Sunday, January 6, 2019

Gertz's Nihilism and Technology

I really love this book. First of all, the chapter headings and sub-headings are all clever little in jokes, like "Beyond Google and Evil," that make anyone with a cursory knowledge of Nietzsche feel like part of the gang. But it's not just looking at tech through the lens of Nietzsche in a cut-and-paste way. This is an analysis of our relationship with technology that, while immersed in Nietzsche, and will allow a novice to solidify their understanding of some major works, is really an analysis of human nature that would benefit the a-philosophical as well. This is a brief summary as a memory aid for myself, but the book deserves a close read in full.

He uses Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals to explain how technology is used "to soothe rather than cure" our nihilistic attitudes by applying five tactics the ascetic priest uses "to make nihilism palatable" (21): self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd instinct, and orgies of feeling.


Technology is a way to avoid life. If tech does everything for us, then there's nothing left for us to do. We seek leisure, "not as a way to become more human but as a way to avoid being human" (5). We need to fight against nihilism; this turning away from the reality of life leads us to prefer exploitation to taking responsibility for our decisions. Avoiding decision-making is one way we detach from life.
"To view a technology as such a solution is to view a technology as a way to avoid certain experiences, to avoid experiences viewed as problematic . . . but this mindset can lead us toward techno-utopianism rather than towards self-discovery, rather than toward asking ourselves why we would find an experience like riding a bus to be a problem in the first place" (viii-ix). "Nietzsche diagnosed the life-denying nihilism at the heart of the problem-solving mindset, a mindset that existed in the Christian moral world as much as it exists in our technomoral world" (x). "We are distracted and deluded because we want to be . . . we should be concerned less with dangerous external influences than with dangerous internal influences,  . . . such as our tendency to view life as a source of suffering " (5). "To avoid making a decision, even a seemingly trivial decision, is to be detached from this world" (13).  The problem is "the fact that we see nothing terrible about such rationalizing. . . . To distance ourselves from our situation is to lose sight of the very freedom that defines us" (14).
One thing that makes us human is an instinct for cruelty, which has been suppressed, but we've been trained to release it by being cruel to ourselves, for our sinful nature. This "alters the direction of ressentiment" (20). Ressentiment, the main characteristic of the weak, drives the weak to attack the strong and to blame masters for being masters. It is an "all-consuming reactive feeling of hatred and blame," but it merely makes slaves sicker with "no one left to hate for one's weakness and frailty, no one left to blame for one's weakness and frailty" (21). We're not made to heal from this, but to turn our anger inward into guilt.

And then we keep ourselves too busy to be aware of our will in life. We've been pacified. We see our own nature as an imperfection that can be fixed with technology.
"What is assumed . . . is that any child would want to be enhanced, that the unenhanced life is not worth living " (27). "We want to be anything but human. . .. to overcome our 'promethean shame," and to be like our precisely manufactured objects in all their precision" (29). "There is a danger then that technologies are not a sign of human progress but of decline, making us more advanced but also sicker, more self-destructive, more nihilistic. .. . technologies are the product not of innovation but of asceticism, whether technologies are life-denying ideals that we can hold int he palms of our hands" (31).
We are in danger if we believe technology is neutral. Heidegger said,
"'We are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology' . . . what is revealed is not power to be respected but power to be 'stockpiled,' to be packaged, stored, and made available on demand, like a battery, or what Heidegger calls 'standing-reserve.' The reduction of nature from a godlike force to a controllable energy source" (37). We are "blind to how we too have come under the rule of instrumentality, how we too have become instruments for technology . . . we must be available on demand in order to control and make use of these on-demand power sources . . . revealing humanity as the power source to do the stockpiling" (38).
Gertz discusses the "logic of the in-order-to" that "conceals our ability to see nature as anything but what we can do with it," and we're similarly affected. It reminded me of something Steven Page said at a performance last summer. He chastised teachers for trying to convince kids to get into music so they can improve their math scores. "Don't play music to be better at math; play to play music!" So much of what we do is about dual purposes, as if we're ripping ourselves off if our action is singular. "Industries are operating under a logic that is not a human logic meant to serve human demands and needs but rather the logic of modern technology" (38). "The human being is rather 'thrown' by being . . . it is ever a question of finding what is fitting in their essence that corresponds to such destiny" (42).
"As guards and shepherds of Being we still play no role in shaping Being. . .. . if technology serves to block us from realizing that this is our destiny and presents us instead with the illusion of freedom" (43).
"We continue to use technologies that have the ever-present possibility to belittle us, to betray us, to enrage us, and to incapacitate us, and yet this continued use is done not blindly but willingly. . . . Technologies have not, as Heidegger predicted, led us to feel like we are masters of the universe but rather something closer to middle management. We are forever in negotiations with our technologies, treating them as partners in a bad relationship" (54).
When we use tech, the self disappears, and we don't mind becoming numb to the capacity to feel responsible for spending so much time online.

SELF-HYPNOSIS: (Netflix and YouTube --> that which is binge-worthy)

We clearly use technology to escape reality. We know we do this, yet we persist in doing it.
"This dominating sense of displeasure is combated, first, by means that reduce the feeling of life in general to its lowest point . .. hibernation" (59).  It's an "evasion . . . of what it means to be human . . . we are sick of being human . . . attempt to cure ourselves of this sickness" (60). "What is perhaps shocking is that we are aware of the zombifying effects of staring at screens and yet continue to spend hours on end staring at screens regardless . . . we see zoning out in front of a screen for a few hours as something we have earned . .. we see this hypnotization as  . . . justified" (61). "What is important is not whether one derives meaning from the activity but rather that the activity can be used as a form of escapism . . . to devalue the world we live in and reinvest that value into . . . an imaginary world" (62).

Adorno wrote about this in the 50s, in "How to Look at Television." TV shows offer "predictability which allows the audience to feel not only relaxed . . . but also guides the audience to identify with the  characters . . . to such a degree that the effect is the the audience's 'very capacity for life experience may be dulled'" (63). It molds our actions, values, and expectations.

Monetizing YouTube expanded "who could be constrained by the demands of mass production . . .  content must be 'advertiser-friendly'" (67). The idea of the inauthentic "sell out" is not seen as an insult anymore but as a savvy move. We don't bother watching unless it has million of views already. "Such 'instant feedback' invites creators to focus on repeating what makes their audience happy . . . "watching ourselves is what is most comforting . . . confirming that how we are living is the right way to live" (69). It also makes it acceptable to think and say horrible things. We get the rush of 'owning' others whenever we cross the line set by common decency. There's also no longer a sense of too much watching; we've "instead developed an ethos of never-not-watching" (70). Binge watching has become competitive to the point that "television viewing has come to feel like a job" (73). We've "already accepted the ideology that only humans have biases . . . taking for granted that the world presented to us by techno-hypnotic technologies simply is the world . . . a result of our desire to shut off our skepticism" (83) because, of course, the program has as many biases as the programmer.

As Adorno argued, the danger represented by technologies like television, technologies that hypnotize us, is that they provide us not only comfort but induce in us complacency" (83); they
"turn our lives into content to be staged, recorded, and uploaded for mass consumption" (84).

MECHANICAL ACTIVITY:  (Fitbit, Pokémon Go --> that which turns us into quantifiable machines)

Technological development has affected our values.
"Surely we buy such devices to serve our needs but, once bought, we become so fascinated with the devices that we develop new needs, such as the need to keep the device working so that the device can keep us fascinated" (3). "Technologies . . . can also influence our values and shape our judgments. The values of efficiency and of objectivity lead us to necessarily judge technologies to be superior to humans" (3). "Capitalist ideology convinces workers that anyone could become wealthy if they only work hard enough" (4). 
Nietzsche said, "Much more common than this hypnotic muting of all sensitivity . . . is a different training against states of depression which is at any rate easier: mechanical activity" (89). Gertz says, the "quantification of life represents the severing of action from purpose. One moves, not in order to go somewhere but merely for the sake of moving. . . . it also severs action from actor . . . allowing one to reduce oneself to simply that a oneself, a self who is anyone" (93). "Points are a way of knowing where we stand . . . the quantification of all action provides us constant feedback that allows us to compare ourselves against others" (94). This normalizes the "algorithmic equivalent of 'Big Brother' that has come to be known as 'Big Data'" (99). 
"If algorithms can predict human behavior it is because humans have become predictable . . . something that we do to each other, and to ourselves, through customs and through civility, through teaching each other how to behave properly, normally, responsibly. . . . The cost of our making ourselves so predictable is . . . that we have become deindividualized" (101-2) that's searching for "a me who exists, a me who is worth watching" (102). "The deeper problem here however is that, though no one knows how these algorithms work, we still trust them. . . . Humans are fallible; hence, the less of a role that humans play in algorithms, the more the aura of infallibility surrounding algorithms grows" (105). "Human values being replaced by machine values . . . the question of whether efficiency is actually what we want, or if it is what we have been led to believe we want" (105-6). We have "turned our bodies into avatars and our lives into games . . . turned health into a competition" (114).

PETTY PLEASURES:  (Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Tinder --> that which is other-reducing and self-elevating)
Nietzsche said: "An even more highly valued means of combating depression is the prescribing of a petty pleasure that is easily attainable . . . The happiness of 'slight superiority,' involved in all doing good, being useful, helping, and rewarding, is the most effective means of consolation for the physiologically inhibited, and widely employed by them when they are well advised: otherwise they hurt one another, obedient, of course, to the same basic instinct" (111). Gertz says, "helping others is an indication of one's own power . . . The unwillingness of the man to let the woman hold the door open for him . . . is an indication of the recognition of the power dynamics at play in even such a seemingly mundane act. . . . The heart of nihilism is precisely our ability to be destructive while being passive" (112). These apps allow for "a nihilistic replacement of the others' humanity with the others' artificial inferiority. . . . Pleasure economics is my name for the phenomenon of our using technologies to expand our abilities to help and support others" (113).
We've lost that old school notion that our bodies and people are never to be used.

"Making money off of our bodies is no longer seen as a form of prostitution, as something sad, desperate, morally depraved, but is instead seen as simply good business sense. Why let pride stand in the way of profit? . . . Something not being used is something that is being wasted" (116). "What should concern us is not what data does to us but what data allows us to do to each other . . . sharing is less about caring and more about judging" (118).
Giving money on crowdfunding allows us to feel good about helping inferior sods. We're willing to pay for the ability to feel superior. And we love Tinder not for the hopeful connection, but for the immediate gratification of judging others:
"In terms of psychological conditioning, Tinder's interface is perfectly constructed to encourage this rapid swiping. . . . Tinder uses a variable ratio reward schedule . . . the same reward system used in slot machines . . . users are reduced from persons to profiles" (126). "Tinder mediates . . . our will to power . . . The invitation to swipe is, as we have seen, both 'evilly satisfying' and 'brutally effective,' not because users hope to hook up but because users enjoy turning others down . . . Tinder reduces the complication of interpersonal relationships to a hand gesture . . . not unlike the purported gestures of emperors" (127). Even better, "we can be brutal and evil without feeling brutal and evil. Dividing who are are from what we do is nihilism. We are what we do. There is no 'real world' difference form the 'cyber world' . . . Maintaining the illusion of these dualisms is central to Tinder's success . . . what we find so fun about Tinder is . . . the pleasure of cruelty" (129).
And then there's the rise of pity sex,
"what one learns from pity sex, what one is inspired to do thanks to pity sex, is not to become a more attractive person but a more unattractive person . . . who is sadder, more pathetic, more able to arouse the pity of those like you" (129). "The power of pitying is won at the expense of having to reduce your time, your body, your sexuality to nothing. . . . what occurs in all forms of pity . . . is the reduction of the pitied, the pitier, and what is exchanged between them, to nothing. . . . our equation of an unpaid debt with a payment in pain  . . . since the pain of someone else cannot be considered equal to what was lost unless there is something that we gain from being able to cause someone else pain" (130).

"What should concern us . . . to what extent such giving is driven by the technologies mediating our giving . . . the aim of users . . . to judge others as acceptable or rejectable" (131). "The ideology of pleasure economics . . . is not only utopian but unrealizable . . . even in helping others we can still be pursuing personal power . . . pleasure economics simply guarantees that users will both pursue personal gains and feel guilty about it" (133). These "apps of pleasure economics encourage . .  . judging and discriminating. It is not community that is the aim here but superiority . . . " (133). "We must ask whether we have grown so dependent on apps for feeling superior, for feeling powerful, for feeling pleasure, that we can no longer experience community with others without the mediation of, and dependence on, the apps of pleasure economics" (134).

HERD NETWORKING:   (chat rooms, emoticons, emojis, Facebook --> that which draws us to a faceless group)

We join groups for "the opportunity to lose ourselves in a crowd and thus avoid the burden of having to continue to be who we are . . . lead people to act like brands, crafting identities and producing content in accordance with the platform-induced need to attain and retain followers" (9).
Nietzsche said, "All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness" (137). Gertz says, "it is in joining with others, in merging our interests and actions with those of other people around us, that we can overcome our individual weaknesses and replace them with the newfound strength of the whole. . . . To join a crowd, to 'go with the flow,' is to feel the freedom of letting go, of being carried off, of being able to act without thinking, without caring, and often without even being aware that we are acting. . . . Consequently we identify ourselves more and more by our associations with the group and less and less by our differences with the group" (137-8). The technology trajectory moves from, "novelty turning to ubiquity turning to boredom . . . [initially] promising experimentation and expression but ultimately led to compliance and repetition. . . . One had to learn the culture of the chat room in order to participate in it . . . an atmosphere where users could feel liberated, such liberation nevertheless came through a medium that encouraged and empowered conformity" (140-2).
The shift to emojis is also discussed:
"Whereas emoticons are a subspecies of ASCII art, created by users, emojis are a subspecies of cartoons, created by tele-communication companies. . . . Unicode created a standardized set of 722 emojis so that users could communicate across providers and across platforms. . . . emojis have replaced sentences . . . emojis have come to have literary, legal, and political significance. . . . What should concern us is the question of whose meaning is being conveyed by emojis. . . . Emojis are indeed a language, but they are a language of corporate logos. . . . the language nevertheless still refers back to, and ultimately serves to advertise for, the corporation . . . the emoji demands conformity. . . . emojis may transcend the written word, but they do not transcend our herd instinct both to conform to whatever is most popular, and to justify such conformity by viewing it as what is most personal" (144-6).

And Facebook is the new religion:
"Facebook is so popular [2.19 billion users] that a better comparison for its size and reach would not be contemporary social networks like Instagram and Twitter but rather more traditional social networks like Christianity (2.2 billion members), Islam (1.6 billion members), and Hinduism (1 billion members). . . . Facebook is like a world religion not only in influence but also in purpose. . . . it is a 'community' . . . one can have a voice (status updates, achieve understanding (News Feed), and be included (friended) . . . That Facebook is a source of values is clear in Zuckerberg wanting to create not only a 'connected' world but a 'more open' world. . . . no other social network has enforced openness and undermined privacy to the degree that Facebook has" (147-9). And people really don't care: "By not only publishing the results of the experiment but by publishing them with a title so brazen--'Experimental Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks'--one cannot help but wonder if the true experiment was not to see whether Facebook could emotionally manipulate its users but whether Facebook could tell the world its users were being emotionally manipulated and still continue to increase its number of users. . . . the numbers of users continues to steadily increase" (149). "Facebook has in other words become what is normal. Posting your current whereabouts is normals. So normal in fact that to worry that theses things should be kept private is to reveal oneself to have outdated and abnormal values . . . sharing with everyone has become a habit . . . it is impossible to determine if we post on Facebook because we want to share our experiences or if we want to have experiences because we want to post on Facebook" (151).
We should be wary of the dangers of being part of a herd mentality: "the price of the communal identity replacing the individual's identity" (151). "To give oneself over to a group, a cause, a website, could be seen as a way of hiding from ourselves, as a form of evasion, but it could also be seen as a way of finding our purpose, as a form of elevation" (152). Leaders are like a shepherd: "From the perspective of the sheep, the shepherd is viewed precisely as Socrates describes a leader, as caring and protective. But from the perspective of the shepherd, the care and protection is merely a means to an end, the shepherd's end. . . . what we should be on the lookout for here is not what herd networking provides for us but rather how and why  herd networking is provided for us" (152).
Facebook is an empty religion "whose holiest texts are blank . . . voids waiting to be filled . . . The job of the priests, of the networks, is then not to provide but to preserve . . . The priests have discovered that the solution to this challenge is to make the distinction between user-generated content and advertiser-generated content disappear. . . . over time users have grown accustomed to targeted advertisements . . . advertisers turn into users. . . the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing strategy . . . help users turn into advertisers" (153-4). "Conforming to what is popular is order to become popular oneself is of course nothing new. But in herd networking, is there even a self that is doing the conforming? . . . We reduce friends to 'friends,' humans to 'followers,' and ourselves to corporate-like 'content' mills, all in the pursuit of having the highest score on our social networks. Nietzsche likened nihilism to a disease. And today, fittingly, we call this disease going viral" (157).

ORGIES OF FEELING  (trolling, flash mobs, shame campaigns, Siri --> that which stirs us up)

Nietzsche sees orgies of feeling as a 'guilty' form of treating our nihilistic sickness: "to awaken men from their slow melancholy. . . . Every such orgy of feeling has to be paid for afterward, that goes without saying--- it makes the sick sicker" (161). We lose ourselves in our own emotions. It's similar to Freud's regression: "Emotional outbursts allow us to avoid feeling the burden of consciousness, the burden of accountability, the burden of powerlessness, and the burden of individuality. In such a state we will likely do things that we will later regret . . . yet, in the moment, nothing matters" (162).

We blindly trust there's something worth gathering around: "passing a megaphone or a soapbox can lead us to stop and speak, whether or not we have anything to say . . . not only fulfill our intentions, it can also shape and even create our intentions" (163). We saw this in 1990 when City TV put a video camera on the street for anyone to film anything for the show Speakers Corners. "Whether the speaker inspires us to express joy or rage, to celebrate or to conflagrate, to attack others in revenge or to attack the speaker in revenge, all that matters is that the speaker has created an opportunity for an outburst" (163).
People want to "relieve themselves of a burden. . . . what Nietzsche referred to as our need to 'discharge' our instincts, and what today we refer to as 'trolling' . . . The need for sublimation, for discharge, for relief, arises, according to Freud and Nietzsche, due to the pressures of living in a society, of being civilized, of being forced to conform to the needs and expectations of others. . . . In other words, what is truly being objected to is existence . . . if comments sections provide us with a virtual space in which to virtually explode like virtual  monsters, then they perhaps help to prevent us from having to really explode in real life  like real monsters" (166-7). "At the same time a troll is a 'virtual avatar,' a 'persona,' or in other words a mask, as costume one puts on in order to play the game of trolling . ..  because a troll is unwilling to admit who he or she  is (like herd networking), unwilling to admit that he or she is a troll . . . denying that one is trying to be antagonistic" (169).

We used to shame people in a public square, but that was too powerful according to a book by Jon Ronson; Benjamin Rush argued, "that public shaming rituals results in 'outsized cruelty' because 'well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take it too far'" (176). "Nietzsche argues that being cruel to others, and in particular finding pleasure in being cruel, is part of what it means to be human rather than merely being part of what it means to be online" (177). Once we see that "our primary motivation for using social media is actually not to be social but to be cruel . . . then our continued use of social media makes much more sense. . . . these two potential end goals motivating our use of social media--to be social or to be cruel--need not be mutually exclusive. . . . it is quite possible that it is not sociality that helps create the conditions for cruelty but rather cruelty that helps to create the conditions for sociality. In other words, trolling can bring people together. . . . trolls can be 'organized,' having 'flagged themselves' through in-joke screen name . . . in effect 'forming an anti-social network" (177-8).

Whitney Phillips explains that "trolls think of themselves not as sadists but as satirists . . . revealing the impurities beneath the claimed pure intentions of their targets" (179), which reminds me of Nagle's Kill All Normies. There's a dual denial with a hat tip to Odysseus's meeting with the cyclops: "I am not a troll, because I am not what I do online, since what I do online is virtual, and I am real. The other is not a victim, because the other is merely a virtual presence, a presence which is the object of virtual attacks. In other words, in the shame campaign against Justine Sacco, there was no one trolling Justine Sacco, because the trolling was performed by no one against no one, as the trolling was merely virtual" (180). Trolling is an "orgiastic experience of doing something . . . but also of doing something that does nothing, that awakens consciences but causes no real pain" (182). But it makes the sick sicker as it is "trapping us in an endless loop of discontent and destruction" (183).

Gertz ponders the fact that Siri, the epitome of collective authority, gives answers to the meaning of life, and he suggests it "actually does provide what would appear to be a real answer to the question of the meaning of life" (185). There's no indication that he's joking here, but the 'real' answer he's discussing is taken from this:

I tweeted at him asking if he was aware of the joke of it, and he retweeted it but didn't respond. His conclusion: "Siri has been programmed to be an ascetic priest" (185), the use of which is all a way of denying self and the world. Through repetition, "orgies of clicking allow the tortured to share their torture (186)  and demand atonement from others. "Orgies of feeling are dangerous because they put us on the path to self-destruction, but orgies of clicking are dangerous because they put us on the path to world-destruction" (192). Instead of being directed inward towards redemption, we are directed outward. It's similar to the very judgy type of Christian one might meet at bus stops and bank lines - places we're trapped and can be cornered to be condemned randomly in the name of the Lord - they're taking their inner issue outward attempting redemption through a collection of souls.


The solution to it all is "turning from passive nihilism to active nihilism by turning from destruction for the sake of destruction to destruction for the sake of creation" (10). That "God no longer fulfills the role of God, not because science won but because nihilism won . . . has led us to repudiate the value, meaning, and desirability of God. By soothing rather than curing our nihilism, by prescribing self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd instinct, and orgies of feeling, the ascetic priests protected the Christian moral world from exploding, However this world was preserved for so long that it has instead imploded" (197).

We're looking for answers from outside, but "the issues is not our answers but our questions, the need to have someone else tell us what to do and how to live, to tell us our purpose, to tell us that our lives are meaningful, rather than decide for ourselves how to live, rather than create our own purpose, rather than make our lives meaningful in our own way" (198).

Innovations: "have enabled us to expand our communicative abilities, but they have achieved this not by making communication a richer, more meaningful experience but by reducing communication to mental tasks achieved by bodily abilities . . . as if communication was a goal-driven activity and accomplishing tasks was the only goal driving communication. . .. Technologies that isolate and enhance our abilities do not satisfy the cravings . . . they only exacerbate them . . . to see abilities as to-be-upgraded rather than as to-be-appreciated . . . our technologies will themselves become sources of suffering . . . Debates over how to improve our technologies . . . are so consuming our attention that we forget to first question how to improve ourselves" (205-7).
"The answer to the why? of our technological progress is that we do not want the reality in which we find ourselves . . . Our relationship to technologies . . . is passively nihilistic. . ..  Rather than try to overcome our nihilism, we must try to turn our passive nihilism into active nihilism. . . . Our dissatisfaction with reality, our disappointment with all new realities that technologies have brought into being, can either lead us to destroy ourselves or it can lead us to destroy the values that have put us on this path to self-destruction . . . we must seek out new perspectives now in anticipation of our reaching such a nihilistic stage. . . . A critical, Nietzschean perspective on technologies can help us to recognize how we use technologies nihilistically, such as when we use technologies to try to make people be happier in particular environments rather than questioning why people are not happy in those environments. . . . being able to question if we know what 'better' means" (209).

ETA: Here's Gertz's talk about the book! 

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