Introduction to “Digital Unconscious – Nervous Systems and Uncanny Predictions!”

The story of digital systems is often told quite simply: autonomous machines with almost perfect knowledge and unshakable precision, based on clear mathematics and objective logic, replace biased and unreliable people in search of greater efficiency and fairer results. Even many critics who point out increasingly visible flaws, biases and less-than-sound modeling in real-world settings, base their critiques on the failure to achieve this presumed ideal. However, shining a light on the cascades of unconscious biases in normalizing rule-based logic, simple certainties and the faith in objective binary code dissolve.

With Digital Unconscious, World-Information Institute continues a series of investigations into the blurring of rationality and irrationality at the heart of algorithmic regimes. 1) This investigation builds on the realization that the more closely this narrative was examined, the more the process appears like an act of faith or a magic trick on the level of language and substitution. The exchange of automated and autonomous, for example, is the simplest language manipulation. Automation is a well-known principle of replacing well-defined acts of human labor by machines, but machines that set the rules themselves and execute them according to their own criteria, that are, in a word, auto-nomos, are something completely different. Even with just such minor reformulations, actors can easily disappear “in autonomous systems” and lock the door from the inside, as with the chess game of Mechanical Turk. The rationale for such a trick is not difficult to see. The claim for autonomy in technical systems is a thinly-veiled attempt to exercise power and abdicate responsibility. Complex configurations of human actors, communicating objects, technical protocols and automated decision-making processes become hybrids and the boundaries between man and machine become unclear. In the changing territories of virtual and real, the fundamental erosion of existential certainties exposes supposed and real threats.

While dreams may be discarded as nocturnal artifacts of the mind, no one escapes the cognitive draw and pull of technologies in forming the human imagination.  Digital sensors “see things” that humans do not, yet the realm of modeling reality with machines remains incredibly opaque. The continuing research on Hypernormal Hybrids led to a strange but fascinating topic in the algorithmic world: the unconscious. Which forces of the subconscious act in digital processes? Is it that ubiquitous machinic measurement produces immaterial phenomena influencing human behavior or are there ghosts in the machines?  Which secrets of modern information societies are not to be found in the shadowy realm of technology, but in the human nervous system? How can the heterogeneous complexity of these relationships be described and which forms of access can open up cultural approaches? Can a language of addressing the unknowable help navigating the blind spots in the complex relations of subject and object demonstrated by “intelligent” machines? The inevitable effects of these unknown unknowns make a more enlightened practice of engaging with the digital unconscious seem necessary.

There are many approaches to researching the unconscious in digital culture. For “Painted by Numbers“, American science historian Lorraine Daston described the changing meaning of terms such as objectivity and rationality in intellectual history: “Objectivity is always used to suppress errors in relation to a subject …”. 2) Researchers such as Mireille Hildebrandt from Vrije Universiteit Brussels, on the other hand, show the deep relationships between the emerging socio-technical infrastructure and the autonomy of the human subject, the trend of behavioral economics and concepts such as nudging. 3) Already in 1992, long before algorithmic regimes were mentioned, Michael Taussig interpreted historical and cultural developments as the dynamics of neural networks in his book The Nervous System.

This series of events resulted in a collection of positions and texts that are brought together here under the title “Digital Unconscious“.

In the “The Dogma of Prediction” S.M. Amadae investigates the paranoid logic of rational choice in the context of the Cold War and its implications beyond Neoliberal Capitalism. She presents a history of logic where game theory and paranoid assumptions about human nature have become the inexorably defining formula of action. Rationality and paranoia were dangerously intertwined. In subsequent technological developments, such assumptions are deeply anchored as hidden systemic rules and still contain these mathematical models to this day. When decisions once made consciously are automated, when judgment is the product of machines, algorithmic regimes colonize human imagination and guide the future. Regarding these invisible control systems, Steve Kurtz of CAE says: “There are more and better technologies than ever before to ensure that when they are internalized, they not only drive behavior, but actually determine subjectivity.” Machine codes subvert the boundaries of bodies and shape the horizons of consciousness. Erik Davis quotes H.P. Lovecraft: “It is not the sleep of reason that produces monsters, but eyes of reason full of desire.”

Lydia Liu, on the other hand, thinks about the psychic inner life of intelligent machines. If it is possible to recreate human consciousness in machines, a machine subconscious, a “Freudian robot”, as Lydia Liu calls it, also arises. In her presentation at the Vienna Volkstheater, she emphasized this new generation of robots as something extremely uncanny in the collective consciousness. “The Coming of Freudian Robots” not only questions the extent to which robots are becoming more and more similar to humans, but also why they are becoming more and more similar to robots in return: ” Are human beings evolving into some type of Freudian robots at the same pace as AI engineers design their robots to resemble humans? ” Liu’s assumption is that humans evolve to resemble machines to which they teach human behavior. Trying to create robots in the image of God creates humans that behave like robots: The Uncanny Valley is becoming a two-way street. According to Liu, this endless loop leads to the development of special human-machine interfaces for new generations of cyborgs. Google Deep Dream gave an idea of ​​this, but the results will not show pretty pictures, but the more conscious ones Dimensions of machine rationality are inextricably linked to the human nervous system. To make life calculable, worldviews were created, people were transformed into robots and a development was initiated which Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, described as the “black magic of the 21st century”. Is it not the robot uprising to be afraid of, but computer-aided cultures of psychosis?

Franco Berardi Bifo pursues several directions at once in “The Digital Explosion of the Unconscious” Not only he states that the digital is incompatible with the unconscious as defined by psychoanalytical theory but also how the digital communication environment acts on the social and individual Unconscious up to the point of resulting in a psychological mutation. He quotes William Burroughs for comparing language to a virus that entered the human organism in the ancient times, marking the shift from the natural to the cultural dimension. A viral agent triggering the separation of conscious experience from biological nature, and simultaneously secreting the Unconscious to emanate a second world, diverging from the immediacy of perceptual experience and the experience of others.  While he concedes that happy mutations are possible, he sees a psychotic turn of the psycho-sphere that is deeply influenced by the social and economic context of precariousness, competition, and anxiousness.

Graham Harwood’s points out that the formation of a sick-self is a complicated but largely unconscious process. In his essay “Database Addiction” such a formation is unfolded as it interrelates with different scales of computing. The addict is coerced to manifest a version of themselves to interface with various digital performances of power, health, and social services that are themselves disciplined by the logics of computation. The resulting data can lead to insightful thoughts about the reckless body that threatens a digital rationality. As it becomes the subject of all kinds of architectures, the sick-self becomes a digital object that breaks down modalities into a monetized journey of recovery.

With the technical push of the Second World War, new communication technologies developed their strength. Under the name cybernetics, communication, control and computers became the determining foundation of the social sciences and institutional power of the post-war period. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, as sociologist Manuel Castells argues in “The Rise of Network Society”, that development accelerated and approached a new paradigm. Networks were not only there to organize information, but became a technology to guide society, awareness and culture, as Eric Davis emphasized in his article “The Netweird Society“. To explore these depths of digital unconscious, he quotes from Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”: “You have to ask two questions. First: What is the true nature of synthesis? And then: What is the true nature of control?” What does it mean to merge heterogeneous materials into figures of the real and to forge simulacra? What is human capacity to act in the face of social programming, cognitive scripts and nameless forces that work as an unconscious? What crowns the control hierarchies of techno-cultural roller coasters, which power is ultimately responsible? How can the fault lines of such hybrid systems be identified and which options for action still remain?

As an artist who deals with the power of action in systemic processes, Graham Harwood sees a basic problem in the inability to deal with complexity “so we invent angels to create an invisible hand”. Complexity dominates not only the environmental catastrophe, but also endless wars, global economic inequality and the emerging robotic division of labor. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) answered the question of “What is to be done? ” in a complex mediatized world of signs with a communication analysis. In their presentation and the present text “Machines, Spirits and the Rise of Secular Occultism” they consider: “If there are universal signs, spirits are probably among them”. Spirits are not only inevitable as a medium for hopes and fears, but as signs to maintain the continuity of consciousness and to explain the inexplicable. These shadowy forces substantiate and explain the spooky moments that result from digital networks. “Wherever there are hyper-objects that are so complex that they can no longer be deciphered in everyday life, the situation is ripe for ghosts.” Like a supernatural spook, these ghosts attach themselves to (virtual) places and people and so this experience becomes very personal. Ghosts of the shadow world know the lie of the homo economicus and know how to manipulate the circuits of the brain. Communications shift motivations and initiate behavioral needs. Influencing makes target people believe that ideas and desires arise from them. Humans are not reasonable beings. They can be urged to make decisions and be encouraged to do what a reasonable person would not do in their best interest.

Eva Illiouz’ “Capitalist Subjectivity, Tinder, and the Emotionalization of the Web” addresses emotional management by technology and emphasizes the role emotions play in this newly-found relationship between the Internet and ourselves. and the ways in which our deepest desires, our innermost affects are getting digitally turned into capital. she argues that in order to understand the ties between contemporary capitalism and technology we need to understand the role emotions play in this process, as well as the ways in which value gets algorithmically extracted from our innermost being. She asks: what makes the online sphere stick to subjectivity, become intertwined in people’s most intimate parts of lives? What makes subjectivity so smoothly and seamlessly interweave with the online fabric of the Internet? And how contemporary online spheres afford specific kinds of emotionality?

Felix Stalder, in “The ‘Known Unknowables’ of Quantification and the Paranoid Self”, writes about another form of unsettling of the self, this time not in relation to others, but in terms of the self-knowledge through quantified systems. Examining epistemological, phenomenological and political dimensions of quantified self-knowledge, he points to a proliferation of “known unknowables”, that is, areas of non-knowledge created by the very tools of knowledge. As this type of knowledge grows, so does the non-knowledge and the attempts to fill in these blank with conjectures and interpretations.

Big data shifts the focus from observing behaviors to models of prognostic assessments and a heyday of forecasting industries. Social sensing is considered the new technological science paradigm for capturing social behavior, but as machines learn to make predictions, they inscribe themselves into the behaviors of human and non-human actors. However, these opaque processes remain completely intangible in an area where ghostly data correlations exist without causality and strange scripts develop lives of their own. “Haunted Systems, Uncanny Predictions, and the Return of the Digital Unconscious” and “Algorithmic Terror and the Wealth of Planets” are excerpts from interviews with El Iblis Shah on the subject of prediction and oracles, on technological myths and the power of the digital unconscious. El Iblis Shah who examines the necropolitical coding of veiled violence in symbolic systems, sees big data mythology as a misanthropic cult that evokes the demise of the human race: “Data centers as high-voltage shrines of the evil eye are algorithmic prayer wheels, dark cathedrals of sinister formulas to transform the planet into the altar of idiot gods”.

Even in ancient times, oracles and prophecies had basic social functions. In “Social Sensors“, her article on the epistemology and the social science interactions of modern oracles and Big Data, Katja Mayer examines the power of occult evidence in social remote sensing and asks: “What exactly happens at the tipping point between calculation, interpretation and prediction? How does the gap between observation and prophecy close? Which epistemological theories are encountered against these uncertainties of permanent latency? ”

The publicist Ewen Chardronnet locates the nimbus of the supercomputers in ancient myths. What is now understood as the Anthropocene, the way human understanding affects the biosphere and geosphere was still called the noosphere in the early 20th century. In his contribution to Digital Unconscious he questions the strange cults of reason associated with the supercomputer for predicting events and the death cults of the noosphere. “Super-Computers, Ancient Myths and Death Cults of the Noosphere” follows the evolution of the Technosphere from the first computers for early warning of nuclear wars to the Global Consciousness Project, from Adam Smith’s computer of the invisible hand to the self-fulfilling prophecies of the followers of transhumanist singularity. Following this logic, according to Ewen Chardronnet, the era of the geological impact of the Anthropocene only appears “as a short-lived chapter in the Phanerozoic, the age of the manifestation of animals.”

In “Believing in the Transcendence Through Technology: From the Noosphere to Global Consciousness” Cécilia Calheiros provides further proof how techno-sciences bolster certain belief systems and expectations. Questioning the ways eschatological concerns inspired technological innovation she points to Norbert Wiener nullifying the ontological distance between living and non-living, human and machine by the primacy of information exchange.  She highlights the ways in which scientific thought and technology remain steeped in religious enchantment referring to projects in which digital networks are understood as a means of salvation or linked to ideas of a higher stage of human evolution.  On today’s boom of predictive software design that seeks to come to terms with what is ungraspable, she quotes Lucian Boia “science-based mythology is richer and more diverse than the religious mythology of our ancestors”.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, discusses the historical context of concepts of consciousness and the problems of scientific or philosophical attempts to come to grips with the mysterious subject in “The Empty Screen – A Short History of Consciousness“. In ten steps he proceeds to sketch a timeline of emerging forms of consciousness in a framework of social organization. This trajectory leads him from awareness and the discovery of the unconscious to hyper-bourgeois self-consciousness and “techno-pathocracy”, the rule of sick machines. In a scathing Postscript he brandishes the ignorance of newly “woke” critics of dangerous information technology and referring to haunted ontologies ends with the question is – what or who exactly is haunting the Information Ontology?

Michael Taussig, who has long studied the relationship between “rational” and “magical” thinking, regards indigenous observations in the modern world as critical insights. He shows anthropology as caught in an almost magical illusion of its objectivity and as a discipline that is not sufficiently aware of its own conditions and assumptions. By exploring the reality of the instinctive, Taussig approaches the liminal zones of a teaching about humans and discusses shifting boundaries between humans and objects in the context of the embodied unconscious. Lydia Liu, in connection with the “Uncanny Valley”, emphasizes that the analytical distinction between yourself and an object is becoming increasingly unclear, as a crucial approach to the uncanny. The transition objects described by Donald Winnicott, such as the teddy bears of toddlers, are considered an intermediate product of psychological and external reality. At the same time “we” but also the “others”, devices such as smartphones are transition objects for adults and examples of digitally embodied unconscious.

Objects that can increasingly be seen as alive are not a radical break caused by AI technologies, but rather a “very old story”, both in technology (such as the historical Mechanical Turk) and in cultural narratives. Ideas of animated objects are based on the one hand on the belief in the ability of the object (or the trickster who deals with it) and on the other hand a skepticism towards the depicted. Faith and skepticism go hand in hand, as Evans-Pritchard noted in the 1930s regarding magic. This dual character is both the basis of power and the source of its fight and the starting point for leverage to say the opposite. Discourse can therefore not be reduced to flat key messages, but works on many levels of the atmosphere and resonance of ideas. In this interview “On Lively Objects and Animated Things” on the occasion of his presentation on Nervous Digital Systems in Vienna, Taussig advocates openness to the mimetic life of things: “Sensitivity to the resonance of things in the world is important so that the mapping of discourse areas enables other adventures of ideas.” 4) Against the arbitrariness of signifiers and the Saussurean gaps in representation, in conversation with El Iblis Shah, Taussig evokes the organic connection of language, where “writing becomes what it is about” and an expanded understanding of reality in which the map is actually territory.

When deep learning technologies prove to be the mythical practice of big data priests of non-human death cults, the digital world becomes the Uncanny Valley under the spell of unconscious incantations and deceptive appearances; populated by the undead, psychotic robots and incommensurable hybrid objects. In this swarm of invisible hands, the social media affect economy is transformed into a ghostly cemetery for cuddly toys and a smoldering hotbed of nervous suffering. Monstrous powers of interpretation and legions of invisible rules in the digital labyrinth of the unconscious can be very discouraging, but the insight into their constructed conditionality is comforting and exhilarating. Even the first ghost ride spectacles and “ghost daguerreotypes” were not only a technological achievement but also a popular form of entertainment.

Konrad Becker, Felix Stalder (eds.)


  1. Digital Unconscious is draws on a series of World-Information Institute events, installations and talks. “Algorithmic Regimes and Generative Strategies” (2015-2016), “Painted by Numbers” (2016-2019), Hypernormal Hybrids (2017-2018) Digital Nervous Systems (2019-2020) or “What Is to Be Done?” (2018) investigated the biopolitical and psychological aspects in the hybridization of humans and technological systems from various perspectives. https://world­ Collaboration with springerin magazine on special issue “Digital Unconscious” 2019/4
  2. https://world­­by­numbers/
  3. ibid
  4. https://world­­digital­systems/