Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy on how technology shapes our world

Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy on how technology shapes our world

Bryan Norton writes:

By the start of the 1970s, a growing number of philosophers and political theorists began calling into question the immediacy of our lived experience. The world around us was no longer seen by these thinkers as something that was simply given, as it had been for phenomenologists such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl. The world instead presented itself as a built environment composed of things such as roads, power plants and houses, all made possible by political institutions, cultural practices and social norms. And so, reality also appeared to be a construction, not a given.

One of the French philosophers who interrogated the immediacy of reality most closely was Louis Althusser. In his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ published in 1970, years before Stiegler was taught by him, Althusser suggests that ideology is not something that an individual believes in, but something that goes far beyond the scale of a single person, or even a community. Just as we unthinkingly turn around when we hear our name shouted from behind, ideology has a hold on us that is both automatic and unconscious – it seeps in from outside. Michel Foucault, a former student of Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, developed a theory of power that functions in a similar way. In Discipline and Punish (1975) and elsewhere, Foucault argues that social and political power is not concentrated in individuals but is produced by ‘discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’. Foucault’s insight was to show how power shapes every facet of the world, from classroom interactions between a teacher and student to negotiations of a trade agreement between representatives of two different nations. From this perspective, power is constituted in and through material practices, rather than something possessed by individual subjects.

These are the foundations on which Stiegler assembled his idea of technics. Though he appreciated the ways that Foucault and Althusser had tried to account for technology, he remained dissatisfied by the lack of attention to particular types of technology – not to mention the fact that neither thinker had offered any real alternatives to the forms of power they described. In his book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), Stiegler explains that he was able to move beyond Foucault with the help of his mentor Derrida’s concept of the pharmakon. In his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1972), Derrida began developing the idea as he explored how our ability to write can create and undermine (‘cure’ and ‘poison’) an individual subject’s sense of identity. For Derrida, the act of writing – itself a kind of technology – has a Janus-faced relationship to individual memory. Though it allows us to store knowledge and experience across vast periods of time, writing disincentivises us from practising our own mental capacity for recollection. The written word short-circuits the immediate connection between lived experience and internal memory. It ‘cures’ our cognitive limits, but also ‘poisons’ our cognition by limiting our abilities.

In the late 20th century, Stiegler began applying this idea to new media technologies, such as television, which led to the development of a concept he called pharmacology – an idea that suggests we don’t simply ‘use’ our digital tools. Instead, they enter and pharmacologically change us, like medicinal drugs. Today, we can take this analogy even further. The internet presents us with a massive archive of formatted, readily accessible information. Sites such as Wikipedia contain terabytes of knowledge, accumulated and passed down over millennia. At the same time, this exchange of unprecedented amounts of information enables the dissemination of an unprecedented amount of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other harmful content. The digital is both a poison and a cure, as Derrida would say.

This kind of polyvalence led Stiegler to think more deliberately about technics rather than technology. For Stiegler, there are inherent risks in thinking in terms of the latter: the more ubiquitous that digital technologies become in our lives, the easier it is to forget that these tools are social products that have been constructed by our fellow humans. How we consume music, the paths we take to get from point A to point B, how we share ourselves with others, all of these aspects of daily life have been reshaped by new technologies and the humans that produce them. Yet we rarely stop to reflect on what this means for us. Stiegler believed this act of forgetting creates a deep crisis for all facets of human experience. By forgetting, we lose our all-important capacity to imagine alternative ways of living. The future appears limited, even predetermined, by new technology. [Continue reading…]

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