Blade Runner 2049: Our Slaves Will Set Us Free

Blade Runner 2049 is a provocative visual and aural treat. It sparked many thoughts, two of which I make note of here; the relationship between the two should be apparent.

  1. What is the research project called ‘artificial intelligence’ trying to do? Is it trying to make machines that can do the things which, if done by humans, would be said to require intelligence? Regardless of the particular implementation? Is it trying to accomplish those tasks in the way that human beings do them? Or is it trying to find a non-biological method of reproducing human beings? These are three very different tasks. The first one is a purely engineering task; the machine must accomplish the task regardless of the method–any route to the solution will do, so long as it is tractable and efficient. The second is cognitive science, inspired by Giambattista Vico; “the true and the made are convertible” (Verum et factum convertuntur) or “the true is precisely what is made” (Verum esse ipsum factum); we will only understand the mind, and possess a ‘true’ model of it when we make it. The third is more curious (and related to the second)–it immediately implicates us in the task of making artificial persons. Perhaps by figuring out how the brain works, we can mimic human cognition but this capacity might be  placed in a non-human form made of silicon or plastic or some metal; the artificial persons project insists on a human form–the android or humanoid robot–and on replicating uniquely human capacities including the moral and aesthetic ones. This would require the original cognitive science project to be extended to an all-encompassing project of understanding human physiology so that its bodily functions can be replicated. Which immediately raises the question: why make artificial persons? We have a perfectly good way of making human replicants; and many people actually enjoy engaging in this process. So why make artificial persons this way? If the answer is to increase our knowledge of human beings’ workings, then we might well ask: To what end? To cure incurable diseases? To make us happier? To release us from biological prisons so that we may, in some singularity inspired fantasy, migrate our souls to these more durable containers? Or do we need them to be in human form, so that they can realistically–in all the right ways–fulfill all the functions we will require them to perform. For instance, as in Westworld, they could be our sex slaves, or as in Blade Runner, they could perform dangerous and onerous tasks that human beings are unwilling or unable to do. And, of course, prop up ecologically unstable civilizations like ours.
  2. It is a philosophical commonplace–well, at least to Goethe and Nietzsche, among others–that constraint is necessary for freedom; we cannot be free unless we are restrained, somehow, by law and rule and regulation and artifice. But is it necessary that we ourselves be restrained in order to be free? The Greeks figured out that the slave could be enslaved, lose his freedom, and through this loss, his owner, his master, could be free; as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Human Condition the work of the slaves–barbarians and women–does ‘labor’ for the owner, keeping the owner alive, taking care of his biological necessity, and freeing him up to go to the polis and do politics in a state of freedom, in the company of other property-owning householders like him. So: the slave is necessary for freedom; either we enslave ourselves, suppress our appetites and desires and drives and sublimate and channel them into the ‘right’ outlets, or we enslave someone else. (Freud noted glumly in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization enslaves our desires.) If we cannot enslave humans, with all their capricious desires to be free, then we can enslave other creatures, perhaps animals, domesticating them to turn them into companions and food. And if we ever become technologically adept at reproducing those processes that produce humans or persons, we can make copies–replicants–of ourselves, artificial persons, that mimic us in all the right ways, and keep us free. These slaves, by being slaves, make us free.

Much more on Blade Runner 2049 anon.

The ‘Real World’: The Corporate Workplace

Dear Reader, do you know where the ‘real world’ is? Do you live in it? Do you work in it? Corporate recruiters and CEOs can tell you.

If you are attending a school or a university of any kind, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you are a child, you are not living in the ‘real world.’ If you teach in a school or in a university, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you work for a non-profit organization you do not live in the ‘real world.’ You are merely living in a world of make-believe and fantasy and charming artifice.

The real world, it turns out, is a workplace, and a very particular kind at that. It is the corporate workplace, where you will have a boss, and where you will not be allowed to indulge in those childish fancies and illusions that sustained you in the bubbles you previously occupied. Here is the McCoy; all else is ersatz. In this arena, the lessons you have learned in the fantasy world you previously occupied have to be unlearned; they should be checked at the door like pilgrims’ shoes outside a temple. They would bring in too much of the unreal world’s dust and dirt otherwise. Those lessons include a great deal of moral instruction, which must now be discarded as irrelevant, unrealistic, and fantastic. In sharp contrast, in the ‘real world’ you will learn all about punctuality, conformance to schedule, the virtues of hard work and nose-to-the-wheel commitment–all the better to boost those bottom lines that ensure a livelihood for you.

The good old public-private distinction has nothing on the real-unreal world distinction that corporate boosters espouse. Aristotle thought the polis was where you went to become a citizen, a full political subject, a person. Corporate recruiters will tell you that the corporate workplace is where you go to get a dose of reality. Your childhood, your school days, your learning in school and college, those books you read, the games you played, the friends you made–all mere specters, ghosts, insubstantial spirits. You were merely prisoners in the cave; the light and illumination and enlightenment of the ‘real world’ awaits. Then mere shapes will acquire substantiality; then reality will slap you upside the head.

This invocation of the ‘real world’ as a rhetorical device with which to dismiss the experiences of those who do not live in it has a long and dishonorable history. of course. It is a prominent arrow in the quiver of the corporate propagandist; it is drawn and fired all too indiscriminately.

It should come as no surprise then that denizens of the ‘real world’ find even the domain of politics and governance possessed of inadequate reality. So much so that they will even deign to step away from their upholstered desks and carpeted offices to intervene, to take over the helm of the national ship and steer it into zones regulated by rules they know well. The ones of the ‘real world.’

Glaucon and the Basic and Advanced Polis, Contd.

Yesterday’s post on Glaucon and the preferred forms of the polis for him and Socrates  sparked off an interesting discussion on Facebook with Alex Gourevitch. I’m reproducing it here as Gourevitch’s responses are wonderfully rich and worth responding to carefully.

Here is the sequence of comments on Facebook, followed by my response last.


I still think it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.


Indeed. I’m just not sure the inhabitants of the basic polis are pigs; that description matches the often rapacious, gluttonous inhabitants of Glaucon’s preferred state.


They are pigs because they will eat anything. They are easily satisfied. They lack culture and refinement, which you only have if you are leisured – which is what, I think, the reference to reclining on couches is supposed to be about. It’s not just about having lots of desires to satisfy, but time to reflect on and develop one’s desires. Of course, that requires a social surplus, and someone else to do the work, which is what introduces class relations. We go from being pigs to being wolves. So you must tame the wolves. That is the question of justice, I think, for Plato. But it’s one also defined by the circumstances of justice. Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus set up the problem in such a way that the only way to imagine a surplus necessary to sustain leisure and culture is by conquering others, taking their land, and enslaving them. At the time, that may very well have been correct – Aristotle says the same thing about why slaves are necessary (the tripods of Haphaestus, looms spinning themselves). But one can imagine other ways, like machines/technology, so that everyone can have that leisure to develop their tastes and participate in culture. Note, by the way, that the theory of justice that develops out of the original problem as Glaucon and Socrates set it up is an attempt to restore that natural harmony of the ‘healthy state’ but through rational principles. In fact, Glaucon wants to be convinced of the idea that it is better to perfectly just and perfectly unjust. So even he does not deny that there is something superior to the condition of the pigs to that of living with wolves. Don’t you think?


 Does Socrates’ description of the basic polis really sound like people who don’t have leisure? Sitting by the fire, drinking wine in moderation, roasting nuts? They aren’t eating just anything. They live in peace to old age too. Perhaps they work into their old age rather than retiring. So what? There is a false opposition set up here. If you don’t grant the opposition that Glaucon sets up little remains of the desire for the advanced polis, which as you note, brings war, class conflict, and the problem of justice and law. It is almost as if Glaucon didn’t pay attention to the description Socrates provides. I would agree with him (and you) if the state described by Socrates was indeed pig like: scrounging for roots, eating dirt, the hardscrabble life from birth to death. But that is not what Socrates has in mind.


Very interesting. I see the plausibility of your reading but I think it rests on overstating the hardscrabble life of the pig as the central issue. In Glaucon’s eye the key feature of the pig is not that it scrounges but that it is indiscriminate. I take that to be one of the oldest metaphors about pigs – they eat anything. The connection to leisure is then that in the primitive division of labor of the ‘healthy city’ everyone works, they have an occupation, but there is no leisure, no culture, and indeed no philosophy. It is only the original act of injustice, the primitive accumulation, as it were, that creates the leisured class, sets reflection in motion, and brings about a philosophical attitude towards the human condition. Of course, what we find upon reflection is injustice. And we can retrospectively appreciate what is harmonious and good about the healthy state, but it is still a state of pigs. It is a state of pigs not because they work from dawn until dusk per se but because there is no demand for leisure and culture, and that demand is not there because people are satisfied with what they have. Needs are limited to a ‘natural’ range, to what can be supplied through a very simple division of labor and a few objects. Everyone is happy to do their work and consume what they can. They are indifferent to the limted range of their lives.


I’m not sure the text supports the reading you attribute to Glaucon. He listens to Socrates’ description of the basic polis and calls its inhabitants pigs anyway, seemingly without having paid attention to the leisure that is built into it. Your reading, and his, only works if this ignored. I’m getting stuck on this point, because I’m willing to concede the rest of your points if indeed all that happened in the basic polis was mere adherence to occupations. Thus I don’t see the necessity for the ‘original act of injustice’ or the ‘primitive accumulation’ either. I would also find it strange that Glaucon/you term them pigs when given a description of their working days: Is no reflection possible while at work? Is no reflection possible by being in the moment of one’s daily activities? You identify ‘culture’ with the arts; I think I have a broader reading of culture that is more inclusive of a broader range of human activities, many of which are possible in the basic polis. And thus I don’t buy the ‘limited range’ view of the polis that you have. But perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that we have lost a great deal by preferring a state that includes class conflict and war. There’s something depressingly Nietzschean about this vision, as if war is the inevitable price we must pay for the fine arts.

More importantly, I think there is a fairly convincing argument to be made that Plato finds the basic polis, despite the attention he pays to the advanced polis, a morally superior one. Remember what he terms the life of the philosopher: unconcerned with material acquisition but only with the pursuit of the truth. The basic polis provides this without the temptations of the advanced polis. A frugal life is possible here without evoking our worst instincts; it can give us time for the pursuit of the truth without necessarily owning or consuming the ‘finer things’ that Glaucon thinks are possible in the advanced polis. Indeed, Plato’s philosophers would be unmoved by the material wealth of the advanced polis; the contemplative time provided by the basic polis is enough. The basic polis makes possible a society where laws and government might play a minimal role; it might be the kind of community anarchist political philosophies have in mind.  The rudimentary polis can get along without being  a state; the advanced polis has to be one. And I find it hard to believe that the state represents an advancement on the basic polis.

Note: My arguments above are not original to me. I read them many years ago in David Melling’s lovely little book on Plato, which I’ve often recommended to my students. I stumbled upon the book again recently and was moved to write yesterday’s and today’s posts in response.

Glaucon’s Porcine Preference for the Advanced Polis

I never particularly liked Glaucon. His responses to Socrates‘ description, in Plato‘s Republic (372 (a-d)), of the basic polis are a good reminder of why.

Socrates quoth:

First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?

What is Glaucon’s interjection?

No relishes apparently, for the men you describe as feasting.

Socrates recovers from the silliness of this and responds, gamely:

True, I forgot that they will also have relishes—salt, of course, and olives and cheese and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chickpeas and beans,  and they will toast myrtle-berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations and so, living in peace and health, they will probably die in old age and hand on a like life to their offspring.

Glaucon’s response:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?

The ever-polite Socrates responds:

Why, what would you have, Glaucon?

The real ‘pig’ in all of this, Glaucon, respond:

What is customary; they must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable.

Waddaprick. The basic polis sounds pretty nice, especially when you consider that the kind of polis envisaged by Glaucon requires–as he admits a little later in the dialogue (373 (d-e)–the introduction of the doctor and the soldier. (Healthcare and the Military! Sound like budgetary problems to me.) The first occupation addresses the rash of diseases that will be caused by the ‘richer’ lifestyle of the more advanced polis–Socrates’ argument for the need for doctors in the advanced polis is an interesting anticipation of modern thinking about diseases of affluence. More perniciously, the advanced polis results inevitably in a desire for territorial expansion: the standing army with its budgetary demands and its endless conscriptions, its creation of wars, the scourge of human history, is a function of the mode of organization of the state it defends.

Glaucon disdains the frugal nature of the basic polis, seemingly unaware that the richer polis he has in mind is the one that will actually encourage porcine behavior.

Excerpted from: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Available online at the Perseus Digital Library.