Technology Wants You to DisappearPosted: August 3, 2017
*A Kneeling Bus email newsletter goes out every Friday now. Subscribe here (or check out the archives here). These blog posts will be included in the email updates too if you’d like to keep up that way.
“The problem (of the modern city) was to plan the disappearance of the subject, to cancel the anguish caused by the pathetic (or ridiculous) resistance of the individual to the structures of domination that close in upon him, to indicate the voluntary and docile submission to those structures of domination as the promised land of universal planning.”
Few would consider the iPhone a Singularity fantasy, but it isn’t hard to imagine Apple wishing for pure spiritual unity between its devices and users, instead of the inelegant smudging and fumbling to which clumsy humans actually subject their devices. The iPhone’s smooth platonic completeness only breaks for the minimum number of buttons and switches the hand requires, while more recent features like fingerprint and voice recognition foreshadow a future version unblemished by any moving parts, one that responds to inputs less brutish than pressure from our shaky fingers. Following that phase, we can also imagine, will come the time when the iPhone doesn’t need our input at all—because our usage is sufficiently predictable, because we float unconsciously in Matrix feeding tube pods, or because the separation between our phones and selves has finally eroded to a point of invisibility.
Apple’s design philosophy, in other words, already recoils from our physical, embodied presence as humans. Virginia Heffernan suggested this in a podcast interview with Paul Ford, speculating that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive must think people are revolting—the reason their products “deny the body” with antiseptic forms that do their best to resist the dead skin cells and oily finger smudges that inevitably ensue. For all of Apple’s ability to perfectly anticipate human instincts and behaviors, they only reluctantly meet us at the point of physical contact. The iPhone would probably even be better off without us. And yet, iPhones exist for people, in a way few other technologies ever have, as virtual extensions of both our bodies and minds.
Magritte, La Décalcomanie (source)
Technology hasn’t always felt like such a mirror of human nature. The problem with people has long been their insistence on being people and doing things that people do, a tendency that has created friction in the modernization project since its inception centuries ago. Mankind’s original sin, in Manfredo Tafuri’s assessment of the modern era, was precisely that stubbornness, which worked against the formal perfection and machine-like efficiency of everything that was supposedly being built for the same people who so frequently obstructed it, intentionally or not. The solution that Tafuri cynically saw embedded in early twentieth-century modernism, which he called the “ideology of the Plan,” was the disappearance of the human subject via submission to the mechanized universe that was then eating the world (to borrow a more recent phrase). In Albert Pope’s words, “Universal planning was simply the means of mitigating the demands of industrial capital,” or the invitation to become more like a machine.
Today, one might believe we’ve moved past that. While the industrial era (which many are still in) needed warm bodies that could behave more like machines, Apple—this era’s emblem of capitalism—seems to herald the opposite arrangement. Our bodies are less essential to whatever work we do now, and even the keystrokes and mouse clicks still happening will soon diminish; the present economic regime needs “warm minds.” To us, as users, Apple and many others extend an equally enthusiastic invitation to resemble a more sophisticated kind of machine (and Jobs was a disciple of the same modernism that invited us the first time). Even now, amazingly, we encounter sincere invocations of Le Corbusier’s overly rational “machine for living” in discussions about the smart home.
And people still foil the march of progress with their very presence. A century ago, Robert Moses and countless others found the organic premodern city to be a roadblock in the path of the modernist city’s realization. Today, those modernist urban environments—which Moses helped build—similarly obstruct the continuous globalized network city: “You will know these new systems by the extent to which cities are in their way and extraneous to their purposes,” I wrote in a previous post about this process. I argued that, from the perspective of global shippers, airlines, and Amazons, population centers were necessary evils that furnished labor and demand—these systems’ reasons for existing—but otherwise inhibited their optimal functioning in almost every way. The last mile problem is another way of saying that logistics would work better without all the people (and in fact, “making the trains run on time” has become shorthand for totalitarian reform of societies).
The problem today, one that Apple won’t solve, is to reimagine the global urban subject as something more than just a user—a transition that would affect cities as well as the technology we use. Demand for transportation, as an example, has always been an index of failure: the separation between where you are and where you need to be at a given moment. Rather than minimizing such distance by building communities that place people as near as possible to what they need, our current brand of modernity codifies that separation and uses it to extract value from its subjects—users, passengers, customers—whom it would gladly otherwise do without. The resulting condition described by Paul Virilio, in which many of us currently exist, is one of “movement and acceleration not as displacement but rather as emplacement.”
Far from eradicating distance or restoring the role of fully developed individuals in the world economy, the digital has largely accelerated the subject’s disappearance. Jan Chipchase writes, “As more data comes on stream, revealing what people are doing and how, there is a growing danger of people being treated as little more than lines in a database, stripped of personality and context, there solely to be mined and monetized.” The Singularity may be a delusional fever dream, but from the perspective of anyone who understands you as a user, it’s already almost real.