WorldByung-Chul Han: “The cell phone is an instrument of domination. Acts...

Byung-Chul Han: “The cell phone is an instrument of domination. Acts like a rosary”


With a certain vertigo, the material world, made up of atoms and molecules, of things we can touch and smell, is dissolving into a world of information, of non-things, as noted by the Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Not-things that we still continue to want, buy and sell, that continue to influence us. The digital world is increasingly hybridized with what we still consider the real world, to the point of blurring together, making existence increasingly intangible and fleeting. The thinker’s last book, Non-things. Breaks in today’s world, joins a series of short essays in which the best-selling thinker (called him the rockstar of philosophy) minutely dissects the anxieties that neoliberal capitalism produces in us.

Bringing together frequent quotes from the great philosophers and elements of popular culture, Han’s texts move from what he called “the tired society”, in which we live exhausted and depressed by the inescapable demands of existence, to the analysis of the new forms of entertainment that they offer us . From psychopolitics, which makes people accept to meekly surrender to the seduction of the system, to the disappearance of the eroticism that Han credits to the current narcissism and exhibitionism, which proliferate, for example, in social networks: the obsession with oneself makes others disappear and the world is a reflection of our person. The thinker claims the recovery of intimate contact with everyday life – in fact, it is known that he likes to slowly cultivate a garden, handicrafts, silence. And it rebels against “the disappearance of rituals” that makes the community disappear and that we become lost individuals in sick and cruel societies.

Byung-Chul Han in image from Isabella Gresser’s documentary ‘The Society of Fatigue: Byung-Chul Han in Seoul and Berlin’, 2015.

Byung-Chul Han accepted this interview as EL PAÍS, but only through an e-mail questionnaire that was answered in German by the philosopher and later translated and edited.

QUESTION. How is it possible that in a world obsessed with hyperproduction and hyperconsumption, at the same time objects are dissolving and we are heading towards a world of non-things?

ANSWER. There is, without a doubt, a hyperinflation of objects that leads to their explosive proliferation. But these are disposable objects with which we do not establish affective bonds. Today we are obsessed not with things, but with information and data, that is, not-things. Today, we’re all hooligans. There was even talk of sexual dates [pessoas que compilam e compartilham obsessivamente informação sobre sua vida pessoal].

Q. In this world that you describe, of hyperconsumption and loss of ties, why is it important to have “dearest things” and establish rituals?

A. Things are the supports that give peace of mind in life. These days they are collectively obscured by information. The smartphone is not a thing. I characterize him as the informatist who produces and processes information. Information is the opposite of supports that give peace of mind to life. They live on the stimulus of surprise. They immerse us in a whirlwind of actuality. Rituals too, like temporal architectures, give stability to life. The pandemic destroyed these temporal structures. Think about telecommuting. When time loses its structure, depression begins to affect us.

Q. In your book it is established that, through digitization, we will become homo ludens, focused more on leisure than work. But, with the precariousness and destruction of employment, can we all have access to this condition?

A. I spoke of digital unemployment that is not determined by the situation. Digitization will lead to massive unemployment. This unemployment will represent a very serious problem in the future. Will the human future consist of basic income and computer games? A disheartening panorama. With panem et circus (bread and circuses) Juvenal refers to Roman society in which political action is not possible. People keep themselves happy with free food and awesome games. Total domination is one where people just play games. The recent hyperbolic Korean series from Netflix, Round 6, in which everyone is only dedicated to the game, points in that direction.

Q. In what sense?

A. These people are totally in debt and are indulging in this deadly game that promises huge gains. Round 6 represents a central aspect of capitalism in an extreme form. Walter Benjamin has already said that capitalism represents the first case of a cult that is not expiatory, but rather indebted us. At the beginning of digitization, it was dreamed that it would replace work with play. In fact, digital capitalism ruthlessly exploits the human drive for gambling. Think of social networks, which incorporate playful elements to provoke addiction in users.

Q. In fact, the smartphone promised us a certain freedom… Didn’t it turn into a long chain that imprisons us wherever we are?

A. The smartphone is now a digital workplace and a digital confessional. Every device, every technique of domination generates revered articles that are used for subjugation. This is how domination consolidates. The smartphone is the cult article of digital domination. As an apparatus of subjugation it acts as a rosary and its beads; that’s how we keep the cell phone constantly in our hands. Like is the digital amen. We continued to confess. By our own decision, we undressed. But we don’t ask for forgiveness, but that they pay attention to us.

Q. There are those who fear that the internet of things could mean something like the rebellion of objects against human beings.

A. Not exactly. THE smarthome [casa inteligente] with interconnected things represents a digital prison. THE smartbed [cama inteligente] with sensors prolongs surveillance also during sleeping hours. Surveillance is increasingly and surreptitiously imposing itself in everyday life as if it were convenient. The computerized things, that is, the informants, reveal themselves as efficient informers who constantly control and direct us.

FOR. You described how work takes on the character of a game, social networks, paradoxically, make us feel freer, capitalism seduces us. Has the system managed to get inside us to dominate us in a way that is even pleasurable to ourselves?

A. Only a repressive regime provokes resistance. On the contrary, the neoliberal regime, which does not oppress freedom but rather exploits it, does not face any resistance. It is not repressive, but seductive. Domination becomes complete the moment it presents itself as freedom.

Q. Why, despite growing precariousness and inequality, existential risks, etc., does the everyday world in Western countries seem so beautiful, hyper-planned, and optimistic? Why doesn’t it look like a dystopian cyberpunk movie?

A. The romance 1984 George Orwell has recently become a worldwide bestseller. People get the feeling that something isn’t right with our digital comfort zone. But our society is more like Admirable new world by Aldous Huxley. In 1984 people are controlled by the threat of harming them. In Admirable new world they are controlled by pleasure management. The state distributes a drug called “soma” so that everyone feels happy. This is our future.

Q. Do you suggest that the Artificial intelligence it’s the big data they are not forms of knowledge as amazing as we are led to believe, but more “rudimentary”. Why?

A. Big data has only a very primitive form of knowledge, namely correlation: A happens, then B happens. There is no understanding. Artificial Intelligence does not think. Artificial Intelligence is not afraid.

FOR. Blaise Pascal said that the great tragedy of human beings is that they cannot sit still and do nothing. We live in a cult of productivity, even in what we call “free”. You have called it, with great success, the society of fatigue. Should we fixate on the recovery of time itself as a political objective?

A. Human existence today is totally absorbed by activity. This makes it completely exploitable. Inactivity reappears in the capitalist system of domination with the incorporation of something external. It’s called leisure time. As it serves to recover from work, it remains attached to it. As a derivative of work, it constitutes a functional element within production. We need an inactivity policy. This could serve to free time from production obligations and make real idle time possible.

FOR. How does a society that tries to homogenize us and eliminate differences combine with people’s growing desire to be different from others, in a way, unique?

A. Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. In this way, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of equals.

Q. Do we need more silence? Be more willing to listen to the other?

A. We need the information to shut up. Otherwise, it will explore our brain. Today we understand the world through information. Thus, the in-person experience is lost. We are increasingly disconnected from the world. We’re losing the world. The world is more than information. The screen is a poor representation of the world. We circle around ourselves. The smartphone decisively contributes to this poor perception of the world. A fundamental symptom of depression is the absence of the world.

FOR. Depression is one of the most alarming contemporary health problems. How does this absence from the world operate?

A. In depression, we lose our relationship with the world, with the other. And we sink into a fuzzy ego. I think that digitization, and with it the smartphone, make us depressed. There are stories of dentists telling their patients that they cling to their phones when treatment is painful. Why do they do it? Thanks to the cell phone I am aware of myself. The cell phone helps me to be sure that I live, that I exist. That way we cling to the cell phone in critical situations, such as dental treatment. I remember when I was a child I shook my mother’s hand at the dentist. Today, the mother does not give the child her hand, but the cell phone so that she can cling to it. Support does not come from others, but from yourself. It makes us sick. We have to get the other one back.

FOR. According to philosopher Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Have you imagined some form of post-capitalism now that the system seems to be in decay?

A. Capitalism really corresponds to the instinctual structures of man. But man is not just an instinctual being. We have to tame, civilize and humanize capitalism. This is also possible. The social market economy is a demonstration. But our economy is entering a new era, the era of sustainability.

FOR. You graduated with a thesis on Heidegger, who explored the most abstract forms of thought and whose texts are very obscure to the profane. You, however, manage to apply this abstract thinking to matters that anyone can experience. Should philosophy be more concerned with the world in which the majority of the population lives?

A. Michel Foucault defines philosophy as a kind of radical journalism, and considers himself a journalist. Philosophers should be bluntly concerned with today, with the present. In this I follow Foucault. I try to interpret today in thoughts. These thoughts are just what make us free.

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