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An increasingly nihilistic world

The Neganthropocene
Forfatter: Bernard Stiegler
Forlag: Open Humanities Press (Storbritannia)
TECHNOLOGY / The world is becoming increasingly nihilistic as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity is unable to take care of it. The challenge Bernard Stiegler takes on is to show the way to an alternative anthropology – in practice as well as in theory.

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The Neganthropocene is a collection of the latest articles by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. New readers are welcomed into this philosophical landscape through a thorough introduction by translator Daniel Ross, who belongs to the ever-growing environment of intellectuals and activists who surround Stiegler. At the heart of this philosophical landscape lies the Institute for Research and Innovation (Institut de recherce et d'innovation) – a research center with offices at the Center Pompidou in Paris, as well as Ars Industrialis, which presents itself as an "international organization for industrial spiritual policy".

Both individual and society as a whole is becoming more and more prominent
of algorithms and automation systems.

In Stiegler's authorship, the question of technology and innovation is associated with a political and existential impetus. His own philosophical awakening came as he served a prison sentence for armed robbery in the years 1978-83. In the loneliness of the cell, he found that thinking, language and writing were essentially technologies that connected him to the community. To think is to contribute to the community's constant reworking of the world. Philosophy became, in a way, an isolated state in which life is lived careless or apathetic. When life is treated as something indifferent, we are dealing with what Nietzsche calls nihilism.

A central argument in The Neganthropocene is that the world as such is in danger of falling into such a nihilistic state, as it becomes increasingly clear that humans are unable to take care of it. Nihilism is no longer just a mental state, but a structural pathology – a tendency towards chaos and self-destruction built into the industrial society itself and global capitalism.

The destructive side of civilization

Man's destructive side is nothing new, but is related to man's technological mastery of nature. In anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's latest works, Stiegler finds a depressing description of man: Ever since the introduction of the fire a million years ago, man has "done nothing but with life and desire to break down millions of structures and reduce them to a state where they can no longer be integrated. " Lévi-Strauss describes culture's consumption of nature as an entropic process, a movement in the direction of chaos. Entropy, which is one of the main concepts in Stiegler's book, involves a movement from order to disorder, where energy is consumed and lost in the process, such as when a fire burns down.

When the law of physics of entropy is applied in cultural history, a rather bleak worldview develops: All the processes of the world move toward a depleted and dissolved state lost to potential. This is the essence of what we now call the Anthropocene – the epoch in which human technologies even destabilize the Earth's geophysical processes. Our technological way of life disrupts vulnerable ecosystems, produces toxic substances, eradicates animal species and disrupts the world at an alarming rate.

A way out of the anthropocene

In contrast to this all-encompassing entropy, Stiegler devises the concept of "negentropy". One of Stiegler's predecessors in this theory of negative entropy is physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In his book Where is Life? (1944) understands Shcrödinger negentropy as the hallmark of all life. When cells and organisms take shape, they build up a potential – an order that conserves energy and thus reverses the entropic drive towards chaos and dissolution. Life creates techniques for keeping death and disintegration at bay: an immune system, a regulated body temperature, a metabolism that balances energy consumption.

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The challenge Stiegler takes is to show the way to an alternative anthropology, built on man's ability to protect, integrate and help life unfold. In this sense, the "Negantropocene" is an uplifting concept: it represents a way out of the entropic disorder that prevails in the anthropocene through knowledge and new ways of living. The road must be about a new approach to technology, characterized by attention, consideration and responsibility.

Lost knowledge, lost control

Such a turnaround is difficult, because as the outside world is affected by technological side effects, our inner lives are also disrupted by the digital media community and information technology. In the digital environment, our attention is reduced to a resource, a commodity that can be bought and sold, while the ability for consideration and responsibility is increasingly replaced and overridden by new technological aids and automatic processes.

What Silicon Valley contractors refer to as "disruptive technologies" – with the World Wide Web, social media and smartphones as crown examples – has changed the relationship between the individual, the collective and the world. The interaction between people is increasingly characterized by algorithms that are often designed out of financial interests. A discreet but powerful example is the Facebook feed: the algorithms are designed to stay within the social network. Our attention gets caught so we are looking less actively on the link-based network. We are made calculated participants in automatic processes.

The task of thinking

This is also happening at a collective level in the public administration and the economy – as Alan Greenspan's statement after the 2008 financial crisis made it clear: the digital financial system, despite all its cunning mechanisms, is beyond human control. When we seem unable to curb an unregulated financial system and a runaway consumer society, we live in a society on autopilot. Both thinking and responsibility wither away, while an artificial idiot leads us on deadly astray.

When automation takes over our activities and makes choices on our behalf, we become proletarianized. In Stiegler's interpretation of Marx's concept, proletarianization is above all a loss of knowledge – the understanding of how we should live. In doing so, we also lose the active independence that would make us responsible people. Instead, we allow ourselves to be apathetic and careless, guided by the circumstances. In the Anthropocene, thinking must resume its original task: to seek a knowledge that preserves life and guides us in the direction of health.

Despite his profound criticism of the algorithms' administration of life and the automation of society, Stiegler is by no means out to reject new technology. In fact, he understands political wisdom as a far-reaching technical affair. We must keep up with and even be at the forefront of technological development in order to develop better life techniques. The goal must be to create a collective intelligence – what Marx referred to as a "general intellect" – that is on a par with the situation and that can reverse society's self-destructive tendencies.

A learning territory

Stiegler has initiated a practical project in Plaine Commune, a merged large municipality with 400 inhabitants, north of Paris. Together with political leaders, he is working to transform the area into a democratic laboratory based on digital platforms, an initiative that has sister projects in Durham, England and Guayaquil, Ecuador. The goal is to develop what Amartya Sen calls "collective capacity", knowledge that gives people the ability to and democratically participate in shaping society. Rather than having to adapt to a system designed and dictated by commercial interests, citizens can take part in practical and social research, where they develop tools to govern themselves and live better. Stiegler compares it to a hospital designed so that patients, through feedback and suggestions, tend to a "sick institution": patients go from being victims and clients to becoming doctors and politicians.

More and more often we hear about "smart" cities with an automated infrastructure – controlled by sensors, algorithms and automatic systems. Stiegler will use these technologies to the contrary – to de-automate society and create a truly smart city – where citizens are brought together to consider, exchange knowledge and collaborate. The ability of political participation is the opposite of passive nihilistic indifference. The result will be what Stiegler calls a "learning territory", where experimental collective research weaves individuals together with a local community, and where this collective is woven together with the landscape. A next step should be to expand the project to disseminate and activate ecological knowledge – a step towards a more intelligent and caring humanity: a "negro-tropic" civilization.


The book is available for free download at openhumanitiespress.org.

Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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