Technologies of the Self

Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not finally become confused.
–Foucault

Of course, from behind the screen the usual answer, “I prefer not to,” was sure to come; and then, how could a human creature, with the common infirmities of our nature, refrain from bitterly exclaiming upon such perverseness — such unreasonableness. However, every added repulse of this sort which I received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence.

–From Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

— Nietzsche

My current job demands a level of familiarity with technology on both practical and intellectual levels. I work for a professional computing publisher, where I manage the improvement and maintenance of the company’s system and the launch of hundreds of computing-focused titles. Through the course of my work, I have had a number of realizations regarding the current and future role of technology and capitalism in human affairs. These realizations connect in many ways to the my readings of major philosophers and writers, in particular, Michel Foucault, Herman Melville, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

When I was hired, I was told that the goal of my position was not the mastery of the work detailed on the job description, but more so the creation of a system or clustered technologies that would perform those functions. In effect, the reason I was hired into the position was to, over time, make my position obsolete. I continue to enjoy this challenge, and have made much progress in replacing the former me. I felt that it was a unique mission when I was brought aboard. Yet, at a certain point, I began to wonder how unique of a mission it actually was. In this era of late capitalism, of knowledge workers and the paperless office, how many other individuals are creating technology to replace themselves? And, more importantly, what does this mean in a historical and philosophical sense?

During the last few months I have been moving through a compendium of Foucault’s writings. Foucault’s concept of power is somehow both obvious and groundbreaking, radical. He shows that where there is power, there is a power relationship. Power flows between two opposing forces. Even when it appears that one force has all of the power, the reality is that both forces have power–even if it’s only the freedom of escape, or the power of refusal.

The protagonist in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener provides an example of a seemingly powerless actor in a well defined power relationship. Bartleby, a low-level employee of a law firm, appears to have no power: he is cornered in a cubicle, his only window revealing a brick wall, always at the beck and call of his supervisor. His job entails only the most mechanical, drone-like of duties, such as the transcription by hand of court documents. It is also revealed that Bartleby has no home, and remains after closing hours to sleep at the office. Weak, forlorn-looking, Bartleby is the prototypical oppressed office worker.

However, it is through his unwavering refusal to do work that Bartleby exerts his power. Bartleby “prefers” not to follow orders, he “prefers”  not to have his own residence, and he ultimately “prefers” not to eat. These actions, while obviously passive, run head-on with the capitalist structure which he inhabits. Bartleby brings resistance to the rigid office hierarchy, distorted domesticity to the cold world of the commercial sector, and a refusal to nurture the body that is essentially a gear in the capitalist machine. He shakes things up, a passive agitator. This peculiar and radical behavior confounds his supervisor, also the story‘s narrator, who ultimately undergoes a transformation of sorts. The supervisor begins as someone obsessed with status and the trivialities of work on Wall St. In the end, he is haunted by the downfall and eventual death of his strange underling, bringing a very human element to his otherwise superficial existence. Through his actions Bartleby reveals the fragility of capitalism—it is, after all, dependent its subjects continuing to “buy into“ the game, whether out of fear, greed, or apathy.

Melville’s novella was published back in the mid-nineteenth century, but its radical undertone is still relevant today. This leads to the question: where are the Bartlebys of of the 21st century? And that question leads back to a realization I experienced at my current job. It could be said that most of the Bartleby’s of today have been replaced by technology–applications, systems, “business intelligence.” Sure there are many people still performing routine tasks, stuck in shabby cubicles, with windows facing directly into walls, and with micromanaging bosses. But those people are rapidly being replaced. Lower-level office workers are no longer needed to copy and paste data–system interfaces do it for them. Businesses no longer need middle managers to digest the work of lower-level employees–reporting services and data mining offer more robust ways of handling the same work.

It’s true that much of this “Bartleby-type” work is miserable. No one likes copying and pasting data all day. But, if viewed through the scope of Foucault and Melville‘s novella, what does it mean when technology rapidly replaces the work of humans? Technology does not have the power to refuse, or the freedom to escape. It’s the ultimate slave–an application cannot “prefer” not to perform a task, it either performs the task perfectly, or reveals a bug which is then corrected in the code. This replacement of human workers with technology in effect helps to speed up and smooth out the functioning of global capitalism. As more workers like myself improve business productivity by leveraging IT, we in effect help to remove power relationships that once existed between workers and corporations, subjects and institutions.

The transformation of the human or “real” into technology or “virtual” is taking place on a much larger scale than the corporate office. In the last twenty years, both individuals and corporations have transformed. In terms of the former, a large portion of the social interaction and self-identification that once occurred in the real world now exists in online social networks like Facebook. People shed identities over time, leaving virtual skins in the form of long-neglected social networking profiles. People live and people die online. Moreover, all of our personal information–medical profiles, financial histories, tastes and preferences–reside in databases. Our lives are stored, analyzed, and data-warehoused. This trend will continue, especially as mobile technology allows for the dominance of not just the home and office, but all the time and space that construct our lives.

It is obvious that corporations have also experienced a transformation from real to virtual. Using the company I work for as a case example, books move through the virtual machine line of the system until a final product is printed and released into the market. This product is represented by data in another system, where customers purchase the product using financial data stored in yet another system, and so on. Now with the replacement of the physical book with the ebook, it is really just data and text moving from concept to (virtual) reality, from the idea in the author’s head to the Kindle page on Amazon.com. This is the process that new workers like myself are creating and perfecting.

I must pause to admit that this is an exciting process, and I take pleasure in being a part of this rapid transformation of both a particular industry (pub
lishing) and modern life in general. Most days I march into work looking forward to learning more about systems and emerging technologies, to replacing my old job, the old me. This purpose of this piece, though, is to take a moment to ask where it’s all going.

The disconcerting part is that these processes seem to form a seamless loop. As more workers replace themselves with technology, they help to squash preexisting power relationships between the worker and the corporation. This pushes technology–as well as predatory capitalism in the form of advertisements, marketing data mining, etc.–further, and with increasing effectiveness, into the lives of individuals.

The problem with the interrogation of technology in this sense is that the discussion of the nature of capitalism looms over the debate–it is the elephant in the room. A great deal of good has come from technology’s emergence in various institutions–businesses offer better products, doctors are able to identify and treat diseases in new ways, and the military…well not much good there, except for perhaps protecting soldiers at war, but that would assume those soldiers should be there in the first place. No doubt capitalism has played an immense role in this emergence–providing the capital to develop technologies and the channels to distribute them to individuals. If one looks at the emergence of the PC–perhaps the defining moment in the history of modern computing–it was corporations like AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, and Intel that were creating the revolution.

However, for as much as capitalism gives, it takes. Forced obsolescence, targeted ads based on email content, trends as data sold to marketing firms, these are all part of the game. Technology enables a light speed barrage of marketing messages. The best example might be viral marketing. Bloggers often talk about the death of authenticity–in the world of web 2.0, it becomes extremely hard to decipher what is real and authentic and what is the marketing carbon copy. It lends itself to the conclusion, “Does it really matter?” This fits with the postmodern concept of not being able to step outside of a dominant ideology like global capitalism. This is true–you’re not going to be able to pierce the veil of capitalism, especially when no one knows what’s on the other side, what’s next.

A great case study might be biotechnology. Much good can come from technological advances in the realm, for humans, the environment, and the planet in general. However, there is a great potential for harm as well. As technology increases at a breakneck speed, capitalism will find a way to produce both good and bad. One can look at the pharmaceutical industry as a current example. And as humans literally fuse with technology through the biotech field, can we really afford to make the creation of living organisms subject to the malignant side of capitalism?

And again we come back to the question, “Where do we go?” The first publisher I worked for specialized in the topic of socially responsible business–“business with a conscience.” These businesses do exist, and many are very successful. They are able to balance a degree of social responsibility–to their customers, their workers, and to society in general–with profit-making ability. But both the positive and negative effects of business are still by definition externalities in the majority of private enterprises.

Enter Nietzsche…

So, in the overall discussion of technology, business, and the individual, it remains to be seen if the disappearance of Bartlebys is a good thing or a bad thing. There will be less mind-numbing corporate positions, but also more steps towards the creation of a efficient monster–or will it be angel? Maybe it’s best viewed in the supermoral Nietzschean sense. Capitalism is neither “good” nor “bad,” just like nature itself, and it is humans that impose a morality on to the ideology. Perhaps humans created the “corporation” as a type of ubermensch figure who escapes the confines of morality imposed on humans and resides outside of justice, of right and wrong or good and bad. Hence the current trend of actual individuals “incorporating” themselves.

If viewed through the lens of Nietzsche, this debate moves to a prophetic level. For it was Nietzsche, through the voice of Zarathurstra, who proclaims the emergence of the ubermensch, or overman. For Nietzsche, “man is a rope, fastened between animal and Overman–a rope over an abyss.” If Foucault and Melville (at least for this discussion) are concerned with the institutions and the role of the worker, or subject, Nietzsche ascribed to a historical philosophy of mellenial proportions. Nietzsche, to quote the late D. Boon, “lived sweat but dreamed light years.”

Nietzsche points to some type of new being, the overman, that will make humans appear as a “laughing stock or painful embarrassment.” This concept lends itself to interpretation through 21st century fields like biotechnology. Capitalism might be used in conjunction with biotechnology as stepping stones to a “supermoral superhuman.” By embracing both capitalism and technology, humans could overcome these “limitations.” As I mentioned before, capitalism seems to embody both the life-giving and brutal aspects of nature itself. By leveraging capitalism and technology to overcome both our moral and biological limitations, we could wind up, conversely, in a state that is more true to earth or nature.

What would this future look like? It’s very difficult to tell. It could be horrific, from a human perspective at least. After all, we talking about the emergence of something that is not necessarily human–we would be its chimpanzee. All knowledge, culture, religion–the triumphs of man–would lose value. This new being could build a hyper-intelligent, beautiful new world, all through indescriminate violence. One only needs to look to humans for this blueprint.

In conclusion, maybe I don’t have the esteemed position of replacing the Bartlebys, but I am Bartleby. Bartleby was not resisting capitalism, an agitator, as much as a harbinger of what was to come. He was, as Nietzsche would say, one of the forerunners who “are like heavy drops falling singly from the dark cloud that hangs over mankind: they prophesy the coming of the lightening and as prophets they perish.” And as I work to replace my former self, to make what once was the human into the technological, perhaps I too am leaping towards this uncertain future of the overman–I am “a going-across or a down-going.”

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