Michael Swanwick, Wild Minds

Michael Swanwick’s 1998 short story “Wild Minds” (which I found in the collection The Best of Michael Swanwick) offers a different angle on the issues most recently raised by Scott Bakker’s Neuropath. The story is set in a future world in which “the workings of the human brain were finally and completely understood” by science. As a result, traditional “education” is no longer necessary, since everything can be “learned” by direct bioelectrochemical manipulation: “anybody could become a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, provided they could spare the month it took to absorb the technical skills.” The complete understanding of the brain also renders traditional notions of guilt, crime, and punishment irrelevant. The narrator of the story has committed a murder; but he recalls that “a panel of neuroanalysts had found me innocent by virtue of a faulty transition function and, after minor chemical adjustments and a two-day course on anger control techniques, had released me onto the street without prejudice.”

In a world where the human brain is completely understood, there is no more learning ‘for its own sake’; nor is education a job requirement. Instead, “most corporations simply educated their workforce themselves to whatever standards were currently needed.” Isn’t this the logical next step, under our current regime of cognitive capitalism? The “valorization” of capital now takes place 24/7, in leisure time as well as in work time, in the processes of circulation and consumption, no less than in those of “production” proper. The automation of education by direct manipulation of the brain would seem to validate Rancière’s axiom of equality, his insistence upon the generic propensity to learn that is equal in all human beings, all intelligences. Yet, far from being liberating, or even resulting in a greater measure of social equality, the mobilization of this generic propensity results in a further exacerbation of corporate control, with its invidious distinctions and its incessant accumulation of capital. Corporations have learned to commodify and exploit, not just “labor power” in the classic sense, but also, and above all, that “general intellect” which (according to Negri, Lazzarato, et al) is the true source of wealth in the postmodern or post-Fordist era. General intellect has been technologized to the point where it can be installed in any given individual at will (and if you can afford the investment — as corporations can). It is therefore entirely open to be exploited for the extraction of surplus value.

In other words, neither the equalization of intelligences, nor the movement of “real subsumption” that leads from the factory floor to the common activities of humankind, is in the least bit liberatory.

Now, it’s become almost a cliche these days to warn against “the kind of remorselessly monopolist accounts of capitalism that act as a kind of intellectual and political bulldozer,” and thereby overlook real possibilities of resistance and a new sort of politics (I am quoting Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory, p. 23). I am inclined to think, however, that this is one kind of criticism that needs to be inverted. There has been way too much unwarranted celebration recently of the alleged creativity of fan cultures and the like, and of “empowered” consumers. If such activities are “political,” then they only point up the irrelevance and lack of import of any sort of “politics” that focuses only on “domination” and “empowerment,” and ignores the harsh realities of political economy. Part of what I like about Swanwick’s fable is that it assumes this point as a background assumption, without calling attention to it, or didactically insisting upon it.

In any case, corporate control of the automated education process isn’t the only point of “Wild Minds.” There’s worse. “With knowledge so cheap, the only thing workers had to sell was their character: their integrity, prudence, willingness to work, and hard-headed lack of sentiment.” These are indeed the qualities of character that the new “flexible” and “innovative” capitalism requires. It needs people who will not just contribute during working hours, but devote all of themselves to whatever project is at hand; and yet with a sufficient lack of sentimental attachment that, once any given project is over, they will move on without regret or nostalgia to something entirely different. And, given the technology that results from a complete understanding of the human mind, it turns out that this kind of character formation can also be achieved by technological means: “it was discovered that a dozen spiderweb-thin wires and a neural mediator the size of a pinhead would make anybody as disciplined and thrifty as they desired. Fifty cents worth of materials and an hour on the operating table would render anybody eminently employable.”

This process is called “optimization.” It leads to a “blessed clarity that filled my being,” the narrator says; or, more objectively, it leads to an “absolute clarity of thought, even during emergencies. Freedom from prejudice and superstition. Freedom from the tyranny of emotion.” Instead, when you are optimized you have access to “information” that previously you had “ignored or repressed.” When you’re optimized, you realize that (just as Nietzsche said, or as The Argument in Bakker’s Neuropath says) there is no such thing as “free will,” and hence no responsibility. “Self is an illusion. The single unified ego that you mistake for your ‘self’ is just a fairy tale that your assemblers, sorters, and functional transients tell one another.” And so, during a brief simulation of what it is like to be optimized, the narrator finds himself “not regretting a thing. I knew it wasn’t my fault. Nothing was my fault, and if it had been that wouldn’t have bothered me either. If I’d been told that the entire human race would be killed five seconds after I died a natural death, I would’ve found it vaguely interesting, like something you see on a nature program. But it wouldn’t have troubled me.”

Optimization makes for perfect corporate employees. I would think, as well, that it makes for the sort of “bright,” rational, and illusion-free personality type so desired by rationalist crusaders like Richard Dawkins. Indeed, one of the effects of optimization is that it leads almost immediately to the rejection of any prior religious beliefs: their delusive, compensatory quality simply becomes too obvious, and is no longer required. And so, when optimization becomes possible, “the ambitious latched onto [it] as if it were a kite string that could snatch them right up into the sky… Acquiring a neural mediator was as good as a Harvard degree used to be. And — because it was new, and most people were afraid of it — optimization created a new elite.” The optimized are uber-yuppies, living in buildings that are all “shimmering planes and uncertain surfaces… buildings that could never have been designed without mental optimization, all tensengricity and interactive film.” The optimized are separate from the “obsolete people” who have not had the operation; they are virtually a new species, and indeed they “don’t claim to be human.”

The narrator of “Wild Minds,” however, is a reactionary and an ironist; he chooses not to be optimized, and he fervently embraces the illusions and consolations of religion. He clings to Catholicism’s sense of guilt, repentance, and possible redemption. “The thought,” he says, “that a silicon-dosed biochip could make me accept [the murder he committed] as an unfortunate accident of neurochemistry and nothing more, turns my stomach.” He clings to his sense of guilt precisely because he knows that after optimization he would no longer feel this way; that doing what turns his stomach would insure that it would no longer turn his stomach. He accepts that “being human” is no longer “essential”; yet he “cling[s] to the human condition anyway, out of nostalgia perhaps but also, possibly, because it contains something of genuine value.” “Wild Minds” works as a story precisely because its defense of the “human” against the “posthuman” is so nuanced and hinged with irony; the story wouldn’t be in the least convincing if it preached the eternal verities of the human condition in the usual pompous and high-minded terms. Everything depends upon two crucial points, I think. In the first place, the posthumanity that so many of us have imagined over the last several decades is largely a corporate fantasy; it basically envisions re-engineering “human nature” in line with the demands of what David Harvey has called “flexible accumulation,” or of what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello describe as “the new spirit of capitalism.” And in the second place, no humanist nostalgia about our essential inner being or spirit is able to undermine or interrupt the scientific discovery, at an ever-accelerating pace, of the actual ways that our brains work, of the material (bioelectric, biochemical, neurological) basis of thought. What we need, instead, is to comprehend how these discoveries are pragmatic and operational, rather than essential or foundational; they are oriented to power and efficacy, to the ways that the brain can be transformed, manipulated, and controlled. In refusing optimization, the narrator of “Wild Minds” acknowledges (far from questioning) the efficacy of such a procedure. And thereby, he challenges us to imagine — even if he himself cannot — a posthuman transformation that would not merely serve the agendas of capital, and of what used to be called (how quaint this title appears today) “instrumental reason.”

8 thoughts on “Michael Swanwick, Wild Minds”

  1. What a depressing scenario Swanwick describes. Aside from the brain-body causality, it almost seems like an ironic (albeit justified) inversion of Spinoza’s liberatory necessitarianism. In the “Wild Minds” scenario, knowledge of determination and the impossibility of free choice does not lead to a paradoxical form of freedom, but–quite predictably–to even greater levels determination and control.

    But there are questions as to the technological and psychological viability of optimization. It works as fable, but I think it’s possible to suggest that many human minds would resist such a total subsumption of agency, w/out appealing to a foundational notion of human nature. It seems likely that even if they’re simply illusory and highly conditioned habits, selfhood and a sense of personal agency may have structurally central psychological functions, and that attempts to tweak them may therefore result in major malfunctions of the self-system. So perhaps the regime of cognitive capitalism cannot achieve the total closure of “Wild Minds”–which would meant that we can have resistance w/out Mother Church.

  2. It works as fable, but I think it’s possible to suggest that many human minds would resist such a total subsumption of agency, w/out appealing to a foundational notion of human nature.

    Not if you dumb them down i.e. optimization becomes the exact opposite.

    I do think that Stanislav Lem once solved the paradox of the highest mind that is dedicated to be the best slave more thoroughly in his “Golem XIV” novel. The story is a variant of the theme of the “machine that escapes human intentions” and Lem didn’t assume some metaphysical quality of a free will but rather the autonomy of a reflective calculus. Either one creates a dumb machine or the machine penetrates the barrier of reason and escapes its original determination and enfolds its own intricate complex computational state. Golem XIV rejects the concept of selfhood and holds it for a “human defect”.

    The basic story-setting of Golem XIV wasn’t “cognitive capitalism” btw. but strategic game play at times of the cold war. The Pentagon built some supercomputers as ultimate strategists to beat the Russians. This was quite more challenging than placing Google ads. Capitalism is still too constrained by ordinary human needs that don’t even require much intelligence in the general case.

  3. I see your point, schluehk; but dumbing down would also seem to comprise a subsumption of selfhood and agency of sorts, and thus might also result in some of the incompatibilities and techo-psychological malfunctions to which I referred–and it doesn’t seem to be what Swanwick has in mind in “Wild Minds.”

  4. Swanwick’s ‘optimization’ is vaguely reminiscent of the ‘eptification’ coined by the late John Brunner for use in the sci-fi classic ‘Stand On Zanzibar’, written at the point when troop levels in Viet Nam plateaued at half a million. It refered to what happened to young men in boot camp after conscription.

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