Friday 12 July 2019

The digital subject, a desirable subject

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, the cover-ups at Facebook, which has been successively accused of political manipulation, then attempted to conceal this, as well as the theft of the bank details of 500,000 customers of the Marriott hotel chain in November 2018 and all the ticking Russian, Chinese and anonymous time bombs that will one day explode… They don’t change anything: the lambda users of digital tools continue to connect, to share their data, to use geolocation or expose themselves on social media. None of these scandals have been an obstacle to the growth of digital technology today.

In my opinion, these scandals have the merit of demonstrating two things; and they are essential if we want to understand how digital technology controls our society.

The dual/double finality of digital tools

First they reveal the nature of these digital tools, which is to always serve a double finality, i.e. that of the tool we use and the system that uses us. An example is easier to understand than a long-winded explanation, so let me just say Facebook. We use it as a communication, sharing, archiving or mobilisation tool. That is why it is useful for us users. But it was developed for an entirely different objective, namely to mine the greatest amount of data possible. Obviously, Facebook is not worth almost half a billion dollars because it allows us to lovingly share a photo of our latest sushi dinner! A whole set of behaviours exists that FB encourages, but which only make sense to Facebook, such as the ‘likes’ or the archiving of the transcripts of all your chats (which means that what you archive yourself does not necessarily correspond with the manner in which the company sees you!).

This means that digital tools have a double finality: the finality for the user and the finality for the system. These two finalities are inextricably linked, because they technically feed off each other and have diverging objectives. European legislators are all too well aware of this, as they drafted the GDPR precisely to protect citizens against a finality that is not theirs and that continuously threatens them. The existence of the GDPR is proof – just like the lock is proof of the inclination to steal – that as soon as users connect, they are knowingly instrumentalised for a purpose of which they are not aware. Such is the generic structure of digital tools and - this is absolutely unheard of in the history of technology - this is the first time (a significant disruption) that a tool was not developed for the use that is made of it.

“But it’s so practical!”

Second learning from all the scandals: if users are ultimately not that concerned, this is largely due to the fact that the system is founded on its libidinal power. The tools it now makes available to us are a source of pleasure, they procure a sense of comfort and make our life easier. They are eminently practical. “Practical” means: they achieve a certain objective purpose, and do this in a subjectively satisfying manner. The seductive power of digital technology, an undeniable force that explains its unprecedented success in industrial history, is to know and have the potential to target its users as libidinal beings: they follow the outlines of their psychic life, and by blending in with it, by flattering it, succeed in making instrumental tasks pleasant. That is the secret of its reach: the “it’s so practical!” undermines any form of criticism, eliminates any resistance.

This technical ability that digital capitalism now has to follow the libidinal outlines of our psyche (using the profiles that it invests so much energy in tracking, getting to know us) has anthropological, social and political consequences that are difficult to measure. The libidinal individual, who is shut in in his technological bubble, measures everything based on the pleasure it procures him. He thus becomes married to the medium rather than to the world. This is a consequence of the hold that these practical tools have on us. Their merit is measured not by their objective effectiveness, but by their subjective user-friendliness. Meaning these apps, and the entire economic system that underpins their reach, are designed to enhance the well-being of their users, with each user becoming the functionary of his own comfort. There are other, more exciting visions of the future…