Derick K. Ariyam
5 May 2008
Artificial Intelligence: Human Beings as Determined by Ideology
In a lot of ways, the game of chess resembles reality. In chess, each piece is given an assigned identity, and depending on its role in the game, its movements are predetermined. The pawn may move only one space in one direction—with one or two limited exceptions. The knight may move as he wishes, as long as he keeps to a set pattern; the rook, the bishop, the queen, and even the king, are allowed to move, but all in restricted predefined ways. And despite all the allowance and limitation that are permitted each of these respective pieces, the most constrictive element of all in the game, and affecting every piece, is none other but the chessboard itself: a checkered, sterile, eight-by-eight grid. In the entire world of chess, the possibilities are not endless; in fact they are cold and finite, where even an artificial being—a computer—can play it for you, or against you—and beat you.
Like chess, we live in a world of prescribed ideologies (or belief systems). These ideologies subsume existence, often being internalized unconsciously, and in turn have the potential to reduce human experience into fixed grid-like behavior. Although we may exercise some degree of choice, enjoy some freedoms, and make some decisions, they are often just mere moves in a game tightly bridled by rules—by pervading ideologies, by set ways of thinking. In this analysis I hope to offer a glimpse into some of the ideological structures working on an abstract (yet very real) layer of human and social consciousness. Ideological structures circumscribe the dimensions of our world—our grid. The works of Louis Althusser and his writings on ideology will be the source for many of the theoretical notions I enlarge upon, especially regarding the notions of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), and the State Apparatus (SA). And, like how a map or a globe help to comprehend the dimensions of larger objects, sometimes text and film can serve a similar function; they can offer a view of the ideologies present in life, ideologies that often go unnoticed by their relative distance from the observer. Likewise, to ground this study to some concrete examples, I turn to film and fiction, particularly the film Waking Life, and two famous dystopian novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Brave New World by Aldus Huxley as models for our own world—our own (u/dys)topia.
The animated feature Waking Life is a collage of modern and contemporary critical thought (postmodernist, poststructuralist, existentialist, and the like) presented in the form of animated characters engaged in critical, yet colloquial, dialogue. All the events that occur, as well as the dialogue, are seen from the point of view of a young man caught in his own dream. To begin this analysis, I want to first start by drawing attention to one particular scene from this film. It is a scene towards the beginning where an older gentleman is talking to the (dreaming) young protagonist in a bar. The young man listens with mute deference as this older man shares his thoughts regarding the current state of humans in respect to the animal kingdom, saying:
“When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human, is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human” (Waking Life).
When I first saw this scene and heard these thoughts, I was a bit mixed in my acceptance of the two arguments raised. The two contentions being held here are that, 1) man is not that much more evolved than the chimpanzee, and 2) that the average human is—in a post-evolutionarily sense—closer to a chimpanzee than to some philosophers. I was reluctant to acquiesce to this first sentiment. I suppose modern technology, computers for instance, can be considered a glorified tool—a silicon stick to fish ants from. And if all technology is reduced to the base noun “tool,” it doesn’t sound like we’ve reached that much further than the chimpanzee—who is also a maker and user of tools. But then when you consider everything else; when you take into account the wealth and prolificacy of human culture, writing, art, medicine, etc., the statement seems overly simplistic to confirm.
The second premise this character raises is along the same vein, but still a slightly different contention: regarding the existence of a major evolutionary divide between the average man and the philosopher. At first hearing this, my internal logic (if it could be turned to dialogue) would have sounded like, “Who is he kidding? What possible utility could a dreamer like Plato, or a scary unreadable, nonsensical madman like Nietzsche offer to modern society? What would their resumes look like? Would Aristotle write Plato a recommendation letter?” True, these are some silly thoughts on some great minds, undoubtedly, but I wouldn’t be the first to parody them (to those that may have seen the Monty Python’s skit “Philosopher’s World Cup”). Yet, my own incredulity and dismissal of these two sentiments, as well as my initial response to deride it is a testament to the existence of an overhanging and more dominant abstraction. There exists a system of beliefs, or as Louis Althusser describes, an “ideology,” that are often unconsciously subscribed to, and unconsciously followed—without question. It is my contention in this analysis—and my own recent conviction—that once we recognize and acknowledge this system of ideology in place, it is then that both of these two sentiments, proffered by this character from Waking Life (though a bit strong and uncompromising for my own taste) may at least give us some pause for a moment of observation.
Nietzsche, Plato, or any thinker for that matter, are biologically the same species as the “average human.” This implies that the average human already has the biological prerequisites to attain this higher evolutionary gap between the animal kingdom; and most already subscribe to having achieved this. Although humans have a slot in every published taxonomic chart on earthly biology, we still separate ourselves from animals. It is us, and then there are them: Man versus nature, Man against Beast. There is a clear established distinction between the human and animal, where human beings do not necessarily want to fit into an animal characterization. We take insult to being called an animal, or living like one, or being one. However, for us to even prop up a claim of distinction would presume a rational basis for one: that rational basis is suggested to be “ration” itself: humans think, animals react. While humans are driven by cognitive thought processes, the animal kingdom is driven solely by visceral instinct—naturally selected instincts for survival. And although I might agree that ration and the activity of thought is a worthwhile cause for a distinction or elevation from “animal grouping,” a question remains: is it really true thought and true philosophy guiding our actions and our convictions? Or, is it merely just another type of instinct: an instinct for what is right within ideology that determines our choices. When thinking along ideology, the human—like the animal—is merely reacting. But the thinking human, the philosopher, the human with the power to own his own choices, to see beyond the limited chessboard, he/she radiates a stark contrast between what might be considered artificial intelligence, and intelligence: the ability to recognize the ideological structures at work.
Theory around ideological structures has been explored widely by the famed Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in his seminal work “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” I would now like to expand on Althusser’s concept of ideology; here is where the dreamy containing shell of the film Waking Life takes on meaning in its own right. Waking Life is foremost, outside the philosophical reflections, a boy in a dream, a dream that he cannot wake from—a false awakening, a nightmare. Similarly and quite appropriately, Louis Althusser describes his notion of ideology as resembling a dream: “Ideology, then, is an imaginary assemblage (bricolage), a pure dream, empty and vain" (Althusser 160). Like the Waking Life protagonist, we live in a finite-spaced dream-world—a room painted on all four walls by ideology. Like the dreams we experience in our sleep, our very entrance in life occurs all-of-a-sudden; we are planted in a house, our memory begins to congeal at 3 or 4 years of age; we have a family, perhaps a father, a mother, or even siblings. How we got into this particular family is outside the scope of memory. But eventually, like many in their dreams, when nothing else can be seen, the present is accepted unequivocally as a reality.
Furthermore, Althusser went on to define two distinct constructions that frame his understanding of ideology. One part is called the State Apparatus (SA) (sometimes referred to as the “Repressive” State Apparatus) and the other is called the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). The State Apparatus is a necessary component for enforcing our reality. It can be described as the cold foundational groundwork—the muscle layer—of this system. Enforcement officials, like the police, the army, the courts, are all examples of SAs. They exist as an underlying threat to any that may challenge the limits of the dominant ideology. Although this component of the system is essential and foundational to the operation, an Ideology cannot function solely by fear—by a State Apparatus alone. It is not enough to threaten with bullets and death, or life-imprisonment to keep the system afloat. The system must be held together first—and most pivotally—by ideology. For example, a parent may chasten a child when they are not performing well in school. But as the child progresses in their studies, the fear of punishment is no longer enough to keep him/her in school; students don’t apply for graduate school, or earn their doctorate because of a fear their parents may chasten them. There is then something greater at work here: an acceptance and perpetuation of ideology—the ISAs.
The novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, two dystopian narratives, provide great examples of these two distinct apparatuses defined by Althusser in staunch effect. The threat of the SA units in Nineteen Eighty-Four are presented right from the second paragraph of the novel via the image of an eerie ubiquitous poster, “…one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran” (Orwell 2). Even the sense of the SA as a Byzantine, foreboding, structure can be read right from the architectural description of its building:
“The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all.…It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons” (Orwell 4-5).
As mentioned, an SA by itself cannot sustain ideology.
This fact is made particularly evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main
character, Winston, towards the 3rd part of the novel, is arrested
and kept in prison for “Thought Crime” (illegal under the dominant ideology in
The ISAs then are the main pipeline for transporting the principles of Ideology onto its subjects. They are also a great deal more subtle than SAs. Althusser offers plenty of examples of common ISAs: the church, the family unit, communications, et al. Where the SAs might metaphorically stand for the hands of the Ideology, the ISAs are the brain-unit. They ensure that a certain prescribed set of beliefs are continuously pumped through all subjects of the system.
Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel Brave New World offers more examples of ISAs in action. For instance, in the novel, new fledged mass-bred children are “given” their moral convictions through the process of sleep-teaching hypnosis, which the book terms hypnopaedia. Axioms that exhort the tenets of the dominant Ideology are whispered sententiously in a loop for thousands of repetitions until it is internalized by the hearer. Most of this “moral education” consists of engraving a type of caste system onto the society, privileging one group of the populous over an other, and establishing stereotypes before they are even understood: “Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta” (Huxley 28). According to the novel’s Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, the justification for such measures is that “[m]oral education…ought never, in any circumstances, to be rational" (26). Belief systems, prejudice, and morals become nothing more than regurgitation. And, with the closed-knit community that exists in Brave New World, where privacy is perfidy, every person is in essence an ISA—a mouthpiece of propaganda, an apparatus of furthering the ideology. Whenever someone takes a misstep within the society, a neighboring person, quickly offers the requisite dictum to help the fallen comrade (often pointing towards more drugs, or “soma”, the answer to almost everything).
But of course, ISAs, SAs, and their part in furthering ideology are not limited to dystopian fiction. They exist even in our present reality. One of the most powerful ISAs in modern society is the media. The media, through its myriad outlets into every home (through television, newspaper, radio, computer) shapes and/or influences almost all of our notions of reality. Like the telescreen from Nineteen Eighty-Four that ceaselessly spouts out propaganda into homes, televisions of modern day endlessly run commercials creating illusory needs and wants in our lives. They even candidly admit their use of psychological techniques like subliminal messaging and repetition to enhance their effect. This might easily segue into a discussion on the Marxist notions of “surplus value” and “surplus products” which are further enlarged by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall in his essay “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees.” The term “surplus value” in this context can be defined as the additional value placed on top of an object’s labor-production value. We might wonder why a Prada handbag or a Dolce & Gabbana pair of pantaloons seem to have prices well exceeding what is typically appraised for their respective functions. Surplus value is a mystical form of worth added to an object that cannot be easily reducible or itemized (Hall 28). Television and commercials contribute to the surplus value of an object, often creating an elevated desire and want for a specific item that would not exist otherwise.
And although we may suffer through commercials to get to the underlying television program we are watching, the programs themselves are not a break from the furthering of ideology. MTV and some older popular shows like “Total Request Live,” and “The Real World,” as well as even seemingly innocuous sitcoms all help sustain a certain Ideology. Seeing a teenager in ripped Abercrombie shorts and a tribal band tattoo among so much mirth and jocularity, with sexual innuendos and promiscuity being favored, imply in many respects what a teenager ought to do, how a teenager should dress. Some even propose that the controlled rebellion that takes place within a venue like MTV are a way to quell or displace adolescent energy that may otherwise be directed at Ideology itself. An online article entitled “Sex, commercials, rock 'n' roll (Roll of MTV)” describes further the paradoxical image of MTV as outwardly subversive though subtly pushing only commercial interests and “status quo”:
“[MTV is] the most contradictory of all successful commercial media today. MTV--rooted in the culture of rebellion out of which rock 'n' roll was born, yet committed to packaging and selling consumerism and the status quo--does a fascinating, sometimes dangerous little dance along the fault lines of corporate capitalism” (Highbeam).
Media is of course a mammoth parent category covering a large expanse of different outlets. One such subcategory of particular power and notice is the news media. The news media are the controllers of how reality is seen and digested within the dominant Ideology. Despite incessant protestations of fair, balanced, objectivity, true objectivity can never be attained. Like Derrida’s deconstructive attack against the word “purity” as an elusive ideal, “objectivity” is itself a term that defies containment (Deutchser 2). Even with controlled tone of voice, or a conscious avoidance to editorialize, the simple act of deciding what to report (and what not to report) is already a subjective act. Some news mediums have forgone any attempt to conceal a sense of biasness in the reports. Fox News is a good example of this; for it is thoroughly and universally implied that this news source adjusts all their content to align with a certain political agenda (Slate Magazine). And even despite this overt form of distortion, Fox News is the number one cable news provider, boasting the highest rating—second-place going to CNN (Guthrie).
In addition to the media, churches,
and even family, are examples of ISAs according to Althusser. While both of
these entities seem harmless enough, it is important to recognize that they are
not exempt from their role in supporting and propagating dominant Ideology. The
family that doesn’t submit will be destitute, outcast, and ostracized, and the church
that doesn’t align is given cultish labeling. For example, what if your family
chose to build a flagpole and instead of hanging a flag of the
Yet although ideology can threaten and constrict, the biggest attack, or threat, against ideology is the act of conscious abstracted thought. This is what most subjects within an ideology can boast of not doing—thinking abstractly. In our modern day, abstract thought is minimized. Those that spend life thinking on existence or questioning ideology do not typically receive well-paying jobs, are not glorified within the system, or encouraged in any way. The threat is in exposure. Lucie Irigaray in her essay “Women in the Market” provides an interesting look at how ideology has situated the male and female relationship. One of her premises is that females have become commodified to the extent that male to female relationships, are in fact really a form of male to male relationships; that there exists an inherent unity and understanding between males for the exchanging of female, while their own intimate relationship between each other in the exchange is homosexual in essence. Without moving deeper into her argument, I want to borrow from Irigaray a certain passage that talks on the threat of exposure. Her explanation for why explicit homosexuality—as we might label it—is disapproved within society despite her contention of pervading hom(m)sexuality is very revealing in context to the danger of abstracted thought: “[W]hy are homosexuals ostracized, when society postulates homosexuality? Unless it is because the ‘incest’ involved in homosexuality has to remain in the realm of pretense" (Irigaray 172). Similarly, those that might engage in abstract discourse in order to flesh out ideology are ostracized, minimized, and considered deleterious to the health of the State. Ideology needs to remain in the intangible realm of pretense, and away from direct discourse, to continue to rule with the same gossamer virulence and avoid being challenged.
Mostly, our roles are gestures towards a subject position. Ideology, instead of being vivisected and explored critically, is assimilated by us through a process Althusser describes as interpellation. This concept is defined well by Nick Couldry, in his book Inside Culture, stating it as "…[the] constituting [of] concrete individuals as subjects...the means by which individuals are recruited to the subject positions made available in 'ideology'" (Couldry 11). As “concrete individuals” we are hailed by an ideology—, “Hey you,”—and the very moment we respond to this hail, either by a vocal recognition or the physical act of turning around, is the moment of interpellation, the moment we take on a subject position—become an object, become a chess piece.
Of course, interpellation, the reduction of an individual into a subject position—subjected to Ideology—is a bleak notion seemingly mired within a dark cloud of pessimism and paranoia. But perhaps it might alleviate—or further darken—one’s anxiety by suggesting that for the most part, interpellation is unavoidable. Even Louis Althusser admits this eventuality, stating that even from birth, a new born “is certain in advance that it will bear its Father's Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable” (106). However, knowledge is powerful, and if anything, awareness can loosen some of the grip of ideology, allowing one to at least hold on to the “few cubic centimeters inside [one’s] skull” that may still remain quintessentially you (Orwell 27).
Ultimately, it must be recognized that thought and ration when submerged and aligned to Ideology, are not truly thought and ration. Instead, they are more like chess, a governed move in finite space. When we no longer have the power to own our thoughts and convictions—when they merely conform to something prescribed—our presumed dominance over the world, over the Animal Kingdom for instance, is just that, presumed. We become just a permutation among a set of possibilities, a calculation, a formula: artificial intelligence. While it may in fact be impossible to evade subjection to dominant Ideology, seeing the process in a more transparent light, glimpsing some of its machinery—its apparatuses—may be enough to give us a chance to rescue some of own rationality—some of our integrity, some of life, back.
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