From the Hand to the Finger
Reading 'In the Swarm' by Byung-Chul Han © 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
by Samuel Johns and Adrian Petrice
This is the third article in a short series (of four), unpacking the major themes of Byung-Chul Han’s book
As shown in our previous article in this series, the digital medium knows little about the old habits of limit, distance, silence, posture and contemplation. It promotes instant, un-mediated presence, constant optimisation of our digital persona and over-involvement to the point of exhaustion and lose of meaning.
Han continues to build his case, squaring in on the smartphone and the role of the image, in an epoch he now defines as “post-political” and “post-metaphysical” (or post-meaning). Han writes: “the time of the digital is a post-natal and post-mortal era. Bare life – that is, life that is to be prolonged at any cost – knows neither birth nor death”. The handless, finger of Homo Digitalis – of the human being of the future – will not be associated with action. Rather, in a society where “the smooth is the signature” of our age ('Saving Beauty', Han, 2018), a tendency towards hyper-positivity steers clear of everything that offers resistance.
In so doing, it is doing away with action itself.
Where the digital realm provides no material resistance that can’t be surmounted by work – or rather the monetisation and finances afforded by work – Han suggests that work itself, in fact, approaches play. More and more, work resembles a game. A corporate game of snakes and ladders. A strategic game of monetised Monopoly. A winner-takes-all game of promotions and pay-rises and ever-increasing appetites. Yet even this tendency towards the ludic and playfulness is tinged by the performance principle. Han argues that in post-industrial societies this “turns it back into labour”. He continues:
“the digital age is a time not of leisure, but of performance and achievement”. (Han)
In this view, playing the game amounts to yoking oneself to the compulsion to perform optimally and to achieve maximally.
Why does he draw attention, then, to this transition from the hand to the finger?
For Byung-Chul Han, the word digital points to the finger (digitus in Latin). Above all, the finger counts. Digital culture is based on the counting finger – the vote, the swipe, the tap, the like, the quantifiable action. In contrast, history means recounting. It is not a matter of counting, which represents nothing more than a post-historical category. Neither information nor tweets nor swarms of a post-political age yield a whole account, or a fluent narrative. A timeline, for instance, does not recount the story of a life either; it provides no biography and no context. Timelines (as used by Facebook and other social media platforms) are additive, not narrative.
Digital man [sic] uses his finger, his digit, to interact with the world. Either he is always counting and calculating, or else he is always being counted and calculated. The digital world absolutizes numbers, and accountancy, and all forms of counting. More than anything, friends on Facebook are counted, followers on YouTube are calculated, and impressions on Twitter or “eyeballs targeted” on Instagram are accounted for. Yet real friendship, and real followers, and real impressions, and real people form an account, a narrative. They are not calculable.
Consider the smartphone. A global market that has grown by a billion users in the last 5 years, accounting for 49% global penetration, it is an icon of our age, of connection, and of sociability. The smartphone promises more freedom, but it radiates a fatal compulsion—the compulsion to communicate. Now, an almost obsessive, compulsive relationship to digital devices prevails. On average, iPhone users consult their phones 2,617 times per day. Here, too, freedom is switching over into compulsion and constraint. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. Even affection and attachments are counted and accounted for, in this new system of addition.
The narrative dimension is losing meaning on a global scale, as today, everything is rendered countable. What is quantifiable is measurable. And what is measurable can be transformed into the language of performance and efficiency. As such, whatever resists being counted ceases to be.
Homo digitalis' entire identity is shaped by counting: how other people rate him, how many followers, how many likes, how much impact, output, money, and the list goes on, as long as one cant count and rate, be counted and rated.
The individual becomes a function of the rating system of the digital swarm. That pushes him to become his own public image manager, tweaking every aspect of his online appearance: his identity, underpinned by his online presence becomes one of his most significant projects.
More on this in 'From Subject to Project', our final article in this series. Coming soon.