(Steve Barnes) (by way of heath bunting ( on Thu, 31 Oct 96 11:19 MET

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nettime: Posthuman Development in the Age of Pancapitalism

Posthuman Development in the Age of Pancapitalism

Critical Art Ensemble - VIPER Lecture

For the first time in history there is one globally dominant
political-economy, that of capitalism. Under this regime, individuals of
various social groups and classes will be forced to submit their bodies for
reconfiguration so they can function more efficiently under the obsessively
rational imperatives of pancapitalism (production, consumption, and order).
One means of reconfiguration is the blending of the organic and
electro-mechanical. Potentially, this process could produce a new living
entity distinct from its predecessors. This process, now termed posthuman
development, is in its experimental stages, which in turn has lead to
speculations and theories on what form this new being will take and on its
probable functions. The two entities of posthuman existence most commonly
postulated are the cyborg and downloaded virtual consciousness. While robots,
androids, and artificially intelligent machines are also generally considered
part of the posthuman family, they do not emerge directly out of human
organics, and hence constitute a different line of development. Cyborgs and
virtual consciousness, on the other hand, are dependent upon human individuals
who desire or are condemned to interface with the machine. The cyborg is a
being which typically has an organic platform integrated with a complex
technological superstructure; virtual consciousness is the transference of
being into digitized form so that it may exist in immersive informational
        The posthuman condition is still only a potential, since fully
integrated, first-order cyborgs (the organic platform and technological
superstructure are completely interdependent) are still on the cultural
horizon, and virtual consciousness is at best an entertaining speculation.
Yet, both of these posthuman possibilities are already having a dramatic
social impact. While virtual consciousness acts as a mythic validation of the
Age of Reason, second-order cyborgs (organic infrastructures with removable,
integrated technological systems) are a common actuality. This situation often
leads to the conjecture that the cyborg will be the step inbetween organic
life and virtual life. However, when posthuman manifestations are taken out of
the context of sci-fi speculation, and placed within the specific social and
economic context of pancapitalism, a much different scenario emerges. While
cyborg research is moving at top velocity, research into virtual reality (VR)
is moving very slowly by comparison, and the research that is being done does
not aim to develop a posthuman environment, nor to create a posthuman entity;
rather, this work is to fortify the pancapitalist dynasty in physical space by
serving both spectacular and military apparatuses. The current functions of
VR, as well as the limited research into its varied potentials, are
indications that virtual consciousness is not a desirable posthuman condition
from the perspective of primary power vectors of the current political

The Dual Function of Immersive Technology

VR as a liberating future habitat for humanity seems quite unlikely. In fact,
VR seems to be used for every imaging purpose except as a liberating habitat.
Its use in the spectacle is minimal, as no investing agency seems able to
conceive of a useful (instrumental) application for it. Currently, VR takes a
very secondary position to older nonimmersive screenal systems. While the
World Wide Web, the Internet, and cable television seem to be exploding with
new possibilities (both compelling and loathsome), VR is beginning to
stagnate. Its position is limited to arcade entertainment and to
secondary-display technology that can help boost consumption. One example of
this latter variety of application is the use of VR in some department and
furniture stores in Japan. A shopper can enter a virtual environment and
(within the limits of the product line) render a desired domestic environment
to see if it meets with he/r expectations before purchasing the needed
merchandise. If he/r virtual vision does not meet he/r expectations, s/he can
redesign the space until it does. The buyer is thus given extra assurance that
s/he will get what s/he wants. Obviously, a system like this functions only
when there is a variety of purchasing options, when the object of consumption
cannot be physically displayed, and when the purchase is costly. Hence this
application has very limited spectacular use. Further, this application is
only one small step beyond the use of X-ray machines in shoe stores back in
the 30s and 40s. The shopper could X-ray he/r foot to make sure the shoes
about to be purchased were a perfect fit. In terms of the spectacle of
consumption, the real problem for VR is that there are very few occasions when
the institutions selling the products want to give even the smallest amount of
authentic choice to the consumer.
        The infinite choice and total control promised by VR are precisely the
type of options that investment institutions want to avoid, and hence, they
are not going to pursue VR technology with any vigor until someone is able to
negate its liberating logic. This is also why investment capital is flowing
overwhelmingly in the direction of screenal technology, such as the World Wide
Web. (The rocketing prices of shares of companies like Netscape and Yahoo when
they went public clearly indicate the flow of capital).  On the Web, the
producer of the page controls the rendering process. While this element of Web
production seems to favor the cyber-individual, and accounts for much of the
celebration of the Web,  corporate institutions are aware that those with the
greatest amount of capital can use the latest software and state-of-the-art
trained labor to achieve maximum novelty and aesthetic seduction, can
overwhelm competitors for visibility by additional advertising of the page on
the Web and in other media, and can offer additional incentives (usually
chances at prizes or free merchandise) for using the page. If the lure is
carefully constructed, the professional advertisers can expect to monopolize a
Web consumer's time. Interactivity in this case means the ability of the
consumer to view a product, purchase it, and/or move onto other purchasing
opportunities in the given product line. This is the kind of spectacular
technology that pancapitalism will support, not just with investment, but also
with legislative and regulatory support. Technologies which truly offer
emergent choice and devalue centralized economic control are not worth an
investment. Currently, the posthuman has no place in VR, and VR has a very
small place in the spectacle.
        VR's primary value to spectacle is not as a technology at all, but as
a myth. VR functions as a technology that is out on the horizon, promising
that one day members of the public will be empowered by rendering capabilities
which will allow them to create multisensual experiences to satisfy their own
particular desires. The uncanny aura constructed around this technology
associates it with the exotic, the erotic, and potentially, with the mystical.
By perpetuating the myth of a wish machine that is always about to arrive,
pancapitalism builds in the population a desire to be close to complex
technology, to own it. Unfortunately, most technology is being designed for a
purpose precisely the opposite of a wish machine, that is, to make possible
better control of the material world and its populations. This combination of
myth and hardware is setting the foundation for the material posthuman world
of the cyborg.

Pancapitalist institutions of violence are proceeding along a different route.
All the potentials of VR are being used to create more accurate simulators.
However, the core of this immersive technology is based on recording, and not
rendering as in the spectacle. Usually, the technological environment which
the VR system is designed to simulate has already been built, or, at the very
least, is under construction. In this case, the virtual image has a very clear
material referent. For example, a fighter jet simulator attempts to replicate
the interior technological environment as accurately as possible. The quality
of the replication is judged practically by how well a pilot trained in a
simulator does in the actual cockpit. The exterior virtual environment in
which the simulated technology functions makes use of both recording and
rendering. However, recording is still dominant, as the trainers attempt to
place the trainees in specific rather than in general environments. Returning
to the example of the jet fighter simulator, the pilot is placed in an
environment closely resembling the one in which s/he will be flying. The
ground, anti-aircraft batteries, and enemy planes are rendered as accurately
and as specifically as possible based on recorded photographic images, whereas
more random variables, such as atmospheric conditions, will be rendered in
accordance with generalized configurations.
        As with the imaging systems used for spectacular production, the goal
is not to prepare  a person for life in the virtual, but to specify, regulate,
and habituate he/r role in the material world. Virtuality in no way has an
independent primary function in the production of violence; rather, it has a
dependent secondary support function. What is really odd about this situation
is that the mythic gift of  VR--complete control of the image--is negated. The
virtual images are completely overdetermined by specific configurations in the
material world. The limited evidence available to the public indicates that no
preparations are being made for immersive virtual information warfare. This
possibility seems limited to the screenal economy of cyberspace. However,
since these activities are classified, plenty of room exists for conspiracy
theorists to speculate. At the same time, given current trends in investment,
research and development, combined with the very clear imperatives of
pancapitalism, such speculations have only a very modest amount of

Preparing for Posthumanity

If the habitat of VR and the virtual entity are eliminated as practical
categories of the posthuman, the only possibility left is the cyborg. In terms
of social perception in technologically saturated economic systems, being a
first-order cyborg covers a broad range of possibilities, ranging from a
desirable empowering condition to an undesirable, dehumanizing one. However,
there is plenty of time for spectacle to sort out differing perceptions of the
first-order cyborg. Cyborg development is moving at a pace which allows
adequate time for adjustment to the techno-human synthesis. Currently, the
process is in very different stages in specific institutions. For example, the
military has advanced furthest, and has developed a fully integrated
second-order cyborg, while corporate and bureaucratic institutions are meeting
with reasonable success in their attempts to convince workers of the need to
meld body and technology.
        Within many civilian social institutions, cyborg development is
progressing cautiously enough that members have a difficult time knowing what
a cyborg is, perceiving one, or realizing that they could be being transformed
into one. Is a cyborg any person who has a technological body part? Does
having an artificial limb or even contact lenses place one in the category of
cyborg? In a sense, the answer is yes, as these pieces of technology are
integrated with the body, and the individual is relatively dependent upon
them. However, in terms of posthuman discourse, the answer is probably no, as
there is little or no engineered interface between the technological and the
organic. The posthuman model that seems to be developing is McLuhanesque--that
is, the techno-organic interface should enhance the body from the fluctuating
degree zero of everyday normalization. What is spoken about in the case of
artificial limbs or contact lenses is the means to make the body conform, to
the greatest extent possible, to "accepted" social standards. What is
interesting about precyborgian technological additions to the body is that one
key ideological imperative having a direct affect on posthuman development
begins to show itself--body-tech is valued as means to better integrate
oneself into the social.
        Another common question is whether radical technological body
intervention, such as gender reassignment, makes one a cyborg. Obviously,
since such procedures are primarily organic recombinations void of technology,
they fail to create a cyborg class being. However, these interventions do play
a role in cyborg development, because they continue to prepare specific
publics to perceive these operations as normal and even desirable. This is
particularly true of medical interventions done solely for aesthetic purposes.
The social "abnormality" of organic decay acts as an ideological sign that
channels people toward the consumption of services for body reconfiguration,
to enable them to best fulfill the social imperatives of body presentation in
pancapitalist society. What is truly important about this development is that
technological intervention disconnected from issues of sickness and/or death
is being normalized. Extreme body invasion as a socially accepted practice is
a key step in cyborg development.

Military and Civilian Cyborgs

There is no need to dwell on the development of a second-order military
cyborg. The only surprise here is that took so long to happen. From the common
grunt to the heroic jet fighter pilot, the military conversion of humans to
cyborgs has become a necessity. The Hughes Corporation has successfully
developed a custom-fitted techno-organic interface for the infantry which
offers an integrated system of vision, communication, and firepower. Soldiers
are no longer soldiers; as the military says, now they are "weapons systems."
The posthuman has announced itself in a happy moment of military efficiency.
However, the "weapons system,"  while actual and functioning, is a minor
interface when compared to the developing "Pilot's Associate"
(McDonnell-Douglas). In addition to having a state-of-the-art interdependent
pilot/machine interface (unless the machine thinks that the organics are
failing, and it must take over the mission), the "Pilot's Associate" offers AI
support analysis in mission planning, tactics, system status, and situation
assessment. Here we find a clear indication of what body "enhancement" is
going to mean in the age of the posthuman. Body enhancement will be specific
to goal-oriented tasks. These tasks will be dictated by the pancapitalist
division of labor, and technology for body modification will only allow for
the more efficient service of a particular institution.
        Unfortunately for the multinationals, the development of the civilian
cyborg has not moved along as quickly. Since the civilian sector does not have
the advantage of telling its forces that being-as-cyborg will prolong one's
life in the field, corporate power vectors are still deploying ideological
campaigns to convince civilians of the bureaucratic and technocratic classes
that they want to be cyborgs. The spectacle of the civilian cyborg moves in
two opposing directions. The first is the utopian spectacle. The usual
promises of convenience, access to knowledge and free speech, entertainment,
and communication are being trotted about the usual media systems with varying
degrees of success; but anyone who has paid attention to strategies of
manufacturing desire for new technologies can read right through the surface
of these codes. Convenience is supposed to mean that work becomes easier, and
is accomplished faster; in turn this means that individuals work less and have
more free time because they work more efficiently. What this code actually
means is that the workload can be intensified because the worker is producing
more efficiently. Entertainment and information access are codes of seduction
that really mean that individuals will have greater access to consumer markets
of manufactured desire. Better communication is supposed to mean greater
access to those with whom an individual wants to communicate. The actuality is
that agencies of production and consumption have greater surveillance power
over the individual.
        In contrast to utopian spectacle is the spectacle of anxiety. The gist
of this campaign is to threaten individuals with the claim that if a person
falls behind in the technological revolution, s/he will be trampled under the
feet of those who use the advantages of technology. This campaign recalls the
social-economic bloodbath of the ideology of Social Darwinism. The consumer
must either adapt or die. From the perspective of pancapitalism, this campaign
system is quite brilliant, because unlike the military (where the soldier is
supplied with technology to transform he/rself into a weapons system), the
civilian force will buy the technology of their enslavement, thereby
underwriting a healthy portion of the cost of cyborg development as well as
the cost of its spectacularization.
        The current spectacle of technology is having an effect on the
civilian population of the appropriate classes. Cyborg development here is a
little more subtle than in the military. Most people have seen the first
phases of the civilian cyborg, which is typically an information cyborg. They
are usually equipped with lap-top computers and cellular phones. Everywhere
they go, their technology goes with them. They are always prepared to work,
and even in their leisure hours they can be activated for duty. Basically,
these beings are intelligent, autonomous workstations that are on call 24
hours a day, 365 days a year, and at the same time can be transformed into
electronic consumers, whenever necessary.
        In this phase of posthuman development, the will to purity, explicit
in the spectacle of anxiety, manifests itself in two significant forms: First
is the purification of the pancapitalist cycle of waking everyday life.
Cyborgs are reduced to acting out rational, pragmatic, instrumental behaviors,
and in so doing, the cycles of production (work) and consumption (leisure) are
purified of those elements deemed nonrational and useless (by the
pancapitalist system). It seems reasonable to expect that attempts will be
made to reduce or eliminate regenerative, nonproductive processes like
sleeping through the use of both technological and biological enhancement. The
second is a manifestation of ideological purity in which the cyborg is
persuaded to overwhelmingly value that which perpetuates and maintains the
system, and to act accordingly.  The prime disrupter of this manifestation of
purity is the body itself with its endless disruptive physical functions, and
the libidinal motivations inherent in the body's psychological structure.
Hence technological advancement alone will not create the best posthuman; it
must be supported by developments in rationalized body design.

Final Preparations for Posthumanity

The military has long understood that the body must be trained to meet the
demands of its technology. Consequently, it puts its organic units through
very rigorous mental and physical training, but in the end, it is clear that
this training is not enough. Training can only take a body to the limits of
its predisposition. Pancapitalism has realized that the body must be designed
for specific, goal-oriented tasks that better complement its interface with
technology in the space of production. Human characteristics must also  be
rationally designed and engineered in order to eliminate body functions and
psychological characteristics that refuse ideological inscription. To
accomplish this goal, a heavily funded complex of institutions has emerged
with knowledge specializations in genetics, cell biology, biochemistry,
embryology, neurology, pharmacology, and so on. Together they form what CAE
calls the "flesh machine." Its mandate is a complete invasion of the flesh,
with vision and mapping technologies that will begin the process of total body
control from its wholistic, exterior configuration to its microscopic
constellations, as well as development of the new market frontier of flesh
products and services.
        The mature appearance of the flesh machine is perhaps the greatest
indication that the magical data dump of consciousness into VR is not being
seriously considered. If it were, why invest so heavily in body products and
services? In addition, why should capital refuse an opportunity that appears
to be the greatest market bonanza since colonization? Digital flesh is
significant in mapping the body, but its value depends upon the practical
applications that are derived from it; these in turn, can be looped back into
the material world. The body is here to stay. Unfortunately, the body of the
future will not be the liquid, free-forming body which yields to individual
desire; rather, it will be a solid entity whose behaviors are fortified by
task-oriented technological armor interfacing with ideologically engineered
flesh. Little evidence is available to indicate that liquescence will be
different in postmodernity from what it was in modernity--the privilege of
capital-saturated power vectors.

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