The Pixelated Personality
In today’s Guardian I read an excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier is a digital pioneer turned digital sceptic. He has developed a model he calls “BUMMER” of what is wrong with social media. It’s interesting in that it does describe some aspects of the contemporary Megamachine. For Lanier, it’s not just the fact that digital technology and social media amplifies the dark side. It is also the business model that drives social media that Lanier focusses on, one that seems to even suggest that capitalism in the era of social media might even be an anachronism that we haven’t even recognised yet — the “horseless carriage” syndrome, which is our tendency to interpret radically new environments in inappropriate old formulas and habitual ways, like referring to the automobile as a “horseless carriage” or a locomotive as “the iron horse”. In may well turn out that the implicit potentialities of the new technology and the old business model are radically incompatible, and that this may well prove to be one aspect of the contemporary crisis. The problems faced by conventional corporate news media (print in particular) seems to be a case in point.
“Dataism”, and the defining of personalities as “data points” (you are your data points, in effect), and then the monetisation and marketing of these data points piecemeal or bit-by-byte (as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal) certainly attests to Gebser’s prescient earlier observations about the disintegration of the personality — fragmentation and atomisation, and the contemporary confusion of the Whole and the mere Totality which is represented by “dataism”, in this case, the delusion that one can aggregate or sum up all these “data points” and have a complete personality. So, these data points are like pixels, and we can speak i this regard of “the pixelated personality”, which now has acquired exchange value — each pixel having a market value.
(This might be another irony (or contradiction) in Jordan Peterson’s self-promotion as an adherent of “British classical liberalism”, since in promoting “enforced monogamy”, he apparently doesn’t trust the “invisible hand” of the sexual “marketplace” to sort out the problem of “involuntary celibates”, and so this strikes me as an example of Peterson’s double-talk, and not that of a man who “speaks from the centre of the voice”, as my Sioux friends say. It’s my conclusion, at this point, that Peterson is an example of that “psychic inflation” that Gebser warned about as also attending his “irruption” of repressed psychic energies).
The pixelated personality as a mere assemblage of data points with an assigned exchange value is certainly capitalism and quantification process at its very worst, perhaps even the chief symptom of the decadence of the mental-rational consciousness, or Gebser’s description of the perspectival consciousness structure functioning in “deficient” mode as instrumentalising rationality and its fragmentation and disintegrative dynamic.
One finds this also in Kurzweil’s idea of “spiritual machines” — we are simply are data points, which can be quantised uploaded into machinery, and we will discover ourselves whole and complete (and conscious!) again. This is completely absurd, the worst of reductionist science. Yet a lot of people seem to believe this crap. This is the analytical method now run amok — the method of reducing and breaking down. And it’s no wonder alarm bells are ringing all over the place.
This is the worst of what is called “spiritual materialism“, which is the chief symptom of the Kali Yuga or “Dark Age” mentality, and which is, essentially, Gebser’s concern (and the concern of many others) about the confusion of the Whole and the Totality (the reduction of the qualitative to the quantitative, in effect, or the holistic to the mere sum of its parts). The pixelated personality is the ideal model for a new totalitarianism. And it’s in this sense that late capitalism, reductionist science, and fundamentalist religion are really convergent — all expressions of the deficient mode of the mental-rational consciousness. Lanier, I think, now senses this about capitalism and digital technology. So do some others, of course, who are arguing that social media be regulated and treated as public utilities.
As much as socialising social media seems a no-brainer, which might remove the incentive for reducing persons to pixels and data points and as commodities for exchange, it won’t necessarily resolve the problem of the consciousness structure — ie reductionism, instrumentalising rationality, quantification, myopia or narrow perspectivisation, and so on. This requires self-transcendence and self-overcoming. This requires what Gebser calls “diaphaneity” and “the transparency of the world” or that true perspectivity means “seeing through” rather than “looking at”. The only other option, given current trends, is what Mumford calls “total disintegration”, which the pixelated personality portends. For it is also what has been called “crisis of the individual” (no longer indivisible), and of what Rosenstock-Huessy referred to also as the disintegration of the personality and consciousness structure of Modern Man. The pixelated personality, the human form reduced to data points, and then the manipulation of these data points to modify behaviour and personality, is probably the chief symptom and even symbol of the nihilism of the mental-rational consciousness structure.
It must be transcended, not by going back, but by going beyond or rising above.
The true alchemists or Hermeticists had a term for the fake alchemists and Hermeticists — the spiritual materialists. They called them “puffers”, who really thought alchemy was about the transmuation of material lead into material gold, whereas it was about self-transcendence and self-overcoming. What I really appreciate about Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamic researches in The Master and His Emissary is that McGilchrist shows that the Hermeticists (including William Blake) were actually more realistic, more faithful to the whole truth, than the Mechanists and reductionists who supplanted them.
Deleting our social media accounts as a form of protest against the “business model” probably won’t resolve the ultimate problem. The abuse begins in us, in the failings of our mode of consciousness — Blake’s Urizenic mode. And it’s that which we must transcend and overcome in ourselves in order to outrun and survive the proliferating crises of late modernity.
If there’s an implicit benefit in this, our total reduction and disintegration into pixels and data points, it is that we are now concerned with the integral and integralism. The quest for the “Holy Grail” is back on, as it were. And while men like Mr. Peterson are out stalking their dragons, our task is much different. “Diaphainon” is Gebser’s name for the “Holy Grail”.
Jordan Peterson claims Nietzsche as an influence. Perhaps Jordan Peterson should recall some advice from Nietzsche — “when one goes to fight monsters, one had best take care not to become the monster oneself.”
If the mental-rational consciousness has entered its defective and deficient mode — and it seems obvious that it has — then so has the capitalist mode of production, since they are co-evolutionary. Both enter into absurdity. Both become self-negating and nihilistic instruments of their own demise. And we may say that that is one of the chief symptoms of our present “chaotic transition” and of Gebser’s “double-movement”.