“Fantasmic Digital Insularity” – Jonathan Crary’s 24/7

While zipping up to Lincoln and back last week for What Happens Now, I’ve been getting in a bit of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (thank Gari). It’s a book that’s been on my “must get round to reading that” list for months. I’m talking mainly about the second chapter here, although there are some general comments about the work as a whole.

Crary’s main thesis is that the concept of 24/7 is the dominant aspect of present-day capitalism, and that this should be central to critical thought about the control structures of the twenty-first century. It’s an emotional and intelligent polemic, given to poetic and arresting claims: “[a]n illuminated 24/7 world” is one “without shadows” – “the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change.”  Crary’s reading is politically-driven and motivated by a desire to emphasize the ideological violence at the heart of a 24/7 world.

The main issues defining contemporary living are contained in the fact that present-day capitalism must ultimately see sleep as an affront to its ideological workings. The 24/7 society is, as it were, always on, and as such temporal boundaries become blurred. It undermines distinctions “between action and repose” creating “a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience “. This reminded me of Paul Virilio, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap here in thinking about his concept of “accelerated reality” or “electronic optics”. Beware, says Crary, it is not the tech devices themselves, but the structures of experience which they permit that contain the substance of control:

The idea of technological change as quasi-autonomous, driven by some process of auto-poesis or self-organization, allows many aspects of contemporary social reality to be accepted as necessary, unalterable circumstances, akin to facts of nature [as well as the] [c]oncealment of the most important techniques invented in the last 150 years: the various systems for the management and control of human beings.

Certainly this kind of critical perspective is important during a period where there is an incessant digitizing throughout post-industrial – or in Bernard Stiegler’s words, quoted by Crary, hyperindustrial – society. He emphasizes that digital products are given a constantly regenerating veneer of novelty, in order to promote a form of “self-administration” which ultimately results in the individual becoming an application for processes and controls. There is a lot to nod along to when reading this appraisal of digital products, although we might want to remove the word “exclusive” from the following:

There is an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. “Products” are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.

This does bring us to one of the problems with Crary’s argumentation. He suggests that one of the central problems with writing about new media is that it puts its focus in the wrong place, on the devices and products themselves, “the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks”. More important for him are questions about “how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception.” This lapse into generality causes some problems later in the chapter, as well as pointing clearly away from the more convincing political reading of technological structures towards something like Heidegger’s essence of technology.

The main issue is that Crary then makes reference to specific concepts of digital experience – internet pornography, online gambling and video gaming – which arguably require a focus on the specific devices of consumption in order to understand the way their “rhythms” have changed. His dismissive tone when discussing how writing on new media goes out of date doesn’t acknowledge the role that thinking about hardware plays in larger questions about technological structures. Crary focuses, after all, on “products” earlier on in the text, and makes explicit references to the current giants of tech Google and Microsoft throughout.

The obvious counter-argument  here is that the “rhythms” and “speeds” of digital consumption cannot be thought separately from the very materiality of the devices that condition such consumption. Crary’s apparent desire for separation turns, then, into a question about form and content, one which he doesn’t satisfactorily address. Perhaps this is part of the bigger picture though, pointing as it does towards a form of difficult liminality, a condition which is related to sleep in the closing chapter of the book.

I would take further issue, though, with the  closing comments at the end of Chapter 2, which seem to shift Crary’s otherwise interesting polemic onto a more tired side of the debate about new technologies. There is, it seems to me, a further difficulty in drawing boundaries. After denigrating the “intellectually spurious” work of technophilic writers such as Esther Dyson, Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly, Crary argues for the kind of anti-technology stance which feels reactionary and unthinking:

Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant. There is an insurmountable asymmetry that degrades any local event or exchange. Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances. It is now a given that a limitless availability of information or images can trump or override any human scale communication or exploration of ideas.

This assertion – for it is an assertion – relies on the same logic of the apparently intellectually spurious authors of technophilic persuasion that Crary dismisses. Any interrogation of the rather cloudy noun phrase “human scale communication” leads down the path to a suspiciously safe liberal-humanism. It also relies on the notion that the relationship between “life” and the “digital” is a dualistic one, a perspective convincingly challenged by contemporary writers on tech (see Nathan Jurgenson here). The above is a totalizing statement about online activity which is reductive of the ways in which social media supplements or influences behaviour, as opposed to replacing it. More critically interesting would be to consider the way that activities which don’t take place online are discussed and represented online. Far from the idea that these activities either do or don’t “have an online correlate” a more nuanced and accurate critical perspective would be to view “online” behaviours as working in combination with “offline” behaviours. The line is blurred. We do not find limitation on the inside of the screen and exploration on the outside. Crary here is actually not far from the technophilic writers he calls the “academic watchdogs”, those which he says police views critical of the technopoly. I don’t disagree that pro-tech writing is often lacking in critical reflection, I just don’t think the way to challenge it is to write polemic which does the same.

Although Crary seems to be one of the most politically-engaged and in many ways clear-sighted writers on the subject, here he throws his lot in with Sherry Turkle et al, those other watchdogs of the human subject. As we find later in the text, being against the problems of twenty-first century capitalism means, apparently, being against the entire concept of digitality, because within digital forms “a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmic digital insularity.” I fear that Crary’s view of the digital spaces we inhabit is too limited, and the arguments here would be improved by some acknowledgement of the possibilities for digital communities to augment and support unity between individuals. The problem for Crary seems to be that the very boundary he makes firm – between “real life” and the world of digital capitalism – is too rigid.

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The Ethical Environment – technology as ‘threat’?

I’ve started the project by reading some basic Ethics in the last few weeks. Simon Blackburn and Alasdair MacIntyre have been my main ways in, as well as looking at Aristotle’s Ethics. A common idea has been that a particular ethical environment or historical context is always seen to influence the first principles of an ethical system. It sound a bit like saying “well, it’s all relativism then” but the notion is more nuanced than this. These philosophers seem to be saying that to understand ethics we must first understand that ethical rules are themselves partly constitutive of the societies they appear to define.

If we accept this as a feasible way of beginning an analysis of a particular society or ethical situation, then to understand contemporary culture we must first define the ethical environment. There are ethical questions being asked in ways that they were not asked before. I would suggest that a central concern of a twenty-first century ethics, alongside happiness and social justice, is something like humanness or human connection. This is engendered by the post-industrial Internet-conditioned mode of developed living, because human beings now have many new ways of acting with regard to themselves and others in society. This opening of ethical dimensions has occurred through technological leaps and the ubiquity of personal technological apparatus, as well as through the ability to transfer information instantaneously – the overall liquidity of existence, as Baumann describes it. MacIntyre confirms this idea, that ethical standpoints cannot be divorced from the mechanisms through which they are enacted, that “[m]oral concepts are embodied in and are partially constitutive forms of social life.”

So how does technological interaction make up part of our social life?  Evidence that this is a central question in 2015 isn’t hard to come by. The comments section of any broadsheet science piece reporting on social networking will usually contain the following popular arguments: we’re losing something by talking online too much; we isolate ourselves through interaction via computer screens; we’re losing the art of conversation; we don’t talk to each other anymore. Just as easily we can provide rejoinders to these ambiguous arguments: we’re gaining something through the ability to communicate online; we are able to connect with others we wouldn’t normally be able to connect; we can communicate in ways which allow us more control and make us more comfortable and confident.

Obviously there is a concern in contemporary culture defined by the notion of connection and the way we choose to connect to other human beings, but too often it falls into a kind of unfounded disquiet, part nostalgia and part hysteria. Some major commentators have looked in detail at the negative impacts of this alteration of connection. Sherry Turkle is probably the most well known, and her latest book – Reclaiming Conversation – is one example of how our ethical environment is being defined. 

 

How do we understand this environment objectively if we’re ‘in it’ all the time?

In investigating the nature of computer-mediated interaction in the twenty-first century, we need to examine techno-ethical situation as explored by fiction writers, for fiction provides us with a way of imagining and exploring the difficult-to-define notion of humanness, of connectivity. To understands what we might be losing, or gaining, through the development of connective behaviours, we must examine the documents which provide us with visions of Others. The ethical environment demonstrates that we are keenly conscious of our ever-connected state, and concerned about the effect it might have on our ability to maintain genuine, valuable connection with other human beings. David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” If we are worried about the further development of our own loneliness, then we must confront it through understanding the fiction which articulates it. 

 

Bibliography

1 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics : A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. edn (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).

2 Simon Blackburn, and Inc NetLibrary, Ethics : A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 80 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. David Foster Wallace, in interview