Category Archives: Uncategorized

New Memes for a New World

Memes are cultural DNA, that is, the elements of cultural code that generate the world that characterizes a particular culture, a particular time, a particular civilization. They are the basic ideas informing a world view, articulating the values and norms that people accept as true. Memes are the design elements of a culture.

Listed below are some of the most important memes of the global network society, a society that is now emerging from the digital transformation that characterizes our world. These are new memes for a new world.

1. Information: One of the most important memes of the global network society is the idea that the world consists of information and not of things. Information is a relation and a process and not a substance, an individual entity, a bounded individual. A world of information is a world of relations and not of things.

2. Networking: Because Information is relational, it exists in networks. But networks are not things. Otherwise, we would simply have collective things instead of individual things, similarly to the way we talk about organizations instead of individuals. Networks are neither organizations, nor individuals. They are neither things nor collections or compositions of things. Networks are processes of making relations, associations, connections. One should speak of networking as a verb instead of network as a noun. Networks are not bounded systems operating to maintain their structures. They are dynamic, changing, and flexible. Human beings as well as everything else in the world are informational processes and therefore exist as networks, that is, they are ongoing, historical processes of networking. Systems are becoming networks.

3. Emergent Order: Information (and networking) is a level of emergent order above the levels of matter and life. Just as life emerged from matter, so information emerged from life. And just as life is neither reducible to matter nor can it be derived from it, so information is neither reducible to life, nor can it be derived from it. Information is therefore not cognition in the brain or a mental state. The brain does not use information. The brain is an organ of the body that is used by information. Information is a form of being in its own right and of its own kind.

4. Integration: The physical and biological substrates are integrated into information. This is the principle of integration, which states that higher levels of emergent order integrate lower levels, that is, they are more complex and variable then lower levels. This implies that with the emergence of information, matter and life have become informational processes. Just as life can do things with matter that matter could not do on its own, so can information do things with matter and life, that they cannot do on their own. The emergent nature of information and consequent integration of matter and life is why science and technology are possible.

5. Common Good: Information is a common good, a common pool resource, which implies neither that it cannot be monetized nor that it cannot be administratively regulated. It is regulated and monetized as a common pool resource within governance frameworks that are certified and audited by government. Since information is not a bounded entity, a thing, it cannot become private property. Western industrial society is based on the belief in individuals who own property.

6. Global Network Society: Society is no longer Western industrial society, but a global network society. Nation states will be replaced by global networks. Individuals and organizations are becoming networks that are not territorially defined. Society is not a group of individuals, but a network of networks. There is nothing outside of society. Nature is part of society. The integration of matter and life into information makes society all-encompassing. The world is society.

7. Governance: Society is most effectively regulated by governance instead of government. Governance is self-organization, or non-hierarchical organization. In the global network society hierarchies are inefficient and illegitimate. Decisions are made on the basis of information and not on the basis of a position in a hierarchy.  

8. Design: Governance is by design, which means, it is constructed by design processes which are guided by the network norms generating social order. Design means that networking can be done in a good or bad way. The good ways of networking can be described as network norms.

9. Network Norms: The network norms are: connectivity, flow, communication, participation, transparency, authenticity, and flexibility. These are the values and norms of the global network society.

10. Computation, Computationalism, Computational Paradigm: Information is not to be equated with digital information that can be processed electronically by computers. The computer should not be used as a metaphor for understanding either the brain or society. The brain is not a computer. Society is not a computer. A computer is a computer, and nothing else. Digital information or electronic information processing is a derivative form of information that arose late in the history of society and is dependent upon and embedded in many non-digital networks that have developed over thousands of years. Nonetheless, if computation is understood very generally to be the iterative application of simple rules to information out of which more complex forms of information arise then networking in all its forms can be considered to be computation. This general definition of computation is independent of the computer and can therefore be used as a definition of networking. Intelligence is networking. Artificial intelligence is electronic information processing.


Q&A on Gaia, the Anthropocene and Information

Q: The climate crisis has brought James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis into the center of discussion. Bruno Latour has interpreted Gaia as the “critical zone”, a relatively thin strip of atmosphere and earth that comprises the space in which life exists. According to Latour, it is within this critical zone that Lovelock’s self-regulating life system operates. And it is this critical zone that must be the focus of our attempts to avert or at least control in some measure the devastation effects of human intervention on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. How does this discussion relate to the digital transformation?

A: It is interesting that James Lovelock himself at the age of ninety-nine recently published a book in which he introduces a level of reality beyond Gaia, that is, beyond life and all the problems that threaten life in the Anthropocene. Lovelock calls this new age the Novocene. The Novocene is the age not in which human beings decisively influence the planet, but in which information becomes the most significant factor. This view has important consequences. First, it implies that information is what needs to be understood and not life. The discussion on climate change is not about life, but about information. Secondly, it implies that the so-called information age is a posthuman age. Many have heralded the posthuman and done this in many different ways. The end of the Anthropos can mean, for example, merely the end of patriarchy, of a male dominated society. It can also mean the heightened awareness of non-human agency and values. One speaks of animal rights or the rights of nature in all its forms over against human intentions. In this sense, the ecology movement can also be understood to be posthuman. But in a third sense, the posthuman can mean the end of humanism as a world view, as a set of taken for granted assumptions about what human beings are and what the world is. Humanism began in the modern West, gained prominence during that period of Western history that has been called the Enlightenment, and has become the set of beliefs that lie at the foundations of Western industrial society, capitalism, democracy, liberalism and socialism alike. Indeed, humanism could be called the “religion” of the modern Western world. In the age of globalization, where other cultures have come into view as serious contending interpretations of reality, humanism can no longer be taken for granted. Furthermore, the digital transformation seems to be ushering in a global network society that no longer subscribes to Western modernity. Finally, it has become apparent that humanism can not adequately account for or understand the world of information. If, as Lovelock claims, information lies at the heart of future developments in all areas, then we should talk less about human beings and about life and start thinking more about information. This is what the digital transformation is all about.

Q: The Gaia hypothesis and Latour’s description of the critical zone are based on a well-established theory of self-regulating systems which is fundamentally a biological theory. Gaia is often thought of as a kind of super-organism, a single, all-encompassing dynamic system. Cybernetics and general systems theory offer a wholistic model of how self-organizing, informationally and operationally closed systems come to be and how they function in relation to a constantly changing environment. It is within the systems paradigm that all discourse on climate change is located. Ecology has always been interpreted as a systems science as the title Earth Systems Science illustrates. If we are to shift to a different paradigm for understanding a world of information, would this imply that systems science can no longer serve as the foundation of ecology? What other paradigm is there to fill the gap when systems theory no longer works?

A: It is correct to say that there is currently no consensus on what a new information paradigm could be and on what it might mean to say that reality is fundamentally informational. The only well-known and widely accepted theory dealing with information comes from cybernetics and computer science and is often called computationalism. Lovelock relies on computer science and its notions of digital information as bits, that is, on/off circuits that register and process 1/0 differences in a computer. The basic model is the famous Turing machine, or universal computation machine, which processes information by means of a finite set of rules. But bits and bytes are only meaningful for human beings and human society when they become semantic information, that is, semiotically coded information which includes everything we can experience and speak about. If Lovelock’s cyborgs, the beings which he envisages will occupy the Novocene, do not communicate and cooperate with human beings and thus operate within society, they will have no significance whatever, they will make no difference. If information, as Bateson said, is a difference that makes a difference, then bits alone and all the computing power one could imagine will change nothing in the world in which we exist. Computation is only possible within society. Society and the world are not somehow located within or generated by computation. Computation is a part of society. Without being embedded in society, the computer would make no difference and digital information would have no meaning. But in fact, the computer, as all technology, is embedded in society and digital information is the end result of many complex social practices which have developed over hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. If we want a theory of information that does not put the horse behind the carriage, then we must start anew and not simply take over the assumptions of computer science.

Q: Speaking of a “digital transformation” places the computer or what could be called “computationalism” at the heart of what characterizes our time. Many assume that we are living in an information age. Sociologists speak of the information society and physicists have proposed information as the basis of reality. Biologists describe living systems as based on the internal construction of information. Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi goes so far as to claim that human beings are “inforgs,” that is, informational beings, instead of cyborgs. Could it not be claimed that there is a computational paradigm based on digital computers which offers a coherent and encompassing theory of information allowing us to escape the assumptions of systems theory and its biological foundations?

A: Floridi’s inforgs are not computer-like cybernetic machines. They are constituted by a different kind of information than bits and bytes and process information not merely according to algorithms. They live in a world of meaning or what could be called semiotically coded information which Floridi calls the “infosphere.” It is not necessary to assume that the infosphere and the inforgs that exist in it can only consist of bits and bytes processed by mathematical rules. Whatever the information is that Floridi is talking about, it cannot be merely digital information. Nonetheless, even in Floridi’s account, it often seems that computation is the paradigm of what information is. At one point he locates the beginning of the information age with the invention of the computer, but at another the point he pushes the date back to the invention of writing about five thousand years ago. How people lived their lives for hundreds of thousands of years before this date without information is an open question. Obviously, information must be something other than what is usually thought. Apart from these uncertainties about the nature of information, it is doubtful that computationalism is really a different paradigm than systems theory. After all, computers are modelled as cybernetic machines. All theories of digital information remain within the boundaries of general systems theory which itself is fundamentally a biological theory. Artificial intelligence, for example, is modelled on the workings of the brain which is an organ of the human body. Understanding the brain as a computer amounts to understanding the computer as an organism. Computationalism blurs the boundaries between organism and machine. One speaks of “evolution” which is a term that only makes sense for living systems when talking about how cybernetic machines and even societies and cultures develop. And of course, it should not be forgotten that systems theory has also become dominant in sociology. Life, it would seem, remains the basis for understanding intelligence and information within computationalism. The machines that Lovelock sees taking over the world are artificial forms of life. Lovelock, however, denies this and sees intelligence moving beyond the biological substrate in which it has evolved. But what does this mean? What other models of self-organization, reproduction, and information construction do we have than the living system? As long as information is constructed and processed by a self-referential, operationally closed system it makes no difference weather information processing occurs in living tissue or in silico. Lovelock’s cyborgs are still self-regulating systems, just as any organism. Computer science seems to offer no better model of intelligence, that is, the creation and use of information, than the self-regulating machine that is modelled on living organisms. If we need a new paradigm, we must look beyond computationalism, or at least find a different basic model than the computer.

Q: If information is not digital but something else, what is it? How can information processing be modelled if not computationally? In other words, what could computation mean if not the rule-guided operations of a system?

A: Perhaps there is a notion of computation that is sufficiently general to encompass semiotic coding, that is, information understood as meaning. Perhaps the rules that generate and process semiotic information are different from those that generate and process digital information. Perhaps, as non-Cartesian cognitive science claims, meaning is not located in the brain. It could be that the very notion of information must be ascribed to a higher level of emergent order than physical or biological systems. We must speak of a level of emergent order beyond matter and beyond life. This would mean that information is something sui generus and not to be interpreted in the same way as something physical or even something biological. Furthermore, it would mean that the information of which physicists and biologist speak is not the basic form of information, but a derived and limited version of what information is. It may be that general systems theory is not applicable to information in the full and proper sense of the word and that a different theory is needed. Instead of deriving our understanding of what information is and how it operates from physics and biology, we must understand information in its own right and on its own terms. Physical and biological systems could well be derived from or have their existence within information, and even consist of information, but they do not found and explain information. If information is a higher level of emergent order, then it is coded in its own way and computation on this level is not the same as the kind of computation that a computer does, or for that matter, the kind of computation the brain does. This brings us to the question of how semantically coded information can be “computed” or to ask the same question more broadly, what is a general theory of computation that is based on a theory of information located beyond the physical and biological levels. This is the question that needs to be answered in order to speak about Gaia, climate change, ecology, and society beyond the systems paradigm.

Q: Alan Turing described a machine that used a finite set of instructions, an algorithm, to process information inputs into outputs. When the outputs become inputs and the instructions are to maintain certain values, this is a cybernetic machine operating comparably to the homeostatic operations of an organism. When environmental conditions select whether the values that must remain stable can be maintained, then we have what could be called natural selection. And when there is a mechanism that can randomly alter the instructions and the values so that under certain environmental conditions only certain systems will be able to operate, then we have evolution. Is there a theory of information or a version of computationalism, that does not correspond to this description, and which has the explanatory power to become a new paradigm of information?

A: If computation is defined in the most general way as the manipulation of information by means of rules, then this definition contains no assumption about what information is and what the rules may be. Information as well as rules can be different on all three levels of emergent order, the physical, the biological, and the level of meaning. Furthermore, if every higher level of emergent order integrates within it the lower level, then this explains how life can manipulate chemical reactions in ways that on the purely physical level of matter and energy do not happen. This is what emergence means. Emergence is the coming into being of something on the basis of, but not reducible to, something else. Life emerged in this sense from matter. We still do not know what life is and how it came into being, but we know that emergence has something to do with complexity. Theories of the emergence of life attempt to describe highly improbable increases in complexity, as for example, Assembly Theory proposed by Lee Cronin and Sarah Walker. Because of its higher complexity and variability, a higher level of emergent order such as life can use physical and chemical processes in completely unexpected ways. Life in its own way could be said to “engineer” nature. The genetic coding of life integrates the physical and chemical coding of matter into a higher level of order and thus can change it in ways that would not be possible on the physical level alone. This is what the Gaia hypothesis claims. Life is creating is own sustainable environment on the Earth. The advent of the Anthropocene in which human intervention has upset the homeostatic regulation of this Earth ecosystem has made these complex processes and interdependencies apparent.

The same can be said of meaning. Meaning can be understood to have emerged from life. We do not know what consciousness, language, thought etc. are nor how these phenomena came into being. We cannot derive meaning from life or even the big brains of human beings. Meaning is a higher level of emergent order beyond life. The semiotic coding of meaning is much more complex and variable than genetic coding. It therefore has the ability to manipulate life and matter in ways that could not occur on these levels alone. Technology is a case in point. On the level of meaning, there is not merely material engineering but also genetic engineering. But what is technology? What is meaning? It could be that the answers to these questions tell us what information is in the most encompassing sense of the term. There is bits and bytes on the physical level, neuro-activity on the biological level, and meaning on the level in which we exist as informational beings. Considering that the lower levels of emergent order are always integrated into the higher levels and thus no longer have a separate mode of being, the Gaia hypothesis makes perfectly good sense. The physical processes of the Earth have become part of the life processes and are regulated by them. On the other hand, this implies that when speaking of Gaia, we must remember that Gaia, as the very notion of the Anthropocene suggests, exists within the level of meaning, that is, within what could be called “society”. Gaia is not biological, it is social just as the Anthropocene is not merely human, but technological. Because society is usually understood to mean the interaction of human beings among themselves apart from nature, Latour prefers to speak of the “collective” since matter and life are integrated into meaning. As Heidegger would put it, Being is meaning. Once meaning has emerged as a third level of emergent order there is only meaning and nothing outside of or beyond or behind meaning. The world in which we live, including the entire universe, is a world of meaning. All physics, biology and other sciences as well as culture in all its forms is meaning and exists within meaning. This is not idealism as opposed to materialism. Meaning is not a mental construction within the brain or even a transcendental consciousness. If meaning is Being, and this is what we are proposing, then everything that is, exists because it is information not because it is perceived or thought by some kind of knowing subject. Heidegger calls this the “hermeneutical ‘as’”, which is to say that whatever appears does so “as” this or that kind of thing. The hermeneutical “as” marks the emergence of meaning and locates reality on the level of meaning. This is one way to understand Floridi’s concept of an infosphere. For this reason, when discussing climate change and Gaia we should talk less about life and more about information.

Q: Even if one accepts this account of meaning as a higher level of emergent order beyond life, it could still be possible to model meaning as a system. Systems theory could be adapted to a theory of meaning and information. Has not Luhmann, for example, done precisely this? Luhmann asserts that meaning is a higher level of emergent order but describes cognition and social order as self-regulating, operationally closed systems. From the point of view of a general systems theory, meaning is simply a different kind of system. Why is meaning not a system? And what is meaning if it is not a system, that is, something basically similar to life or to cybernetic machines?

A:  Latour has offered an alternative theory to that of systemic order. For Latour social order, or the level of meaning, does not have the characteristics of a system, but the characteristics of a network. Networks are not systems. Networks are associations arising from processes of that Latour calls “translation” and “enrollment”. These could be seen as the “rules” that can be said to manipulate information in a network-based computational model. The application of these rules does not merely presuppose information, but constructs information by means of constructing relations among entities. The relations or associations that form networks are information and from out of these relations the entities themselves emerge “as” things endowed with meaning. It could be said that for Latour Heidegger’s hermeneutical “as” is networking. This is a relational ontology. Being is relation, association, networking. As opposed to systems, networks are not closed, but open and infinitely scalable, as they would have to be in order to constitute a world. As opposed to systems, networks are multipurposed, which systems cannot be, because a system operates in order to maintain fixed goals or values. This is what homeostasis means. A system that did not know what values it should strive to maintain, or which had to many and conflicting values could not operate in such a way as to ensure autopoiesis and self-reference. Furthermore, networks are not subject to any pressures of selection, since they have no outside, no system/environment difference, a difference which is constitutive for any kind of systemic order. There is no evolution of networks, only a dynamic of differentiation, contraction and expansion, diversification, and branching. Within a network paradigm, systems do not simply disappear. Systems can be understood as a specific kind of network, which Latour calls a “black box”, that is, a relatively stable input/output machine. This applies to what Luhmann has called semi-autonomous social subsystems such as business, politics, law, education, science, religion and so on. But society as a whole, despite what Luhmann claims, cannot be modelled as a system. Instead, society must be understood as a network. The implication of the network paradigm is that Gaia or the critical zone is a network and not a system. A further implication is that ecology is actually a network science and not a systems science. Gaia is not a super organism, but a network. As a network, and this an important point that has been completely ignored in the entire Gaia discussion, Gaia is a form of meaning and not a form of life. After the emergence of meaning, the Earth, indeed, the entire universe, does not live, it “means”, or in other words, it “networks”. The important question in relation to climate change is therefore what is the best way to construct the network, or in other words, how can one construct information in the right way. As Latour has pointed out, this question can be understood as the question of design. Geo-engineering and climate regulation are not primarily social and political problems. As almost all experts say, they are not technological problems. They are design problems. But what is design? The digital transformation could be interpreted as the challenge to redesign human agency in terms of meaning construction. Information designing information is perhaps what Lovelock meant by envisioning a world of cyborgs beyond the Anthropocene. Governing the collective, Latour’s name for society, becomes a question of design.


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.”


Back to School

Let’s go back to school. Not because technology is changing society so quickly that many jobs are disappearing, and new jobs must be learned or re-learned. Not because “life-long learning” is trendy. And not because one needs more and more qualifications and certifications to climb the career ladder. This may all be true. But “let’s go back to school” means let’s go back and think about school, about what it means to go to school, about what education really is. This may not be a pleasant task. Many do not have the best memories of their time in school. Why is this so? What’s the problem with school?

To begin with, education seems to be built on a paradox, if not a downright contradiction. On the one hand we are told that is it for us, that is, for me, the individual. Education is supposed to bring forth the best in human beings, help them realize their true potential, to become who they can, and should, become. Education, according to this view, is dedicated to perfecting the individual. We go into school thinking that it’s about us personally and individually. Once there, however, we quickly discover that education operates on the principle that one size fits all. Curricula, tests, grades, everything is aimed to make us into that which society expects us to be. These expectations are not aimed at individuals, but at classes, groups, demographic categories, anything but individuals. If you want to be an individual in school, you find out immediately that no one asks you what you want to learn or how, it is not about you at all, but about some typical persona that society prescribes for you, demands that you conform to, that is, if you want good grades, if you want to be “accepted,” to “get ahead,” to be “certified” and get a good job, or any job at all. And getting ahead, as everyone knows, is not the same as being a person of good character or what the ancient Greeks called a “virtuous” person. Virtue and social success, as the Sophists well knew, are two different things. Education, it turns out, is about society and not about you as an individual. Education is “socialization” and not “individualization.” But this is never openly admitted and laid out on the table to take it or leave it. The one hand is never allowed to know what the other hand is doing. Like a magician’s trick in the theater, we are so confused and psychologically numbed by what is going on in school that we repress the schizophrenic experience and try to move on, deeply disturbed about who we are and traumatically confused about how the struggle for self-realization is compatible with conforming to social expectations.

Continue reading

Crazy Love or the Modern Predicament

One the most famous love stories of modern Western culture is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is a story not about love, but about what it means to be modern. What does it mean to be modern? Among the many meanings modernity may have, one is that it designates a problem. The problem is how can I be at once an individual and a member of society? The problem comes from the myth of free, autonomous individuals who originally exist in a state of nature in which they are involved in a war of all against all (Hobbes). This is chaos and a lose/lose situation in which everyone in the end dies. The only way out is for these free individuals to freely(!) enter into a social contract. But the moment they sign the contract, they become members of society and must conform to social constraints. Or, as Kant put it, henceforth there is freedom only under the law.

Paradoxically, this means that individuals can only exist when they give up their free individuality and submit to social constraints. But if they do this, and this is the paradox, then they are no longer autonomous individuals, they become products of society, that is, good citizens, family members, etc. Once the contract has been signed, the free individuals lay down not only their weapons, but also their individuality. They tend to disappear as individuals and become typical members of society. This may insure peace, but it has a price. If these free individuals disappear, then who is the social contract (society) for? In order for the contract to be valid and the law not to be mere tyranny, the individuals must be free before the law has been instituted and not only afterwards. But if individuals are free before the law, why do they need the law in the first place?

Continue reading