Avoiding Philosophical Technobabble in Cultural Analysis

Recently I have rediscovered the Stone page of the New York Times editorial section where guests philosophers are invited to write on important issues of our time. That a philosopher’s opinion today would actually have importance for the public at large is somewhat of a mystery, largely because the role of the philosopher as cultural critic or “public intellectual” has largely been usurped by the technological class: individuals whose inventions have largely transformed the way in which we interact as social beings. Hence, we care more about what, for example, Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs has had to say about society because they have constructed technologies that now figure significantly into how we relate to other people. There is perhaps not an individual who does not check his or her social media account on a daily basis for communication from and about others and most people now possess web enabled cellular devices which allow them to do this on the run: technological innovations these men respectively have had a large role in bringing about. Perhaps what is unique about our time is that electronic correspondence between us allows for near simultaneous communication but that is perhaps all that can be said about the technology of this age.

Yet in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about government phone snooping, a recent article in the Stone section by philosopher Colin Koopman identified in his article, “The Age of ‘Infopolitics’”, a very sinister side to these technological developments. Koopman suggested that we need a “concept of informational politics” to understand how government has the tools to spy on us without our knowledge: often without cause and without our knowledge. If Koopman is saying that we need to provide a check on a government and corporate bodies that wield too much power in observing our electronic correspondence, I see no room for disagreement. However, I am odds with Koopman in suggesting that we need a “concept of informational politics” in order to provide such a check on government and corporate overreach in their monitoring of our electronic affairs. We already know that government and corporate entities monitor much of the alphanumeric information that points to us in our electronic transactions and if there is anything valuable to learn from the Snowden affair, it is that such information about us is easily accessible to these organizations. No “concept” of informational politics” is necessary for understanding that our digital transactions provide government and corporate companies opportunities for compiling information about citizens from their electronic transactions. No “concept” of informational politics” is needed to understand the threats that are posed by government or corporate surveillance of our electronic activity: before there was social media and before there was the internet, government and corporations snooped on people via wiretaps on landline telephones or camera surveillance of us at the bank withdrawing money or in the supermarket buying a loaf of bread. “Informational politics”, at its heart, is really about protecting our privacy and autonomy which is what we’ve had a vested interest in doing long before the “information age”.

Speaking of the “information age”, Koopman refers to us as the “information society”, and that the self today is constituted by “information”, that is, numerical (or alphanumeric) information. The human being, therefore, is identifiable through a set of specific numbers, such as a social security number, a bank account number (and account balance), an IP address, a credit score, etc. In response to his assertion, I would first like to object to the notion that we can think of human society today as the “information society”. This is largely related to the historian’s claim in trying to distinguish our time from previous ones through some sort of fuzzy criterion of “information”. Koopman himself actually notes that the need to identify humans through numerical designations goes back to the nineteenth century and government censuses so it would seem that the information age or information society is simply not confined to our twenty first century existence: that it also applies to the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. But this is largely wrong as well since the need to account for or identify humans numerically even stretches further back than the nineteenth century. During the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment eras, natural philosophers such as Descartes and later Newton saw the human form as indistinguishable from other types of matter, insofar as they obeyed the physical laws of nature as much as inanimate objects did, and that they also could be characterized as having measurable, numerical properties (e.g., weight, figure, height, etc). There just really is not a significant way in which we can distinguish our age from others as an age of information, largely because previous societies too also had a vital interest in information and the numerical properties of things.

Second, I object to the idea that we can or should think of the self as “bytes” or “bits”, but only because such an idea introduces what is truly a metaphysical term into analysis: a term that is historically burdened with intellectual problems. The main problem is the type of reductionism that has hindered philosophical inquiry for centuries. Descartes for example wanted to identify the self as mindstuff while materialist philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes wanted to dispose of mindstuff as unscientific and view the self as identical to the brain or entire nervous system. Now from Koopman’s point of view, the self is or ought to be regarded as computerized data, namely because our technology treats us as such.

But this assumes far too much. Not all human societies have or want access to computers and there are indigenous communities today (some Peruvian Amazonian peoples for example) which are far too isolated from the conveniences of our technologies and yet still thrive without them. Given this isolation, they might define the self differently from the way we define it or they might not even have a concept of the self as some entity that needs to be identified with some other entity, be it atoms, the brain/nervous system, or bits. So I think Koopman need not obscure which is an otherwise fine discussion of the privacy issues our technology poses with declarations about what constitutes the human self and why his definition of the human self as a collection of bits and bytes is something that human beings should adopt in recognizing what is at stake through government and corporate surveillance of us through our digital transactions. It is rather unfortunate that philosophers or philosophically minded historians, in attempting to be culturally relevant, often wrongly adopt the lingo of the technology and/or science of their day to confront vital, timeless questions when the use of such vernacular often obscures those very questions.

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.