The Digital Leviathan: Global Power and the Telecommunications Empire

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?

—Thomas Hobbes,  Leviathan

In the human sciences, culture and language have also been progressively engulfed by the universe of technics: the artificial realm of institutions, rituals, knowledges, symbol systems and practices that makes humans functional, speaking, meaning-making creatures; that is, what makes humans human. The essence of the human, it seems, is the technical; which is paradoxically the other of the human: the non-human, the manufactured, unnatural, artificial; the inhuman even.

—Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time:

Every aspect of our lives is live Online 24/7 whether we ever connect to these vast global networks or not. We are all prisoners of an invisible network of systems that guide, modulate, and shape our lives in ways we have barely begun to question much less understand. For the most part we believe we are flesh-and-blood animals with (some say) a soul that can rise above such worldly concerns. Others that we are native and indigenous creatures of the universe, that there is no escape, no exterior realm beyond to which we can exit this universal prison. For better or worse we are a muddle to ourselves and in the eyes of the Universe unthought and unknown. We are a puzzle. And, yet, we’ve allowed ourselves much like the ancient Egyptians who built a civilization around the Great Pharaohs to work wonders in stone out of the wastelands of this desert planet. We dream of trips to Mars, we dream of Intelligent Cities, of thinking machines (AI’s) that will alleviate the data glut and excess of information that is now so large that no singular human or even assemblage of humans could encompass. We are perplexed by war, famine, disease, corrupt politicians and dark secret surveillance of our lives from the very people we have put in charge to govern us. Democracy? Does is exist now? Did it ever? Was it a mere mask for something much more malign and nefarious? Are we even now bound to social, political, and economic forces that are in excess of our laws to challenge and secure? Haven’t we begun to see the threads of the modern dream of a Universal Enlightenment going up in smoke as the world at large says they do not need Western Civilization or the – shall we say it, the White Man’s Dreams of Utopia?

Bernard Stigler in his new book Automatic Society: The Future of Work been developing a theory of our Big Data Economy and how it is based within the cultural milieu of a computational society. At the heart of his diagnosis is that secular society through its networking effects of speed and high-performance computing bound all of human life in a world of ‘crowd sourcing’ algorithmic governmentality. One in which “the digital stage of grammatization is leading psychic individuals throughout the world to grammatize their own behaviour by interacting with computer systems operating in real time.”1 As he suggests these systems produce an automatic performativity that channels, diverts and short-circuits individual and collective protentions by outstripping and overtaking the noetic capacities of individuals precisely insofar as they are protentional capacities – that is, oneiric capacities – and at the same time by short-circuiting the collective production of circuits of transindividuation. He goes on to say that

Every form of noesis is thereby overtaken through this incitement of protentions operating by remote control. These protentions are continuously being redefined and are always already being erased by new protentions that are even more dis-integrated, that is, dividual. This is an obstacle to dreaming, wanting, reflecting and deciding, that is, the collective realization of dreams, and it forms the basis of algorithmic governmentality inasmuch as it is the power of fully computational 24/7 capitalism.

The individual has been separated from his data-self or dividual and computationally incorporated as data in a world wide economy in which his actual flesh-and-blood life is but a shadow of the lightstream worlds of his digital life online. As Stiegler remarks, if ‘our statistical double is too detached from us’, it is because the data industry, as the automatized production and exploitation of traces, dispossesses us of the possibility of interpreting our retentions and protentions – both psychic and collective.” (AS, 5453) To move from this hard fact to Law is part of Stiglers negethropic effect to overcome the inertia and entropic decay of this data world. As he says,

 To change this state of fact and open up the possibility of a new state of law, we must invent an organology based on the potentials contained in the digital technical system. And we must do so even though currently this system does indeed give every appearance of being a gigantic technical individual, a digital Leviathan exerting its power over the entire earth through its ability to continually outstrip and overtake, and to do so on behalf of a decadent, uncultivated and self-destructive oligarchy – an oligarchy that is absolutely venal, that is, perfectly nihilistic. This contemporary Leviathan is global, and it is the result of the reticular and interactive traceability of 24/7 capitalism, which has now become a part of common awareness. (AS, KL 5438)

Stiegler influenced by Edmund Husserl’s notions of retention and protention will develop a complete theoretical organological approach based on this. These terms are defined as follows:

Retention is the process whereby a phase of a perceptual act is retained in our consciousness. It is a presentation of that which is no longer before us and is distinct from immediate experience. A simple example might be that of watching a ball being thrown. We retain where the ball was in our minds to understand the momentum of the ball as we perceive it in the immediate present. Retention is not a representation or memory but a presentation of a temporally extended present. That is, a present that extends beyond the few short milliseconds that are registered in a moment of sense perception.

Protention is our anticipation of the next moment. The moment that has yet to be perceived. Again, using the example of a ball, our focus shifts along the expected path the ball will take.

For Stiegler it is not that this traceability operates ‘behind the back of consciousness’, as Hegel said about the phenomenology of spirit (of its epiphany as exteriorization), but rather that it operates by outstripping and overtaking the protentions that produce this consciousness, that is, by proposing and substituting prefabricated protentions (artificial decisions, thoughts, replacements) – even if they are also ‘individualized’ or ‘personalized’.

All this represents a radical and unprecedented rupture with Husserl’s description of the temporal activity of any noetic consciousness. The latter is constituted by primary retentions that consciousness selects (without being conscious of doing so) at the time the experience occurs, selections made on the basis of the secondary retentions this consciousness contains – and that thereby constitute the criteria for these selections. The primary retentions resulting from this selection encode individually lived experience, and are formed through the accumulation of past experience – becoming in their turn secondary retentions. See also: Transindividuation.  As Stiegler explicates,

The play between primary and secondary retentions generates protentions that are themselves primary and secondary (though Husserl did not himself employ this distinction). Primary protentions are tied to the object of lived experience, so that, through habit, reasoning, physiological automatisms, or through the knowledge that the perceiving subject accumulates about the object of perception, such ‘primarily retained’ traits result in ‘primarily protended’ traits, that is, expected and anticipated traits – whether consciously or otherwise. These primary and secondary retentions and protentions are composed of mnesic traces, which, like the ‘neurones’ in Freud’s ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’, are ‘charged’ with and ‘tend’ towards protentions, through circuits and facilitations formed between these mnesic traces that Freud called ‘contact-barriers’, as potentials for action and as expectations that constitute the lived experience of these potentials. This play of retentional and protentional mnesic traces is conditioned and overdetermined by the play of those hypomnesic traces that tertiary retentions form. In the case of digital and reticulated tertiary retention, that is, arrangements of psychic retentions and protentions via automatisms operating at near-light speed, the retentional selections through which experience occurs as the production of primary retentions and protentions are outstripped and overtaken by prefabricated tertiary retentions and protentions that are ‘made to measure’ through user profiling and auto-completion technologies, and through all the possibilities afforded by real-time processing and associated network effects – and augmented by this performativity.

To explain this Stiegler offers this (and I quote in full):

It should be noted here that, if the average speed of a nervous impulse circulating between the brain and the hand is around metres per second, reticulated digital tertiary retentions can circulate at 200 million metres per second on fibre-optic networks – four million times faster. Such considerations call for an organology and a pharmacology of speed and will. It is indeed will in all its most elementary forms that is emptied of all content, outstripped and overtaken by traceability. When noetic individuals live the time of an experience in which they select traits as primary retentions on the basis of secondary retentions, they at the same time and in return interpret these secondary retentions insofar as they form ensembles. These ensembles are charged with protentions derived from previous experiences. Some of these protentions are transindividuated and transformed into a common rule, that is, into habits and conventions of all kinds, metastabilized between the psychic individuals and the collective individuals associated with these experiences (a con-vention being what con-venes a plurality of individuals: it is what gathers their coming together).

Others, however, continue to await transindividuation, that is, expressions and inscriptions that continue the development of already-existing circuits of transindividuation. For a psychic individual to interpret, during a present experience, the ensembles of secondary retentions that constitute his or her past experience is to make actual the protentions that these ensembles contain as potential. By short-circuiting the protentional projections of psychic and collective noetic individuals, by phagocytically absorbing the milieus associated with them, and by sterilizing the circuits of transindividuation woven between them through their individual and collective experiences, algorithmic governmentality annihilates those traumatypical potentials in which consist protentions that bear the possibility of neganthropological upheavals. When noetic experience is fulfilled in actuality and ‘fully’ (in the plenitude of actuality that constitutes what Aristotle called entelechy), it constitutes a support for the expression of traumatypes that participate in the inscription of noetic singularity into circuits of transindividuation. It is these circuits through which knowledge is woven as the accumulation of previous experiences insofar as they are original and yet recognized and identified, thereby forming factors conducive of neganthropic bifurcations.

If it is a question of re-establishing a genuine process of transindividuation with reticulated digital tertiary retentions, and of establishing a digital age of psychic and collective individuation, then the challenge is to generate tertiary retentions with all the polysemic and plurivocal thickness of which the hypomnesic trace is capable, reflecting the hermeneutic play of the improbable and of singularity that pertains to the protentions woven between psychic and collective retentions. To do this, systems must be built and implemented that are dedicated to the individual and collective interpretation of traces – including by using automated systems that enable analytical transformations to be optimized, and by supplying new materials for synthetic activity. (ibid., KL 5437-5454)

Reading the above one gets a sense that the diagnosis has become a new technical disease. Stiegler in his elaboration of a cure for our current social malaise seems almost to joint the technical world and its datacentric and computational complexity with all these abstruse and bewildering array of terms and processes that seem more oriented toward the development not of humans but of some artificial race of hyperminds capable of performing these counter-measures for the great mass of humans. What bothers me is that it sounds more like such a cure will need a strike force of super-intellects and advanced elite thinkers (in Stiegler’s mind) to perform such a feat. And, even, shall we admit that for such a thing to transpire it looks more like Stiegler is hinting at the use of the very AI’s themselves as part of this massive program since it would be almost impossible for even our best minds to enact such a world wide system of transindividuation. Is Stiegler partially mad? Has he entertained such an elaborate system of thought that it has become an obsession in which he alone seems to have the key? Does he read in all these earlier thinkers a new Synthesis for the human? As he says in that last statement: “To do this, systems must be built and implemented that are dedicated to the individual and collective interpretation of traces – including by using automated systems that enable analytical transformations to be optimized, and by supplying new materials for synthetic activity.” (ibid., KL 5437-5454) Does this not itself sound like the great AI based datacentric systems being used by the techno-commercial sectors like Google, but revised by an elite strike force of counter-insurgents to reroute and analyze the traces of Big Data for a counterrevolutionary prognosis? It’s as if he has in some ways gone over to the dark side, joined forces with the very artificial systems he critiques, knowing that we need their fast, speed based, and performativity to counter the Oligarchic systems used by the techno-commercial sector to accumulate profit and enslave humans in a profit machine.

Yet, as he says, there is a supple difference between the two systems:

A supplementary invention, necessary in order to complete the system that produces reticulated digital tertiary retentions, must enable transindividual, rather than transdividuated, reticulation. That is, it must enable noetic and not just algorithmic reticulation, synthetically formative and not analytically deforming: synthetic in the Kantian sense, as the life of reason, and not just analytical, as automated understanding.(AS, KL 5573)

It’s this difference between noetic (of or related to intellect) and algorithmic reticulations that is the key: the difference between automated code and its synthetic systems, as compared to the life of Reason or Intellect in a human leading to synthetic understanding and wisdom.

More tomorrow….

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 5437-5454). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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