“Who am I?”, I thought, or rather, “who would I be,” when I would use, subscribe to, follow every product, ideology and course of action displayed at The Life Fair? All of these things and ideas are promising to help me become a better person, to live a more complete and effective life. To live longer and die nicer when I decide I’ve had enough. Still, in every stand at this Life Fair, it feels like someone is trying to nick something from me.Design critic and editor Max Bruinsma wrote an essay on The Life Fair.
I’m a middle-aged man with irregular work and quite a few bad habits. I could give up the bad habits, start doing other work, give my body a make-over, my sex life a boost, nudge my mind into another direction. I could become a woman, if I wanted, or disappear into the crowd anonymously, faceless and genderless. If I could do all of those things, who am I now? A free man or a packet of free-floating data? Analyzing the concept of what it is to be human today, I am all but forced to conclude the latter. It seems as if we are living in hyper-individualistic times, but on closer look – and one doesn’t have to peek very profoundly – our concept of ‘individual’ appears to be about ‘unicity’ in a rather different way today than this terms suggests. The ‘indivisibility’ – the literal translation of the originally Latin word ‘individuum’ – of the individual is traditionally associated with a unique personality. But if we look at today’s concept of man, the individual is more multi-part part-of, than undivided. Not only is the individual part of overarching structures, he is also compiled of components, which characterize him and which are in a sense interchangeable for other components. These are his data, information of all sorts, which together result in a more or less unique ‘profile.’ The ‘unicity’ of today’s human, therefore, is due to the improbability of there being another combination of data, exactly like his.
An intermediate conclusion of this description of a concept of man built on data is that if one looks at it this way, everything can be different as well. Even if some data will stay the same, one’s profile changes a lot when one starts eating, reading, buying differently. In other words: how constant is the individual? Again from the vantage point of data-analysis, or more accurately, statistics, one can see patterns: similar things one has been doing or using for years. In my case, for instance, the fact that I have used only three mobile phones in twenty years, or that I like Italian food already for a very long time. It seems trivial, but with the right algorithms one can infer a lot from such data – or at least many presume they can – mainly by looking at how your seemingly unique profile corresponds to someone else’s. It hammers home that you are being looked at as category. Regardless of all rhetoric about how you rule as individual, you are constantly sliced up in sub-categories, each the playing field of institutions (governments, companies, interest groups) who see you as ‘target.’
Despite your ‘individuality,’ you are primarily seen as part of a target group.
Of course, this has always been the case. Man is a social being and therefore entwined with greater frameworks. He is part of a group. The seemingly subtle difference between ‘group’ and ‘target group’ tells a lot about how our society has changed in the past century. The inevitability of ‘being oneself’ within the group into which one was born has given way to the idea that one chooses the group one wants to belong to. This choice, and most of all the social pressure to choose – for not belonging to a group is as socially undesirable as it always has been – has lead to an intensified searching for means to express this identification – identification not so much with oneself, but with the group of one’s choice. Thus, the group (within which one identifies oneself) becomes a target group (with which one wants to identify from the outside). And there grows an entire industry to assist you, offering a range of products which allow you to identify with the group or life-style you aspire to. Who help you realize your own authentic self.
The Western concept of authenticity is based on the idea of personal freedom of choice – an authentic human being makes his own choices. Free choice already is a central issue in one of the oldest myths of Jewish-Christian culture, the expulsion from Paradise; the first humans violated Gods ban on tasting the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The gist of this story is that as a result man did not only learn to discern good from evil but at the same time became burdened with the task to choose between the two by his own free will. For the knowledge of the difference implies that you reflect on which way to go: for the good or the bad. Man is since assisted in this choice by countless advisors, in whom one often recognizes the figure of the snake from the original myth; the creature that, with his persuasive words and irresistible logic, seduced Eve to taste the doomed fruit, to which Adam complied – after all he was in love.
Free will is not only a curse in religion but also in philosophy, as is shown by the centuries-old discourse of man as individual, as authentic and autonomous being, who chooses and upholds his own place in the world and among his fellow men. It resounds in Sartre’s dictum “l’Enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is the others), implying that it is always ‘the other’ who thwarts and undermines our self-image, who forces us to face our own insufficiency. This ‘human condition’ – the general condition that ‘I’ is always ‘someone else’ in the eyes of the others, who see themselves as ‘I’ as well, from which mathematically follows that all men -1 are wrong – makes us susceptible for seduction and manipulation, but also for collaboration. For when we work together, we coincide with the others and become a collective ‘I.’ Working together is contrasted by ‘doing it yourself,’ which in turn is the literal translation of the old Greek word ‘αυθέντης,’ (authentes, ‘self- doing’), which is at the base of our word ‘authentic.’ In many variants since, say, Socrates this ‘self doing’ is thought as a combination of reflection and action, which form the core of each individual’s personal responsibility. Someone who thoughtlessly does what others instruct him to do is not ‘authentic;’ his actions are merely going along with the flow. He does what others tell him to do and doesn’t think about whether he does right or wrong by that. The authentic man, however, the ‘do-you-yourselver,’ decides for himself what he does, and why.
So far, so good. But on what does an authentic person base his choices? This brings us back to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For even if, since Nietzsche, God is dead and doesn’t supervise our dealings anymore, the difference between good and evil still exists, as does the individual responsibility to check your choices against it. Since Kant, many of the references for this choice are called “allgemein subjektieve” (generally subjective) truths; truths that cannot be proven objectively, but which are still experienced as being categorically true and therefore morally operational. The kind of truths of which everyone intuitively knows which side they represent, good or bad. The complication is that no-one makes such truths authentically themselves. They are collective agreements, not individual findings. They are there, passed along for generations and sometimes, suddenly or gradually, appear to be subject to erosion. This erosion of truths that were thought of as permanent is often the work of ‘authentic characters.’ People who reflect on their choices against the background of what ‘the group,’ society, deems desirable or decent. Sometimes against the grain, but always in discussion, responding to the pressures of the material world and the others. In other words: an authentic person makes himself – with the means provided to him by his society, culture and belief. Authenticity, therefore, doesn’t mean two things: to not give a damn about anything, and to damn well decide for yourself which way of thinking or acting trumps all others.
Our concept of authenticity is strongly connected to the ancient Greek advice “Γνώθι σαυτόν,” (Gnothi se auton, Know thyself). In antiquity, this not only meant that one should know and analyze one’s own motives, emotions and actions, but also that this knowledge was linked to what one’s culture saw as its highest values. The self-reflection of the ‘be-and-do-you-yourself’ human being, the ‘authentic’ human, took place unambiguously within the cultural, political and spiritual institutions of the society of which one was an individual, undivided, part; an ‘atom,’ the smallest particle of a larger whole (the Greek word ἄτομος also means ‘undivided,’ just like the Latin ‘individuum’). This short excursion into the roots of the Greek and Latin words for ‘undivided’ indicates that our culture has, for a very long time already, understood the individual human being as the smallest common denominator of society, and not as a loose, unconnected particle.
I as object
That brings me back to The Life Fair. For also companies and products, as well as market strategies and sales pitches, can be scrutinized on whether they address us as autonomously thinking individuals or primarily as part of a target group. Looking at the collected propositions and the underlying reasoning in the exhibited products and services, I am struck by one thing in particular: that almost none of the pitches considers the concept of man as aggregate of data, which I described above, in a fundamentally critical manner. Certainly, there are quite a few critical voices at The Life Fair, and there are proposals so absurd, that they can hardly be read otherwise than as critical exaggeration of existing ideas and strategies for life. I Married Me is a fine example, the hilarious inflation of the ‘I-era.’ The product pack that facilitates you to marry yourself implies that being yourself is all you need and thus surfs along on the wave of self-help books and strategies that consider man mainly as ‘monad,’ as individual that is both the source and the ultimate goal of a life in which the same is true for all others as well. A world of loose atoms in a liquid condition.
One could view Euthanasia Coaster by designer Julijonas Urbonas in the same vein, a roller coaster that causes you to die in a euphoric state, due to the G-forces unleashed by the trajectory. You can make your death easier and more agreeable by means of a smart consecutive shutting down of life functions. Of course, also this project can be read critically, as a caricatural exaggeration of our obsession with freedom of choice and fun. But what the majority of products shown at The Life Fair do not do is fundamentally question the ‘quantified me,’ the individual that is primarily known (and knows himself) as aggregate of data and functions. This impression is reinforced by the choice of a commercial fair as presentation model for the exhibition.
You could see it as the ultimate victory of the economization of our culture, which translates everything that occupies us into transactions based on quantifiable values, and which considers every aspect of our lives as a function of the market.
The ‘agora,’ where the ancient Greeks discussed their ideas on authenticity and man as autonomously thinking and acting being, has been narrowed down to a market place in which the main issue is the kind of profit and loss that can be expressed in hard numbers.
It is the victory of the “third-person perspective” of man. Philosopher Jos de Mul reminded us of this concept of his older colleague Helmut Plessner during a debate in the context of The Life Fair, and suggested to add a “fourth-person perspective” – that of being totally immersed in a virtual other, of virtually experiencing being someone else. The quantified human looks at himself as another and can, with the help of mediating technology, experience himself as such. That is, as we saw, the alienating essence of the “human condition,” but if we take it too absolutely, this objectifying perspective does distance us from our ‘authentic’ self. From this perspective, the actions this self can undertake, its agency, more and more becomes like handling a machine, and is experienced less and less as a sensitive and thoughtful acting based on the kind of complex considerations we call ‘authentic.’ The “third-person perspective” objectifies our view to ourselves, turns us into a ‘product’ that can be made, adjusted, improved. The self and the body as a technological contraption, which can be hacked and onto which other products can be mounted, eventually becomes a mere commodity. During the same debate, artist Simone Niquille wondered what this “colonization of the body by means of technology” would mean for the agency of people.
For if the “commodified self” is a self compiled from the offerings of the supermarket of life, then that raises the question of who’s standards and values are built into that self: those of the consumer or those of the producer? This question is the elephant in the room of The Life Fair.
The technological I
Humans are essentially technological beings, techno-organic hybrids, as technology philosopher Peter Paul Verbeek unwearyingly continues proving. The “colonization” that Niquille is referring to has since time immemorial been an interaction between man and machine, between the authentic individual who reflects on his own actions, and the standards and values programmed into the machine. But who is programming man, if the self has become a machine as well? If the “third-person perspective” becomes the dominant perspective onto ourselves; if, therefore, we start seeing ourselves as products, as something mechanical, then this interaction is threatened to grind to a halt. The ongoing discourse on the relation between man and machine then becomes an exchange of data between two essentially technological entities. That is the disconcerting aspect of a concept of man, based on data: it implies that man can only function within the categories which enable the processing of these data – for the good or for the bad. This again threatens to turn us into pawns on the chess board of the institutions who formulate these categories, as technical axioms instead of values that can be discussed publicly and collectively.
In this context, “Knowing thyself” calls for an intensified reflection on the individual’s responsibility vis-à-vis his technological ‘double.’ An active pondering of the dizzying condition of the individual who constantly switches between his authentic “first-person perspective,” his humanly insufficient communication with the “second-person perspective” (his conditionally deficient ability to place himself in the position of others), and the “third-person perspective” that allows him to externalize himself as object. I can use and follow anything The Life Fair offers me. But if I don’t reflect on what these things mean to me and the world, on what they want from me as compensation for what they promise me, on why they seem to address me as a packet of data, then they tend to take more from me than I’m comfortable with: my own authentic consideration of good and evil, which I cannot and will not delegate to the institutions of which I am an integral part, but into which I do not want to dissolve completely.