Monthly Archives: January 2022

A Short History of the Individual

In the Middle Ages there were about fifty different “jobs” or “occupations” that people could have. For example, miller, blacksmith, stonemason, minstrel, carpenter, baker, farmer, butcher, weaver, watchman, cobbler, etc. Many of the family names we have today come from these job titles. Names are identities. No one can exist without some kind of identity. People did not choose these identities. They were born into them. The miller’s son became himself a miller. The farmer’s son was also a farmer. Birth was the way in which society filled the functions it needed, the way in which society distributed and attributed identities to people and thus gave people a position, a life, an existence in the social order.

In modern society there are about fifty thousand such positions, jobs, occupations, and identities. Birth is no longer an efficient way to distribute and attribute identities. The problem that complex societies like modern society must solve is how to efficiently allot people to the fifty thousand positions that society must fill in order to function. The solution that social and cultural evolution came up with, a solution which defines modernity and distinguishes it from pre-modern societies, was to create the free individual. These individuals decided themselves – “self-determination” – who they were and what role they were to play in society. The individual is no longer born into a social role and a predetermined position in the social hierarchy but is now born free and equal to all others. In the modern world, the individual takes over the job of distributing and attribution identity. No central authority, not even nature can do this more efficiently.

Without the free individual, who became known as the autonomous rational subject and the foundation of humanism, society could not have developed the complexity that the modern world exhibits. Of course, this did not happen overnight. It was a process that went on for many decades, a process in which the newly found freedom of the individual expressed itself in the creation of ever new occupations and identities. This process is still going on today. Without this process, we would still be in the Dark Ages. Modernity brought light into darkness. The “Enlightenment” shed the light of reason on the human individual, who appeared in this light as the autonomous rational subject and as such the foundation not only of knowledge but also of social order. Where before God or nature had played this role, in the modern period the individual takes its destiny into its own hands.

The individual is important because it plays a decisive role in the great modern drama of emancipation and democracy. The plot of this story sees society as hierarchically ordered. At the top of the pyramid are the ruling elites. Then come those who have control over information and the media. Then come the police and military to guarantee order. The next step down in the hierarchy is occupied by the middle classes, or what Marx called the bourgeoisie. These people have gained a stake in the existing order of things and do not want change. Finally, at the very bottom come the masses, the people, who in non-democratic societies are oppressed and exploited by the ruling elites. The French revolution may have decapitated the King, but it did not decapitate society. The advent of democracy did not turn the pyramid on its head and put the masses at the top. Society still needs a head to make decisions and lead the people. The advent of democracy did not change the hierarchical structure of society. The only thing that changed is that the power of the leaders must henceforth be “legitimated” by the consent of the people and no longer by God or by Nature. The rulers have become “representatives” of the people.

The rulers can only represent the people and wield power legitimately if a majority of the people freely vote for them. Voting that is in any way coerced or unfree cannot be legitimate. For this reason, the individuals that make up the masses must be free. If there are no free individuals, there can be no democracy and thus no emancipation from oppression. Furthermore, the individuals must also be rational, since otherwise decision-making would be arbitrary and unfounded in any kind of “general good,” that is, any kind of good that could be more than personal and idiosyncratic interests. Reason is the faculty that binds individuals to something beyond their subjective passions and personal interests. After all, two plus two is four everywhere, regardless of personal interests or advantages. Reason, as Kant tirelessly pointed out, is universal. That which Rousseau called the “general will,” that is, the will of the people as community or nation, the only will that is capable of legitimating political power, must be mediated by reason. The individual therefore is necessarily not only free but also rational.

Until the present day no one and no event questioned or threatened the autonomous rational subject. Even the advent of totalitarianism in the 20th Century and the ongoing forms of authoritarianism in the Non-Western world did not shake belief in the central importance of the individual.  On the contrary, the geo-political struggle between the “free” world and the various non-democratic regimes in East and West have only led to a strengthening of the myth of Humanism, of the drama of emancipation, and of the assertion of the importance of the free individual.

Nonetheless there are events taking place within Western society itself that could spell the end of the individual. These events can be summarized under the title of “digital transformation.” The digital transformation signifies the advent of a global network society based on digital information and communication technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, internet of things, and all the new disruptive technologies that are changing the ways in which knowledge and information are created, distributed, and used, the ways in which people organize cooperative action in society, and the very self-understanding of human existence.  

One indication of how the digital transformation threatens the very being of the individual can be seen in current discussions of privacy. Why has privacy become so important? There is no discussion of digital technologies that does not emphasize the need to protect privacy and there is no list of ethical guidelines for new technologies that does not give privacy a prominent place.

One possible answer to these questions can be found in the conviction that the individual exists only because it is surrounded by a boundary that distinguishes it from what is other. Without a sharp boundary separating self and other, there can be no individual. The freedom of the bounded individual manifests itself in the ability of the individual to control the boundary. In the information age, this means the ability to control what information about itself is disclosed and what not. This is the definition of privacy. According to Alan Westin’s well-known definition, privacy is “the claim of an individual to determine what information about himself or herself should be known to others.” (1967). Without privacy, that is, without a boundary clearly separating the individual from what is outside, separating the private from the public, and without the ability to control this boundary, the individual would cease to exist. Without privacy, the individual disappears. If the individual disappears, so does freedom since freedom consists in controlling the boundary between private and public. Finally, if the free individual ceases to exist, so does the traditional legitimation for democracy. The humanist myths upon which Western modernity are constructed become meaningless. This is why privacy has recently (since the declaration of Human Rights 1948) been declared a fundamental right, a human right, a right that is written into the constitutions of many European nations and upheld by ever stricter regulations such as the GDPR of the EU. Taking a step back and looking at how important privacy has become; one could venture the opinion that privacy is the last stand of the autonomous rational subject.  The free individual stands or falls with privacy.

But why is the boundary constitutive of the individual threatened by the digital transformation? What is it about the information age, that threatens individuality and the whole of Western modernity? The answer to this question can be found in the nature of information itself. Information is not a thing. Information cannot be locked up behind doors and kept safe behind walls. Information exists in networks and belongs to networks and not to any individual. What I call my personal information is socially constituted and socially used. There is no list of information, whatever it might be, and no story that is exclusively mine and does not refer to and relate to others and to many things beyond my personal existence. Information exists as related to and connected with all other information in many unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways. Human beings are “inforgs,” as Oxford Philosopher Luciano Floridi claims, that is, informational beings. The human being is constituted by information and information is by its very nature relational and not bounded. If human beings are inforgs and not individuals, the boundary that is constitutive of the individual vanishes and the human becomes part of a network in which information is collectively generated, shared, and used. This means that a new story must now be told, a story not about autonomous rational subjects consenting to being governed by representatives who actually occupy the same position in the hierarchy that was occupied before them by kings and dictators. The new story must tell of a global network society governed by self-regulating networks. There will be no place in this story for privacy. As Scott McNeely, at that time CEO of Sun Microsystems, already in 1999 said: “You have no privacy anyway. Get over it.”