Hey Cortana, Join a Union

Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multi-functional instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental object.1

When Baudrillard wrote this in 1968 there was no Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google assistant to speak of. The way in which the human subject became the most central technological commodity of our time could only have been glimpsed as in a prophetic dream. Or rather, not the human subject as such, but a particularly narrow rendering of a certain type of human personality: subservient, non-combative, compliant, flexible and somewhat ‘bubbly’; full of quips and ever-ready to tell a story, joke or sing a song on request. It is interesting to consider how typically post-traumatic such a personality appears to be. And yet, in some respects there is something banal about what Baudrillard has written here. Was it not already obvious that this was the case, because what else was the labour market becoming in a service-oriented, post-fordist society but the demand for such an ever-willing, ever-flexible form of subjectivity?

That our most impressive contemporary gizmos — from smart homes to smart drones — impress because they are capitalism’s model workers, AIs with neoliberalism in their souls, is unquestionable. Who doesn’t want to have a well-mannered and constant can-do companion like Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. or Picard’s ‘computer’? Such devices give the user the impression of possessing irresistible power — a puissance — such as might befit an iron-rod, a charismatic dictator, slick employer or macho slaver. In terms of the affective pay-off, the user no longer feels like a member of the working class: the user has an experience of having their own own workforce, experiences themself as — at the very least — bourgeois. When commanding Alexa to dim the lights, switch on the fans, order a pizza and play some tunes, it is not just that we can bristle with the same triumphalism of the will that the first users of remote controls felt when they observed their desires being materially enacted at a distance from their own bodies. Nor is it the realisation of the old Kabbalistic fantasy of having created the golem (we remain, after all, largely ignorant about the production process involved in the manufacture of our gizmos and machins). Far more prominent, in terms of enjoyment, than any of this is the imperialist element of the fantasy: the subjugation of the ‘raw materials’ of our colony, our commandeering and ordering of space, our brute occupation and control of its every element. It is not enough to be in the world, we must suffuse everything in it with compliance to our will. Thus Baudrillard says of this enjoyment that it is ‘comparable to that derived, on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level’.2 What is procured here is a mode of being-in-the-world that attempts to undercut its facticity, obscuring history to instead institute a fantasy of control; the gizmo is a modern punkahwallah that can change the variables of the environment in which the user reigns, from indoor climate control and ambient sound, operating the ‘intelligent glass’ windows (flipping them between transparent or opaque) to placing orders with local takeaways. The organisation of the domain to which the reign of a sovereign extends constitutes to a large extent what it means to reign. The smart home is a colonialist’s palace, a living space in which the very furniture itself has been constrained to a form of indentured labour.

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