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Hacking Consciousness

Founded in San Francisco in 2013 by a former MIT roboticist, the Consciousness Hacking Meetup group has expanded to 15,000 members in 30 locations worldwide, from Bali to Berlin.[i] A tool developed by and for the Silicon Valley elite, consciousness hacking is framed in egalitarian terms. As stated on their website, their mission is “to see maximum human flourishing on a global scale.”[ii] To this end, they believe that modern technology holds a largely untapped potential. It can help facilitate “individual and collective awakening.” But what is the world we’re waking up into?

For capital, the mind is a holy grail. Today’s entrepreneurs dream of harnessing the powers of human consciousness, of unleashing its profit earning potential. In Silicon Valley, this has led to a dystopia that is marked, not by pure techno-futurism, but by the expropriation of older religious and cultural traditions. In the quest for consciousness, CEOs like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have turned to mediation and other Eastern spiritual practices. These have trickled down through organizations. Companies like Google now hire mindfulness consultants and schedule silent meditation retreats for employees.[iii]

The psychedelic traditions of the 1960s play a role as well. The newest craze in Silicon Valley is microdosing on LSD to increase productivity.[iv] Meanwhile, angel investors fly down to the Amazon to take ayahuasca with indigenous shamans, hoping to unlock the inner strength needed to compete, perhaps against another Amazon.[v] Others stock up on nootropics. The refrain, ringing across Silicon Valley and beyond, is that entrepreneurs need to tap into the mind. They need to “hack consciousness.”

As the global elite turns inward, consciousness has become an outward site of class struggle. Consciousness refers to the mental capacity of being aware of something. This is, as Hegel argued, always a reflexive process. To be aware of something means to re-present that thing to oneself. In capitalist society, representation is hemmed in by a series of moving limits. As the example of Silicon Valley depicts all too well, consciousness has become marshalled towards the ends of economic growth, here in the form of entrepreneurialism, innovation, and holistic corporate culture. Increasingly, it seems, we are unable to think our way out of the impasse. Instead, thought itself has become bound to the profit motive – trapped within the circuits of capital. We’re left with a portfolio of spectacular images, from corporate shamans to hallucinating CEOs.

Meanwhile, in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, the immiserated are forced into mind-numbing jobs, taking orders at fast-food restaurants, driving for Uber, doing inventory at Amazon Fulfillment Centers. These are just a few of the low-paying service jobs that support the “creative class” in a metropolitan region like the Bay. What’s becoming clear is that, as elites hack consciousness, the rest of us suffer. We could even say that consciousness is being carved up along class lines, with the rich defining, and controlling, what it means to be a mind. This has non-mental material consequences. The more consciousness is yoked to capital, the more the globe is divided up between elite spaces of reflection, creativity, and personal growth, on the one hand; and zones of outright boredom, repetition, and monotony on the other.

In such a world, how do we find our bearings? How do we build a collective consciousness beyond capital’s rhythms? To do this, what’s needed is a cognitive map of capitalism, one that can depict the uneven production of consciousness and space today.

The Rat Maze of Capitalism

Fredric Jameson introduced the idea of cognitive mapping in his 1980s work on postmodern culture.[vi] For him, cognitive mapping is the attempt to represent, in aesthetic terms, the “properly unrepresentable totality” of global capitalist society, with its complex circuitry of goods and people.[vii] As a pedagogy and a politics, the goal of such mapping is to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.” This includes, along with geographic consciousness, an invigorated capacity to see things in their historical context.

For all his insistence on the importance of historicity, Jameson overlooks the historical context of “cognitive mapping” itself. Jameson has described the concept as a synthesis between Althusser’s philosophy of ideology and urban planner Kevin Lynch’s spatial analysis of social structure. But he ignores the actual origins of the concept, which comes from the world of behavioral psychology and can be traced, in fact, back to the Bay Area.

The concept of cognitive mapping was first proposed by Edward C. Tolman, a physiologist at The University of California in Berkeley. In 1930, Tomlan and Honzik conducted a learning experiment that involved putting hungry rats into a complex maze. At the end of the maze was a food box. Three groups of rats were tested. One group got to eat the food, another did not, and a third group only got to eat the food after 10 days of testing. What Tomlan and Honzik found was that the delayed reward group developed a cognitive map of the maze on the 10 days it did not receive food. This is what psychologists call “latent learning.” After day 10, when that group was provided a food reward, they navigated the maze faster than those who had been receiving a reward all along.[viii]

Map of Rat Maze, from Edward C. Tolman (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55(4), p. 1)

In a 1948 paper, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men,” Tomlan reflected on the results of the experiment and introduced the concept of cognitive mapping to describe what the third group of rats achieved. He extrapolated the importance of cognitive maps cognitive mapping for people as well, who needed them to find bearings within “the great God-given maze which is our human world.”[ix] Today, cognitive mapping is believed to largely be a function of the hippocampus, a region in the brain that is also important for the formation, organization, and storage of new memories.

Recollecting the intellectual history of cognitive maps helps us see how they are formed in a latent manner, through everyday micro-level situations of repetition, remembrance, and struggle. These situations include not only the firing of neurons but the way we reenact our memories, tracing the material paths and structures of the world we’ve been forced into. Pictures of that world arise within the very failure to navigate it in a way that satisfies our needs and desires (such as the desire for food). In this way, mapping is always an exercise in remapping. It isan attempt to re-cognize and re-place what is “God-given.”

Like the rat’s maze, it turns out, on second glance, that what is “given” today is itself a constructed model, with its own paths, trapdoors, beginnings and ends. Such a model is built in capital’s image: a game with clear winners and losers. What cognitive maps depict, and call into question, is the rat maze of capitalism.

The Virtuous Circle

The rat maze of capitalism is grounded in the technology industry, in places like Silicon Valley. Currently, such industries are collapsing the distinction between the living and the dead, between humans and machines. As these poles are joined, consciousness is placed in an endless circuit of production. Today, that circuit is being formed largely by Artificial Intelligence (AI). There is now an arms race between West Coast tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, flanked by an army of smaller startups, vying for AI supremacy. But AI continues to elude capture. One of the most difficult aspects of cognition to reproduce has been human memory. But this is changing as new forms of memory are developed and tested on AI systems (source).

Google has been at the forefront of these efforts. In 2017, Google’s AI company, DeepMind, created an algorithm that gives its system the ability to learn, retain, and reuse information.[x] DeepMind’s research on AI memory focuses on the role of replay in biological neural networks. The goal is to take insights from the study of human brains and apply them to artificial intelligence. This practice, the company argues, relies on the “virtuous circle” between neuroscience and AI.[xi] As a researcher at Stanford’s HAI puts it plainly, the quest for artificial intelligence is deeply intertwined with the quest for understanding biological intelligence.[xii] As human memory and computer memory blur together more and more, the cyborg manifesto becomes a reference manual for everyday life under capitalism.

On second glance, the “virtuous circle” is not so virtuous after all. AI researchers tend to see the connection between artificial intelligence and neuroscience as a given. But that connection is something that needs to be actively produced. And production requires test subjects. As DeepMind points out, neural replay sequences were originally discovered by studying the brains of rats. In experiments by the Nobel prize winner John O’Keefe and others, rats were made to run along a corridor or a circular track. It was found that certain cells in the hippocampus only fired when the rat was in a particular place along the path. When the rats rested, scientists noticed that the same sequence of cells would fire spontaneously, but at a much faster rate, demarcating the same route. This is what is known as a replay sequence, a crucial neural component of learning.

The discoveries of neuroscience rely on the subjugation of certain brains and bodies, in this case those of rats. In this way the virtuous circle between neuroscience and AI is a misnomer: it requires a surplus of disposable subjects. It’s more of a rat wheel. This is increasingly how global capital operates. It flows in an “infinite loop” from brains to technological products and back again, all while relying on a shadowy outside of cheap labor and test subjects. It is only by recognizing this loop, this strange attractor, that we can begin to break out of it.

Circuits of Death

Neurological patterns of destruction can be seen when mapping streams of electronic production and waste management. In the 1970s electronics firms in Silicon Valley began offshoring their manufacturing elsewhere, mostly to Southeast Asia. Today, companies like Google and Apple continue to rely on factories overseas to manufacture their electronic products. The most famous example are the Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen, China. Workers at Foxconn are exposed to a host of health hazards. These include neurological damage from industrial solvents like n-hexane, which has been used to clean iPhone screens.[xiii] 

As brains in China suffer from the toxicities of electronics production, companies in Silicon Valley reaps huge profits. They perform the “executive functions” of the electronics industry, while distancing itself from – “forgetting” – the destruction these functions bring about. In this way, by offshoring manufacturing, Silicon Valley firms also offshore brain death.

But the story doesn’t end there. Later, when electronics goods become obsolete and are thrown away they pose a new set of health risks. These impact those living in or near areas of production and disposal, which today are predominantly located in poor enclaves in the Global South. One of the most devastating effects of electronic waste (e-waste) exposure is the disruption of neurodevelopment, including memory function.

This is what’s occurring today in Guiyu, a town located in the Guangdong Province of China. Known as “treasure city,” Guiyu has been one of the world’s largest e-waste recycling sites for over 20 years and receives about 15,000 metric tons of e-waste per day.[xiv] Studies have established strong links between Guiyu’s e-waste recycling activities and elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) within children living there.[xv] Elevated BLLs around Treasure Island have been linked, repeatedly, to disruptions in child neurodevelopment.[xvi] Whether it occurs in streams or in utero, early lead exposure is associated with a wide range of mental and behavioral impairments in children. These include deficits in general, visual, and verbal memory.[xvii]

While computer memory is developed in California, the human memory of those in places like Guiyu is literally destroyed. Such hazards exist at both ends of the commodity circuit: from production to waste disposal. Neurotoxicity forms a closed loop. In the form of e-waste, the biological risks associated with electronics production return to the Global South, where they were produced in the first place. Because of this geographic distance, Silicon Valley is easily able to “forget” its complicity in the destruction wrought by the electronics industry and the brains that are injured in the process. CEOs free themselves from the circuit of death.

Singularity

Indeed, one of the goals of Silicon Valley elites is to free their minds from death altogether. Many look forward to the coming Singularity. As it’s been popularized by transhumanist elites like Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the idea that exponential developments in genetics, computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence will, in the near future, bring us to a historical rupture point. At that point, humans will transcend their biological limits, since they will be able to “upload” their brains onto some kind of supercomputer. Consciousness will achieve immortality.[xviii]

Elites reassure the public that immortality will be egalitarian. Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank founded by Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis in 2008, stresses on its website that it is invested in building an “abundant” and “equitable future for us all.”[xix] But such a future is only “abundant” in the neoliberal sense of free markets, economic opportunity, and zero guarantees. As a quotation from Diamandis on the website reads, “[c]reating abundance is not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.” Given the wealth of Silicon Valley, it’s clear that only those with means will be able to actualize this possibility and have their consciousness extended into the future. The game is rigged from the start.

As elites strive for immortality, this quest is built on the backs of those who have been made disposable and less-than-human. In some cases this appears as literal vampirism. The startup Ambrosia, supported by Thiel and others, gives its clients the opportunity to have their veins pumped full of blood plasma from teenagers, in an attempt to ward off old age. The founder of Ambrosia was “inspired by studies on mice that researchers had sewn together, with their veins conjoined, in a procedure called parabiosis.”[xx] Some of these studies suggested that parts of the aging process were reversed when older mice received blood from younger ones.

While the repeatability of these experiments is in doubt, parabiosis provides a useful allegory of global capitalism today, in which certain bodies are rendered as surplus – literally treated as lab rats. For instance, many biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the Bay Area rely on racialized and immiserated test subjects in the global south, in places like Hyderabad.[xxi] Research participants there are paid a stipend to take new drugs and have their bodies poked and prodded by the world’s leading scientists. Similar bodily exploitations occur in the US as well, including the Bay Area, where some of the homeless have resorted to selling their blood or plasma for fast cash.[xxii] Together, these populations form a global surplus army of biological tissue and organs that corporations use to test their products and even make profits off of. This constant “experimentation” keeps a large swath of world in states of constant precarity and, often, premature death.[xxiii] Here, under capitalism, life is built on its opposite.

Exiting the Maze

How do we get back to where we started? What does this all mean for the gurus in Silicon Valley, lost in the mediation? The point is that there is no way out through the mind, as it currently exists. According to Hegel, consciousness always requires a surplus of sorts. To become conscious of an external object, the subject needs to be aware of itself as something distinct from that object. It must be conscious of itself as an object. In this way, the subject becomes non-identical with itself. As both subject and object, it generates its own remainder.[xxiv]

Under capitalism, Hegel’s process of consciousness plays out through social conflict. The surplus quality of consciousness is continually displaced onto a racialized underclass (not without struggle) that bears the violence of capital’s subject, the global elite. In the end, however, it is this underclass that guarantees the consciousness of the subject. Immiseration turns out to be a necessary component of capitalist systems of representation. With this in mind, we can begin to see “consciousness hacking” for what it truly is: an attempt by society’s elite to control and conceal the very conditions of possibility for consciousness itself.

A cognitive map of global capitalism attempts to reveal these conditions. It shows how today’s structures of cognition are generated from a seemingly endless circuit of class struggle. Within that circuit, which appears across global space as a maze, capital and surplus populations are trapped in a relation of non-identity. The task of politics is to sever this chain – to exit the maze. This means breaking away from consciousness as we know it. What’s needed instead are new collective forms of thought, those that recognize – and in doing so negate and transform – the loops they create. This is a thinking that redeems its remainder, a meditation of abolition.


[i] Kevin Gray, “Inside Silicon Valley’s new non-religion: consciousness hacking,” Wired (1 November 1, 2017) https://www.wired.co.uk/article/consciousness-hacking-silicon-valley-enlightenment-brain.

[ii] https://www.cohack.org/about/

[iii] Ankita Rao, “Silicon Valley’s Hypocritical Spirituality,” Vice (January 3, 2018) https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/yw5bdk/silicon-valleys-hypocritical-spirituality.

[iv] Olivia Solon, “Under pressure, Silicon Valley workers turn to LSD microdosing,” Wired (August 24, 2016) https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lsd-microdosing-drugs-silicon-valley.

[v] Melia Robinson, “Silicon Valley’s new craze is flying to Peru to take a psychedelic you can’t legally get in America,” Business Insider (December 6, 2016) https://www.businessinsider.com/entrepreneurs-awakening-ayahuasca-2016-11.

[vi] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), p. 51.

[vii] See also Albert Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (Zero, 2015).

[viii] Edward C. Tolman (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55(4), 189–208.

[ix] ibid, p. 11

[x] Abby Norman, “Google’s DeepMind AI Now Has a Memory,” Futurism (March 15, 2017) https://futurism.com/googles-deepmind-ai-now-has-a-memory.

[xi] Zeb Kurth-Nelson and Will Dabney, “Replay in biological and artificial neural networks,” DeepMind (September 6, 2019) https://deepmind.com/blog/article/replay-in-biological-and-artificial-neural-networks.

[xii] Surya Ganguli, “The intertwined quest for understanding biological intelligence and creating artificial intelligence,” Stanford – HAI (December 5, 2018) https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/intertwined-quest-understanding-biological-intelligence-and-creating-artificial-intelligence.

[xiii] David Barboza, “Workers Sickened at Apple Supplier in China,” The New York Times (February 22, 2011), https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/technology/23apple.html.

[xiv] Jack Sommer, “The world’s largest electronic-waste dump looks like a post-apocalyptic nightmare,” Business Insider (July 15, 2015) https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-of-chinas-electronic-waste-dump-town-guiyu-2015-7.

[xv] See e.g. Zhijun Zeng, Xia Huo, Yu Zhang, Zhehong Xiao, Yuling Zhang, and Xijin Xu, “Lead exposure is associated with risk of impaired coagulation in preschool children from an e-waste recycling area,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 25 (2018), 20670–20679; Xiang Zeng Xijin Xu, H. Marike Boezen, and Xia Huo, “Children with health impairments by heavy metals in an e-waste recycling area,” Chemosphere 148 (2016), 408–415.

[xvi] See David C. Bellinger, Ashley Malin, and Robert O. Wright, “The Neurodevelopmental Toxicity of Lead: History, Epidemiology, and Public Health Implications,” Advances in Neurotoxicology, 2 (2018), 1–26.

[xvii] Pamela J. Surk, Annie Zhang, Felicia Trachtenberg, David B.Daniel, Sonja McKinlay, and David C.Bellinger, “Neuropsychological function in children with blood lead levels <10 μg/dL,” Neurotoxicology, 28:6 (2007), 1170–1177.

[xviii] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near (London: Penguin, 2005).

[xix] https://su.org/about/

[xx] Amy Maxmen, “Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy,” MIT Technology Review (January 13, 2017) https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603242/questionable-young-blood-transfusions-offered-in-us-as-anti-aging-remedy/.

[xxi] See Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham: Duke, 2006)

[xxii] San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count & Survey (2011), https://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2011SanFranciscoHomelessComprehensiveReport_FINAL.pdf. See also

[xxiii] See James Tyner, Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

[xxiv] G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

4 thoughts on “The Rat Maze: Capitalism and Consciousness

  1. Pingback: The Rat Maze: Capitalism and Consciousness – The Philosophical Hack

  2. I really appreciate the way you applied the master-slave dialectic to literal material conditions. I hadn’t previously appreciated how applicable it could be in these cases. I especially appreciate the link you drew with the notion that elites are in some sense incentivized to ignore their own involvement in this process by becoming obsessed by it, though I need to admit I don’t understand completely from my reading how this process occurs.

    It seems like the causal arrow might more likely point the other way. In which case, it becomes easy for SV elites to obsess themselves with transhumanist fantasies *because* they’re the type of person that can ignore genuine material conditions.

    Personally, I don’t have high hopes for the transhumanist project, so I can’t analyse their projection-avoidance behaviour in terms of a desired outcome, which is what you seem to be saying; that they ignore the material conditions imposed on their labour force with the transhumanist end in mind. That this end somehow justifies their means.

    If that’s the substitution that’s going on in the minds of said SV elites, then I think it’s more likely that the end point of this is just facilitating an avoidance of the troublesome state of affairs that the elites promote. So then we could think of the whole transhumanist project as a form of cognitive scape-goat, dreamed up to justify the brutalities, but which in reality does nothing more than keep the man behind the curtain, and all the man does is eat and steal.

    If my account is on it, I wonder how the corld would be different if our current cultural elites took a minute to examine in depth the fact that they eat, shit, and will ultimately die. And I mean that in a naked sense, without the mediation of illusory control afforded by trends like Huel, colonics, cryogenics, etc.

    Like

    • It’s worth noting that the scapegoating has a messianic overtone. That the singularity will come to redeem the brutalities of the present, and the singularity must be one with the machine-mind, which at the end of the day is just a metonymic arm of the techno-capitalist project, one might even call trans humanism the religious division of techno capitalism. Ironically, this coming singularity has resonances with the constitutive subject at the end of history as absolute knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It would seem to me that your references to Hegel might be better made to Marx. I am unaware of the literature you cite, since my philosophy training dates back to 1958; but it seems to me that Marx and his descendants are closer to the struggle that must take place if we are to liberate ourselves from the Tyranny of Capital.

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