Starting from the Second World War, with those innovations that will lead to the mass media and to the constitution of telecratic psychopower, and to information and computer technologies, the process of dissolving everydayness into standardized ‘modern life’ rapidly accelerates – and eventually it is the bourgeoisie itself that disappears, while capitalism expresses with ever greater ferocity its tendency to become mafiaesque and illiterate…
—Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society: The Future of Work
At the center of Bernard Stiegler’s vision is a sense that our memories and perceptions have been misplaced or replaced, that our lives are not our lives, that our minds are not our minds and that we are all part of some collective nightmare being played our on a stage not of the world but of some simulated shadow stage of which we know nothing. Jerzy Kosinski in his book Passing By remarks on a last visit to his now deceased Mother’s home,
When I sat in an apartment where my mother died, I thought: Should I keep looking at her deathbed and at the books she used to read? Am I to regard myself as the victim of memories and tragedies? Or will I look at myself as the author of my own life, and tell myself: Listen, Kosinski. You are one lucky guy … who knows for how long. You received a very special gift from the country called Poland, in the center of Europe, in the center of culture. Face it. It is not as if I have not seen the world. Do I get bored in those other places? I do! Why? Because they do not have as much history, they were not taken apart as “we” were. That is “we” in the sense of the language. I say this as an American citizen. I am speaking about a psychological situation built around the dilemma: Is it going to be a state of mind based on life, or one immersed in shadows that my memory casts on my soul?1
This sense that people are both singular and collective, that in their private life they are just animals that have yet to become human, and to become human is to enter into the language of culture: to become indoctrinated by the customs, mores, theories and practices, rituals, and everyday or exceptional secular or religious, economic or historical knowledge of one’s family, group, tribe, nation, etc. What binds us in our time is Logos, the Word, Reason, the structured outlay of thought and feeling that modulates our very becoming in the world. What Kosinski is describing is that there are not one but many various collective memories and perceptions tied to a multitude of known and not forgotten languages.
A sense of significance, of meaning has always been tied to language and description. But language has not always been tied to the alphabet, to words in linear progression, to writing. In the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C. Socrates recounts to Phaedrus the Egyptian legend of Theuth, the god who invented “numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth presents the Egyptian king Thamus with his many inventions, one of them being writing, the storing of information and memories, calculations and numbers on clay tablets:
Thamus the Egyption king said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”
But the King sagely remarks to Theuth, saying,
But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)
Right here we see the mirror of our own perplexity, a world of seeming where knowledge and wisdom seem ready made, seem part of the everyday makeup of our technological wonderland of information theory and practice where all the knowledge of humanity is stored in external vats of Big Data where we as individuals no longer need to learn by rote, memorize the educational material of our ancestors, grind away reading books about this or that subject when all we need to do is use Google to discover some historical, archaeological, linguistic, encyclopedic, dictionary, scientific, political, economic, philosophical, or any other fact historical or contemporary. All those dreary hours of sitting in wooden chairs listening to teachers spoon feed us with their book learning is over. Or, so we think…
If King Thamus is correct we’ve actually lost our minds, given ourselves over to external control systems, allowed ourselves to forget truth and knowledge altogether for the fake truth and wisdom. Phaedrus remonstrating with Socrates who has been relating this tale between the Kiing Thamus and Theuth says:
Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.
He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?
What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?
The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.
You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.
Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?
Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.
And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?
By no means.
Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.
Socrates critique of the written vs. the spoken word based as it is on alethia, a Greek word variously translated as “unclosedness”, “unconcealedness”, “disclosure” or “truth”. The literal meaning of the word ἀ–λήθεια is “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident.” It also means factuality or reality. It is the opposite of lethe, which literally means “oblivion”, “forgetfulness”, or “concealment”. This sense that in Plato’s dialogue, through the use of dialectic between humans, bantering back and forth in dialogue that truth will emerge is at the heart of this message. For Socrates the written word was neither knowledge or truth sense it could not speak, could not produce truth or reveal that which was hidden in the words.
Socrates lays out an argument that the written word cannot defend itself in dialogue, and thus cannot effectively teach anything worth knowing. For only through conflict and struggle, the tit-for-tat dialogues of the dialectic, through back-and-forth or give-and-take discussion and rhetorical argument and the working out of problems, can true knowledge be conveyed. Reading mere words, in his mind, is akin to looking at a statue rather than sculpting it — or worse, looking at a statue or painting and thinking that now you know how to sculpt or paint.
Plato, Socrates pupil who had put this down in writing against his own master’s strictures, and which we all read even today, added, later in his Seventh Epistle:
After much effort, as names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers. Therefore every man of worth, when dealing with matters of worth, will be far from exposing them to ill feeling and misunderstanding among men by committing them to writing…
Anyone who has followed this discourse and digression will know well that, if Dionysios or anyone else, great or small, has written a treatise on the highest matters and the first principles of things, he has, so I say, neither heard nor learnt any sound teaching about the subject of his treatise; otherwise, he would have had the same reverence for it, which I have, and would have shrunk from putting it forth into a world of discord and uncomeliness.
Dionysios here is Dionysios the Younger of Syracuse, a brutal tyrant, who has written a treatise on philosophy. Plato argues that he must have done it for fame or glory, because it’s clearly a scam — philosophy can’t be taught in writing; it can only be felt, experienced, argued out and sensed.
In a way this is an argument very similar to that of Trithemius against the printing press — that a perceived flattening or automating of a form necessarily involves a loss; that truth (whether it be philosophy or Scripture) is best consumed and absorbed experientially. With the rise of the printing press the mass reader was born. Everyone could read and write books, pamphlets, etc. as if what they were doing were truly adding to the pool of knowledge and wisdom. This sense that the automation of knowledge was rather devolving and erasing the mind did not occur to those who believed they were brining humans liberation and emancipation of thought and mind. They never thought that what we were doing was forgetting the truth, forgetting ourselves. That we were becoming dependent on mute speech, on books that held the dead memories of a world that could not speak for itself.
After the Second World War the with the rise of computers the process of integrating humanity into an algorithmic universe of calculability, of eliding the past, erasing human memory and knowledge and replacing it with both analogue and then digital traces and patterns of standardized knowledge and information controlled and manipulated at the speed of light that had no need for memory or perception but would replace both for the microworlds of the automated patterns of Big Data. As Stiegler suggests
This ‘integration’ of psychic individuals into standardized and grammatized routines – and thereby into the technical system of which these individuals become a technical function as crowds, that is, as digital artificial and conventional crowds within a techno-geographical milieu in which the human becomes less a resource (what Heidegger called Bestand, standing reserve) than a functional organ – in fact dis-integrates them.2
This process of dismantling the modern Self, the individual and automatizing them into dividual routines that can be on-call 24/7 to do the bidding of their masters whether at work or play (the two being in our digital world integrated in the market economy) has taken such all pervasive root in the modern psyche that people no longer have the distance available to dream or think for themselves. As Stiegler remarks “What is at stake here is the progressive elimination by 24/7 environments of those intermittences that are states of sleep and of daydream: ‘One of the forms of disempowerment within 24/7 environments is the incapacitation of daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection.’” (AS, KL 2990)
There no longer being a Self, an Individual to introspect or turn their gaze inward toward memory and perception in the eyes of the computational and calculable world of our algorithmic society brings us to a two-dimensional flatland of objects without relations. As if in parody of speculative realism or Object oriented philosophy one could say that humans have not withdrawn from their environment, they’ve actually become so immersed and standardized, assembled by their environment – products of the algorithms that control their every thought and memory – that that no longer know the difference that makes a difference. They are written, grammatized, and bound within a seamless assemblage of false memories and perceptions. Simulated 24/7 and programmed to operate according to codes they neither understand nor can speak of.
For Stigler we are asleep and don’t even know it, that we need a collective shock therapy to awaken the Sleepers from their nightmare world of dividuality from the Outside in. We are not only automating work, we have all already become automated dividuals in a world of slavedom in which we think we are free. We are in a dreamless sleep, unable to think or feel, and have no time left to reverie about our lives or world. We need Shock Therapy:
This dream programme posits that tertiary retention proceeds primordially from dreaming, and from a specific type of dream: the noetic dream such that it may become thought, and such that it is always the beginning of any true thinking, which is always negentropic – in passing through reverie – that is, insofar as it can dream the conditions of its own realization in the course of a neganthropological process. (AS, KL 3907)
Big Data provides a world of totalized knowledge, a world where theory and practice are no longer needed, and theoreticians, scientists, philosophers, etc. become obsolete artifacts and practitioners of a world of writing that is no longer operable in the mathematized universe of algorithms that is Big Data. Humans are not only not needed, they are being replaced. We are being excluded from the very artificial worlds we helped invent. We’ve become the entropic waste of a process that is slowly expulsing us from the heartlands of our minds and souls. For Stiegler this process will continue unless we are provided shock therapy to awaken us from our electronic sleep.
- Kosinski, Jerzy. Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991 (Kosinski, Jerzy) (pp. 7-8). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
- Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 2964-2969). Wiley. Kindle Edition.