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Will the Internet be the Death of Metaphysics?

Thinking Gianni Vattimo through Black Mirror, the ‘Nosedive’ Episode

The philosopher Gianni Vattimo formulated his hermeneutics on ‘Weak Thought’, in his work Art’s Claim to Truth (1979). Weak Thought is “nothing other than the knowledge, acceptance, and recognition that philosophy, after the deconstruction of metaphysics, cannot capture the ultimate essence of its objects but must comply with multiplicity of interpretations.”[1] Using Heidegger’s conception of Ge-Stell (enframing), as a point of departure, Vattimo emphasizes the ability of information and communication technologies to propagate an infinite number of interpretations, ringing the death knell of metaphysics. Vattimo goes even further asserting that the sheer multiplicity of interpretations are a kind of artistic playfulness. Revealing the chaotic multiplicity of interpretations, Vattimo regards them as masks, as pure surface and contingency. Following this, he figures users of information and communication technologies as artists. By the very act of participating within the realm of these technologies they create a countless number of world images. As we will see, a detailed exegesis of the ‘Nosedive’ episode of the TV series Black Mirror, which is both dystopian fiction and social satire, leads to a serious questioning of Vattimo’s interpretation of information and communication technologies.

For Hiedegger, Ge-Stell (enframing) is the culmination of metaphysics because it involves the total planning of everything in perfectly ordered relationships of cause and effect, all capable of unlimited manipulation. Beings (with a capital B) turn into tools of totally planned systems as a consequence of machine-based technology. Metaphysics can be understood here as a sphere of absolute values and claims to objectivity, reducing Beings (with a capital B) into calculated beings. Vattimo brings Heidegger’s analysis up to date. He sees information and communication technologies as challenging even the machines themselves, as well as blurring the distinction between appearance and reality. As Wolfgang Sützl emphasizes “the information and communication technologies of the late twentieth century are technologies of a different kind: they are “systems collecting and transmitting information,” constructing and reducing the world as “images,” giving a positive meaning to Heidegger’s definition of modernity as the age of the world picture.”[2] While Vattimo agrees with Heidegger’s estimation of technology in a negative sense, he sees liberating opportunities within it by taking into account the kinds of communications technology Heidegger did not get to witness and consider in detail. Vattimo states, “it is not in the world of machines and engines that humanity and being can shed the mantles of subject and object, but in the world of generalized communication.”[3] In essence, Vattimo introduces a new and a more positive understanding of technology with reference to the rising influence of information and communication technologies. Within this novel understanding, individuals are considered as beings with a capital B, creating unique interpretations instead of being cogs of a totally planned systems ruled by technology. By fathoming out communication technologies in relation to the Ge-Stell (enframing), Vattimo revises Heidegger’s philosophy of technology. Subsequently it can be claimed that the world picture created by technology, has become a plurality of “pictures”; the unified sense of reality generated by rationalistic metaphysics has dissolved into an irreducible plurality of interpretations.[4]

The crucial question arising here is: does this plurality of interpretations in reality spell the end of metaphysics? Social media “creates the aesthetic that ‘more’ equals ‘better,’ where the more is an expression of, and reduced to, the self as presented through a world image. One feels the sensation of, and is perceived as, doing better if one has more (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) friends and ‘likes.’ This repeats the logic of onto-theology, of omnipotence, omniscience and an insatiable desire for more. Genuine relationships and local rationalities (which might have a ‘less is more’ approach, or even not take quantity into account) are pushed aside in favor of the calculable. Being noticed is important because it makes us feel important, which is attributable in part to the egoism encouraged by the Internet and social media. The effect of this is the highlighting of the metaphysic of the digital generation of the Internet — a restatement of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum as ‘I link, therefore I am.’”[5]

Although every individual can be thought of as an agent contributing to the plurality of world images, the practices within the realm of information and communication technologies generate a sense of metaphysics by the very act of the contributors. That they themselves limit their own subjectivities in order to be liked and recognized mitigates rather than bolsters plurality in the realm of information and communication technologies. The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han emphasizes that digital media creates a communication environment of total positivity in which the loss of negativity is itself a positive phenomenon. As a consequence, the positive, affirmative character of digital communication grows without end. It leads to an excrescence and fattening of communication and to the increasing difficulty of making or hearing any meaningful statements.[6] In his book The Transparency Society Han states that “the positivity inherent in the digital reduces the possibility of such an experience. It continues the same.” No change is possible in a digital network where “social media and personalized search engines establish an absolute space of proximity in which any exteriority has been eliminated. There, one only meets oneself and the likes of oneself.”[7]

This precise total positivity of digital media is conjured in the ‘Nosedive’ episode of Black Mirror, a dystopian fictional television series brimming with dark satire. It examines modern society in the not-so-distant future, paying close attention to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Most of the show’s episodes underline the possible negative future consequences of the new technologies by focusing on their culpability in dehumanizing and creating one-dimensional individuals. However, the ‘Nosedive’ episode explicitly hones in on the total positivity pushed by new technologies, running against Vattimo’s interpretation of the digital. The crucial point underlined in the episode is that individuals by free will consent to becoming a part of this system of total positivity.

To elaborate, the ‘Nosedive’ episode examines a validation-seeking society in which individuals rate each other constantly via a social media app. Their ratings determine their place within society. The episode emphasizes the significance of the artificial positivity enhanced by social media, as well as individuals’ monstrous yearning for recognition (being ‘liked’) by their peers. The main character, Lacie, spends almost all of her time practicing happy faces in the mirror and composing delightful photos for her timeline. The setting of the episode cartwheels with Lacie’s ersatz happiness. While it is common for dystopian fictions to have dark and mysterious backdrops, the world depicted in ‘Nosedive’ is set in light and pastel colors. This creates a sense that it is a positive environment, with a dark underside. Furthermore, throughout the episode there are strict social codes that every individual must follow and all of them are explicitly positive. This reflects the metaphysics of digital media delineated above. Here, the individual who seeks validation through the ratings of others is in conflict with Vattimo’s notion of the artist who creates her own world pictures within the realm of the irreducible plurality of interpretations.

Throughout the episode, Lacie fervently attempts to regulate her feelings in the presence of other members of her society. While some unexpected occurrences stir negative impulses in her, she tries to hide these to avoid being disliked by the others. This ongoing act of self-regulation is the effect of a totally planned system enforced through positivistic discourse. The episode ends with Lacie being put in a jail on seemingly trivial grounds: she reveals negative emotions that are anathema to the ruling discourse. ‘Nosedive’ conceives of digital media in a Heideggerian sense, as the culmination of metaphysics since it entails the total planning of everything in perfectly ordered relationships of cause and effect. In a totally planned society held together by information and communication technologies every individual has to be unswervingly positive in order to be liked and recognized. This signals the ongoing life of metaphysics, albeit in mutated form, rather than its death. 

References:

Han, B-C. (2015). The Transparency Society. California: Stanford University Press.

Harris, M, E. (2016). Essays on Gianni Vattimo: Religion, Ethics and the History of Ideas. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Harris, M, E. (2015). The End of Metaphysics? Gianni Vattimo on the Will to Power as Art in the Age of the Internet. ODRADEK. 1(1).

Vattimo, G. (2008). Art’s Claim to Truth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Vattimo, G. (1992). The Transparent Society. Maryland, US: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wolfgang S. (2016). Gianni Vattimo’s Media Philosophy and Its Relevance to Digital Media. Philosophy Today. 60(3). 743-759.

[1] Vattimo, G. (2008). Art’s Claim to Truth. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Wolfgang Sützl. (2016). Gianni Vattimo’s Media Philosophy and Its Relevance to Digital Media. Philosophy Today. 60(3). 743-759.

[3] Vattimo, G. (1992). The Transparent Society. Maryland, US: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Harris, M, E. (2016). Essays on Gianni Vattimo: Religion, Ethics and the History of Ideas. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[5] Harris, M, E. (2015). The End of Metaphysics? Gianni Vattimo on the Will to Power as Art in the Age of the Internet. ODRADEK. 1(1).

[6] Wolfgang S. (2016). Gianni Vattimo’s Media Philosophy and Its Relevance to Digital Media. Philosophy Today. 60(3). 743-759.

[7] Han, B-C. (2015). The Transparency Society. California: Stanford University Press.

Alkim Erol

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