“The End of Theory” – Byung-Chul HAN

Columbus and His Egg

Bentham likened his panopticon to ‘Columbus and his egg’. By his account, the invention should be applied to all disciplinary milieus of incarceration because it promotes the exceptionally efficient surveillance of inmates. The panopticon represents a watershed in the social order: ‘What would you say, if by the gradual adoption and diversified application of this single principle, you should see a new scene of things spread itself over the face of civilized society?’

Will Big Data also prove to be Columbus’s egg for the contemporary society of digital control – a system even more effective than Bentham’s panopticon? Will it actually manage not just to watch over human behaviour, but also to subject it to psychopolitical steering? Is another, wholly unintuited drama poised to redraw the face of civilized society itself?

If nothing else, Big Data has given rise to a highly efficient form of control. Acxiom, an American Big Data company, promises clients a ‘360-degree customer view’. Indeed, the digital panopticon has made possible a wraparound view of those who dwell within it. Bentham’s panopticon was confined to a perspectival optical system. This meant that blind spots were unavoidable – here, prisoners could indulge in secret wishes and thoughts without being observed.


In the pages of the New York Times, David Brooks has announced a data revolution. His words are as prophetic as Chris Anderson’s famous article ‘The End of Theory’. ‘Dataism’ is the name of the new faith:

If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is dataism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions – that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things – like foretell the future … The data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past.

Dataism has taken the stage with the fervour of a second Enlightenment. During the first Enlightenment, statistics was thought to possess the capacity to liberate human knowledge from the clutches of mythology. Accordingly, euphoric celebration occurred. In light of such developments, Voltaire even voiced the wish for a new historiography, freed from past superstition. Statistics, as he put it, offers ‘an object of curiosity for anyone who would like to read history as a citizen and as a philosopher’. Revised by statistics, history would become truly philosophical. As Rüdiger Campe writes, ‘The numbers of statistics provide the basis from which [Voltaire] can articulate his methodological mistrust of all histories that exist only as narratives. The stories of ancient history accordingly offer an example that borders on mythology for [him].’ Statistics and Enlightenment are one and the same for Voltaire. Statistics means setting objective knowledge founded on, and driven by, numbers in opposition to mythological narration.

Now, transparency is the buzzword of the second Enlightenment. Data are supposed to be a pellucid medium. As Brooks describes them, data afford a ‘transparent and reliable lens’. The imperative of the second Enlightenment declares: everything must become data and information. The soul of the second Enlightenment is data totalitarianism, or data fetishism. Although it announces that it is taking leave of all ideology, dataism itself is an ideology. It is leading to digital totalitarianism. Therefore, a third Enlightenment is called for – in order to shine a light on how digital enlightenment has transformed into a new kind of servitude.

Big Data is supposed to be freeing knowledge from subjective arbitrariness. By this logic, intuition does not represent a higher form of knowing; instead, it represents something merely subjective – a stopgap compensating for the shortage of objective data. In complex situations, the argument goes, intuition is blind. The mistrust even extends to theory, which is suspected of being an ideology: if enough data are available, it should prove superfluous as well. The second Enlightenment is the age of purely data-driven knowledge. Anderson’s visionary rhetoric goes: ‘Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.’

The medium of the first Enlightenment was reason. However, imagination, corporeality and desire were repressed in its name. By a fatal dialectic, the first Enlightenment switched over into barbarism. Now, in the second Enlightenment – which appeals to information, data and transparency – the same dialectic threatens to do the same. The second Enlightenment is summoning forth a new kind of violence. The Dialectic of Enlightenment holds that the process of illumination that set out to destroy mythology became entangled, with every stride it made, in a mythology of its own: ‘False clarity is only another name for myth.’ Adorno would say that the ‘transparency’ of today is another name for myth too – that dataism likewise heralds false clarity. The dialectic of old is also making the second Enlightenment, which seeks to counter ideology, into an ideology in its own right – more still, it is leading to the barbarism of data.

Dataism, it turns out, is amounting to digital Dadaism. Dadaism also takes leave of meaningful contexts of every kind. It empties language itself of sense: ‘The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike. Simplicity is called Dada.’ Dataism is nihilism. It gives up on any and all meaning. Data and numbers are not narrative; they are additive. Meaning, on the other hand, is based on narration. Data simply fills up the senseless void.

Now, numbers and data are not just being absolutized – they are becoming sexualized and fetishized. This amounts to nothing other than libidinal energy flowing into today’s ‘Quantified Self’. On the whole, dataism is displaying libidinous – indeed, pornographic – traits. Dataists mate with their data. In the meanwhile, there is even talk of ‘datasexuals’. They are ‘relentlessly digital’ and consider data ‘sexy’. The digitus is starting to play the part of the phallus.

HAN, Byung-Chul, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Transl. by Erik Butler. London/New York: Verso, 2017.

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