The Market as Automata

The Conservative government recently announced their Spring budget via the near universally derided Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. My loathing for the Tories is undisguised but when they announce their budget for the year ahead it is time to pay particular attention as it describes, better than any rhetoric, what the beliefs and ideologies of Conservatives are and most importantly where their faith lies which is (and seemingly always has been) in that strange and ephemeral thing: The Market. This reliance, even dependence, on The Market demands a close examination of what it actually is, ironically something it resolutely resists. Economists, theorists and sociologists have spent centuries attempting to understand the abstract notion of one country’s market going to a market where other country’s markets are; a Common Market or a Market for Markets. Something that conjures the image in my mind of a town market of wooden stalls selling fish, fruit and vegetables piled on top of one another.

But The Market is somewhere we all sit and something all our lives are irrevocably tied to. Any job we have is apparently part of this metaphorical Market place and anything we buy is defined by this Market. What most interests me about The Market is its abstract (ultimately fictional) nature those invested in it, literally i.e. all of us are, by involvement or association, also abstracted. Dehumanised. We can see this in the language used to describe anything as soon as The Market is involved: people who buy products are ‘Consumers’, a work of creative art like a novel is a ‘Unit’, the Employed & Unemployed are reduced to a figure with no context as to the circumstances of their Employment status. In relation to this and most interestingly The Market actually responds poorly if people are humanised or a company caters to this need for context surrounding the individual that purchases goods or services. JC Penny in the States removed all reduction sales, offers and coupons from its stores and instead passed those onto the shopper by favouring low prices. It did away with attempting to fool customers with deals and treated them as adults with a respect that they would appreciate in a move to simply lower prices. Sadly, sales dropped and their Market share plummeted straight after. EA with the release of their videogame Titanfall 2 at the end of 2016, decided to buck the trend of pure profit online sales after the initial purchase of a game, seen in things like Season Passes and MicroTransactions that allow for further downloadable content, by doing away with these and treating customers with maturity and not attempting to milk further cash from a game that would already cost $60. Yet despite critical praise and a more than favourable audience response, EA found the title under performing in sales and no doubt the bucking of the Market Trend will be blamed for a significant hit in profits in their pre-Christmas sales. In short, if choice or personal/individual response is introduced to The Market it shuns this.

Yet the curious dichotomy remains that we talk about The Market as if it is a living entity or in some way is aware; it ‘responds’, it ‘moves’, it ‘dictates’. Marx in the Grundrisse says that Capital – and make no mistake when we refer to The Market we are explicitly referring to Capitalism – cannot abide limits, it has to turn it into a barrier which it then circumvents or transcends. This language of Capital consciously not abiding resistance further muddies the water by personifying The Market further. Some say this is because The Market is run by people, nations, that this anthropomorphises occurs but as stated above The Market ‘resists’ the introduction of consciousness or choice or simply our humanity. Which begs the question: what is it? Well the official answer is that it is a systemic process, an algorithm dictated by the interactions of other financial algorithms. Yet a market ‘personality’ exists, we see it in the post Referendum plummet of the Sterling and most interestingly in the crash of 2008-09 when, in a letter to the queen, leading Economists and business leaders said they “failed to account for Systemic Risk”, which put bluntly means they didn’t expect The Market to change its mind. Yes we know the crash was due to hedge funds, loans and credit reaching a critical mass but the simple fact this was not planned for or foreseen indicates an element of whim (or if you don’t agree with that then its simply supreme idiocy on the part of financiers and business leaders). Beyond this the fact that whole governments and nations bow to the deference to the all powerful, all knowing MARKET could easily be transposed to a religious context replacing that respective deity with any other. Yet I doubt any modern economist or politician would accept that they are kneeling at the alter of Financial Consciousness. It might be easier to understand both the actions of the Market (and by extension any deity’s) actions by looking at the more Economically palatable idea of Automation.

The word Automaton comes from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning self, therefore meaning ‘acting of oneself’. Today it is used when referring to robots or machines acting as people but there is an interesting legal obfuscation in the definition of the word. If you were to kill a passenger in a car because you sneezed and caused a crash this can be legally defined as ‘Death by Automata’ and you avoid personal culpability, a reflex or ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is an automated response, conscious thought and brain function is not involved when a doctor taps your knee and your lower leg springs forward. Most of our definitions of Automation rely on an attachment to, if not a reliance on, human conscious thoughts or at least our human abilities, so the idea of automation within The Market is still problematically human with its capricious changes yet continually resists our introduction. Is this independence from, yet reliance upon humanity and our choices from The Market a sign of a form of intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence has long ceased to be a question of if but when. The greatest minds in the world are trained on developments in this arena as whilst it could vastly increase our quality of life it conversely presents substantial threats to our existence not to mention the moral implications of a conscious mind not bound by the frailties of the human body. We already talk to Siri on our phones and algorithms on Google already predict our diaries, our journeys and destinations, what we buy and who we want to call. The Market is an entirely abstract entity now, the cash in our hand’s worth is dictated by digits being changed in millions of computers across the globe. We have already personified it and left it in charge of our careers and livelihoods to our great cost as we repeatedly discover but still defer to the apparently objective wisdom of this Automated System. This objectivity is supposedly The Market’s greatest strength but objectivity can be a dangerous thing. Objectivity is what we see in the animal kingdom where parents neglect or actively kill their offspring, where many animals are cannibals, or in nature where every volcano, tsunami and earthquake has no subjective interest. And need it be reminded of the existential dilemma presented by the total objectivity of the cosmos in which we sit. Objectivity provides science with some of our greatest innovations yet continually confronts us with moral dilemmas as a direct result of that objectivity coming into conflict with our human subjectivity. Scientists must often intervene with subjectivity on the objective experimentation with foetuses for discoveries within the field of stem cell research, the moral discomfort of using dead foetuses to further the health and prosperity of the human race. As such, is a purely objective Automated System really the best thing to guide our lives and political discourse?

The biggest concern, as mentioned above, is how closely this all relates to magical thinking akin to religious faith. A true regression to the pre-enlightenment era where we create causal relationships where perhaps there are none. We know this Market exists but are its movements and changes a response to our input or vice versa? Is the Market responding to titanic shifts in political power, business mergers, credit sales or are we just responding to The Market shifts?

With Thatcher’s faith in The Market still casting its long shadow, this year’s budget was a terrifying reminder that it is The Market that matters and not people. The tax hike on the self employed is an excellent example of this. With the removal of any sort of job security in the current job Market with the prevalence of zero hour contracts and utterly unreasonable demands being placed on the workforce, the financial market must be appeased with monetary recompense for these foolishly human instabilities. What is most notable about this budget is what it didn’t say and what it did not acknowledge. No mention of climate change, threats to the environment or clean energy, no mention of library closures, not even a mention of the Conservative’s manifesto that promised no increases in NI contributions. And most worryingly not a single mention of ‘Brexit’ which will undoubtedly push the Sterling into another free fall, yet Hammond comfortably made Market predictions well into the 2020s despite the very swift approach of one of the most tumultuous political eras in living memory. Again, The Market will decide. All hail The Market.

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An Alternative Life

 

There’s a scene near the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy is teaching a class and says “Archaeology is the search for Fact, not Truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall.” At a time in history that will now forever be viewed as a cataclysmic slide into retrograde beliefs and historically appalling ideologies this phrase, of all phrases, seems to strike a ringing chord for me. Celebrity Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted recently “I dream of a world where the Truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” When the gatekeepers of important political information are outright lying using what they claim are ‘alternative facts’ the Truth has suddenly become a rare but malleable commodity, akin to gold. But it very much depends on your perspective today who you believe is the alchemist. And what rare metals you believe are facts.

I spent some time sofa surfing in Brighton last year before I travelled to America where I spent Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and – importantly – the Election with my girlfriend. Whilst sofa surfing I was left to chat with my friends’ flatmate who liked a chat of an evening. His favoured topic of discussion was science. He loved it, delightfully rattled off scientific facts he had learned through casual study in his personal time and took even greater delight in pointing out the foolishness of people who had faith or believed in something that was only explainable without empirical evidence. His passion regularly made these discussions animated. At another time I was out for dinner with my work colleagues when a similar discussion came up and I happened to point out my general contempt for a Mr Richard Dawkins (not because I disagreed with his theories but I find him a singularly unpleasant fellow) to which I was taken to task, quite aggressively, by a colleague who I am still good friends with but at the time seemed to see me as akin to a child murderer. She took great objection to my dislike for a scientist and took it to mean I had no belief in the scientific method or empirical evidence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe profoundly in the scientific method, evidence based research, model projection and you ignore the findings of these at your peril. Anyone who does not recognise the contribution to society made by the scientific community is outright incorrect.

In my current under-employed state I watched through the entirety of Rick & Morty on Netflix the other day and was totally enamoured with it. Not just because it’s uniquely animated and performed, nice and short – each episode clocking in around the 20 minute mark – and genuinely funny and original but because akin to my other favourite cartoon Futurama, it is very very smart. Unlike the open sewer that is The Big Bang Theory which merely parrots scientific findings and geek culture buzzwords the writers probably find on Reddit, Rick & Morty takes huge concepts and ideas and doesn’t attempt to boil them down so they’re digestible but uses these as a premise to explore character development and story arcs, just like in y’know real life. Hanging from the paper thin premise of a knock-off Doc & Marty from Back to the Future they explore graph theory, string theory, the Post Hoc fallacy, the Uncertainty Principle and much, much more. Like Futurama it is beloved by the ever critical (and massively egotistical and arrogant) ‘Nerd’ culture, calling it a “love letter to science”. And whilst I occasionally found it glib or walking well trodden ground from other sci-fi that it was well above, I loved it too ranking it an equal favourite animation with Futurama.

And I think this is where the problem comes from.

My whole life I have never vilified religion or the religious and I still don’t. Why? Because the people against it, relishing in referring to themselves as Atheists, have come across as even more volatile, aggressive, bombastic, argumentative, determined-to-convert, rude and down right unpleasant than any ‘Religious’ zealot I have yet met. It is not a new theory but one that is spat upon today that Atheism is just as much a religion as any other. In the above mentioned conversations and so many more throughout my life, when I point out there are just as many holy books, churches, temples, priests and other religious ephemera attributed to Atheism as any other organised religion, I have been met with a (very literally) violent reaction. There are, obviously, differences between Science and Faith, namely Science has a need to demand criticism, questioning and wants to be proved wrong i.e. like life itself it wants to progress which indicates it’s probably the right path to take. However you’re slightly blinkered if you think faith hasn’t been proven wrong and developed over the course of 3 millennia. What startles me though is how staunchly any questioning of Science is refuted with the immediate appearance of mountains of evidence to support whoever’s claims are being questioned and the line of questioning duly shut down completely as if to say “that’s that put to bed.” This seems to negate the very rule which they live by, a lack of query. If, as I do, you truly believe science is for the benefit of mankind and will provide us a species with a future, this kind of questioning really shouldn’t have any impact on you or your faith (yes, Faith) in it.

What I think is missing from everyday life today – and most definitely on the internet – is Philosophy.

Let us define terms here, I am not speaking of a life philosophy or personal philosophy which everyone develops over time and throughout their life but actual Philosophy. In its simplest form this is the question ‘Why?’ to be asked of everything. And I mean everything. Sadly today it does not seem to be asked of anything. It also requires a difficult and complicated understanding of a lot of different aspects of life, culture and yes Science. This requires reading, a lot of it. In the world of the internet, long form ‘Content’ is discouraged and actively ignored in a culture of tl:dr (as this blog will attest) so the idea of reading an entire text of very difficult theorem and dialectics based on largely intangible evidence is off putting to the point of I-don’t-care. The odd youtuber tries to bring Humanities to the table of ‘Vlogs’ but they are vastly outweighed by the number of loud and proud science channels/profiles.

A few of my friends are Academics, all both doctors and lecturers in the Humanities field and all have expressed dislike of current studies in Neuroscience. They feel with computers creating graphs of emotional responses to literature, or a model for the perfect novel, something is being lost in the analytics of culture – and Humanity – by the human mind. The scientific method aims to create an objective view of the world and our universe so it can be better studied but as Heisenberg himself pointed out: “that which you study you also change”. We change the outcome by measuring it. That is because as humans we are subjective. In short: a fact is rarely an objective one.

If you’re a fan of video games like me you may have heard of GamerGate. This was a recent explosion in a particularly vile sub-section of the internet and gaming culture that found a flimsy excuse to exercise their most misogynistic tendencies and were quickly laying waste to certain websites and certain careers that didn’t align with their views under the banner “Ethics in video games journalism” whilst simultaneously being the most unethical bunch of parasites in the world. You may not have heard of them or may have forgotten them but you know them now because they’re the people who got the UK to leave the EU and got Trump elected. They’re also the idiots who tried to boycott the latest Star Wars films because they were lead by girls and talk about the entirely fictitious ‘White Holocaust’. Milo Yiannopoulos is a good example. These giant children see themselves as Geeks, Nerds, the ‘Alternative’ crowd. They consider themselves informed and erudite and coincidentally are staunch believers in empirical science. In the same way as both the leave campaign and remain campaign AND the Democrat and Republican campaigns were all pretty detestable and had ‘Facts & Figures’ to support their claims, facts – it would seem – ended up being a dangerous thing. This, for me, stems from the religion or rather the Zealotry of Atheism and/or Science. Which is where Rick & Morty comes in.

Rick & Morty is indeed about science, Rick is a scientist but the show’s strength is not it’s adherence to science it’s Rick’s ultimate contempt for it. Rick & Morty is more of a show about Philosophy, reconciling the knowledge of oneself and the universe that science brings, with our existence as a whole. Something French author and Philosopher Albert Camus referred to as The Absurd and what is generally paraphrased today as ‘Existentialism’. Ultimately a pure scientist or Atheist should end their life immediately. We have nothing to live for, nothing matters, we are cosmically insignificant, overwhelming evidence suggests humans are a negative force on planet Earth and over population is hastening us towards a swift extinction anyway. But they don’t. We thrive as a species because of science. This dichotomy, this search for meaning in a meaningless existence, is a profound and troubling question that most people shy from. Some people feign Nihilism (normally the same people who love 90s grunge) as a cool exterior or adoptive identity but true Nihilists are rare, if not totally extinct because we have generally accepted we give ourselves meaning to live. See how philosophy helped us? If we didn’t develop these theories we’d all collapse screaming into an abyss as Nietzsche would have it. Rick & Morty explores many of these challenging themes in some depth but the fact that this seems to be overlooked in favour of the science of the show I find troubling. Even the word Science to me has become troubling, or at least its usage has, in the same way as ‘Content’ has come to mean many things whilst killing the nuance of many others, this dogmatic adherence to the Saviour That Is Science is damaging in the extreme. Claiming our involvement in the world is a binary response of either Faith or Science is what got us where we are today in the west: totally divided. Both could learn from one another yet both have dug their heels in harder and harder and resist the scientific and objective method of query as well as the philosophical, less tangible method of query. Both sides sharing links to biased articles, Tim Mnchin songs, videos of Stephen Fry DESTROYING RELIGION, interviews with Climate Change denying scientists and other equally specious ‘Content’ to serve a given agenda. There’s a reason the study of Consciousness is referred to as ‘The Hard Problem’. There is a great quote from a book called Boneland by Alan Garner where a character says “I’m for uncertainty. As soon as you think you know, you’re done for. You don’t listen and you can’t hear. If you’re certain of anything, you shut the door on the possibility of revelation, of discovery. You can think. You can believe. But you can’t ‘know’.” We know an awful lot today but there is a vast gulf between information, knowledge and wisdom, a gulf most of us are happy to stand on either side of and never try to traverse.

In the first chapter of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, ‘The One Needful Thing’, the first words of the book are spoken by Mr Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is, Facts.” The book goes on to reveal Gradgrind as cold and cruel, concerned only with numbers and facts. The more I hear about facts at the moment the less inclined I am to want to listen. Not because I don’t believe in evidence or proof but because the legacy is so pernicious. Like a great band or artist who inspired a legion of rather dreadful imitators (I’m looking at poor Jeff Buckley here) the sanctity of facts has come under the wrong kind of scrutiny but for me the true damage is there is no search for Truth. After all, they’re not the same thing. Philosophy is just down the hall.

indy-0

P.S. There are some excellent articles and videos on the web about the Philosophy of Rick & Morty, Wisecrack’s in particular.

Try and have Merry Christmas

I’ve been remiss on this blog this year but I mean it’s been pretty quiet hasn’t it? Not much has happened. Will try and pick up the slack next year but feel like everything I need to say is being said online at the moment, a lot. The internet is just becoming background noise to be honest. 2017 is probably the year we start getting back to the real world as it seems we’ve been neglecting it and it has turned to complete shit. In the spirit of that, here’s you annual Christmas Poem from yours truly:


Merry Christmas Mrs. May

With snow gently lilting to the ground

Christmas lights casting their pearlescent glow

And a brass band blowing their mournful sound

Now wreaths of holly hung from doors to show

a welcome inside from a gilded tree,

mulling wine, chestnuts and the mistletoe

then comes a knocking and outside we see

wrapped up carolers singing songs we know.

“Do you have a license? And the volume’s

too loud. Make sure that brass band doesn’t stay,

I don’t think that’s a British seasonal tune

either. And mistletoe’s poisonous! No grey

area there, best take down this holly

wreath too. Is that snow white enough to play

in?” Poor No.10 (it’s not so jolly)

But have a Merry Christmas Mrs. May.

 


Also I made a Christmas song with my friend Christiana you can download for free over on Soundcloud. Click here to listen.

Be kind to each other. Except the 51% and anyone who voted Trump. Fuck them. They’re wrong and you need to tell them so and importantly show the evidence why. They don’t have facts to back up their racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia, that’s why it’s called ‘ignorance’. Fuck 2016, let’s try and make next year better.

Merry Christmas everyone!