Homo Digitalis, and the Flight Into the Image
Reading 'In the Swarm' by Byung-Chul Han © 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
by Samuel Johns and Adrian Petrice
This is the second article in a short series (of four), unpacking the major themes of Byung-Chul Han’s book
As we noted in our previous article, whilst the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon defined modernity as “the age of the crowds” (in 1895), Byung-Chul Han (2017) defines late-modernity as “the age of the swarm”. Han suggests that the digital swarm comprises only isolated individuals. Unlike the crowd or the mass, no soul—no spirit—dwells within it, to gather and unite.
Today’s Homo Digitalis – or electronic citizen – is a man “whose private identity has been psychically erased by over-involvement”. Han suggests that Homo Digitalis, as an individual actor, is not anonymous nor a nobody. Rather, “he retains his private identity, even when forming part of the swarm. Although he expresses himself anonymously, as a rule he has a profile—and he works ceaselessly at optimizing it. Instead of being nobody, he is insistently somebody exhibiting himself and vying for attention”.
What does this mean for identity? And implications for personhood? These are the questions we want to be asking of our late-modern times.
Han proposes answers (or rather, serious questions to be posed) in three registers.
Firstly, he wants to explore the temporal domain.
The digital medium is a medium of presence. Its temporality is the immediate present, or the present moment. Digital communication is distinguished by the fact that information is produced, transmitted, and received without intermediaries. More and more, interfaces are being eliminated. A good way to test this is with a ‘ping’ measure on your WiFi or ethernet connection (for example use www.speedtest.net) – ping is a measure of latency, or hiddenness. For internet networks, ping shows the readiness or responsiveness of your network – demonstrating why 5G is faster than 4G, which is faster than 3G and so on. Ping decreases with all these innovations, as readiness increases. Mediation and representation are viewed as inefficiencies in online networks — the equivalent would be temporal or informational congestion points, or traffic jams. These hinder transparency, and thus “truth”.
Yet for all the talk of immediacy and the temporality of the immediate present, one prescient example serves Han well in illustrating his point. Take the fate of elite opinion makers – journalists, columnists, editorial pieces, and other priests of opinion. Why is it that they now seem increasingly anachronistic and superfluous? With the de-mediatization of communication comes the abolishing of all priestly classes. General de-mediatization is putting an end to the era of representation. Instead, participants in the network now want to be present personally and directly – without mediator, without priest, without middleman. Representation is giving way to presence, or to co-presentation. In journalism this is signalling the end of the elite opinion maker. In politics, representatives are seen increasingly as barriers rather than transmitters. This spells trouble for representative democracy. Consider the recent scenes of January 2021 at the US Capitol.
Calls for ‘participation’ and ‘transparency’ may, inadvertently, erode and undermine democracy. Previously, representation served as a filter – with salutary effects – discerning titles, upholding editorial standards, enabling the release of exclusive stories, pursuing investigative journalism, and promoting cultural or intellectual refinement. Remove the filter, and the rules of the game evaporate. The swarm enters.
Secondly, and related to this, Han is concerned with language and culture.
His argument flows as such: “the imperative of transparency produces a strong compulsion to conform”. Han suggests that the medium of thinking is quiet and calm – requiring introspective, careful attention, and concerted effort. “Digital communication is destroying quiet and calm”. Han continues: “[whilst] writing is an exclusive activity, the way of the digital is addition. Addition – which generates communicative noise – does not follow the way of spirit”.
The result? Language and culture flatten out and become vulgar. In political terms, individual autonomy and atomized votership herald the end of the politician. Previously, politicians insisted on a standpoint, walking ahead of constituents with a vision (rather than in line with constituents with no sense of calling). This is reminiscent of Gilles Lipovetsky (2005:37): “the politics of a radiant future have been replaced by consumption as the promise of a euphoric present”. If everything is made public at once, politics necessarily grows short of breath and becomes short-term; issues thin out into idle talk (consider swarming on Twitter, for instance). Total transparency imposes a temporality on political communication that makes slow, long-term planning impossible. It becomes impossible to let things ripen. The future is not the temporality of transparency. Where transparency is ruled by presence and the present tense, the future (and therefore hope, and promise, and vision) require slow, deliberative thought and planning in registers and temporalities beyond the mere present. Equally, the call to make writing transparent amounts to abolishing it. Writing is an exclusive activity, just as the medium of thinking is quiet and calm. Han cites the crisis of European intellectuals in this regard. He writes:
“what we’re now experiencing in Europe is a crisis of the spirit. For the last ten or twenty years, almost nothing has been happening in literature. There’s a tide of publications but an intellectual standstill. The reason is a crisis of communication. The new means of communication are remarkable, but they cause tremendous noise”. (Han)
Thirdly, Byung-Chul Han critiques the “flight into the image”, or the ocular bias of late-modern society.
He suggests that the digital medium is bringing about an iconic reversal that is making images seem more alive, more beautiful, and better than reality itself. Reality, in contrast, strikes us as defective. “Look how gloomy they are! nowadays the images are livelier than the people”. Likeness that depicts an optimized reality (on Instagram, or Snapchat, or Facebook, or YouTube) destroys the original, iconic value of the image. That is why, despite—or precisely because of—their massive influx, images are now iconoclastic. After they have been made consumable, they destroy the semantics and poetics of the image, which offers more than just a likeness of the real. Images have been made consumable. Images have been tamed.
Han cites the so-called Paris syndrome that refers to an acute psychic disturbance that affects tourists to the capital of love. Quoting experiences from Japanese tourists, Han writes how “victims suffer from hallucinations, derealization and depersonalization, fear, and psychosomatic symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, and a racing heart. These reactions are catalysed by the marked difference between the idealized image that travellers have beforehand and the reality of the city, which fails to measure up”. We are now producing images in enormous quantity by means of digital media. For instance, on Instagram alone (one platform owned by Facebook), almost 9 million photographs and images are shared daily. Since the platform’s conception in 2010, 40 billion photos and videos have been uploaded. Such massive production can be interpreted as a reaction of defence and flight. Further, a mania for optimization through editing is occurring, too. When faced with reality – which is tinged by imperfection and age and destiny and death – we run away into the realm of images. The digital medium knows nothing of these limits.
While instant communication and online connectivity are helping us to overcome temporal and spatial barriers, it comes with a price: as previous limitations dissolve into technological possibility, so do limits.
More on that, in our next article, coming out soon.