Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

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Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.

**

In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

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Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

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