Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Governing Mimetic Desire: Kissinger, Girard and Scapegoating

One of the comments at my blog mentioned Kissinger’s new essay on Artificial Intelligence , “How the Enlightenment Ends”:
Henry Kissinger (2018, June). How the Enlightenment Ends. The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/henry-kissinger-ai-could-mean-the-end-of-human-history/559124/
How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them? 
Ultimately, the term artificial intelligence may be a misnomer. To be sure, these machines can solve complex, seemingly abstract problems that had previously yielded only to human cognition. But what they do uniquely is not thinking as heretofore conceived and experienced. Rather, it is unprecedented memorization and computation. ...  By treating a mathematical process as if it were a thought process, and either trying to mimic that process ourselves or merely accepting the results, we are in danger of losing the capacity that has been the essence of human cognition.
It is a very articulate and interesting article, reflecting many concerns raised by activists and academics.

At a practical level, what is particularly interesting is Kissinger’s call for a presidential commission composed of "eminent thinkers" aimed at developing a national vision. Kissinger wants the AI terrain to be mapped in order that a set of strategies can be developed to control the terrain. 

What are the risks that must be contained by AI? 

Although Kissinger names many risks, one that stands out to me is its alleged promotion of a politics of resentment:
The impact of internet technology on politics is particularly pronounced. The ability to target micro-groups has broken up the previous consensus on priorities by permitting a focus on specialized purposes or grievances. Political leaders, overwhelmed by niche pressures, are deprived of time to think or reflect on context, contracting the space available for them to develop vision.  The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection. (Kissinger 2018)
I find this theme to actually be a meme. The theme/meme is that the Internet empowers radicalism and promotes resentment and scapegoating.

The intellectual foundation of this meme is that AI promotes mimetic desire (a la Girard), as illustrated in this commentary on Kissinger's essay here:
Michael Egnor (2018, May 28). Kissinger and Girard on Artificial Intelligence. Evolution News. https://evolutionnews.org/2018/05/kissinger-and-girard-on-artificial-intelligence/
AI’s greatest threat to our civilization is its leveraging of contagion. Ideas spread via the Internet faster—almost instantaneously — than we can reflect on them. We see it already, in the rapid destruction of the reputations and livelihoods of people who run afoul of the internet mob. This is just the beginning; targeting and destruction of individuals and ideas via Internet contagion is in its infancy. It will grow.  
One man understood this contagion in a remarkably profound way. RenĂ© Girard was a 20th century literary scholar and philosopher who studied the mimetic contagion of desires and the destruction (and, ironically, the cohesiveness) it fosters. He believed that mimetic contagion and our methods to control it are the cornerstone of religion and civilization. Kissinger has rightly and perceptively raised the important questions about AI and our civilization. Girard answers them. 
The work of philosopher RenĂ© Girard is suddenly in vogue in unusual places, such as the June 2-3 2018 Review section of The Wall Street Journal and Evolution News, cited above. 

In particular, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is being used to describe the vital force and risks driving media contagion. 

The vital force is mimetic desire, which is not productive as compared to imitation according to Girard, and the mechanism for managing this desire when it becomes metaphysical is scapegoating, a kind of politics of resentment.

I’ve not read Girard, although his work is now on my list. That said, a helpful review at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that that scapegoating ultimately fails (for rather obvious reasons) and that only a total withdrawal of violence can satiate untrammeled mimesis:
"The inefficacy of the scapegoat mechanism will bring even more violence. The way to restore peace is not through the scapegoat mechanism, but rather, through the total withdrawal of violence." (Gabriel Andrade http://www.iep.utm.edu/girard/).
I like this aspect of Girard’s philosophizing. Peace can only be restored through the total withdrawal of violence.

What I don’t like is the rather disconnected appropriation of his idea of mimetic desire, cast as the most significant threat from AI and the Internet more generally. 

For example, Egnor (cited above) argues that AI's greatest risk derives from “its leveraging of contagion” in a kind of “internet mob” that leads to the “destruction of the reputations and livelihoods of people who run afoul” of this mob.. https://evolutionnews.org/2018/05/kissinger-and-girard-on-artificial-intelligence/

What Egnor means by AI "leveraging of contagion" isn't entirely clear. 

However, one reading of Egnor's comment is that the primary problem with AI is it will promote human mimesis. 

This reading blunts Girard's ideas, in all their nuances and interpretive possibilities, shaping them into an instrument that could be deployed by elites who want to argue that the primary risk posed by the Internet is the contagion of ideas that damage reputations (Girard's idea of scapegoating).

Although I do not deny this risk exists, that people or organizational reputations might be unduly damaged, I also think it appropriate to distinguish moral reform and social responsibility campaigning from vicious and personalized trolling.

Let us consider Monsanto as an example:  Did you notice that in the recent acquisition by Bayer of Monsanto that the latter’s name will no longer be used. I’m not surprised. Monsanto’s corporate identity has been damaged by Internet circulation of scientific studies, news reports, and visual memes challenging the company’s ethics and risk management. A Google image search would turn up all sorts of critical memes that helped circulate critique.

However, rather than seeking to engage with the criticism leveled against the company, Monsanto’s solution is to disappear from public view, reappearing under a healthier, although still critiqued brand identity (following model set forward by Blackwater and most recently deployed by Cambridge Analytica).

The mob can inflict damage when incited by moral outrage. Is this moral outrage simply a result of mimetic desire or can that moral outrage be rooted in “real angst” as described by Anna Freud as a kind of anxiety produced by upheavals in material existence, as experienced by the uprooted children she studied in England during WWII.

Does the public have real reasons for targeting Monsanto that can be argued using formally agreed upon principles of argumentation and empirical evidence?

The danger of appropriating Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is that selective referencing may allow the concept to be used to legitimize new controls through AI that I’ve been describing and documenting in my blog.

Censorship could be justified as stopping the amplification of mimetic desire into its most pathological expressions and effects, such as "scapegoating."

For example, some Japanese businesses have complained of the "reputation damage" posed by circulating memes concerning radioactive contamination, such as the popularity of geiger counter recordings and images across Internet platforms.

The circulations of the mob are dangerous and unpredictable and most be controlled, the logic follows, or they shall cause reputational damage....

Majia's Blog: Truth and Sophistry and the Crisis of Communication


  1. They came pretty close to cutting off the internet for most people, by ending net neutrality. Maybe they still will.

  2. Considering the corporate elites-covetous, obsession with mind control and micro-managing,  I would say the kissinger article is scary. The impact of the internet on politics, maybe overrated. The corporate elites still  use more hardball tactics like primaries manipulation, like gerrymandering, voter suppression, and outright voting fraud through electronic voting fraud to get what they want than internet control. They can use internet control as a dishonest, foil meme to further throw people off track, from what is really going on, as well.

    The antinuclear movement is the most important force in the world now, to prevent short term and long term armageddon.
    In britain, their nuclear national security apparatus, has been successful in derailing antinuclear resistance, through thugery, government infiltration of the green party and massive information fraud.
    In japan i feel they do it by actual ballot box stuffing.
    After fukushima the spooks, nucleoapes, and greed freaks, have used a divide and conquer strategy using three different fronts in the United states: 

    1. The blatant pronuclear paid shills Like rod adams and the new ones from australia 

    2.The extreme conspiracy nuts, who pretend to be antinuclear. They divert, and try to disgrace valid antinucs, with every psychotic meme and rabbit hole possible. Patti b on enenenews, was an example. Some people still ask me, when I bring up fukushima, if I am a conspiracy nut.

    3. Then there are the ones, that claim nuclear reactors, nuclear warships, nuclear weapons are an idiological issue. This is galling, in light of the psychosis of nuclear bombs and nuclear war consequences.  
    Like their rich oligarch heros,  tinsoldier MIC heros and spook mentors, they will say that it is important to maintain some nuclear arsenal, to thwart those damned commies! They also claim that some nuclear power is essential, putting them in the same boat as the pronuke shills. They claim it is not the place of government to shut down nukes, because government regulation of industry is amoral. Then they will not stand against govt subsidization of nukes. 
    It is ironic, that the same shitty governments that helped create the awful nuclear messes, are usually the only thing, with the resources to shut them down and, help cleanup the msess. Like in Germany.

  3. AI is another fascinating novelty removed from another Pandora's Box. Will it be as thrilling and dangerous as nuclear energy? Or fiddling with genetics?

  4. Artificial Intelligence implies of course that there is genuine intelligence, just as artificial vanilla implies that there is real vanilla that the artificial stuff imitates. So we need to ask what the difference is between real intelligence and the ersatz stuff. Any volunteers? How about one entails consciousness, that mysterious something or other. Meanwhile we can doubt that AI has feeling but could perhaps simulate it. Now I can use my calculator to find the square root of 10 or I can calculate it myself. What would it be like to have AI write a condolence letter to a friend whose wife had died? Would something be missing? Could I trust AI to sort through my possessions including emails and discard what was no longer needed or valued? How would AI manage "Sophie's Choice"? Could AI substitute for a jury and the judge? Can all of human existence be reduced to algorithms? Would not that mean we were just machines? Are we? Do we have free will? Would AI have free will? If it did would we be safe from AI? Would it make sense to say that AI had a religious and spiritual life and believed in God? It might. At what point does simulation cease and the real emerge?

  5. Perhaps Kissinger is coordinating the rhetoric with CFR


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