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Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

Slave or master of technology: The choice is ours

Digital technology opinion

After writing the post on what Martin Heidegger can teach us about technology, I realised that some readers might come to the conclusion that everything about technology is ‘bad’ – after all, Heidegger’s conception does strike one as being a very pessimistic one.

It should be said, however, that the German thinker did not advocate the destruction of all technical devices and a return to a pre-modern, agrarian way of life.

His advice was to practice an ambivalent approach to technology, a simultaneous ‘Yes’ and ‘No:’ Yes, insofar as one should feel free to use technical devices that simplify one’s life; No, insofar as one refuses technology as ‘Enframing’ to usurp the position of ordering and organising one’s life by subjugating everything else to its rule. Simply put – by all means use technical devices, but don’t allow technology to use you.

There is another way of ‘correcting’ the impression that technology is irredeemably ‘bad,’ which is to turn to one of Heidegger’s successors in the philosophy of technology (there are others, too, but it would take a book to elaborate on them all). I am thinking of the French poststructuralist thinker Bernard Stiegler, (who died prematurely not long ago) after an unbelievably productive intellectual-academic career (he wrote more than 30 important books).

It is worth reading this obituary by Stuart Jeffries, which provides an excellent overview of Stiegler’s life and intellectual-political activities. Rather than do the same sort of thing here, I shall concentrate on a specific aspect of Stiegler’s thinking about technology.

At the outset I should state that he believed that all technology alters human consciousness and behaviour, from the earliest stone age technology to the most sophisticated digital technology of the present age. Digital technology, in particular, he argued, had the potential of robbing humans of their own ability to think critically and creatively, but this should be seen in conjunction with his notion of technology as a pharmakon (simultaneously a poison and cure – a use of the ancient Greek term, as employed by Plato, that he borrowed from his teacher, Jacques Derrida). Ultimately it depends on how one uses technology, he argued (with echoes of Heidegger); one does not have to fall victim to its ‘poison’ character, but can instead elaborate on its ‘cure’ potential.

To illustrate: Stiegler points out that the vast majority of people in our ‘hyper-consumerist, drive-based and addictogenic society’ don’t realise that the technical gadgets (like smartphones) they use to do a lot of their shopping serve the economic system which systematically deprives them of their knowledge (‘know-how’) and of their ability to live a creative life – what Stiegler calls “savoir-faire” and “savoir-vivre” (In For a New Critique of Political Economy, 2010, p. 30), respectively.

This has far-reaching psychopolitical import, as Stiegler (2010: pp. 28-36) has argued persuasively. In the process he foregrounds what he calls, following Karl Marx in the 19th century, the “proletarianization” of consumers today. What does he mean?

By the ‘proletarianisation’ of workers, Marx meant that they were robbed of their ‘know-how’ (savoir-faire) by machines during the Industrial Revolution, and Stiegler’s point is that today this has been taken to another level, namely to where it manifests itself as the proletarianisation of all people who regularly use ‘smart’ devices. The latter absorb the knowledge and memory of their users, who increasingly rely on the ‘hypomnesic’ [that is, technically intensifying and reinforcing memory, as on a smartphone; B.O.] technical processes operating in machines and apparatuses of all kinds.

Does this sound familiar? How many smartphone users still remember their own phone number, or those of their friends, and how many students today know from memory (their own) how to spell and do mental calculation? Relatively few, I would wager; the majority have ceded these intellectual functions to their electronic devices. Stiegler refers to this as a widespread process of ‘stupidification.’

The apparatuses referred to above by Stiegler include laptops, smartphones, electronic tablets, and desktop computers; that is, all the information-communicational devices one uses daily for work and leisure. But why does he claim that the use of such “hypomnesic” devices is of psychopolitical significance?

In one of his most significant critical texts – States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century, 2015, Stiegler elaborates on this. To be as clear as possible, the large-scale use of these digital instruments by consumers – encouraged because their use increases the buying power of the public – systematically replaces their own thinking and inventive capacities with pre-formatted ‘templates’ for living, coercing them subtly to adapt to what marketing comes up with.

Moreover, he points out, today, this happens with the help of the social and cognitive sciences. The most advanced aspect of this kind of proletarianisation is ‘neuromarketing,’ which aims to create a direct impact on consumers’ neural receptors via the senses, and as might be expected, the images that are inseparable from advertising are central to this project.

Even fundamental theoretical knowledge is not spared, insofar as it is ‘decoupled’ from theoretical activity. What students are taught today, therefore, is increasingly devoid of theory – they would probably not understand how Newton arrived at his (at the time) revolutionary theories in macro-mechanics, let alone Einstein’s theory of special relativity. What is taught instead, Stiegler informs one, is purely procedural technological knowledge, even in the faculty of sciences – in other words, how to use a computer to implement theoretical knowledge (or theorems) where certain ‘problems’ have to be solved.

‘Proletarianisation’ – being stripped of knowledge – is therefore not limited to machine workers and consumers, but includes intellectual, scientific work as well. This serves the psychopolitical goal, Stiegler reminds one of subverting the grounds of possible critique of the neoliberal system itself, in so doing reinforcing the latter by apparently ruling out any convincing alternatives.

One of the most important battlegrounds where the fight for the minds of people in modern democracies is being waged, Stiegler warns us, is universities, but he believes these institutions are currently not capable of fulfilling their civic responsibilities. After all, universities are supposed to guide students to the highest level of learning through teaching that is constantly fed by sustained research, on the part of faculty members, concerning past and current cultural and scientific developments.

Importantly, this cannot happen unless universities’ teaching and research-programmes include persistent attempts to understand the effects of advanced information and communication technologies on the human psyche, and specifically the faculty of reason, and adapt their teaching accordingly.

At present, however (this was around 2012-2015, when this text by Stiegler appeared, first in French and then in English), universities worldwide are in a deep malaise, and it would take a concerted effort to reclaim what Stiegler sees as the ‘rational sovereignty’ that the Enlightenment valorised, and which can still be regarded as a fundamental value for human beings who wish to be free from subjugation to technical imperatives.

If there is a specific domain where the battle for rational sovereignty is being fought at universities – and it goes without saying that, since 2020, this has been exacerbated for reasons that Stiegler, who died before that time, could not have anticipated – it is that of ‘attention.’ It is for the attention of the smartphone-wielding youth that the mass media and other agencies promoting a culture of ‘bits and bytes,’ of fragmentary communication and senses-capturing commercials, have declared war on the remnants of an intellectual culture which is fighting to rescue the youth from ‘stupidification.’ Stiegler elaborates on what this entails (2015, p. 27):

…it is indeed the goal of this capture of attention to channel the desire of individuals towards commodities.…

These social groups and their institutions are being short-circuited in terms of the forming and training of attention. This is particularly true for those tasks given to this function since the Aufklärung [Enlightenment]: to form that attentional form based specifically on the potential for reason…

What he has in mind becomes clearer where he writes (2015, p. 152):

Attention is always both psychic and collective: ‘to be attentive to’ means both ‘to focus on’ and ‘to attend to.’ As such, the formation by schools of attention also consists in educating and elevating pupils [élèves]; in the sense of making them civil, that is, able to consider others and capable of taking care – of oneself and of that which is in oneself, as of that which is not oneself and of that which is not in oneself.

We live, however, in an age of what is now known, paradoxically, as the attention economy – paradoxically, because this is also and above all an age of the dissipation and destruction of attention: it is the epoch of an attention dis-economy.

To clarify, think of what happens to children from kindergarten classes through primary and middle schools to high schools and eventually colleges at universities – the learning material is presented to them by (qualified) teachers in such a manner as to ‘grab’ their attention, with a view to shaping and developing their latent cognitive abilities – which have already been developed in preparatory ways by their parents in their upbringing.

This reaches the highest level at university, where – from freshman through senior status to graduate school, the capacity for sustained attention is enhanced and further honed by what Stiegler calls ‘transindividuation.’ This is the process familiar to everyone who has gone through the arduous phases of working towards – and beyond – a doctoral degree.

What it means is that, in familiarising oneself with the knowledge traditions archived through writing – and before electronic archiving, available in libraries – one is firstly engaged in individuation; that is, changing one’s psyche through transforming it cognitively. But eventually it becomes ‘transindividuation,’ when the student passes from an ‘I’ who is learning, to a ‘we’ who, first through studying, shares in the archived knowledge of disciplines and subsequently contributes to its expansion.

Stiegler’s point is therefore that, unless conditions at universities can be restored, in the face of the digital onslaught, to make such a laborious process of transindividuation possible and sustainable once again, the spirit of enlightened (and enlightening) tertiary education might be lost. Importantly, in the citation, above, it will also be noted that, for Stiegler, this process is accompanied by students learning to care for themselves as well as for others – that is, by becoming civilised.

In short, Stiegler is convinced that contemporary humanity is faced with the difficult task – considering what it is up against – of regaining the condition of ‘enlightenment’ that Western culture fought so hard to achieve in the first place. Our ability to think has to be armed anew, given that contemporary media, in conjunction with the use of what he calls ‘mnemotechnical’ devices such as smartphones, have been engaged in a persistent attempt to undermine this distinctive faculty.

Thorough knowledge and understanding of the individual and collective psychic consequences of using present digital technologies is only possible by (re-)activating our critical-reflective abilities for reclaiming our rational sovereignty. And this does not mean avoiding technical devices; on the contrary – it requires using technology for what Stiegler characterises as ‘critical intensification.’ What does that rather cryptic phrase mean?

Stiegler is no technophobe, as may readily be gauged from his books and the various groups (such as Ars Industrialis) that he founded to steer technology in a different direction, away from the kind of hegemonic digital technology that discourages people to think, through what he called ‘psychopower,’ and encourages them to rely on technical devices instead. Hence, ‘critical intensification’ simply means engaging with technology as a means to enhance and promote critical thinking and action.

What I am doing now – using a laptop to write this essay, while intermittently using various hyperlinks to search for something on the internet, and then using the technical procedure to embed the relevant link in my text – amounts precisely to such ‘critical intensification.’ In other words, one is not allowing digital technology to impair your his critical, reflective thinking; instead you are using it to achieve your own critical goals.

The agencies promoting the hegemony of digital technology – which is also what makes AI possible today – would like nothing better than to neutralise your ability to think independently. This is even more true today than when Stiegler wrote these texts. Only if they succeed in doing this across the board, the would-be dictators may succeed in their nefarious quest, to turn humanity into an unthinking mass of idiots. But by using this technology anyway, for your own critical purposes – that is, for ‘critical intensification’ – you would be defusing their attempts at undermining human intelligence. Fortunately, indications are that there are still many people around who are capable of doing this.

Image credit: ThisIsEngineering

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3 COMMENTS

    • Absolutely. The sheer amount of technical intelligence needed to keep up with this lady is mind boggling in itself. The human psyche is being irreparably counterfeited and monetised as we turn in confusion from one distraction to the next and imposing revenge, war and suffering are presented as sporting fixtures devoid of empathy or compassion.
      Just as Steigler went from bank robber to alpha intellectual our real life billionaires have leveraged our very own intellects and dna profiles so that our blood and blood products are the new reigning currency.

  1. Why must intellectuals classify humans so dictatorially? Although Steigler seems to be on the right track as regards the techno-enslavement of humans to say, “there is a schism between the mobilised young people and the old people who do nothing.” is patently ridiculous. I should have thought the schism lay in a divide created by greedy opportunists and their spawn versus the patient creatives who work to maintain a balance. Age has nothing to do with bull**** appropriation and lack of basic modesty.

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