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.

 

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