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The Platonic Dilemma of our Frankensteinish Democracy or Phaedrus II: The Last Judgement of Thamus

Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

— Denis Diderot, French Enlightenment thinker

There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.

— ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley-Wollstonecraft

Sometime ago, after reading Plato’s narration of a conversation between King Thamus and the inventor Theuth concerning the impact of new technologies on society, after reading media guru Neil Postman’s work Technopoly, and after deep reflection on the idea of the Luddites (a movement that “raged against the machine” during the Industrial Revolution), I penned verses which I find suitable to honor bloggers and online social commentators in their onward march towards creating a spectre that will haunt the state-owned print media.

I wrote this while I was writing an early draft of the conclusion to my dissertation on the impact of digital communications technologies on the nation-state of Malaysia. The dissertation submitted to Columbia University in the city of New York, explored the idea of spaces of knowledge and power and redefined the idea of free speech viz-a-viz social control and freedom viz-a-viz hegemony as the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, through his idea of “hegemony,”  suggested. In 1998, Malaysia created a new “digital city” called “Cyberjaya” modelled after Silicon Valley and Boston Information Superhighway.

Here’s how my poem, as a rejoiner to Plato’s work, with reference to the case of Malaysia’s transformation and the creation of Cyberjaya, goes:

P H A E D R U S II

The Last Judgement of Thamus

Circa A.D. 2020

Lines composed near the banks of Hudson River, New York city

by Azly Rahman

Background notes: They say that there dwelt at Naucratis in Egypt one of the old gods of that country, to whom the bird they call Ibis was sacred, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. Among his inventions were number and calculation . . . and, above all, writing. . . . To [the king, Thamus] came Theuth and exhibited his inventions . . . when it came to writing, Theuth declared: “There is an accomplishment, my lord the kind, which will improve both the wisdom and the mentory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” “Theuth, my paragon of inventors,” replied the king, “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it. . .. Those who acquire [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. . . . What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory . . . ( Phaedrus, 95-96)

And it was in the year 2020

In a not-too-distant cybercity

As Socrates’ narratives on cybertechnology

Laments King Thamus’s concern for the fate of academies

And Theuth my inventor par excellence

What say you concerning educational excellence?

Of the methods and principles of teaching

Brought about by new technologies of communicating?

O’ Thamus, Wise King of Cyberjaya

Indeed our children will undergo Karma

Of one imbued with Dharma

Which will bring us all to Moksha

Karma is Rebirth

Dharma is Devotion and Duty

And Moksha is art of being one with Creation

Of which educational practice will assume a new reality

This invention called blogging

Of which for many ages we have waited so patiently

Will transform the meaning of Reality

and Democracy

as it marries Virtuality

More than what print media has guaranteed

O’ wise King Thamus

We are witnessing the death of Papyrus

the demise of Gutenberg legacy

As we witness the birth of PERSONACRACY

deeply personalized form of postmodern democracy

In the brilliance of anarchy

To be cultivated with the media of blogging

By way of this ideology called PERSONACRACY,

O’ King

Our children, the true song of democracy they will sing

Of which the teacher will die a slow death

Like the first teacher Socrates

whose fate was a choice he once had

Our children will be Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu

The Creator, Destroyer, and the One who Renews

Our children will make history and create Knowledge

Destroy paradigms

and like Vishnu, preserve what is old and what is new

They will be Renaissance men and women

In their mind neural connections will be made,

synapses will be woven

And the boundaries of the Real and the Imagined we can no longer ascertain

In this onward march towards Virtuality

Classrooms will cease to exist nor too the concept of teaching

The sage of Russia Illich

will be singing

In honor of this day when education means deschooling

O’ Thamus wise ruler of Cyberjaya

The days wherein authorities rule capital cities

Will be gone with the advent of my invention called blogging

Pedagogy will be replaced with METAPHYSICAL TRANSITION THEORIES

And Plato’s academy will be history

Buried underneath the magnificence of blogging

Gone will be the idea of faculties

In their place will emerge knowledge patterned like fractal geometries

And Chaos will be the order of the day

And Complexity will be king of pedagogies

For the sage Mandelbrot did once spoke

Of the patterns inherent in knowledge and wisdom

O’ Theuth my kingdom’s most honored inventor,

What say you of the blogger’s impact on the teacher?

One who holds the key to any civilization’s treasure

And who guards the principles of a moral character?

Wise King Thamus,

this is my conjecture:

My invention is Frankensteinish in nature

Aren’t we already at the end of history?

Wherein the Knower and the Known has no longer a boundary?

This technology will destroy authorities

Including values we guard with jealousy

Slain like the dragon in Beowulf’s story

Buried with Socrates and Dante Alighieri

A further elaboration concerning the death of authority:

O’ King, I call this an Age of Subalternity

In which we will witness the dawn of PERSONACRACY

Of which with the help of blogging,

the child constructs his customized version of democracy

O’ Theuth Master Inventor

Yours is a song of conjectures

For, can you as a creator

Be the judge of what good and bad

blogging will bring into our future?

My greatest apologies

Wisest of all Kings

Do you not remember that we are in the year 2020?

In which kingdoms have been crushed

under the weight of technologies of virtual realities?

And you dear king – are you not already ancient history?

You and your kingdom destroyed by technologies of Virtuality?

The case of Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor of 1998

“Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is —history . . . what nature is to things, history . . . is to man.”

—Ortega y Gassett

When writing the dissertation on the digital technologies and deconstructionism, as it pertains to Malaysia during the Mahathir Era of 22-year authoritarian rule, I began with a conceptualization of an explanation of the process of how hegemony operates at the subtlest of all levels: language and the practice of everyday lives. It describes the creation of new spaces of power constructed from the ideological archives of the old and those that domesticate the dominated, to borrow the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s term (1984). I used semiotics as one of the triangulated tools of analysis, the process of explaining the process of hegemonic formation. I tried to make sense of how the ideology of cyberneticism is described onto the physical landscape. The newly created cities of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya in the hypermodernized developmentalism of Malaysia are examples of how the global telematics conglomerate of the advanced capitalist world, particularly of the United States of America and Japan are invited exclusively to inscribe their brand of practices and signature economies onto a willing state such as Malaysia. Such an inscriptural enterprise is made possible by the “coalition of the willing” of the political and economic decision-makers of this state. The English language in general and that of American corporatism in particular becomes the instrument by which the inscriptions onto the landscape of ideology and infrastructure are made.

Mahathir Mohamad, the creator of the MSC and the iron hand that sculptured the landscape which is now another form of an engine of growth, left a legacy of developmentalism that continues to define the style of his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The MSC continued to flourish as a real estate venture and a business area.

Mahathir Mohamad survived his 22-year rule, exited gracefully, and continues to be honored by different states, institutions, as well as his own, UMNO (United Malays National Organization), party members. Today in 2017 however, he is on an all-out war against the present Prime Minister, Najib Razak; one he groomed to sustain his power after he retired. He is being hunted by the political Frankenstein he created and he is in return hunting his creation. The Internet has helped the Malaysians sit back, relax, and enjoy the great war between the Malaysian Malays. The power of technology, both as liberator and in helping things run amuck.

The way the nation is administered, vis-à-vis hegemony, technology, and authority is reflected not only in the purpose of the creation of the MSC but in the way the nation is governed. Counter-hegemonic policies and pronouncements at international and national forums continue to be made in the post-Mahathir era.

Hegemony, Technology and Authority

The idea of installations creating ideology and expression is central to my early proposition. I began with the premise that signs and symbols determine the nature and character of hegemony. How hegemony is structured is a complex, yet recognizable process. Hegemony alone does not merely sustain ideology. This notion is perhaps applicable to the case of hegemonic formations in societies controlled by corporate media but not in authoritarian states in transitional societies elsewhere such as Malaysia. Authority defines the character and furtherance of hegemony as well as the facilitation of hegemonic transitions.

Cybernetic technology is such a technology, as I have learned in my case study. Digital communication technologies employed as a structuring tool by state authority that lies in one person who ruled for a considerable period of time. The authoritarianism in the Malay culture itself, appropriated by the authoritarianism of the modern Malay political leadership, aided by the authoritarianism inert in technology perceived as deterministic creates newer social systems, better systems of control, and more efficient systems of irrigation for global capitalism.

The development of consciousness is dependent upon the development of literacy; in the case of Cyberjaya and the MSC, the language of cybernetics hegemonizes over the language of the agrarian society that is tied in to the peoples of the land and to that of natives. In the 22 years- reign of Mahathir Mohamad, the state saw a transformation of such a language, of cybernetics, appropriated and translated into social action and transforming the social relations of production to create “non-reproductive” forces of society such as national institutions and communication systems, besides the creation of “productive” forces such the means of “multimedia” production whose ends justify their links to the global capitalist economy. Hence, hegemony works in harmony with authority to create a hegemonic condition to further advance, in this case the cause of the transnational capitalist struggle to dominate the world economy.

Whilst many a philosopher and historian of technology such as Robert McClintock of Columbia University see the potentials of the technology of the Internet in for example, in democratizing society and intellectualizing the individual through education, in many a society such as Malaysia the technologizing of the polity itself becomes a natural process of creating a culture that not only is forced to be structured into the mold of a consumerist and international capitalistic economy but one that will be disabled by the very technology perceived to be democratizing.

Marx’s thesis on technology, culture, and the development of consciousness is instructive in my understanding of what technology can do in not only changing the social relations of production but also altering consciousness and fragmenting realities.

The crisis of our century will continue to be the questions I addressed in the poem Phaedrus II at the beginning of this essay. How can we continue to be human in an age of post-cybernetic technologization and the terrifying yet addictive possession of our psyche, mind, and body of Frankensteinism? We hear terms such as new technologies, disruptive technologies, and all the words that suggest we are going to be happy with the new breed of spiritual and humanistic machines. We hear of what Artificial Intelligence and the toy called Virtual Reality is promising, as we move from the age of Industry to Information to Post-Information. 

What these terms mean remains clear to the neo-Luddite: these are enemies of humanity and threats to labour. As Marx would contend, the dehumanizing aspect of these developments is masked. Factories get shifted, human beings lose their jobs, mass poverty set in, global cheap labor and even the new form of indentured servitude of those higher-tech assembly lines ala iPhone enslaved slaves in China – these too get disrupted as “technology moves” and advances, as if it has a life. Possessing life force. As if it is another Frankenstein – this time a creation of Bill Gates, imitators of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, and those human inventors whose lives are digital copies of the main character of The Matrix.

This is the dilemma of our existence. Our Platonic problematic. Our Phaedrus III. The dilemma of losing our Humanity. To the very machines we continue to invent. And the wheels of global slavery continue to turn. Our karma?

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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