This is a slightly edited version of the introduction I presented for the roundtable on “The Human Rating System” that took place at the Sandberg Instituut on December 1st 2021.
I circle back to certain ideas that have been foundational to my work trying to understand AI, algorithms and technology in general. What started more than half a decade ago as a rather timid exploration of big data as a colonial operation of resource extraction became an extensive research on what I then called “the coloniality of the algorithm”, taking on Anibal Quijano’s and Maria Lugones seminal work on coloniality and the inception of capital in the Americas. I anchored most of my research on these thinkers who gave me a perspective to understand AI not as a novelty technology but as part of a historical continuum in which algorithms cannot be separated from the taxonomical order that set the basis for the human classification system underpinning the colonial enterprise.
If Quijano and Lugones gave me the initial grounding for this historical perspective, it was Achille Mbembe who helped me understand the contemporary uses of AI and algorithms in the administration of life. It was through the necropolitical that I situated the algorithm as part of the decision making process on who may live and who must die.
When the pandemic lockdown was declared in The Netherlands in March 2020, like everyone else, I was reading the first analysis of the unprecedented situation we found ourselves in. I practically disengaged from social media at that point (intermittently sharing some tidbits here and there) because I did not want to participate in the constant churning of opinion. I am, generally speaking, interested in longer arcs, processes that can only be explained through longer observations, patterns and preceding events. Social media forces me to live in the now, a perpetual moment of reaction tied to the present. It was in April 2020 that Achille Mbembe published “The Universal Right to Breathe” a text that would eventually be another turning point in my own work ever since. In “The Universal Right to Breathe” Mbembe writes
Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body. We tried to graft it onto other media, to turn it into an object body, a machine body, a digital body, an ontophanic body.
I paused when I read these sentences. I couldn’t quite grasp what he meant by the ontophanic body. It was Stephane Vial, Professor at the School of Design at the University of Quebec in Montreal who first introduced the notion of ontophany first in a paper he published in 2018 and later in his book Being and the Screen.
Two decades of daily cultural integration with interfaces have demonstrated that virtuality (or simulation), is one of many aspects of our interactive experience with digital devices. A need therefore exists for new concepts; ones more apt at penetrating the philosophical complexity of the digital phenomenon, and more likely to enlighten us as to the significance of our interactions with interfaces, given that these encounters constitute a phenomenological and existential experience. Thus, I have suggested introducing the concept of ontophany, whose etymology merges (without any particular hierarchical distinction) the dimensions of being (ontos) and of appearance (phaïnô). It bears witness to my profound attachment to Bachelard’s notion of “phenomenotechnique,” which I believe the term “ontophany” revives and broadens into a form of comprehensive phenomenotechnique.
Not only do the following theoretical propositions seek to contribute, philosophically, to Internet Studies and to a better understanding the Digital Age, they also hope to give rise to a broader deliberation on technology and perception, as they relate to an approach I would characterize as a historical phenomenology of technology. According to this approach, technology is no longer a body of objects isolated from their subject; technical nature becomes an intrinsic aspect of subjectivity (among others) which varies in relation to its historical context. Man is as much part of the machine as the machine is part of man.
And here is the core of my interest in ontophany: I said in previous lectures that the virtual is a concept that can no longer be used to describe our relationship with technology. I would now posit that “the virtual” has been replaced by the ontophany, that is technology as intrinsic to subjectivity.
I go back to Vial and his FOCUS ON ‘APPEARANCE’: “I call it ‘ontophany’: the process through which the being (ontos) appears (phaino) to us, in the sense that it involves a particular quality of ‘being-in-the-world’” (as per Heidegger) or, I would say, (not quite like Heidegger), a quality of ‘feeling-in-the-world’. and here I have to go back to Mbembes lecture on Heidegger and technology as “a way of thinking” and “a concealment takes place [through technology]” “a realm where truth happens, the event of truth”
Technology has the power to generate ontophany or ‘phenomenality’. The power to generate what can appear as ‘real’, through Perception
All phenomena, and not only scientific phenomena, are constructed or co-constructed by technical factors. The fact of appearing (not just the fact of “existing” but of becoming visible to an other, either as a human or a nonhuman) is in itself a phenomenotechnical process, one where it’s not a mere ontology that is revealed but the process of perception itself becomes a technical one. I insist on Vial: There are technical structures of perception. Any ‘ontophany’ is conditioned by technique.
Vial posits that “Through the ages, new technologies have generated an ‘ontophany shift’, that is to say a shaking of the dominant (technical) structures of perception and, consequently, a change of the very idea that we have of ‘reality’. Each time, it requires from us to re-learn the whole perception process and to extend our idea of the ‘real’.”
In previous lectures series here at Sandberg I have often spoken about the processes of violence that happen on social media, the rhetorics of violence that are used under the guise of free speech and we could say that these forms of violence can no longer be considered “virtual” or “social media based” but that they are part of a process that Vial calls “phenomenological violence” due to how it impacts subjectivity.
So, this introduction is a long way to explain how I came into the notion of The Human Rating System and what I was hoping to describe with this rather absurdist title. If the ontophanic body is a body that can no longer be separated from the technology it interacts with, I am interested in how the constant rating of human performance impacts our subjectivity, and ultimately how it impacts the value of human life and our own self worth. At the same time, these processes take place while the State itself applies a value system on life through its interventions (too long to enumerate in this short introduction but relevant in our ongoing discussions of pandemic politics).
What I call “the human rating system” is the numeric value reflected in number of likes, number of youtube reproductions, social media metrics, the number of stars we give an Uber driver, the shares and likes in instagram stories, and since we are at an academic institution I should mention platforms or initiatives like “rate my tutor” that further expand the logic of the market into education, exacerbating precarious labor conditions through the fear of getting a “bad rating” from students who see themselves as deserving of better service. It is through this ubiquitous valuation practice that platforms and apps have created a system of hierarchies and strata to measure life’s worth. This rating system places us in a permanent state of evaluation of ourselves and everyone we interact with.
If the algorithm is built on a colonial taxonomical system that classified us across racial and gender lines in order to optimise capitalism’s labor exploitation and to set the political basis for enslavement of Black people, or indentured servitude for natives in the Americas and eventually through resource extraction, the human ratings system is nothing more than the logic of the algorithm intervening in human subjectivity to expand the project of valuation of human life that has been instrumental to the capitalist administration of life itself. Are you a five stars human? In the movie of your life, what would your rotten tomatoes score be?
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