‘The Naked Future’ and ‘Social Physics’ - NYTimes.com
In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio #Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do . What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.
While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.
For Agamben, it’s this double power “to be and to not be, to do and to not do” that makes us human. This active necessity to choose (and err) contributes to the development of individual faculties that shape our subjectivity. The tragedy of modern man, then, is that “he has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do but to what he cannot, or can not, do.”
It may be that the first kind of power identified by Agamben is actually less pernicious, for, in barring us from doing certain things, it at least preserves, even nurtures, our capacity to resist. But as we lose our ability not to do — here Agamben is absolutely right — our capacity to resist goes away with it. Perhaps it’s easier to resist the power that bars us from using our smartphones than the one that bars us from not using them. Big Data does not a free society make, at least not without basic political judgment.