Author: Bernard Stiegler
Publisher: Open Humanities Press, 2018
The Neganthropocene, which is available to download for free, is a collection of the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s recent writings. New readers are helped into this philosophical landscape via the thorough introduction by the translator Daniel Ross, who is part of the growing environment of activists and intellectuals surrounding Stiegler. Both of them are part of the organisation Institut de recherche et d’innovation (IRI) – an institute for research and innovation with offices at Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as Ars Industrialis that presents itself as an «international organisation for industrial politics of spirit».
The appealing nature of Stiegler’s work, which includes more than 30 books, lies in his original combination of a philosophy of technology with a strong existential impulse. His philosophical impetus came as he served a jail sentence for armed robbery. In the solitude of the cell, he came to realisation that thought, language and writing were essentially technologies or techniques that connected him to the world.
«Man has done nothing but blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration.» Claude Lévi-Strauss
Thus, his care for his own mental and emotional development was intimately bound up with the laborious development of culture and the human collective. Philosophy became a way out of isolation and mortal indifference, where life is lived carelessly as if it had no real value, what Nietzsche calls nihilism.
A central argument in The Neganthropocene is that the world is at risk of lapsing into such a nihilistic state as our failure to care for it becomes ever more manifest. Nihilism is no longer a mere mental state, but a structural disorder of our economical and technological civilization.
The destructive sides of civilisation
Entropy, a key concept in the book, can be conceived of as a movement from order to disorder, where energy is consumed and lost in the process – similar to what happens in a combustion engine. Irreversible deterioration of this kind invites a rather bleak vision of the world: All processes in the universe move toward heat-death – a spent state devoid of potential.
In contrast to this, Stiegler posits the term «negentropy». One of Stiegler’s predecessors in the theory of such negative entropy is the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In his book What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell (1944), Schrödinger perceives negentropy as the distinctive trait of all life. When cells and organisms form they build a potential – an order that subverts and resists the entropic drift towards disorder. Life develops techniques to keep death and disintegration at bay: an immune system, a regulated body temperature, a metabolic balance of energy production and consumption.
So what about man’s technical forms of life? A disheartening and misanthropic answer, which Stiegler ultimately rejects, can be found in the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ last work Tristes Tropiques (1955). According to Lévi-Strauss, the development of mankind’s global civilisation is far from being a life-promoting process. Ever since the taming of fire over a million years ago, «man has done nothing but blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration.» This is the essence of what we now call the Anthropocene, the epoch where the technologies of mankind destabilise even the geophysical processes of the earth. We disturb vulnerable ecosystems, create toxic substances, exterminate animal species and generally seem to bring the world into disorder at an alarming rate.
A way out of the Anthropocene
Yet Stiegler insists that we humans shouldn’t resign ourselves to such a destructive self-image – we can and must be something more. In principle even our technologies can be given a stabilising and negentropic function. The challenge Stiegler takes upon himself is to show the way to an alternative anthropology – centred on man’s capacity to protect, integrate and help life to flourish. Thus the Neganthropocene is an uplifting concept: It stands for a way out of the entropic disorder of the Anthropocene through a new level of attention and responsibility.
However, such a victory will be hard-won, Stiegler points out, since secondary effects of new technologies also gravely affects our minds. Just like the outer world is caught up in disruptive changes, our inner life is disrupted by the digital-media society and information technologies. Our attention is commodified and our sense of judgement and responability is deteriorating under the pressure of new technologies that change our lives.
Lost knowledge, lost control
What entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley talk about as disruptive technologies – epitomised by the Web, Social media and smartphones – has changed the relationship between individuals, the collective and the world. Individuals and our society at large are increasingly shaped by algorithms and automated systems, more often than not dictated by economic interests. An instructive example is the Facebook-feed: The algorithms aim to keep you inside the social network. Our attention is captured and consequently we are made passive and search less actively on the link-based net.
When automation takes over our activities and makes decisions on our behalf, we are proletarianised. In Stiegler’s interpretation of Marx’ concept, proletarianization is above all a loss of vital knowledge, the understanding of how to live and act well. We lose the understanding that should make us autonomous and functional individuals.
This also happens on the collective level of governance and economics. Alan Greenspan’s testimony after the 2008 financial crisis made it clear: The digitalised financial system, for all its cleverness, is largely outside human control. When we seem incapable of pulling the breaks on an unregulated financial system and a rampant consumer society, and even major politicians go into practical denial of climate change, we are living in a world on autopilot, caught up in a collective artificial stupidity that keeps us moving in dangerous directions.
The task of thinking
Despite his profound criticism of algorithmic developments and automation, Stiegler is far from dismissing new technologies. In fact, he understands wisdom to be largely a technical matter. Thinking is a form of caring, a tool for orientation and deliberation, an intelligent governance of the self and the world. We must keep abreast and even get ahead of technological developments to produce better techniques for living. The goal is to create a collective intelligence, what Marx calls a «general intellect», which would be capable of reversing the self-destructive tendencies of our society.
«Individuals and our society at large are increasingly shaped by algorithms and automated systems, more often than not dictated by economic interests.»
Stiegler has initiated a large-scale project in Plaine Commune, a union of districts in the north of Paris, an area with 400,000 inhabitants. Together with political leaders he has made it a political laboratory based on digital platforms. Here they experiment with a «contributory economy» based on voluntary work and education, with the aim of building what Amartya Sen calls “collective capabilities”, knowledge which enables people democratically take part in their self-governance. The idea is to create more than just an automated «smart» city – rather a deliberationg and wise region. Social media and digital platforms would be employed to integrate the individuals into a real local community and to weave the collective into the geographical place. Plaine Commune becomes a democratic laboratory, a «learning territory», which is a step towards a more intelligent and «negentropic» civilisation. The next step might be an adaptation of such systems to ecological governance: A functional digital platform that would effectively help people to learn about their natural surroundings and allow them to make better choices.