Infocracy – digitalization and the crisis of democracy

Pablo Picasso, Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Lunch on the grass), 1962


Considerations about Byung-Chul Han's book

The disciplinary framework of industrial society presupposes the exploitation of bodies and energies. The “Bentham panopticon” is the symbol of the period, with the cells isolated around the surveillance tower in the center of a prison. The invention worked with a few guards (two at most, per floor) to re-educate the prisoners' body movements (Big Brother is watching you / Big Brother is watching you). Today, it focuses on collecting data and information that, in addition to inspection, ensures the control and prognosis of behavior. The data is provided by each creature that enters the nebulous cyberspace, equipped with a smartphone.

Hence the title of the essay Infocracy: digitization and the crisis of democracy, by Byung-Chul Han. The curious thing is that people submissive to the information regime suppose themselves to be free, authentic and creative. Produced (produce, in French, means letting yourself be seen) to perform. Before, visibility was forced through security cameras spread across the streets, overpasses, stores, and condominiums. Now, spontaneously, people see themselves from morning to night completely with an innocent click.

From electronic to digital media

For McLuhan, electronic media produced mass human beings, like the anonymous fan in a football stadium. So, “profile” was police talk for investigating crimes and criminals. In the most modern media, everyone lives up to a specific profile. With the magnifying glass of artificial intelligence, instruments capture the “digital unconscious”, to take control of pre-reflective, instinctual and emotional layers of particular behaviors. This is “psychopolitics”. It is said after the First World War that sovereignty belongs to those who decide on the State of exception. After the Second World War, it was up to those who had space waves with technological innovations. Currently, the sovereign is the one who holds information in a network to guarantee domination, in the dialectic of power.

Conventional media silence receivers with a vertical broadcast, hijacking the discussion on relevant issues of the polis and abstract utopian ideals from the social imaginary. Society stands in the audience to watch the spectacle. Rationality deteriorates into entertainment. The entertainment business was born in tune with the decline of judgment. Mediacracy inaugurates theaterocracy – the measure of what to enjoy for conviviality. The speech degrades into show and propaganda. Contents go down the drain. The performance is worth it (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, Collor de Mello). The sighs are confined to the stand-up comedy, for narcissistic exaltations. As in Admirable new world, by Aldous Huxley, the coercion to obligatory happiness governs life.

In the last decades of the 20th century, beautiful souls were deluded by the prospect of democracy in the future. A breeze of libertarian hope blows in technology, in the incipient neoliberalism that spreads its wings. Four decades passed before the obvious was discovered. Groups built by algorithms do not have the autonomy to act. You followers (followers) on social media “are willing to train livestock for consumption by smart influencers (intelligent influencers)”, with the yoke of depoliticization and alienation. Profit from Big Tech, with revenues greater than that of many countries.

Instead of repressing, the objective becomes to explore freedom. The information regime presents domination as liberation. The media are compared to a church community; you likes, to an “amen”. Sharing bread refers to communication. The entourage stages a digital eucharist. There is no need to fear revolution. The German term for action (handling) means what is done by the hands, not by the fingers. This is totalitarianism without ideology. If it had an ideology, it would standardize the masses; in its absence, it singles out consumers to the god-market.

End of freedom and democracy

Screens and monitors are replaced by touch screen (touch screen). Passive viewers take on the role of active broadcasters. In digital media, it is not fun that threatens the public sphere, but “the viral spread and proliferation of information – the infodemic”, highlights the professor at the University of Berlin. The dissemination of information is accelerated and cognition is overrun. Infocracy does not aim at understanding or awareness, but rather at short-term conviction through Twitter. The armies of trolls (comments to destabilize a debate) intervene to encourage fake news and conspiracy theories – with hate. Rational arguments are knocked out.

Truth loses the aura it had for millennia in the cohesion of human civilization. Political programs are replaced by memes during elections; Images do not support reasoning, they mobilize affection. Social networks emerge in private spaces and are directed towards private spaces. Its communicative action blocks the plural and public coming and going movement of the discourse which, in Latin, means to walk around. Otherness disappears and, along with it, the possibility of thought. As Byung-Chul Han ponders, “The bubble filter involves a loop-of-the-permanent-self.” Democracy becomes useless, merely decorative. It is as if we were returning to the second stage of cognitive development (7 to 12 years), according to Jean Piaget's theory, evaluating the world with the egoic power of the navel.

The tribalization of networks to re-update the real galvanizes the extreme right, due to its urgency in finding its own identity to tear up the social contract of belonging to modernity. Oddities like “the earth is flat” contribute to the tribal biotype; are demarcating. Renouncing the bizarre leads to an identity failure in networks whose opinions anoint the sacred, not knowledge. The dialogical pact is abandoned. The idolaters of Big Data, the machine that elaborates the quantities of complex data, projects a consensus on the status quo without the class struggle and political parties. The decisions became an exclusive prerogative of the artificial intelligence. Individual and collective promises of well-being are outsourced into algorithmic magic, with voluntary servitude.

Dataists see society as a functional organism. There is no discursiveness between bodies, what matters is the efficient exchange of information between function units for better performance. Politics and government leave; control and conditioning come into play. For behaviorists, democratic interaction exudes obsolescence – it portends the end of freedom and democracy. In the opposite direction, Shoshana Zuboff, in The era of surveillance capitalism, warns: “To renew democracy, we need a feeling of indignation, a sensitivity to understand what is being taken from us – the will to want and the public space in which this will acts”.

Keep the will of truth alive

The update proves that the saying (“there is no point in fighting against the facts”) has expired. So-called “alternative facts” protect tribes. The truth no longer serves as a shield for the war of all against all, to achieve common sociability. The Oxford Dictionary, in 2016, chose the expression post-truth (post-truth) emblem for a time when objective facts are less influential than emotions and idiosyncrasies. The British referendum on the European Union (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump were the trigger. There was no lack of Brazilian simulation to illustrate the culmination of the process denounced by the The New York Times – back in 2005 – when choosing the neologism truthfulness, something similar to “truth”, to highlight the crisis of truth and understanding in the 21st century.

The digital order abolishes the solidity of the factual. Digitized photography, ditto, when remaking the aesthetics for the look. Cell phones tend to be programmed to do automatic makeup, which encourages habitus of denial of facticity. The information society has distrust in its DNA. Disorientation reigns, in the abundance of information that affirms the contingency and ambivalence of everything. Truth is another commodity subject to the fluctuations of the Stock Exchange. Grand narratives evaporate. The paradigm of discursive communication is supplanted by the brutal barrage of conflicting reports. The immense crisis of truth leads to the crisis of society, unable to move forward as a whole. “There are more things between heaven and earth than our vain philosophy dreams of”, warns the English bard.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orders bombings in the Gaza Strip. After thousands of women and children were killed, it appears that ethnic cleansing prepares the ground for colonial engineering in the region. Genocide obeys the grammar of capitalist accumulation. The idea is to build the Ben-Gurion Canal, named after the founding father of the Israeli state David Ben-Gurion, between Eilat and Gaza, to multiply the flow of ships in both directions. The work unites the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea on a giant scale. Replaces the narrow Suez Canal. It is of interest to the geopolitics of the United States and Europe.

Israel does the dirty work. The goal is the dominance of a large part of world maritime trade by the West. The Palestinian State makes the project unfeasible. It is the tactical obstacle to remove. Hamas is the reason to activate the old plan. The “unconditional support” of Joe Biden (USA) and the outbursts of Emmanuel Macron (France) and Olaf Scholz (Germany) are understood. The above event is the most recent application of post-truth to hide intentions.

The left must keep the “will to truth” alive: (a) participate in public space and; (b) watch over what the Greeks called parrhesia, the duty to tell the truth. In Plato's allegory of the Cave, a prisoner comes to know the reality that casts shadows at the bottom of the cave. He reports what he saw to his companions in misfortune. This parrhesiast reveals perseverance in the “war of position”, to usher in the time of freedom and democracy. He does not pander to ignorance. Break the shackles of fake news. For Byung-Chul Han, “evidently the time of truth has passed”. Therefore, heroic courage is more necessary for the emancipation of peoples. The fight against infocracy and neo-fascism requires a transformative ideological praxis. With Lula's optimism: The truth will win.

* Luiz Marquesis a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.


Byung-Chul Han. Infocracy: digitization and the crisis of democracy. Translation: Gabriel S. Philipson. Petrópolis, Vozes, 2022, 112 pages. []

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