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  • Writer's pictureLewis Deeney

Everyone & No One

The Art of the Being Human in the Digital World.

by Lewis Deeney






Our understanding of the world is shaped by our technology: from stone tools, to the light bulb and now the iPhone which all its gadgets, our technology is used to build new technology and before long, we live in a world radically different from our ancestors. Technology not only effects the contents of our mind but it’s very structure: influencing not only what we think but how we think. (Postman, Technopoly, 1992) Despite the change in structure, our thoughts have always remained our own, our human sovereignty and freedom of thought have remained: with the dawn of the information age, however, this has changed.

The train of human technological progress has been hijacked by a new economic order: one which views our landscape of mind as a reservoir of resources to be exploited, moulded and packaged for export. An economic model under the name of surveillance capitalism, which trades in predictive human futures by influencing our behaviour through the exploitation of our personal data (Zuboff, 2018). With every technological advancement, we sacrifice another part of ourselves to the machine, the world as we know it could not exist without our technology, however technology has always been external from us, the difference today is that Big Tech now has the ability to penetrate and hack our mind. (Harari, 2015)Technology is not the concern here but the method under which it is implemented. This essay is not anti-technology, quite the contrary, this essay is an attempt to free our technology from the tyrannical chains of Big Tech. Surveillance capitalism is not only detrimental to our human autonomy and democracy but also our collective humanity.

‘An information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism and its new instrumentation power will thrive at the expense of human nature and will threaten to cost us our humanity’ (Zuboff, 2018) articulated Shoshana Zuboff, a champion of the anti-surveillance capitalism movement.

Throughout this essay I intend to explore the ways in which technologies current incarnation, under the model of surveillance capitalism, alters our perception of the world, our understanding of the self and what it means to be human. This concept has been explored simultaneously through theoretical research and artistic expression and is encapsulated within my series of portraits ‘Everyone & No One.’ Deconstructed, over-simplified and reconstructed out of painterly abstract shapes, the work dehumanises the face into an abstraction of geometric forms. Ageless, raceless and genderless, the subject holds no belief or ideology, simultaneously showing everyone and no one. The text lays the foundation of my argument, composing in the mind a landscape of theoretical consideration before allowing you the opportunity to contemplate the topic in relation to the paintings: pairing logical and intuitive communication in order to compose a balanced platform to share my understanding. For this reason, the artwork shall only be discussed towards the end after I have outlined my argument, however, I will place the work throughout the essay to offer moments of reflection over the theory, in relation to the artwork.




Everyone & No One 2A,2B, 2C & 2D

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

38x47cm


Neil Postman, one of modern technologies most outspoken critics opened his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, with a comparison between George Orwell & Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic’s, 1984 and Brave New World. Describing that what Orwell feared was oppression and concealment of information from a tyrannical state: a world in which the book would be banned. Whereas Huxley, in comparison feared a world in which there would be no need to ban books as no one would want to read one, the truth is not concealed from us but ‘drowned in a sea of irrelevance’ (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985). Where Orwell feared we would become a captive culture, ruled through pain, Huxley predicted that we would learn to love the tools of our oppression and that pleasure, not pain, would be our downfall. Postman continues his book under the presumption that Huxley, not Orwell, was right, and 35 years later, Postman’s observation of Huxley’s prophecy has now become a prophecy within itself. (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985)

Despite the terror shown to us on our newsfeed, we currently live in a time of great prosperity, a paradise in the eyes of our ancestors. Many life changing technologies are not only taken for granted but often considered as a fundamental human right, and technological advancements have greatly reduced or completely eradicated most of the distresses that plagued humanity. (Harari, 2015) ‘For the first time in history more people die today from eating too much that from too little; more people die from old age than infectious diseases,’ (Harari, 2015) writes Yuval Noah Harari. Yet this does not suggest a utopia, as Harari would agree, and is not an attempt to downplay the many humanitarian crisis’s our world faces but an observable statistic that in the metric of human well-being, this is the greatest time ever to have been born a human. (Harari, 2015) The average westerner has countless tool of pleasure at their disposal, from fast food to play-stations, our time can be spent in blind indulgence to the pleasurable distractions provided by the market. Yet pleasure does not equate happiness, and our pursuit of happiness is now often confused with the pursuit of pleasure. Happiness is not a statistic we can objectively quantify; it is an emergent property from a feeling of purpose and fulfilment, fulfilment from our work, social connections and spiritual practices. In Karl Marx’s critique of the specialisation of factory workers in a capitalist system, he argued that when we could not see ourselves within our work, we no longer found meaning within it and all the superficial tools of pleasure provided by the market cannot fulfil our lack of purpose. (Lowe, 2015). As early as the 2nd century BC Epicurus taught that material achievements and possessions were only a short-term satisfaction, not a long-term fulfilment, and will eventually make us miserable. However, Epicurus was aware of our innate desire towards pleasurable experiences (Harari, 2015), and in a world where the market and not philosophy holds authority, we have collectively surrendered to our indulgences. In Taoism, it is believed that too much of one thing will eventually become its opposite, anything which is too yin will eventually become yang (Capra, 1982), and in the context of our 21st century world, too much pleasure will eventually cause us to suffer. Huxley prophesied it will be pleasure that will be our downfall, and it is our instinctual desire for pleasure which is being exploited by Big Tech in order to push their own agenda, an agenda dictated by the market of predictable human futures and not our human prosperity.




Everyone & No One 4A,4B, 4C, 4D & 4E

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

38x47cm



Our understanding of ourselves continually evolves with the onset of new technologies. The human as machine metaphor is engrained into our worldview, that we often refer to our biological functions as mechanical. (Raunig, 2010)This is not all bad however, many professions and scientific fields have blossomed as a result, but where should the analogy end? Can the machine metaphor be used to understand our subjective human qualities, our mind, our feelings, our happiness? Happiness can, and often is, broken down into the biochemistry of our body, it is not events in the external world that cause us pleasure or pain, it is in the chemistry within our body and how we experience it within our mind. (Harari, 2015) The deeper, animalistic, parts of our psyche are unaware of the events triggering such a response and this is the part exploited by Big Tech. Tristan Harris refers to it as ‘the race to the bottom of the brain stem,’ (Orlowski, 2020) which accurately describes the model in which Big Tech employs, using tools of persuasion to engage, and now increasingly provoke, deeper parts of our mind: bypassing our ability for reason. When Big Tech designs machine learning algorithms with the intention of keeping us engaged on their platform, the result is an exploitation of our human desire for social acceptance and our biologically evolved negativity bias. (Pomerantsev, 2020)

What enrages us, engages us, and to sustain our attention our newsfeeds become more extreme. Whatever belief or ideological position you hold is irrelevant as in a world of click bait media, we are beginning to doubt whether the truth is now relevant. (Pomerantsev, 2020) ‘The truth will be drowned in a sea of irrelevance’ (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985) prophesized Huxley. Confused by what to believe, overwhelmed by information/misinformation, we no longer have faith in facts. American biologist, E.O Wilson, ionically stated, ‘We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god like technologies.’ (Wilson, 2009) Which I believe powerfully summarises our condition. Our minds are still more primitive than we may like to admit, and our current model of information distribution and regulation is founded upon the information explosion generated by the printing press, (Postman, Technopoly, 1992) we are currently experiencing another such explosion however with far more power. God-like may initially sound like an overstatement, however. imagine a now simple technology- say, the light bulb, invented in 1879 (Matulka, 2013)- in relation to the technology of the 1500’s when the printing press was invented, now consider the iPhone in relation and ask if it is not God-like? Our primitive minds are vulnerable to these God-like technologies and our governments and institutions are not prepared to, or even know how to regulate it. We do not have the brain capacity to process all the information we now have at our disposal, and the unregulated spread of misinformation results in the belief that there is nothing we can truly believe in. (Pomerantsev, 2020) We fall to the beliefs of our animalistic instincts, the very part of our mind which is most vulnerable to persuasion. Acting out of emotion and not reason we are easier to predict and to provoke and the more oblivious we are to the algorithmic magician behind the screen orchestrating our behaviour (Orlowski, 2020). We fall into echo chambers that extremifies our viewpoint, not through facts but by condemning the other, triggering our fight or flight response and putting us in a heightened emotional state, which again makes us easier to control. Through the exploitation of our data and highly effective targeted ads, the cycle continues, warping our understanding of the world and the reality beyond the screen.

The ‘opposition,’ is dehumanized in our perception of them: pixels on a screen and an outlet for our built-up frustration. Overwhelmed with rage we lose sense of our own morality and values; conversation breaks down and polarization between us increases and we experience the world as an increasingly hostile place. The pattern continues, personalized to the individual by the algorithm. (Orlowski, 2020) The cracks in our social framework widen into crevasses of misunderstanding. Our concept of truth is misaligned, our perception of the world beyond the screen is distorted by our interactions on it. We are presented with different, often contradictory information, which poses different problems with different solutions, catered towards our own individual bias’s. We cannot agree on an answer as we are asking different questions based on different information. Our perception of those who opposes us is distorted and our understanding of the world mislead.

Yet this does not sound pleasurable and certainly would not make us happy, and that is the point, the continual drip feeding of superficial pleasures from our devices detaches us from ourselves and changes our understanding of what happiness even is. Our understanding of happiness as something we can objectively quantify is an effect of our increasingly technological world. With our society shifting from religious to technocratic authority, we attempt to quantify subjective experience in objective terms. (Postman, Technopoly, 1992) Technology has shaped our worldview from that of organic to mechanic: we therefor quantify experience in terms of material wellbeing and pleasurable distractions and not on subjective human meaning. We sacrifice a portion of our humanness with every new technological advancement, seemingly unaware of the true root of our suffering and Big Tech is always in our pocket to temporarily satisfy our loss of human meaning. We get an ego high of social morality and an array of dopamine hits in the form of supportive comments from our fellow members of the echo chamber. We are a part of a tribe, bonded over a common goal: a goal founded upon misinformation and clickbait propaganda. (Pomerantsev, 2020) We find belonging and social acceptance over a hatred of the ‘other,’ which serves in our imagination as a pixelated human symbol for everything we despise in the world. Reason has long broken down and the repressed, often dark, parts of our unconscious mind, the shadow archetype (Jung, 1964) as conceptualised by Carl Jung, is projected upon pixels on a screen and in our enraged disillusion, becomes synonymous with the person beyond it.




U & Not U 3,4 & 5

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

105x73cm


Big Tech is the pleasurable, quick fix escape from the suffering-however severe or trivial- we experience in our everyday life. Social media is the world in which we retreat into, which inevitably creates more internal suffering than the pain it is used to escape from. We are learning- and now teaching new generations- that whenever we are sad, stressed or simply bored we have a virtual world of superficial pleasures in our pocket. (Orlowski, 2020) We are losing the ability to deal with and confront negative emotions and as a result vital parts of what it means to be human. Nietzsche would say that it is in confronting and overcoming these obstacles that we find meaning in life and if he were alive today would be one of social media biggest critics- with ironically one of the biggest followings as Nietzsche’s philosophy still feels strikingly relevant today. ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ (Nietzsche, 1889) is a household aphorism that many are unaware came from the pen of Nietzsche and just as we have forgotten its author, it appears we have forgotten its meaning and one could even suggest that Nietzsche would go so far as saying, that Big Tech’s robs us of the chance to find meaning. Overcoming obstacles is one of the oldest philosophies for a living a good life, dating back to the Stoics when philosophy was exactly that, how to live a good life. (Irvine, 2008) In the first century AD, Marcus Aurelius boldly said "What stands in the way becomes the way." (Aurelius, 2002) This statement was the inspiration for contemporary stoic Ryan Holiday’s book, The obstacle is the way, which teaches that when met with an obstacle, we must not avoid it but confront it, the obstacle is not blocking our way but is the way. Through overcoming these obstacles, we find meaning- and often success- in the process (Holiday, 2014). This philosophy is in stark contrast to the default state of our new social media driven world that detaches us from our everyday struggles and offers a quick fix, a pleasurable distraction in order to avoid it. Coming back to Nietzsche, ‘Sometime people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.’ (Nietzche, 2020) The problem today is that many of us are unaware we are in an illusion.

Part of the illusion is that many of us now consider our digital reality to be an accurate expression of the real world. Our sense of self has been radically distorted, and the lines between our online and offline self begin to fade. Smartphone applications can influence real life action- Pokémon Go is the classic example, an app designed to test this very purpose, which resulted in children and adults alike, navigating the real world through their screen in search of virtual Pokémon. (Zuboff, 2018) Even those who reject social media will still feel its detrimental effects, just as we will all experience the disasters of climate change, we will all be affected by the polarization birthed on social media. The tremendous power of a few unjustly exploit the vulnerable parts of the many in order to manipulate our collective behaviour for profit. Altering our collective perception of the world, actually changes the real world as many of us act differently within it. Our sense of identity and self-worth is so intertwined with our digital persona that the distinction between on and offline blurs. The way in which we perceive of ourselves is altered as we sacrifice a part of ourselves to our new digital incarnation: sacrificing another part of our humanity.

In the 1950’s Martin Heidegger suggested that our worldview is altered by technology so that we now consider nature as an object at our disposable, a free resource for us to a take from, a ‘standing reserve’ (Heidegger, 1977) as Heidegger would call it. We view nature in terms of production and profit and not as a part of ourselves. Under the model of Surveillance Capitalism, humanity has now been included in the reservoir of resources to take from. A common misconception is that, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product, (Orlowski, 2020) however, that is misaligned, we are the standing reserve, the raw material in which Big Tech intends to extract their product. “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” (Zuboff, 2018) Writes Shoshana Zuboff. By extracting our humanness and our free thought we are left mind numb, oblivious and a slave to the superficial pleasures of our devices. In this state we are predictable and controllable, this state of mind is the product Big Tech is extracting from humanity.




Everyone & No One 1C, 1D & 1E

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

62x77cm


The concept of the loss of our humanity is explored in my series ‘Everyone & No One,’ as I have deconstructed the face to very simple shapes. We have an innate ability to recognise faces, the structure of the face is so engrained into our perception of the world that we can recognise a face almost anywhere. According to gestalt theory, our mind sees objects as a whole and not the sum of its individual parts (Britannica, 2020), hence how we can understand a tree without needing to analyse every branch, root and leaf. Our mind composes objects in our perception into a recognisable whole in an attempt to understand them. The mind interprets the shapes into a face and as a result creates an essence of being within the work. Without any distinguishing characteristics, the portrait is only that, a portrait, a face, an expression of a being in the world. Unable to label the face with any of the usual identities we label each other with, the portrait is simultaneously everyone and no one. It showcases the detachment between us, the dehumanisation of ourselves and each other. With no definitive associations to make, other than the essence of humanity, the work can be read in many ways and that is my intention, asking the viewer what do you experience when you see the work?




Everyone & No One 3A, 3B, 3C & 3D

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

38x47cm


You can see yourself, your digital persona, far detached from the real you: or contrary, you can read it as the real you, losing your humanness through your relationship with technology. The work can also be interpreted as the other, is this how we now see the ‘real life other,’ as a dehumanised being, reduced to simple constructs? Or does it make you think of the online ‘other’ who serves as a symbol for everything you hate in the world?

In some respects, the work is of a futuristic dystopia: exaggerating our loss of humanness to illustrate our potential human relations if we continue on our current trajectory. The paintings dont talk or interact, they are there to be observed, just as we observe each other’s profile. The portrait is encapsulated in a self-composed frame, representing the frame of our profile photo and symbolising the distinction between online and offline. Our digital personas allow us to observe without being observe, to see but not feel the presence of who we are observing, we can see not but feel their humanness. The number of portraits is also significant, with over 25 portraits created in the series thus far, the repetition and multiple variations is aimed at representing the over saturation of images we experience online while simultaneously symbolising the hope of the collective power of our humanity.




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U & Not U 1&2

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

105x73cm


The works intention is not to make you question my preconceived ideas about our relationship with technology but serves as symbol for you to consider your own, and how it effects your own unique perception of the online and offline world. The work serves as an environment for you to come to your own conclusion about the concepts I previously outlined. The works exists in the material world yet alludes to the digital in its existence, yet the contradiction is, that now it has been created, the work has its own digital persona and that is the way in which most people will now experience it.

The process of the works creation is even a meditation over our reliance with technology, as the work itself is reliant on the technology of the laser cutter and cannot be made without it. The precision of the machine is juxtaposed against the expressively painted surface: the unpredictable gestural abstraction of the human hand. Human and machine are confronted with each other to compose the work, in what I feel is a poetic process of creation to consider this issue. Man & Machine; online, offline; material, immaterial; pleasure and pain? The work is full of contradiction which alludes to the many contradictions posed upon us from our technology. Whatever position you take, whoever you are, the work is of you and not you, everyone and no one. The work asks you to see yourself in another and them in you.



Everyone & No One 1A & 1B

2020

Acrylic on Reconstructed Board

62x77cm


Art has the ability to ask questions we are not able to articulate in words. It is beautifully subjective. Beautifully human. Technology has many benefits, which cannot be denied, and I do not intend to, as personally I am optimistic about the future of technology. A machine is not human, it cannot understand or feel, it cannot act with intent- at least for the time being. I feel it is incompetence rather maliciousness by the creators of these platforms, many engineers are untrained in morality and ethics and unaware of the societal effects their innovations many have and pressure from the market is concerned with profit and not prosperity, however, this is still not an excuse. Mandatory philosophical ethics courses for the employees of Big Tech is a wise suggestion by Yuval Noah Harari to begin to counter this issue (Harari, 2015). As new generations are born into more powerful technology and have never experienced a world without it: their world is digital, and they cannot escape it. During their formative years they are ‘programmed’– to use a machine analogy- by the world around them and when that world is digital and deceitful, what does that say for the future of humanity? Does it sound like a Huxley style dystopia? These questions are beyond the thoughts of most, as many of us are unaware of the digital matrix we are currently in, our leaders included, as these questions should be at the forefront of our national and global discussion. Technology has made many classic thought experiments into a reality, and philosophy is now as vital as ever, and must been programmed into these machines and guide the course of their actions.

For me, art is an aesthetic gateway into deeper philosophical discussion, a visual non-verbal way to propose ideas and create an environment in the mind to consider them. To initiate a human emotional response to an unnatural idea which I hope I have achieved here. As humans we are blessed with an awareness of our being and therefor an awareness of the consequences of our actions. We have outlawed other markets we deem as unjust, inhumane and undemocratic and the market of human futures should be next. Technology shapes us, but we also shape technology, we can shape our technology to serve and not exploit us, we can combine the power of the machine with our human morality: to embrace and not erase our humanity.











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