Mirror, mirror

Digital formation in Antón Barba-Kay’s A Web of Our Own Making.

Levi Freedman

November 24, 2023

If you own a smartphone, a laptop, or a desktop computer, read A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation. In this book, published this year by Cambridge University Press, author Antón Barba-Kay, Chair of the Humanities at Deep Springs College and an alumnus of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, has confronted our new digital technologies with the philosophical attention and moral clarity that they demand yet evade time and time again. The result is a braided work of constructive philosophy, social criticism, phenomenological observation, historical excavation, and spiritual exhortation. Barba-Kay begins by offering a high-altitude discussion of media studies and the digital’s status as a fundamentally new medium. He then advances a series of aphoristic reflections on technology, nature, and history. Next, he conducts a detailed analysis of the transformative nature that digital technology has had on political life as such. Finally, he tackles head-on the implicit metaphysics of our digital comportment, treating with relentless intelligence its formative powers on our deepest commitments and ultimate strivings. Needless to say, this project is ambitious. Barba-Kay has given form and thought to what the digital revolution is and what it means for each of us and all of us, now and always.  

The central thought of A Web of Our Own Making is that digital technology is our first natural technology. By digital technology, Barba-Kay means any device that can recognize or generate digital signals and can therefore be integrated in a single network. Think of your phone, but also of software, the internet, and a smart toaster. As we all know, digital technology is immediately compelling in a way that previous technologies were not. It is a shortcut around our embodied selves: my gaze acts on the screen almost directly, barely pausing at my fingertip. Digital technology is not primarily a technology of matter—not even of our own bodily matter. Rather, it is a technology of human attention itself. And that is what makes it natural. 

This natural technology of attention is possible because digital technology is a technology of data-driven measurement. First, it measures content—my family photo album, a YouTube video, a book, and a song can all be coded into data, recorded, edited, transmitted, downloaded, and saved. But if that were all, digital technology would be nothing but a vast library, still deeply foreign to our experience of consciousness. Instead, digital technology translates into data our attentional acts themselves. Our clicks, pauses, scrolls, and redirections are all potentially quantifiable online. Digital technology therefore measures not only what we each look at and act on, but also our own looking and acting: our clicks, scrolls, pauses, searches, and the like. This collection of data allows digital technology to become increasingly responsive to our uses of it, making it eventually disappear behind its own architecture and artifice. Every time our computer or phone freezes, lags, glitches, dies, or resets, we are reminded just how much has to be working in order for our interfacing to feel like no work at all, for us to be able to press a button and be “home.” The natural tool, says Barba-Kay, is therefore “the highest achievement of contrivance.” 

Our digital tools are not the only things that have been trained in this process. The architecture of digital technology trains our own patterns of attention in turn. We are the river; it is the bank (and bank, indeed, it is—the attentional act, the click, the scroll are commercial units). Digital technology gets “smarter” and more responsive not only because it collects more data, but because we habituate ourselves to its architecture and uses all the while. I’ve seen an infant attempt to “zoom” in on a book with her fingers—this never would have occurred to her had she not interfaced with an iPad first. Barba-Kay writes that digital technology “singles out attention, the intimate exercise of our care, for quantifiable scrutiny as nothing else could or has. Perfect usefulness is to capture our attention by allowing us to act on it. By seeming merely to facilitate that act, it changes us all the more.” Digital technology is a natural technology of attention not just because the technology is contrived, but because our attention is contrived as well. Digital technology is where nature and artifice coincide. The more it feels as though our tools ask nothing from us, the more we are transforming ourselves. 

It is difficult to grasp the full consequences of this technological achievement. Barba-Kay helps us by way of analogy: what is a mirror? Modern, crystal-clear mirrors were a product of the Renaissance, a technological contrivance which made all the difference by seeming to make none. Barba-Kay reminds us that the mirror “suddenly magnified our consciousness of our public appearance and transformed our self-regard by training us to see (and think) of ourselves from an external point of view.” That is, precisely in seeming to show only what was the case, mirrors transformed that case. On Barba-Kay’s account, digital technology is the spiritual mirror of our age. It is in our tools’ seeming to make no difference at all to our unencumbered attention that they make all the difference; we see ourselves through their glass, brightly. Just as Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, so too do we get caught staring into a digital vision of what it means to be a human being. And just as the mirror cannot depict itself, digital technology cannot get into view its own formative effects. This mirroring plays out in the details of our use, in the shape of our communal enterprises, and in our ultimate ideals. 

Barba-Kay’s task is to think the unthought thought, to get the mirror image of ourselves in view. Below are just a few representative examples from his analysis. 

***

First, we are transforming the manner in which we pay attention. From the outside, digital users look as though they are rapt in complete focus. Yet this is only a simulation of total commitment, a zombie version of single-mindedness that is instead mindlessness. Barba-Kay writes, “the digital forces us, as no other technology, to face the unquenchable lust of the mind to be diverted nowhere to no end.” Our digital rapture is thus a lackluster reflection of the attention that gives real shape to the practices of our lives (Barba-Kay cites learning a language, a sport, or an art): “habitual attention is a form of humility. You hold yourself in readiness for what you do not know [that] you do not know.” Digital attention, in contrast, is a form of self-worship. Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, iPhone. But there is no rest, only ourselves, reflected back and retrained at every moment. We all know that there is a difference between empty scrolling and reading a book. Barba-Kay gets this difference into view: both are forms of attention, but one holds us open by tethering our cares while the other keeps us closed by scattering our minds. Digital technology allows us to be presently absent—the mirror image of our care.     

Second, we are severing our relationship to physical place. Barba-Kay writes, “even as our bodies remain fleshed—bound by law, inherited by family, and shaped by history—our minds are now outlandish, unfixed from the formative shapes of given place.” This Cartesian apotheosis—the functional severance of mind and body—is “at variance with politics as such,” since “political life takes place in bonds and bounds.” Within the internet, we are autonomous, provisionally committed, and unbounded. We are therefore unable to constitute a sense of the common. We have fewer and fewer venues to come to terms with others, to realize lifelong obligations to places and to neighbors, and we have less patience for these venues (even as we miss them), since they seem inefficient and bothersome compared to our digital relations in frictionless mirrors. Digital technology invites us to be nowhere and everywhere—the mirror image of embodied life.

Third, we are fleeing from the exercise of prudence. Just as a mirror silently prioritizes the visible, digital technology allows us to recast everything in terms of the quantifiable. It therefore offers us a new way of understanding the true as objective and the good as equitable or optimal. But, as Barba-Kay reminds us, there is nothing particularly objective about data: “The algorithmic quantification of collective judgment is our single most powerful procedure for transforming the ‘subjectivity’ of particular human judgments into the representation of neutral and therefore legitimate ‘objectivity.’”  He goes so far as to suggest that this is an idolatrous mode of conducting ourselves. For in obeying data’s reason, we express “a heightened reverence for something that we desire to trick ourselves into forgetting we have made, a desire to obey ourselves writ large.” Furthermore, this quantification of our judgment is—paradoxically—of a piece with our increased emphasis on free choice, on the “satisfactions of individual subjectivity.” For in both cases, we pursue a version of human life free of the agency of others, free of any exercise of responsibility, and free of any commitments we must accept or reject. Digital technology encourages us to hold “value neutrality” as a value—the mirror image of human judgment. 

Finally, we are attempting to outrun death. The digital expands our sense of free navigation, of revocable choice, of endless time that is only ever now. This is a version of immortality, but only a shadow version: “being online—by virtue of narrowing our experience of time to the expedience of short-term speed, and by virtue of offering us a window of more or less frictionless possibilities—gives rise to a sense that this is not ‘real’ but ‘virtual.’” We pay for this immortality, that is, by giving up on real life. Our instants online may be endless, but they don’t add up to anything. Our choices online feel infinite, but they don’t count for much: “in a hypothetical world in which no possibility closed off any other, our choices would lack any substance at all.” The contrivance of natural technology is to flatter our will into omnipotence, but in doing so we stoop to the virtual versions of frictionless time and meaningless choice it offers us. Digital technology tempts us to live as though deathless—the mirror image of mortal life.

***

If it is not already clear, Barba-Kay thinks that digital technology, as a natural technology of attention, is a fundamentally dehumanizing force. At first, this may seem tricky to square with the fact that he provides nuanced thoughts on the historicity of human nature. Why isn’t our digital nature just the newest and latest form of the human? On one level, Barba-Kay wants to say that this is obviously a bad path. Human beings are defined by our friction: not only between “creature comfort” and “the joy that makes life worth living,” but between the real and the ideal, theory and practice, past and future, self and other. It constitutes our dignity, on his account, to attend to this friction by paying attention, by dwelling in the bounds of love and work, by exercising and cultivating human judgment, and by recalling in life the truth of death. Our lives occur in these frictions. It is characteristic of the digital mirror to offer us a frictionless way out. I cannot imagine reading A Web of our Own Making and thinking that such a path could ever be anything but vanity and chasing after wind. 

However, on another level, Barba-Kay’s argument for the dehumanizing force of the digital is more complex. One may reject my previous claim on the grounds that these friction-laden bifurcations are historically contingent engines of misery, high ideals that cast dreary shadows, myths that ought to be transcended. In fact, Barba-Kay himself presents this argument in the fifth and final chapter of the book, where he writes from the persona of an anonymous tech executive who has just read the book and proceeds to lambast it. The tech executive’s point, it seems, is to get into view that the digital project is itself a friction between the friction of our lives as we have known them and the frictionlessness of the digital. The digital revolution is a project with values and commitments, a trajectory we participate in—and it is digital technology’s unique perniciousness as a natural technology to hide this fact in a mirror-like fashion. Even if you side with the tech exec of chapter five, you at least have to argue for what we are all signing up for and against fundamental facets of our pre-digital lives. All you need to accept about our nature, in this view, is that it is always an unsettled question, and that we cannot but live out its answers for ourselves. Barba-Kay’s victory is to get this inescapable feature into view.

As a result, what advice there is in A Web of Our Own Making takes the form of personal imperative. Barba-Kay thinks that policy is for the policymakers and that, in any case, most attempts at large-scale solutions are self-deceived attempts to flee from the fact that digital technology, as natural technology, is happening in each one of us. It is therefore up to each of us to live out the questions of who we are, what makes human life worth living, and what it means to live and die well. On Barba-Kay’s account, this is what it means to be free: it is “the way in which each one of us strives to realize the promise of our life by giving shape to it for the time.” He recognizes that “this is the most difficult thing in the world.” And yet it is our fate and our vocation. 

These are all simplified and incomplete matters. If you are looking for more definition, nuance, counterargument, example, analysis, fear not. You will find them aplenty in A Web of Our Own Making. I especially recommend the discussion of technology and equality in chapter two, the analysis of community in chapter three, and the investigation into the reciprocal dialectic of the virtual and the real in chapter four. But I won’t pretend that the book is easy reading. For one thing, it is dense. Those expecting a new idea every chapter will find one every paragraph; those looking for a new idea every paragraph will find one every sentence. For another, Barba-Kay does not subject his writing to discipline. This means that he delightfully spans media studies, political theory, philosophical psychology, and metaphysics with ease. His prose is at times biting, at times dialectically precise. For sublime, read the final section of chapter four. It also means that Barba-Kay thinks everywhere, spiraling through arguments transposed to new keys, circling back to deepen previous points, moving from thought to thought with little hand-holding or flag-posting. Nevertheless, Barba-Kay has stirred up our reflections, and, for that, we can be nothing but grateful.  

Levi Freedman is a fourth-year undergraduate in the University of Chicago’s Fundamentals program and a graduate of Deep Springs College.