Symbolic Misery

Bernard Stiegler, trans. Daniel Ross, Automatic Society: Volume 1, The Future of Work

Polity, 280pp, £17.99, ISBN 9781509506309

reviewed by Calum Watt

Automatic Society: The Future of Work is the first of an anticipated two volumes by the prolific French philosopher Bernard Stiegler on how we should prepare for a near future in which widespread automation is expected to render much human work obsolete. Identifying a similar trajectory across the West, Stiegler disarmingly predicts that within ten years French unemployment will reach up to 30%. As Stiegler says, ‘this portends an immense transformation’.

Much of Automatic Society consists of a scathing critique of contemporary ‘computational’ capitalism. Stiegler sees the increasing automation of technology as bringing about a ‘generalized disintegration – of knowledge, power, economic models, social systems, basic psycho-relational structures, intergenerational relations and the climate system’. At the same time, automatic technologies are leading towards ‘a society of hyper-control’ in which human decision is replaced at every level by algorithms. Stiegler remains best-known for his Technics and Time series (1994-2001), which offers a deconstructive account of how mankind’s essence lies in a relation to technology. Arguing that technics has been a blind spot in the history of philosophy, Stiegler is somewhat unusual among philosophers in making the advent of the World Wide Web in 1993 a major theme in his work. Thus, to give a sense of the all-encompassing scale of Stiegler’s project, he situates big data and the use of digital tracking technologies by the internet giants within a history of man’s ability to inscribe and reproduce signs going back to the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic age.

One of Stiegler’s strengths in this as well as previous texts is his sensitivity to disaffection and malaise, what he calls ‘symbolic misery’, particularly among the young. Referring to thinkers such as Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst noted for his writings on how play structures the development of the self in childhood, Stiegler sees people living today as ‘proletarianised’, which is to say that they are suffering the erosion of the deliberative functions of their minds. With a refreshing frankness, Stiegler argues that digital consumer capitalism is producing ‘generalized stupefaction’ and ‘systemic stupidity’. On this point one of Stiegler’s recurring references is to the testimony to US Congress of Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, during the financial crisis in 2008, in which Greenspan effectively admitted that computational free market capitalism was flawed and out of control. Among other contemporary digital phenomena, Stiegler is critical of social networks which tend to create ‘automated herds’. This sense of people as being controlled by algorithms and losing their individuality and capacity to think critically leads Stiegler at one point to write that ‘it is growing harder to discern what distinguishes human beings from ants’.

All of this by no means makes Stiegler any kind of Luddite or technophobe. It is inevitable that new technologies have toxic effects as well as beneficial ones (this is what he means when he describes them as ‘pharmacological’: they are both the poison and the cure), but they can be controlled ‘if we take up our responsibilities.’ He proposes a new politics of the internet which will entail ‘redesigning the digital architecture’ with the ultimate aim of creating a new economy based around ‘contribution’ – that is, one in which the roles of consumer and producer are replaced by a system in which everyone becomes a ‘participant’. Stiegler here draws inspiration from the culture of open-source software, with which he has some involvement, working practically on digital projects in his capacity as Director of the Institute for Research and Innovation, based at the Centre Pompidou. The broader horizon for this is Stiegler’s identification of our contemporary moment as the nihilistic conclusion of the Anthropocene, the era of mankind’s dominance of the earth and a capitalism marked by an ‘absolute lack of care for its objects.’ We need to move into what he envisages as the ‘Neganthropocene’, an era of ‘negentropy’ (or negative entropy) that would be ‘curative and care-ful’. What is needed are new practices of care of the self and others, suggestively referred to as ‘therapeutics’.

In a particularly good chapter in which he provides a commentary on Jonathan Crary’s celebrated essay 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013), Stiegler sees continuous connection to online devices such as smartphones as short-circuiting everyday life, sleep, and even dreams. What is at stake in this is that the capacity to dream is closely linked to thinking and inventing. In this we can grasp Stiegler’s wider philosophical sense of what is ‘automatic’: ‘The dream that thinks leads to realizations (technical inventions, artistic creations, political institutions, economic enterprises, movements of all kinds and social bricolages[. . .]), which themselves become automatisms, and which thus lose their oneiric force, that is, their noetic force – until a new intermittence revives them, rediscovering the power of dreaming by dis-automatizing them.’ So, the automatic refers not just to technological developments, but also the ingrained habits that attend them. To ‘dis-automatize’ and ‘de-proletarianize’, then, is to rediscover one’s capacities for thinking and living afresh. Referring to the French law of the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ (a special social security status supporting those who work irregularly in the arts and entertainment industries), Stiegler makes this idea metaphysical, conceiving of intermittence as the time in which one develops creatively as a person, ultimately becoming the source of all value, culture and social life. Stiegler thus proposes in the face of an increasingly toxic automated society that we dis-automatise ourselves by reinventing the digital economy and redistributing work and ‘thinking time’. In this Stiegler participates in the debate on the future of work, referring to figures like Jeremy Rifkin, Dominique Méda and André Gorz. In the UK context one might think of recent arguments on a post-capitalist future made by Paul Mason, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. The timeliness of this line of thinking finds its most recent echo in the election of Benoît Hamon as the Socialist Party candidate in the recent French presidential election, whose flagship policies included a universal basic income and a tax on robots, eye-catchingly designed to combat similar problems to those identified by Stiegler. That Hamon achieved a meagre 6% of the vote and was eliminated in the first round, however, suggests that there is a long way to go for these ideas to catch on.

While it expands on themes Stiegler has been discussing for some time, especially with the activist group Ars Industrialis, Automatic Society is written with an unusual urgency. Stiegler calls to mind other intellectuals who at the present moment confess to being deeply troubled at the direction the world is taking. It is worth noting that Stiegler’s most recent text, Dans la disruption: Comment ne pas devenir fou? (In Disruption: How To Avoid Going Mad), published last summer and which remains to be translated, evokes an even more apocalyptic sense of society in a state of demoralization and ‘going mad’. While his regular translator, Daniel Ross, has done a typically superb job of rendering Stiegler’s idiosyncratic style, heavy with specialised vocabulary, one occasionally wishes he would use a plainer language. If Stiegler believes his message to be urgent, it surely cannot be left to specialist readers of French philosophy. Given the political shocks of 2016, the stakes of Stiegler’s thesis about systemic stupidity seem stronger now than when he wrote it. Yet at the same time his proposed solutions seem further from reach. Another recent analysis which sees society as heading towards increasing ‘social entropy’ is Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? (2016). Unlike Stiegler, Streeck regards this as likely to be irreversible, tending towards a generalised societal disintegration in the manner of the Dark Ages. While Stiegler is right to counsel against giving into demoralisation, one wonders if things may have to get worse before they get better.