I’ve been slowly watching the BBC series Sherlock and he repeatedly expresses a specific frustration: “why don’t people think anymore?” It’s not that people have become entirely unreflective or pathologically incapable of simple neurological functions; what frustrates Sherlock, and myself as well, is that we no longer ask the right questions, if we’re asking at all. Who, what, when, where, why and how are all important questions. But ‘why’ is the question that involves the most work, demands the most honesty, entails the most risk…that is, if its answer is sought to the bitter end, which ironically is an end that never arrives. Unconsciously, people are afraid of what comes on the other side of ‘why’ for what they find there may just upset their comfortable world of unchallenged assumptions- the lies they’ve built for themselves. What follows ‘why’ is always another ‘why’ that leads to more questions. Which is why it’s the most difficult of the questions, it becomes an inquiry that never ends. Whether it’s because laziness, feelings of inadequacy, or fear, we don’t ask questions anymore. We don’t wonder why, and we don’t think critically. ‘Research’ has become something that is professionalized, and as a result, left to the ‘experts’ like Siri. Why look up the weekend forecast or latest sports scores if it can be done for us? We don’t ask why, we don’t think critically, we don’t research. Instead, what we do today is we consume information. And reproduce it for it to be re-consumed by others. And because information is always instantly available at our fingertips, information that comes pre-processed, it takes the chore of thinking out of the equation, ‘frees’ us from that burden. We no longer think, we just peddle information. We no longer possess knowledge, only information. We only possess the cheap stuff- the robotic function of memory recall- trivia devoid of human relevance and meaning. What do we know? Everything. And nothing– that is, if by ‘knowing’, we mean that which is a quality relative to humans, and not robotic automatons simply regurgitating information.
‘Why’ is the ethos that is completely missing from political discourse (see House of Cards). If it were asked, politics as it is currently constituted would be dissimulated, and the deceit of social values and political capital that are currently being alloyed to information would be exposed. But such a sentimental hope has always been mere fantasy. With the reign of surveillance firmly entrenched in society today the regressive historical movement from knowledge to information seems irreversible. We have become too beholden to spectacle.
But the politics of information gets even more problematic. Not only are we consumers of information, we’ve become information. The correlations to alienation, dehumanization and nihilism are apparent enough, I don’t feel like I need to explain them. The surveillance policies of the Obama administration and the NSA are also obvious enough as primary examples of exterior forces that are coercively shaping what it means, not just to be American, but to be human. And what it means to be human today is to be a compilation of data– a further reduction from the statistics that used to represent us…oh, the good ol’ days when we were just numbers on a poll. If statistics was the massification of humanity, data is the singularizing of the human as a 0 or 1– part of the code that sustains artificial intelligence. Data is what now constitutes our identities, our humanity. Bodies, minds, souls- these are irrelevant and are no longer required prerequisites for human membership. All that matters is that you receive and return, accept and proliferate data. You might be thinking this is a bit of a stretch or overstatement. Let’s see, or should I say- let’s review the data, shall we?
Consider that human identity is a social construction and is the only iteration of ‘human’ that is of any practical relevance. What I’m asserting is that any conception of what it means to be human is hopelessly naive if it is divorced from its political and economic context. Any other account of what it means to be human apart from this will be easily undermined once one begins to consider freedom and rights. ‘Human rights’ only exist for the individual insofar as said human is identified with a state. Indeed, there are no such things as ‘rights’, only privileges, privileges that can be taken away at a moment’s notice, at the whims of the state’s self-interests (see– Snowden, Edward). Humanity is a quality that is relative to and dependent on recognition by a state. If you’re not identified by a state, then you’re for all intensive purposes, not human but an alien.. until you find another state that will take you in. I’m not saying that this is how it ought to be, I’m just saying this is how things are today. And clearly this is problematic especially when taking into account that the state encourages economic activity on part of its citizens, that what it means to be an active and dutiful citizen is to be an actor within the economy. And yet it is this very system of exchange buttressing the state that creates poverty as it simultaneously creates wealth. And those who find themselves at an economic loss, those who become poor, their ‘rights’ become diminished and they are eventually alienated from what constitutes being ‘human’- a contributing member of the market (for more on this see the paper I wrote on Hegel, the rabble and the modern state). It is only in this sense that ‘democracy’ still exists: it is via participation in the free market economy that one ‘represents’ oneself, that one casts one’s vote and has his/her voice heard by the state by being both producer and consumer of data, of information. Which is why there is actually no such thing as a sphere of politics, it’s all economics. And ‘rights’ are coextensive with capital, with what information one can peddle. Indeed, if we re-read the constitution we’ll find that ‘inalienable rights’ such as the freedom of speech readily lends itself to the consumption and reproduction of information. The exchange of information is an inalienable right. We are conveniently feeding the leviathan by simply giving way to our gluttony and sloth, just sitting there consuming data. We even do it while we sleep, with our smart phones by our bedsides updating apps throughout the night. What it means to be human is to possess certain rights, what dictates these rights is the welfare-state, what it means to be human is enforced by the policies and laws of such a state, the state values its own preservation and progress, and the reduction of humans to information streamlines this process. Information constitutes who we are, what could be more constitutional?
We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are. We understandably do not want to see ourselves as bits and bytes. But unless we begin conceptualizing ourselves in this way, we leave it to others to do it for us.
– Colin Koopman, The Age of Infopolitics op-ed for the NYT (read it here)
All the fuss over government surveillance practices and policies is quite the red herring. Its been effective in distracting everyday people with the unwelcome intrusion of big brother’s prying eye into their everyday habits and behaviours. People are concerned over issues such as evasion of privacy not realizing that they’ve been surveilling themselves all along. Our fusion with online technology and instant media renders all our actions predictable. All the shopping decisions we make have become predictable, but worse than that, have become pre-determined. There’s no practical reason for the government to check our phone records and whatnot, and if there’s a big fuss that’s made over it it’s because its beneficial for the government in terms of reinforcing its own power to set the terms of discourse, to have such a pre-determined discourse internalized in people’s minds. This is all rather Foucauldian (see his book discipline and punish), which is descriptive of what’s going on.
Participation in the free market is a form of practicing self-surveillance, of incorporating and assimilating oneself into a discursive world that dictates via statistics measuring capital, gain and loss, etc, what one does. We think we have options and choices and that this in part constitutes our freedom, a freedom to choose between options, but this is no freedom, indeed it is a being limited by options, options that are marketed and sold to us by the corporatocracy. If you were born and raised in a cellar and all you’ve ever known were the options of bread, beans, and pudding, you’d also think you were quite free in being able to choose between the three. Freedom only appears so because of a priori limits. This is pure and simple social construction. We are products of the products we buy. All that we know is what is given to us. We are the information of the information we exchange. There is no trace of any real freedom in any of this. Our embrace of information over knowledge, of the deceit of spectacle over understanding is the fruition of the reign of nihilism. Nothing has meaning anymore for information is precisely pre-packaged meaning that rarely inspires the question ‘why?’, tis just a means to an end, a means to more information, a means to more means that never comes to an end.
Information cannot go anywhere without us. It transitions in and through us, we mediate information. We’ve become extensions of our computers. We no longer use technology, it uses us.
Once upon a time I wrote a long blog post about why I had left Facebook. Looking back, not much has changed except that my understanding of the issues and concerns have become more nuanced and well-informed. And now we’re at a juncture in history where our complicit participation in data mongering via memberships to such sites as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and whatever else has transformed into an act of self-surveillance Where we’re doing all the corporate analysts’ work for them. By checking our daily feeds. Automating our bill payments. Default navigational settings on Google maps. And so on. It is in this sense that democracy has perhaps never existed, or if it has it’s just a more sinister form of totalitarianism where all the control is not explicitly performed but implicitly and tacitly under the guise of economic freedoms. There’s no need for big brother for we’re watching ourselves. Who’s watching the watchmen? Damn. I think we need more drugs.
Meanwhile, Obama announces $750 million worth of pledges to student technology. Gotta give and get that information to/from the kids even while they’re at school, and especially while they’re young. This is not progress or liberalism. It’s social conditioning. Economic coercion. It’s self-surveillance.