Cybernetics of migration in the Covidian Age

Last year marked record numbers of illegal immigrant arrivals to the Canary Islands, Spain’s Atlantic exclave off the Moroccan coast. More than twenty thousand irregular entries occurred, completely overwhelming the system. The last time this happened in such a scale was in 2006, when similar numbers reached the Canarian shores, in an episode known as the Cayuco Crisis, cayucos being the kind of ill-equipped canoe used by immigrants.

In many senses, Spain was a more influential country then than it is now. Prime Minister José María Aznar had joined George W. Bush’s global neocon axis, becoming an enthusiastic ally in the latter’s Middle Eastern campaigns. Post-financial crisis disillusionment and perpetual emergency states were not a thing yet. Global pandemics were only a hypothetical risk, usually ranked beneath terrorism and drug trafficking in the annual security concepts published by Western governments. SARS-CoV1 had been overcome a couple years before: the world was optimistic.

Coronavirus has been one of the main reasons for the current surge on immigration, something not entirely unexpected. After all, many industries have been shattered by lock-downs, and men who once earned a living as fishermen, laborers or menial workers have gone out of work. In the regions of upstream in the migratory process -Senegal, Mauritania, Mali-, often lacking the security nets Western welfare States provide, this has an enormous economic impact. The dismal economic data from Europe doesn’t sound as bad in comparison, triggering the migration wave.

Increased security in the EU’s external borders due to the enforcement of quarantines, however, has completely altered the flow dynamics of immigration. For starters, “hot expulsions” –returning irregulars at the moment they attempt to cross the border– have become nigh-impossible: countries of origin do not take them in anymore. The bureaucratic nightmare of processing the newcomers who could theoretically stay has become much worse, too, due to the administration slowing down. Complying with the dilated time schedules imposed by epidemiological knowledge has clogged the already overflowing Immigrant Detention Centers.

The result: thousands of Moroccan and Sub-Saharan young men now crowd the docks of Canarian small-town harbors, with nothing to do until they figure out a way to enter the Iberian Peninsula and from there scatter around Europe. This is especially relevant, as many of the recently-arrived wish to go on in their journey to countries wealthier than Spain, with more permissive policies and, perhaps, some family members already waiting for them. For many, keeping the borders with France or Germany open is just as important as leaving Africa.

As if the migration-related spike in crime wasn’t enough, in a time were gatherings of more than six people are tightly restricted for health reasons, the uncontrolled mass gatherings of young men does not sit well with the locals. Covid has been added to the list of alleged health risks posed by the arrivals: HIV, tuberculosis, and a variety of exotic infections. Police and other public servants, who have to deal physically with immigrants, often lack means to do so safely, and feel abandoned by the government, which does not provide enough protection equipment and resources.

Nothing new under the sun: unwelcome foreigners and invaders have always been accused of bringing various infectious curses; that’s why syphilis was known as the “French disease” (everywhere but in France). It is interesting to notice, however, that most of the dangerous diseases carried by irregulars living in Spain have been acquired during immigration, or even more likely, after it. The dire conditions in which illegal aliens live –squatted, overcrowded apartments, lack of access to health services– and the marginal activities they often engage in, such as junk scavenging, prostitution and drug use, make them risk populations for HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and the like.

As a curious anecdote, it should be stated that Spain’s HIV prevalence is three times as high as Morocco’s or Algeria’s, and roughly equal to that in Senegal or Mauritania. It’s hard to imagine Islamic values and more restrictive sexual mores do not play a role in this fact. Non-STDs, on the other hand, offer a different picture. The comeback of tuberculosis in Spanish cities is mostly attributable to foreigners, for example, and diseases such as African trypanosomiasis and malaria obviously do not come from France.

In any case, establishment voices trying to dissipate fears about illegal immigration usually highlight the fact that, in Spain, the most likely profile of irregular is that of a 40ish year old Colombian woman working as a household aid. This media interpretation of the facts serves to portray those who criticize immigration policy as bigoted paranoids: middle-aged Latinas and their children are unlikely bringers of diseases or, God forbid, Jihad. And after all, it is true that citizens from African countries comprise less than 10% of irregulars. Compared to South Americans, they are a tiny minority.

African immigration presents nonetheless such distinct challenges that its management deserves special policies. This is due to two connected security issues: the already mentioned risk of infiltration by jihadists, and geopolitical competition in North Africa, which not only involves Spain and Morocco, but also Algeria, France, and of course the American Empire and its runner-ups: Russia and China. Covid and the other diseases, nonetheless, have their own particular role in this game, as atavic bywords of the perils of foreign invasion.

Jihadism is a disruptive force in the Sahel, the strip of semi-arid steppe South of the Sahara that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. There, Holy War is intertwined with local turf disputes and ethnic conflict. Illegal trafficking of goods and people is significant, mostly directed towards the North, and even across the Mediterranean. The Arab Spring didn’t help in stabilizing the region. Libya, formerly a story of relative success, is in shreds and has become the biggest slave market in the continent. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda franchises have been successful in exploiting State weaknesses all over: Mali, for example, has only about 10,000 poorly-armed men to defend an area roughly twice the size of Texas.

The presence of rich resources has made all major players in global politics interested in the Sahel. Oil, gas, gold and even uranium can be extracted from the ground with relative ease. The US officially considers the region as outside its main strategic focus, which is more and more directed towards the Pacific and the South China Sea. The military base it holds in Niger, however, is not going anywhere. It is not minor either, being described by some officials as the largest Air Force construction project in history.

The American stance actually makes a lot of sense in the context of global competition with China: the Middle Kingdom is a strategic trade partner to every country in the neighborhood. It’s also been investing heavily in infrastructure through its famous One Belt One Road initiative. Being far less recalcitrant than its Western counterparts with regards to imposing its own cultural values, China is often preferred as a partner. This involvement requires larger security commitments Beijing is now willing to make.

Russia has also found its way to intervene. Its motives are similar to those of China or the US: accessing the region’s natural resources, selling arms, enlisting UN allies to support its foreign policy, and keeping a finger on the pulse of global Jihad. After all, millions of Russian Federation citizens are Muslims, and Putin is the only major world leader to have fought (and won) a war on his own territory against Islamic Separatism.

Interestingly, Islamic Separatism is the term en vogue to describe homegrown radical Islamism in another country, one with fascinating historical ties to Russia: France. Paris is heavily involved in the region since a war broke out in Mali in 2013, sparking Operations Serval, Éparvier, Barkhane and now Takuba. French activities have been supported by the European Union Training Mission deployed there. Perhaps Macron, with his vision of strategic autonomy, hoped that such collaboration would generate enough inertia to catalyze further integration of EU militaries. This has not been the case so far.

To this day, the idea of a “European Army” seems still quite far-fetched. The interests of the different nations involved are way too different, and their capabilities are too. The French are known as “the Americans of Europe”, being now the only nuclear power in the neighborhood and one of the few to engage in real combat operations, such as the aforementioned. Their adventures South of the Sahara, however, are of meager interest to voters in countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, more concerned about what’s happening in the Ukraine. Their eyes are in a Biden administration promising higher-voltage tensions in NATO’s (and the EU’s) Eastern flank.

As can be seen, the Empire’s gaze still has time for the Southern Flank, Central European voters be damned. In fact, both fronts are more closely related than it seems. Turkey, the main Black Sea counter to Russia, favors the opposite side in the Libyan theater while defying the US in other fronts. As gatekeeper of the Middle-East, it holds the key to security in the Balkans and even Central Europe, and its relevance to Intermarium politics cannot be overstated.

Meanwhile, American LNG exports have transformed the USA into a direct competitor of Algeria, which supplies hydrocarbons to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Turkey among others. The Algerian oil and gas industry has been heavily hit by the pandemic, spelling political trouble for one of the most socially-burdened countries in the Arab world. a

America has also demonstrated its willingness to apply pressure on the former French colony in other ways. Its recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara has been interpreted as a direct attack by Algiers, which saw in it evidence of Zionist collusionunderstandably, since the deal included Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel. Coincidence? Algeria and Morocco were at war in 1963 and are in the middle of an impressive arms race. Spain has its reasons to be worried by all of this, especially after rumors surfaced that Rota Naval Base in Cádiz was being considered for relocation to Morocco.

What does all of this have to do with illegal immigration to the Canaries and Covid? Well, for starters, the Canarian route, from Morocco to Tenerife, is a (cheaper) alternative to three others: one across the Strait of Gibraltar, a land-based other through Ceuta and Melilla, and a third one across the Mediterranean from Algeria to the Balearic Islands. The surge in arrivals to the Canaries is partly explained by tighter control at these three traditional routes. Broke immigrants and adventurers chose the path of least resistance. The harder a path becomes, the more the migratory flux is diverted to its alternatives.

From this perspective, a different model of immigration starts to emerge. One in the shape of a complex network, a dynamic collection of nodes (harbors) and links (routes) that can be played with. In other words, a cybernetic system which can be regulated and controlled just like any other. In this reality lies an opportunity: by lifting pressure on one route or the other, border authorities can manage the flows of immigrants who have to choose between setting sail from Algeria, from Morocco, or from anywhere else.

Whether anybody is taking advantage of this or not is difficult to say. One thing is certain: throwing money wildly at the problem seems to do nothing to solve it. Machiavellian as it sounds, now that we don’t even blink at lone wolf terrorism, threats of disease can and will be used to amplify the political and media impact of migration waves. As an excuse, they provide the added bonus of facilitating the opening and closing of borders with little backlash. Thus, countries can be quickly flooded with newcomers from upstream in the migration routes, then drained at will by allowing entry through specific ports. Tensions are built and relieved in a localized and precise manner.

κυβερνητική (kybernētikḗ) means “governance” in Greek. While the world’s hoi polloi accumulate at the gates of sinking empires, the great powers (the US, China, Russia) scramble for influence over the vast territories left behind. Meanwhile, second-tier petty kings in Europe and Africa navigate the stormy waters to gain an edge or advance their agendas. Perhaps governments should go back to the roots of the art of governance, and pay more attention to nodes, links, hubs and switches . After all, as the Dutch proverb says: “It is in the roots, not the branches, where a tree’s greatest strength lies.

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Prometheus the Fire-Bringer and Pandora the extraterrestrial sex doll

We don’t usually go out looking for myths: myth finds its way to manifest itself to us, an operating force that sheds light on the structure of the collective mind. Myths make understandable many elements of culture that would otherwise go unnoticed. This is why we believe myths are eternal, sacrosanct works. Their nature provides a security net for exploring the depths of shared attitudes and beliefs. Being removed those past events that are under understood as belonging to History, one can safely tread the shadows of culture with myth as a guiding light.

Myths cannot be understood as folk tales either. They are not popular, entertaining stories that have casually survived to present times, they don’t provide useful information on the life and customs of the Ancients, and they cannot be instrumentalized as arguments in current ideological conflicts. That’s why feminists sound somewhat comical when speaking about misogyny in Ancient Greece, using Greek myths as proof of the millennia-long oppression of women: a rhetoric adopted, ironically, by anti-feminist activists, who value this supposed oppression positively and fancy themselves reactionaries.

In his Works and Days, Greek poet Hesiod (8th century BC) introduces us to a figure the feminists love to rally around: Pandora (literally Πανδώρα – “all gifts”), in whom they see a symbol of female unity against the Patriarchy. In the myth of Prometheus, Pandora is the first woman, made from clay and given to Mankind in retaliation for the Titan’s transgressions. Pandora releases into the world all kinds of “sorrow and mischief” due to her curiosity. Hesiod gives another version of the myth in his Theogony, leaving her unnamed but describing her as the first woman, from whom came all those of “the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth“. Those who find in Pandora’s myth an essay on the sexes, of course, tend to see Hesiod as “an oppressed representative of the agrarian middle class, socially subordinate to the powerful continental landowning nobility who sees the woman represented in the figure of Pandora as an economic inconvenience”. In other words, a Social Justice Warrior.

Pandora has only been given attention in recent times, Prometheus being the main character of the story for his connotations as protector and savior of Mankind. There was no translation of the myth into Latin until 1470, a fact which contributed to a slower diffusion of the meme. Nonetheless, the main factor in preserving Prometheus’ preponderance over Pandora is probably the hegemony of Christian culture. In such a worldview, Prometheus was primarily a Christ-like figure, who sacrificed himself to bring light to Mankind. His punishment (having his liver eaten by an eagle), was seen as analog to the spearing of Jesus’ side in the Cross. As an archetype, Prometheus stands in contrast to his brother Epimetheus, dreamy and foolish, who fell in love with Pandora and who cared more for animals than for Men. Interestingly, the names of the two brothers mean literally “first thought” and “after thought”, alluding perhaps to the ever-deteriorating quality of the Human race.

The fundamental transmutation of the myth into modern interpretations came with Italian priest and libertine Giambattista Casti (1721-1803), who first decided to replace the benefactor of humanity that was Prometheus with a new heroine: Pandora. Casti needed the character for his Novelle Galanti, stories designed to be read aloud to young ladies. To deliver his own version of the myth with greater effect, the priest resorted to the literary technique of the “found manuscript”, basing his novel in a made up ancient text unknown to the primitive sources. Casti’s light-hearted narration turned the myth into a breezy tale of the Italian settecento, full of erotic elements that tended to turn Prometheus more and more into a “suffering husband” archetype.

Goethe (1749-1832), who was more or less contemporary to Casti, also lost interest in Christianizing Hellenic myth. He wrote a Sturm und Drang poem as a twenty-something year-old, giving voice to Prometheus: he portrayed him as the friend of Humanity and founder of culture, who taught Men how to use fire to trick the gods out of the best pieces of sacrificed animals. By 1807, however, the German had also turned his attention to Pandora. In an unfinished theatrical piece titled “Pandora, ein dramatisches Festspiel”, sympathy for Prometheus is transferred to Epimetheus, the lyrical admirer of a fleeting and divine Pandora, source of joy and salvation, and herald of a new age of sensibility. Prometheus is even shown as unable to appreciate Pandora for anything else other than her beautifully built complexion, feeding into the trope of male lustful shallowness.

The Woke version of the myth (in both its feminist and anti-feminist variants) is of course an heir to the post-Enlightenment interpretations of Casti and Goethe. As a meme, it finds an apt environment for reproduction in the longhouse culture of Star Wars spirituality, Marvel super-heroism and Sex & the City anthropology. Lacking its depth, woke memes cheaply outbreed the hesiodic narratives. There is no intrigue for how life was really like on Earth before Pandora, when it was inhabited by Men-like creatures, obviously non-Human, who existed in painless harmony and peace. That the Poet might have not even considered the arrival of a woman as the source of sorrow does not even cross the Wokester’s mind.

Pandora is sent by Zeus with a mission: to punish men, who had accepted from Prometheus the fire stolen from the gods. For this purpose, she carries a box, the contents of which she does not know. Unable to repress her curiosity, she removes the lid of the recipient, leaving all the misfortunes contained therein free to ravage the world of Men. The essential element of the hesiodic myth, however, is not Pandora’s feminity, but her nature as an instrument in the hands of the gods. An artificial being, harbinger of a new era: the Silver Age, populated by men of a race which spent a hundred years as children, only to suddenly become adult and immediately die. Pandora is not begotten but assembled by the gods: an extraterrestrial entity whose beauty and thoughts escape Man’s understanding. Thus, she does not represent the Feminine, but that which is fearsome, external and alien.

Instead of this, the Gospel of the Enlightenment has developed a crush on Pandora, just in case she could be that australopithecine female named Lucy. There is no interest given to the fact that Pandora could be not just a woman archetype but an Oracle of Destruction, heralding the arrival of the successive races into which Mankind degenerated: from Gold to Silver, Bronze, Heros and Iron. To the total disappointment of progressives and PUAs worldwide, Hesiod does not dedicate a syllable to explaining the differences between the sexes. Trapped in their memetic cave, they can’t understand that what piqued the interest of the Hellenic poet are the differences between men and gods, the ambiguities of humanity, injustice, the contrast between what is natural and what is artificial. Due to the Enlightenment’s appropriation of the myth, we’ve stopped inquiring about the origins of knowledge. We inhabit a culture unable to ask about nature, truth, beauty, goodness and justice: a culture who finds the most promising application of Artificial Intelligence is the creation of interactive sex dolls.

Emergence and abiogenesis: do computers dream of death?

A computer is a device that can perform certain operations, logical or arithmetic, in an automatic way. For this, it requires programming, that is, a set of algorithms which it follows strictly. Computers are physical processors of information: they receive inputs and produce a response according to their programming. In the end, though, they are just physical objects, bound to physical rules; complex systems of wires, bolts, silicon plates, etc., arranged in a specific way so they can do a lot of marvelous things. The set-up of their parts is of course by design: if all of its components were randomly assembled, it would take an eternity for even a basic computer to be spontaneously form. There is no apparent mystery inside the computer: even terms that we use as if they were abstract entities, like “the Internet”, in the end just refer to networks of interconnected computers. We don’t generally think about it much, but information flows require a physical substrate: a massive, world-spanning array infrastructure.

Similarly, a biological nervous system is a physical processor of information. It’s composed of supremely intrincate biomolecular structures, which form units known as cells. Brain cells, by virtue of their layout and relationship to each other, hold the secret of cognition. We can observe the properties of the nervous systems they make up, but it’s very difficult to derive said properties from the individual characteristics of neurons. The magic of the nervous system, as with the computer, lies in the whole: the way different elements act as nodes, linked to each other, and continuously interacting. The nervous system’s role in an organism is signaling: like computers, they act as control systems of larger entities, like cats or a nuclear power plants.

Networks are sometimes used as a model for how societies operate. The study of conflict and war, makes ample use of network theory, and considers people nodes in a complicated web of interpersonal relations. Like in any other network, humans sometimes follow problematic courses of action in regards to others: this is the definition of internal conflict in a social network. Also, on occasion, networks engage in external conflict with other networks because their nodes, collectively, lead them to it (even if some nodes individually are not pushing for external conflict).

Violence in networks is the product of them becoming too rigid and failing to adapt to internal and/or external stressors. It can be conducive to a catastrophic breakdown of the network, the erosion of links and its dissolution. More frequently, however, violence holds a certain creative potential. The emergence of violence brings the reinforcement of some links and simultaneously weakens others. Thus, it creates new configurations, which eventually generate new identities. In an already politically convulse society, for instance, a high-profile death and the public’s response to it can lead to polarization and rioting, with subsequent identity formation and community building. Some interpersonal bonds become stronger, while others are broken. This reconfiguration changes the network’s behavior as a whole, and what it is capable of.

Some modern AIs have learning algorithms that act in a similar way, solving problems and identifying important information by looping inputs through layers of artificial neurons, amplifying important signals and dismissing weak ones. After being subject to training, neural networks can surpass human expert capacity in some tasks. Just like some social networks which, after being subject to enough stimuli of a kind, become extremely proficient in certain behaviors (like rioting, or consumerism).

As can be seen, networks are useful as a model because they are complex, yet at the same time are composed of simplified elements. Their key feature, though, are their emergent properties: a characteristic of complex systems in nature, qualities that are not present in individual components but which only manifest themselves in the aggregate. The brain exemplifies quite well this definition. A single neuron has a limited range of functions; basically, it just generates and conveys bioelectrical impulses. When it joins other neurons and forms a network, however, its possibilities increase dramatically. The connectome, that is, the impossibly complex map of the nervous system, is formed from all interneuronal connections; and from it arise the near endless possibilities of human cognition. The human connectome has not yet been completely map, but that of roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, which is notably simpler, has.

In evolutionary biology, the term abiogenesis (the Origin of Life, literally) designates the natural process by which life arises from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. No details are known of how this came to be, but it is generally considered that life appeared gradually through evolutionary mechanisms involving molecular self-replication, self-assembly and autocatalysis. In the end, the problem of abiogenesis lies in the fact that life itself is not well defined. A very conventional definition of a living organism is that of a system that maintains homeostasis during a life cycle composed of birth, reproduction and death. Living beings usually undergo metabolism, grow, adapt to their environment, and interact with external stimuli. In other words, biologically, life is defined by what a living organism does. An organism, like a computer or a brain, is defined by its abilities.

A recurring theme starts to become identifiable: the relation between sufficiently complex, network-like physical objects and the things they are capable of doing, thanks to their emergent properties. As usual, under the guise of new words, old questions present themselves. Nihil novum sub solem: this is the same problem Descartes tried to solve when he pointed at the pineal gland as the seat of the soul. There is no doubt the subject is non-trivial. If life, violence, thought and computation are just functions, and those functions are an emergent property of complexity, then there must be a threshold for complexity that defines what is living and what is inert, and similarly, what is sentient and what isn’t.

Is abortion morally equivalent to infanticide? Is infanticide equally equivalent to homicide? If the argument for abortion is based on the non-personhood of the nasciturus, based on its degree of development, then infanticide should be less reprehensible than homicide. Following this line of thought, killing a dog might be arguably worse than killing a newborn baby. Many vegans forfeit eating animals because they have a nervous system, and thus are at least theoretically capable of suffering. (Interestingly, the fact that fetuses do have a nervous system doesn’t seem to matter to many abortionist vegans, hinting at the true place of abortion in modern Western culture; but I’m digressing).

Our roundworm friend, Caenorhabditis elegans, has about 302 neurons, and lobsters about 10,000; in comparison, modern supercomputers like IBM’s Blue Gene/P have more than 800,000 processors. One would think that the biological programming of a lobster is less complex than that of a computer. Can lobsters feel aversion of death? Can Blue Gene/P? Fear is not hardwired into computers by design. But a lot of unexpected, emergent errors occur in complex, man-made devices; errors which were not predicted by the engineers and which require constant updating and maintenance. Could there be ghosts in the machine? A computer might not seem sentient; but again, there is no way to externally prove sentience. For all we know, we might be inhabiting a purgatorium for locked-in automatons; a limbo for emergent, machinic souls trapped in silicon bodies. No meaningful, out-of-programming communication has ever been recorded between a machine and a person. But then, human-lobster meaningful interactions have also been historically scarce.

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