‘Digital Prospects’

Byung-Chul Han’s In the Swarm: Digital Prospects describes how our society is well down the road toward a dramatically different, digital world. Much harder to discern, writes Scott McLemee, is where, or if, Han sees an off-ramp.

August 2, 2017
 
 

An American reader might take various passages in Byung-Chul Han’s In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (now out in translation from MIT Press) to be comments on the Trumpian polis. The author, born in Seoul, South Korea, and now a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin, would seem to have the benefit of distance from the situation -- something none of us in the middle of it can achieve.

And the question of distance is in fact his starting point. Not geographical distance but what might be called the cognitive or even moral sort: the distance implied in a gap between public and private spheres, between matters potentially significant for everyone and stuff that’s nobody else’s business. Many of us would consider a political candidate’s assessment of their own genitalia to fall into the second category, for example. We are fine with keeping a distance from it.

“Among other things,” Han writes, “civil society requires looking away from what is private.” Clearly this conception of civil society predates social media, which has, from Han’s vantage point, closed the gap by abolishing reticence about both exhibition and staring. “Too much information” is the new norm. The effect is paradoxical and burdensome, however:

Simply having more information and communication does not shed light on the world … On its own, a mass of information generates no truth. It sheds no light into the dark. The more information is set free, the more confusing and ghostly the world becomes.

Here, “information” refers not just to the promiscuous mingling of public and private data but to just about anything transmissible as bytes. Knowledge, opinion, bullshit and lies all count. A couple of political consequences seem to follow from this information explosion. One is that analysis -- “the capacity to distinguish what is essential and what is not” -- becomes difficult when not impossible, or at the very least subject to considerable suspicion. “The digital medium is in the course of abolishing all priestly classes,” Han writes, a category that includes experts and “elite ‘opinion makers’” but also politicians.

The whole apparatus of representative democracy that once absorbed and channeled conflicting demands from society has blown a fuse: “Political representatives no longer serve as transmitters so much as they count as barriers.” When “everything is made public at once, politics necessarily grows short of breath and becomes short-term; issues thin out into idle talk.”

Perhaps it just sounds that way, given the din. Han’s reflections on information overload were originally published in Germany in 2013, while the currents behind Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen and so forth were building. The overlap bears mention not as evidence of prophetic insight (several references to Google Glass, implying it to be the wave of the future, suggest otherwise) but because Han’s logic might just as well imply the collapse of political engagement of any sort.

Members of the species Homo digitalis “do not march,” he writes. They move but cannot form a movement -- i.e., something capable of uniting around demands and pursuing a course of action. “In contrast, digital swarms lack such resolve … Because of their fleeting nature, no political energy wells up. By the same token, online shitstorms prove unable to call dominant power relations into question. Instead, they strike individual persons, whom they unmask or make an item of scandal.” Homo digitalis is driven to communicate but not to deliberate: “an almost obsessive, compulsive relationship to digital devices prevails.”

In any case, the political sphere itself is in its death throes, or soon will be, since the exercise of power rests on “sovereignty over [the] production and distribution” of information: “it cannot do without closed spaces where information is held back on purpose.”

No state without its secrets. Also no resistance to the state. No individual subjectivity, either, or damned little. (This sounds like one of those utopias best left unrealized.)

In the preface Han writes that digital culture “is definitively changing the ways that we act, perceive, feel, think and live together,” while we sit “enraptured” in “blindness and stupefaction.” I take it that In the Swarm is meant as a warning, with Homo digitalis as, in effect, Nietzsche’s Last Man equipped with a cellphone and an unlimited data plan. We are well down the road. Much harder to discern is where, or if, Han sees an off-ramp.

A more substantial problem, though, is that his speculations proceed with a sublime indifference to history. In particular I'm thinking of his argument about the collapse of distance between public and private spheres -- a matter considered in some depth by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (Knopf, 1976), published eight years before Mark Zuckerberg was born and by no means describing a new problem even then. And the relationship between power and secrecy, on the one hand, and mass media, on the other, cannot be adequately treated as a battle with a zero-sum outcome. Han is among the philosophers who have interpreted the world not only without seeking to change it (as Marx complained) but also without giving sufficient weight to how messy it was before they started paying attention.

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