In the Swarm of Burnout Society
Byung-Chul Han is a Korean philosopher living and working in Berlin. He has found some successes in his work critiquing modern society, in particular his work on our society of fatigue, in a book called Burnout Society, which I will review elsewhere.
In this slim volume in Untimely Series, published by MIT, Han outlines how our current digital technologies and social media are changing the paradigm of the world we thought we knew, we have failed ‘to grasp the radical paradigm shift that is underway’ (ix) In a nascent century, performance artist Penny Arcade suggested, we aren’t quite sure how things are until 20 or 30 years after the fin de siècle…it’s then when ‘avant-garde’ trends appear. To quote Han: “When a paradigm has come to provide an object of reflection, it often means that its demise is at hand.“ (Burnout Society p.2). And as we move closer to 2020, changes are starting to emerge which counter the cheerleaders of social media and digital worlds—a new critique of the idealism of ‘Twitter revolutions and Facebook activisms.’
Written before the Cambridge Analytic debacle—which has since barely raised eyebrows—Han predicted such an outcome. Unlike the previous centuries, ‘the sovereign society’ from the seventeen century—ruled by the sword—followed by Foucault’s disciplinary society and the manifestation of biopower, which worked to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor and optimise, and control forces under it.” Biopower is of course more subtle than the sword, intervening in the external, like biological processes, health and laws that shape our society. But has been unable, according to Han, to shape our psyche. Until now. And this is where Han posits a paradigm shift. Psychopower has taken its place (p.77). With the help of digital surveillance, data mining (making collective behavioural patterns accessible) and the tracking performed by the likes of Facebook and others, digital psychopolitics is beginning to read even our thoughts, while we have less trust in government, we happily and willingly, disclose and reveal, our collective unconscious online. Every click is recorded and stored, we leave our traces everywhere and feed this digital beast by exhibiting and shining a light on every part of our private lives. We are addicted to an inner need and urge to display, to divulge all—to be liked. We have a sense of freedom when we do it, but as Han warns, self-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation (p.72). Why do we do this? Han answers this in an earlier book, Burnout Society, stating we have moved from Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’, we are no longer obedient subjects—to an ‘achievement society’, where we have become entrepreneurs of ourselves.The former rules by prohibition and negativity, governed by ‘no’, where as an ‘Achievement Society’ is ruled by can do, therefore removing any negativity with positivity.
Our volunteered and enforced ‘transparency’, is leading us to a sanitised surveillance society (Interestingly, when in Beijing earlier this year, the two most important types of startups sought out and funded by Chinese Government were surveillance and AI). Algorithms used by the data companies like Facebook, Amazon, even the stock market are essentially the same used by the secret service, to the same goal of exploiting information to the max (p.74) “Everyone is watching over everyone else. Everyone is Big Brother and prisoner—in one.” (Han p. 75)
The trouble is we act not as a true collective, ‘in the Swam’ is incapable of forming a ‘we’, or questioning dominant power. Instead, it gathers online, not in solidarity but solitude, compelled by a ‘compulsive icono-pornography’, shitstorm swarms of narcissism, disrespect and dehumanised reactivity and anonymous outrage.
We no longer can see the future and are obsessed with the present. The excess and access to information, unlike before, means we have lost trust and respect (p. 71). Today, exploitation needs not domination at all. We no longer need the opinion makers, journalists or middleman (even politicians) who provided us with unilateral communication (e.g. TV, radio), we now generate and broadcast ourselves, increasing the amount of information exponentially, without any filters. This according to Han, flattens out language and culture, and little is exclusive or discerned anymore, with no time to think before acting. But the political (or strategic communication) calls for confidentiality— a space to think before we act— therefore ‘absolute transparency’ affects any slow, long-term planning, it is “impossible to let things ripen.” (p.17) We are losing our visionaries.
While our new means of communication is remarkable, we are facing too much noise, fragmentation and little time for contemplation, with a compulsion for conformity. But because we lack bearing we tend towards outrage and scandal, storms in teacups are more prevalent, which soon disappear in the digital quagmire. This of course, is in opposition to contemplation, which brings new ideas, creativity, originality and the unusual.