Objectification of consciousness

Our ability to experience phenomena, make choices and reinvent ourselves throughout our lives is unique, in contrast to objects we encounter day-to-day. A broom in our cupboard ceases to be a broom as soon as it loses its essence - which is the ability to sweep floors. It also has no particular feelings about this change, or any agency over its own fate. A conscious being, however, cannot be defined for what it is meant to be - for it can choose what it wants to become. However, essences are more-or-less forcefully imposed on us by culture, or the labour and education systems, disregarding our inner lives, ability to choose and closing the door on our right to reject what they give to us.

From our view point we can see that there are certain axioms of our own conscious being: we all have subjective, conscious experiences. We are free agents, able to make choices that define our lives. This proof via our own inner life is enough to extrapolate that the axioms are true for other people as well, leaving others equal to us. Yet we have created, and been part of, systems that strive to treat us more as a broom than a being. Moreover, our cultural ideas only amplify that issue.

First hint towards that lies in casual conversations, where one of the first questions when getting to know someone is “what do you do”. Whether they are a teacher, plumber, engineer, athlete, an engineer, we can avoid making the effort to consider them a human capable of being more than their job, having a wider story that led them to this moment. Instead, it is tempting to think that their occupation contains probabilities that define how likely it is, for instance, that a librarian is a quiet bookworm, or an engineer bad at art. After all, how many think of their therapist friend as having strong acumen towards reading people? We use their jobs as guides towards to judge probabilities of who they are, letting us perform the easier task of understanding the job rather than the person.

Systemic objectification is more insidious than that, and it starts the moment the frameworks and systems we have built fail to foster our ability to choose, and rather exist to force a choice on us.

First and foremost they demand us to be workers and students, tools towards fulfilling demands of the economy, the state or culture. From the moment we are born, we are instantly given the cultural role of a child - one that comes with a whole set of expectations for the present and for the future. In time more roles are imposed on us, be it cultural, familial, ones demanded by our communities or even ones we internalise as we observe people around us or are exposed to popular media.

Those roles require us to “become a thing”, accept its values and its purpose. More importantly, they include guardrails as to what else we cannot become, or decisions we are not allowed to make. A child, once a student, cannot reject the role given to them, despite the fact the system they were born into is not one they could choose or given a chance to agree to. Their fate is then governed by goals and aims of the education system, with an end result of turning them into a worker. The student’s vulnerability and lack of knowledge is exploited to ensure they do not stray from the path that had been laid for them.

From that very start of our lives we are merely a subject to take tests that will determine our role, worth and success in society. We are not seen as beings imbued with rich inner lives to cultivate, full of possibilities that we can realise now or later in life. Instead, the system rewards us for fulfilling the essence given to us, and punishing us for pushing away from the roles that are beneficial to it. Possibilities quickly give way to probabilities instead, as the system focuses on those students who are most likely to attain good grades. Children become victims of the tyranny of mathematics, one trying to predict which ones will act in the desirable way.

Post-education, employees fall under the label of “human resources” who can perform work equal to “man hours”. It is not a new concept, since the start of the industrial revolution we are finding more and more ways to objectify workers: Victorians built machines to expand production, the workers became part of the equation for profit/loss, input/output, human cogs that keep the machines in motion. It would be futile to ask a machine what its experience is, or what it tries to make of itself in the future. A worker is part of that machine, and cannot expect the courtesy of being asked what their dreams are. The maths they were cursed with was not even one that tries to predict their actions, but a more sinister one that used their lives to balance out the profit and loss made from their existence.

While times have changed, we are still objectified as workers. Our well being is only important as long as it increases production, efficiency, reduces cost of rehiring by avoiding “losing talent”. The ability to realise our chosen possibilities is only accepted if the choices relate to our careers; the business is not interested in one’s desire to become a poet, let alone supporting them in it. Their “growth” is only important as long as it leads to concrete growth in revenue. The company then sees their managers as a tool for improving business performance, and in turn that is how they see their workers.

Finally, countries that are currently shedding their social support systems or have none at all send a message: any worker no longer able or willing to be objectified cannot expect to be able to sustain themselves. Unless they have means of supporting themselves financially independent of their work, they are to starve or accept to become an object again.

This has then resulted in people trying to find ways to get out of the system as soon as possible, be able to avoid being a worker-object without risk of falling into poverty. Get-rich quick schemes, risky crypto investments, or white-collar fraud all give one the ability to step outside the system and no longer have to be seen (and see themselves) as an object in the labour system.

Another example of gross injustice is our treatment of children, as well as domestic & farm animals. While the two differ substantially, they share common characteristics. Both are thrown without choice into a pre-existing world, one that had been shaped and determined by others who had come before. They are inferior to us in terms of communication, are dependant on us for survival, and their very existence is the product of our decisions and desires. Whether its parents’ desires for families in case of children, breeders of pets search for profit, or meat factories designed to automate creation and destruction of conscious beings.

It is hard to deny animals are more than automatons and possess inner experiences of the world. While it might be a contentious topic whether they exhibit free will, it would be safer to assume they do; the issue of free will is not solved for humans themselves, and defining it in falsifiable, scientific context is difficult, leaving it more to the realm of metaphysics & philosophy. Even though animals do not necessarily have the same high-level functions as we do, it is not unreasonable to assume they still are no different from us in their ability to make choices.

Despite that, animals end up being subjected to being an object in our stories. Many pet owners pride themselves on providing a home for stray cats or dogs, giving them a place to live. That is often done with a story in mind where the pet fulfils the role of an object: we look for companionship, love, affection and someone to be with us during tough times, a companion to create a happy home

As far as the pet is concerned, they are thrown into a world hostile to them, often unable to leave their owner’s home and without any alternative given to them. Their natural habitats have been progressively destroyed, leaving them at our mercy. They are fully dependent on us for nourishment and care.

If we truly cared for animals for who they are - agents capable of experience and making choices - would we not prefer to expand those choices and create habitats that provide them with freedom, self sufficiency and choice? Instead, our system designates us owners and lets us establish control over their lives.

It is not unheard of for a cat to choose to live with someone else, abandoning their previous owner. Despite that, many jurisdictions will require a cat to be returned to their owner even years after it had disappeared. It seems ironic that on one hand we treat pets as bringing us love and companionship - and is there love without subjective life or choice - on the other we can force them back into our story should they make “the wrong” choice.

Then there are the animals who are granted not the essence of a pet, but of a farm animal: brought to life only to be slaughtered, their existence a mere blip, a by-product of growing food for sale. Our industrial system holds the power to bring millions of beings into existence via breeding, only to deny them recognition of that existence, let alone any sympathy. Animals are farmed the same way one would farm wheat.

Children are similarly thrown into the world. Their birth is our choice, and our choice alone. Their lives early on are dependent on us. The world they come to had been built by those who preceded them. The reason for their existence dependent on the story their parents want to create for themselves.

One should expect that making the choice to bring someone into existence should require careful consideration. Depressingly, when we look at studies of why people have children we see they “could not imagine life without them”, “[parents] are just family people”, “want to give and share love”, or experience “unconditional love”. Then there are the reasons such as “children are cute”, “funny”. Some even say that they believe children can make them work to become a better person. For others there are strong cultural pressures to have children, it is more of a favour done for the extended family or out of a sense of duty.

Children end up having to fulfil essence given to them - one of a child, giving and receiving the parents’ idea of love, helping build the image of a happy family, provide the experience of unconditional love. Parents will also have expectations for who their children become, how well they will do in school, or how successful they will be. They are born without a story, yet into a story of other people, one filled with assumptions and silent expectations. The children, however, are blank slates, unaware of that story, and often will reject or rebel against it, only to then be seen as going through rebellious phases.

Each of us had to spend our early lives trying to understand what those expectations are, and having faith that by assuming the roles given to us - son, daughter, pupil, student, eventually worker - we are doing what is best for us. There are rules in stories for us to fulfil, and we are rarely told explicitly why those are the way they are or taught to choose differently. There is an irony in the fact that we are born with all the possibilities in front of us, but who we are and will can be decided by others, robbing us of the full breadth of our potential.

As adults, we cannot escape turning ourselves into objects. While a Victorian worker was objectified by their employer, in modern times emphasis is put on learning, and constant improvement of our personal productivity. Each individual is now an employee and an employer, ensuring they hit their own KPIs and incessantly growing ourselves. Whether it is our choice or not to not see ourselves as cogs in need of optimisation is out of question, when many jump on the train of growth we are forced to keep up.

A more mundane example of self-objectification are personality quizzes that can give us a clear, four-letter description of our personality. Once an ENFP, INTJ, ESTP or any of the other sixteen personalities, we are now able to simplify thinking of ourselves down to trying to understand our personality type. We no longer have to look inwards to understand our choices and inner lives, but instead we can focus on what it means to be the ENFP. Just like in case of asking someone what their job is, we simplify understanding ourselves by attempting to understand an external object that is our new-found personality.

More subtly, we objectify ourselves by substituting “self” & “I” in our language for “brain”, directly referring to ourselves as objects. In every day language this happens when we talk about “how our brain made us do this”, or how “our brain works like this”, then we might look for tricks to “hack our brains”. Substituting “I” with “brain” lets us treat ourselves more as driven by casual laws of physics, rather than beings in charge of our lives.

We treat consciousness the same way we would treat a car that needs to be serviced, and we ignore the rich inner lives that make our body, brain included, so unique. By doing this we are only seeing our actions as the result of mathematical probabilities that led “our brain” to our current situation. We avoid introspection and responsibility by turning ourselves into a brain-object. There is a strong difference between saying “I did this”, “I felt like this”, “I want this”, one that expresses feelings or desires that come from our inner lives, and hiding them behind attributing those to random excitations of our brain.

Our ability to make choices and have experiences, as well as mould ourselves into a being we desire to become, are axiomatic from the moment we are born. However, as touched upon earlier, it is our institutions, families, dominant ideas and cultural archetypes that will attempt to curb those powers that are inherently ours. This is done by giving us an essence as we progress through life, and forcing us to adhere to strict systems, becoming objects within them.

It is then not surprising so many of us suffer from impostor syndrome. Since we are not roles or objects, we cannot embody them to the fullest as much as others, or ourselves, would expect us to. This can very much leave us feeling we are merely pretending. Which is not inaccurate, that is exactly what we do - we are all impostors who put on masks or have masks put on us by others, behaving in the way a role is expected to behave lest we seem problematic.

Examining an average person’s story shows how rarely they are considered to be a free being: our parents have the freedom to decide who we are, schools then are focused on whether we are fulfilling educational bodies’ KPIs and target score test results, and are learning not only what has been prescribed we have to learn, but also in a way that has been arbitrarily deemed appropriate. Even universities are more and more seen as grounds solely for creating qualified workers. Once a worker, our goal is to be ever-more productive, with the company primarily interested in seeing how much can be extracted from their investment into us. Our entire being ends up summed up in Excel spreadsheets.

Since we have no say in our coming into existence - be it the choice to exist at all, or where, when and to whom I will be born - it is further damaging that we are deprived of the luxury of being seen as capable of choice and reinvention. Instead, we are put down a pre-ordained path where we have to struggle against being seen solely as a role: student, worker, citizen, parent.

Those systems find benefit from our existence: be it our work, spending, buying, consuming or time spent bringing up children to continue the cycle. At the same time they seem to stifle what should be our right given our contributions - freedom to cultivate our inner lives, and to say no to what is imposed on us.