A New Wave of Capitalism

In [1]: def cognitive_capitalism (output):

print (“I think therefore I %s”(output))


In [2]: cognitive_capitalism(“am”)

I think therefore I am

Whether we mean to or not, we are entering a new era where our autonomy is becoming blurred by automation. The world has been transformed by an economic shift that has been making an impression on cognitive and behavioral paradigm theories since the 1960s. In fact, many terms have emerged in cultural studies to capture this new 21st century social formation: postindustrial, informational, service, or high tech. One of these with increasing intrigue is cognitive capitalism.

This is a new kind of awareness. As we build machines that model the brain, we become increasingly aware of the neural architecture of our own brains. Science is far from a complete definitive understanding of the neurological mechanisms of logic–even so, we should advance with cautious dialogue on the topic.

Origin of Cognitive Capitalism

In the early 1970s, Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine spoke of a “postindustrial society” which marked the decline of manufacturing. Post-Fordism is often the term used to describe the economic system that has developed since Henry Ford’s use of the production line in his automotive factories—that is, it characterizes modern times. By the ‘80s, the emerging “knowledge economy” described a shift from traditional economies toward a larger system of information, intellectual property, ideas and innovation. This knowledge economy has been in the forefront since Ford’s manufacturing era and is tied to—not necessarily the same as—cognitive capitalism which glorifies the mind and brain as sites of wealth production over the industrial factories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The world today revels in systems of optimization and efficiency, from small company supply chains to the harvesting of crops on a farm. In an attempt to compete in this new knowledge economy, governments prioritize technology development as key strategies of pushing their nations forward, often aiming for a Silicon Valley of tech startups. This is a snapshot of a world where data mining, social media likes, software production, and app development are sources of wealth in modern society.

Many thinkers have examined the spread of cognitive capitalism around the globe from many different perspectives, and offer overlapping views on the topic. The French economist Yann Moulier Boutang offers one of the first books in the field written in English. Here, Boutang identifies the ways in which mercantile and industrial capitalism have been reshaped through digital technologies, and consequently, new labor and production markets since 1975. Alvin Toffler referred to a “super-industrial society” in his book Future Shock which implied a system above, and not after, industrialism. More currently, a new approach has been taken by Warren Neidich, a Berlin-based neurologist and artist, who captures culture through the examination of evolving cognition and its artistic manifestations. In one of his 2015 projects titled Duende, loosely translated to “authenticity of the soul”, he creates a neon cartographic map of various theories involved in the generation of a cultured brain. Neidich has also curated three volumes of essays on the topic, in collaboration with other artists and theorists, that discuss resultant psychopathologies of the age of cognitive capitalism.

Thus, the study of cognitive capitalism penetrates many realms, including art, culture, education, economics, politics, psychology and neuroscience. This essay does not limit the topic to the economics of industry, as many of the theorists who coined the term, but instead points out an overarching cultural theme which is actually influencing the way we think and interact with each other.

Cognitive Capitalism Today

The individual mind is being shaped by the social mind. Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman argue that all of reality is a social construct. Central to their theory is the idea that people living in a social system conceptualize the actions of each inhabitant which eventually become habituated expectations, and over time become embedded as mutual roles in its society. Echoing this sociological sentiment, neuroscientists should find that the mind—as an inhabitant of a certain culture or society—is biased to that culture and society.

Today, the social system in which we live is deeply rooted in a new wave of capitalism. That is, the cognitive capacities of the individual and society share a different relationship. Instantaneous connectivity and algorithmic automation are gradually transforming the abstraction of logic. Katherine Hayles notes the danger of formal reasoning avoidance resulting from “cognitive” or “algorithmic systems”, which have an evolving nature and display co-causal behavior with its user. Hayles theorizes that an avoidance from reasoning is contributing to this worldwide phenomenon, but the cause is complex. Every day, users are tasking machines to overcome certain obstacles and are developing a dependency on them all the while. Algorithmic systems arrange an adaptive infrastructure where desire, behavior, and communication reduce into a procedure and qualify a form of nonconscious cognition. Next, I will try to discuss how algorithmic thinking can contribute to the gain of power and exploitation of some sectors by anticipating human cognition.

For Spinoza, people “dream with their eyes open”. Even if we are conscious of our desires, are we truly aware of what determines these desires?

Our minds are being exchanged and often exploited, right under (and behind) our noses. Organizations are capitalizing on instinctive technologies that automate process and optimize service and products. Cognitive marketing strategies, for example, involve extracting memories embedded in the unconscious, rebooting them into working memory, and yielding attention.

Superseding the old way of TV and radio broadcasting, machines have captured neural mechanisms that can predict attention and generate sensational material and harvest the information produced. A study of how the brain pays attention can be learned and captured: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) controls attention, as well as parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. In less than twenty milliseconds the inferior frontal junction (situated in the PFC) holds the idea of a stimulus and then communicates that information to another part of the brain—such as the fusiform face area or the parahippocampal place area—which then gives it meaning. Through mechanization of this brain process, algorithmic interactions of neuromarketing can undermine conscious thinking, and drive attention and decision-making toward the optimal result. Critics are beginning to ask a provoking question: How far are we from the day when we can extract data from our own thoughts, even before they even materialize into behavior?

What it means

The social mind is being shaped by the individual mind. The internet gathers momentum as it goes. In the beginning, the growth of the internet was explosive. In fact, it took just four years for the network to gain 50 million users, compared to radio which took 38 years or television which took 13 years to do the same.  The number of users is constantly increasing, and as it does, the usefulness of the network increases and makes it even more compelling for new users to join the network. Society is becoming more and more dependent on connection every day; making it difficult to bear disconnection, pegging it as a form of impairment.

Essentially, the very nature of relationships are changing and becoming operationalized, which is in turn affecting individual affect and social empathy. Cognitive capitalism has been linked to the development and persistence of certain psychopathologies such as attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression and autism. The stress of adapting to such an accelerated society, the loneliness and competition augmented through social platforms, and the very real paranoia of surveillance are factors linked to maldevelopment, and may point to an under-studied mechanism in social epidemiology.

How can this generation heed the warning signs of the reality flux, such as the 19th century Luddites, free from living in total fear of machinery advancement? As many others continue to do, Michael Harris calls our attention to this changing human phenomenon—“When we go online, we commit ourselves to the care of online mechanisms. Digital Band-Aids for digital wounds. We feed ourselves into machines, hoping some algorithm will digest the mess that is our experience into something legible, something more meaningful than the “bag of associations” we fear we are.”



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