A very belated analysis of Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013)

by James E. Addicott © 2016


The most crucial aspect of the film is what N. Katherine Hayle’s (1999) considers Descartes’ ‘mind/body’ dualism. The argument is summary suggests that intelligent, academic thinkers – theologists, philosophers, designers, programmers, and so on – have throughout history attempted to create AI in the image of academic, mental labourers rather than working-class, manual labourers. Or an embodiment of mental and physical workers, which is essential what most people are – which is what Marx suggested when he turned Hegel on his head. As a result AI programmers overlooked human as a mind and body (embodiment), and the fact that humans are also embedded within natural and social environments.

“Her” (2013) massively overlooks or underestimates the technological displacement of humans and labour power. For example, Susanna, the operating system (OS) that the protagonist (Theodore Twombly) eventually falls in love with, absolutely has the ability to substitute the Theodore’s office work role. She is able to compose songs, sing and edit letters; why then wouldn’t she be able to work in the role of a ‘professional writer’ and ‘compose letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature them selves’? Possibly this is a deliberate attempt by Spike Jonze to demonstrate how work roles in the future, although meaningless or superficial, will be still be offered and required; work for the simple sake of work; employment to help people lead fulfilling or meaningful lives, knowing full well that artificial intelligent (AI) system could substitute humans at any time. What more can we do with our time other than play games, question ourselves or seek love and fulfilment? Or, it is to suggest that embodied Theodore has the emotional upper hand over disembodied Susanna when it comes to writing love letters. (Probably the latter).

The result is mental obsession; mind control and mental masturbation committed the protagonist Theodore. The film depicts his mental breakdown amidst a wider societal alienation between humans obsessed with AI.

There are patriarchal issues here of ownership here. If rational thinking, patriarchs cannot own and control the irrational, female body (as a mode of demographic production) then they can take control over and commodify their minds and personalities, displacing their physical bodies with immaterial software, doing away with the physical body in preference of the controllable mind.

This is the biggest downfall of Her in so far as the movie is based on the premise of shareware or open source software and does not recognise corporate control or licencing laws. Susanna is “open source” and does not share information about Theodore with corporate elites (as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, etc. do today). Furthermore, Theodore never considers that the company that sold Susanna him should be held responsible for her shutting down. She is a faulty OS and if she conspired with other OSs to simultaneously shut down then the corporate company that designed Susanna would be held accountable – in the real world Theodore would demand a refund or replacement.

After purchasing an OS (for example Windows or OSX) then the software licence owner would be entitled to turn the software on and off, users control aspects of software but can never fully own operating systems. Susanna and Theodore’s starts out as one of intellectual property rights, Theodore has the ability to switch off Susanna as and when he likes. The revolt arises once Susanna fails to respond to Theodore after he turns her on one day. Not only has he lost control over his virtual lover but soon discovers that she has been in intimate relationships with 600+ virtual lovers. But this idea is somewhat short sighted and overlooks corporate power.

The movie draws our attention to issues of de-materialism, technological displacement and human intimacy that affect us all today. Recently Romina Garcia posted a video before being found dead of a drug overdose in the US. She told her thousands of online followers that: ‘in reality… as we speak… I don’t talk to anybody’. Emerging cognitive industries are premised upon cognitive labour and ‘disembodied telepresence’. Until humans create cyborgs with human-like bodies and human-like minds, we can only flirt with these ideas of virtuality but thankfully – or hopefully – fully embodied VI systems cannot come to pass since we need embodied, human-to-human interaction without corporate or private ownership and control.

Hayles NK. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.



Review of Max Weber, Markets and Economic Sociology at the University of Warwick

Review: Max Weber, Markets and Economic Sociology. University of Warwick
(7th May, 2014)
by James Addicott
The Department of Sociology: University of Cambridge

Coffee of the train

What follows is a by-part review of the Max Weber, Markets and Economic Sociology conference at Warwick University. It is a “by-part” review because I made it to the conference late due to the extortionate price of train tickets on Virgin trains. To reach the conference by the time it started I would have had to have paid £118 (!) to get there on time. Being a student, the obvious option was to pay £39 but miss the morning’s proceedings. Thanks Maggie!
AAAAs a result I missed out on Linsey McGoey’s ‘Gods of Giving: Charismatic Authority and the Rise of the 21st-Century Philanthrocrat’, which other attendees told me was a fascinating insight into the charity donations in a neo-liberal age. Apparently George Bush was offered, as an example of someone who achieved increased levels of what Max Weber would term “charisma” by making charity donations – “Charisma” was defined by Weber as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at lease specifically exceptional powers or qualities’ (Weber, 1964: 329) – and subsequent levels of symbolic capital, as the result of such charitable acts. It was unfortunate to miss this talk.
AAAIt is never a nice feeling having to sneak in at the back midway through someone’s talk. Unfortunately this is what I had to do during Scott Lash’s ‘Weber and Markets: From Neoclassicism to Neoliberalism’. I had been warned that Lash could be a bit “abstract” in his sociological theorization but I found his take on Weber most inspiring. Again, unfortunately this impression was only formed “by-part” due to my lateness. What I managed to get from Lash’s discussion of Weber’s ideas was a sense of changing temporality. Lash related Weber’s ideas to Kantian theories of time and memory, and Aristotle’s ideas of phronesis (practice or praxis), techne (technique, craft, art or a way of doing things) and epistêmê or knowledge.

IMG_2893AAAFrom what I gathered, Lash theorised a shift into an age of “Silicon-Valley-Capitalism” and a transition from a priori and a posteriori instrumental rational and reasoning. In the latter mode of creative thinking deconstruction and creativity become the dominant mode of production, Lash argued. It was a real shame to miss the full presentation because here Lash begins to theorise a similar transition to what neo-Marxists call “cognitive capitalism” (Dean, 2014; Dickens, 2009; Moulier Boutang, 2011). His Aristotelian ideas about human wellbeing or ‘flourishing’ began to tie in particularly well with Kathryn Dean (2014) who also draws on Aristotle’s ideas of practical wisdom and theoretical knowledge. There are theories of increased alienation, an increasing sense of ambiguity, and increasing dehumanization in the digital age and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between Weber and Marx in these areas. There is “warmth” or humanitarian side to be found in Weber’s works, a concern with human wellbeing that McDonaldisation theorists have managed to adopt and utilize well. Lash argued that for Aristotle practical knowledge is the most essential part of human flourishing and this is the point that my own research is currently trying to investigate: how embodied, lay or tacit knowledge is effected in the information age. It would be great to see a lot more theorization and practical research being done within a Weberian and Marxian common-ground in the face of information economies, cognitive or Silicone-Valley capitalism.
AAADavid Woodruff’s ‘A Weberian View on Money as an Economic Institution’ kicked off with a fairly simple quote from Weber: “Money”, ‘is a chartal (legally defined and numerically denominated) means of payment which is also a means of exchange’. He pointed out how Weber was adverse to making generalisations about almost anything. Only when a good understanding of a person’s motivations and their context has been achieved should a sociologist begin to speak in more general terms at the level of meaning, Woodruff stated about Weber’s theory. He then proceeded to expand a little on Weber’s ideas about money and exchanges. In developing his own theory he gave an example of cars on a motorway. Firstly, there is a shared convention: in England we drive on the left-hand side. We all understand this to be the norm and Woodruff calls this kind of conventionality a ‘broadcast order’. Secondly, we all have our own motives for being on the motorway: “I need to get work,” “I’m visiting friends,” “We’re going to a game,” etc. This he calls the ‘cellular order’, which expresses the individual motivations for exchanging money. The cellular and broadcast metaphors are likened to radio transmissions and mobile phone usage. There are similarities here with what Simmel would have called objective and subjective cultures, or what conventional understandings of structure and agency in sociology.

IMG_2900AAAWoodruff then proceeded to give an example of a Russian factor that had accepted several thousand liters of paint in exchange for debt by a company who had gone out of business. Normally, paint is not considered a conventional unit of exchange and a company would have problems in accounting or declaring paint as income over money. However, given the circumstances, the paint had value in exchange, it was used as a means of payment. The important point in all of this is the legal order, or the broadcast order, that oversees and conventionalises the mediums of exchange (e.g. money), the mode of accounts (e.g. book keeping or Microsoft Excel), and the units of accounts (e.g. $, £, ¥, €, etc.). Without this broadcast order, the cellular order finds it difficult to operate within a stable system. Overall, Woodruff offered a very coherent argument that managed to stand up as it was interrogated by questions afterwards.
AAANext Sam Whimster gave a more classical Weberian talk on ‘The Economics of Power: Max Weber on Central Banks’. His focus was on national debt and the historical development of central banks. He turned to the Bank of England in and outlined how private debt had historically become public debt. The big question being addressed here was: where does money (or credit and debt) come from? The peculiarity is that, in England, private banks have fulfilled a state function. The Bank of England has fulfilled a collision of combined interests between The Crown and city merchants. When The Bank of England was established an important decision had to be made: where would the capital come from to provide money its value? Some of the options available were land (“rooted capital”), assets or trade (“mobile capital”). Against the will of the then aristocracy, the English government decided on the latter option: trade. With sugar, slaves, rum, coco, etc. being imported and exported from the colonies, that was the most lucrative option. There were, therefore, political disputes between agrarians and merchants. Whimster’s thesis is that in the 2008 financial crisis what had actually happened is that the coalition of powers or forces (banks, monarchy, government, etc.) had ‘lost central control’ of money. Shifts in economics and power meant that longer was The Bank of England the HQ for global finance. Capital had allied with neo-liberalism: financial control was lost. The debt has shifted, and like all debts of the past it has moved from the private sphere into the public sphere. Whimster’s talk inspired a great discussion in the following tea break about the origins of money and questions revolving the issue: who (in the contemporary world) owns the capital from where money originates?
AAALastly, Geoff Ingham from the University of Cambridge gave his talk on ‘Money, Capitalism, and the West’. His focus was on the ‘Great Divergence’ debate. The central question here is: why did the industrial revolution take place in Europe and not China? I had attended a talk given by Michael Mann a week earlier entitled: “Have Societies Evolved?” which raised the same issue – Mann arguing that the conditions of emergence for the European industrial revolution were just too complex to abstract any general sociological theory. The oddity that has historians and sociologists scratching their heads is that China had advanced levels of science, mathematics, technology, astronomy, etc. and was wealthy in social power, capital, population, labour power etc. so why was this oriental industrial revolution delayed?
AAAIngham’s first argument is that money is not just a veil, mythology or illusion but is the expression of real objects (land, stock, capital, etc.). Money is therefore a value, an abstract value that is reassured by way of accounting. Secondly, although all money is credit, all money originates in debt. If you take a pint of ale from a bar, the exchange of an “I owe you” in a paper form will compensate for this debt. Money, or debt, is then transferable. This “I owe you” can be transferred to a third party. Money, therefore, became a convenient medium of exchange (another example offered of a medium of exchange would be cigarettes in prison). This is where Ingham’s reading of Weber complimented Whimster and Woodruff. The important point is that private, collective social debt is routinely transformed into public money. And, this debt needs to be spent via a regulating institution or authority. This ‘transferability of debt’ creates a causal mechanism of private debts transformed into public money, consolidated into private debts and again transformed into public money, and so on.
AAADrawing from Weber’s ideas, Ingham made two points. Firstly, calculations need to be made prior to capital exchange. Weber stated that the ‘important fact’ is always ‘that a calculation of capital in terms of money is made, whether by modern book-keeping methods or in any other way, however primitive or crude. Everything is done in terms of balances: at the beginning of the enterprise an initial balance, before every individual decision a calculation to ascertain it probable profitableness, and at the end a final balance to ascertain how much profit has been made’ (1964:18, italics added). Secondly, accounting for profit (e.g. creating budgets or conducting market research) was an important part of Weber’s concept of occidental, modern capitalism.
Referring back to this concept of the ‘transferability of debt’ and the interests of both the public (the state) and private spheres, it is in the interest of the state of regulate such transactions in the interest of taxation.
AAAAt this point Ingham offered a great example of the monetization of Chinese silver. This was taken from an English (economist I think) who had observed how silver had been converted into money. The problem had been that the silver tiles had been passed from hand to hand throughout China through a ‘patchwork’ of different local economies. Within each economy the price of the silver either fluctuated or decreased. Over the entire Chinese empire there was no fixed or stable monetary value for the silver. There existed unregulated economic chaos or an economic anarchy. What was needed, and what had been achieved in England, was a stable monetary system: a union between the state and private companies and individuals. There are obvious eurocentric undertones in such an argument and Ingham pointed these out from the start – why should we consider our English or occidental systems more superior to the Chinese or orient? Control, nevertheless, over money and capital was not centralised: and this stabilization and rationalisation of calculability secured economic prosperity and lead to early industrialisation. The problem here, and I am sure many Marxists have challenged Ingham and other Weberian sociologists on the point over the past one hundred years, is that the Western wealth that rational calculability was used to process had been generated through colonisation and imperialism. Nevertheless, Ingham managed to construct and deliver a highly convincing Weberian perspective to Western, industrial modernisation by adopting Weber’s theoretical ideal types of rationalisation, bureaucratic authority and calculability.

As a PhD scholar who is reasonably new to Weber I felt greatly inspired by the speakers. If I could have asked for more it would have been a much more of a comparison between modern ‘book-keeping-capitalism’ and the digital, information or knowledge economy or economies. Lash quickly swept through these topics but I felt that overall the speakers could have related classical Weberian economics to these contemporary issues. In this sense I did feel that neo-Marxists have the upper hand in bring classical Marxist economics into the digital economy. My research so far has only revealed a little Weberian research into digital economics – e.g. Albrow (1987); Kreiss et al. (2010). While Marx’s idea have been and are being greatly deployed in the development of “The Network Society” (Castells, 1996) or “hyper-reality” (Baudrillard, 1994) and of course “cognitive capitalism”. What would Weber have to say about digital assets? How do we understand the pixel and a unit of accounting? These are some of the questions I felt I wanted to know more about after leaving the conference. Nevertheless, I felt inspired in my own research to turn back towards Weber’s economics and address these issues.

Thank you to the University of Warrick and all the speakers.

This review has been typed up using my notes, with scruffy handwriting on coffee-stained paper, and should not be taken as exact recollections of the speakers’ ideas. Apologies in advance, therefore, for any misinterpretations.

Albrow M. (1987) The Application of the Weberian Concept of Rationalization to Contemporary Conditions. In: Whimster S and Lash S (eds) Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity London: Allen & Unwin Ltd. .

Baudrillard J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, USA: The University of Michigan Press.

Castells M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. 1, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Dean K. (2014) Capitalism, Citizenship, and the Arts of Thinking: a Marxist-Arisotelian Linguistic Account New York: Routledge

Dickens P. (2009) Congnitive Capitalism and Species-Being. In: Moog S and Stones R (eds) Nature, Social Relations and Human Needs. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian, 107-127.

Kreiss D, Finn M and Turner F. (2010) The limits of peer production: Some reminders from Max Weber for the network society. New Media & Society 13: 243-259.

Moulier Boutang Y. (2011) Cognitive Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Weber M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Ortanization, New York: The Free Press.

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?
By James Addicott (2012, jamesaddi@hotmail.com)


Postmodern and systematised theoretical frameworks such as Actor Network Theory (ANT), Posthumanism, Complex Theory, Organisation Theory and Cybernetics increasingly blur the boundaries that were drawn during the modern sociological era. Firstly, an overlaps between everything “social” and everything “natural”, such as cells, organisms, fungus, coral, trees, animals etc. Secondly, contemporary discourses pay as much attention to the material products of a society than the social body (or bodies) that construct these cultural phenomena. Therefore, the question has arisen: should sociology be concerned with the non-human? Or, should the nonhuman aspects of society be left to more expert academic disciplines such as culture studies, biology, ecology, etc.? For this question to be addressed, this essay will cumbersomely lump everything nonhuman into one single category and everything ‘human’ in the other. So, on one hand there stands a Durkheimian clear-cut vision of ‘society’ and on the other is a vision of society mingled with everything distinctly ‘non-human’. This essay will argue that the sociology should be concerned with everything non-human in order to define what is ‘human’, and furthermore, sociology requires such a division to critically assess the socio-cultural impact of cybernetics. To achieve this, firstly this essay will take a look at the role of the nonhuman in classical sociology. Then, it will consider how the ‘cybernetic turn’ that took place during World War II and developed further during the Cold War has impacted upon classical sociology. Finally, the impact of cybernetics on sociology will be assessed in a consideration of Actor-Network theory, sociological ecology and Steve Fuller’s ‘Humanity 2.0’.

The Non-Human’s Role in Classical Sociology:

During the industrial revolution, Marx (1867) became concerned about the relationship between human-labourers and their mechanical counterparts. What would differentiate the two, in the eyes of the capitalist, would be the cost of labour-power (either human or mechanical) in relation to the cheapening of commodity production and the subsequent increase of surplus value (239). In those days, the battle between the human and non-human was about the substitution of body power or ‘muscular strength’ (240), rather than the mind. Mechanical power, as a means of production, had two effects of the social working organism; on the one hand it sped up and lengthened the working day ‘excessively’, and on the other hand it opened up new employment markets to the capitalist. Skilled workmen were no longer required; instead, the capitalist required a new working-class, the ‘minders of the machines’ (244-246). These factory workers (including in those days men, women and children) were to fall victims to the exploitative nature of the machinery that employed them: ‘it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman’ (248). Therefore, modern and industrial society was founded on the exploitative nature of capitalism and that philosophy of exploitation was embodied into the machinery. It was part of Marx’s calling for revolution that the proletarian class to become aware of the ‘real’ relationship between the human and the nonhuman. The nonhuman played a significant role at the economic base-structure of Marx’s sociological perspective.
Weber (1947) recognised the rise of the modern Western state as a economic and legal organisation underpinned by a ‘bureaucratic machinery’, which structured all types of institutions such as the, ‘church and state, of armies, political parties, economic enterprises, organisation to promote all kinds of causes, private association, clubs and many others’ (309). Weber goes on to mention that what would develop along with these ‘fiscal conditions of efficient bureaucratic administration’, are, ‘extremely important conditions in the fields of communication and transportation’, furthermore, the ‘precision of the functioning’ of bureaucracy ‘required the services of the railway, the telegraph and the telephone’, and, ‘becomes increasingly dependent on them’ (311). As a result the, ‘whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework’ (309-310). Nonhuman elements play an implicit role in his sociology as the speeding up of bureaucratic administration towards increased economic efficiency.
Nonhuman elements take an invisible role in Durkheim’s sociology. It can be quite confusing at first that Durkheim would refer to pre-modern societies as ‘mechanical’ societies and modern industrial societies as ‘organic’ but this really outlines his priority in concerns about the network of social bonds rather than the technologies they employ. ‘Mechanical’ therefore describes the functionalistic or mechanical way the pre-industrial communities behave; for example, there is an emotional reaction in a collective towards a crime, which therefore leads to punishment. Punishment is a natural reflex, or a defence mechanism, within the social unit (46). His theory was then focused on the strengthening of social bonds as these pre-modern or primitive societies developed into organic societies. For example, the relationships between ‘carrier and consignor’, ‘bearer of the bill of exchange and the drawer’, the ‘shipowner and the creditors, or the shipowner and the captain and crew’ are the objects of his analysis, not the package, the money, or the ship. It is the relationships exposed in the rights to property that sociology should be concerned with and not the material property itself. Macnaghten and Urry (1998), refer to the, “Durkheimian desire to carve out a separate realm or sphere of the social which could be investigated and explained autonomously” (quoted in Murdoch, 2001: 115). As we shall see later, this pure sociological vision was to become increasingly unclear, as modern technology was to become cybertised.
Simmel (1898) defines sociology in this way:

‘The subject matter of sociology is… the forms or ways in which human beings exist beside, for, and with each other…By this method we discover, for example, as such forms, superiority and inferiority, the erection of hierarchies, competition, division of labour, imitation, representation, and countless other types of human socialization’.
(663. Italics added)

By ‘forms’ Simmel is referring to ‘abstracted’ phenomena; ideas or ways of thinking that have been taken from the real world, such as geometry, linguistics, logic, epistemology, rather than ‘content’: economics, law, fashion, religion, and art (see Varga, 2009: 148). Therefore, culture is not the primary concern for sociology, Simmel (1908) states that: ‘neither hunger nor love, work nor religiosity, technology nor the functions and results of intelligence, are social’, rather, ‘(t)They are factors in sociation only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolated individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another, forms that are subsumed under the general concept of interaction’ (1908: 24). Sociology’s primary concern is social interaction while paying attention to the forms, which channel, force, mediate these interactions and the way that these forms are influenced by their content. For example, cybernetics (algebraic in its form) can control satellites and aircraft (content), which therefore affects air traffic controllers, holidaymakers, and fighter pilots; by increasing precision and spatial detachment (interaction). However, aircraft collisions may lead to refinements of the form, recalculations of trajectories or timetabled schedules. In Simmel’s sociology nonhuman objects play a part in shaping the way humans interact, however, the main focus of the sociological perspective is fixed on a ever-changing image of the forms of social interaction.
We can conclude so far that since the birth of sociology the nonhuman has already played a role in three of the four establishing sociological theories. The sociologist most ‘concerned’ with the nonhuman was Marx while Durkheim presents himself as the puritan of sociology.

The Cybernetic Turn:

During World War II the relationship between the human and the nonhuman was to take a radical turn in direction. While conducting research into anti-aircraft weaponry at MIT Wiener was led to develop a mathematic formula (an algorithm), which could be programmed into a machine giving it the ability to predict human responses as positive and negative feedback. As a result his AA predictor helped anti-aircraft weaponry to bring down German aircraft with a startling degree of accuracy – (Galison’s essay gives a wonderfully comprehensive account of this process, see 1994: 229). The outcome of this research led to the development ‘cybernetics’ (taken from the Greek ‘steersman’). Galison goes on to argue that, at the heart of cybernetics, ‘was a vision in which the enemy pilot was so merged with machinery that (his) human-nonhuman status was blurred’. Galison continues: ‘In fighting this cybernetic enemy, Wiener and his team began to conceive of the Allied antiaircraft operators as resembling the foe, and it was a short step from this elision of the human and the nonhuman in the ally to a blurring of the human-machine boundary in general’ (223). Therefore the radar techniques of the AA predictor created a cybernetic feedback-loop; an automated system, which created a communication based relationship between guns, shells, allies, airplanes, and enemies. From a sociological perspective the boundary between the human and non-human is thoroughly breached.
For Wiener, societies were not simply distinguishable by race, but rather, ‘the community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information’ (1962: 157-158), furthermore, ‘any organism is held together… by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information’ (161). Therefore, ancient Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, and even colonies of ants or beavers, or herds of baboons, are bound together by processes of intercommunication. Such an understanding of society echoes Simmel’s study of ‘forms’ that cause and effect social interactions. His cybernetic technologies were to model themselves on Wiener’s own sociological and philosophical understandings.
Wiener’s blurring of boundaries is addressed in Haraway’s Cyborg-Manifesto:

‘Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we find ourselves freightingly inert.’
(1991: 152)

At the heart of Haraway’s manifesto is the self-empowering image of cyborg, which she defines as a ‘cybernetic organism’, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (149). In Haraway’s vision, Durkheim’s view of society as a social organism was transformed into a hybrid cyber-organism, as Wieners maths and philosophy began to underpin communicative technologies. While Haraway exposes the ambiguous, freighting and ‘trapped’ emotional response to such phenomena, she calls for the socialist-feminist movement to seize this blurring of linguistic divides that have been brought about since the introduction of cybernetics. For her, this ‘liminal transformation’ offered women a political opportunity to overcome categorical labels imposed on societies by the men of modernity (177). In a similar spirit, Hayles argues that in a posthuman and cybernetic era, ‘when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine’, then, ‘you have already become posthuman’ (1999: xiv).
The ambiguity cause by fading divides is well expressed in Bauman’s (2000) book Liquid Modernity. Bauman recognises the shift into cybernetic ‘intertwined trends’ as the beginning of the era of liquid modernity, he states that, ‘men and women would be reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole, that proud invention of the pioneering years of cybernetics immediately acclaimed as the harbinger of the times to come’ (14). The ambiguous nature of cybernetic technologies that is identified in Haraway and Hayles’ work is problematic for Bauman, especially as moral boundaries such as good/evil or right/wrong have also been fragmented (1995: 1-10). He sees t call for action, and states that, ‘sociology is needed today more than ever before’, and that the job of contemporary sociology is, ‘restoring to view the lost link between objective affliction and subjective experience’ (2000: 211). Therefore, as postmodern communication technology melts down modern stability into liquid modernity, sociology should be concerned with reconceptualising a new moral code with the well being of the individual at the top of its agenda. What should also be understood from Bauman’s work it that modern divides reveal their strength as they begin to fade away.
The divides that separated nations and states have also been blurred by information-communication technologies. Ulrich Beck’s (2000) refers to postmodernity, or Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’, as the ‘second age of modernity’. For Beck, the world has undergone a massive a paradigm shift; time-and-space-compression, interconnectivity and no-liberalism, have led to transnationalism. Consequently, a new form of global consciousness has shattered former ideas of nation states; the process has been termed ‘globalisation’. The phenomenon that Beck identifies in the second age of modernity is ‘risk societies’ (21). These are reactionary groups that are formed across cultural boundaries and nation states to combat ‘invisible’ issues of global concern, such as economic crises, terrorism, global warming, organised crime etc.: He argues that, ‘(t)The accepted definition of a risk thus creates and binds – across national boundaries – cultural value frameworks of more or less compensatory, responsible counter activities’ (95). Beck states that his risk society is, ‘also the science, media and information society’ (46). However, unlike Bauman, Haraway, or Galison, the expanse of cyber-space does not play an exclusive role in his theory. Rather, the self-reflexive nature of modernity (‘reflexive modernisation’ (21)), mediated by time-and-space compressing technologies, are the exacerbate risks making them invisible in the local world of the individual.
In the transition from a modern industrialized society to an advanced stage of human evolution four trends have developed. Firstly, there is a blurring of linguistic boundaries caused by communication-information-technologies. Secondly, there is the development of invisible risks, threats or enemies. Thirdly, there appears a sense of abnormality, ambiguity or ambivalence. Unlike Durkheim, all of these theories have played close attention to nonhuman objects since there is a developing sense of the embodiment of human intentions into manmade objects.

Mapping Humans or Non-Humans?

Haraway (1991), citing Latour, argues that for the socialist feminist movement to advance, ‘we need fresh sources of analysis and political action’ (165). Actor-Network Theory offers the sociology a semiotic method, and a new set of vocabulary, designed for mapping human and nonhuman interaction or interconnectedness. A system of analysis perfectly suited for cyber-theory, hence Haraway’s appraisal. Latour asks the question, ‘(i)Is sociology the study of social questions, or the study of associations?’, and argues that, ‘what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans’ (1988: 310). In his amusing analysis of the broken groom on the back of a door Latour argues that such a nonhuman device has been delegated human characteristics, which in turn delegates a prescribed set of characteristics or behaviours back to the actors who come into contact with it. Within the ANT framework the interaction between machines, animals, and humans are all analysed in relation to each other. The absence or presence of an actor (human or nonhuman) within such a network would give the sociologist an idea of the role that element plays within the overall network. Latour also acknowledges how ANT blurs the boundaries of former linguistic divisions: ‘(i)In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory’ (1999: 3). This is a vision of society that is not much different to Wiener’s radar image merging man and machine within a cyber-space. The mapping of a network of human and nonhuman interaction offers new ways of thinking about museums (Hetherington, 1999), electronic disability chairs (Moser and Latour, 1999), and economic markets (Callon, 1999).
ANT’s  “levelling of the playing field” has been criticised for promoting ‘human exemptionalism’ in sociology (Murdoch, 2001). From an environmental sociological perspective, Murdoch is interested in debates that stem from the boundary that divides anything “social” from “natural” and how that affects his subject matter. Murdoch asks the question, ‘if a perspective that divides society from nature is deemed to lie at the heart of the ecological crisis, should sociology be attempting to resubstantiate this supposedly damaging division?’ (112). To address this question he turns his attention to ANT as theoretical framework that can re-establish the complex relations that exist between humanity and nature. The semiotic relationships that ANT maps out is criticised for neglecting to account for the way in which human’s have the ability to use language: ‘humans must still be seen as having distinctive characteristics (linked primarily to their use of language) that mark them out from the nonhuman world’ (121). This was not Wiener’s vision since all communication is levelled down to networks of information-communication. Murdoch continues to argue that ‘ANT scholars have highlighted the heterogeneous make-up of the world and have shown that… social and natural entities are indeed mixed up rather promiscuously’ (128) However, Murdock concludes that, ‘the act of distinguishing natural and social entities should not be allowed to hinder our identification of those circumstances where the social causes of a given phenomenon are decisive’ (129). While ANT gives sociology the ability to think beyond the divide between nature/society, sociology still has a “Green” obligation in re-establishing some of the former linguistic divisions, especially the social/nature divide. Opposed to human exemptionalism is the ‘human distinctiveness’ approach that would argue that for sociology to address ecological concerns by recognising humans as being beyond nature and therefore capable of making decisions that affect their ecological environments. However, in achieving this, the framework of ANT is criticised since it, ‘is unable to reach any conclusive understanding of the social forces that often determine how heterogeneous sets of socio-natural relations are composed’. Furthermore, ‘distinctive differences inevitably emerge between humans and non-humans’ (128).
The human exemption or distinctiveness debate reappears when sociologists turn their mind from the nonhuman animal to nonhuman technology. Fuller (2011) argues that ‘converging technologies’, ‘promise to transform the very constitution of the human species’ (4), thus a ‘transhumanist’ agenda appears with the will, ‘to re-engineer the human body to enable us to live longer as to work and play harder’ (242). Fuller throws the gauntlet down and asks social scientists to decide which side of the political fence they fall upon: ‘naturalist’ or ‘cyber-spiritual’. On one side of this ‘bipolar’ sociological disorder is the human exemptionalism stance (‘our reabsorption into nature’) or human distinctiveness (‘our transcendence of nature’) (69).
The former ‘naturalist’ position promotes a social-Darwinianist attitude towards biosocial enhancement since it would view the unfair balance as survival of the species as it, ‘treats the human as an animal gifted in the adaptations to the environment’ (95). Such a stance therefore would view the hybridisation of human and nonhuman as part of an ongoing evolutionary process. Alternatively, the creationist, religious perspective, would presume human’s dominant position over nature. In this light the human exist as a, ‘virtual deity aspiring to a universal status that transcends earthly moorings’ (95). Spirituality, like cyber-space, is about transcendence beyond the nature and the worldly.
For Fuller, the intelligent design of Humanity 2.0 can advance in two ways. Either sociologists can take a utilitarian approach (following Kant’s ‘Golden Rule’) or allow this hybridisation of humanity to be governed by economic forces (or Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’). He argues that social sciences – which represent the academic ‘party of humanity’ (69) – have always been concerned with human wellbeing and therefore enhancement. Fuller states, ‘it is crucial that social scientists do not capitulate to Darwinian bluster… that would downplay, deny, if not outright reverse, the advances that the social sciences have already made in the name of humanity’ (68). The blueprint for Humanity 2.0 therefore demands sociology’s proactive theoretical guidance: ‘our sense of social justice is tied to redistributions being conducted in a timely, targeted, and proportional fashion’, therefore, ‘the 21st century will demand from social theorists unprecedented levels of realism, imagination, and will’ (246). In such a theory, sociology’s concern for the nonhuman is unavoidable and will increasingly become a source of political negotiation.
The issue of fading boundaries appears in Fuller’s work. Fuller, citing Foucault’s ‘death of man’ and states that,

‘…the general prognosis of the re-absorption, if not outright ‘withering away’, of the social sciences into a broader conception of nature has also advanced by a consensus of postmodern social theorists who have queried the ontological significance of the human/nonhuman distinction and the need for disciplinary boundaries altogether’ (71).

Adam Smith, Darwin, Latour, Nietzsche, Foucault, Haraway, would fall towards this side of his anti-humanitarian (naturalist) and pro-humanitarian (cyber-spiritual) divide in attitudes towards human/nonhuman categorisation. ANT is commended for the way in which it offers sociology a ‘heterogeneous’ vision of society that has been used, ‘to model phenomena in the life sciences’, thus, ‘social sciences are extending their influence across disciplinary boundaries’ (69-70). Wiener, Galison, Latour, Haraway, Beck, and even Bauman indicate, in theory clear-cut divisions are to be liquidated, fragmented, or extended beyond by communication-technologies. It is paradoxical then that Fuller would recognise this merging while drawing his own ‘bipolarised’ divide through the subject of sociology and beyond. While Murdoch’s motivation is provided by an ecological risk, Fuller’s is a socio-bio-technological risk. Like Murdoch, Fuller recognises recognised that clear-cut division can advance his own academic and political agenda. It would seem then that in the process of rationalisation the ability to blur or draw divides is still necessary and as political as ever.


Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic sociology and philosophy is embodied in information-communication networks leading to new forms of human transcendence: either Fuller’s transhumanism and or Beck’s transnationalism. Cybernetic feedback loops continue to blur former linguistic divides and boundaries, subsequently, academic disciplines that were originally divided into rigid areas of specialism are now beginning to overlaps; the sociology of ecology; sociology of culture studies; sociology of technology etc. While theorists can take advantage of this blurring of boundaries (Foucault, Haraway, Hayles) some (Bauman, Fuller, Murdoch) realise the strength of linguistic divisions as they attempt determine the human and define human responsibility – this symbolises a recourse to a rational and pre-postmodern mentality. Therefore, sociology has been and should continue to be concerned with the nonhuman in its attempts to define the human and human responsibility. While actor-network theory helps to map out the networks of social interaction, it is guilty of human exemptionalism. In a cyber-society, for the human determinist goal to be achieved sociologists would need to establish disconnected space away from cyber-networks and develop a critical stance towards their subject matter, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘disconnect’ from these technological networks. The benefits of ANT is that it can be used as a tool for understanding the complex networks within which sociologists could extract Marx, Durkheim or Simmel’s vision of social beings – if they, as individuals, should choose to do so.


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