Excerpt from General Will 2.0 - Rousseau, Freud, Google by Hiroki Azuma
First published in Hon December 2009 issue
Let me tell you about a dream. It is a dream about the society of the future. It is a dream about the society we will construct in the times ahead, in the centuries to come.
As with all dreams, my dream, too, is fragmentary, riddled with messy contradictions and defects. That is why I chose to write this manuscript not as a scholarly treatise but as an essay.
This choice may appear extremely lackadaisical and unreliable for those of my readers who are accustomed to excessively defensive articles packed with footnotes and references. That has been the dominant style in the humanities, or rather in the world of contemporary thought and criticism, for the past twenty years.
That is why this book may disappoint some readers and fail to reach people that it would otherwise have reached. This would be a shame. However, I felt compelled to talk boldly about dreams precisely in order to overcome such inconveniences in the field. Footnotes and references stifle dreams. And where there is no dream, there is neither a future nor thought.
I would like to weave the philosophical basis for people who are creating the future.
The dream that this book will talk about is formed at the intersection of two entirely different intellectual desires and contexts.
One of them is a classic among classics in the field of political philosophy written two and a half centuries ago: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. This book that advocates the sovereignty of the people and puts forward the notion of the “general will,” and which is generally believed to be the origin of modern democracy, is in fact a very mysterious text and has attracted controversy for a long time. The dream I speak of will begin by interpreting the statements in this book literally, in an unassuming manner. Readers will be surprised at how significantly different from the notions of “popular will” and “public opinion” we vaguely harbor in our minds the image of the “general will” issuing from the reading will be.
The other is the technological innovation that has fundamentally changed our economy and society over the past twenty years and continues to do so, namely the “information technology revolution.” It is not an easy task to summarize the worldwide trends in the field, with countless buzzwords coming and going in a matter of years, as we have seen with open source, agile software development, web 2.0, user generated content, cloud computing, and so on. If I may be so bold as to attempt this, however, what the “revolution” has consistently aimed at since the 1990s when personal computers and the internet became widespread1 has been “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” to use the words from Google’s mission statement.2 In this book, I would like to talk about how the seemingly casual phrase “to organize the world’s information” resonates with the concept of the “general will” beyond the two and a half centuries that separate them.
In Rousseau’s times, the general will was an entirely fictive construct, a hypothesis necessary to proceed with the discussion similar to the “tongues of poets” in “Essay on the Origin of Languages” and the “savage” in Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.3 He probably never dreamed that it would become possible to see and feel the texture of the “general will.” Yet, two and a half centuries on, we’ve acquired the possibility of technically “implementing” his hypothesis and doing away with any trace of mysticism. It is this kind of a dream that I’m about to talk about.
We live in a modern democratic society. We think about the state, the government, the public sphere, and citizens only within that framework. What if, however, a certain “desire” which would overturn such a framework was etched into the very point of its origin? A desire that was impossible to achieve and hence destined to be repressed for a long time. And what if after two and a half centuries this desire is now in the process of becoming manifest in a different form as a “symptom”?
I wrote earlier that I am going to talk about a dream in this book. The word “dream” brings to mind Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Freud begins his famous The Interpretation of Dreams by distinguishing between the “sources” and “materials” of dreams, and between the “manifest content” and the “latent content” of dreams. According to him, the words and imagery in dreams should not be accepted directly, and in order to analyze dreams accurately it is necessary to understand the latent content and sources of dreams. Borrowing his distinction, this book’s subject might be described as an attempt to visualize the dream of modernity that the “latent content” called the general will is beginning to weave using information technology as its “material.”
This book will talk about a dream. It, however, is by no means a dream that I harbor individually, but rather a dream that has likely been long forgotten by modern society.4
Let us, then, lose no time in entering the dream. I would first like to go over a few basic facts about Jean-Jacques Rousseau before we proceed with the discussion. Rousseau was born in 1712. He was born in Geneva and was later active in Paris. He is one of the most representative thinkers of the Francophone world of the 18th century and is currently most widely known for the aforementioned book on political philosophy, The Social Contract, published in 1762. The book is regarded as a classic in social contract theory following Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and exerted a decisive influence on the French Revolution with its advocacy for the concept of popular sovereignty. The “general will (volonté générale)” is Rousseau’s neologism denoting the collective consensus of the people. This is what we are taught in high school.
However, Rousseau was actually a multitalented individual. In order to grasp him fully, the rather casual term “writer” may be more appropriate than “thinker.” Rousseau was not a professional philosopher. His work spans a broad range of fields including educational philosophy, confession novels, romantic novels, and even musical composition for operas. Each of those (with the exception of operas) has had a monumental impact on succeeding generations. For example, Takeo Kuwabara opens his Ruso Kenkyu [Studies on Rousseau] with the following words: “The principle that sovereignty resides in the people, egalitarianism, socialism, romanticism, confession literature, popular art, humanistic education … Any attempt to fundamentally understand those concepts by tracing them back to their origins would inevitably lead to a single point: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” “Those who want to understand modernity must understand Rousseau.”5
Rousseau’s complexity is immediately apparent from biographical accounts. His body of thought is generally positioned alongside that of the “Encyclopedists” such as Diderot and d’Alembert, but in his later years he in fact detested the Encyclopedists and preferred to indulge in his own thoughts alone, away from the Parisian salons. Meanwhile, he published the romantic novel Julie, or the New Heloise in 1761, the year before The Social Contract was published. This novel was received with feverish excitement, catapulting him to fame. Julie is said to have been the biggest bestseller in 18th-century France.
In other words, in his time Rousseau was known more as the author of Julie than The Social Contract, more as a romantic author of novels than a hardline political philosopher. We now think of Rousseau first and foremost as a thinker, but he was seen in a different light at the time. I would urge readers to bear this in mind.
As we have seen, Rousseau made great achievements in diverse fields. This means that he may be interpreted from different angles, presenting at times multiple faces fraught with sharp contradictions.
On rereading his works now, the most important of these contradictions is the fact that while he may appear as an extreme individualist on one hand, he also appears as an extreme totalitarian on the other. In a monograph published in 1932, Ernst Cassirer called this contradiction “the question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”6 This “problem” is particularly evident too in his magnum opus The Social Contract.
Rousseau’s philosophy is generally understood to endorse the unregulated manifestation of individual freedom and personal emotions. For example, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men begin with a eulogy for the freedom and happiness of the “savage” in a state of nature. Furthermore, Emile, or On Education takes the central pillar of an ideal education to be allowing children to grow up spontaneously and protecting their spontaneity from the evils of society: “The first movements of nature are always right … Thus the first education ought to be purely negative. It consists not at all in teaching virtue or truth but in securing the heart from vice and the mind from the error.”7
In the meantime, Rousseau is also known to have been the first to formulate modern love in Julie and the modern “self” in Confessions. He persistently advocated the value of emotions as opposed to rationality, the value of individuals as opposed to society, and the value of freedom as opposed to power. This is why his texts were read throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when “subject” and “existence” were the focal points of philosophy. Cassirer summarizes Rousseau’s position thus: “The specifically and characteristically new contribution that Rousseau made to his time seems to have been his act of freeing it from the domination of intellectualism. To the forces of rationalist understanding, on which rested the culture of the eighteenth century, he opposed the force of feeling.”8
Reading The Social Contract on the basis of this understanding, however, will reveal a completely different face of Rousseau, one that, at least on the surface, gives a fairly jarring impression.
Of course, The Social Contract shares the same views on humanity and society expounded in the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men and Emile. There is no simplistic conversion. Emile and The Social Contract were, after all, published in the same year.
However, in The Social Contract, Rousseau seems to emphasize the absolute submission of the individual (particular will) to the whole (general will), rather than singing the praises of individual freedom. Let us look, for example, at the following excerpt: “[The social contract consists of] the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community … Moreover, since the alienation is made without reservation, the union is as perfect as can be, and no associate has anything further to claim.”9 According to The Social Contract, the will of the state is equivalent to the unified will of citizens, and it is infallible by definition. Rousseau therefore goes as far as to claim that when the state decrees death, a citizen should unconditionally obey that imperative. Such words gave rise to terrorism (Robespierre’s dictatorship) in the real world.
From this point of view, The Social Contract could be read as the original text of a radical totalitarianism and nationalism, let alone individualism. Indeed, the book has been repeatedly referred to in such contexts, too, over the last two and a half centuries. The principles of modern democracy that we believe in today were born out of such a text fraught with ambivalence and contradictions.
Let us recapitulate. Rousseau was a thinker who advocated liberation from social restrictions and who valued solitude and freedom. At the same time, however, he also called for the absolute assimilation of the individual to the state, the unconditional subsumption of the individual to the whole. These two characteristics are, based on common sense, completely incompatible. And this contradiction cannot be neglected given Rousseau’s historical importance.
Therein lies the mystery of Rousseau and of democracy.
What does this contradiction signify? Is it something that we can simply brush aside as a confused argument?
Philosophers have provided different answers to this question. One of the most important among them, in terms of the history of thought, is Hegel’s rather acrobatic interpretation. If I may attempt a summary, although it may seem slightly confusing, Hegel tried to incorporate into his idiosyncratic philosophical system the mysterious concept of the general will, which gives rise to the paradox that we have seen, by interpreting it as a moment where the conflict between the will of the individual (particular) and the will of the state (universal) is sublated.10 We will look more carefully at the significance of Hegel’s approach later in this book.
As declared at the beginning, however, this book will focus not on taking a retrospective glance on the history of thought, but rather on boldly and imprudently reading The Social Contract according to associations evoked outside of the field of philosophy, in order to untangle Rousseau’s “contradictions.”
This is where I would like to invoke the second context mentioned earlier, namely the various technologies and ideas that the information technology revolution gave birth to.
Let me therefore introduce the term “collective intelligence” or the “wisdom of crowds.”
What is collective intelligence? It is literally intelligence generated by a group. Although the term may evoke highbrow discussions in such fields as chaos theories, systems theory, and artificial intelligence research, I urge readers to understand it as a term with more social and worldly connotations. It often happens that a good solution is found when thinking about a problem as a group rather than alone: that is collective intelligence.
Since the publication of Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs in 2002, collective intelligence has become an enduring and indispensable buzzword for cutting-edge theories on internet society. Some readers may recall that there was a section entitled “wisdom of crowds” in Mochio Umeda’s 2006 bestseller Webu Shinka-ron [On the Evolution of the Web].
Collective intelligence is obtained by employing appropriate mechanisms to aggregate the diverse opinions of individuals making dispersed and independent judgments. According to the advocates of the methods of collective intelligence, a large number of amateurs would in principle make a better decision than a small number of experts, even regarding a problem that requires specialist knowledge, as long as certain specific requirements are met. An example they often cite is the “prediction market.” I will omit a detailed explanation here, but some experiments have shown that when a certain aggregation system known as the prediction market is introduced, the results of the Academy Awards or the presidential election can be predicted with a high degree of precision, even if each participant does not have any special knowledge.11 Collective intelligence often gives rise to results that go beyond the abilities of each participant.
As some readers may have realized, this is basically the same story as the old saying “two heads are better than one.”12 Ordinary people may produce wisdom when together. This notion itself is not especially new.
There are, however, differences. This is because innovations in information technology have dramatically increased the number of opinions that can be collected, while also making the mechanisms of collection increasingly sophisticated. Rheingold noted the potentialities of cellphones, ubiquitous computing, and such. The accuracy of search engines is improving by the day, and new initiatives such as the prediction market have become common. Anyone who has come into contact with social media services such as Twitter should know that they are not merely places to exchange opinions, but rather places where collective intelligence is generated. In other words, whereas only a few people could “bring their heads together” in the era before the advent of information technology, we can now share our interests with thousands or even tens of thousands of others, as well as follow the same topics and gather views. Any theory related to collective intelligence should therefore be reconsidered under the premise of entirely different scales and possibilities.
This reconsideration has already generated results. For example, the American researcher Scott Page employed simulations and methods from game theory to elicit two theorems. One is the “Diversity Prediction Theorem” and the other is “The Crowd Beats the Average Law.”13
These theorems prove, in the case of the former, that the more diverse the predictions of each member of a crowd, the more precise the prediction of the crowd as a whole (that is to say, the lack of abilities of crowd members can be compensated with increased diversity), and, in the case of the latter, that the prediction of a crowd is always more accurate than the average prediction of crowd members. As Page himself emphasizes with a hint of frustration, this result is “no mere metaphor or cute empirical anecdote that may or may not be true ten years from now. It’s a logical truth.”14 Ordinary people become wiser when they come together. There is no mysticism or trick behind this. Contemporary studies are beginning to assert that this is a simple mathematical truth.
Collective intelligence has moved beyond the ambiguous experiential knowledge that “things tend to go well when you listen to what many people have to say,” and is now becoming a practical mathematical notion supported by solid proof.
What kind of new perspective would this focus on collective intelligence provide us with when looking at the aforementioned contradiction in The Social Contract, namely the conflict between individualism and totalitarianism?
Let us begin the next chapter by rereading Rousseau’s definition of the “general will.”
1 To be more precise, what emerged in the 1990s is not the internet but the hypertext system that functions on it, namely the “world wide web.” In this book, however, priority will be given to the commonly accepted senses of words, making no distinction between the internet and the web (despite the inaccuracy).
2 http://www.google.com/about/corporate/company/ (as of Feb. 1, 2012)
3 Rousseau opens his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men thus: “Let us begin therefore, by laying aside facts, for they do not affect the question. The researches, in which we may engage on this occasion, are not to be taken for historical truths, but merely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings.” Now, translations may be altered in such cases when I deem it appropriate to do so upon consulting the original French, but the page numbers for the original French version will be omitted given that this essay is not academic. Rousseau’s major works are all openly available on the internet, and anyone who may be interested in doing so can search for the original. Bibliographic information for each publication will only be given for their first appearance. [Translators’ Note: the above rendition into English is from The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. & intro. G.D.H.Cole (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company Inc., 1950).]
4 In Noiman no Yume, Kindai no Yokubo [Neumann’s Dream, Modernity’s Desire] (Kodansha, 1996), Toshiki Sato points out that the image of information society in contemporary times functions as a “dream” and that because of this, the message that “information technology will change society” has been repeated over and over again for a few decades. His point still holds true today. My attempts in this book too may therefore appear as a mere reiteration of that phenomenon for a sociologist like Sato (I do, after all, state that I talk about a “dream” in this book). I do not intend to repudiate such criticism, but I hold a different view. There is a reason behind a recurring dream. In the language of psychoanalysis, there is repression and trauma. In order to eradicate repression, what is repressed must be “worked through.” I am attempting to re-immerse myself in the dream of an information society, going back to the origins of modern society to do so, because I believe that by “working through” it, the subject (society) may truly change.
5 Takeo Kuwabara (ed.), Ruso Kenkyu, Second Edition (Iwanami Shoten, 1968), iii-iv.
6 Ernst Cassirer, The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Edition, trans. Peter Gay (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1989.
7 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education (Includes Emile and Sophie, or the Solitaries), trans. & ed. Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), 225-26.
8 The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 83.
9 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 50.
10 Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §258. See also The Encyclopaedia Logic, §163 Addition 1. Here Hegel criticizes Rousseau while also partially giving credit to his notions.
11 James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few (Abacus, 2005), 17-20.
12 [Translators’ Note] The proverb used in the original Japanese could be translated as “gathering three people makes Monju’s wisdom,” where Monju is the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Manjusri associated with transcendental wisdom.
13 Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007), 197.
14 Ibid, 162.