...and the Beginning of Wisdom
Seven months into the pandemic, screen-mediated interaction remains the order of the day. Every day, we are exhorted—ever more passionately—to switch to forms of online socialization as proxies for more recognizable forms of community. As case counts climb around the world and a bleak winter approaches, we are told that we must once again hunker down in the light of glowing LCD displays and create new ways of “being together.” For my part, the reality of this transformation really didn’t sink in until I was invited to “enjoy a drink” over Zoom with other participants at the close of a technology webinar. Strange times, indeed.
As the year drags on, though, it increasingly seems to me that in the shift online, we’ve lost something beyond just the sheer physical presence of other people. More and more, what is absent from our lives is an important facet of the way we speak to each other when we are being earnest, engaged with the subjects that matter most to us: the possibility of the imperfectly expressed, half-formed thought, the I-don’t-know-but-maybe-this that precedes all growth in wisdom.
By the half-formed thought, I mean the faltering, embryonic hypotheses that we all formulate, and tentatively advance among trusted confidants, in the course of making sense of the world. These are the genuinely compelling, intellectually suggestive—if not fully developed—thoughts that flow freely in conversations between real friends in quiet spaces. What if Thomas Aquinas was wrong about monarchies, but right about social hierarchies in general? What if Walter Benjamin was right about the consequences of artistic reproduction, but wrong about what it actually means for ordinary people to have beautiful objects in their lives? What if historical criticism of the Old Testament is shot through with as many unfalsifiable assumptions as the naïve fundamentalism it critiques?
Questions like these, and more, haunt my late-night thoughts. I will freely admit that I do not know the perfect theoretical balance between maintaining a stable social order and securing the possibility of healthy internal critique, or between preserving the dynamism of the market economy and indulging its most anti-human tendencies, or between any number of other concerns. I have plenty of thoughts about these topics, but no perfectly defined conclusions—as, I think, is often appropriate in the case of truly complex questions.
There is no real substitute for working these issues out in the physical presence of others. Anyone who’s ever participated in online “message boards” as part of a university course knows that there is a cold, repetitive sterility to these forum posts. Almost to a one, posts are wordsmithed to edit out any boat-rocking comments, any remarks that might trigger a flurry of classmate responses and so, in turn, require more engagement than the bare minimum. These are far cries from the insights offered by the students whose hands go up reluctantly during in-person classes, who tentatively advance claims imperfectly thought through, but observations clearly pointing towards genuine comprehension.
Why such hesitation once a screen is interposed between speaker and hearer? Perhaps it is because the confession of personal uncertainty is, at bottom, an expression of trust in the hearer, and the hearer’s role in such a dialogue is not to judge or chasten, but to listen and reflect alongside the speaker. That engagement cannot take place against a backdrop of persistent uncertainty—that is, the unconscious but not unjustified fear that someone, somewhere, may be listening in. And when it comes to subjects of genuinely deep concern, I can disclose my true thoughts only in the presence of those whom I know intend my good.
The most haunting single image of Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir—with the exception, perhaps, of the flogged prisoner whose story opens the book—is that of the Panopticon, the intricate, multilevel prison in which every inmate is surveilled at all times by the unseen eyes of their captors, utterly stripped of privacy.
For Foucault, the Panopticon exemplifies the wielding of power in two distinct ways:
that of binary division and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal); and that of coercive assignment of differential distribution (who [the prisoner] is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be exercised over him in an individual way, etc.).*
Foucault’s intellectual heirs have since developed these observations into a wide-ranging critique of any “essentializing” metaphysics that would dare to modulate power through a grid of defined conceptual categories. But far more totalitarian, perhaps, are those modern-day technological tools that would “essentialize” the thought-worlds of human beings.
Today’s digital brokers of “big data,” after all, make their money by aggregating the characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of online individuals. But such data is only ever useful to the extent it can be segmented into narrow categories. Genuine nuances of thinking—such as the fact that one may be wrestling with Georges Bataille or trying to refute Mo Tzu—are swept aside in favor of descriptors reflecting undifferentiated interest in the topics at hand. The user is simply coded as “interested in Bataille” or “interested in Mo Tzu” for the purpose of hawking products. There is little room in this calculus for the destabilizing possibility that human beings are more than they are willing to publicly disclose, that within all people is a contemplative spark that cannot be drawn out, distilled into processable information, and controlled.
By contrast, the half-formed thought is the fly in the algorithmic ointment, the “analog hole” that prevents the cyber-Panopticon from truly getting a handle on its inhabitants. For the individual to admit uncertainty or doubt is to say no to the omnipresent digital demand that one register a stance or opinion on the spot, and to refuse to submit to the systematic classification of one’s inmost thoughts. This is what it means to be a human being and not a commodity.
The nature of a commodity, after all, is to be raw material of a single identifiable kind, something that can be sold as perfectly stable and completely inert. And today’s faceless technological platforms, through which we interact now, are always extending an algorithmic invitation to self-commodify. The user is urged to adopt a singular “personal brand” and become a purveyor of undifferentiated “content.” And in so doing, the cyber-Panopticon promises, imperfections and irregularities can all be flattened down into a unified digital persona.
That is the carrot. But the stick—the threat of decontextualized exposure of one’s inner self—is always also looming in the background. Zoom calls can always be leaked, and chat logs can always go viral. Under present conditions, to admit any degree of political or intellectual or philosophical uncertainty is to be savagely rejected by swarms of others who have bought in fully, who have willingly defined themselves according to the algorithmic categories superimposed upon them. Data brokers may be full of fine promises about user privacy, but does anyone actually believe that the cyber-Panopticon’s data merchants have their human interests in mind? Haven’t we all learned better by now?
Refusing to accept Zoom, or Skype, or Facebook Messenger as comprehensive substitutes for in-person interaction is, in part, to defy this grim vision of life. It is to live consistent with the conviction that, to live a fully realized life, one must trust other people in a way one can never trust the faceless systems behind Zoom, or Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri. And it is to admit that the only life that is worth living, in the long run, is a life that allows us to see each other as human beings outside the confines of a technological order longing to “sand down” the edges of our half-formed thoughts.
Such an attitude, to be sure, is destined to be a source of intense frustration to the Panopticon’s minders.
Dave Eggers’s 2012 dystopian novel The Circle tells the story of a young social media employee who, after a long series of ups and downs, finally embraces her company’s all-consuming vision for human digital connectivity. The novel’s closing pages offer an eerie vision of a techno-Foucauldian future:
Another burst of color appeared on the screen monitoring the workings of Annie’s mind. Mae reached out to touch her forehead, marveling at the distance this flesh put between them. What was going on in that head of hers? It was exasperating, really, Mae thought, not knowing. It was an affront, a deprivation, to herself and to the world. She would bring this up with Stenton and Bailey, with the Gang of 40, at the earliest opportunity. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn’t they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.
Lest one be tempted to write off Eggers’s vision as science fiction, it was almost seven years ago—an eternity in internet time—that Facebook acknowledged that it retained messages typed into text boxes on its website but never sent. That ill-considered message you decided at the last minute not to fire off? That angry, immediately-deleted status update putting the world on blast about the one who did you wrong? Facebook still knows. And Facebook wants to know even more.
The jaws of the Panopticon, in short, are wide open. We inhabit a system demanding more and more information, bent on sorting its participants into smaller and smaller boxes, and ever-less-tolerant of the half-formed, incipient thoughts through which we actually change. The possibility of real personal change, of course, is anathema on such a model—because to change is to falsify years of valuable user data. Better, rather, to keep users siloed in individual, self-reinforcing bubbles. And within those bubbles, the possibility of growth in insight is arrested, replaced by a steady drip-feed of information always confirming one’s priors.
With colder weather inbound, and opportunities for outdoor socialization accordingly dwindling, it seems to me that there are two paths available to those seeking to live humanely in the age of coronavirus. One is to embrace a kind of “new normal”—to fully become an algorithmized subject, ever more complacent in the face of categorization and ever more willing to fit into preset molds. Judging by the radical polarization that seems to dominate more and more of social media, it appears that many are happy to pursue that path.
But for those who crave real wisdom, who love truth and know their own limits, more is required. Perhaps that means writing letters and making phone calls once again. Perhaps it means forming cell groups around fire pits in chilly backyards, far away from touchscreens and keyboards. In any case, though, it must entail the creation of spaces where half-formed thoughts can gestate and grow. Human existence worth living for demands no less.
Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, 1975. ↩︎
Dave Eggers, The Circle, 2012. ↩︎
Jennifer Golbeck, “On Second Thought…,” Slate, 2013. https://slate.com/technology/2013/12/facebook-self-censorship-what-happens-to-the-posts-you-dont-publish.html ↩︎
Featured image: Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca painting by Guisseppe Bottani via Wikimedia Commons.
John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Patrick Henry College. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.