I already wonder what Prof. Jacobs would have to say about Kriss’s provocative essay. This particular passage reeks of techno-determinism, albeit a pessimistic one. Kriss spends an entire paragraph laying out the case that “non-living objects” — our tools — “have their own strange form of life,” and that these tools have evolved (somehow) into an increasingly autonomous system with “less and less use for us–even as a moving part.” All of this suggests to me that Kriss views humanity as extraordinarily deprived of agency by its technological infrastructure.
In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself. “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.
Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.
–Sam Kriss, Watching the World Rot at the World’s Largest Tech Conference
Yet the following sentence–more of an aphorism, really–declares simply, “Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.” I emphasize those words because they suggest that we are actively moving–as opposed to being moved–toward self-annhilation.
To me, this rhetorical confusion is pretty significant. At the end of the essay, Kriss documents a meet-and-greet at a local watering hole. He laments that human sociality has been transmogrified into ever more affective labor.
A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.
But what or who, exactly, had done the transforming? The “logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented”? Kriss’s refusal to name names makes a sort of sense, given that a main theme of his essay is the way our society is increasingly a “system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.” This systemic opacity makes it impossible or difficult. Or perhaps, for his rhetorical purposes, it’s rhetorically undesirable to name openly and clearly. Look at that passage again. States, one by one, turn red, apparently of their own accord, as if the vote tallies themselves are “a grinning goblin.” Is Donald Trump the goblin? Or does Kriss simply fear to name the agent that is actually responsible for turning those states red: humanity? States don’t just turn red of their own accord, even on CNN election maps. Voters vote, and the color reflects their choice.
I honestly can’t tell if Kriss is being imprecise as a matter of rhetorical strategy or because he’s not carefully thinking through the implications of his premise. In a lot of ways, it seems politically easier to say, “The end of humanity had already arrived.” It lets us off the hook for having to take responsibility and a measure of control over our technosphere. It also gives people like Kriss persmission to dismiss and demean those people whose goals and purposes are opaque to him.
Kriss can’t understand why tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would choose to congregate in such a chaotic way. He doesn’t get the appeal of running a 90% chance of failure as an app innovator. The idea of using a social occasion as a milieu for professional networking appears vaguely insidious. Lurking behind it all is some Illuminati-esque entity called Technology (or maybe the Tech Industry?), whose agency and motives are obscure and sinister, possibly apocalyptic. And: surely real people could not choose to vote for Trump of their own volition. There must be something compelling them. Kriss (willfully?) ignores the fact that people and their choices remain utterly central to the maintenance of any and all tools that comprise our systems.
I’m largely sympathetic to Kriss’s critique, I think. Most of the systems that hold our social world together mystify me in many profound ways. People themselves constantly disappoint and mystify me, too. But I do think it’s a categorical error to ascribe agential vitality to “systems” or “technology” without doing at least minimal definitional work. Where does human agency end and systemic agency begin? What is the nature of this “strange form of life” posessed by non-living objects? Are all non-living objects possessed by the same, strange life-force, and do they all exert it the same way upon humanity? Is Kriss overwhelmed by The Tech Industry at the Web Summit, or is he primarily overwhelmed by the apparently chaotic society of its attendees–the people who’ve chosen to work there?
Most importantly, doesn’t Kriss fall into the ancient trap of self-fulfilling prophecy? Non-living systems built by people enervate human societies precisely to the extent that humanity cedes agential authority to its tools. When the crash happens, it’s often because people start thinking that their tools will take care of themselves. Worse, cataclysms often happen because people start confusing other people with tools. Kriss seems to lament that transformation; he also empowers and perpetuates it. Instead of trying to understand how and why people would be so gung-ho about valorizing their tools (rightly or wrongly), he speculates that the tools have simply gotten the better of their masters. And instead of trying to understand how and why people would choose to vote for a grinning goblin (rightly or wrongly), he intimates that they’ve simply already sacrificed their humanity. “Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come,” Kriss says, because society’s “structure is one of increasing chaos.” Perhaps. Probably. Or there’s a pattern there that Kriss can’t see because he refuses recognize it as an extension of his own humanity.