To be fair, I’m only discussing the second chapter of Jaron Lanier’s manifesto so this may not be the best representation of his book. But, it seems the chapter helps introduce us to Giorgio Agamben’s essay.
Lanier states that the purpose of the second chapter is to apply “metaphors from certain strains of computer science to people and the rest of reality.” He calls this strategy cybernetic totalism and this chapter is the metaphoric treatment and pragmatic response to “an apocalypse of self-abdication” although I might suggest in the second edition that he reconsider self-abdication and go with self-abnegation instead.
I agree very strongly with Lanier when he states that the “Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.” But, ultimately, this chapter seems somewhat flat and wanting of something more rigorous than statements like “Antihuman rhetoric is fascinating in the same way that self-destruction is fascinating: it offends us but we cannot look away.” I get the gist, so I shouldn’t put too much emphasis on these sorts of statements. Especially since overall I agree with the trajectory of what Lanier’s putting out there: that people should not be designing software and gadgets to promote the accomplishment of the Singularity and we can finally slough off this mortal coil we call bodies and live only in our minds. That’s a Hale Bopp cult way of thinking.
Again, I agree, overall, with the sentiment that Lanier is putting out there: (some) people (might)are promoting the advent of an artificial intelligence so as to sell apocalypse 2.0. I like statements like,
People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate risks before making bad loans (news flash: they still do). We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. […] Whenever a computer is imagined to be intelligent, what is really happening is that humans have abandoned aspects of the subject at hand in order to remove from consideration whatever the computer is blind to.
Preach on! I say. But, again, at least in this chapter, Lanier’s flat. His worry that “we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process” just limps along in this chapter (although maybe it picks up later, I dunno). And the reason why Lanier’s jabs and right hooks can’t connect is because they lack what Agamben’s essay’s got.
The essay begins by suggesting that Foucault employs a term “apparatus” (dispositif in French) to accomplish three things in his body of work:
- the apparatus is the network itself between discourses, institutions, buildings, laws, police measures, philosophical propositions, and so on
- the apparatus is always located in a power relation and has a concrete strategic function (which means that it is not a gesture)
- given these, the apparatus is found at the intersection of knowledge relations and power relations.
Agamben, after discussing where Foucault might have developed this idea (Hyppolite’s discussion of Hegel), tells us that apparatus is developed by Foucault so that he can “take a position with respect to a decisive problem: the relation between individuals as living beings and the historical element,” which he defines as the institutions and processes of subjectification present in society. So we can see that we are making inroads to what Lanier is going on about when he’s making ad hominem attacks against certain technologists, “The digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality.” Being a concerned Confucian I am troubled by Lanier’s call to individuality (even when he makes contradictory statements about interdependence of all living things but then rails against the appropriation of music from the 60s as somehow a lesser form of creativity).
Indeed, Lanier’s manifesto (or at a minimum the second chapter of it) would benefit from an investigation into the definition of apparatus (French, dispositif) which has these three meanings:
- the enacting clause of a law, thus the section of a judicial opinion that decides
- the way in which the parts of a machine are arranged
- the set of means arranged in conformity with military plans
As Agamben mentioned this summer, he has recently put the wraps on a project investigating the theological origins of secular law in the West. In these researches he’s found that the Greek term oikonomia came to play the most crucial role in the development of the Western church and by extension modernity itself. The term oikonomia (from which we get economy, ecology, etc.) refers to the management of the household and related affairs. The term was crucial in helping to explain the apparent disharmony in the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Trying to avoid any sort of pagan pantheism (of course, native to all the regions that the newly formed Church were trying to overcome), the Fathers of the Church argued something like this:
“God, insofar as his being and substance is concerned, is certainly one; but as to his oikonomia – that is to say the way in which he administers his home, his life, and the world he has created – he is rather triple. Just as a good father can entrust to his son the execution of certain functions and duties without in so doing losing his power and his unity, so God entrusts to Christ the ‘economy,’ the administration and government of human history.”
Thus oikonomia became the apparatus that introduced Trinitarian dogma and the divine providential governance of the world into the Christian faith. The downside of this introduction, as Agamben points out, is that God is seperated in His being from His action. This is also the problem of subjectivity in the modern era – how can I be a human being and not a human doing? “Action (economy, but also politics) has no foundation in being: this is the schizophrenia that the theological doctrine of oikonomia left as its legacy to Western culture.”
Apparatus designates the way in which and through which we might actualize an activity of governance, but it is devoid of any ontological foundation and this is why the apparatus is said to produce its own subjects.
Agamben recognizes in his essay that to fully accomplish what he must in the interpretation of Foucault’s term “apparatus” he must begin to establish his own thinking about the term. “I wish to propose […] a […] partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are increasingly captured.” In doing this we are able to return to the theological discussion above and see that we have the ontology of creatures but also the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern and guide these beings.
He defines apparatuses as anything that “has the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.” So an apparatus is just about any thing and certainly any technology.
He defines subjects as “that which results from the relation and […] from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses.” And so here we see the first volley against Lanier.
Where Lanier sees the, “digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality,” and so suggesting there is a better way to use apparatuses, Agamben states his set-up might, “produce the impression that in our time, the category of subjectivity is wavering and losing consistency,” but what needs to happen is not getting rid of technology nor overcoming it but to amplify the ridiculousness of this masquerading of subjectivity that technologists believe in.
Taking a similar tack as Foucault, Agamben points out that “apparatuses aim to create – through a series of practices, discourses, and bodies of knowledge – docile, yet free, bodies that assume their identity and their ‘freedom’ as subjects in the very process of desubjectification.” To illustrate this seeming paradox, that an apparatus creates subjects by desubjectifying them, Agamben points out the apparatus called penance. In performing penance the I that sinned is absolved and thus is created a new I that is capable of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
Agamben states that what defines the apparatuses confronting us in this current phase of capitalism (perhaps spectaclism) is this process of desubjectification inherent to them. It is here that Agamben and Lanier are on the same page. Lanier states, “there is nothing special about the place of humans in this scheme [….] Information is alienated experience.” Thus, Lanier states, information doesn’t deserve to be free contra the Whole Earth Catalog.
But, ultimately, Agamben and Lanier do differ in so far as Agamben finds it impossible to achieve what Lanier seems to be putting forward in chapter 2 of his manifesto:
Here lies the vanity of the well-meaning discourse on technology, which asserts that the problem with apparatuses can be reduced to the question of their correct use. Those who make such claims ignore a simple fact: If a certain process of subjectification (or in this case desubjectification) corresponds to every apparatus, then it is impossible for the subject of an apparatus to use it “in the right way.”
Agamben’s essay finishes in a supremely satisfying consummation of all the parts this far invoked and (maybe because it’s later or because I’m lazy) I want to simply reproduce here:
Rather than the proclaimed end of history, we are, in fact, witnessing the incessant though aimless motion of this machine, which, in a sort of colossal parody of theological oikonomia, has assumed the legacy of providential governance of the world; yet instead of redeeming our world, this machine (true to the original eschatological vocation of Providence) is leading us to catastrophe.
Agamben suggests that we must make profane (the bringing back to the human what was elevated to the realm of the sacred) apparatuses. This rings very nicely with Heidegger’s gelassenheit.