thought reform” from a “paradigm of complexity”. For Morin, “the human being is complex and bears within himself, in a bipolarized way, antagonistic characters”, thus urging us to abandon the unilateral view that defines him exclusively by the rationality of Homo sapiens. Man is, at the same time, sapiens and demens (wise and crazy), faber and ludens (hardworking and playful), empiricus and imaginarius (empirical and imaginary), economicus and consumans (economical and consumerist), prosaicus and poeticus (prosaic and poetic).

Nature is inserted here as a structuring element of this narrative due to its inherent complexity. Throughout the history of science, the understanding of Nature and, therefore, of the reality of the physical world has gone through some stages, always in the sense of increasingly improving the understanding of our surroundings. A classic example of this evolution was the passage of the world view from Ptolemy (100 AD) to Copernicus (1500), which radically altered the references of astronomy. Another was the transition from the Newtonian view (XNUMXth century), which used the clock mechanism metaphor to explain an immutable, linear, monocausal and deterministic universe, to the complex view of reality, which emerged from Einstein's discoveries (Brownian motion , photoelectric effect, relativity) Heisenberg (uncertainty principle), Prigogine (dissipative structures), Lorenz (chaotic attractors), Mandelbrot (fractals), Maturana and Varela (autopoiesis) and many others, in which we come to realize that Nature is characterized by randomness, instability and uncertainty, in short, by complexity and, therefore, can only be better understood and experienced by the complex thinking. As physicist and astronomer James H. Jeans (1877–1946) put it, “The course of knowledge is moving toward a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”.

The fact is that the ongoing global changes forge a new historical epoch and are giving rise, since the 60s of the last century, to a silent sociocultural revolution in counterpoint to the hegemonic economic world view. The emergence of a global civil society concerned with promoting sustainable development is already a reality. Entities such as Amnesty International, supranational mechanisms such as the Biodiversity Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, global monitoring centers such as the World Watch Institute (WWI) and the thousands of organizations that operate today in the third sector of the economy (NGOs), from of more creative, cooperative and flexible societal arrangements, trying to compensate for the indisputable inability of the market and the State (the latter in a growing process of capture by the market) to promote social well-being, are perhaps the best examples of these changes. The hierarchical, stratified and authoritarian society of power, little by little, is transmuted into the formation of a new network society, an “informationalism era”, as the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls it, based on a complex cosmovision of world. For these new social actors, reality is perceived as a network of relationships between different forms of life, which embraces the uncertainty and contradictions of the human condition, which understands that we are enmeshed in complex systems with multiple dimensions, in which the economy is only one of these dimensions and that, therefore, it is necessary to include and take care of the other dimensions: historical, ecological, social, political, institutional, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, among others, so that we can continue the civilizing process.

It is interesting to observe that both the economic view of the world (homo dominus), translated into neoliberalism, as well as the cybernetic vision (Homo Deus), which places hopes on the algorithm, had their genesis, as described here, at the same time, around the 70s of the last century, and established a symbiosis in which they reinforce and enhance each other. At the present time, with the shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic and with the efficient digital surveillance response put in place by Asian countries, in particular China and South Korea, it is very likely that the result of this symbiosis for the coming decades or the conditioning of our way of life based on a new digital biopolitics, especially after the West takes ownership of this new surveillance state. As we can see from the ideas spread by philosophers such as Byung-Chul Han (disciplinary society), Peter Sloterdijk (coimmunity), Giorgio Agamben (biosecurity) and others, reinforced in the face of the crisis generated by Covid-19, there is a clear tendency to inaugurate, after the pandemic, a hypervigilance capitalism. According to historian Jacques Attali, this hypervigilance will tend to represent the “substitute object of the State” in the not so distant future, which, once confirmed, will certainly lead humanity to an increasingly unstable, excluding, predatory, conflictual world political order and, therefore, even more belligerent and self-destructive.

Faced with the vigor that the economic and cybernetic views of the world still manifest, it seems that the current transition of historical epoch is not yet close to its end. It will run its course for perhaps at least another forty years, with these three narratives coexisting in a permanent trance. Until then, it's up to each of us to make our choices between Capital, Algorithm and Nature. If we want to live in arenas, which could drag us towards the collapse of civilization, or if we want to take on the role of history, encouraging the proliferation of Agoras to make a possible future possible. As Morin says, “what must develop is scientific neo-craftsmanship, it is the piloting of machines, not the machination of the pilot, it is an ever closer interreaction between thought and the computer, it is not programming”.

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto is a civil engineer and organizational consultant.

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