In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance responds to the prospect of an artificial-intelligence revolution by calling for a return to human experience: “This new movement should prioritize humans above machines and reimagine human relationships with nature and with technology, while still advancing what this technology can do at its best.”
LaFrance’s “humanist renaissance” also has political implications. In the decades to come, preserving the conditions of liberty might demand taming the digital and carving out a space for the distinctively human.
Two driving gears of the digital revolution are the impulses toward legibility and toward artificiality. Especially for those in power, the digital age allows for a legibility of personal behavior unimagined by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Banks can track a person’s economic transactions second by second, Apple and other technology firms can monitor each step (every breath!) a person takes, and social-media companies record petabytes of human interaction every day. Not confined to the hands of corporations, these data may also be provided to government entities. At the same time, the digital also creates a floating sense of unreality. As media theorist Jon Askonas has suggested, the Internet has helped usher in a new age of self-reinforcing digital narratives, allowing even for the status of the “fact” to be disputed. Insulated in our curated informational silos, we can pick and choose what points of data to pay attention to. The proliferation of deep fakes, sock puppets, and invented facts only adds to that sense of epistemic artificiality.
Working in conjunction, those two tendencies pose risks to self-governance and liberty as they have been conventionally understood. Absolute legibility would allow for the monitoring of personal behavior during every waking and sleeping moment. The People’s Republic of China’s social-credit system in part relies upon digital legibility, and both private and public actors in the United States could also seek to leverage digital legibility to promote control. In 2019, New York State decreed that insurance companies could risk-adjust a client based on that client’s social-media posts. When PayPal announced (and then hastily retracted) a terms-of-service update that imposed a financial penalty for “misinformation,” it ignited a storm of criticism. Meantime, digital abstraction can become an enabling condition for paranoia, conspiracy theories, and political vitriol. It’s much easier to pathologize an abstraction than another person.
Coping with digital disruption may involve regulations of the digital sphere—for instance, restricting large financial corporations from “debanking” someone for a political opinion announced on Facebook. But addressing these challenges might also involve securing alternatives to the digital. Cultivating zones of illegibility and human embodiment may help nurture habits that contrast with digital imperatives.
Consider the role of digital payments, which have grown especially popular in the post-pandemic era. Whether through conventional credit and debit cards or newer payment apps such as Apple Pay, these can be a great convenience for consumers and merchants alike. They may also help reduce certain forms of street crime. However, voices on both the left and the right have also raised concerns about a “cashless society,” in which no alternative exists to digital payment. Organizations such as the ACLU have argued that the economically vulnerable are more likely to be excluded from a cashless economy. Conversely, many populists on the right fear that a cashless society could be a vehicle for the both the federal government and large corporations to peer into the checkbooks of American families. In recent years, the growth of cashless brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants means that having access to digital payments is more important, but this growth has also prompted a backlash. Way back in 1978, Massachusetts banned cashless retailers. The Bay State was an anomaly then, but other states and cities (including Colorado, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and San Francisco) have more recently followed its example. And this is a debate that could plausibly grow. A bill to restrict cashless businesses overwhelmingly passed the Arizona House earlier this year, and Los Angeles is weighing similar restrictions.
In addition to policy, personal choices may have a role in taming the digital. For instance, people can make themselves less digitally legible by posting less to social media. Communicating with a person face-to-face rather than through texts can be a way of developing embodied connections, as LaFrance notes in her Atlantic essay. Even something like buying physical media (books, DVDs, and so on) can help check some digital excesses. A number of copyright holders have begun to edit well-known works from the past. Puffin announced earlier this year that it had done a “sensitivity” edit of Roald Dahl’s books. Around the same time, James Bond’s publisher said that it would reissue classic 007 books with “offensive” language removed. The Criterion Channel’s streaming service edited the 1971 award-winning The French Connection in order to excise a racial slur. While these decisions have generated considerable controversy about “cancel culture” and the bowdlerization of past works, they also point to the importance of physical media as a way of recording the complexities of history. Reading physical books may have certain cognitive benefits, and physical books and other media may also offer a path of resistance to the temptation to memory-hole or rewrite the past. Those occupying the commanding heights cannot rewrite a physical piece of media quite so easily; even if an expurgated version of a book is released decades after its release, physical books ensure that at least some copies of the original remain in circulation.
For all their machine-breaking, the Luddites failed to end the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century. That revolution of mechanical energy could not be stopped, but it was tamed: environmental efforts helped address pollution, working hours were regulated, and worker-safety protocols were developed. In the twenty-first century, the digital revolution may present a similar challenge. The explosion of computational power offers considerable opportunities, but it needs to be directed for the sake of human flourishing. A sane politics must leave a space for the distinctively human—to see in the person something more than data.