My notes on Maccarini, A. M. (2018). Trans-human (life-) time: Emergent biographies and the ‘deep change’in personal reflexivity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 138-164). Routledge.

One of the interesting features of the recent Centre for Social Ontology project on defending the human has been the realisation that many in the group are entirely open to the idea of trasnhumanism even while rejecting the notion of posthumanism. Andrea Macacarini draws the useful distinction between a post-human society (the radically other autonomous subjects, originally human or otherwise, as well as the ensuing social order emerging from them)and the trans-human change of human beings (transhumanization = processes through which an enduring and significant transition in human nature occurs, expanding their capacities and characteristics beyond the current species average), with the potential for each being found in two groups of phenomena: the inner transformation of humans through deep relationships with emerging  technologies and the development of non-human and non-living entities which come to exhibit an apparently autonomous subjectivity. They are inevitably related in practice but need to be distinguished in principle because of the different relations they entail between (a) the relationship of human beings to emerging technological agents (b) how the character of human beings are changed by those relations. They lead, as Macacarini puts it, to a “criss of the idea of a human subject” with unique characteristics able to realise species-specific outcomes (pg 139).

His concern is with  “conceivable forms of human enhancement that could lead to change  human beings with respects to their species-specific features” in a way “affecting their self-awareness, self-understanding, and lifestyle”. However most account of these possibilities “begin with technological advancements and then work their way through the possible meanings, consequences, required adaptations, and side effects of such technical tools and developments on culture, society and human beings”. This means that social and cultural analysis is restricted to the consequence of these facts, as opposed to a sociological approach which entails treating “the post-human phenomenon as a fully social and cultural fact” i.e. the prior social and cultural factors which allow these technological developments to have the impact which they do (pg 140). He argues that we can identify prior social and cultural trends which anticipate transhuman tendencies, finding their expression in technological change but with origins that precede it. As he puts it, “deep change is taking place, building persons who conceive of themselves as ‘differently human’, and thereby come to perceive the ‘trans-humanizing’ techniques as desirable tools to fulfil their needs”. Doing so helps us move beyond the choice of siding with either “enthusiastic post-humanism or with worried humanist” whose concerns, as well as the space between them, “constitute the core matter of many studies” (pg 142).

He astutely identifies a ‘messianic hope in technology driven trans-humanization” underpinning “a hidden assumption, namely that post-human persons will represent the accomplishment of humans best dreams” (pg 144). This explains a certain optimism in the literature in response to problems he categorise as equality, collective survival and ontological dignity because post-humans are quietly assumed to retain and express the best of the human. Beyond the cognitive achievements and physical attributes of trans-humans what can we expect of their moral dispositions, deep identity and self-understanding? He makes this interesting methodological suggestion that the only way to address these questions is to “look into what humans are currently looking for when they seek self-enhancement, and why humans would want to become enhanced themselves” (pg 144).

He explores this through the notion of the biographical scheme, relevant because it is a point of intersection where structure and cultural condition the unfolding of the life-course. Biographical schemes organise our experience of temporality, integrating our activity and experience over time into a coherent whole which links our inner experience of time through to time in our relations with others and on to the outer sense of history unfolding. He discusses a number of temporal transformations which might contribute to this: social accelerationtimeless time (beyond human experience e.g. computing), no waiting culture (the immediacy of current concerns fade into a continuous present: “the quest for achieving well-being by overcoming temporal limits” as he puts it on pg 153), performance culture (ever increasing temporal efficiency). Under these conditions “human beings are increasingly requested to develop rapid decision making, an enhanced capacity for computation ,management of emotions, simultaneous consideration of many factors, the capacity to work and make good decisions under pressure, the aptitude for team work, creativity in looking for fresh solutions, and more” (pg 150). Coping with these pressure might be contingently compatible with transhuman enhancement, constituting a vector of change because these enhancements are liable to change the conditions e.g. by increasing the experienced competition which led people to use cognitive enhancers in the first place.

But what does this mean for human being? Macacarini draws on Archer’s conception of reflexivity over the life course, in which the necessity of selection (from available opportunities, as much as they might vary between people and across time and place) inevitably gives shape to a life as the accumulation of past-choices increasingly constraints future choices as the biological lifecourse unfolds. But this relies on the assumption of sequential experience (challenged by timeless time), locality (robotics and virtual reality), rhythmicity (challenged by performance culture and acceleration), irreversibility (challenged by emerging technologies such as anti-ageing innovations) and self-transcendence (challenged by longer lives and the experienced change of the social institutions through which self-transcendence was sought). If these changes are leading to a transhuman way to inhabit time then what does it mean for the ideals of living which intermingle with our approach to making our way through the world? He suggests the growth of “individuals who strive to ‘totalize’ themselves and to swallow as many simultaneous possibilities of action and experience as possible, rejecting any definite shape or enduring commitment” through their rejection of the necessity of selection (pg 159).

As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’ve been working on The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism for over three years. I’ve made little progress in that time and my reliable line “I’m working on a book about distraction but I keep getting distracted” has begun to be depressing. But for the last year, the argument of the book has seemed fully worked out to me.

I’ve written about 20,000 words of long form writing for the book and I’ve posted 1721 blog posts in the various categories associated with the project. Even allowing for a high rate of cross-categorisation, suggesting 500 blog posts across the multiple categories, it’s still 250,000 words at an estimated average of 500 words per posts. Obviously there are some large block quotes amongst that but it still means I’ve written upwards of 150,000 words for a book which by this point I expect will only be 150-200 pages.

Finishing it will be as much condensing what I have written as writing new material. Perhaps this is the problem. I am literally carrying this book around inside my mind and at this point I’m desperate to get it out.

In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.

From David Frayne’s Refusal of Work pg 222. My first paper on this topic is coming out soon.

Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why democratic debate is currently in such a moribund state is that our busy lives leave us with so little time to study policies, collectively organise, or find out what is going on in our communities. The strength of democracy depends on people having the time to engage and participate in this process. The difference between the politics of time and the prescriptive utopias of the past is that the former does not seek to enrol people in some pre-planned utopian scheme, but to gradually free them from prescribed roles, furnishing them with the time to become politically active citizens.

Notes for the talk I’m doing a couple of times next month. First at the Political Agency in the Digital World conference in Denmark then at the Global Cultures of Contestation workshop in Amsterdam. Given I’m going to these places without funding to get feedback, I can’t stress enough how keen for pointers & ideas I am about this project. I basically know what I’m doing with the distracted people stuff (i.e. I spent 6 years doing a PhD on individual reflexivity & years working on digital sociology in various capacities) but I’m completely out of my intellectual comfort zone with the social movements stuff. I’m also totally intimidated by the size of the social movement studies literature. 

My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myeslf working on a book chapter that had balooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embyronic form, one which I’ve recently begun to work on. My interest was in how digital capitalism is changing the conditions of existence for people within it: how phenomena such as the pluralisation of communication channels, constant connectivity and the destructuring of careers were radically intensifying the social production of distraction that has always been a feature of modernity itself. I’m interested in how the escalation of demands, something which is of course not evenly distributed, renders triaging necessary for ever greater segments of lived experience: attending to the urgent rather than the important, thinking about the day and the week, rather than the month and the year.

I want to develop a philosophical anthropology of triaging, concerned with its implications for evaluation and temporality, connected in turn to an empirical and theoretical account of the social and cultural changes which are generating this uneven proclivity towards triaging. I’m particularly interested in the second-order effects of triaging strategies: how phenomena such as information diets, life hacking, the quantified self, extremely early retirement, lifestyle minimalism and others can be seen as regimes for coping with distraction that also in turn intensify the underlying change in the self. Agency is partially recovered but at the cost of a narrowing of horizons.

I’m also concerned with how many of the factors which lead to the necessity of triaging in turn leave us enmeshed within the filter bubble: being tracked, scrutinised and modelled by a mobile army of opaque overseers, leaving us succeptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we willfully embrace for the convenience it affords. Again, I’m interested in the second-order effects: we can escape the filter bubble but there are cognitive costs entailed by it. Total escape can prove all consuming, going off the grid could easily come to constitute a life defining obsession. Continuing to live meaningfully under digital capitalism entails compromise, but the nature of that compromise is something which in itself entails cognitive costs, necessitating that we reflect upon our own information ecology, keep ourselves up to date with current developments and spend time conisdering how to best orientate ourselves towards this rapidly changing edifice.

Considering these issues in terms of individual lives has led me rather inevitably to thinking about them in collective terms. If I’m right about distracted people then what are their implications for collective life? The relationship between the individual and the collective is an issue that I’ve always been fascinated by and that I’ve written about in the past: some collectives we enter into involuntary but later leave, others are ones we discover as we make our way through the world and many exist between these two extremes. I’m interested in understanding collectives as relationally constituted, made and remade through the engaging of individual biographies, unfolding in concrete spaces of interaction but with a collective reality that extends beyond them.

In this approach I’m heavily influenced by the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. On this view, relations are not just patterns of interaction but an emergent reality which is produced and reproduced through interactions. Their analysis hinges on how such relational goods (shared projects and commitments, features of our relationships that we value) constitute collectivities: the co-ordinated actions of individuals become something genuinely collective through their shared orientation towards relation goods & the actions which these generate.

The same factors which I’m arguing constraint individual reflexivity (clarifying what matters to someone and trying to develop projects which enact those concerns) also constrain collective reflexivity. Developing collective projects requires sustained engagement of a sort which personal distraction by no means prohibits but does inhibit: it leads to a multiplication of obstacles at the individual level which, though individually trivial, manifest themselves through their aggregative consequences. In essence, my approach to understanding the politics of digital distraction is through trying to systematically think through the possible consequences they have for how fragmented individuals might attempt, or fail to attempt, to exercise some collective influence over social and political life.

I’m trying to understand how individual distraction manifests itself aggregatively in the characteristics of collectives (or the failure of those collectives to form). But I think the same socio-technical factors contributing to bringing this about at the level of individuals are having autonomous effects at the level of collectives: the ease of assembly using social media, the affordances which make it possible for a small number of people to lead many to congregate, make it unlikely that collectives constituted in this way will develop the organisational capacities to sustain themselves through change. I entirely credit Zeynep Tufekci with this insight, though I think I understand the point somewhat differently to her. The mundane effort of mobilisation, so easily dispensed with if it’s no longer necessary, served a consolidating function which allowed a nascent collective to develop capacities which allowed it to respond to changing terrain, adapt tactically and develop strategically as other conflictual collectives responded to its emergence and actions.

This is further compounded by what Nick Couldry refers to as the ‘myth of us’: which I understand as the conviction that social media has liberated a natural sociality, allowing individuals to take action as individuals. Here comes everybody! Watch those seemingly intractable problems disappear in their wake. Who needs organisations? In this sense, I think it’s a particular contemporary articulation of a much long-standing myth of self-organisation, with a naive view of social media and liberal individualism jointly engendering a belief in homeostasis. Now people have social media, everything will take care of itself. It is of course a myth which the social media platforms have a commercial interest in promoting, having corralled the ‘us’ and built a business upon monetising it.

Now it follows from a stratified ontology of collectives, in which collectives are constituted by individuals over time (i.e. biographically) but are irreducible to them, that individuals will in turn be changed by their participation in such fragile movements. In this sense, I’m extremely interested in the biographical consequences of social movements. I’d like to better understand these in other eras in order to develop my hunch that the distinctive characteristics of distracted people and fragile movements generate very specific trajectories of engagement with collectives. I’ve been playing with the concept of ‘seeding’ here: do engagements in fragile movements perhaps seed the social world with emancipatory potential by generating a proclivity towards future movements on the part of distinct individuals? But these are ultimately empirical questions and I’m not entirely sure of how to explore them without making this study into something much bigger than it already is. It’s already a bit too big.

In parallel to this, I’m interested in how distracted people constitute an environment to which collectives (fragile or otherwise) find themselves forced to respond. I’d like to analyse professionalisation of communications in these terms, as well as the kind of messaging that can be found more broadly. What kind of strategies thrive? If attention is effectively finite but divided between an ever greater number of claims upon it, what sort of strategies emerge to ensure competitive advantage? More broadly, how do collective engage with their members? In some cases, I think professionalised relationship management approaches could thrive in these circumstances (e.g. how to keep track of distracted people & keep them engaged) but these in turn undercut the collectivity upon which relational goods depend by setting up a hierarchical relationship between professional staff and managed participants.

Any thoughts much appreciated!