Tuesday, August 6, 2019


Slavoj Žižek, "How to boil a frog: Cyril Ramaphosa’s versatile simile has much to teach us"
Back in the early 1990s Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, outlined the new ANC government’s strategy to deal with the whites: ‘it would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly. Being cold-blooded, the frog does not notice the slow temperature increase, but if the temperature is raised suddenly, the frog will jump out of the water.’

As Dr Oriani-Ambrosini put it, ‘He meant that the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land, and economic power from white to black slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight.’

Ramaphosa is one of the wealthiest South Africa businessmen, worth more than half a billion dollars, so if we are talking about redistributing wealth, should he not also be thrown into the pot to boil slowly? Or we only aim at replacing the old white ruling class with the new black one, with the black majority stuck in the same poverty?

There is, however, another much more interesting use of Ramaphosa’s rather unfortunate simile: does it not render perfectly how (till now and in the developed countries) we experience the ecological threat? While we are quite literally boiled in the process of global warming, it seems that cruel mother nature is playing with us, humans, the same game of slowly heating the water (and the air): the process of global warming is slow and full of ambiguities exploited by the deniers – say, it generates local effects of extreme cold spells, which then enable stable geniuses like Trump to claim that we need more warm weather. One of the effects of global warming may be that the Gulf Stream will change course and no longer reach northwestern Europe, leading to a new ice age from France to Scandinavia. It is as if the ‘global warming project’ is executed in such a way that it makes it sure the majority of the people will remain skeptical and refuse to do anything about it. Just as a reminder that things are maybe serious, we are from time to time hit by a heat wave or an unexpected tornado, but such calamities are quickly interpreted away as freakish accidents. In this way, even if we are aware of the threat, the subtle message of our media is that we should just go on living the way we do, with no great changes. Recycle your trash, put your Coke cans into one bag and old newspapers into another, and you did your duty…

There is another use of Ramaphosa’s simile: which is no less pertinent with regard to our survival as humans: is something similar not going on with the threat of the digital control of our lives? We are definitely entering the era of digital police state: in one or another way, digital machines are registering all our personal facts and acts, from health to shopping habits, from political opinions to amusement, from business decisions to sexual practices. With today’s super-computers, this vast amount of data can be neatly categorized and organized in individual files, and all the data made accessible to state agencies and private corporations. However, the true game changer is not digital control as such but the pet project of brain scientists: digital machines that will be able to directly read our minds (without us knowing it, of course).

The agents of this process, i.e., those in power, rely on a series of strategies to keep us in the position of the frog unaware of how the water is getting hotter and hotter. One is to dismiss the threat as utopian: we are still far from it, being controlled by mind-reading machines is as liberal-leftist paranoia… The other is to put forward the potential (mostly medical) benefits of this process: if a machine can read the mind of a guy who is totally crippled, it will make everyday life for him much easier, i.e., he can inform those around him what he wants by just clearly thinking about it.

More generally, our media repeatedly point out how much easier everyday life will be for us in a digitally controlled society. My favored story here is the one about eye scanning when we enter a department store: the machine identifies us by scanning our eye, contacts our bank account and establishes our purchase power, plus it automatically registers what we have when we exit the store, so that we have to do nothing, the store becomes a place where we just enter, take what we want or need and leave.

In both global warming and the exploding digital control, changes are gradual, so that, except for brief emergencies, we are able to ignore the effects in our daily lives, until all of a sudden, it will be too late, and we will realize that we lost it all. But there is a difference between boiling a frog and global warming or digital control: in both ecological threat and the threat of digital control, there is no one else, no inhuman agent gradually rising the temperature or enhancing digital control. We are doing it to ourselves, we are raising the heat gradually, thereby enabling us to ignore the threat. We are the frogs boiling gradually ourselves to death.


Franco Aragosta said...

The Wordy One stultifies and ssifies us once again with another of his farfetched, labored, tendentious, pessimistic, painfully-obvious analogies.

Joe Conservative said...

I can't argue with that...