PSYCHOPOLITICS (Neoliberalism and new technologies of power) - BYUNG-CHUL HAN
Columbus and His Egg
Bentham likened his panopticon to ‘Columbus and his egg’.(1) By his account, the invention should be applied to all disciplinary milieus of incarceration because it promotes the exceptionally efficient surveillance of inmates. The panopticon represents a watershed in the social order: ‘What would you say, if by the gradual adoption and diversified application of this single principle, you should see a new scene of things spread itself over the face of civilized society?’(2)
Will Big Data also prove to be Columbus’s egg for the contemporary society of digital control – a system even more effective than Bentham’s panopticon? Will it actually manage not just to watch over human behaviour, but also to subject it to psychopolitical steering? Is another, wholly unintuited drama poised to redraw the face of civilized society itself?
If nothing else, Big Data has given rise to a highly efficient form of control. Acxiom, an American Big Data company, promises clients a ‘360-degree customer view’. Indeed, the digital panopticon has made possible a wraparound view of those who dwell within it. Bentham’s panopticon was confined to a perspectival optical system. This meant that blind spots were unavoidable – here, prisoners could indulge in secret wishes and thoughts without being observed.
Digital surveillance proves so efficient because it is aperspectival. It does not suffer from the perspectival limitations characterizing analogue optical systems. Digital optics enables surveillance from any and every angle. It eliminates all blind spots. In contrast to analogue and perspectival optics, it can peer into the human soul itself.
In the pages of the New York Times, David Brooks has announced a data revolution. His words are as prophetic as Chris Anderson’s famous article ‘The End of Theory’. ‘Dataism’ is the name of the new faith:
- If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions – that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things – like foretell the future … The data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past.(3)
Dataism has taken the stage with the fervour of a second Enlightenment. During the first Enlightenment, statistics was thought to possess the capacity to liberate human knowledge from the clutches of mythology. Accordingly, euphoric celebration occurred. In light of such developments, Voltaire even voiced the wish for a new historiography, freed from past superstition. Statistics, as he put it, offers ‘an object of curiosity for anyone who would like to read history as a citizen and as a philosopher’.4 Revised by statistics, history would become truly philosophical. As Rüdiger Campe writes, ‘The numbers of statistics provide the basis from which [Voltaire] can articulate his methodological mistrust of all histories that exist only as narratives. The stories of ancient history accordingly offer an example that borders on mythology for [him].’5 Statistics and Enlightenment are one and the same for Voltaire. Statistics means setting objective knowledge founded on, and driven by, numbers in opposition to mythological narration.
Now, transparency is the buzzword of the second Enlightenment. Data are supposed to be a pellucid medium. As Brooks describes them, data afford a ‘transparent and reliable lens’. The imperative of the second Enlightenment declares: everything must become data and information. The soul of the second Enlightenment is data totalitarianism, or data fetishism. Although it announces that it is taking leave of all ideology, dataism itself is an ideology. It is leading to digital totalitarianism. Therefore, a third Enlightenment is called for – in order to shine a light on how digital enlightenment has transformed into a new kind of servitude.
Big Data is supposed to be freeing knowledge from subjective arbitrariness. By this logic, intuition does not represent a higher form of knowing; instead, it represents something merely subjective – a stopgap compensating for the shortage of objective data. In complex situations, the argument goes, intuition is blind. The mistrust even extends to theory, which is suspected of being an ideology: if enough data are available, it should prove superfluous as well. The second Enlightenment is the age of purely data-driven knowledge. Anderson’s visionary rhetoric goes: ‘Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.’(6)
The medium of the first Enlightenment was reason. However, imagination, corporeality and desire were repressed in its name. By a fatal dialectic, the first Enlightenment switched over into barbarism. Now, in the second Enlightenment – which appeals to information, data and transparency – the same dialectic threatens to do the same. The second Enlightenment is summoning forth a new kind of violence. The Dialectic of Enlightenment holds that the process of illumination that set out to destroy mythology became entangled, with every stride it made, in a mythology of its own: ‘False clarity is only another name for myth.’(7) Adorno would say that the ‘transparency’ of today is another name for
myth too – that dataism likewise heralds false clarity. The dialectic of old is also making the second Enlightenment, which seeks to counter ideology, into an ideology in its own right – more still, it is leading to the barbarism of data.
Dataism, it turns out, is amounting to digital Dadaism. Dadaism also takes leave of meaningful contexts of every kind. It empties language itself of sense: ‘The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike. Simplicity is called Dada.’(8) Dataism is nihilism.(9) It gives up on any and all meaning. Data and numbers are not narrative; they are additive. Meaning, on the other hand, is based on narration. Data simply fills up the senseless void.
Now, numbers and data are not just being absolutized – they are becoming sexualized and fetishized. This amounts to nothing other than libidinal energy flowing into today’s ‘Quantified Self’. On the whole, dataism is displaying libidinous – indeed, pornographic – traits. Dataists mate with their data. In the meanwhile, there is even talk of ‘datasexuals’. They are ‘relentlessly digital’ and consider data ‘sexy’.(10) The digitus is starting to play the part of the phallus.
Belief that life admits measurement and quantification governs the digital age as a whole. ‘Quantified Self’ honours this faith too. The body is outfitted with sensors that automatically register data. Measurements involve temperature, blood sugar levels, calorie intake and use, movement profiles and fat content. The heart rate is taken in a state of meditation: performance and efficiency still count when relaxing. Moods, dispositions and routine activities are all inventoried as well. Such self-measurement and self-monitoring is supposed to enhance mental performance. Yet the mounting pile of data this yields does nothing to answer the simple question, Who am I? ‘Quantified Self’ represents a Dadaist technology too; it empties the self of any and all meaning. The self gets broken down into data until no sense remains.
The motto of Quantified Self is ‘Self Knowledge through Numbers’. But no insight into the self can result from data and numbers alone, no matter how exhaustive they are. Numbers do not recount anything about the self. Counting is not recounting. A sense of self derives from giving an account. It is not counting, but recounting that leads to self-discovery or self-knowledge.
In antiquity, the care of the self was also tied to practices of self-observation.
Publicatio sui (Tertullian) represented a significant component of paying due attention in this manner:
- Writing was also important in the culture of taking care of oneself. One of the main features of taking care involved taking notes on oneself to be reread, writing treatises and letters to friends to help them, and keeping notebooks in order to reactivate for oneself the truths one needed.(11)
Publicatio sui meant committing to the search for truth. Records of one’s life served an ethics of the self. In contrast, dataism’s self-tracking is devoid of all ethics and truth; it amounts simply to a technology for self-monitoring. When the data collected is published and exchanged, self-tracking comes to resemble self-surveillance more and more. The subject of today’s world is an entrepreneur of the self practising self exploitation – and, by the same token, selfsurveillance. The auto-exploiting subject carries around its own labour camp; here, it is perpetrator and victim at one and the same time. As a self-illuminating, self-surveilling subject, it bears its own, internal panopticon within; here, there is no difference between guard and inmate. The digitalized, networked subject is a panopticon of itself. This ensures that each and every person has now taken on the task of conducting perpetual auto-surveillance.
Life Logged in Full
Today, the clicks we make and the search words we type are stored. Every step is watched and recorded. A complete picture of our lives exists on the internet. Our digital habitus provides an extremely precise likeness of our persons – of our very souls. Perhaps it is even fuller and more accurate than the images we otherwise make of ourselves.
The number of web addresses now available is practically unlimited. As such, any item of use can be given its own internet address. Objects themselves are starting to transmit information. They report on our lives, activities and habits. The expansion of Web 2.0, the internet of persons, to Web 3.0, the internet of things, is bringing digital control society to completion. Web 3.0 has made it possible to log life in every aspect. Now, the very things we use every day are also surveilling us.
We are caught, so to speak, in the total memory of the Digital. Bentham’s panopticon still lacked an efficient recording system; it had only a ‘punishment log’ for penalties enacted and the reasons they occurred. Prisoners’ actual lives were not taken down. Big Brother had no way of knowing what inmates really thought or desired. In contrast to Big Brother, who could be quite forgetful, Big Data never forgets anything at all. For this reason alone, the digital panopticon is much more efficient than Bentham’s.
Indeed, in US elections, Big Data and data-mining have proven to be Columbus’s egg. Candidates obtain a 360-degree view of voters. Enormous masses of data are gathered from various sources – bought, in fact – and connected to each other in such a way that highly precise voter profiles result. In the process, clients also gain insight into voters’ private lives and their very psyche. Through micro-targeting, personalized messages are devised to address and influence voters. As the practical microphysics of power, micro-targeting is data-driven psychopolitics. Likewise, intelligent algorithms make it possible to predict voting behaviour and optimize candidates’ appeal. Individually calibrated messages to voters are hardly any different than personalized advertisements. More and more, voting and buying, the state and the market, citizens and consumers are coming to resemble each other. Micro-targeting is becoming the standard practice of psychopolitics.
The census, which represents a biopolitical practice of disciplinary society, provides material that may be used demographically, but not psychologically. Biopolitics is incapable of enabling subtle interventions in the psyche. In contrast, digital psychopolitics manages to intervene in psychic processes in a prospective fashion. Quite possibly, it is even faster than free will. As such, it could overtake it. If so, this would herald the end of freedom.(12)
The Digital Unconscious
It is possible that Big Data can even read desires we do not know we harbour. After all, under certain circumstances we develop inclinations that elude consciousness. Often, we do not even know why we suddenly experience a certain need. For instance, at a given stage of pregnancy, a woman may crave a particular product – yet this impulse marks a correlation of which she remains unaware. She buys the item, but she doesn’t know why. That’s how it is. Conceivably, this that’s-how-it-is (Es-ist-so) exists in psychic proximity to the Freudian id (Es), which escapes the ego and consciousness. In this light, Big Data is making the id into an ego to be exploited psychopolitically. If Big Data
has access to the realm of our unconscious actions and inclinations, it is possible to construct a psychopolitics that would reach deep into our psyche to exploit it.
According to Walter Benjamin, the movie camera affords access to the ‘optical unconscious’:
With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended … clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. ‘Other’ above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious … We are familiar with the movement of picking up a cigarette lighter or a spoon, but know almost nothing of what really goes on between hand and metal, and still less how this varies with different moods. This is where the camera comes into play, with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching or compressing a sequence, enlarging or reducing an object. It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.(13)
One may understand Big Data in analogy to a movie camera. As a digital magnifying glass, data-mining would enlarge the picture of human actions; behind the framework of consciousness it would then disclose another scene shot through with unconscious elements. Big Data’s microphysics, then, would make actomes visible – that is, micro-actions that elude detection by the waking mind. Thus, Big Data could also bring to light collective patterns of behaviour, of which individuals are unaware. This would render the collective unconscious accessible. In analogy to the ‘optical unconscious’, one could call such a microphysical or micropsychical web of relations the digital unconscious. As such, digital psychopolitics would be in the position to take control of mass behaviour on a level that escapes detection.
Today, Big Data is not just taking the stage as Big Brother – it is also taking the form of Big Business. First and foremost, Big Data is a vast, commercial enterprise. Here, personal data are unceasingly monetized and commercialized. Now, people are treated and traded as packages of data for economic use. That is, human beings have become a commodity. Big Brother and Big Business have formed an alliance. The surveillance state and the market are merging.
Acxiom is a company trading in the personal data of about 300 million US citizens – in other words, practically all of them. By now, Acxiom knows more about Americans than the FBI. The company divides people into seventy categories. In the catalogue, they are offered up like goods for sale. For any need, there is something to buy. People with a low economic value are designated as ‘waste’ – that is, ‘trash’. Consumers with a higher market value are found in the group ‘Shooting Star’. From ages thirty-six to forty-five they are dynamic, get up early to go jogging, have no children but are married, like to travel, and watch Seinfeld.
Big Data is leading to the emergence of a new digital class society. Human beings assigned to the ‘waste’ category belong to the lowest class. People with a bad score are denied credit. Thus, the panopticon has been joined by a ‘banopticon’. (14) The panopticon kept watch over prisoners of the system who were incarcerated. The ban-opticon, on the other hand, is a dispositive that identifies persons who stand outside the system or are hostile to it, and excludes them. The classical panopticon served to discipline. In contrast, the ban-opticon ensures the system’s security and efficiency.
The digital ban-opticon identifies human beings without economic value as waste. Waste is something to be eliminated:
They are all redundant. The rejects or refuse of society. To sum up, waste. ‘Waste’, by definition, is the antonym of ‘utility’; it denotes objects without possible use. Indeed, the sole accomplishment of waste is soiling and cluttering up the space that could otherwise be usefully employed. The principal purpose of the ban-opticon is to make sure that the waste is separated from decent product and earmarked for transportation to a refuse tip.(15)
Human memory is a narrative, an account; forgetting forms a necessary component. In contrast, digital memory is a matter of seamless addition and accumulation. Stored data admit counting, but they cannot be recounted. Storage and retrieval are fundamentally different from remembering, which is a narrative process. Likewise, autobiography constitutes a narrative: it is memorial writing. A timeline, on the other hand, recounts nothing. It simply enumerates and adds up events or information.
Memory constitutes a dynamic, living process; here, different levels of time intersect and influence each other. Memory is subject to constant rewriting and rearrangement. Freud understood human memory as a living organism too:
As you know, I am working on the assumption that our psychic mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory traces being subjected from time to time to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a
retranscription. Thus what is essentially new about my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is
laid down in various kinds of indications.(16)
In other words, the past – as something that remains self-identical and is always to be retrieved in the same form – does not exist. Digital memory consists of indifferent – as it were, undead – points of presence. It lacks the extended horizon constituting the temporality of the living. This means that digitalized life lacks animacy. Digital temporality belongs to the undead.
Big Data opens up the prospect of absolute knowledge. Everything can be measured and quantified; the things of the world reveal correlations that were previously hidden. Even human behaviour is supposed to admit exact prediction. A new age of insight is being announced. Correlations are replacing causality. That’s-how-it-is stands where How so? once wavered. The data-driven quantification of reality is driving Spirit from the realm of knowledge.
Hegel, the philosopher of Spirit, would deem the omniscience (All-Wissen) that Big Data promises to be absolute ignorance (Un-Wissen). Hegel’s Logic may also be read as the logic of knowledge. Here, correlation represents the most primitive level. A strong correlation between A and B means that if A changes, a change also occurs in B. But when a correlation holds – however strong it may be – one still does not know why this is the case. It just is that way. Correlation represents a relation of probability, not of necessity. It declares: A often occurs together with B. That is the difference between correlation and causation, which is distinguished by necessity: A causes B. But causality does not stand at the highest level of knowledge. Reciprocity (Wechselwirkung) represents a more complex relation than causal relation. It declares: A and B condition each other mutually. A necessary connection holds between A and B. And yet, even at the level of reciprocity, the overarching context for the connection between A and B has not yet been grasped, i.e., conceived (begriffen): ‘If we stop at considering a given content just from the point of view of reciprocal action, we are in fact proceeding quite unconceptually.’(17)
Only the ‘Concept’ brings forth knowledge. The Concept is C, which comprehends within itself (in sich begreift) A and B – here, A and B are first conceived (begriffen). The concept is the higher context surrounding A and B, which provides the foundation (Begründung) for the relationship between A and B. Thus, A and B stand as ‘moments of a third, higher [whole]’.18 Knowledge becomes possible only at the level of the Concept: ‘The Concept dwells within the things themselves, it is that through which they become what they are, and to comprehend an object means therefore to become conscious of its concept.’19 Only from the all-comprehending Concept C is complete comprehension (Begreifen) of the correlation between A and B possible. In contrast, Big Data affords only extremely rudimentary knowledge, that is, correlations in which nothing is comprehended. Big Data lacks comprehension – it lacks the Concept – and thus it lacks Spirit. The absolute knowledge intimated by Big Data coincides with absolute ignorance.
The Concept is a unity that in-cludes (ein-schließt) and com-prises (einbegreift) the elements of the whole that it is. It takes the form of a conclusion (Schluss) in which everything is comprised and comprehended. ‘Everything is a syllogism (Schluss)’ means ‘Everything is a concept.’(20) Absolute knowledge is an absolute syllogism: everything takes conclusive form within it. The ‘definition of the Absolute’ is ‘that it is the syllogism’21 – i.e., the conclusion. But constant addition yields no conclusion, no syllogism, no ‘putting-together’.
Syllogism is not addition, but narration. The absolute con-clusion ex-cludes any further addition. As narration, syllogism represents the opposite of addition. Big Data is purely additive; it never comes to an end, to a conclusion. In contrast to the correlations and additions that Big Data generates, theoretical thinking represents a narrative form of knowledge.
The Spirit is a conclusion, a syllogism, an integral whole in which component parts are meaningfully preserved (aufgehoben). The integral whole is a conclusive form. But without Spirit, the whole world falls apart into merely additive, unincorporated elements. Spirit constitutes the world’s interiority (Innerlichkeit) and composure (Sammlung): what gathers, or composes (versammelt), everything within itself. Theory is also conceptual – syllogistic – because it comprehends all the elements it includes. Ultimately, the ‘end of theory’ that Chris Anderson has trumpeted means taking leave of Spirit. Big Data makes Spirit – that is, thinking and thought – wither and die. Human science – Geisteswissenschaft – that is purely data-driven is, in fact, no longer human; it has no Geist, or Spirit. Totalized data-knowledge amounts to absolute ignorance: the absolute zero of Spirit.
The Science of Logic declares: ‘The syllogism is what is rational, and it is everything that is rational’22 – it is a conclusion, or Schluss. For Hegel, the syllogism is not a category of formal logic. A syllogism follows when the beginning and end of a process form a meaningful set of relations – a unity that makes sense. Unlike mere addition, then, narration is a syllogism. Knowledge – the state of knowing – is a syllogism. Rituals and ceremonies are syllogistic forms too. They represent a narrative process. As such, they have their own temporality, their own rhythm and pace. As narratives, they defy acceleration. But when all syllogistic forms fall apart, everything dissolves; nothing has a
stay. In a world where everything has become additive, where all narrative tension – any vertical tautness – has gone missing, total acceleration sets in.
Today, our perceptive apparatus itself is incapable of arriving at any conclusion: it just clicks its way through the endless, digital net. Our senses are completely distracted. Yet only contemplative lingering manages to achieve any meaningful end. Shutting one’s eyes offers a symbol for arriving at a conclusion.
Abrupt change from image to image, from information to information, has made any such contemplative conclusion impossible. If all that qualifies as reasonable is a syllogism – a conclusion – then our era, the age of Big Data, is an epoch without reason.
When the statistical method was discovered in the seventeenth century, it captivated scientists, gamblers, poets and philosophers alike. Enthusiastically, they embraced statistical probability and regularity. There can be no doubt that such euphoria admits comparison with the fortunes of Big Data today. Then, statistics inspired renewed trust in a higher power for people as they confronted the contingencies of the world. For instance, an eighteenth-century treatise by John Arbuthnot was called An Argument for Divine Providence, taken from the
Regularity observ’d in the British Births of both Sexes. On the basis of the statistically determined predominance of male infants relative to female ones, philosophers saw the hand of God at work – and found further reason to justify war.
Even Kant got carried away by the possibilities that statistical calculation afforded; he incorporated the lawful order it allowed him to discern into his teleological view of history. On the one hand, he posited the existence of free will. On the other, he restricted it. Kant affirmed that phenomena of free will – that is, human actions – are determined by general laws of nature, like every other natural fact. If one considers the play of freedom in human will ‘on a large scale’, lawfulness may be discerned. As unruly as the conduct of individual subjects seems to be, a ‘steady progression though slow development of … original predispositions’ is recognizable at the level of the species. To make this
point, Kant refers to statistics:
- Thus marriages, the births that come from them and deaths, since the free will of human beings has so great an influence on them, seem to be subject to no rule in accordance with which their number could be determined in advance through calculation; and yet the annual tables of them in large countries prove that they happen just as much in accordance with constant laws of nature, as weather conditions which are so inconstant, whose individual occurrence one cannot previously determine, but which on the whole do not fail to sustain the growth of plants, the course of streams, and other natural arrangements in a uniform uninterrupted course. Individual human beings and even whole nations think little about the fact, since while each pursues its own aim in its own way and one often contrary to the other, they are proceeding unnoticed, as by a guiding thread, according to an aim of nature, which is unknown to them, and are laboring at its promotion.(23)
In essence, the first Enlightenment was committed to belief in statistical knowledge. Rousseau’s volonté générale results from statistical-mathematic operations too. The general will takes form without any communication at all.(24) It results from statistical averages:
- There is often a considerable difference between the will of all and the general will: the latter looks only to the common interest, the former looks to private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills; but if, from these same wills, one takes away the pluses and the minuses which cancel each other out, what is left as the sum of the differences is the general will.(25)
Rousseau stresses that arriving at the general will requires no communication; indeed, it excludes it. Communication distorts statistical objectivity. Accordingly, he would like to prohibit political parties and associations. The democracy he envisions is democracy without discourse or communication. Proceeding statistically is supposed to yield a synthesis of quantity and truth.26 Rousseau offers a biopolitical response to the question of the features defining a good government. He avoids approaching the question morally. For him, the purpose of a political association is simply the protection and welfare of its members. The surest sign of success is the increase of population. Unquestionably, for him, the best government is the one in which the citizens ‘become populous and multiply the most’. Thus, he sounds the call: ‘Calculators, it is now up to you: count, measure, compare.’(27)
- Today’s euphoria about Big Data strongly resembles the euphoria about statistics in the eighteenth century – which did not last for long, however. Statistics was surely the Big Data of the eighteenth century. Before long, resistance mounted against statistical reason – above all, on the part of Romanticism. The fundamental affect of Romanticism is horror at everything average and normal. The singular, improbable and sudden stand opposed to what is merely probable in statistical terms. Romanticism cultivated the outlandish, abnormal and the extreme in order to counter statistical normality.(28)
- Statistics proves that there are laws in history. Yes, it proves how vulgar and disgustingly uniform the masses are. You should have kept statistics in Athens! Then you would have sensed the difference! The more inferior and un-individual the masses are, the more rigorous the statistical law. If the multitude has a more refined and nobler composition, then the law immediately goes to the devil. And way up at the top, where the great minds are, you no longer can make any calculations at all: when, for example, have great artists ever gotten married! You are hopeless, you who want to discover a law in this. Thus, to the extent that there are laws in history, they are worthless, and history itself – that is, everything that has occurred – is worthless.(29)
Statistics does not take into consideration ‘great active individuals on the stage of history, but only … the supernumeraries [Statisten]’.(30) Nietzsche inveighs against a version of history ‘that takes the great drives of the masses to be what is important and that views all great men merely as their expression, as the bubbles that become visible on the surface of the flood’.(31)
For Nietzsche, the figures of statistics prove only that man is a herd animal. He observes that ‘die Menschen zunehmen im Gleichwerden’.(32) This means both that ‘people are increasingly growing equal’ and that ‘people batten [i.e., grow fat] as they become the same.’ Such Gleichschaltung also characterizes our contemporary society of transparency and information. When everything is made visible at once, deviations can scarcely occur. Transparency entails a compulsion to conform, which eliminates the Other, the Alien and the Deviant. Above all, Big Data makes collective patterns of behaviour visible. Dataism is augmenting Zunehmen im Gleichwerden, or hypertrophied sameness. Data-mining does not differ from statistics in any fundamental way. The correlations it lays bare represent only what is likely in statistical terms. It calculates average values. As such, Big Data has no access to what is unique. Big Data is wholly blind to the event. Not what is statistically likely, but what is unlikely – the singular, the event – will shape history, in other words, the future of mankind. Thus, Big Data is blind to the future too.
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