Human Functionalism or The Digital Civilization and its discontents.

A lecture by Lars Weber at the Joint Research Center of the European Union in Ispra, Italy 2019.

What is Human Functionalism?

Asking myself, the same question as most of you probably (or hopefully) do, I came to a surprising conclusion. When I first started to consider the subject, it seemed clear to me that I should focus on the human aspect in the shape of reactions to and attitudes towards devices and their output that apparently help us to be more and more efficient.

The idea of efficiency itself was to be looked at. The pressure caused by technological means and the digital invasion into every wrinkle of ourselves, the overload of stress and emotional reactions like a bad conscience and the fear to fail without the all too useful digital input, support and output.
There were sentences coming up, questions like: Are you seriously afraid of shitstorms? Imagine praising someone, just because you like it? Your battery will soon be empty. Finally, you will have time for yourself. How can we feel that we are lonely if we are unable to be digitally alone? How is freedom possible when everything is coded? What is most important in your life and what would you give up for it?

These questions were actually one reason to invite me to the JCR. They sure catch the discomfort we often feel in our relation towards an omnipresent digital technology. But still they leave the question unanswered: What is Human Functionalism?

One might think, Human Functionalism is about our relationship towards digitally enhanced efficiency, our expectations, our frustrations, our needs and desires. This relation has to be balanced, the human factor has to be respected, the unprecedented inflation of digital technology has to be contained and humans must remain the masters and not become the object of the process. Every individual needs to emancipate her/himself from the well concealed all too useful, all too entertaining temptations of the digital realm. The humane always in mind, only those who ask the right questions, will resist the utilization of our curiosity, vanity, playfulness and ambition for the benefit of a few mega corporations and authoritarian states. Fair enough. But is it really enough? I asked myself. Are questions a proper tool that leads to a conscious handling of the matter? Is a conscious handling even possible?

It seems to be hard to reach if we believe Mr. Nir Eyal who proposes the model of a „time box“ to control our digital habits. Meaning we should plan every minute of our everyday life and dedicate it to a certain purpose like productive work, eating, childcare, sports and so on to avoid by this schedule useless scrolling, surfing, texting and chatting. Sounds a bit like a capitulation to me.
Isn´t it the paradoxical attempt to control the digital tools disguised as efficient by even more efficiency, limiting spontaneity to almost zero? So, where is my surprising conclusion about Human Functionalism? Not far away, I promise.
Let me sum up the tools first. Smart phone, Smart watch, Smart Things in general, Pads, Laptops, Computers, Cars, VCR, Games, Bodychip RFID etc. They are 24/7 omnipresent and knowing everything about us, more than we can remember ourselves. They interact, they learn, they optimize each other with accelerated speed. We know this, but we do not really care – far from switching them off. I call this conglomerate of technology and its in- and output

THE DIGITAL ENTITY
(as sometimes opposed to human entity).

I see it as a whole, produced by many devices and processes. The DIGITAL ENTITY defines an increasing part of our rational and emotional being. It is not the air we breathe, but we are wrapped in it individually and it arches above us collectively. Now that we are talking about a DIGITAL ENTITY, we can see it everywhere at anytime. We are inside it. Even if we switch off our devices, it is there in the shape of our neighbours´, fellow travelers´, colleagues´, friends´ and loved ones´ devices and media. The DIGITAL ENTITY is there in the shape of our data and in an almost transcendent shape in our imagination. Only in digital detox it is not there. At least within the detoxified zone, which makes its absence possibly even more significant, underlining its power.
My conclusion, as you may already guess, is that we shouldn’t primarily analyse the human reactions and needs to the Digital Entity, but rather ask ourselves:

WHAT IS THE CHARACTER OF THE DIGITAL ENTITY.

How do we humans perceive the Digital Entity, what character do we project at it? We adapt a considerable amount of our thinking and behaviour to the conditions set by the DIGITAL ENTITY. And because we are humans, we generalize.

1. Even if there is no specific demand at the moment (given the improbable situation that the DIGITAL ENTITY doesnt produce one) we create a hypothesis about what might be expected of us.

2. Because the DIGITAL ENTITY is omnipresent and powerful, we perceive it as significantly bigger than us. Interacting with it and thanks to habit forming we regress to an inautonmous infantile status. (I have to do this/I won’t do this to be liked, because the greater Entity, the parent wants me to perform that way etc.)

3. Habit forming enforces our regression, easing the DIGITAL ENTITYs access to an uncritical subject.
Preconceived content, menues and multiple choice options limit creativity. The incidental variety of self-determined problem solving is substituted for by commercial predictability, comfortably lulling our articulation.

4. Depending on our needs and desires, the DIGITAL ENTITY can play a multitude of roles for (and against) us. Although we regress, when interacting with it, it is not just in the role of the benevolent parent.It has a more contradictory character.
Parent – Salesperson, Boss – Spy
It is confusing: Admirer – Judge
It is sinister: Friend – Traitor – Seducer

While interacting with it we experience arbitrary shifts of its roles, some of them never openly declared.
We have entered a relationship with the DIGITAL ENTITY that we do not clearly recognize as such, because it is atomized in so many devices and apps. Not recognizing it, we often fail to confidently shape it. But our discomfort is not just caused by stress or an overload of input, neither by an addiction, all this happens but all that can be managed. It is caused by our human need to interact with the Digital Entity as tough it was a fellow human. We anthropomorphize the DIGITAL ENTITY, while it doesn’t stop doing its homework. And while we see the eager pupils pen scratching over the paper with an enervating sound, we will soon be reported to the headmaster. But we prefer to think, his pen scratches, because he is putting us on an invitation list, doing a shopping list for us, writing a poem, giving us an address. While trusting the DIGITAL ENTITY we know we should distrust it, while we let it provide almost everything, we know about its irresponsibility, while giving away our secrets, we know they might be abused, while feeling flattered, we know, a shitstorm is always at the horizon, while setting our preferences, we suspect they will be ignored, while bonding, we know we are manipulated, while defining ourselves through it, we know we are just numbers for it. Our partner-hypothesis for the DIGITAL ENTITY is ambiguous at least. Charming, flattering, Treacherous, manipulative, insatiably curious, unpredictably talkative, warm and sharing, cold and cunning. Giving us a tender stroke for another mouthful of data or a data stream for another stroke.
The DIGITAL ENTITY is certainly confusing or even abusive.

THIS IS THE CHARACTER OF THE DIGITAL ENTITY:

Even if its bad features dont come true for many of us, we are aware of them lurking somewhere in the dataset.

Imagine this:

A roommate we trust is doing all our shopping, but instead of food and cleaning agents he only buys candy and booze. Incredibly charming and with lots of candy this someone makes us even approve with his volatility, until he later complains that there is no pizza in the fridge and no toilet paper in the bathroom. We get perplexed. Being hungry the roommate exits to a barbecue with the neighbours where he gossips about our empty fridge, as we come to know later. Hilariously he returns to grab the booze, we didn’t want, and leaves to heat up the neighbours party to a point that somebody calls the police. The police detect photos of our own kids as well as our banking data which is common knowledge to all of the guests. On top of that they find out that literally everybody knows the pin codes for our kids’ education account, because the person we trust dropped them without even caring. Now translate this scenario to the DIGITAL ENTITY and subtract the police.Then push the repeat button to get a pointed picture of our interaction with the DIGITAL ENTITY going wrong. If the DIGITAL ENTITY was a person, we would well beware of it. The DIGITAL ENTITY lacks remorse and empathy, shows a shallow affect, fails to accept responsibility. Although it is the provider of almost everything, it is often unaccountable. It doesn’t trust us, that is why it wants our data. We don’t trust the DIGITAL ENTITY, but want to be loved by it – via its contents and functionality which make us and those people important to us objects of its machinations. Friendly support and manipulative rip off, mothering and paternal sanctions, even ostracism.
From coupling to friendship to romance, apparently the whole spectre of emotional and rational demands is covered. But almost never the DIGITAL ENTITY fulfills related expectation for sincerity, loyalty and altruism. When interacting with it we seem to forget that the DIGITAL ENTITY is just so nice because it takes a tiny bit from us with every single interaction until it has taken a chunk big enough to invert our self concept. For this purpose the DIGITAL ENTITY – being multichanneled and inventive – takes on contradictory roles, using our analogue emotions to approach us digitally.

Instead of sanctioning the arbitrary role switch we continue our splendid regression, cultivate the infantile cosiness with our devices and lament about it without any consequences. What is going on? Are we hostages? Are we stupids? Are we remotely controlled? Certainly, a bit of all of that. But I think the explanation is more specific. We are simply acting as humans do, when they regress and perceive themselves dependent on a larger, more powerful but abusive entity/character. We act like infants, because our adult judgement is outsmarted. We get a bad conscience for not fulfilling the entities expectations or just being told, we don’t. We feel guilty of what is actually the deed of the abuser. We blame ourselves as the cause for our confusion. We doubt our own reality and prefer the one projected by the larger entity. To sharpen my point, let me draw an interesting parallel: Confusion, self-blame, guilt, doubt of one’s own reality:
In our regressed state we sometimes feel a variety of feelings typical of the infant of an abusive or even psychopathic parent. A dependent who is unable to process its parents contradictory and volatile behaviour, a behaviour swaying between charme, disrespect and abuse. And even if this is not the case, we almost certainly feel the slight discomfort that humans feel when they are almost sure about something being wrong.

Hardly anybody wants to abandon the DIGITAL ENTITY, because we value its perceived efficiency and downplay its collateral effects. This dissonant situation will be constant, until the DIGITAL ENTITY will have been modified to invisible perfection or perfect invisibility. Or until we draw the necessary conclusions. So, what can we do?
What can we do, if we continue to let the DIGITAL ENTITY access our lives?
The answer is as clear as it is simple:

1. AUTHORIZE.
Remember you are an adult, an autonomous being.
2. ANALYZE.
Try to realize each of the many roles the DIGITAL ENTITY is playing for you in any given situation.
3. LIMIT.
Decide where you limit or even cancel the roles of the DE and do not allow the DIGITAL ENTITY to go beyond this point.
4. RELAX.
Don’t let yourself be pressed by efficiency promises.

In short:
Use the strengths of your human skills to control the DIGITAL ENTITY which outsmarts you by only pretending to be human.
Sorry for any demonizing or personalizing of the DIGITAL ENTITY in this lecture. Of course, it is just a variety of devices with loads of utterly useful in- and output.

Thank you for listening.

 

Kontakt:

Lars Weber
lwe@kleinundplaecking.com

 

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