Cystectomy and Bowel Obstruction Surgery in the Gallery
Telesurgery, Photography by Derek Gregory, 2014.
With our intersubjective temporality constantly accelerating, we are now truly in in an age where all disciplines mix with other cross-disciplines, with seemingly no regard for boundaries. As technology increasingly becomes the mediator for the First World’s sociabilities, cybernetics has emerged as an intrinsic base through which all disciplines cross and with which they interact. In the past, many common disciplinary interactions would have been seen as random, while today they identify the enmeshing of complex systems interacting with other complex systems. These expanding systems and networks are the building blocks for what many perceive as simple constructions or operations like web surfing, text messaging, and social media use. More often than not, the tasks completed within these systems are, to at least some extent, automated, but would take longer to explain than most people can pay attention for. This in turn has been slowly subjecting the human mechanism to radical and often rapid changes through immersion, leaving most people with the illusion that “having all knowledge at our fingertips” has made humanity actually smarter. The fact that cognitive testing has shown that multitasking makes the human mechanism smarter, whereas later studies shows it diminishes our memory, confuses the matter further. This should not be conflated however, with the question of whether having a portable encyclopedia in our back pocket is not making us smarter.
Additionally, automation and its ramifications, unconsciously as well as consciously, are gradually becoming embodied within the everyday life of the human mechanism as benign infrastructures, often leading to disasters, and yet, in some ways worse, also leading to an absence of thought, or the ability to think without the support of groupthink and/or mass psychology. Automation also continually and radically blurs the boundaries between the actual and the virtual. One could say that the First World is now living in the society of technical images.
Benjamin Bratton’s On Deprofessionalizing Surgery is at its core about using robotics and assisted-automation in surgery. This practice has been tested for many years already, and has so far yielded some positive results. Anyone who cares about the health and future of the human mechanism should be able to see the benefits of this project. However, certain aspects of Bratton’s image of the summer camp, along with a number of statements made in the paper, strike me as odd, and even a bit contradictory at times. I understand his was a short piece, but in it he presents many grand ideas that do not get properly fleshed out, often leaving the aforementioned thematics hanging and forgotten. Additionally, many claims and justifications are made that are not expanded upon, producing an unsettling opacity with respect to what the central claims of the paper actually are.
Let us begin with the camp. We are told 11-14 year old children with an interest in science or medicine were involved. But we are not told about the selection process, who funded the camp, whether the children had to pay to be involved, etc. We are also told some were skilled video game players. But let’s keep in mind that a video game is always abstract and once the screen shuts off, the player is left powerless and lost. This ties in with the effects of robotics and automation in the sense that the tactile is abandoned in favor of machinic mediation when we are not sure if complete loss of tactile and specialized knowledge would result in actual benefits.
After a few paragraphs of tech-centered analysis, Bratton abruptly introduces Marcuse and his theory that automation could “alter social relations in a capitalist economy by making it unnecessary for humans to perform certain kinds of skilled and unskilled labor”. The next sentence is key: “he [Marcuse] wondered how automation could be used to realize a society based on exploring free time instead of acquiescence to the time of capital”. However, the text hardly formulates a hypothesis to support how this could be possible under current political and economic conditions. Don’t we all know by now that the realization of this ideal requires a society in which capital or the lack thereof does not impede the growth and development of the human mechanism or knowledge production? Is it not difficult to see a society full of “skilled video gamers” using “free time” constructively, or in a way that would benefit society or the planet at large at large? Further, post-Althusserian/Foucauldian and Lacanian thought, specifically Giorgio Agamben’s detournement of Carl Schmitt and his re-reading of the “classics” of political decisionism, has already dealt with the likelihood that the majority of sentient beings today have not and likely never will experience free thought.
One might also consider the drafting of children to perform tasks in this way as an early form of biopolitical thought-shaping: instrumentalized immersion and the production of an image of “having fun” while “learning”, whereas in reality, what we get is only a simulation of both, or someone playing the part of someone who does both. This then, returns our focus to the blurring of actuality and virtuality, and of reality and fantasy. The fact that the children did not experiment on real animals, but rather a piece of pig skin (itself a representation of the pig as well as a simulation of human skin), only further reinforces these points. In sum, the paper begs the question of whether in the “tech” community, the line between projects that are worthwhile advancements and those that are little more than doe-eyed, post sci-fi nerdiness that wastes taxpayer money on glorified cyber toys, is being steadily erased.
Even stranger is the fact that the summer camp culminates in an art installation. Bratton goes to significant lengths to inform us that two $2 million machines were used, a fact which is perfectly in line with the contemporary art world’s love for monetary quantification. How could one help but wonder about such a project when imagining someone becoming sick and choosing to have their surgery performed in the space of a gallery, perhaps as the relational aesthetic experience of others? But the humor, or its sense of unheimlich is lost to the fact that it might indoctrinate children into the sharp teeth of the art world quite early. Surely, a well-dressed crowd must have clapped politely after the performance.
Bratton also speaks about attempts to perform surgery across vast distances via the web, but then warns us that net neutrality laws, specifically the rules governing our global internet exchanges, do differentiate or prioritize certain forms of data over others. We already know that while there must be governing rules for the global exchange of data, conglomerates and government agencies like Google, Apple and NSA easily bypass them many times every nanosecond.
In the conclusion, Bratton introduces one of his own projects, emphasizing that it is based in Mozambique, where abortion was recently legalized, though unfortunately, many forms of backroom surgery still take place. While the attempt to assist is a valiant one, what costs more money: this project, or dealing with the problems at hand, like the generalized inaccessibility of real medical care? At the same time, what is the real effect of simply encouraging higher education, and the necessary building blocks that come before that in a country where only 43% can access clean water, the adult literacy rate barely cracks 50%, the country’s annual mortality rate for children under 5 years of age is 87 per 1000, and the annual GDP is $605? While I understand the importance of women’s rights worldwide, is this the best way to spend money in a country that lacks the most rudimentary basics we take for granted?
Assistance to Mozambique is clearly a positive step. But, at least as presented by Bratton, doing so introduces a number of questions. For example, does technology as such actually benefit anyone besides the data hungry inhabitants of the First World’s Society of Technical Images? Myother question is whether the tech world’s claims of “advancements” aren’t simply the equivalent of children playing with expensive science kits which have been purchased with tax money, while hoping something important or unprecedented might happen? Are these diversions really what we want to be spending our money on while attempting to advance the human mechanism, as well as prepare it for a true post/in/transhumanism? I’m all for social advancement, but why would this necessarily imply throwing out the practices of the old, in their entirety?
Zac Davis is a New York-based artist and musician.