Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Virtual beings: We are our data

Oliver Iskandar Banks discusses the ramifications of living in the Digital Age through a philosophical lens.

The digital world is integral to our very understanding of being in this modern, post-industrial age. Whereas the factories of Victorian Britain once exerted discipline and control over working class populations through imposition on their routines and dictating ruthlessly their economic possibilities, today, being is conditioned by the factories of FAANG. What is produced is no longer coal or cotton, but data. Superficially, then, the economic product has moved from a determinate materialism to a more hazy and amorphous entity. Yet this conjecture is, as Amartya Sen’s analysis of freedom-as-capabilities contends, epistemically limited. In a critical step for the theorisation of disability, Sen advances the argument that freedoms are properties of action and not a hypothetical or non-motivational construct. He likewise rebuts the idea that political freedoms are afforded simply by the distribution of resources. In taking this line, he ascribes to the products of those factories – whether they be kinds of fuel or clothing materials, or food or matches – a supervening quality of applicability that serves as a more holistic basis for considering the instrumentality of goods in structuring the human condition.

What we have seen is not a fundamental break but a progressive divergence from a vitalist core in the nature of industrial products. This amounts to a consideration of contemporary being as increasingly constituted by non-essential goods. Data is not something which directly benefits the donor, nor the person working in the firm that utilises it for profit, but rather exists in a contentious realm of superfluity. Contentious because, phenomenologically, very little about what is being harvested from us – as inputs into great semiocapitalist machines of information production – is actually separable from the living of our lives. With the level of social embeddedness which all but the most hermitic humans experience, it is almost a necessary feature of conscious existence that we participate in grand structures of technology. 

Few students have as vivid a social life without using Facebook to meet people and find events. No writer in America seems able to fashion a career without the help of Twitter. And Instagram is an essential property of being for the creative or the artist. Even my almost ninety-year-old grandfather has a smartphone, collecting data on what he wants and what he does. To philosopher Giles Deleuze, capitalism is a grand structure of desire capture. It exploits the very basal nature of wanting in our daily existence to inculcate us into ways and modes of wanting that sustain no one, ultimately, but the capitalist system. Unless we nurture a very conscious desire to rid ourselves of the loci of desire-training and control, there is no escape from oneself except into the anonymous depths of continual commodification and exchange.

We have, in the advent of the data-driven world, become commodities. Our ontology has gone beyond what can be conceptualised simply as the interaction of the human subject with an external, externalising economic world. Our lives themselves are in fact the fodder for corporations. Where we eat, where we shop, what kind of porn we like, who we associate with, what our political views are – these are not things that can be separated from the constitution of oneself. These are the self. And so, when they are machinated – and thus, able to be intruded upon or breached – what can only happen is a deep reconstitution of the subject.

The great debate within modern theory on the place of the radical individual within society contests whether we can really escape the subjectification of rationalist modes of reason. Jurgen Habermas, of the Frankfurt School, interprets the rationalisms of capitalism and bureaucracy as means, rather than ends. They are pathological insomuch as they infect our being and are parasitic upon our continual participation in such systems. Michel Foucault, on the other hand, issues a wide condemnation of all practices of reason – discourse itself included. But in his grand narrative of social contingency, the ultimate conclusion he comes to – that the subject should aestheticise itself so as to escape economic modes of control such as the Big Data industry witnessed today – ironically privileges an individualised subject, and fails to offer a proper account of the complex interpersonal relations that also enmesh into this debate. 

Habermas, in his post-Enlightenment appraisal of universalism and autonomy, endorses communication as a means by which legitimate reason can be laid out in a deeply infected meta-system, and in this sense, comes close to a framing which properly envisages the role of the interpersonal in constituting political relations. However, he does not stop to consider the wider implications of the psycholinguistic developmental evidence he cites in support of this. Rather than suggesting that, because communication is an inherent property of humanity and social relations, the mediation of communication by structures of power shapes rationality and legitimate discourse on a hidden level, he reaffirms an essentially negative and self-effacing vision of autonomy.

Psychologist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger develops a notion of self in her seminars on “transsubjectivity” that better reflects the relational nature by which we are constituted under a cyber-oriented regime. Contrary to Foucault, who cryptically sneaks a normative core into his radical ontology of power, Ettinger affirms the role that personal relationships – with family, friends, lovers and acquaintances – play in self-identity and self-relation to the wider world. It is not simply that we can conceive of ourselves as isolated nodes connected by interpersonal links. Rather, interpersonality and social embeddedness are unignorable aspects of our humanity. Jean-Paul Sartre writes on the existential necessity of the presence of the other required to feel the feeling of shame in his seminal work Being and Nothingness. But we must move from incorporating these emotive insights into a personalist attitude toward the data economy’s infringement on privacy to a transsubjective attitude which focuses on the breach of authentic relations.

The invasion of one’s online accounts, or data collected upon oneself, by outside entities is a co-optation of necessary social dynamics on two levels. For one, we witness a manufacturing of consent when we are driven into signing unread digital contacts to access coveted resources. We sign away the right to keep details to ourselves in a Faustian bargain that ends up robbing us of power. When participation in socially contrived networks requires that signing away, we are left exploited. Cyberprotectionism is the means by which we strike a careful balance between wilfully and non-optionally giving away some part of ourselves. The ideal compromise empowers us through the abilities afforded by computerised resources – whether that be job opportunities or social occasions, educational resources, or analytical insights – without letting that potentiality for exploitation be foregrounded by the emergence of digital alienation. 

But on the second level, the impersonal and unstable relations we have with corporate and institutional bodies that require signatory acts from us plays off human tendencies toward agreeability and local social relation.  We are not made to negotiate with corporate entities, nor give away bits of ourselves to them. Yet in any interaction we have with the Internet, or social media, or CCTV, or any assemblage of equipment which can be used for data analytics or insight, this is what we are doing. We are rendering to a nonhuman Other access to the human potentialities which are supposed to be bestowed upon and conflict with those of other human beings; and in this sense, the industry of data capture and dissemination represents a new pinnacle for desire and potentiality absorption under capitalism.

If we conceive of the self as digitally contingent and cybernetically oriented, virtual hazards become existential ones. But so too do the agentic, technologically facilitated procedures by which our day-to-day operates. The Baudelairean aestheticisation which Foucault cites as a necessary means of escape does not serve as a useful exit point if our exodus only takes us as far as the realm of semiotic cyber aesthetics. Yet what combines with the mounting digital dependency of the modern human is not a radical undermining of authentic or liberated capacity on all levels. Contrary to the theorisations of sociologist Jean Baudrillard, technologisation can inform the development of new realms of sincerity and creative potentiality as well as undermine them. One may bemoan the scourge of algorithmically-stymied dating apps; but then there are the numerous success stories which tell you that one really can find love on the internet. Or think of the online communities, organised around obscure and recherche interests, that would never have come into fruition had it been for the absence of intercontinental intercommunicative links. There are, on the other hand, sections of discursive digital life where the promise of partial anonymity and unaccountability lead to cancerous comments sections and neo-fascist Chans

Given that our fundamentally immutable penchant for communication is now shaped and stylised by the cybersphere, we have undergone a slow translation into beings whose subjectivity is now digitally determined as well as determined by the power-structures which make possible such digitality. As a result, the legitimation power of the successful argument is now moderated not only by sociological contexts like ethnicity, class, neurodiversity and gender, which can shape the perceived rationality of an opinion well laid-out, but also by algorithmic intervention. The criteria for “reasonability” are shaped by powers even further out of our control than social structures – artificially intelligent tastemakers take up the job of deciding what to expose to us and how. If this is not a challenge for Habermas and the expression of autonomy through voice and rational judgement, nothing else is.

The growing importance of virtuality is symptomatic of an increasing digitalisation of the subject, which reconstitutes what it means to be human but also what it means to participate in complex social, economic, and organisational systems. The material and pragmatic considerations of cyber threats precede a wider threat to the freedom and autonomy of the individual. We can only ask that, when driven into difficult bargains with those that want our data, we retain a position of advantage by limiting the immediate potential for exploitation. If we are to continue living modern and digitally enhanced lives, cyberprotectionism is and always will be a necessity.

Image Credit: MaxPixel / CC0 1.0

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles