Alienated by Technology

Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, by Byung Chul-Han

When talk of the “information age” first began in the 1960s, it implied optimism. Information is knowledge, of which more is better than less, generally speaking.

Real and virtual. Jerusalem, 2017.

Who could have known that earlier, more ignorant eras, without personal computers and iPhones that spy on us, would turn out to be the better option?

We live, argues philosopher Byung Chul-Han, in a world so thoroughly overwhelmed by information that it is disappearing. 

Once the human environment was an ecology of things, objects that could be touched, that could take on value and meaning, and that might be expected to endure.

Now, eBooks are replacing books, stripping away the need for sensual intellectual objects, leaving only nodes in the flow of information. 

And social media is in the process of flattening out human communication and interaction. Who needs to relate when we can simply leave a “like”?

Chul-Han is the quintessential outsider that did not exist in German intellectual life before the 1970s. The country’s academy is highly insular, and does not export public intellectuals anymore. Particularly minority intellectuals, who remain hidden in the ivory tower.

Though German academia is full of bright lights, they remain largely cloistered unless you read the language. Particularly in the humanities.

Byung Chul-Han is one of the exceptions. Born in South Korea, he studied metallurgy at university before switching countries (to West Germany) and fields (to philosophy) in the 1980s. 

Chul-Han came to prominence through his prolific publication of relatively short books, a further oddity in an intellectual scene in which weighty tomes have only recently fallen out of favour.

The philosopher’s outsider status is further enhanced by his long engagement with the work of Martin Heidegger, whose active support of the Nazis was rediscovered in the late 1980s. 

Chul-Han’s Heideggerianism has a pronounced French inflection, but it is also critical, supplying him with a wealth of concepts to discuss alienation without employing Marxist ideas.

His new book, Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, bears that out. Its project is to illustrate the “de-reification” of objects, so they can be experienced and used sensually, by hand, again.

But the German title, Undinge conveys more than this. It is not simply that we have exchanged the physical for instant gratification. It’s that the world has become nonsensical.

This is a narrative rich with irony. For much of history, secrecy has been key. In 17th-century England, for example, it was a punishable offence to record or to report on debates in Parliament. 

However, in a world awash in information, more is less. 

Thus, when the Kremlin attempted to deny its role in the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, it did so by issuing a series of competing, mutually exclusive narratives to obscure what had actually happened.

Arguably, the world that we live in is not so much absurd as ironic. Human beings have access to a greater volume of information than at any other time in history. Yet information cannot simply be equated with facts, much less with truth. 

The age of information is the age of fake news and alternative facts, in which the assertion “people are saying” something amounts to a prima facie claim of truth (or plausibility).

Likewise, as Byung Chul-Han notes, while we have access to communication technologies only dreamt of thirty years ago, there is a sense that people are isolated to a degree never before seen. 

Rather than speaking to each other, or engaging in substantive or intimate ways, people cultivate “likes”. The acquisition of “friends” has become decoupled from friendships.

Much of Chul-Han’s recent output has been devoted to trying to identify and parse what the Frankfurt School tradition used to style the “pathologies of modernity”. The philosopher is outside that tradition, though. 

As a public intellectual, he is better compared to Slavoj Žižek. Both hail from countries outside the academic mainstream – Korea and Slovenia – and both engage with out-of-vogue influences – French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in Žižek’s case, most significantly.

Byung Chul-Han is the more efficient of the two. While he occasionally says things that are counterintuitive to the point of seeming gnomic, Chul-Han lacks that obsession with contrarianism that many find infuriating about Žižek.

Yet, their contrarianism is consistent. We just have to familiarise ourselves with his concerns to bring it to the surface. 

For example, if we should all put down our smartphones and engage with the actual world, as opposed to the one online, it’s no different from Slavoj Žižek saying something like stock brokers are the best communists. 

Sometimes personal interaction is not better than digital interaction. Sometimes the stock market is better at generating wealth than factories. That’s not to say either is morally superior. It’s about imagining alternatives to social and economic conventions we take for granted.

Chul-Han might object such readings are outside the scope of his book. The problem is that information technology is an economic event. The alienation people experience due to it is as much a reflection of that as it is of the technology’s substitution of social interaction with likes.

Information technology leads to systems of digital control that are ever more invasive and dominating. While Byung Chul-Han speaks eloquently about its deleterious effects, what this technology does for its owners receives less attention from him than it deserves.

This is tantamount to making effects responsible for effects, not causes. It may be helpful to analyse them, but it can’t explain what makes them harmful. Worse, it blames the smartphone user for their alienation and not the information economy.

Such criticisms are hardly surprising. The limits of Chul-Han’s philosophy are typical of social theories that attempt to talk about issues like alienation without the market.

As interesting and fresh as his approach might appear, its limits are surprisingly transparent with a little probing.

Photograph courtesy of Amir Appel. Published under a Creative Commons license.