In a recent paper, I’ve argued we find a cultural project underpinning ‘big data’: a commitment to reducing human being, in all its embodied affective complexity, stripping it of any reality beyond the behavioural traces which register through digital infrastructure. Underlying method, methodology and theory there is a vision of how human beings are constituted, as well as how they can be influenced. In some cases, this is explicitly argued but it is often simply implicit, lurking beneath the surface of careful choices which nonetheless exceed their own stated criteria.
It’s an argument I’m keen to take further than I have at present and reading Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by Katrine Marçal has left me interested in exploring the parallels between homo economicus (and why we are invested in him) and the emerging homo digitalis. Marçal writes on pg 162 of the allure of the former, misunderstood if we see it as nothing more than an implausible theoretical construct or a mechanism to exercise influence over political decision-making:
Many have criticized economic man’s one-dimensional perspective. He lacks depth, emotions, psychology and complexity, we think. He’s a simple, selfish calculator. A caricature. Why do we keep dragging this paper doll around? It’s ridiculous. What does he have to do with us? But his critics are missing something essential. He isn’t like us, but he clearly has emotions, depth, fears and dreams that we can completely identify with. Economic man can’t just be a simple paper doll, a run-of-the-mill psychopath or a random hallucination. Why, if he were, would we be so enchanted? Why would we so desperately try to align every part of existence with his view of the world, even though collected research shows that this model of human behaviour doesn’t cohere with reality? The desperation with which we want to align all parts of our lives with the fantasy says something about who we are. And what we are afraid of. This is what we have a hard time admitting to ourselves. Economic man’s parodically simple behaviour doesn’t mean that he isn’t conjured from deep inner conflicts
What makes homo economicus so compelling? This allure has its roots in a denial of human dependence, describing on pg 155 how our fascination with “his self-sufficiency, his reason and the predictable universe that he inhabits” reflect discomfort with our once having been utterly dependent on others, “at the mercy of their hopes, demands, love, neuroses, traumas, disappointments and unrealized lives”, as well as the inevitability that we will be so again at the other end of the life-course. But he also embodies a vision of what life should be like between the two poles of dependency, as she writes on pg 163:
His identity is said to be completely independent of other people. No man is an island, we say, and think that economic man’s total self-sufficiency is laughable. But then we haven’t understood his nature. You can’t construct a human identity except in relation to others. And whether economic man likes it or not –this applies to him as well. Because competition is central to his nature, his is an identity that is totally dependent on other people. Economic man is very much bound to others. But bound to them in a new way. Bound to them. Downright chained to them. In competition. If economic man doesn’t compete, he is nothing, and to compete he needs other people. He doesn’t live in a world without relationships. He lives in a world where all relationships are reduced to competition. He is aggressive and narcissistic. And he lives in conflict with himself. With nature and with other people. He thinks that conflict is the only thing that creates movement. Movement without risk. This is his life: filled with trials, tribulations and intense longing. He is a man on the run.
If I’m right about the existence of homo digitalis, a clear vision of human constitution underpinning ‘big data’*, we can ask similar questions about this truncated, eviscerated, predictable monad. So complex when we look up close, so simple when we gaze down from on high. Our individuality melts away in the aggregate, leaving us no longer overwhelming but simply overwhelmed. Manageable, knowable, stripped back. Why might this be an appealing vision of human kind? Who might it be appealing to? I’m sure many can guess where I’m going with this, but it’s a topic for another post.
*A term I use to encompass digital social science, commercial and academic, as well as the organisations and infrastructures which it facilitates.