Thoughts on a post-digital ethics

Mini-lecture written for the G10 for Economics and Philosophy, which in the end I did not attend. The reason why can be found here.

William Turner – Sunrise with Sea Monsters (1845)

Tonight’s theme is ‘Respect’. I will not give an exegesis of the term, but instead want to reflect a little on a broader topic, which in my view comes prior to the notion of respect. That is: how do we relate to ourselves and to the Other, in times that can be characterised as ‘post-digital’? I write about this question in my forthcoming essay collection, ‘Swimming in the ocean, Texts from a post-digital world’, which is due in June from De Bezige Bij publishing house. Since finishing the manuscript, around last November, I have been thinking a lot about what a post-digital ethics could mean in our times, and I want to share some of these thoughts with you tonight. We might then be better equipped to consider how ‘respect’ might fit in this framework.

Let me start with a quote by Siri Hustvedt, from her overwhelming 2014 novel ‘The Blazing World’: ‘Why do I feel there is a secret I carry in my body like an embryo, speechless and unformed, beyond knowing?’

The idea that something lives inside of you, something unknowable and non-communicative, resonates deeply with me. We live in a time where everything is in fact considered knowable, not speechless but full of speech, not secret but rather to be brought out in the open. Through the extraction of data, knowledge is gained; and the act of knowing is equated with counting and measurement, with forming the ‘unformed’ into information, preferably under the guise of metrics.

Hustvedt speaks of this secret like an embryo, so rather than something, that which we carry in our body is some one other. This might seem strange, or relating only to pregnant women, a demographic to which I for one do not belong. We can start to make sense of what this might mean by thinking about the ‘I’ first, the ‘I’ sheltering the secret inside the body.

If I carry around this secret, it means there is something unknowable inside of me, something Other, signalling a fundamental otherness. It is a secret that remains unknown even to myself, no matter how hard I try to put it into words, to communicate it, to myself or to another person. Whether someone else, apart from myself, could ever know what this otherness entails remains to be seen.

If I acknowledge that such a secret is hidden inside of me, why presume that this is different with all of you? It has been known for a long time that we usually view other people around us – and let’s be honest, there are so many of them – as mere boxes containing nothing but thin air, or maybe not as boxes with nothing in them, but rather as solid statues made of marble, with no room inside for secrets or other indications of an inner live whatsoever. Even if you are aware of this bias when regarding people around you, it’s very hard to grasp that they too probably carry something with them inside, like an embryo.

Every now and then, while sitting on the train in rush hour or in a room like this, filled with many people, I do an exercise: I look around and try to picture all the insides of all the ‘I’s’ – to grasp the fundamental otherness residing in people like you, glowing like candles all around me, invisible but undeniably there. It always makes me dizzy in an existential kind of way, so I won’t do the exercise as I’m standing here right now.

Okay, sure, ‘we are all individuals’, right? Of course the individual is another myth that has been debunked long ago and for different reasons. Still, we are meant to treat ourselves as one and our actions are judged as coming from us as from an individual source of behaviour. All debunking movements aside – of the human acting as a slave to their instincts, neuronal activity, technology, the power system or economy they live in – on a day to day basis there we are: separate boxes or marble statues, indivisible and discrete, like true individuals contained within our skin.

And this is where the post-digital comes in. The term post-digital, to follow Florian Cramer’s definition, ‘in its simplest sense describes the messy state after digitisation’. Digitisation should not be understood as being limited to something with computers or even to digital technology, but rather denoting ‘information that gets chopped up into discrete, countable units’, as Cramer writes. I propose to see this being chopped up into ever smaller units of information, as the state that a post-digital ethics will have to reckon with. Because it is not just communication or music (where the term post-digital originated) that is digitised, it is information in its broadest sense. Everything can be turned into information, or, as we have come to know it by now: data. And so everything can become knowable, or let’s say, be made ‘unsecret’. The chopping up into bits and pieces is what makes the bits and pieces ready to be handled, calculated with and traded off. I wonder: in ‘the messy state after digitisation’ that Cramer mentions, will the embryo get chopped up as well?

Well, the process of quantification does not stop outside of the individual, but travels beyond the skin to the inner workings, all the while chopping away and taking note of the count, measuring and datafying everything in its path. In a post-digital world the glowing, continuous movement of our inner lives can just as easily be measured and counted as the fingers on your hand. The title of an essay by Ruben van de Ven about emotion analysis software sums it up nicely: ‘Choose how you feel; you have seven options’. The author asks a pertinent question: ‘in a world of digitized emotions, what does it mean to feel 63% surprised and 54% joyful?’ Sure, we’ve all heard about the six basic emotions: ‘anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise’ that are universally recognised. Or was it seven, adding ‘contempt’ into the mix? But what do we actually gain when the numbers go up?

In comparison: the Facebook Like-button now gives you six different instances to choose from: ‘Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad and Angry.’ I would say that instead of giving you more options, this really amounts to less. As hated as it is, the thumbs up of the good old Like-button could mean any of the ‘like, love, haha, or wow’, and more. The Like-button, you might say, was speechless, unformed, and beyond knowing. Now it’s limited to six options: please choose how you feel, and share the information.

The Dutch poet Maarten van der Graaff writes in one of his ‘clocked poems’: ‘1:37: I live in the Netherlands. / I am a secret / that is being kept by certain / communities, not willing to share.’

Communities not willing to share: is anything more unacceptable nowadays? Sharing in Dutch is ‘delen’, like in German, ‘teilen’. When you share – let’s say, a Facebook post – you divide it as well, chop it up in two pieces, so to speak. And the more you share, the more you are shared, divided into smaller pieces, each with it’s own label and position in the ultimate calculation of your worth. Sharing a secret means dividing the secret, making it measurable. Indiscretion in that sense leads to discretisation. Kiss and tell: the motto of the present day!

Even if we keep our own mouths shut, the sharing and discretisation is not to be stopped. I am reminded of an experiment described by Josh Cohen in his book The Private Life, in which scientists work towards streaming someone’s dream via YouTube. He writes: ‘Even allowing that you could see on YouTube exactly what you’d seen in your dream, the two experiences would still have very little to do with one another. Seeing your dream during waking life is a world away from dreaming your dream during sleep.’ He concludes: ‘In separating the dream from the private life of the dreamer, you destroy it.’ The digitisation of the dream destroys the dream, because it is made eloquent and formed. It comes down, says Cohen, to ‘a disowning of the self’s own strangeness’.

We might be a bit afraid of the self’s own strangeness – I mean, Hustvedt’s metaphor of the embryo also brings back the iconic fear depicted in the movie Alien – but this strangeness is also something we’re not ready to give up just like that. I quoted Van der Graaff’s ‘Communities not willing to share’ as pertaining some kind of resistance within a post-digital society. But like the embryo-alien, these communities also have a very contemporary, scary ring to it, at least in my ears.

The demand to share everything of your inner self and be divided into even smaller discrete parts that can be turned into profit and calculated with, seems somehow connected to the tendency to not want to share anything of your wealth, your capital or property with the other. Perhaps the rejection of sharing comes from the intuition that nowadays sharing means chopping up.

The secret, I think, is actually important because it defies sharing. The secret, that speechless and unformed thing, is that which cannot be chopped up. It cannot be turned into information, it resists what some call the digital ontology. Yeah sure, we can share a secret, but it cannot be divided and we shouldn’t be divided by it.

Let me end with another quote, from Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? Towards the end the protagonist, Sheila, bumps in to her ex-husband, who starts to read out a letter by a fourteen-year-old that has been published in the paper. It’s about the apocalypse, he says. ‘We,’ the girl writes, ‘we are like any family at the core of which there is a secret that, even if someone asked, no one in that family – not even the snitchy, untrustworthy types – could ever reveal. In this way, we are all like a family together in the present, and no future civilization will ever know our secret – the secret of our existence together – just as we do not know the secrets that lived and died with the past.’

There we are: a community not willing to share, all going down together. Imagine what we might see looking back on our time from beyond the apocalypse. The secret remains a secret. It actually lies without instead of just within. And in that, whatever it means, there might be found some kind of respect.

Thank you.