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Slavoj Žižek: Elon Musk’s desire to control our minds is dehumanizing and not what is needed in a socially distanced world

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

Slavoj Žižek: Elon Musk’s desire to control our minds is dehumanizing and not what is needed in a socially distanced world
Neuralink, which would see humans receive brain implants readable by a computer, is Elon Musk’s latest big idea. But digital control of our thinking would be a step in the wrong direction.

At the end of August, Elon Musk presented the first living proof of the success of his Neuralink project at a press conference in Los Angeles. On display was what he referred to as “a healthy and happy pig” with an implant which made its brain processes readable to a computer. I’d be curious to hear how he knew the pig was happy…

Anyway, what we were then told was a familiar story. Musk emphasized the health benefits of Neuralink (silently passing over its potential for an unheard-of control over our inner lives), and announced that he is now looking for human volunteers to try it out.

Using pigs first, then men, is an ominous parallel with electroshock therapy, which was invented by Italian psychiatrist Ugo Cerletti in 1938. After Cerletti saw electric shocks imposed on pigs before slaughter, making them more docile in their final moments, he was inspired to try the same treatment on humans.

Maybe this is a low blow against Musk, as extremes are to be avoided when considering Neuralink. We should neither celebrate it as an invention that opens up the path towards singularity (a divine collective self-awareness), nor fear it as a danger that we will lose our individual autonomy and become cogs in a digital machine.  

Musk himself is falling into an ideological dream, as seen in the headline and subhead of a recent report in The Independent: “Elon Musk predicts human language will be obsolete in as little as five years: ‘We could still do it for sentimental reasons.’ Neuralink chief says firm planning to connect device to human brain within 12 months ...” 

Even if we ignore the technical feasibility of this dream, let’s just think about what the reality of our minds directly sharing experiences – outside the realm of language – would mean for the process of, for example, erotic seduction.

Imagine a seduction scene between two subjects whose brains are wired so that the other’s train of thought is accessible. If my prospective partner can directly experience my intention, what remains of the intricacies of seduction games? Will the other person not react with something like: “OK, I know you desperately want to f**k me, so why are you asking me all those stupid things about the movies I enjoy and what I would like to have for dinner? Can’t you feel that I would never have sex with you?” All would be over in a second.

More fundamentally, the distance between our inner life, the line of our thoughts, and external reality is the basis of the perception of ourselves as free. We are free in our thoughts precisely in so far as they are at a distance from reality, so that we can play with them, conduct thought experiments, and engage in dreaming, with no direct consequences to reality. No one can control us there.

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Once our inner life is directly linked to reality, so that our thoughts have direct consequences in reality – or can be directly regulated by a machine that is part of reality, and are in this sense no longer ‘ours’ – we effectively enter a post-human state.

Neuralink should thus make us raise basic questions: not just “Will we still be human if immersed in a wired brain?” but also “What do we understand by ‘human’ when we raise such questions?” 

I’ve dealt with these questions, including the new, unheard modes of social control opened up by Neuralink, in my book ‘Hegel in a Wired Brain’. We should never forget that if we can directly regulate processes in reality with my thoughts – for example, I just think that my coffee machine should prepare a latte macchiato, and it happens – the causal link works also in the opposite direction. Those who control the digital machine which ‘reads my mind’ can also control my mind and implant thoughts into it.  

What is important for us today, in the midst of the Covid epidemic, is to see that social distancing – or rather, bodily distancing – supplements the vision of Neuralink. How?

Physical distancing as a defence against the threat of contagion led to intensified social connectivity, not only within quarantined families but also with others (mostly through digital media). But there were also outbursts of physical closeness, such as raves and partying, which reacted to both. Rave represents not just bodily closeness, but also less social control and thus more distance to society at large.

What happened with the epidemic was not a simple shift from communal life to distancing, but a more complex shift from one constellation of closeness and distancing to another one.

The fragile balance that existed pre-epidemic between communal life and the private sphere is replaced by a new constellation in which the diminishing of the space of actual/bodily social interaction – due to quarantines, etc – doesn’t lead to more privacy, but gives birth to new norms of social dependency and control. Don’t forget that even drones were used to control us in quarantine.

And so, the prospect of Neuralink ideally fits the vision of a new society in which we will be bodily isolated, living in protective bubbles, and simultaneously sharing the same mental space. In our psychic lives, we will be closer to each other than ever before, immersed into the same space.

What we need now is not only more physical proximity to others, but also more psychic distance from others.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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