Brain Imaging and the Epistemology of Vision: Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom
Daniel Suarez’s two novels Daemon and Freedom show how fictions simplify and distort neuroscientific results. But these same texts also demonstrate that neuroscientific research can be recontextualized to create a contemporary fable chilling in its implications. This essay explores the transformations brain imaging undergoes as it moves from scientific journals to popular science books to pulp fiction. The fictions create metaphoric frameworks that interrogate the larger implications of having human brains imaged as if they were transparent while the software creating the scans remains opaque. The result is a vivid demonstration of fiction’s power to change the terms in which we see the world.
A captured mercenary is being interrogated not by torture, as he expects, but by an artificial intelligence asking him questions while he is undergoing fMRI scans (a technology explained below). When he refuses to give information, the AI patiently goes through the alphabet letter by letter, quickly determining his name, nationality, and language by the way his brain scans light up when the appropriate letter is reached. As his brain reveals information his consciousness has withheld, he is amazed at the technology’s superiority and at the end of the interrogation says in halting English, “I would like application. Yes? Is this the word,” evidently intending to switch allegiance to what he thinks is bound to be the winning side (Freedom 312).
This scene from Daniel Suarez’s Freedom plays out a scenario already envisioned by the CIA, that fMRI scans can penetrate the ultimate veil of privacy, one’s inner thoughts. Along with Daemon, Freedom’s prequel, Suarez’s narratives show how fictions simplify and distort neuroscientific results. But the story is not as simple as mere distortion, for these same texts demonstrate that neurobiological research can be recontextualized and embedded in narratives that weave them together with other events to create a contemporary fable, chilling in its implications. In this essay, I explore the transformations [End Page 320] brain imaging undergoes as it moves from scientific journals to popular science books to pulp fiction. In Suarez’s case, fiction creates metaphoric frameworks in which scientific results are embedded in order to explore the larger implications of having human brains imaged as if they were transparent while the software creating the scans remains opaque. The result is a dramatic shift in what counts as reality and a vivid demonstration of the power of fiction to change the terms in which we see the world.
The Translational Power of Brain Images
In the introduction to The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain, Melissa M. Littlefield and Jenell M. Johnson describe neuroscience as a “translational” (3) discipline for its ability to travel into other fields. Neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neurohistory—all the “neuros” springing up carry into other disciplines not only scientific results but also an epistemology, particularly the idea, Joseph Dumit points out, that the brain equals the person (233–40). It is precisely this idea that is both contested and explored in Suarez’s texts. Another implication is that fMRI brain maps—those colorful images often touted in the popular media as showing the brain lighting up or the brain thinking—can be equated directly with behaviors and functional processes. As Susan Fitzpatrick cogently argues, therein lie possibilities for multiple interpretive errors.1
To understand why this is so, we may find it helpful to review the experimental arrangements generating those maps.2 The most frequently used fMRI technique is BOLD, Blood Oxygen Level Dependent. BOLD essentially measures the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated hemoglobin in the brain’s blood supply (Ogawa et al. 447–48). More precisely, the nuclear MR signal changes as a result of changes in the protons of water molecules in brain tissue and the blood, which vary as a function of hemoglobin oxygenation and blood volume. The technique assumes brain cells that are working hard become oxygen-depleted, while those that are resting have plenty of oxygen. The differences being measured are very small, less than 1% of the brain’s regional neuronal activity at rest. The data appear as columns of numbers, which are then interpreted using statistical packages, which in turn generate the visualizations so striking in their effects.
In the chain of inferences linking experimental data with claims about behavior, many errors may occur. For example, some researchers may not fully understand the statistics, their limitations, and the constraints on what governs them (Sanders 16–20). Moreover, the colors used for the images are choices made by the researchers, [End Page 321] and they frequently have nontrivial effects on how the images are interpreted. Perhaps the biggest source of interpretive error is the formulation of the hypothesis to be tested, which to be valid requires a body of work that has already made a strong link between brain regions, the functions they control, and observable behavior (Fitzpatrick 188). In a study Susan Fitzpatrick cites for its faulty design, the researchers were attempting to measure the effect of charisma on affective response using two groups, one secular and the other self-identified strong Christians. Each group was asked to listen to interlocutors reading a prayer while having their brains scanned with fMRI. The believers showed a stronger response to an interlocutor who was identified as “a Christian known for his healing powers” (Fitzpatrick 190) than to an interlocutor not explicitly identified as a Christian, while the secular group showed no such distinction. These results were interpreted as explaining the effects of charisma on affective responses. The problem, Fitzpatrick notes, is that there is no theory for how charisma relates to brain activity. The differences could be accounted for in multiple ways, including the fact that the two groups have very different experiences with prayer: for one it is a habitual practice, for the other a novelty. The point is that interpretations of brain scans require careful consideration of the experimental design, knowledge of previous research linking behavior and regional brain activity, accuracy of the statistical analysis, and so forth. While the images themselves may appear seductively transparent, nonexperts and even research professionals who have not read the original article should be very cautious about deciding what the images actually show.
Judged by these rigorous standards, it is almost trivial to demonstrate that Suarez’s scene of interrogation is a fictional extrapolation not justified by the neuroscience of brain scans. The technique of going through the alphabet would probably not work, for the brain regions involved in recognizing letter sounds do not so finely discriminate between letters that differences would likely show up on an fMRI scan. It is also possible that resting areas of the brain may contribute to the subject’s comprehension, which would not be revealed by a BOLD analysis. Finally, accurate interpretation would require a strong theory of how memory and identification tasks are related to regional brain activity, which, if such a theory exists, is not referenced by Suarez.
Although lacking in scientific accuracy, Suarez’s fictions are not without powerful insights. Rather than showing a brain operating on its own, he depicts it embodied in a biological organism and enmeshed in social, technological, economic, and political milieus. These contextualizations bring to the fore issues rarely if ever mentioned in fMRI research articles, for example the economics involved [End Page 322] in the infrastructure. An fMRI machine costs between five and ten million dollars, with another $600,000 required to outfit an fMRI suite and $500,000 for the software. Moreover, the cost of the electricity required to operate the machine runs about $300 a day. This means that big capital is necessarily involved in fMRI research, either through grants, hospital expenditures, or other means. This largely limits the geographical distribution of the technology to rich countries, which in turn affects the hypotheses proposed for testing. Also influential, one might argue, is global geopolitics, for example the CIA’s interest in fMRI as a means of interrogation and security threat assessment, which affects their willingness to fund certain research projects over others. Suarez locates his scene of interrogation within these larger contexts. He explores their implications by creating a metaphoric web of connections that has as its center the trope dominating discussions of brain imaging: the map.
Maps and Embedded Subjects
The appearance of the first map comes when Matthew Sobol, a computer game genius, creates an automated program, the Daemon, to be unleashed when Sobol dies; its purpose is to bring about a radical reconfiguration of the world order, which begins in Daemon and is completed in Freedom. The Daemon is in charge of an online gaming environment capable of connecting directly with the human sensorium through special virtual reality (VR) glasses (perhaps modeled on Google Glass). The VR environment hosts a number of gaming maps, including the online Over the Rhine and The Gate. These games have back doors that open onto a secret internet Suarez calls the “darknet” (246), an encrypted browser (like the real-world browser Tor) highly resistant to government surveillance.3 Suarez imagines the darknet as an alternative territory ruled over by the Daemon as sovereign.
Repeatedly, the Daemon affirms that the old order of nation-states is passing away. The crucial difference between the Daemon and a nation-state is that the Daemon is a massively parallel and geographically distributed artificial intelligence system, much like the internet itself. Unlike a nation-state, it has no central point of control, no national capital that can be attacked, no president or ruler who has a unique, identifiable position in space and time and who thus can be assassinated, corrupted, or otherwise compromised. Indeed, its distributed nature makes it more like a multinational corporation than a national government, albeit one ruled by an entity acting as a sovereign rather than a board of directors. Functioning as a deus ex computer, the Daemon begins to implement functions of a nation-state [End Page 323] such as establishing a common means of exchange (darknet credits, modeled on bitcoins); distinguishing between citizens and aliens (citizens have darknet IDs hovering over their heads, visible through the VR glasses); establishing a system of reputation evaluations (darknet citizens can rate one another based on their exchanges, similar to the rating systems used by eBay and other online sites); and building and deploying an army (initially these are autonomous automobiles, autoM8s, directed through wireless commands, and terrifying autonomous motorcycles, “razorbacks” [Daemon 399], equipped with vicious blades, laser blinding capacities, and vision and audio sensors).
At first self-contained, the Daemon’s maps begin to intrude into the real world. Jon Ross, working for the NSA, discovers that “Daemon Factions create [custom level game maps] as bases of operations and training. . . . We’ve found some maps that match the floor plans of real-world structures and huge ones that model real-world city streets” (Daemon 373). When the virtual mirrors the real, questions of vision become highly charged. For those who can see the darknet IDs, for example, geophysical location is overlaid with the Daemon’s own virtual territory, a lesson violently enforced when Loki, a top-level Daemon operative, infiltrates the NSA anti-Daemon task force and from within directs the violent attack on the NSA stronghold by the razorbacks.
What are the implications of creating a new kind of virtual territory in which sovereignty is exercised? To unpack this development’s significance, let us revisit the role of capital in the formation of nation-states. Fredric Jameson has famously quipped that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism (73). Giovanni Arrighi tries to do just that in his account of the “long twentieth century,” arguing that the present arrangement of capitalism, marked by the ascendency of American transnational capital over older forms such as British imperialism, has already reached its signal crisis (for example, the 2008 financial crisis) and is nearing the end of its hegemonic dominance. Despite strong indications that such is the case, particularly the rise of China and global ecological crises, few novelists have undertaken the challenge to depict how such a transformation might come about other than through ecological collapse or viral pandemic. The problem seems to lie in the mechanisms of world-changing transformations; how do we get from where we are now to the new world order short of worldwide catastrophe?
Suarez’s answer is the creation of the Daemon. Although there is no evidence that Suarez read Arrighi, Arrighi’s analysis provides the historical context to understand the kind of shift Suarez envisions. Arrighi’s masterwork, published in 1994, trembles on the threshold [End Page 324] of a momentous realization: the periodic transformations in world economic systems are about to begin a new period of chaotic upheaval, followed by a global reorganization of systemic dynamics. Had it been published even five years later, he might have foreseen the tremendous growth of the web and factored it into his analysis. As it was, he could already understand the distinction between the space-of-places versus the space-of-flows associated with the work of Manuel Castells (though Arrighi comes to it via John Ruggie). He clearly saw that the emergence of transnational corporations was threatening the established order of nation-states. He cited statistics indicating that by 1990, “more than half of America’s exports and imports, by value, were simply the transfer of such goods and related services within global corporations” (73). He drew a clear distinction between older joint stock companies organized territorially and the new multinationals, which “specialize functionally in specific lines of production and consumption” (74), freeing them from previous territorial constraints. Yet he could not quite grasp how all this would come together once the web was developed.
Even so, his analysis provides the context for understanding how the coming transformation both builds on and subverts the order of the long twentieth century. Noting that capital is endowed with the “power of breeding” systemically (8), he identifies two different logics, capitalism and territoriality. Whereas capitalist logic places primary emphasis on the accumulation of capital and only secondarily on the expansion of territory, territorial logic does the opposite, emphasizing acquisition of land first and the expansion of capital networks secondarily. Modifying the Marxist formula M-C-M’ (money is transformed into commodities and is converted in turn into even more money), Arrighi denoted territorial logic by T-M-T’ (territory flows through money, which leads to more territory), and capitalist logic by M-T-M’ (money flows through territory and becomes more money). Tracing the interaction of these logics through four historical periods—the sixteenth-century Italian city-states, the seventeenth-century Dutch capitalist oligarchy, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British imperialism, and American capitalism in the twentieth—he shows how each new epoch replaces the old by finding new ways to integrate territory and capital so as to increase still more capital accumulation. He saw that by the 1990’s, “the modern system of rule, having expanded spatially and functionally as far as it could, has nowhere to go but ‘forward’ towards an entirely new system of rule or ‘backward’ toward early modern forms of state- and war-making” (80), adding that it seemed to be doing both at the same time.
The missing piece is the realization that the web offers an entirely new kind of territory, a virtual realm intrinsically bound up [End Page 325] with the growth of multinationals and running parallel to the real world while remaining distinct from it. This development yields yet another reinterpretation of the Marxist formula: M-V-M’ (money flowing through virtuality becomes even more money) and T-V-T’ (territory flowing through virtuality becomes even more territory), where “territory” has two values: real and virtual. Arrighi’s analysis remains incomplete because it assumes that the virtual realm lacks certain functionalities that real-world configurations have possessed since the end of the medieval era, namely sovereignty and the power to “overawe” associated with it (20). As Arrighi notes, while multinational corporations threaten the old order they do not substitute for government, for they are missing such governmental functionalities as the ability to conduct wars, create treasuries, build and maintain infrastructures, and draw boundaries that distinguish between citizens and aliens. One could argue that multinationals already do all these things indirectly or covertly by manipulating governments, but they do not have the power to do them directly—yet.
This is the component Suarez adds in his novels. As the Daemon begins to function as a sovereign over a new kind of territory, it finds its natural enemies in the entities already engaged in colonizing the virtual realm, which is to say, multinational corporations. Like the Daemon, they have shaken off the constraints of national identities and are operating as massively distributed organizations. The Daemon, because it is a software program, finds it easy to infiltrate corporate databases. Threatening to wreak havoc, it blackmails corporations engaged in nefarious businesses such as online gambling and pornography to pay it a tax to keep their databases secure and free from other “parasites” (297). Seen as the next phase of the historical progression Arrighi traces, the reorganization that the Daemon undertakes seems not only plausible but, from a certain perspective, already underway, as the examples of the Tor browser and the bitcoin indicate.
That the old order is passing is, in the view of Suarez’s texts, not in doubt. They depict a situation in which multinationals are now so ascendant over governments that governments are little more than their lackeys. When a leader of a private security firm hired by the multinationals to protect their interests tells Natalie Phillips, a crack NSA cryptographer with an eidetic memory, that her presence has been authorized at the “highest level,” she gasps, “The White House is involved?” (Freedom 329). His response is to laugh in her face until he realizes she is apparently serious. Suarez also shows that multinationals have completely co-opted existing economic functions through the example of Hank Fossen, a farmer blackmailed by the multinational Halperin Organix to grow only corn and only using [End Page 326] their genetically modified seeds. Looking at the adjoining farms, he explains to Natalie’s friend Jon Ross, “You’d starve to death out here. This corn is inedible—it’s just starch; it needs to be processed in an industrial stomach, with acids and chemicals, to break it down into processed food additives” (Freedom 291). The economic implication of crop subsidies that privilege corn over other crops is that “We’re basically paying for corporations to seize control of the food supply and dictate to us the terms under which we live” (292).
These are the historical and fictional contexts in which fMRI scans are embedded as interrogation techniques for potential recruits to the Daemon’s cause and checks on the intentions of its operatives. The Daemon and the private security forces employed by the multinationals agree in regarding national law as irrelevant, a relic from an era already on the way out. But the Daemon, in a certain sense more principled than its enemies, replaces the crumbling national law with fMRI interrogations. It is not enough that the Daemon’s operatives obey its directives; they must also do so for the right motives, namely to advance the Daemon’s cause and not for personal gain or aggrandizement. The Daemon, not being human, is immune to corruption, and the fMRI interrogations largely ensure its operatives are as well.
As the Daemon implements them, fMRI scans serve not only as loyalty checks but also as conversion experiences, vividly dramatized in the case of Charles Mosley. A black man imprisoned for drug trafficking, Mosley is sprung from jail by the Daemon and told to report to what turns out to be a Daemon-run fMRI facility. There he endures a forty-six-hour interrogation consisting of images of violence, murder, community, and heroism, with his brain scan (arranged so he can see it) revealing to him and to the computer his reactions to each. At the end, not only does the computer know him intimately, but he now knows himself as a flawed but redeemable soul. Released, he is told he is now the Daemon’s “champion” and under its protection (Daemon 265). Deus ex computer indeed!
The power of computational media to control vision, implicit in the Mosley scene, is illustrated when Jon Ross, now recruited to the Daemon’s cause, enlists the help of Daemon operatives to create a “masterwork” (Freedom 151), a ring that requires ritualistic incantations to complete. Recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism that “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” (16), the ring is later revealed as a computational device that renders Ross invisible—not by magic but by projecting onto his person images that exactly match his surroundings. The geophysical basis of territory, an assumption deeply entrenched in the formation of nation-states, is here reworked into an epistemology of vision, a [End Page 327] configuration mutually reinforcing with the idea that brain maps can be equated with seeing a person’s thoughts. Whether imaging the brain or imaging the environment, the Daemon works by controlling the processes of vision, dictating who sees what when.
This epistemology is crucially important to the Daemon’s plan to use its virtual reality environment to springboard into the real world. In Freedom, the Daemon expands its dominion in the form of “holons” (72), sustainable communities that use the Daemon’s mode of exchange, darknet credits, as their currencies. Like the bitcoin, darknet credits are based not on national prestige (the basis for the US dollar after it became a fiat currency), but on something materially real: energy production. Wearing the VR glasses, darknet citizens operate in D-space, a hybrid spatialization in which the real world and virtual overlays are seen simultaneously, in effect creating a new kind of territory, real and virtual at the same time.
The dynamics of this hybrid realm is vividly dramatized in a fantastical scene in which the lead character from Sobol’s World War II-themed game Over the Rhine, the sadistic Nazi Herr Oberstleutnant Heinrich Boerner, reaches across the game world to Loki, the real-world sociopath who works for the Daemon. Loki had been recruited by the Daemon in its early days, when his sociopathic tendencies had been useful. Now kept tenuously in check by regular fMRI scans, Loki’s reputation score in the darknet community has been steadily declining, and Boerner sees an opportunity for them to be of mutual use to one another. As they sound each other out,
Boerner reached his spectral arm through the bars of the portcullis and into the world of D-space . . . [and] the polygon count on the Nazi’s 3-D model increased several orders of magnitude. Boerner’s arm went from that of an online game sprite to a fully realized human being. The arm reaching out to Loki from beyond reality was that of a real-life SS officer, the pores on his leather gloves, and the weave in the fabric of his greatcoat sleeve all too apparent, flexing as he reached out.
Although Suarez gives no explanation for how this could be achieved technologically, the scene follows the logic of the narrative: as the virtual world merges with the real world, the game map world merges with the virtual world and, through that portal, diffuses into the real world.
Like this scene in which a computational artifact is transformed into a real-world person, brain maps are computationally intensive data that enter the real world as color-coded pictures of biological tissue. Inquiring into their ontological status reveals that they are, [End Page 328] in Bruno Latour’s terms, hybrids of “natureculture” (63). In them, computer processes are so commingled with neural referents that it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to distinguish between what the brain creates and the computer adds. Such hybridization raises deep questions about what is alive and dead. While biological organisms must obviously be alive to function, computational entities require only that the CPU and memory storage are operating properly.
The ambiguity of computer-rendered life was forcefully demonstrated by Craig Bennett and his colleagues at Dartmouth College when they did a brain scan on an Atlantic salmon. As reported by Laura Sanders,
emotional pictures—a triumphant young girl just out of a somersault, a distressed waiter who had just dropped a plate—flashed in front of the fish as a scientist read the standard instruction script aloud. The hulking [fMRI] machine clunked and whirred, capturing minute changes in the salmon’s brain as it assessed the images. Millions of data points capturing the fluctuations in brain activity streamed into a powerful computer, which performed herculean number crunching, sorting out which data to pay attention to and which to ignore.(16)
At the end of the session, Bennett could clearly see “a beautiful, redhot area of activity that lit up during the emotional scenes” (16). The catch (you probably guessed) is that the salmon was dead. Sanders quotes fMRI researcher Nancy Kanwisher of MIT: “’It’s a dirty little secret in our field that many of the published findings are unlikely to replicate’” (17). Although Bennett subsequently showed that using a statistical check for random errors eliminated the red area, the point that computer mediation blurs the line between living and dead is precisely relevant to Suarez’s fictions.
The ambiguity is reified in the Daemon’s avatar, which is none other than its creator, Matthew Sobol. Moreover, Sobol has encoded the program to use different images of him at different times—some showing him seemingly healthy and robust, others when his cancer has taken a visible toll, still others when he appears near death. The effect is to conflate the living man with the computer program, a natureculture hybrid that begins to acquire an identity neither entirely biological nor entirely computational, much like brain maps themselves.
Variations on this kind of hybridity appear throughout the texts. Peter Sebeck, for example, is the detective who heads up the first investigation of the Daemon. Activated on Sobol’s death, the Daemon has as its first task the execution of the two people most responsible [End Page 329] for its programming other than Sobol himself, presumably to prevent its discovery and destruction before it has a chance to grow beyond its initial parameters. It then arranges for Sebeck to be framed as an accomplice to the murders, and Sebeck is subsequently executed—or at least appears to be. In the meantime, the Daemon has instructed Sebeck to say certain words to indicate he has accepted the Daemon as his sovereign, which Sebeck does in a prison interview before his execution. In Freedom, we learn that Sebeck did not in fact die, although the executioner and general public believe that he did. Resurrected by a Daemon operative, he is given a quest to determine if humankind deserves freedom. Bereft of his name and stripped of his identity, he is subsequently known as the Unnamed One. He follows the threads of his quest (visible through the VR glasses) as someone neither dead nor known to be living.
A similar hybridity befalls Roy Merritt, the FBI agent assigned the task of assaulting Sobol’s mansion following the discovery of the murders. Merritt, miraculously surviving the worst that the Daemon can throw at him, becomes a sensation on the darknet when the video of his assault is broadcast there, admired for the sheer tenacity of his attack and his refusal to give up. When he is subsequently killed by the Major, Freedom’s arch-villain, he is resurrected as an avatar by the darknet community, who contribute their own darknet credits to enhance his standing and reputation. Now a computational entity, Merritt nevertheless has the power to enter and intervene in the real world, indeed in magnified and heroic form.
As the interpenetration of the virtual and real proceeds, the Daemon’s enemies learn to appropriate for themselves the technologies the Daemon uses to control vision. When data rules supreme, humans exist for the databanks primarily through the sensors and actuators that equate physical presence with biometric markers such as retinal scans, fingerprints, and other biological specificities. Usually there is congruence between these markers and the person, but as numerous contemporary fictions and films have demonstrated, it is always possible to excise the biometric marker from the person’s body whose presence it supposedly verifies. As the multinationals learn about their enemy, they realize that such simulation can be exploited for their ends. In gruesome scenes, several women have their heads cut off so that their eyes can be used as verification, a trend that culminates in Loki’s capture and mutilation by the Major, the mysterious character who personifies the machinations of his employers, a cabal of multinationals determined to defy the Daemon and appropriate its power for their own.
When the multinationals learn to manipulate the signifiers through which the Daemon, as a computational entity, constructs [End Page 330] reality, the nature of reality itself changes. This shift marks the point at which the reconfiguration of capital and territory that Arrighi foresaw achieves completion, although enacted in ways he could not have imagined. Natalie Philips and Jon Ross realize, near the end of Daemon, that the darknet game maps are covered with dots representing GPS coordinates. They finally grasp the significance of the convergence. “In essence Sobol is using the GPS system to convert the Earth into one big game map. We’re all in his game now,” Ross observes (358). With the multinationals now playing the same game, the capitalist-territorial logic is reconfigured in such a way as to erase the distinction between real world and game world.
The multinational cabal plans to co-opt the Daemon by focusing on its nonhuman vulnerabilities, namely its computer code and the territorially distributed databanks that embody its physical presence. They intend to take over the Daemon’s Destroy function that annihilates databases and use it against rival corporations, clearing the field of competitors so they can expand their operations unchecked in a post-Daemon apocalyptic world. Unlike the imagined infallibility of fMRI scans, however, the Daemon’s computer code is laced with deceptions and traps. At the climax of Freedom, the cabal’s attempt to control the Daemon backfires and destroys the conspirators’ data instead. In contrast to the transparency of brain scans, the Daemon’s code turns out to be inscrutable, in part because it has self-evolved in ways utterly foreign to the ordered formats that make human-written code legible. Like the early modern monarchs of nation-states whose decisions were deemed to transcend mortal limitations because they were thought to be infused with the divine, the Daemon is a new species of sovereign with a different kind of hybridity—part biological, part computational—that uniquely fits it to rule over a new kind of hybrid reality that it helped to create.
The holon society that emerges under the Daemon’s rule is radically egalitarian among the human population, a political order possible only because the Daemon rules as its absolute dictator. The question posed by Peter Sebeck’s quest to find the Cloud Gate is whether humanity will continue to be dominated by the Daemon or has proven it deserves to be free and go its own way without self-destructing. Close reading reveals that the answer is profoundly ambiguous. The ambiguities turn on the role that Loki plays in the text; he personifies the Daemon’s worst tendencies, repeatedly thinking of people as “cattle” and viewing “these oblivious drones with contempt” (Daemon 24). As we have seen, his sociopathic tendencies are kept in check only by the fMRI scans that the Daemon requires he undergo on a regular basis. [End Page 331]
The delicate balance Suarez attempts to strike in Freedom is between the Daemon’s destructive power and its potential as protector of a new order characterized by local autonomy, energy independence, and sustainable practices. The tension peaks in the final confrontation at Sky Ranch, where Loki is intent on using his army of razorbacks to destroy the corporate CEOs holed up in the main house, along with the innocent women and children also sequestered there. This potential carnage means nothing to Loki because he is determined to find at any cost his arch-enemy the Major, who had cut out his eyes and sliced off his fingertips in order to impersonate him for the Daemon. As the conflict escalates, darknet citizens band together to activate the avatar of Roy Merritt, the courageous and ethical man who, having sacrificed his life in the first book, returns in the second as a virtual expression of the darknet’s collective will. When Merritt confronts and disables Loki by sacrificing some of his own power levels to de-escalate Loki’s levels and thus remove the source of his power, it seems that direct democracy has triumphed over the dictatorial potential of the Daemon. Apparently this collective action, in which the darknet citizens’ empathy and ethical constraint wins out over Loki’s scorched-earth desire for revenge, triggers the Daemon’s activation of the Cloud Gate, the predicted end of Sebeck’s quest and his attempt to justify the freedom of humankind.
Yet when Sebeck completes his quest, going through the Cloud Gate to find Sobol’s avatar waiting for him, the avatar places the decision of whether to destroy the Daemon in Sebeck’s hands. “Should I undo everything I’ve done? Yes, or no?” he demands (Freedom 476). After considerable hesitation, Sebeck finally answers “No.” The avatar’s parting words do little to resolve the ambiguity and indeed heighten it by alluding to all the ways in which markers of presence may be detached from the person himself: “There are so many ways for it to end. If you’re really there, Sergeant, good luck to you. Good luck to you all. And don’t be afraid of change. It’s the only thing that can save us” (477).
How are we to understand this resolution that fails to resolve? The answer seems to lie in two contradictory impulses: on the one hand, seeing the darknet as a utopian community building toward a positive sustainable future, and on the other, realizing that utopias inevitably fail and that dictatorships, benevolent or otherwise, are far more stable. Suarez implies that humans need a protector, a nonhuman entity that can usher in the new era by transforming once again the logics of territorial and capitalist networks. In extending Arrighi’s cycles into the twenty-first century, Suarez reveals new terms that Arrighi did not anticipate and shows how they can initiate, extend, and problematize a new cycle. Other than this, the only certainties [End Page 332] the books offer are the assertions that the old order of nation-states is passing and that the future of humanity is up for grabs.
Injecting brain maps into this new world order changes their function from diagnostic procedures for brain disorders and instruments for brain research to tools for mind surveillance and enforcement. That they are regarded in Suarez’s tests as infallible both simplifies and complicates their social functions: simplifies in the sense that the complexities attending their interpretations are stripped away and complicates because their status as natureculture hybrids, at once biological and computational, is emblematic of the new epistemology in which personhood can no longer be considered distinct from the data interpenetrating and coconstituting it. In the new world order, brain scans are no longer exotic procedures that most people will never encounter but the essence of what the future of humanity is envisioned to be.
N. KATHERINE HAYLES <Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org> writes and teaches on the relations of literature, science, and technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her book How We Became Posthuman won the Rene Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory for 1998–99, and her book Writing Machines won the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship. Her most recent book is How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis.
1. See 180–98.
2. The two primary brain imaging technologies are Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Image (fMRI). PET requires injections of nucleotides and has now been largely succeeded by its successor, fMRI, which does not require radioactive decay.
3. See Grossman and Newton-Small for an account of the Tor browser and how it escapes government surveillance, for the infamous Silk Road site on the Deep Web, and for the arrest of Dread Pirate Roberts, owner of the site.