Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The automatic society

It should come as no surprise to learn that we live, and have in a sense always lived, in an “automatic society”. But – and this is a big “but” – digitalisation has not only made it more conspicuous; it has also brought us to the point where this “automatism” confronts human beings with a problem sufficiently intractable to be the likely cause of huge social upheavals in the not-too-distant future.

This much is apparent from the recent work of Bernard Stiegler, the philosopher of technology today. In his book, Automatic Society 1: The Future of Work (Polity Press, 2016), he demonstrates once again (as he has done in virtually all his many previous books) that our technological era, like every distinctive technological epoch before this one, has generated novel technologies in such rapid succession that they have the effect of disrupting social life fundamentally, continually requiring new cultural practices and social adaptations – in this case the probable massive shrinking of employment because of digitalisation. It has become Alvin Toffler’s “future shock” with a vengeance: people literally don’t have time to adapt to a technological advance before the next one is upon them.

Hand in hand with this headlong rush into an unknown future, the ideology (or discourse) underpinning these technological changes bathes them in the light of the inevitable, which is comprehensible if one remembers that this is an ideology fusing technological self-justification and capitalist proclamation of the world market as the sole acceptable regulating social principle. And the agents of this ideology would do anything to prevent people from realising its role or function.

The “automatisation” of society is happening at a time that has become known as the “Anthropocene” – the era when human beings became capable of being the driving force of geological change on Earth. Stiegler observes that (p. 130 of the Introduction of Automatic Society, published in La Deleuziana – Online Journal of Philosophy 1/2015): “The Anthropocene era is that of industrial capitalism, an era in which calculation prevails over every other criteria of decision-making, and where algorithmic and mechanical becoming is concretised and materialised as logical automation and automatism, thereby constituting the advent of nihilism, as computational society becomes an automatic and remotely controlled society”.

What Stiegler helps one understand, therefore, is that the ideology accompanying automatisation is utterly nihilistic because it systematically prevents the employment of reason and critique, particularly in a collective form, which is essential to distinguish between mindless adjustment to new technology (which is happening at present) and the question, how to “adopt” or appropriate it. Most people have become the slaves, or perhaps rather “instruments” for the limitless expansion of technology in the service of the market.

Far from rejecting innovative technology, however, Stiegler champions a thoroughgoing questioning of the epoch of digitilisation at several levels (philosophical, aesthetic, political, cultural) in order to create alternatives to the present passive submission to the colonisation of human minds by digital technologies, so that NEW digital practices can be generated alongside the ones imposed on people. Only in this way can important institutions, like universities and schools, be reconstituted.

Here I would like to point out that, as Lyotard, for one, has argued (in The Inhuman; Polity, 1991), there is no system of colonising the human mind, including the present digital colonisation, that can exhaust the potential of resistance on the part of the latter. In terms of the present discussion it simply means that the colonisation of human minds by current digital technologies cannot – or need not – be totalising. As Stiegler puts it in an interview with Anaïs Nony: “The brain is an automatic machine, and it is a machine capable of disautomatizing its own functioning”. What does he mean?

As he explains in the interview with Nony, digital technology – the “technology of automatism” – generates what he describes as “automatic society”, because it is an “algorithmic” technology, where an algorithm is described by him as an “automat” – a shorthand way of saying that it consists of a series of specified actions for solving a problem. And he does not exaggerate when he states that, today, “our everyday life is completely overdetermined by automatisation, for example through the smartphone”, or that this technology “integrates” automatic behaviour at several levels – think of the compulsiveness with which people go to Facebook, or update their “profiles” on Whatsapp.

Paradoxically, however, Stiegler admits that, at bottom, life itself is “automatic” (or algorithmic): “A biological cell, for example, is a sequence of instructions and this sequence of instructions is automatic. The reproduction of life is automatic”. Individuals, society and culture, too, depend on automatic repetition – individuals’ psychological automatisms are known as “drives” (the hunger drive, the sex drive, etc.), and these are subject to transformation into a “social automatism” through education, for instance. A society consists of specific automatisms that produce a distinctive culture – just think of the differences among African, European and Asian cultures when it comes to cultural habits like eating.

Stiegler gets to the heart of the matter when he observes (in the interview with Nony): “The question is a relation between automaticity and disautomatisation. You ask me, what about the self? Auto is the common root of two words which are opposite in the philosophical tradition: automata and autonomy. To be autonomous in ancient Greek philosophy – although it is also still the case with Kant and even later, for example for the Frankfurt School – to be autonomous is the opposite of being in automatic behavior. And I disagree with that. I believe that this point of view, which is a very classical, metaphysical point of view, is completely wrong, because in reality, to become really autonomous you must integrate a lot of automatisms. For example, if you want to become an autonomous pianist you must transform your body into such a thing like the piano. But this is the case for all your knowledge, and knowledge is a set of automatisms incorporated in the body. And now we know very precisely how such training transforms the organisation of the brain”.

This should clarify what he means when he says (quoted earlier), that “The brain is an automatic machine, and it is a machine capable of disautomatizing its own functioning”. In other words, no matter what the extent of our being subjectivised by (and subjected to) digital automatisation might be, through a specific capacity – of reason, which can surpass the effects of calculation and of digitisation – we are able to “disautonomise” our actions or behaviour. Even people in an advanced state of digital automatisation are capable, in principle, of doing this. It is the only way towards “autonomy” – not in the “classical” sense, dismissed by Stiegler, above – but as “disautomatisation”, which requires, as he reminds us, the integration of many automatisms in the form of knowledge that has been assimilated by our bodies. For Stiegler, this requires that we reaffirm what Kant called “synthetic reason”, which could actually “collapse” under the pressure from digital automatisms, but could also possibly resist it successfully. How? Stiegler gives one a hint where he says (in the Nony-interview):

“For almost two centuries, we’ve known that the universe is conducted by the law of entropy. But on our planet, the law is not entropy, it is negentropy. Life is negentropic. The philosophical problem, but also the social problem of the automatic society is, how shall we deal with the entropic trends and tendencies of computation? Shall these processes of computation developed on the social network completely destroy the negentropic culture, the negentropic mode of life, negentropic knowledge, for example linguistic or biological knowledge, only to submit to the process of probability, of entropic analysis without synthesis, without decision, without bifurcation? Or shall we use the game of time, the time won by automaticity, for producing a new capacity of negentropisation, of disautomatisation?”

If this sounds like Greek, recall that “negentropy” is the negation of entropy, which is why culture is “negetropic”, and that humans are not subject to probability the way that calculable things are. We are “improbable” beings, capable of synthesis, and of “bifurcation” through decision, and we can use the very time which automatisation has given us to generate novel ways to resist being reduced to digital slaves. But it will mean resistance to the status quo, which is always difficult.

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