We are living in the time of the technosocial. But what is the technosocial; the society that is technological? It is more than the mere interplay between society and technology – for such an interplay is in itself unremarkable. Rather, the technosocial is a society whose members’ self-understanding is mediated in solely technological terms. Within the technosocial, the socius – that social body which takes credit for production, as Deleuze understood it – reduces the individual participants to information. But from this reduction, a new impasse arises. This impasse represents a new aporia of the social. The technosocial is expressed as an excess of information coupled with a digression from concrete truths. It is at once a drawing nearer of individuals (a radical deterritorialization) and simultaneously the rapid anonymization of individuals. Thus, what is drawn near is driven apart in the same movement.
The more information accumulates, the more obscure the individual becomes.
Though the term “technosocial” has been implemented in a variety of ways, it has yet to be given a thorough philosophical interpretation. Let us consider it.
The technosocial is not simply a social network, but social networks are integral to the technosocial. It is an unprecedented development. Facebook is but one example. It once supplanted MySpace as the premier interface of the technosocial, but has itself been supplanted by the proliferation of platforms across the socius – Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and so on. Each of these sites produce a superabundance of information that facilitates rapid individualization while obscuring individuals beneath the torrent of said information, which is not so much about the individual per se as it is about the production itself.
The general space of the internet facilitates the technosocial. The web is the medium of production and we can turn to any number of sites where the interplay between an excess of information and the digression of truth plays out. The social network is an near ideal case study because it accomplishes a number of technosocial goals: 1) it amasses information on the “user,” a euphemism for human beings; 2) it prompts quasi-anonymity; and 3) it combine the accumulated data and anonymity to generate target-specific desires (in the form of advertising, but also in the formation of idiosyncratic sub-groups, for instance, the incel phenomenon).
The excess of information available qua the technosocial would, at a glance, lead one to suspect that anonymity would be near impossible. This is the illusion, the virtual reality, of the technosocial. The technosocial identity of the individual is a tertiary individuation. There is, first, the individual of the real. This is the individuation that cannot be escaped; it is the face-to-face encounter, the one who returns our gaze in the flesh, from the mirror, the speaker who delivers speech. Then, there is the individuation of the inscription of identity. This is the re-individualization of the real into the formal written. If Derrida is to be believed, and speech is always already a writing, then we fall into a seemingly infinite gap. The absurdity of the technosocial is that it widens an already infinite space. It pretends to mediate the “real” individual across an infinite divide through digital inscription, thereby producing a branded “self image” for others within the socius. Thus, the third individuation: from the formal inscription of the individual to the virtual self – the online “handle,” the avatar, the representation of the representation of myself.
The representation of representation has a superficial problematic in that it is self-defined. It is I who self-consciously generates the virtual-I. I choose the virtual-self I am to become.
The virtual self is a functional self-design.
This does not necessarily mean that I lie. But the selection of details is a kind of self-censorship. One wold almost never say, “I am a university professor and I beat my children,” or, “I prefer Victorian literature, and anonymous masochistic sex,” though such irony would not go unnoticed. Indeed, there are specialized cites, so-called “dating apps,” where career and literary preferences become the taboo in favor of explicit sexualization and self-objectification. The virtual I is a sanitized I, where what is sanitary becomes radically context-relative. More to the point, it is a teleologically sanitized I. It is a creation that must serve a purpose: self-promotion, the improvement of self-esteem, the garnering of praise, the accumulation of friends, the assimilation of politics, activism, religious witnessing, getting laid. The virtual self is a functional self-design.
But the individual within the technosocial is not merely self-selected, for this happens in concrete relations as well. The more profound problem is that we are not presented with some ideal-self – the representation is not a representation of a perfected self. It is rather a deluded projection of a supposedly “real” self that has been reduced to information, reduced to a virtual inscription. It used to be that a person had to move away from where they were well known to achieve this sanitization.
Think of the provincial Lucien Chardon from Balzac’s Lost Illusions as he moves from Angoulême to Paris in order to transform himself into the poet, Lucien de Rubempré. Remember Lucien’s anguish as he recognizes the difference between the actual provincial that must be met face -to-face and the great Parisian poet he wishes to be. Recall how he “felt himself parted from the world about him by a sort of gulf, and he began to consider how he should cross it, for he firmly resolved to be like this delicate, graceful, refined youth of Paris” (155). But his illusion, still mediated as he was through concrete encounters, still subjected to making speeches, was ironically just as delicate in his identity as the Parisian dandies he so admired (a secret he tried to keep from himself). The technosocial has exceeded in every proportion the level of sophistication available for this sanitization of the self.
In the technosocial, we approach the horror of the cloned man Daniel from Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. In it, a cloned descendant of a 21st century man named Daniel is attempting, through the writing of a book, to create a lasting memory of himself in the clone that will succeed him upon death. Thus, true immortality may be achieved through the passing of information – a clone is, after all, simply a copy of the code inscribed in the genes – isn’t it? The future man muses on Pierce’s first law to the extent that it:
“…identifies personality with memory. Nothing exists, in the personality, outside what is memorizable, (be this memory cognitive, procedural, or emotional); it is thanks to memory, for example, that the sense of identity does not dissolve during sleep… Pierce’s three laws were going to put an end to the hazardous attempts at memory downloading through the intermediary of a data carrier, in favor of, one the one hand, direct molecular transfer, and, on the other, what today we call life story, initially conceived as a simple complement, a provisional solution, but which was, following the work by Pierce, to become considerably more important. Thus, curiously, this major logical advance resulted in the rehabilitation of an ancient form that was basically quite close to what was once called autobiography” (18-19).
I am read. I am information, inscription, fiction – a living memoir.
So too is the virtual self in the technosocial a memorizable self reduced to the information “about” me: age, gender, religion, political affiliation, favorite books and movies, sexual orientation. A few photos, preferably the more flattering ones, unless my sense of humor is itself memorable or self-deprecating. The concrete has been dissolved. I must no longer deal with spontaneous speech making at the opera house or among the society into which I must enter. I am, always already, among “friends” or “followers.” My speeches are always to a choir. I can now edit my speech. The words never pass my lips, are never really heard. I am read. I am information, inscription, fiction – a living memoir.
I can have hundreds or thousands of friends and followers but I may never be met. The concrete has been dissolved qua technology into the virtual. The socius is deterritorialization into an excess of information, but it is information without form, a book without pages. The technosocial is a form of inscribing the subject onto the book without pages that is a form detached, perhaps indefinitely, from the concrete person interfacing with a computer terminal. Such an excess of information, a multitude of users, a reduction of persons.
The technosocial is the fiction into which we write ourselves.
Anonymity is thus symptomatic of the technosocial. The excess of information obfuscates any concrete manifestation of identity – mannerisms, speech patterns, dress, demonstrable talent, vice. Information becomes a substitute for memory in the concrete, the virtual memory of the machine contra the neurological memories of the brain. The technosocial is the fiction into which we write ourselves. The virtual more clearly reveals our plurality, for it allows various manifestations across networks through the compartmentalization of information. We laugh at how different our coworkers may be at the company picnic, or the change in our classmates when family is around. Masturbation is usually reserved for private. More radical is the variation allowed by the anonymity of the technosocial due to the compartmentalization of information regarding the virtual self.
One identity manifests on Facebook, another on Match.com, Twitter and Instagram can be integrated, while Blendr or Grindr are more… closeted. We are inscribed and re-inscribed across the vast book without pages. Which is real? What is real?
Even Lyotard could not then foresee this post-modern condition. It is, however, a deep skepticism toward meta-narratives that drives diversification of self-inscription across a virtual landscape. There need not be just one me. There can be a plurality of identities that overlap, or that may never meet, except in the hand that inscribes them.
However, the technosocial does not only exist on the Internet. I do not want to give that impression, for it would be a false one. The Internet is merely the medium of the technosocial, just as a computer or smart phone are interfaces. I can be mediated by the Internet in a variety of technosocial enclaves; societies whose existence are facilitated by interfacing with the technological. I can concretize the relations I experience online should I so choose. I can purchase goods, and they will be delivered to me via a circuit of technologies. I can go out on dates, or join political action groups, or have religious studies. I can publish my thoughts on a blog or seek out other avenues of publication. All of these things become available to me through the technosocial. I can, in a sense, achieve a hypersociality.
Arrangements that formerly took days or weeks can now be facilitated in hours, minutes, even seconds. Paul Virilio comments on this aspect of globalization as well. He indicates two features of globalization as being temporal compression (events occur in shortened time-frames) and tele-surveillence (the world becomes ever present due to the dissemination of telecommunications that allow us to see previously unseeable parts of the world). However, we should not read this to mean that the world is “getting smaller.”
I wonder: how will such a small world accommodate the ever-increasing multiplicity of subjectivities?
That the world is “getting smaller” is often assumed to be true of globalization and the expansion of the technosocial. Reiterating Houellebecq, “Pierce’s three laws were going to put an end to the hazardous attempts at memory downloading through the intermediary of a data carrier, in favor or, on the one hand, direct molecular transfer, and, on the over what today we call a life story.” The rehabilitation of autobiography follows. I wonder: how will such a small world accommodate the ever-increasing multiplicity of subjectivities?
I posit that the technosocial is among the excesses of urbanization and that it is excess that most marks the technosocial. As such, it presents a sort of anti-ethics. That is, it is a socius that admits no limitations on one’s character – returning here to the Greek roots of our word “ethics.”
As such, [the technosocial] presents a sort of anti-ethics.
Even with an overabundance of information concerning a given character, the character itself begins to lose all definition in the sense of being definite. It is given, but given subjectively by an always unreliable narrator. There is always the question who are you really? Are you my friend? Are you my peer? Are you a woman, or a man? Are you how old you say you are? Does it matter – when should it matter?
The urbanization of the technosocial is to be emphasized because therein the illusory nature of the virtual is revealed. The concrete distance is not destroyed by the virtual. Travel once to rural area, far from a metropolitan center, and try to order food on Grubhub. It likely “hasn’t gotten there yet.” If you can get a signal Facebook or Twitter still function, but your choices (among “products”) on OkCupid or Grindr may be curtailed. Again, it is not just these social networks that constitute the technosocial in its entirety, for these technologies themselves can facilitate the entry into a concrete relation. But it becomes a concretization formulated on the mediation of the technological. I may choose to meet a group, or another person, or order my dinner, but the chances of a successful encounter in the actual, as opposed to the virtual, is dependent upon physicality, and probabilities increase in proportion to increased urbanization. Similarly, an older manifestation of the technosocial appears with the accessibility of planes and trains. Rural areas become increasingly under-serviced and are criticized in relation to their lack of urbanization.
Let’s take account of some conclusions.
It may seem at first as though the technosocial is a harbinger of a new freedom – that we can be freed from the concrete restrictions on our person and enter into a virtual reality in order to vent our desires among an increasingly idiosyncratic in-group. We can find many variations on human desires via the Internet, form the mundane to the scandalous. However, the illusory nature of this virtual world had been shown. This freedom would be only a virtual freedom. It would not alleviate our existential angst.
Rather, it is a freedom contingent upon technological mediation. What is more, such a freedom marks the abrogation of the responsibility found in the face-to-face encounter. I am not held in the gaze of the other, as it were. Such a fact does not doom the technosocial to immorality, but the technosocial is to be navigated with great care because it positions itself beyond the ethical.
The technosocial’s excess is exacerbated by its technological contingency and the unreliability of the characters inscribed across the book without pages. It exceeds, without measure, the bounds of convention and is thereby separated from concrete truth. Truth lacks a certain determination that normally indicates verifiability. The technosocial is, for now, an epistemic dark space. Such a claim may seem counter-intuitive because the Internet is so heavily relied upon for fact checking purposes. But we must look no further than the current political climate whirling around the dysfunctional President and his cabinet – fact checking almost never determines belief. The technosocial facilitates this vacillation. It makes possible, through the inscription of enclosures around epistemic subcultures, the ignorance (the ignoring) of facts.
Facts count for less in the technosocial because the technosocial is based upon the inscription of information alone, not on the truth function normalized by a pragmatic notion of correspondence. In concrete relations, if you tell me it’s raining, I can look outside and verify your claim. Such verification becomes obfuscated, along with identities, under the massive stockpiles of information. Truth then becomes an unending uncovering: the task of a virtual archaeology.
There are exciting prospects in the technosocial, as well as hazardous pitfalls. It is a new world, an unprecedented mode of existence unique to our times.
– Donovan Irven
Note: This essay was first presented at Purdue University as part of the Fifth Biennial Conference for Philosophy and Literature, held October 19-20, 2012.
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions. Translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guatteri. Anti-Oedipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis, MO: University of Minneapolis Press, 1983.
Houellebecq, Michel. The Possibility of an Island. Translated by Gavin Bowd. New York: Vintage International, 2007.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “The Face” in Ethics and Infinity. Translated by Chris Turner. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1985.
Lyotard, Jean-Franscois. The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MO: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984.
Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2005.