The Artificial Human: Digital Life in a Mindless Habitat

Digital tracking technologies are the most advanced stage of a process of grammatization that began at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic age…

—Bernard Stiegler,  Automatic Society: The Future of Work

Education in its etymological context is the process of  drawing out or unfolding the powers of the mind in a child. This notion presupposes that a child is born with certain innate powers and capacities that can be slowly activated and molded by the cultural norms of the society within which it lives. But is this so? Do we come with a set of innate capacities and powers to learn, to know, to feel, to see, to understand, surmise, analyze, reason, think…? In other words is there some fixed and unchallenged thing called ‘human nature’ that can be shaped and formed into a human being or not? Of course the culture/nurture debates are unending and I’m not about to add to that vast literature. Instead let’s begin with our recent history.

If one cares to look at it we can discern that there are so many fragmented cultures across the planet that no one could in their right mind begin to know or understand each and everyone with any amount of success. The literature of anthropologists has become almost laughable in the sense that what it describes is not the scattered remnants of indigenous populations remaining in the world among us, but rather the mirrored reflections of our own fears and phobias, values and contexts. The very conceptuality we use to understand others is itself tainted by its ubiquitous reliance on hundreds if not thousands of years of clichéd use. Bounded by certain central concepts our thought as pointed out by those masters of irony the post-structuralists is already informed by metaphysical prejudice. We live in a circle of our own thought never able to truly grasp the Other at all. This goes both ways, too. For the Other is an alterity to us and we to her and the world is an endless Tower of Babel.

Of course we love to simplify, to abstract, to fictionalize that matters are other than this, that we can understand each other, that there are certain truths and norms that seem at first Universal everywhere. That even the Mind holds certain universal concepts and ideas that come with us at birth. Plato once believed all that was needed was to remember these Ideas, to educe them from the child and nurture them through a form of dialectic that would teach the young child the powers and capacities he already had within him. But was he right? Do we come with these innate ideas, forms? Are they existing like dormant seeds that need only be watered and nurtured to grow and mature? Or is the mind a clean slate, a sponge into which concepts and ideas are put by those very cultures, imposed from the outside in? Are we but empty vessels that can be slowly adapted and molded by the culture within which we are born and emerge, shaped and modulated by thoughts not innate but imposed? And, if so, does this imply that we are not what we think we are but something other?

This is not the place to debate the extremes of such questions. Instead I’ll limit the discussion only to Bernard Stiegler’s notion of grammatization. What is grammatization? Following the work of Gilbert Simondon whose notions of transindividuation would deeply influence Stielger we can start with the notion of technics. For Stiegler humans, as a species, were not born into the world already equipped with mature cognitive capacities; these capacities developed over time in a transductive relationship with Neolithic technics, and they are still developing today hand in glove through our collective play with contemporary technics. Informed by Simondon, Stiegler routinely defined technics as organized inorganic matter.” The term refers both to the history of fabricated objects (e.g., flint, hammers, pencils, computers) and to the domain of techne: the techniques and practices involved in making (something with) technology. Technics are more than merely a part of the environment humans inhabit; technics constitute—not determine—our experience on every possible level, from retention to anticipation, and from cultural history to genetics.1

I hear many speak of the natural world and environment who say we are now entering a time when our world is becoming severed from its natural context and entering an artificial era. Truth is we’ve been living in artificial environments for millennia. Cultures and civilizations around the globe were since the first Neolithic stone age building artificial landscapes to escape and defend themselves against the natural world. As the verbose and witty if not always accurate cultural theorist and art critic Camille Paglia puts it: “We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is the law, a survival of the fittest. In society, there are protections for the weak. Society is our frail barrier against nature.”2

In the great debates surrounding whether humans determine technology, or technology humans, or / and if both co-evolve and determine each other in turn Stiegler would join his progenitor Jaques Derrida in circumventing this debate altogether by seeking the underlying conditions that determine both humans and technology: the constitutive processes, in Stiegler’s lexicon, are called processes of grammatization. (Tinell, p. 4) That Stiegler was influenced by French culture from the 60’s to 80’s with those such as the classicists and historians of writing (Leroi-Gourhan, Havelock, Goody), French philosophers and literati associated with Tel Quel (Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva), and North American media theorists (Ong, McLuhan, Ulmer) should be no surprise. (ibid., p. 5) Almost anyone who lived during this time period would have been versant in the structuralist and post-structuralist scholarship. Today one hardly hears the names of these scholars in current or contemporary radical philosophy, as if they were irrelevant and passé. Just another blip on the long slow demise of philosophy in an age of derivative metaphysics playing out its endgame. (Of course I wonder at times if it is just young thinkers seeking to bypass the rigours and time needed to fully delve into all the textual work it takes to study and learn the full gamut of all the philosophical traditions.)

Either way the scholars of this age according to media theorist Gregory Ulmer ultimately were led into various theoretical trajectories that would lead to grammatology. According to Ulmer, grammatology developed in three phases, all of which remain in progress. First, the historical phase featured a variety of archeological and paleontological investigations into the evolution of writing systems. These historians of writing attempted to account for the actual invention of writing in ancient civilizations, as well as devise elaborate taxonomies for categorizing the world’s writing systems, almost as if taking inventory of different species of plants or animals. Racing to gather new empirical facts surrounding the origins of particular writing systems, early historians of writing rarely paused to consider the theoretical significance of writing, nor did they question inherited assumptions about which activities and artifacts counted as writing. For this reason, Derrida—the first theoretical grammatologist—embarked on a “point-by-point repetition, of the history of writing into a theory of writing” (Ulmer, 1985, p, 17). As he deconstructed the metaphysical opposition of speech and writing, Derrida assembled something of a counter-history, wherein non-phonetic systems like hieroglyphics function as emblems with which he theorizes writing in general (i.e., arche-writing), beyond the limits of phonocentric discourse. (Tinell, p. 5)

Stiegler would transform and extend the thought of Derrida and other post-structuralist thinkers developing his own media centered notions of grammatization. For him according to Tinnell the term applies to processes by which a material, sensory, or symbolic flux becomes a gramme, which—broadly conceived—can include all manners of technical gestures that maintain their iterability and citationality apart from an origin or any one particular context.For Stiegler, the shift from cuneiform to phonetic symbols is a process of grammatization, the shift from hand-tools to factory machines is a process of grammatization, and so is genetic engineering—cells and organs become replicated and revised like a kind of alphabet. In every case, a continuous flux (e.g., speech, the body, the genome) becomes broken down into a system of discrete elements (e.g., alphabetic characters, mechanical systems, recombinant DNA sequences). And, in every case, the latter’s emergence always disrupts, transforms, and reconfigures the former. (Tinnell, p. 6)

What were seeing here is a theory of influence between human and its technics, the slow process of these material grammes acting like programs computing and activating processes throughout history. In this way Stiegler forces us to think about technologies and techniques not as separate processes but rather as co-sharers and partners in ongoing processes out of which both are conditioned. The key here is that as everyday objects transform into what some glibly term the ‘internet of things’, or a world of smart objects, or as Stiegler would term them: gramme objects, we see a world artificially animated by intelligences that activate and control our habits, intentions, and actions. The environment surrounding us will track us, help us, teach us, enclose us with a grammatical texture of ubiquitous technics designed to operate on us 24/7.

Defining all writing technologies as pharmakon, Stiegler (2011) warned that hyperindustrial investment in digital machines was contributing to a general proletarianization of the consumer’s existence to an even more pervasive extent than the industrial investment of factory machines effected a proletarianization of the worker’s labor. Nevertheless, in addition to this disconcerting ramification, the pervasive networks of gramme and gesture emerging with wearable computers and biotechnologies mark new rhetorical/media ecologies that introduce unusual and, perhaps, promising affordances for multimedia composition. (Tinell, p. 7) The point here is that all these gadgets that seem to optimize our physical and mental processes, help us perform better, become better adapted to the rigors of this 24/7 world are in fact shaping and modulating our lives through a new form of social control (Deleuze).

Without going into the full details of how all this came about Stiegler compresses the main tenets of his oeuvre into an ensemble of theoretical gestures. For Stiegler the movement from the Industrial to Hyperindustrial  era we are now in, or what Nietzsche would term the era of a ‘completed nihilism’ when theory and knowledge itself would become valueless and stupidity would reign everywhere is upon us. We’ve heard repeatedly from my friend R. Scott Bakker that this is so, that philosophy in the traditional sense is dead, mute. That theory is without a project, a future. That humanity is giving way to a process of stupefaction, automatization. That every facet of our lives and thoughts is slowly being governed and manipulated by the ‘trace’ – a world of data and metadata attached to our dividual lives in an electronic world that never sleeps. The a universal city of nightmares is being set loose within the ‘internet of things’ in the sense of a playground for total immersion and calculability. As Stiegler remarks,

After the loss of work-knowledge in the nineteenth century, then of life-knowledge in the twentieth century, there arises in the twenty-first century the age of the loss of theoretical knowledge – as if the cause of our being stunned was an absolutely unthinkable becoming. With the total automatization made possible by digital technology, theories, those most sublime fruits of idealization and identification, are deemed obsolete – and along with them, scientific method itself. We saw in the introduction that this is the conclusion Chris Anderson reaches in ‘The End of Theory’… (AS, KL 1187)3

As Anderson said in that article Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn’t pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right. As he remarks,

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.

This is the world of Big Data and Calculation. The rule of algorithmic governmentality that needs no theory or theoretician, scholar or pundit. It just does all this without human intervention at all. A world run for and by machinic intelligence, optimized by algorithms that chart and navigate the traces we leave in our ordinary everyday lives, attuned to our whims, to our desires, to our unknowing.

Even science and the scientific method is being made obsolete by this world of Big Data. As Anderson continues, “But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality.” Absolute innovation and revolution in a continuous world of total optimization of code and gramme, control and gesture. Anderson being more optimistic than Stiegler hypes this new world, saying,

The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

With the demise of computer simulations and models comes the ousted computer modeler or programmer themselves, and the instigation of self-replicating algorithms and deep learning algorithms that have no need of the human engineer anymore. A world without humans is being martialed before our very eyes, one that will eventually not only replace work but life. Nietzsche once declared that God was Dead. One day a machine may say: “The Human is Dead.” Excluded from our own creation we may discover a civilization we thought to become a utopia has indeed become just that without us.

As Stiegler himself says,

Founded on the self-production of digital traces, and dominated by automatisms that exploit these traces, hyper-industrial societies are undergoing the proletarianization of theoretical knowledge, just as broadcasting analogue traces via television resulted in the proletarianization of life-knowledge, and just as the submission of the body of the labourer to mechanical traces inscribed in machines resulted in the proletarianization of work-knowledge. The decline in ‘spirit value’ thereby reaches its peak: it now strikes all minds and spirits. (AS, KL 1195)

We’ll continue this tomorrow…


  1. Tinnell, John. Grammatization: Bernard Stiegler’s Theory of Writing and Technology. Article in Computers and Composition · September 2015.
  2. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 3). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 1187-1192). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

 

6 thoughts on “The Artificial Human: Digital Life in a Mindless Habitat

  1. There is a lot of critical work debunking Anderson’s thesis based on sociologically informed or ethnographic accounts of science and Big Data. Gillespie’s “The Relevance of Algorithms” is a prime example, as is boyd and Crawford’s critical questions for Big Data.

    I’m a fan of your writing but notice that it at times picks up threads about the triumph of technology which are challenged in contemporary scholarship.

    I’m personally more bullish about the relationship between technology and society than most, for specific philosophical reasons.

    https://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/research/publications/2016/philosophy-computational-social-science

    I’m curious what speculative alternatives are possible, given that the mechanisms at work in technologies relation to society are truly not well understood.

    What’s your reaction to other futures, such as those described here:

    https://cltc.berkeley.edu/scenarios/

    ?

    Do you think the theorists you draw on give your argument predictive force?

    Like

    • I have to admit it’s about “tendencies” rather than prediction, which entails the notion that if the tendency continues down this path without blockage, resistance, etc. this is where it will take us. Of course this entails theory-fiction, which is not prophecy but rather as in anything an educated guess based on those tendencies one sees in both scholarship and actual social and technological capacities. I’m not saying technology is triumphant, but rather that technology is the inhuman core of the human. For thousands of years we constructed technology as an appendage or prosthesis for our lack, but now these present technologies under capitalist forms such as AGI and Robotics are reversing the equation and we’ve become the appendages and prosthesis by which technology is attaining autonomy.

      As you state the tendencies within progressive scholarship is oppositional in this regard and resistance to this autonomization of technology. Yet, the tendency is there all around us and become ever more present as time moves on. There are technologies that are slowly making humans obsolescent under capitalism, so that we are in that sense fulfilling one of the goals of Marx himself of attaining free time. But in fact what it means for a capitalist society is exclusion from the system, which is what we’re seeing across the planet. The tendency of technology is to displace and replace the human within capitalism so that this so called automation has been happening for hundreds of years, it is only attaining its completion in the 21st Century.

      I’ll need to check your links out… but yea I’m not completely for these tendencies, but rather just seeing them and forecasting the road toward human obsolescence if we continue down this path. It’s up to others to decide whether we should continue this course or not. Problem with that is that the world is in strife and due to a multipolar world of competitive nations this path is taking on an accelerating pace, driving technology and capitalism to open a new limit, expanding into space and our galaxy… this is the unknown unknown of the coming century.

      Several factors: Will rogue nations experiment with CRISPR and other biotech engineering and begin taking us down a path of mutation? Will AGI and Robotics become autonomous: superintelligence and mobile? Will our so called Anthropocene and climate forecasts prove true and the vast destruction of the planet through costal flooding, the great ocean conveyor belt stopping producing the end of jet-streams as they are now and causing desertification in agricultural belts. Will migrations because of climate change produce vast disruptions and demographic change and civil war across the planet? One could continue with a multitude of disaster scenarios from viral, superstorms, ozone depletions, famine, disease, desertification, etc.

      I doubt even the greatest quantum computers could add enough Big Data to predict the future other than in terms of tendencies and probabilities. This is all I’m saying, and of course I’m a limited brain based computational system bound by all that entails as an organic creature.

      In truth we could go down other paths, too. Mine is only one theory-fiction among a multitude. As one who was on the Left at one time it pains me to admit that politics and the public sphere are mute, dead, finite… Capitalism doesn’t need any nation any more, it is planet based and autonomous from any one nations control so that the planetary and global frameworks of Law have yet to be put into place to resist this explosion of capital investment, collusion with criminal agency (i.e., the vast underground collusion of the deep state, drugs, and other criminal activities, etc.). We’re in in-between times – transitional at best with no actual true Leadership abroad or at home. Everything could go to hell or it could become authoritarian as it is at the moment. Breakthrough or breakdown? As in anything it depends on whether the tendencies toward order promote resilience or not.

      Addendum:

      Scenario Two seems the path that techno-commericium is taking at the moment. Yet, I’d put a more pessimistic slant on it, using the Deleuzean notions of society of control or algorithmic governance. In most ways the notion of the liberal individual along with progressive democratic systems of government are being obsolesced, and the collectivization of humans under some form of General Intellect whether natural (organic, extrinsic) or artificial (machinic , intrinsic). The notion of dividual comes to mind. Our desires are already being captured by gadgets, technologies that are immersing us in a social nexus of artificialization to the point that as Luciano Floridi typifies in his concept or neologism of Infosphere and the Re-ontologization of the Real. As the so called internet of things becomes more and more externalized into our environments our world will literalize the old animistic world view to the point that objects will take on an animated and artificialized form of existence (mimic life, etc.). Our cities will become permeated by this virtual-become-actual environment or smart world, etc. (that is, at least in the major cities or the Global Market Hubs). Obviously if gene editing goes rogue or allows experimental tampering with upgrades on fetal or in vitro splicing or CRISPR editing for Intelligence, Strength, Aging, etc. the process of bifurcation of humanity into new mutate strains will begin. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess?

      Unless we manage to solve it, the digital (cyborg enriched, etc.) and biotech (i.e., H++ scenarios of genetically superior hominids, etc.) divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums.

      Yuvai Harari, author of ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ tells us of the 21st century techno-doom awaiting humankind:

      It is no news that machines have come to largely replace physical labor and computers surpass human beings in processing data. But in the future, the development of artificial intelligence may render humans obsolete even in the realm of emotional intelligence, according to Yuval Harari. …

      In the future, therefore, AI could “drive humans out of the job market and make many humans completely useless, from an economic perspective” in areas where human interaction was previously considered crucial, Harari said. …

      “Humans only have two basic abilities — physical and cognitive. When machines replaced us in physical abilities, we moved on to jobs that require cognitive abilities. … If AI becomes better than us in that, there is no third field humans can move to.” …

      “Now in the 21st century, we are approaching a new industrial revolution that will give emergence to … an ‘unworking class,’ people who will be irrelevant to dealing with the utterly different world.” …

      Harari called for a possible need to come up with “completely new models” to solve the problems of the impending era.

      “This, perhaps, is going to be the big question in the 21st century. What to do with billions of useless humans?”


      Being no fan of conspiracy theorists I still see this fringe world as part of the ongoing theory-fictions of the populist Right/Left spectrum, a sort of pop-cultural world of images that gather and reduce the world to extreme fictions of survivalist or mutational designs and teleological forms. In that world as the scenario goes humans are not only being displaced by design, but are also being slowly killed off through imposed wars, viral agents, famines, political and social revolt and civil-war promoted by various Oligarchic and Plutocratic regimes as in the Color Revolutions after the Soviet Union broke up, etc.

      We can return to the early emergence of the Progressive Era from the 1880’s to its demise in 1920’s as a case scenario for our present era. We should remember that it was democratic progressives aligned with staunch traditionalists who promoted in Church and Secular institutions the early genetic movement of Eugenics that would under the Rockefeller Foundation be renamed Genetics. The massive outlay by both American and European nations to inquire into the Human Genome is central to this whole heritage. Prefatory to a new eugenics (dubbed at first Transhumanism, now H++, etc.) that seeks to promote genetic modification and health etc., which as we will discover will be too costly for any but the absolute .01% who already own and divide educational resources between rich and poor.

      So if you buy into this type of scenario one sees a world growing much more divisive and challenging. Whether it will come about or not one can trace it in various dystopian sci-fi novels and scenarios.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for this thoughtful reply.
        I wonder if, given the complexity of outcomes and the way they are unevenly distributed across society, the same phenomenon of technocapitalism may be experienced differently by different demographics, necessitating different fictions to cope with it. I look forward to reading more of your work.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m sure that’s already a truism even now. Look at the reaction over the past forty years to the West by Islam and their perceived vision of our decadent society. Think of the many genocides in Africa and other nations because of Western interventionism. I’m sure that most of the now industrializing nations of the Third World perceive technocapitalism in a diametrical and derogatory relation to those in the First World nations. J.G. Ballard in his fictions at first followed the surrealists in believing the task of the artist was to mesh the dream and real, then he realized that this was impossible for it had already been accomplished in consumer capitalism. So he realized the next alternative was to seek in Pop-Art a way to puncture the bubble of consumer capitalist fictions by reverting to a inscape of realism. We now live in Baudrillard’s fourth moment of simulation, the one he termed “integral reality” in which we no longer have the distance between either inscape or the surreal in which to critique the world, so that we must begin to deprogram ourselves from both through a process in-between or as in Deleuze/guattari of conjunctive desynthesizing or a re-ontologizing of the world as information – a materialist project of subversion of the physicalist and idealist world view. Turning both outside in… letting the great Outside seep in like dark waters into a city pool. A collective inversion of the social body and intellect.

        Like

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