(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited)
In the last couple of years, I have been toying around with the ideas of “modes of humanism,” “inventing new modes of being human,” and modes of existence, such as data swarms and the pre-, post-, and transhuman. However, I was never really able to wrap my head around the question, what it really means when Bergson, Simondon, and others speak about the possibilities of “new modes of being human.” Modes of being human signify a multiplicity of possible forms of being human. These forms differ historically and culturally.
Essentially, we do not want more or less from life as our ancestors. Technologies are and always have been part of the social fabric of life. However, how technical objects are used, their mode of production, and their commodification affects how we live as individuals not only in society but also in our ecosystem. Human beings form sociocultural niches that transform the biosphere on a large scale and endanger the very existence of the human race (Ellis 2015). The question of how to relate to nature has become increasingly intertwined with the question of how to relate to technology. These questions constitute a philosophical problem. They ask for the position/condition of the human being in and with the world. The starting point of an interdisciplinary, anthropological study of technology can no longer begin with an absolute transcendental subject. It rather has to acknowledge that subjectivity itself is historically contingent and depends on social as well as technical practices. It thus becomes a technology in the literal sense: a logos of techné. The multiple relationships of human beings, technical objects, and nature are part of life in general. Technical objects are expressions of life. The logos of techné is thus rooted within nature.
The Transcendental Subject and Socio-Technical Networks
Exemplary of this point is the equivocal nature of the organism. As Raymond Ruyer points out, an organism is simultaneously the ensemble of organs and the unity of these organs that is fabricating and utilizing them (Ruyer 1995: 23). There is an essential difference between technical objects and living beings: living beings contain something that precedes any artificiality and is itself “unobservable” (ibid.). The essential difference between living beings and artificial objects provides the living being with a relative primacy. It remains relative to the socio-technical practices, but it indicates that the human organism has, as an informational and living being, the epistemic privilege and responsibility to acknowledge, understand, and form the agency surrounding it. The epistemic primacy of human beings is based on bodily and cognitive practices that involve their technical operations. It is not an ontological primacy, since animals also built and use tools, but it is relative to human production. A critical distancing from these practices is nevertheless necessary in order to formulate the problems of our socio-technical entanglement.
To abandon the position of an absolute transcendental subject does not imply giving up the position of an epistemic subject that attempts to understand its position in relation to other (natural, technical, or social) agents in the network. It rather allows questioning the subject’s possibilities of participation and the role of other agents. Due to the encompassing nature of the contemporary socio-technical network, the role of the epistemic subject has been transformed. Since there is no longer a nature to be transformed with tools, but rather a socio-technical network within which one participates, the philosophical work is one of interpretation before transformation:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. In the century after Marx, philosophers changed the world in various ways; the point now is to interpret it. The purpose of philosophy now is interpretation. The interpretation of inscribed possibilities is the main task of philosophy in our time. We must stubbornly search for concepts and percepts which may help to develop the immanent possibility inscribed in networked knowledge. (Berardi 2017: 234)
The conditions of socio-technical practices have been transformed since the publication of the Theses on Feuerbach. If world means the natural, material, and social infrastructure of thought and action, then there are hardly any areas that have not yet been transformed by the forces of human existence. We no longer live in a world that we can simply change, but use analog and digital tools to access a world that has already been radically transformed by centuries of colonizing the world with “Western” technologies and constructing a global infrastructure. We are even reaching beyond the boundaries of the globe to include other planets and moons in our socio-technical networks.
The technical objects that we use do no longer shape nature or the world, but provide access to an already designed world and enable different degrees of participation. While our ancestors in the Neanderthal were still directly involved in the production of hand axes and shaped their environment directly, already in the industrial and even more so in the digital age humans are dependent on production and supply chains that remain closed to them. Instead, the socio-technical network spans the globe and opens up new spaces of operation and perception (Engell and Ziemann 2019, XIII). Modern man lives in a paradox: while she possesses and executes a multitude of new possibilities of action in the network, she is unable to reconstruct their conditions of possibility. Although the entanglement in the network provides the human being with a multitude of possibilities, the human being is also exposed to the network as an infrastructure, in which information is stored, behavior is predicted, access is at times granted and at times denied.
The human being’s mode of being in the twenty-first century is therefore no longer capable of directly changing the world. Rather, it is necessary to interpret the network differently in order to indicate potentials, that is, possibilities for transformation in the network. Bifo’s call for interpretation is by no means a swan song to philosophy’s ability to bring about change. Philosophy needs to become master (or perhaps this time mistress) again of its own practice, of inventing concepts, as Deleuze says, in order to pioneer ways in which “networked knowledge” is generated. This can be done through the “invention” of new concepts and perceptions: i.e. new dispositifs that generate a different view of the network and participation in the network.
Bifo’s project opposes a philosophy that wants to “uncover” and “reveal.” There is no natural or original access to the world to reveal, as a philosophy of technology in the spirit of Heidegger propagated. Perhaps this may be sobering in view of Marx’s claim to change the world, but it also frees us from the chains of philosophical navel-gazing. Philosophical concepts are influenced and shaped by other sciences, cultural and social constellations, which also include technical objects and socio-technical practices. Philosophy, if it wishes to address the genesis of its own concepts, has to abandon its claim to be the “first” science insofar as its concepts are derived from practices and are historically and culturally contingent. As logos of techné, however, philosophy can contribute, according to Bifo, to create potentials to “interpret the present composition of the networked brain according to social well-being” (Berardi 2017: 235).
The Logos of Techné
What does this mean for technology as an interdisciplinary anthropology and its rules as I have developed them here? The increasing technical niche construction means that philosophical reflection seems to fundamentally lag behind technical evolution. This is another aspect of the replacement of world change by the interpretation of the networked, social brain: changing the world requires being actively involved in the processes of change. It is necessary, as perhaps never before in human history, to understand machines as part of the human being and as an expression of living processes, as Jacques Lafitte emphasized in 1933 – and Latour repeated in 1994 – in order to symmetrize the human being, the environment, and technology:
Machines? Extension of man, integrating into himself, extension of social structures and integrating into them, they are, at all times, identical to ourselves. They are us; they are, like us, beautiful, and ugly, like us. To develop them, to construct them, is to construct ourselves. (Lafitte 1933:101; translated by and quoted in Illiadis 2015: 135)
Lafitte points to a fundamental relation that has to be interpreted. The machines as beings that are “us, like us, beautiful, and ugly” instigate an effort to interpret them as such, instead of merely using them as a means to an end. It also points to a multiplicity within the human being to relate to technical objects. The interpretation of these potentialities consists of a philosophical effort to interpret, reinvent, and invent concepts. Philosophical conceptual work can indicate potentials of what socio-technical practices, technical objects, and modes of being human can be by creating dispositifs that map these potentials. The concepts can be directed at the self-understanding of the human being. The “homo faber” (Bergson), the “homo duplex” (Durkheim), the “homme total” (Mauss), the “homo faber socialis” (Latour), the “cyborg” (Haraway), the “homo coordinans” (Simondon, Schick), and the “Inforg” (Floridi) each express something exemplary about the way humans relate to the world and technology. Methodologically, they were each developed in confrontation with different sciences, which lead to a reformulation of the human being. In this respect, they each express a particular mode of being human. The individual concepts and modes of the human should not be played off against each other. Rather, they offer a kaleidoscopic view (Mauss 2005: 52) of how being human can be conceived: as a social and individual being (Durkheim); as a “coordinator in the midst of machines” (Simondon); as a tool-making being (Bergson); as an information-generating being (Floridi); or as a cyborg that has always used tools as parts of its thought and action that act back on it (Haraway).
Multiple Modes of Being Human in the Twenty-first Century
Being human in the twenty-first century involves participating in various socio-technical networks. In each of these networks, one takes on different roles. As a bricoleur the subject is a homo faber and links tools with its body. As soon as the subject watches YouTube videos informing her on techniques of how to build a shed, the subject is an inforg that produces new information within the web. We become aware of our hybrid nature when we use new forms of therapy that employ new biotechnologies that blur the line between the technical and the living.
Technology as interdisciplinary anthropology implies a call for intellectual modesty towards the social, technical other and oneself. To invent new modes of being human seems to be at first sight a project of megalomanic proportions. But I neither want to invent a new discipline nor can I provide answers to the pressing issues of the relations of human beings to nature and technology in the twenty-first century. We have to ask ourselves what kind of human beings we are and how we human beings and philosophers interpret the potentials of humanity for a “social well-being”. I believe that we contain multiple modes of being human: we can be the bricoleur, the homo faber, the homo coordinans, the cyborg, etc. These modes all belong to us. They are potentialities that can shift interpretations and can show us to which degree we participate in socio-technical networks. The effort to invent ourselves continuously and to understand the human being as an open living being rooted in networks with social, technical, and natural entities, paves the way for an ethics of participation.
Berardi, Franco. 2017. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. London ; Brooklyn: Verso.
Engell, Lorenz, und Andreas Ziemann. 2019. „Vorwort“. In Grundlagentexte der Medienkultur: ein Reader, herausgegeben von Andreas Ziemann, Julia Bee, Michael Cuntz, Lorenz Engell, Simon Frisch, Moritz Hiller, Jörg Paulus, u. a., XI–XV. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
Illiadis, Andrew. 2015. „Mechanology: Machine Typologies and the Birth of Philosophy of Technology in France (1932 1958)“. Systema: Connecting Matter, Life, Culture and Technology 3 (1): 131–44.
Lafitte, Jacques. 1933. „Sur la science des machines“. Revue de la Synthèse VI (2): 143–58.
Mauss, Marcel. 2005. „Sociology: Its Divisions and Their Relative Weightings“. In The Nature of Sociology: Two Essays (Introduced by M. Gane), by Marcel Mauss, translated by William Jeffrey, 31–85. New York: Durkheim Press.
Ruyer, Raymond. 1995. La cybernétique et l’origine de l’information. Paris: Flammarion.