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By ELEONORA ALBANO*

Reflections on the coloniality of Big Techs in its relationship with science and totalitarianism

In recent texts and videos, Slavoj ŽiŽek has been paying increasing attention to what he calls wired brain. The term refers to implants, jointly developed by neuroscience and bioengineering, to rehabilitate functions of injured brain tissues by digitally emulating their activation patterns. The translation that seems most plausible is “wired brain”, as 'connected' encompasses both wired and wireless connections. In any case, the application that interests the philosopher is not the medical one, but another, recently proposed by startups of the smart device market. These, as might be expected, belong to the conglomerates of the big techs.

Just as it already beckons us with smart homes and cities, this market will soon try to seduce us with digital stimulators of cognition and intelligence. Lately, CEOs of companies in the field have claimed revolutionary progress in adapting the brain-machine interface for this purpose. According to his statements to the press,[I] implants developed for medical purposes have been adapted to read minds, speed up reasoning and solve problems with the help of algorithms that search for pertinent information on the internet and process it with unprecedented speed and efficiency.

ŽiŽek takes the face value of these claims as a pretext to exercise his Hegelian and psychoanalyst imagination on what an “absolute” consciousness emerged from the internet could be. In this sense, he warns candidates to participate in this hypothetical “post-human” or “almost divine” collective mind – since omnipresent and omnipotent. His bet is that, after all, the feeling of incompleteness, inalienable to humans, will make a sinister return, in the form of an overwhelming fullness, to strip “posthumans” of privacy and identity.

Furthermore, as a Marxist political thinker, the philosopher is rightly concerned with the mechanisms of domination and social control underlying the new technology. Yet his reasoning in this regard falls prey to marketers' traps. First, we are surprised by the assertion that surveillance capitalism is only an intermediate step towards the post-humanist dystopia, since it will be overcome by direct communication between wired brains.

Even more unexpected is the quote from the source that supposedly supports the argument: “The gradual development of communication in the direction of adding additional layers of mediation – spoken word, writing, telegraph, phone, internet –is here cut short, and the prospect of a direct link bypassing these additional layers implies not just greater speed but also accuracy: when I think about something, for example, I won't have to translate my thought into linguistic signs that brutally simplify meaning, my partner directly perceives what I think – or, to quote Musk, “If I were to communicate a concept to you, you would essentially engage in consensual telepathy. You wouldn't need to verbalize unless you want to add a little flair to the conversation or something (…) but the conversation would be conceptual interaction on a level that's difficult to conceive of right now.””[ii],[iii]

ŽiŽek's futurology stumbles and collapses by uncritically endorsing the advertising claims of a scientifically lay, megalomaniac billionaire. Adherence to Musk's crude ideas reveals disinformation not only about the control mechanisms of surveillance capitalism, but also about the state of the art of philosophical and scientific discussion of the role of concepts in human cognition and communication.

Below we will see that surveillance capitalism already has enough resources to support a campaign of marketing mind-reading machines. To do so, we need to understand that manipulation and behavior modification already available are capable of evoking, without actually emulating, the telepathic superheroes and anti-heroes of contemporary fiction. Next, we'll look at how today's mind scientists contribute, deliberately or otherwise, to the fabrication of these factoids. Finally, we will reflect on the progress of the generalized and advanced colonization of the scientific community by big techs and about how this futuristic horizon can affect democracy in the world and, in particular, in peripheral countries.

 

Tricks of mind readers

We can start by asking how classic characters who are gifted with the ability to “guess” intentions and hidden motives act without resorting to paranormal means. They are, in general, detectives, mediums, crooks or, simply, people interested in knowing better their place in a web of complex and obscure relationships. The obvious answer is: they look for and track enough clues to hypothesize and pursue them in silence.

This is how the algorithms behind what Shoshana Zuboff called Big,[iv] namely: the mechanisms for extracting, commodifying and controlling digital data that go unnoticed while we seek new ways of predicting and modifying behavior with profitable potential. Thus, the traditional ways of customizing the marketing became more sophisticated and evolved into what came to be called consumer profiling.

It is a set of means of crossing data of various types in order to produce a person unique for each Internet user. The location and the clicks make up, in general, the geographic and demographic registers, essential to any profile; but they can also feed into some of the so-called 'psychographic' registers, such as the more obvious personality traits (eg, extraversion/introversion, adaptability), interests, values, habits and lifestyle. These media create the basic structure of the person and are supplemented by others to individualize it.

For that, the Big widely employs voice analysis and facial expressions. We all know that cameras and microphones are part of everyday life for all computer users, tablets, smartphones, etc. What many do not realize is that such devices collect information beyond what is necessary for their use. For example, a domestic conversation about grocery shopping or financial applications soon brings up offers of these products on cell phones connected in the vicinity. So too with our moods and emotions detectable in voice or facial expressions, which are continually analyzed and tagged for timely commercial use.

A rich source of psychographic information is the entertainment industry. Digital games provide copious data about habits, interests and values ​​and are evolving to become increasingly immersive and interoperable, that is, capable of including the consumer – who takes control of characters used as avatars and interacts with other equally equipped Internet users. . However, they have a serious defect for the Big: they only gather people who are used to this type of entertainment.

It's no surprise that the solution is on the way. Recently, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, implanted in three dimensions viewable through special glasses, began to be used to create digital worlds capable of providing not only entertainment, but also business and relationships. This is what has been called the “Metaverse”, based on a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992.[v]

In that work, the Metaverse was a 3-D virtual world through which people escaped a dystopian reality. Everything that could not be lived in the real world was lived in it. There is currently a race between the big techs to make this technology viable and with it to constitute new markets. By the way, it was she who motivated the recent name change of Facebook.

Metaverso promises to be a window into the most hidden desires and fantasies of Internet users. There is no escaping its psychographic use. Once immersed and in action, an avatar is under continuous surveillance. With this, profiling will expand and end up including information about the psychology of individuals that even they themselves do not know. In any case, there will be no lack of outsourced and precarious psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts,[vi] at the service of companies specialized in labeling this type of data.

Thus, a supposed cognitive facilitation device will not actually need to read the client's mind to help him overcome difficulties in solving a problem. Instead, it can watch its trials and errors until it detects the question, then passes it along to intelligent algorithms that will look for the answer. This, once found, will be induced to the interested party via customized suggestion techniques based on their profile – which will contain information about their fears, anxieties, frustrations, motivations and behavior in similar situations.

 

Conceptual confusions and the fabrication of scientific factoids

Even if brain implants dedicated to cognitive facilitation are a mere marketing ploy, creating a clientele willing to try them is of interest not only to surveillance capitalism, but also to much of the scientific community of neuroscience and related disciplines. . It is because the scientists who work in the companies that develop the product truly believe in the possibility of mind-reading machines and are mobilized – and financed – to assemble gigantic databases of brain imaging, of obvious interest to the entire field.

These are young people from a generation already made up of professors whose critical thinking has been constrained and obscured by the growing market penetration of academia in recent decades. As I demonstrated in another text,[vii] the scientism of the academic evaluation bureaucracy contaminates scientific production itself. Thus, the notion of scientificity is detached from its historical foundations to restrict itself to the use of high-tech methods. It follows that a research is all the more scientific the larger its database and its arsenal of computational resources.

As a result, companies that collect and commercialize big data take on the “mission” of “serving” the scientific community – while actually taking it hostage. In the case of the study of the mind, this cartel promoted the enthronement of neuroscience as the holder of the ultimate truth, to the detriment of other disciplines.[viii] and even non-aligned sectors of neuroscience itself. This hierarchization is based on the belief, widely disseminated today, that the images obtained by brain scanning methods, such as magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, are direct representations of thought.

This belief, common among researchers in the field themselves, gives rise to lay extrapolations such as Musk's – inadvertently endorsed by ŽiŽek. The idea is that such images correspond to concepts, which can advantageously replace natural language in communication. It is, in effect, a lay – and organicist – version of a traditional philosophical theory of mind that attributes to thought its own language, which is not to be confused with natural language, although it shares some properties with it.

It was precisely these properties that motivated the philosopher Jerry Fodor[ix] to revive the medieval conception of the language of thought[X] to give it a leaner feature, less based on natural languages ​​and, above all, consistent with the findings of contemporary linguistics and logic. To do so, he postulated that thought consists of an abstract representational system similar to natural language due to the compositional character of its syntax and semantics, but different from it because it does not tolerate ambiguities.

By “compositional” is meant the property of forming expressions whose components can be ordered or hierarchized differently. For example, in Portuguese, 'He listened to the impatient bureaucrat' is an ambiguous sentence. However, in the language of Fodor's thought, it necessarily unfolds into two distinct mental propositions, in which the predicate 'impatient' appears in distinctly hierarchical components, namely: [He [heard [the impatient bureaucrat]]] and [He [ heard [the bureaucrat]] impatient]]]. The first attributed impatience to 'the bureaucrat', object of the verb 'to hear', while the second attributed it to 'he', subject of the same verb.

Another difference with respect to natural language is the presence of irreducible semantic primitives. Thus, the concepts corresponding to logical operators such as 'exists', 'if', 'then', 'only', etc. do without other concepts to interpret them. As they are supposedly part of the human innate semantic background, they are immediately understood when encountered for the first time. It is only necessary to learn the words that materialize them in the ambient language.

It is not necessary to agree with Fodor's innateness to understand that his theory addresses extremely abstract aspects of human thought, which could hardly be consistent with fixed neural correlates. Genetics has already demonstrated that there is no necessary link between genetic determination and anatomo-physiological performance. Genetically determined organic or behavioral structures are formed from many genes and retain a good margin of adaptive plasticity. Therefore, the reduction of the mental to the biological practiced by past and present innatist thinkers has nothing to do with the confusion practiced by many current neuroscientists between mental phenomena and their neurophysiological correlates.

Thus, it is unnecessary to go into the merits of the contemporary theory of the language of thought here, still quite prestigious in cognitive science, despite having already received harsh criticism from scholars of the social bases of the mind, both in philosophy and in the cognitive sciences. What interests the present discussion is its prestige, unduly appropriated by its apocryphal version. high tech circulated by business neuroscience.

This prestige stems precisely from the weakening of discussions of merit in the once-inflamed controversy between the classical cognitivist position and connectionism. The discussion, which was burning at the end of the last century, cooled down when connectionist networks resolved the discontinuous relationships between syntactic and/or semantic constituents – such as the one that links 'ele' to 'impatient' in one of the readings of the example above.

The solutions do not use specific algorithms to unravel discontinuities. They make use of corpora in which similar constructions are duly annotated and of the generic computational mechanism known as “brute force”, that is, the exhaustive search for the best possible correspondence.

With the exponential increase in memory and processing capacity of computers, brute force has imposed itself as a method of solving problems in computing in the XNUMXst century. Thus, it trampled the principled discussions between classical and connectionist cognitive scientists, which gradually stagnated. The classics, from the top of their chairs at prestigious universities such as MIT and Stanford, seized the opportunity to assign the burden of proof to the connectionists.

This controversy matters little to corporate neuroscientists, who are generally atheistic. It matters even less to them that the classical conception of the language of thought, although innatist, is not organicist, and therefore does not actually serve to support their project of putting together a universal dictionary of concepts materialized by recurrent patterns of neural activation.

What they actually adopt from this view is the simple claim that thought consists of mental representations that go beyond natural language. By appropriating it, as well as the prestige of its defenders, they manufacture the factoid that, soon, we will be able to dispense with natural languages ​​and immerse ourselves in a communion like that of the unique original language of the biblical myth of Babel.

Another group of respected academics whose work is invoked and manipulated in the fabrication of this factoid are the neuroscientists and biomedical engineers who develop implants to try to restore damaged brain function. Their successes tend to be heralded by the press as they give hope to millions of victims of brain injury. Here is a fertile and irresistible vein for the imagination of marketers at companies dedicated to decoding and cataloging the “vocabulary” of brain activation.

In this regard, it is worth paying attention to the opinion of specialists in the areas of evolutionary biology and medicine on the possibility of obtaining “enhanced” brains, either via interfacing with machines, or via the use of pharmacological stimulators, the so-called nootropics.

See, for example, this assessment of the state of the art in the field by researchers from centers of excellence in Switzerland and Australia: “Therefore, this article proposes that brain-machine interfacing and nootropics are not going to produce “augmented” brains because we do not understand enough about how evolutionary pressures have informed the neural networks which support human cognitive faculties.”[xi],[xii]

The authors' conclusion is categorical regarding the implausibility of cognitive facilitation devices such as those announced by the startups its big techs: “We do not yet have a theory correctly approximating physical substrate of higher cognitive processes. Brain did not evolve by adding defined units for more complex functions, it improves dits performance by physiological modulation enabled by biochemical alterations of neuro active substances. Therefore, the belief that brain-machine interfaces offer a viable method for augmenting cognitive processes lacks scientific credibility.”[xiii]

Recently, some MIT researchers (Bernal et al., 2021)[xiv] spoke about the health risks and ethical pitfalls underlying brain-machine interfaces and proposed that the field collectively adhere to open source software as a strategy to democratize its content.

However, the marketers of the companies involved bet on mystification. If, on the one hand, it is easy to unmask them before an audience of scientists and intellectuals, on the other hand, the effects of their campaigns on the general public are extremely difficult to assess. Worryingly, moreover, even among scientists, their persuasive power is increasing, as we will see below.

 

What can Big Other's colonial power offer Big Brother?

Facts previously unimaginable, such as the results of the referendum on Brexit and the presidential elections of 2016 in the USA and 2018 in Brazil, clearly indicate that the laws, national or international, that regulate the traffic of information on the internet do not effectively curb the manipulation of public opinion by the dissemination of factoids. The digital universe has become a supranational parallel power, acting directly with citizens and creating new forms of coloniality even more surreptitious than those pointed out by Quijano[xv] in his illuminating analysis of globalization.

Most of these invisible ways of market domestication of the consumer came to light in Zuboff's seminal book.[xvi] Nevertheless, the phenomenon is vast, multifaceted and affects different professions differently. In this regard, one of the least known communities is that of scientists, especially young graduates or those in training. It is opportune, therefore, to start paying attention to the signs of the silent and only vaguely discernible maneuvers of the big techs to colonize the scientific community of the future.

First, however, it is necessary to remember that these companies expressly practice precariousness and outsourcing. With the retraction of the academic job market, due to the pressures of neoliberalism on Universities, many young scientists work for universities. big techs directly or indirectly. However, strong competition among peers leads most of them to close in on their specialty and alienate themselves from labor issues. Given the difficulties faced by the group of Google employees who founded the union Alphabet Workers Union – which, symptomatically, still has a surprisingly low adherence rate.

As far as I know, there are two clear enough indications that Big Techs intend to colonize the maximum possible number of scientists. The first, although obvious, becomes invisible due to the accelerated naturalization of invasive internet practices. All over the world, universities and research centers are increasingly migrating to Apple, Google and Microsoft platforms in order to house their correspondence and their administrative and academic-scientific data files. These services, initially offered free of charge, were seen as a solution to the financial and operational difficulty of setting up their own platform. Given the budget constraints, there was not even a reaction when they started to be charged. The charge was naturally accepted, since it cost less than any investment in autonomy.

As soon as these measures were announced, some professors and students organized protests, in universities around the world, to alert society of the risks involved, namely: censorship, ideological surveillance, espionage of scientific results, etc. But membership was so low that the movement soon fizzled out. To this day, a few isolated movements still erupt occasionally – for example, that of Stanford students against ordering software that policed ​​the use of glue on exams. online during the pandemic. None of them, however, shook the hegemony of big techs our fields.

The other indication of the expanding coloniality of these companies is their independent educational initiatives. Not content with taking over the management of data from Universities around the world, they are creating their own schools and research institutes – a trend that could even, in principle, be positive. However, the lack of transparency of most of these projects arouses strangeness and distrust.

It suffices, by the way, to recall a case in which the mystification is very clear. It is a project, initially non-profit, called Singularity Education Group, which offers executives educational programs, a business incubator and an innovation consulting service. It also responds through a website, called Singularity Hub, aimed at reporting the supposed leaps in science and technology that are changing human health, mind and society. Among its founding partners are Google, Nokia and LinkedIn.

Although the brand bears the name of Singularity University, is not an accredited university and does not offer academic degrees. The controversies that surround it since its foundation in 2008 include accusations of embezzlement, discrimination and sexual harassment. In 2012, as expected, its registration was updated to include for-profits.

It is strange that the reference to singularity is based on the mistaken use of the term by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, one of its founders, who defines it as a radical convergence of organic and cybernetic processes, culminating in their fusion. In his opinion, contrary to that of most scientists in the field, the emergence of real cyborgs is close, thanks to the fusion of natural intelligence with artificial intelligence.

The curious thing is that this term was coined by analogy to a physical phenomenon called gravitational singularity. It is, roughly speaking, a point in spacetime at which the mass, associated density, and spacetime curvature of a body are infinite. It's something physicists presume to occur at a central point in black holes where all the mass would concentrate.

The intention of the analogy is to hint at the possibility of the existence of a point at which biological laws no longer apply, in the same way that the laws of the Newtonian/Einsteinian universe no longer apply at the gravitational singularity. It turns out that there is scientific evidence to support the singularity hypothesis in physics, which is absolutely not the case with its alleged biological version. The term is being widely used by business neuroscience and was even adopted by ŽiŽek, under the influence of Musk, in the text quoted above. Here is clear evidence of mystification.

Finally, the set of exposed facts will allow us to discuss the philosopher's main concern, namely: the risk of the technology in question opening the way to totalitarianism. To do so, it will be necessary to recapitulate the title question of this section: What does the colonial power of the Big can offer to Big Brother?

In contrast to ŽiŽek, I believe that the big deal that Big can offer to Big Brother it's just the mind-reading illusion already offered to netizens. And, just as they will be satisfied with the cognitive shortcuts obtained, the Big brothers business or government will be satisfied with the effectiveness of the means of controlling the internet profiles made available. After all, surveillance capitalism already has many effective tools for predicting and modifying user behavior. And soon, it will acquire others, even more powerful, thanks to the progress of the race through the Metaverse.

This clientele can range from schools that want to hire electronic security guards to monitor their students, to totalitarian governments that want to spy on their citizens, as well as companies that want to control the productivity of their employees.

It should be noted, by the way, that the mystification that spreads scientistic pride among precarious scientists will not affect the progress of science in universities and elite research centers – which are safe from commodification. There, risk research will continue to be fostered, scientific theories will continue to undergo rigorous critical scrutiny, and innovation will continue to occur in leaps and bounds. The social cost of this super-concentrated production of cutting-edge science will be to further aggravate the current setback in the distribution of work, wealth and access to quality education in the world.

In conclusion, the foregoing suggests that an overrun country like Brazil today has good reasons to be concerned about spying tools disguised under immersive social networks that present themselves as useful and/or fun. The coloniality of rich countries today is entirely dependent on the coloniality of big techs. They not only spread the soft power of the colonial powers, but they also do a good part of imperialism's dirty work.

Therefore, we do not delude ourselves that the pressure of public opinion can lead Western democracies to take measures against the commercialization of Internet user profiles – or, even, that it can lead to big techs to adopt a universal code of ethics.

On the contrary, the ethics of the technology giants, as well as those of their governments, will continue to have, as they always have, double standards. For them, espionage and control of citizens are abhorrent practices common in Russia and China; in the West, monitoring internet users is just a way to serve them well and encourage business in their surroundings.

In this context, attacks on Brazilian science, culture and technology by reducing the budgets of development agencies and universities and public research institutes seem to be, above all, guided attacks on our sovereignty. Without strong science and technology, capable of building a strategic reserve of knowledge and gaining autonomy in the creation, management and use of digital platforms, we will be doomed to a role that already seemed outdated about a decade ago: mass producing food and reproducing ad nauseam the industrial products of the multinationals that have been settling here as our state-owned companies are privatized.

* Eleonora Albano is a professor of phonetics and phonology at the Institute of Language Studies at Unicamp. She is the author, among other books, of The audible gesture: phonology as pragmatics (Cortez).

 

Notes


[I] MARKOFF, J. Elon Musk's Neuralink Wants 'Sewing Machine-Like' Robots to Wire Brains to the Internet. The New York Times, July 16, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/technology/neuralink-elon-musk.html

[ii] ŽIŽEK, S. The Apocalypse of a Wired Brain. Critical Inquiry, 46, Summer 2020, 747-763.

[iii] “The gradual development of communication, in the sense of adding additional layers of mediation – spoken word, written word, telegraph, telephone, internet – is interrupted here, and the prospect of a direct connection to bypass these additional layers implies not only greater speed , but also higher precision :p. eg, when I think about something, I don't need to translate that thought into linguistic signs that brutally simplify the meaning; my partner perceives directly what I think – or, to quote Musk, “If I communicated a concept to you, you would mostly engage in consensual telepathy. I wouldn't even need to verbalize it unless I wanted to add some spice to the conversation or something... but the conversation would be a conceptual interaction on a level that's hard to conceive of right now."

[iv] ZUBOFF, S. Big others: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75–89, 2015.

[v] STEPHENSON, N. Snow Crash. Bantam Books, 1992.

[vi] ALBANO, E. About the university model. On this website, on 20/07/21:

https://aterraeredonda.com.br/sobre-o-modelo-de-universidade/?doing_wp_cron=1636900574.9601449966430664062500

[vii] ALBANO, E. The siege of the market to critical thinking. On this website on 02/11/2021:

https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-cerco-do-mercado-ao-pensamento-critico/

[viii] FUMAGALLI, R. Against neuroscience imperialism. In: MÄKI, U., WALSH, A., FERNÁNDEZ PINTO, M. (org.) Scientific imperialism: Exploring the boundaries of interdisciplinarity. New York: Routledge, 2018, pp. 205-223.

[ix] FODOR, J. The language of thought. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.

[X] The notion of language of thought appears in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others.

[xi] SANIOTIS, A.; HENNEBERG, M.; KUMARATILAKE, J.; GRANTHAM, JP “Messing with the mind”: evolutionary challenges to human brain augmentation. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, september, v. 8, article 152, 2014.

[xii] "Therefore, this paper proposes that the brain-machine interface and nootropics will not produce 'enhanced' brains because we don't understand enough about how evolutionary pressures informed the neural networks that underpin human cognitive faculties."

[xiii] “We still don't have a theory that correctly approximates the physical substrate to higher cognitive processes. The brain did not evolve by adding definite units for more complex functions, it improved its performance by physiological modulation made possible by biochemical changes of neuroactive substances. Therefore, the belief that brain-machine interfaces offer a viable method for enhancing cognitive processes lacks scientific credibility.”

[xiv] BERNAL, G.; MONTGOMERY, S.; MAES, P. Brain-Computer Interfaces, Open-Source, and Democratizing the Future of Augmented Consciousness. Frontiers in Computer Science, April 14, 2021.

[xv] QUIJANO, A. 2000. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla, v. 1(3): 533-580.

[xvi] ZUBOFF, S. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

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