The Philosophy of Deus Ex: Does Paranoia Have Its PURPOSE? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Deus Ex!
Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Deus Ex: Does Paranoia Have Its PURPOSE? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today, we’ve got a favorite among the Wisecrack staff. The tale of humans picked for experimental augmentations, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. At first look, the Deus Ex franchise is a kind of wet dream for InfoWars enthusiasts: murderous plots by the Illuminati are carried out by world governments, while the player traverses FEMA camps and discovers the truth behind fake news. But unlike certain performance artists — “AHHHH!” — Deus Ex’s forays into conspiracy serve as more than just a means to sell dietary supplements. The game reveals how paranoia informs more of society’s decisions that we’d like to admit, and serves as a cautionary tale for the dangers of technology-to-come. But there are no gay frogs. Sorry, internet. “I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay!”
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Deus Ex. This video was made in collaboration with our buddy, Joseph, over at Real Life Lore. You can learn more about his channel and check out his related video and the end of this one. And if you’re here visiting from Real Life Lore, welcome and be sure to subscribe. And spoilers ahead, for all the games. The Deus Ex series asks two basic questions: 1) What would it mean for society if we could all become cyborgs with Jax-arms? And 2) What does the premise that every conspiracy theory is true mean for the real world? And before we get into the ethics of skull-guns and neural enhancement, we have to put on our tinfoil hats. There is no shortage of conspiracy theories in the Deus Ex series. In the original game, a splinter organization of the Illuminati called Majestic-12 produces a nanite virus called “The Grey Death” as a means to consolidate their power. “Why contain it? Let it spill over to the schools, and churches, let the bodies pile up in the streets. In the end, they’ll beg us to save them.” As producers of the only cure for the disease as well, they can easily manipulate others, while capitalizing off of the disorder wrought by it. “The Grey Death is a manmade disease. Everyone up to the president is at UNATCO’s mercy as long as UNATCO controls the supply of ambrosia.”
In the sequel, Invisible War, the Illuminati controls two of the most influential groups in the world: The World Trade Organization, and The Order, a religious organization opposed to the WTO. By managing the conflict between these two factions, the Illuminati is better able to control the world. Finally, in the new prequels, we see the Illuminati attempt to limit human augmentation, since having a bunch of engineered superhumans running around isn’t really great for the whole “compliant population” thing they’re going for. If there is one thread that has run through the sometimes vastly different games in the series, it’s paranoia. Not only is there the conspiracy paranoia, but also paranoia directed at so-called “outsiders” and “others.” “Damn, Clank! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?“ Ultimately the games reveal the profound power of paranoia and that it doesn’t matter whether the paranoia points to truth or not. Paranoia, independent of truth, shapes our actions, and ultimately, society. Early on in the original game, Gunther, your cyborg coworker who yearns for a skull-gun, is convinced that the facilities staff is replacing orange soda in the vending machines with lemon-lime in an inane and unlikely conspiracy against him. “The machine would not make a mistake.” “It’s the maintenance man. He knows I like orange.” “So, you think the staff has some kind of plot?” “Yes. They do that on purpose.”
Except, 20 years later in the game’s sequel, it’s revealed in the ruins of Gunther’s office that he was right all along. “Denying people their natural born rights to choose their own artificially-flavored destinies. Like I said, something’s wrong with that machine…” “Probably some sort of office politics.” As if to foreshadow the entire rest of the game, this idea of “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you” becomes the main ethos of Deus Ex. In Mankind Divided, colleagues spin wild tales of getting hacked, which turn out to be true — “We have a lot of enemies. The people who bombed the train station, you don’t think they’d love to know where we are? You need to help me figure out who’s looking into us and make them stop.“ Others suspect a police cover up of a bombing, “They’re probably destroying all the evidence there is right now!” Also true. “Well, I was right.” Even you, the player, must navigate who to trust. Your old-time boss, David Sarif? Pilot Alex Vega? Your new boss at Interpol, who may or may not be working for the Illuminati?
At every point, the game undermines your trust in others: as you hack into the emails of your coworkers, install listening devices, and get ambushed by enemies who were tipped off about your arrival. Hell, even the suicide cult that wants to merge with computers in Mankind Divided turn out to be only a few years off from being right: JC Denton manages to do this with Helios at the end of the original Deus Ex. So, why does Deus Ex make a point to validate even the most far-fetched ideas? It could be, in part, to tell a greater message about how paranoia works in the real world. People who are paranoid often don’t invent things out of nothing, but instead take interpretive leaps when over-analyzing the data presented to them. “Well, if you thought he was high-strung before, the attack only made him more manic. He’s making connections that no one sees, and some that may or may not be there.” But rather than dismissing this kind of paranoia as mere delusion, Deus Ex runs with it. Is a man rambling in the sewers about mind control right? “I was part of it, the – the – the hive mind. Inside the gate. I … questioned. What holds us together? Where? Why?” Unequivocally, yes. “You mean your attempt to control people. Amplifying your hypnotic techniques with some kind of social enhancer.” This brings me to one of Mankind Divided’s most important commentaries: tracing the relationship between general paranoia and racial paranoia. Augmented humans, as a metaphor for racial discrimination, isn’t exactly subtle.
As a mechanically augmented Interpol agent, you face harassment from the citizens of Prague — “F**king augs.” — and literally live on the wrong side of the tracks as you witness routine police brutality inflicted on your augmented peers. To understand what fuels this discrimination, we’re turning to cigar enthusiast and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Or at least, what the Slovenian Dumbledore writes about him. And for Slavoj Zizek, our paranosid theories often reflect on our own identities, ideologies, and shortcomings, rather than the actual state of things. For instance, he cites a story from Lacan regarding a jealous husband, who, even if right that his wife is sleeping around, is still pathologically jealous. If she stays late at work, he’ll pathologically assume she’s being unfaithful. If she starts having male friends, same thing. As a development of this logic, Zizek cites Nazi anti-Semitism: if a Jewish person committed a crime, it could very well be true, but the fixation on Jewish crime spoke more to German paranoia about foreigners and pure blood than to any kind of real issue. In other words, crime is just crime until a Jewish person commits it, then it becomes part of the grand Jewish conspiracy to ruin the German race, and so on. You can look at conspiracy theories in the same light. Are most laws made in closed-door meetings with lobbyist and interest groups? Probably. Are they all part of a secret cult to serve their reptilian overlords?? Probably not. Likewise, in Deus Ex, anti-augmentation advocates filter all information through the lens that augmented people are dangerous and possibly, an affront to nature. Talking heads use terrorism or the catastrophic “aug-incident,” where augmented people were hacked into going into a homicidal rage, to justify Apartheid-style oppression of augmented people. This discrimination then fuels even more violence, thus making augmented paranoia a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Everyone looking over their shoulder, terrified augs like us are going to attack them again.” “Somebody probably will. Treat people like animals long enough, and they’ll start acting like animals.”
The power of paranoia to shape public discourse can be seen in Deus Ex. Eliza Cassan’s defense of news coverage meant to spread fear towards the augmented is just “reporting the news.” “But Ms. Akim, news outlets are simply reporting on the current situation.” And even if the reporting is true, her guest points out: “You can choose to only show my shoe, which is very ugly, but that is only a small part of me. News outlets only care about a small part. I’m sorry, Ms. Cassan, but you can’t trust the news outlets if you want to understand the world.” The “aug debate” in the news functions on two levels. 1. As Akim points out, to only report on the negative aspects of augmented existence, and 2. To use augmented violence as a validation for your larger ideological project: in this case, the Human Restoration Act – a bill that would either remove or severely limit the augmentations that people have. Of course, unlike real-world news, Picus’ news coverage is dictated by the Illuminati, “Would they? I was engineered to monitor communications and data streams. To find out what people are talking about and make sure it’s being discussed correctly.” As they cover up evidence of water contamination in Prague, and falsely report that a flight was taken down by an augmented terrorist — “In yet another augmented terror attack, 251 passengers aboard Cista Airlines flight 451 were killed” — rather than the truth that the plane was shot down by a military installation. “Plane went down because of whatever the military was doing there, not because of some augmented passenger like Picus claims.”
For Zizek, these paranoias don’t tell us much about reality itself but instead shine light on the reality behind the paranoia. For Deus Ex, that reality is a carefully constructed story meant to combat augmentation, so that the Illuminati can better control the population for their pro-business purposes. But is there an even deeper truth to the way paranoia operates in the game? While the real world, is not governed by the Illuminati (depending on who you ask), one could argue that it is governed by the basic principle which the Illuminati in Deus Ex understands: the state of exception. According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, there is a hidden law that lies behind both modern liberal democracies and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century: the exception. We’ve talked about this before in our Walking Dead and Attack on Titan videos, but Deus Ex’s exploration is wholly unique. Agamben builds off the theory of sometimes right but always-an-asshole Carl Schmitt, who argued that what defines sovereignty is not the law, per se, but the ability to suspend the law – to make the exception.
For Agamben, this suspension of law marks all totalitarian regimes: the concentration camps were a physical space where normal law was suspended for more than a decade: a state of exception. Whereas our modern liberal democracies aren’t building death camps, the state of exception is an always-imminent component of modern governance. Usually in the name of an national emergency, or an existential threat, governments today regularly creates “zones of exception” where the law no longer applies, or create classes of people who are “outside” the normal functioning of the law, and thus, exist in this kind of exceptional state. Prisoners of war, protected by international law, get replaced by enemy combatants, who get sent to GitMo, where regular US law doesn’t apply. In Deus Ex, this logic seems implicit to the conspiracy-theory favorite FEMA. In the name of managing emergencies, they build detention camps for political prisoners and implement martial law.
The segregated Utulek complex of Mankind Divided presents a similar zone of exception. It resembles a mix of Apartheid-era South Africa, Jewish ghettos, the Kowloon Walled City and modern day refugee camps. The player witnesses horrifying examples of police brutality and augmented people who live in constant fear. All in the name of security. And when tensions boil over, such as when an augmented rights activist is assassinated this civil unrest justifies even more repression. If the Illuminati wants to spread chaos, like staging a train station bombing, it’s because they understand that chaos breeds people desiring security, and when people desire security, it’s all the easier to suspend basic rights and exert more authority. While we may think of chaos and order as opposites, the game understands how they can become entangled in the modern world: Chaos is manufactured in discrete ways in order for oppressive powers to maintain control.
But besides illuminating – no pun intended – how security operates even in our own non-Illuminati world, Deus Ex also uses the state of exception as just one of its many criticisms of transhumanism. Transhumanism is the idea that technology will help us overcome human limitations like disease and scarcity. Prosthetics, contact lenses, and in vitro fertilization, are just stepping stones in the greater transhumanist project. Transhumanism is baked into the very idea of human augmentation in Deus Ex, however, rather than blindly celebrating transhumanism, it portends everything that could possibly go wrong. As the human race unlocks human potential and mastery over nature, that technology becomes available to individuals and groups, and can potentially fall into the wrong hands. Even augmentation technology, developed by the Illuminati, soon escaped their control as private corporations entered the fray. This forced the Illuminati to change their stance and oppose augmentation. “No. By going public with this discovery, Sarif is forcing our hand.”
Invisible War starts with a terrorist attack that turns everything into a gray goo, and in Mankind Divided there exists an underground market for augmentations, which is likely assisting both the good guys and bad guys. As such, the destructive potential of technology often necessitates permanent states of emergencies and martial law that Agamben’s work was critical of. Basically as technology gets too epic, the government will have little problem convincing you that your rights have to be suspended for the good of everyone. But it’s not just the state of exception that’s a problem for the transhumanist future. JBS Haldane, one of the earliest thinkers of transhumanism, warned in 1924 that society would have a hard time keeping pace with the progress of technology. In “Daedalus; or, Science and the Future,” he wrote that “..the tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the average man whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at last and extinguishes the evil at its source.”
In other words, technology will make social injustices worse, until societal anger will boil over into a full-on rage. In Deus Ex, more often than not, the dangers of technology are thrust upon the poor. Those who are augmented need to constantly take Neuropozyne to stop their body from rejecting their augmentations, but those with means can much more easily obtain the expensive drug. And, in the case of manual laborers or soldiers who are augmented by their employers, — “Let me guess, most of the laborers were augmented with heavy duty industrial rigs.” — or the government, — “Send you where they want. Make you do what they want. Replace parts on you whenever and however they want.” — they exist in a precarious state where the maintenance of their augmentations is contingent on them maintaining the same or similar job. Rather than suggesting that human evolution through technology will level the playing field, Deus Ex suggests societal forces will make inequality worse. And just as Haldane warns that this tension will cause people to rise up and root out evil at its source, we see two competing movements in the game focused on this same thing.
In Human Revolution, The Humanity Front uses violences to stop the spread of augmentation, and in Mankind Divided a legal solution exists in the Human Restoration Act. Meanwhile, augmented people slowly entertain violence as a political strategy, until the assassination of Talos Rucker results in full-on riot. “You know word of Rucker’s death is going to spread, don’t you? And when that happens, the head of state police assures me Golem City will become a warzone.” Another idea trumpeted by some transhumanists is the idea of the singularity a point at which artificial intelligence will explode the rate of technological development. In the original Deus Ex, Bob Page hopes to create his own twisted version of this by merging with the Helios AI, but instead, the player is given the option to merge with Helios to rule the post-singularity world as a benevolent dictator. “You will be who you will be. We are our choices. We can choose to move humanity away from this.” The game doesn’t necessarily put any kind of judgment on this, but the solution still feels a bit icky. And afterwards, when the merger between JC Denton and Helios doesn’t go as planned, the technological infrastructure of the world collapses, and chaos envelops the world. “JC. The net’s going… the net’s going black!”
The message is not-so-subtly found in the name of the two AIs that usher in the singularity: Daedelus and Icarus. “We are Daedalus. We are Icarus. The barriers between us have fallen, and we have become our own shadows.” According to legend, Daedalus was an Ancient Greek inventor who invented man-made flight. His son, Icarus, plummets to his death after using his invention and flying too close to the sun. The Collapse can be viewed in this light, as a too-fast and too-reckless technological development that comes, metaphorically, crashing down. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Everything will be lost. Everything! The world will fall to pieces!” Haldane believed the only hope is for morality to keep pace with science. Deus Ex explores the moral questions inherent in our technology-driven future. Is it right for companies to augment their workers?
Instead of asking this beforehand, the prevailing logic in the game is: augment first, ask questions later. What about installing chips to limit a person’s augmentation if they say, go on a homicidal rage?
A brief debate may happen on live TV, while legislators are trying to pass the bill, but companies have already developed the technology before anyone decides whether this technology should even exist. Technology first, morality later. And that’s a recipe for disaster. In a way, Deus Ex is forcing us to ask these questions. We can find Talos Rucker offering a robust criticism of government’s limiting the abilities of the augmented. And even though we’re a bit far from Jax-arms, the games can make us question the technological progress in our own world. “Usually a humanitarian disaster like this would get a lot of press and foreign aid, but given that these are augmented people…” Social media has radically redefined how we engage with the world, and we’ve only begun to ask questions about its influence, after we suspect it has done something egregiously wrong. So, what do you think Wisecrack? Will art like Deus EX convince us to take a critical look at technology before we decide to universally adopt it? Or are we diving head first into a nightmare?
And one more question. In a world where people trying to secede in places like Texas, Catalonia, and even California seems to be slowly getting more popular, the original Deus Ex seems weirdly prophetic. There’s the National Secessionist Forces, and Texas’ troubled attempt to leave The Union. But how would that actually work?