against ‘hybrid beings’ as a way of understanding our entanglement with digital tech 

Notes for a talk later this week 

My objection to the notion that we should understand the ubiquity of digital technology within person life in terms of ‘hybrid beings’ is a fundamentally methodological one. At the level of social theory, I find it relatively unobjectionable as an attempt to conceptualise the entanglement of human beings with technology. But in a sense I find it trivial because we have always already been hybrid beings. We make and use tools and our lives are changed by the tools we have made and used. They open up new possibilities and close down others. Our horizons expand in some ways and contract in others. What we can do and what we conceive of ourselves as being able to do develops [crucially I think there’s always a gap between the (epistemic) self-conception and the (ontological) causal capacity] develops from the interplay with the tools we made, which in turn have their own biographies of innovation and diffusion that act back upon their makers, contrary to any sense they may have of absolute autonomy over the instruments and artefacts they have produced.

The only way the novelty of hybrid beings can be maintained is to imply a tipping point, beyond which we become ‘hybrid beings’ whereas before we were merely homo faber. But how could such a tipping point be conceptualised? How could it be operationalised? Why even try and draw a line? The differences between our ‘entanglement’ with contemporary technologies and past ones is at most a difference of degree rather than of  kind. Even then I’d caution that a prevailing tendency within sociological thought to focus upon the novel and the cutting edge, at the expense of the quotidian and well-established, risks blinding us to the much older forms of ‘hybridity’ all around us. I don’t see much of interest in claiming that my glasses make me a ‘hybrid being’ but I depend on them much more than my iPhone. If hybridity is ubiquitous than I don’t find it interesting or helpful to pronounce the emergence of new hybrid beings. It might unsettle ‘taken for granted dualisms’ but my disinterest in this form of cultural politics is another issue, with its tendency to dissolve political activism into arcane and esoteric philosophical disputes, while congratulating itself on its resolutely political stance. It’s an example of what Bourdieu once described as the tendency to “mistake revolutions in the order of words or texts for revolutions in the order of things, verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis”.

My more substantive problem is that ‘hybrid beings’ ontologizes a variable process, imputing a category of being where in reality there are dynamic and diverse relations unfolding across a range of contexts. It risks substituting philosophy for empirical social science. This isn’t an inexorable result but I’d suggest that where analysts of new hybrid beings shed empirical light on these trends, they do so in spite of rather than because of the concepts they’re using. I think the underlying dangers here at that we either see human being as being moulded by these new technologies or human beings as simply using neutral technologies for their own ends. 

To talk of hybrid beings gets beyond this, recognising co-development, but at the expense of inclining us towards general statements about the ceaseless dance of co-constitution rather than opening up specific cases in a way that allows us to explain them. Because it’s these specific cases which make these explanations urgent. We should not be talking about the new kinds of humans who are coming into being but rather about the many ways in which digital technologies are leading to the reconfiguration of relations within subjects, and between subjects: in personal life, working life and political life. From my standpoint the role of theory should be to support empirical investigation into these issues, as well as incorporating their results, rather than to pre-empt it philosophically.

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