What Is Neurocapitalism and Why Are We Living In It?

We speak with radical Italian author Giorgio Griziotti about the future of work, the economy, and ourselves.

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Oct 18 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Psyberartist/Flickr

It's a fact: we are bang in the middle of the Anthropocene. We have changed the destiny of our planet and its ecosystems, to the point that human actions have become as powerful as that of plate tectonics or ice ages. All this we owe to two essential elements: human stupidity, and technology. Human stupidity is a constant throughout history, but without the help of technology, we could never have, over the centuries, managed to do such an extraordinary thing as cram the Earth's atmosphere full of chemicals.

But somehow, technology is also a constant in our lives. It is by using tools that we gradually distinguished ourselves from monkeys. Today, phones are at the heart of our social life, computers our main work tools, and biotechnology (such as pacemakers) literally have the power of life and death over us. The more complex society becomes, the more that technological tools intimately mix with socio-political, economic and cultural dynamics.

Image: Flickr/Ubé

In his book Neurocapitalismo (Mimesis, 2016), Giorgio Griziotti highlights our symbiosis with technology and its impact on social life. A tool that is essential for progress and sometimes an instrument for revolution, technology can also act as the Warrant Officer for anyone seeking to control others. The book—soon to be translated into French, English and Spanish—takes capitalism, which was forged at a time when there was only the question of surplus value and means of production, and looks at it through the prism of a modern world that is veering towards post-humanism. If technological advances have enabled us to transform the world to this point, who says they are not at work transforming us too?

I met Giorgio on a sunny afternoon to talk with him about his book, Apple, traffic lights and transhumanism. He insisted that I address him with the informal "tu", because despite his white hair, he is still, basically, the same left-wing militant from the 70s, when he was forced into exile in France for political reasons.

Motherboard: Where did you get the idea for this book, Neurocapitalism?
Giorgio Griziotti: This book is the fruit of my two greatest passions: politics and technology. I was interested in software from the beginning of my studies, I studied IT when these technologies were in their infancy, and have worked for years in this field. But I've always been very interested in politics and I myself am still involved with it (which has allowed me to travel the world... [laughs]), and I wanted to study more closely the links between these two passions.

At that time, at the University of Berkeley, we were witnessing the birth of the anti-Vietnam War movement, but also that of the first free software. That's how I realized that all this was deeply connected.

Technology and politics?
Yes, technology has always influenced us, it has fundamentally changed our subjectivity since prehistoric times. Early in the book, I mention the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey with the monkey who, by picking up a bone to use as a weapon, invented the first tool.

Since the 90s, technology has become more invasive, and we have seen the birth of true hybrid subjectivities. Technology is no longer just a tool, an instrument for interaction with the world; it becomes part of our subjective experience.

What specifically distinguishes neurocapitalism? Who, what, should we be wary of?
One could say that, compared to the industrial capitalism that Marx described, we are now entering a cognitive and biocognitive era of capitalism. Factories still exist, but they are no longer at the heart of politics. We have moved from a time when the driving force of all activity was accumulation in the physical sense, to a society based on performance and the exploitation of life in a broader sense. Whether you are working or just spending time in front of a screen, it is a form of production, and cognitive capitalism exploits this for its own profit.

Our economy is based on knowledge and information. Capitalism in Silicon Valley, which is part of the financial machine, founded its own power on its mastery of algorithms and ability to manipulate our attention, and even space-time.

Recently, the city of Augsburg, in Germany, installed traffic signals on the ground for pedestrians who have their eyes on their smartphone. What do you think of this? Is this a way for the "system" to encourage us to stay glued to our devices?
In a way, yes. In any case, it's certainly not an invitation to adopt a critical approach. In a passage of my book, I write that time devours the territory: cognitive capitalism does not want us to admire the scenery...

Smartphones are also a way to work permanently. Historically, the boundary between private life and work disappeared along with the factory, when autonomous and precarious work appeared. Production and living are now intertwined, precisely because of the new technologies.

"The identity of the human being, because of technological progress, is undergoing a profound change"

Apple, in the controversy when it opposed the FBI over encryption, appeared to the world as a kind of "defender of privacy." While in the end, it is they who invented the smartphone...
In my view, Apple has taken a façade position. Would that not be because it is a company that sells software which it owns, and which is conservative by nature? And in this case, Apple is trying, clumsily, to embody a libertarian or anarcho-capitalist position in this debate, arguing that individual freedom is more important than the community. And I, quite honestly, do not agree with this view.

Your discourse is part of the debate on biopolitics, is it not?
Yes, the Empire trilogy by Hardt & Negri and Foucault's thought in general are part of my main sources of inspiration. Drawing on their concepts, I thought about our relationship to the smartphone and similar technologies. Foucault, for example, could not have imagined in his time the incredible changes that would occur in this area.

I coined the concept of "biohypermedia", which I have defined as "a context in which the body in its entirety connects to networked devices so intimately that they enter into symbiosis and modify each other."

The old data processing centres of yesteryear, or today's computers, stimulate and encompass the rational sphere of the brain, the left hemisphere. Items like the smartphone or the smartwatch, conversely, speak directly to our emotions and our bodies. I explain in Neurocapitalism that Foucault's biopolitics is taking on a technological dimension. The control of individuals, thanks to devices, extends to their senses and emotions, it becomes granular—one has only to witness the extent of monitoring carried out through [malware] deployed by states.

What is the impact of neurocapitalism on contemporary humans?
As I said, people and technologies have somehow merged. We are in an era in the making, almost becoming a machine; but for now, we have no certainty about our future. The concept of posthuman as defined by the philosopher Rosi Braidotti is a perfect example of what I mean: the identity of the human being, because of technological progress, is undergoing a profound change. But Rosi's vision of things is probably a bit too optimistic: if the posthuman includes a new emerging subjectivity, it is possible (but not a given) that we will see the coming of an anti-capitalist ethic where income and profit will not be the driving forces.

But in the current context, all skills, all creative abilities, are commodities. If you are recruited to participate in a project, your skill corresponds to a commodity for which they pay you little and which they then resell for a profit. And truth be told, without awareness and without struggles to create lines of flight opposed to neoliberalism, there is no guarantee that we will see the birth of a different ethic. And even post-humanism, assuming that we reach it one day, will remain marked by the economic rationality which currently dominates.

What do you think then of transhumanism, which rejoices in the progressive hybridization between humans and technology and wants to encourage it?
Transhumanism is a philosophy that is well suited to Silicon Valley's neoliberalism. A recent article in Le Monde described it as religion 3.0: the becoming-machine turns into becoming-God (by which is meant immortality, which we are supposed to attain by merging with technology).

But if we look at things differently, transhumanism continues the Enlightenment tradition that I critique early in the book, and that I now consider outdated. This does not mean that we cannot use technology to enhance, intensify or prolong our lives, but as psychiatrists and psychologists teach us, to see humans as omnipotent and immortal is often a sign of serious diseases... To conclude, I would simply say that we should not underestimate the importance of the debate on the ethical, political and social purpose of the use of these technologies.

This story was originally published on Motherboard Italy. It was translated by Jenny Bright and edited by Fausto Giudice Фаусто Джудиче فاوستوجيوديشي.