The Consciousness Economy

We need socialism if we don’t want to turn into capitalism’s cyborgs

The distinction between humans and intelligent machines is consciousness, so in future we must all seek jobs which require consciousness

by Phil Hall

Machines will soon be able to do a lot of the physical work and some of the intellectual work of human beings. At one end of the scale, machines will do machine-like tasks. They will also be able to build machines like themselves. At the other end of the scale, they will do complex things like detecting illnesses and then curing them, or arranging ameliorating treatments. Machines will have more advanced states of knowledge of different kinds modelled electronically in their systems, and they will be able to act on that knowledge.

But machines are not conscious. Everything machines do is without consciousness. And this is true for the foreseeable future. Almost all we know about consciousness, apart from the broad brush insights coming from anesthesia and neurology, invokes correlation, and rationalisation in hindsight, not causation. Consciousness is much better understood from the inside; from the perspective of subjectivity and the mind, not objectivity and the brain – or AGI (artificial general intelligence) homunculi.

Consciousness is much better understood from the inside; from the perspective of subjectivity and the mind, not objectivity and the brain – or AGI homunculi.

Consciousness has arisen in the universe in a kind of invisible, second Big Bang. At a certain point, it sparked off. The world was full of billiard balls and energy and then, bang! Consciousness! Consciousness, like life itself, doesn’t arrive randomly out of electronic circuits just as life doesn’t arrive randomly when amino acids are shaken together and electricity is pulsed through the swirling mixture.

Stella coffee maker, photo Phil Hall

But consciousness, once evolved, can spread order into the universe. It is a powerful force. Let’s think of a simple example: in the anthropocene, if we decide that we love our planet and all life in it then that has a powerful effect on the planet. Life, emotion and even the higher emotions like compassion and creativity can shape whole worlds.

Consciousness has arisen in the universe in a kind of invisible, second big bang.

You can say that once life evolved consciousness emerged through evolution. The survival mechanism at the core. But evolution doesn’t answer the question. Why survive? What is the point of survival? Survival for what? It is not enough to refer to evolution. One must ask what is going on? Where, reductio ad absurdum, some people argue that consciousness is at the service of the genetic code, I would argue that the meaning of the genetic code is to give rise to an expanded consciousness; the genetic code is at the service of consciousness.

The ‘Why survive?’ question behind the adaptive evolutionary mechanism will be, in my opinion, answered through understanding the nature of consciousness.

consciousness emerged through evolution. … But evolution doesn’t answer the question. Why survive? What is the point of survival? Survival for what?

We do not understand the nature of consciousness despite the attempts to plant flags of conquest in its undiscovered country. Consciousness cannot be broken down into smaller components. You can’t convincingly solve a problem by redefining that problem in your own image. Redefining the reality doesn’t change that reality. For example, a putative scale of consciousness conflates the notion of intelligence with awareness. Artificial General Intelligence is not consciousness. And consciousness is not superfluous to requirements. Just because something cannot be explained doesn’t mean it does not exist.

Who is convinced that a child, or an animal feels less pain? Who believes that suffering is more intense because a human can do more mathematics than a frog?

Rose, photo Phil Hall

Consciousness leaves a clear opening for human beings.

In future, we should all train for jobs that require human consciousness; where human consciousness adds or creates value – for other humans. Now, this may not sound very clear, but it really is.

All literature, all cinema, all theatre, all craft, all music, all philosophy, all spirituality, all teaching, the law, all mental health work, all, compassionate work, all world building, the cultivation o new varieties, all cooking, all sports, all architecture all design, all sociological work, all religion, all political work, all economic choices and creative hypothesis formation in the sciences are jobs that are in what I term the consciousness economy. This is not the same ‘consciousness economy’ as that depicted by the purveyors of mindfulness.

All kinds of work, even the most manual, can be consciousness work.

Take, for example, cooking. You know what you like. But what you like is also conditioned by your experience and your thoughts about food, about the world. So your choice of food is a question of consciousness, not merely nutritional optimisation and an analysis of the flavours human beings usually like. So now, when you cook, what you produce is the result of your consciousness. Think of a mother making food for her children. So something as basic as cooking, as practical, can be a job in consciousness. Now this goes for almost everything.

The reason why it would not be the case is simply convenience and affordability. A machine can produce a pastry, for example, every few seconds. But you love your mother’s pie, her pasty, her empanada. As AI progresses, in a socialist world, we will be in a society of surplus. And when we are, instead of always eating AI’s pastries, as humans we will prefer to visit the corner shop and try Ms Best’s famous pie, or Calum Franklin’s in the Holborn Pie Room.

The problem comes in a society of scarcity. In a society of scarcity we will buy the lamp in the shop. But in a society of surplus we will have the hand made lamp. Poorer Europeans shop at Iceland for frozen food and get prefab furniture kits from IKEA. Wealthy Europeans boast hand made and hand carved furniture and hand made furniture, and they shop at Harrods or Selfridge’s, where the food is usually fresh and hand made.

Chapel Matisse, photo Phil Hall

The reason why this has not been clarified is because of a failure in the general culture; a failure to understand of the meaning of the term AI and a failure to understand of the meaning of consciousness.

This distinction between intelligence and consciousness has been wilfully obscured for political, not scientific, reasons; the plan is not to replace humans with machines, that’s silly, but to turn humans into programmable units subservient to machines within the broader context of a capitalist economy.

The job of technology in capitalism is to subsume human behaviour into great networks to monitor and influence

The job of technology in capitalism is to subsume human behaviour into great networks, to monitor and influence, to modify human behaviour and adapt and incorporate our individual and group consciousnesses into the economy in such a way that it benefits our society’s apex predators. We see the process of capture all around us; algorithms are designed to capture attention and manipulate human behaviour.

My uncle, David Hall, was a pioneer of the computer human interface working at the Stanford research Institute in the 60s and 70s. He said that computing roboticises humans. That pogramming roboticises programmers. The danger then comes when we adapt. And this is precisely the nature of capitalism. It is a pecking order. The feeders at the top. They would like us to be embedded in their machine. This is becoming a new Procrustean world with no appeal or recourse. Kafka the prophet!

Sweets in a Venetian shop, photo Phil Hall

So, for example, all creative work is consumed. Artists create works to help expand and feed the consciousness of the wealthy. The capitalist consciousness of the super rich is a heightened, vampiric consciousness. The apex predators consume consciousness when they eat food prepared by a great chef, when they live in luxury bespoke houses, when they sit on designer furniture, or ride in elegant one off cars. The work of a thousand scientists takes them up in a rocket to experience weightlessness and have the unique feeling of seeing the Earth from space. Real wealth is measured in qualia.

They would like us to be embedded in their machine with neuralinks attached.

The difference between the extremely wealthy and you and I is that they feed on creative consciousness and on a delightful assortment of select, raw qualia. The rest of us survive on mass produced off the peg everything, on products designed for mass consumption. They feed on beauty and lives and the time of other people at their disposal, on products and services tailor made and created by talented souls for their consumption.

Guitarist in El Parque Nacional Uruapan, photo Eve Hall

In old-fashioned Marxist terms, the 0.1% feed on labour surplus, on other people’s creativity – and on the bounty of nature which they have a more exclusive access to.

Walter Benjamin tried to get close to the idea of the fruits of consciousness with his concept of ‘aura’. What is that special quality that differentiates a work of art from copies, or the objects produced through the computations of a machine?

That quality is consciousness.

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