As part of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canadian curators and artists are being celebrated through the Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition. Every two weeks a new exhibit goes live. The 7th exhibit was called Corporatization – A Persistent L’il System and was curated by Milena Placentile. The pieces explore “the impact of corporations on the world, including on shared public and personal life” (Curatorial Statement). One piece that struck me was “In Sit You” by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins (see left), which reflects on the “pervasiveness of corporate advertising in public spaces” (About this Exhibit). The park bench echoes the hues of the billboard. I see it as a playful description of a potentially sinister interaction: the insidious influence of disembodied entities (e.g., corporations) in our public and private lives.
Ironically, a corporation is incorporeal. In the context of law, one cannot imagine physically assaulting a corporation like one could a person, yet a corporation has some protection under the law like an actual person. A corporation has its own “rights, privileges and responsibilities distinct from its members” and is considered a “legal person”. Instead of concentrating on a physical body, corporations protect their intellectual property. Is it possible that a corporation acts less like a whole person and more like a disembodied brain – a brain in a vat?
In the famous thought experiment referred to as “brain in a vat” one has the image of a brain floating in a beaker with many probes inserted into it. The brain is considered to have the same inputs as a brain in a person would have, and experiences life identically to as if it were in a body. Philosophers ask whether that brain could know that it is in a vat?
I am wondering about the flip-side of this thought experiment. What are the ethics around how we treat a body-less brain? If corporations can be thought of as body-less people, then how might that alter an ethical relationship between an individual and a corporation?
The “facelessness” of large corporations is an oft quoted rationalization for adhering to a different set of ethics. Recently Parish Priest Father Tim Jones was sharply criticized in the media for suggesting that shoplifting is morally superior to robbery while offering guidance to his parishioners in desperate times. Father Jones said, “I would ask that they do not steal from small, family businesses, but from national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices.” Although some may feel that his argument is well-reasoned – cause more people to suffer less than fewer to suffer more – it seems based on the premise that we don’t see the people who suffer. It seems unjustifiable to assume a different ethical stance for shops with or without faces.
Back to the “In Sit You” piece, I wonder how these disembodied persons have become so effective in their influence? In the absence of physical strength, corporations are able to sway our minds. Their effect is from one brain to another.
When I consider the thought experiment of a brain in a vat, I wonder about the ethics of allowing a disembodied brain to suffer. Does one have to have a body to be worthy of ethical treatment? What responsibilities would we have to a brain in a vat?