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Cyberpolitics: the bot in the network

Last year Constantino Martins organized a conference on cyberpolitics in Coimbra which I couldn't have the funds to go. This is my submission to the after-conference volume he is organizing:

The bot in the network
Cyberpolitics and the obsolescence of human sovereignty,
Hilan Bensusan

Abstract: The article examines contemporary cyberpolitics in terms of the conflict between political sovereignty and the drive to control natural and human events. The friction between political government and economic management is explored in the contexts of nihilism, neocameralism, political ecology and the logic of supplement. The intrusion of bots in the social networks is considered an advanced effect of an older and rooted process.

Keywords: Cyberpolitics, Bots, Artificial Intelligence, Neocameralism, Nihilism, Supplement

1. Cyber-polis and artificial oikos

The current inclusion of cybernetic devices in the political arena appears in line with similar incursions through similar scopes: there is a cybernetic media, an artificial science, a pharmaceutic psychology. Artificiality has become part of several spheres of human life in a steady pace that combines comfort and efficiency. There has been, nevertheless, a persistent friction between political sovereignty – the elusive arena where people could be consulted and could freely intervene – on the one hand and technical efforts to create artificial devices capable of enhancing and replacing natural processes on the other. It is a well-known friction; perhaps hostage to three related but broader conflicts: the tension a) between autonomy and explanation, the one b) between self-determination and truth, and that c) between the partnership between techné and oikos on the one hand and the hé politikè on the other.

The tension between autonomy and explanation could be fleshed out in terms of the one between the physical and biological domain of the non-human taken as a (natural) resource and the civil and biographical realm of the human subject – the realm of agency and protagonism. Indeed, Giorgio Agamben sharply divided the human life into an animal-like, ruled by natural laws and bare life – associated with the term zoé – and a civil, rights-laden, political life – associated to bíos.1 The distinction between bíos and zoé, to be sure, is not always clear-cut; when a civil life is added to a biological one, the latter is irremittedly changed in the manner of what Jacques Derrida called 'the logic of supplement': external additions are not innocuous but rather make clear how incomplete the original element had been from the beginning.2 It is the biological life itself that becomes political and this makes its bare form no longer available. The replacement that a supplement provides is not a simple mimetic copy of what has been before, but rather a prothesis which adds something and transforms what had been there before for good. Interestingly, if a supplement has changed the character of zoé, there could be another supplement changing the character of its political successor, bíos. The supplement not only draws on incompleteness and insufficiency but also make them explicit. Politics can then prove to be incomplete enough to admit a cybernetic supplement.

Self-determination and truth contrast as do morality and wisdom – or freedom with heteronomy. Friedrich Nietzsche's project of overcoming nihilism by exacerbating it, which became explicit later in The Gay Science and subsequent writings,3 is glimpsed in an early writing where he examines the
transformation “from a moral into a wise mankind”.4 The project of nihilism is that of exposing what was previously secretive and sacred and making the forces controllable. Martin Heidegger finds the key to the project of Nietzsche's nihilism in the tale of the madman who screams that God is dead5 – the control of the force and intelligibility of things is seized, and the seizure is not destined to humans for once this will to power is elicit, humans become themselves controllable. The intelligibility of human decisions – as much as the force of human actions – is made available once it is exposed and rendered transparent. The project is to extract the intelligibility of things and there is no built-in way to stop short of proceeding likewise with humans. The human – and hence human self-determination – is prey of the same treatment any other process undergo when intelligence is extracted and artificialization made possible. Heidegger in fact describes the project as a device or a positionality (Ge-Stell) that gradually takes place of the world itself.6 Nihilism is guided, as Nietzsche himself often remarks, by the will to truth; that is, the drive to extract the ultimate constitutive principles of things even at a high cost. Anything – from the energy of a river to human sovereignty – can be described as having an intelligibility that can be extracted; once this description is trusted – and Heidegger understands the task of metaphysics as the task of providing intelligibles that could be extracted from things – nihilism runs on its own wheels. Human self-determination becomes an ordinary step – although perhaps a difficult one – in the march towards quenching a will to truth that is not itself inextricably human.

Finally, the friction is akin to the tensions between the political and the economical. From the opening pages of his three-volume La Comunidad de los Espectros, Fabian Ludueña examines the Aristotelian thesis that there is a distinction between the scopes of the oikos and that of the polis, a distinction that became progressively blurred with time.7 Aristotle insisted, against Plato, that to handle a house – or to manage a household – is not the same as to govern a town or a state – even if the household is large and the town or state is small. The regression of the public arenas into domestic administration have since become increasingly explicit – perhaps in line with the incompleteness of bíos and the advance of nihilism. Ludueña presents Plato as the one who advocated politics to be the government of the living, comparable to architecture. The science Plato talks about has to do with how to govern in the sense of how to produce and reproduce domesticated animals.8 If politics was once like the science of shepherding – in the time of Chronos – it is now more like weaving around the convenient demographics. Ludueña remarks that it could be now obvious that Plato was right while Aristotle was refuted by what we know in current times once all cities in the world live through an unevitable pax platonica from which it is unclear whether they would ever exit.9 The idea of a politics that is not ultimately reducible to economic considerations has become elusive – if there is a sphere of the political, it seems to be one where economic variables could be hidden attending to a goal which is certainly not public. Further, the administration of the oikos is increasingly technical and could not but be improved by appropriately designed artificial devices.

There is perhaps a specter of the political – something that Aristotle identified and that could not but haunt managed world. It is a specter that helps ensuring that the government of the living is legitimate. It haunts a world that becomes ready to be managed. Indeed, the technical achievement is often a two-way drive where the process to be simulated is simultaneously replaced by a simplified counterpart – or a bare-bone ersatz – which can be more easily replaced or enhanced by artificial devices. Heidegger describes the gradual replacement of things in the world by objects in a Ge-Stell as a process that dissolves what had a physis into a rarefied instance of an extracted procedure, ready to be further instantiated artificially. Ge-Stell promotes the availability of what was previously concealed, the exposition of what was closed in itself. 10 Maybe what we have seen is a progressive transformation of politics into administration, of political decision into a Platonic government of the living. If it is so, we can understand the political wing of the metaphysical project as that of turning political things available to economic networks, to managerial devices and into an extracted intelligibility. Polis becomes gradually an oikos, no more than a large household that can be managed for optimal results.

Cyberpolitics, understood as the consequence of the inclusion of artificial devices of all sorts into the political arena, can be thought in this manner: as a step in the direction of turning politics into management. As such, it is a tool to further Ludueña's Pax Platonica and, as a consequence, an advancement of the nihilist project. To be sure, bringing cybernetics to public affairs could also spell new tactics of resistance against the trend of an ever-increasing administrated societies but it is a main claim of this article that it clearly enhances the obsolescence of human sovereignty as we know it.

2. Expertise and the cyberpolitics of neocameralism

This tension between economy and political action appear when governments all over the world are often criticized for their managerial records: their policies are less than optimal, their handling of finances is biased and often less than transparent, their competence in organizing the administration is worse than what could be expected. To be sure, these criticisms are themselves like ready-made specters haunting political landscapes whenever convenient. They are forces claiming for a well-managed oikos and they appear as convincing as the strength of the two intertwined remedies they offer for these malaises. The remedies are both in the realm of the cyberpolitical, both about the technologically more-than-human: a solution is to appeal to artificial management systems and the other is an appeal to capital. The latter is an appeal to enable markets to manage and decide about the oikos. The former claims artificial intelligence can do better than any (human) civil servant, elected, selected or well-trained. The problem with human government of other humans is that it is prone to incompetence and corruption; that is, the trouble lies in the managerial skills. The task of governing humans appears super-human – more than what mere humans can do. It is a mission for the shepherds os Chronos, for those who know the perfect number that Plato mentions as what encapsulates the science of governing humans.11 This science of governance makes shepherds and weavers the ancestors of economists – and to some extent, of (at least some sort of) ecologists.

The idea that the markets would handle better the management of humans is an effect of the image of the invisible hand – that hand the market employs but nobody fully understand but should trust. The history of this invisible hand spans from the active effort from sovereigns to ensure a laissez faire, laissez passer to the flow of capital to the contemporary neocameralist ideas.12 Neocameralism springs from the disappointment both with the capacities of the sovereign to hand governance to the markets in a consistent way that would eventually deliver every sovereignty away and with the democratic processes that could undo whatever liberal administrations had accomplished. Time after time politically maintained governments would deregulate, privatize, leave decisions to the market only to be politically overthrown and replaced by a government that would not hesitate in slowing down the process and in trying to revert it. To be sure, it becomes always harder to restore a political realm where it had been given away to the management of the markets; however democracy ensures that there is always a political body – however meager – that presides over governance. The state becomes weaker and weaker but it resists any attempt to do away with politics and keeps the project of a political authority over management alive. Neocameralism projects its (gradual but) complete replacement by a corporate company that would manage towns. (Mencius Moldbug insists that the unity of governance should be smaller than countries, something more akin to what can fit in the size of a human-scale oikos). These corporate companies would be administered by a board of executives under the command of a CEO that would respond to its shareholders. The idea is that management decisions are best taken by this corporate model that has proven to respond well to the general public through the mechanisms of demand and supply that the market provides. The political freedom of voice is then expressed in the personal freedom to run away. If the consumer – previously a citizen – is unhappy with the Coimbra Corporation, she could move her costumer away to the Viseu Corporation where she could maybe pay less for better services. Political participation is translated in terms of consumer's choice – and even rights can be expressed in terms of market competition. Neocameralism is the project to complete the end of political sovereignty. To be sure, it has remarkable technical flaws for it is a project based on the dubious idea that markets remain competitive while in most cases, as it became more evident ever since Marx's analyses of the concentration tendency of capital, monopolies tend to replace concurrence in a drive that can hardly be halted by regulations.13 The technical flaws, nevertheless, are not enough to burst the project as it has not been enough to exorcise the power of the market in different contexts. Neocameralism, in the history of the projects to hand governance to the market, reckons with the super-human force of capital which is a protagonist in making decisions – the super-human, invited to help managing domesticated animals, is already part of the demos.

The idea that an invisible hand could take full governance of the living is a step towards a super-human technical knowledge that would make any political realm redundant runs strong because unchallenged. In fact, it is opposed by other projects of management – by other theories about weaving or shepherding – but the debate is done within the economic stage. It is even unclear by now what would be the genuinely political dimension that contrasts with the management of the oikos – it has become difficult to understand how precisely could Aristotle depart from Plato's notion of a government of the living. The domain of oikos seems overarching: oikos-nomics, that perhaps makes oikos-nomy possible, oikos-logy. The invisible hand is also an ecological protagonist – as it seems like all questions concerning government require technical answers, some of which could be delegated to nature's wisdom. Indeed, we can perhaps find the neocameralist spice in ecological debates. Garrett Hardin has famously argued against fighting famines by sending aid to the human population living in already depleted and overpopulated lands like Ethiopia. This would be a (political) interference in the invisible hands of the ecological equilibrium mechanisms that would take care of the living (and the dead). Hardin writes that “sending food to Ethiopia does more harm than good. Each year the production from Ethiopian land declines. The lands are used beyond their carrying capacity because there are far more people than renewable resources”.14 Keeping excessive human population in a land that cannot maintain it could only be explained by a political bias in favor of humans, a bias that guides decisions that would be best left to the invisible hand of ecological equilibrium. To be sure, maybe removing parts of the population – the freedom to run away – would be still an acceptable management solution but the issue has to be considered in these oikos terms. Again, what other terms could be available? In the ecological arena, it is still harder to envisage different, political terms in which the debate could take place; it sounds as if one could at most defend the human bias – defend human life above all, including the degradation of the environment and, in the limit, of the Earth. But this is often construed really in terms of a bias informing a technical decision.

Capital and ecological equilibrium display the family resemblance of what come from oikos. It is not a matter of what is discussed in the agora, but of how things ultimately are and therefore should be. As something which carries the force of a matter of fact, capital seems like ecological equilibrium. As a force of the artificial, nonetheless, it is more like an unbound, disembodied intelligence: ungrounded, deterritorialized, detached from the intimacies of the household. A central claim put forward by the constellation of thoughts connecting subjectivities, cybernetics and economics that arose from the writings of the CCRU in Warwick at the turn of the century was that capital was itself an artificial intelligence.15 Nick Land describes the history of capitalism as “an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy's resources”.16 In this image, capital restructures human labor in a way that captures what could be made available for its flow – it reorganizes human social relations in a way that is convenient to perform its conquest. Part of this conquest is to make increasingly clear that humans are best governed by its artificial intelligence. In order to do that, it not only offers its services in terms of management of human work and earthly resources but also changes the expectations, aspirations and machinations of the humans that are to be governed. The intrusion of capital – and of its artificial intelligence – promotes the gradual decodification of all the existing rules, social norms and consolidated habits. Deleuze & Guattari describe capital as the decoder or all flows – its territory is itself a deterritorialization.17 Land emphasizes that from the point of view of the replicants that take over the planet, capital matters most of all for what it melts, for what it dissolves – more than for the accumulation of wealth it promotes.18 In any case, we can say that capital as a governance force is a demographical force at least in the sense that it becomes part of the demos as a citizen of the polis – or, for that matter, as a resident of the oikos.

The usual charges against the human government of humans – insufficient competence and limited, biased accountability – prompt an urge for better management and the proximity of super-human forces like capital show that artificial intelligences well acquainted with human requirements could replace with advantage the existing social intelligences. These human requirements, we have seen, are to some extent engineered by the very intrusion of an artificial intelligence – capital, and its economics. The urge for a cyber-management is a consequence of the intrusion of capital but at the same time of the nihilism that places the will to truth above anything and of the Platonic prevalence of the oikos over the polis. The intrusion of capital itself intensifies both nihilism and the centrality of management in all sort of seemingly political decisions. In this scenario, it becomes increasingly plausible that humans can be best managed by artificial intelligence capable of adequately dealing with the appropriate matters of fact. If it is about how to best make managerial choices in a transparent and unbiased way, it is hardly best to place a human where an artificial intelligence can be allocated. There is, to be sure, a diehard issue about who is going to be responsible for the consequences of a decision taken by an artificial agent. Responsibility issues, nevertheless, can be circumvented by artificial deferral and connected maneuvers within the realm of the flow of capital. Companies can be paid to be in charge of artificial decisions – just like insurance companies deal with the risk trail that investments leave. Just like neocameralist projects, solutions could draw also from technological companies that act in two simultaneous fronts: a) they change code as much as possible to accommodate perceived flaws while b) attempting to place responsibility in the hands of the user who should share the risk of making things more comfortable. One could expect that the mechanisms of ascribing responsibility would be themselves eventually cracked or gradually captured – and then the impression of being responsible would become itself manageable and the intelligence of the process would become ready to be artificially instantiated. Once the impression associated with being responsible is somehow controllable, human sovereignty as we know it become harder to ascertain. The neocameralist solution to this can shed some light into this fading: replace the political freedom of voice (and vote) by a personal freedom to escape. It becomes increasingly harder, but one could leave the house; go away ultimately to a wild and unintelligible realm of the undomesticated. To be sure, if competition gives way to monopolies, the freedom to escape is hardly more than a permission to quit. When there are no polis, the outside of the house is just sheer wilderness.

3. Enters the bot

The subsumption of the political sovereignty to the technical abilities of artificial devices capable of enhancing and replacing processes associated with human government could be described as gradually becoming more intense. On the one hand, there is no more than a faint idea left of how a polis could be something other than an oikos; on the other, the nihilist guidelines of orienting oneself in the world by capturing the intelligibility of what is found is enhanced by the intrusion of capital in the human fabric. Further, artificial intelligences are becoming reliable managers of social networks, of financial investments, of physical resources and of private lives while the market has been presented as a universal decision maker. Human sovereignty – including the ascription of responsibility – has been progressively supplemented by artificial devices that changes the way it is practiced and, as a consequence, transforms its very nature. In fact, the project of nihilism cannot be achieved without adding something to the world – the extracted intelligence is itself a prothesis and artificial intelligence is never a mimesis but rather supplementation. To be sure, there is a tight connection between the subsumption of the polis by the oikos, the supplanting of nature by artifice and the supplement. The supplement makes sure that the truth sought by the nihilist engine is not itself just an additional instantiation of the intelligibility that has been extracted – and extraction irreversibly alters its source. An artificial representer does more than just express a state of affairs guided by a will to truth, it changes what it claims to represent to the extent that it supplements it.19 The inclusion of capital and artificial devices in human life changes the latter. The efforts to capture what is at stake in the exercise of human sovereignty cannot leave it indifferent; and this is the case not only with artificial intelligent managers but also with neocameralist corporation governments.

The drive towards capturing of the intelligence of the mechanisms that constitute the political arena involve the extraction of the intelligence of human decision making, that is, how information flow, biases, expectations, aims and world-views prompt (political) choices. From the point of view of the logic of supplement, it is clear now that decision making is not only represented but altered by these efforts. This is the case both for the inclusion of a market-driven neocameralist government and for artificial intelligence managers. Further, the capture can be done itself by intervening – and this is what the inclusion of bots in the human decision making fabric attempts to do. The bot enters the network to capture its functioning – its nodes, its weights, its triggering values – but does that by affecting the way it works. The bot in the network is inevitably a participating researcher. It measures by affecting where it is placed. If it is an instrument of information extraction, it is a Bohrian one.20

The bot is an intervention. Instead of observing decision making from afar, from a drone perspective, the bot is inserted in the crossroads where decisions arise – and this is a landscape that has been itself captured by social networks. This is a bot that attempts to understand both by observing and by experimenting – and none of these practices leave the network indifferent. The bot first presents information and insert them in a context which is often one of an enclosed network of people that enjoy some proximity. Information is therefore located and situated; further it performs a move in the game of convincing and suspecting. This is where fake news enter the scene – they appear in a scenario that is preferably trust-rich. Bots are artifacts for insertion and they push their way into landscapes where reliability thrives since other users are already somehow open and prone to trust what is said. Once they smuggle their news into reliable networks, the effect is hard to predict but presumably often broad. Bots find a way to participate in the game of asking and giving reasons as it is practiced in the real conversations among human decision makers.21 They do more than examine how the game is played, they attempt to play it like the others and when they succeed to be inconspicuous they become themselves social decision makers. This is why they need the social network – as much as they need the information from the other decision makers that these networks make available. They are inserted in the network precisely because this is their natural environment – they are hardly made one for the other but it is clear that they are ready and adamant to co-evolve together.

Social decision making is probably a joint venture where each node has a responsibility which forms a conglomerate of reliability not easily ascribed to any one in particular. When the bot is ushered in – and this is perhaps the ultimate effect and the crucial development of the old tale of what we have been calling cyberpolitics – the consequences of its interactions and influences become equally dispersed and distributed. Further, they are micro-media agents and, as such, they engineer public opinion; although it is not easy to determine what general effects they will have, a rough idea of the direction they are pushing is clearly possible. As micro-media agents, they are not oriented by truth in the same way as humans. When bots of different kinds become part of the political agora, the very link between politics and the kaleidoscopic humor of truth becomes opaque for they are artificial in the sense that they have a different relation to the effort of representing states of affairs. Affecting the construction of public opinion, they act through human action – in this sense they re-engineer human sovereignty. Even when understood as controlled intervention, when bots supplement the human affairs, the latter become different in a way that it is still not easy to foresee. Politics – or the economic management of a polis - is not going to be the same after cyber-media, not the same after social networks and not the same after the bots intrude in the demos. One could argue that bots are still all too human in the sense that they are manufactured by humans and attend at least partly to their interests. This is nevertheless not enough to ensure that the demos remains roughly the same not only because supplementation is not a simple innocuous addition but also because bots themselves affect the general consensus in ways that could be non-recognizable distortions of any human original ways of thinking. The bots could come to manage human society, but the nature of what they will manage will certainly change dramatically. There are reasons to believe that the network will never be the same after the arrival of the bot.

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Bensusan, Hilan & Greg Carneiro. “Paraconsistentization through antimonotonicity: towards a logic of supplement”. In: “Unlimited Consequence”, edited by A.Costa-Leite, vol.42, London: College Publications, 2020.
Brandom, Robert. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
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Hardin, Garrett. Living Within Limits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Heidegger, Martin. Bremen and Freiburg Lectures, Insight into That Which Is and Basic Principles of Thinking, trans. Andrew J. Mitchell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
Land, Nick. “Machinic desire”, in: Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings – 1987-2007, Ed. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier, London: Urbanomic, Sequence Press, 2011, pp. 319-344.
Ludueña, Fabián. La Comunidad de los Espectros I, Suipacha: Miño y Davila, 2010.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, trans. M. Milligan, New York: Prometheus, 1988.
Moldbug, Mencius. Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations, Amazon, 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. H. Zimmern, New York: Prometheus, 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, trans W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974.
Plato. Phaedrus, trans. B. Jowett, Boston: Actonian, 2010.
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