In a paper I’m writing for the first volume of the next Centre for Social Ontology project, I’m offering an analysis of what I call the evisceration of the human. I understand this as an intellectual project which seeks to get beyond self-understanding, hollowing out the phenomenological froth which characterises the interpretative human and getting to the underlying behavioural reality beneath it. It’s a project which, as Mark Andrejevic puts it in Infoglut, seeks to “sidestep self-understanding and self-representation to get at these recalcitrant minds directly” (p. 86). Interiority is reduced to empirical proxies, proliferating ad hoc hypothesis which explain away the apparent reality of the first-person perspective and reduce it to measurable and testable behavioural factors.
This operational abstraction constitutes a kind of ‘hollowing out’ of the human, seeking to reduce the category to its underlying behavioural reality rather than trying to cope with it in its bewildering wholeness. The instruments change, the precise formulation of the ad hocery changes but the underlying direction of explanatory travel remains the same. That at least is my hunch, though there’s a huge amount of work in the history of ideas which I’d have to undertake to justify it properly.
My focus however is on the present enthusiasm for eviscerating the human we see associated with digital technology and digital data. I really like this formulation from Audrey Watters, on loc 1245 of her The Monsters of Educational Technology:
We are now creating data at an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented velocity and increasing complexity. The temptation is to believe that if we can just collect all the data from our students – all their clicks –run it through an algorithm, do a little pattern-matching, and we’ll solve everything, we’ll unlock the secrets of the human brain, we’ll unlock the potential of each child.
The allure of our new instruments plays a crucial role in this iteration of the evisceration project. We believe that if only we were to collect enough data, the inner truth would be revealed. The secrets are there, waiting to be revealed, if only we can mine down into the human with enough precision and accuracy.