A Move From Subject to Project
Reading 'In the Swarm' by Byung-Chul Han © 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
by Samuel Johns and Adrian Petrice
This is the last article in a short series (of four), unpacking the major themes of Byung-Chul Han’s book
Homo digitalis' reliance on rating and image for building up his reputation, pushes him to become his own public image manager, tweaking every aspect of his online appearance: his identity, his online presence becomes one of his most significant projects. As a consequence, he never stops counting and keeping track of the relative performance of his online persona. Either he is always counting or else he is always being counted. We explored this in our previous article. This restlessness, characteristic to online presence, inevitably spills over into his embodied life as well.
Finally, let us consider the role of the individual – the person, the human being – as the subject of the “swarm” and what Byung-Chul Han (2017) calls the move from “subject to project”. Han suggests that “people no longer consider themselves subjects that are cast under a general law but as self- designing—self-casting and, indeed, self-optimizing—projects”. How does this logic operate?
Han suggests that the digital is a medium of projection. As other philosophers including the Czech thinker Vilém Flusser see it, the self is now “a node of intersecting virtualities”. In other words, the self in the online, digital space, is a network of possibilities, with a performative identity. Hence, Han continues, whatever identity exists online (or is purported to exist) amounts to a node of possibilities.
The abiding principle of “love thy neighbour” has given way to a tendency toward narcissism that governs digital communication. The digital machine has proven to be not a dialogical medium (for dialogue, true exchange, and coherent communication) but rather an ego machine. Where does salvation, then, lie for the user? Han continues:
“today, the subject achieves liberation by turning itself into a project. Yet this amounts to another figure of constraint. Compulsion and constraint now take the form of performance, achievement, self-optimization, and auto-exploitation”.
Byung-Chul Han is adamant that we are living in a singular phase of history whereby freedom itself entails pressure, performance, and coercion. In actual fact, freedom represents the anti-type of compulsion—period. And yet this same anti-type is now bringing forth both compulsion and constraint. In this twisted system, more freedom amounts to more pressure. As such, it marks the end of freedom. We’ve gone down a dead-end street. For a lived example of this one-way road to nowhere, on the modern path of liberty, consider the issues of burnout, stress, and chronic fatigue amongst many YouTube vloggers and stars in the past decade, such as Casey Neistat, AlishaMarie, PewDiePie.
Case one: the digital ghosts of the IoT
To understand some of these trends in context, and with granular detail, let us consider two cases of digital transformations that are rampant in our world, today.
Firstly, what Byung-Chul Han calls the “digital ghosts” of the Internet of Things (IoT).
The Internet of Things is bringing new ghosts into the world. Physical objects, which used to be mute, are now starting to talk. Automatic communication between them—which happens without human beings doing anything at all—feeds and animates the ghosts. It is making the world more and more ghostly, as if guided by a spectral hand. In the IoT, operations become “actomes” — combinations of atomized actions, within a process that is largely automatic. They lack temporal and existential breadth. The IoT preaches a message of transparency (which also raises questions of surveillance and data privacy, though we won’t tackle these issues here). And yet transparency in society has a flipside – indeed, a dark underbelly. In certain respects, it amounts to a surface phenomenon. Behind or underneath it, spectral spaces open up that defy transparency altogether. “Dark pools”, for instance, refer to anonymous financial transactions. “Blockchain technology” proposes such transactions on a global ledger. Even high-speed trading is commerce with, or between, ghosts: algorithms and machines are communicating and competing with each other. As Kafka would say, these spectral modes of action and exchange reach beyond human power. They give rise to unpredictable, spectral events such as flash crashes. Equally, “Tor” is the name given for software that enables one to travel through online spaces anonymously, in quasi-subterranean fashion. It is the equivalent of a digital deep sea, where all visibility vanishes.
The more transparency increases, the more the darkness grows.
Case two: from citizen to consumer
Secondly, Byung-Chul Han (2017) introduces us to the shift from “citizen to consumer”.
He starts this discussion with a foundational basis in IFS or “information fatigue syndrome”. IFS is a psychic illness that is caused by excessive information and was first recognised and coined in 1996 by the British psychologist David Lewis. At the time, IFS affected people who had to process vast quantities of information on the job. Now, IFS affects everyone, because we all face rapidly growing masses of information. Han writes: “one of the main symptoms of IFS is the deterioration of analytic skills. Analytic ability is what defines thinking, in particular. Information overflow weakens thought”. Analysis is a matter of disregarding whatever does not bear on the object of reflection. Ultimately, then, it is the capacity to distinguish between what is essential and what is not. The tide of information to which we are exposed today is clearly interfering with our ability to boil matters down to their essence or constituent parts. Byung-Chul Han is razor-sharp on this issue. He writes: “thinking necessarily involves negativity: discernment, discrimination, and selection. In other words, thought always proceeds exclusively”.
In a de-ideologized democracy, led by technologies of de-mediatisation, politicians would be replaced by experts, who administrate and optimize the system. The screen becomes the site of their political, social, and cultural engagement.
The “like button” becomes the digital ballot. The Internet or the smartphone is the new polling station. And the clicking of a mouse or the striking of a keystroke comes to replace discourse.
The Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote that “all political decisions, in the proper sense, always represent existential decisions”. Contrast this with the dot-like, atomic decision that are instantaneously effective, sinking to the level of non-binding, inconsequential purchases. The difference between voting and buying is wholly suspended on the very screen.
Leisure amounts to shopping. Here, the subject is not “Homo Ludens” but “Homo Economicus”. Shopping presupposes no discourse. Consumers buy what they wish, following personal inclination. Like is their motto. They are not citizens, as responsibility for the community defines citizens. Consumers lack responsibility, above all. The day is coming when the Internet will replace polling places entirely. Then, voting and shopping will take place on the same screen and on the same level of consciousness. Campaign advertisements will fuse with commercials. Indeed, governments will resemble more and more marketing agencies. Political surveys and polls will be like market research. Data mining sounds the mood of voters. Negative climates of opinion are eliminated by means of new, more attractive offers. Today, we are no longer active agents—citizens—but passive users, or consumers.
How can we bring some of Byung-Chul Han’s thoughts to a pertinent conclusion?
Firstly, on the issue of truth, Han (2017) evokes Heidegger. Truth loves to hide. Truth lives from the negativity of exclusion; falsehood is posited together with it. In one and the same stroke, decisions establish that which counts as true, and that which counts as false. Even the dichotomy of good and evil rests on this narrative structure. Unlike truth, transparency is not narrative. Although it makes things “see-through”, it does not illuminate. Light, in contrast, is a narrative medium. It is directed and directing, thus showing or illuminating a number of ways or paths. We could call these ‘narrative trajectories’. The medium of transparency, however, is lightless radiation.
Whilst transparency is the essence of information (and the medium of the digital world), Heidegger’s truth loves to hide. It does not simply lie there, available. First and foremost, it must be drawn out of concealment. In contrast, information lacks the inner space, the interiority, that would permit it to withdraw or conceal itself. Information is cumulative and additive, whereas truth is exclusive and selective. In contrast to information, it does not accumulate like snow. One does not encounter it in drifts. There is no such thing as a “mass of truth”. In contrast, masses of information abound.
Information also differs from knowledge because of its positivity. Knowledge does not simply lie at the ready; one cannot just find it out there, as one can information.
As a rule, lengthy experience precedes it, and grounds it, such that knowledge is inextricably linked to “know-how”. The digital worker, on the other hand, stands at the centre of a space where a middle no longer exists. The user and the digital apparatus form a unit, bound together in the present moment, with no history and no future, only the potential of the immediate moment and the participation of a node in a network.
Secondly, Byung-Chul Han (2017) offers a stark warning to representative democracies. He writes: “power and information do not get along. Power likes to veil itself in secrecy. It invents the truth to enthrone and inaugurate itself. Power, like secrecy, is marked by interiority. In contrast, the digital medium is de-interiorizing”. When combined with digital communication, power and rapid swarms of information can create perfect storms. Digital communication is contagious insofar as it occurs on an emotive or affective register, without mediation. Contagion – or what Han calls the “swarm effect” – represents a form of post-hermeneutic communication. If offers nothing to think about. It does not presuppose any kind of reading (which admits acceleration only within modest limits).
Digital content, even if it holds very little significance, spreads like an epidemic, a pandemic racing through the online world. It is unburdened by the weight of meaning. No other medium can effect such viral infection.
Writing is far too sluggish.
And yet Byung-Chul Han defends such inefficiencies. He writes: “the real joy of the senses, including sight, is a matter of inefficiency. It means casting a gaze that lingers among the things of this world, without preying on them”.
*** Readability (3/5): accessible and yet profound, wide-ranging yet incisive too
**** Application (4/5): likely we all handle a smartphone on a daily basis, it affects us all!
**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to a divisive issue
*** Commitment (3/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Short and readable
**** Challenge (4/5): a good read, though certainly intellectually challenging
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, enjoy it, reflect on it!