Can Objects Possess Us? 

Today’s individual increasingly thrives in the digital realm. Society’s digital transformation, with its conveniences and ease of finding what we need online, entices and captivates us. However, this raises a fundamental ethical question: Does the technologization of society, while simplifying aspects of our lives, also increasingly make us dependent on it? Are we still free in the face of digitization and technological progress? To what extent does our pursuit of information updates and constant online presence make us victims of progress? 

Contemporary philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his latest book The Transparency Society, argues that modern humans are no longer agents of action. They have become objects, having surrendered to the dominion of everyday gadgets and programs designed to simplify our lives. Smartphones, ChatGPT, the internet, and selfies have subjugated modern humans, who now struggle to function without them. However, Han’s diagnosis of modern society goes further: it is not the objects themselves that control us.

Rather, it is the information accessed through these programs that truly governs us. Modern humans have been subordinated, or rather, have voluntarily submitted to the external authority of systems, programs, and specific objects believed to ease functioning and make communication with others more convenient and comfortable.

The Impermanence of Things

Traditionally, objects have always facilitated daily human tasks, stabilizing our function and providing continuity. German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906‒1975) commented on this mechanism: “The same chair and the same table, for people who change every day, endure with an unchanging and familiar identity.” Forty years ago, televisions and classic phones were treated with reverence for their sense of permanence and stability. In the 21st century, the status of objects has entirely changed. We routinely upgrade our smartphones to newer models every few years. Televisions have lost their significance, overshadowed by the myriad of online streaming platforms, rendering traditional TV obsolete. This evolution, while a natural process of immense technological progress, raises questions about our attitudes towards these changes and their consequences. What do these rapid, radical changes, observed by the South Korean-born German philosopher, signify for us?

Information Obsession

Beyond deepening consumerism, Han observes other outcomes of technological progress. He states, “Our obsession is no longer with objects, but with information and data. We produce and consume more information than objects, being almost intoxicated by communication.” Objects have long ceased to be significant in themselves; they are merely intermediaries, or rather, channels of human addiction to information, a process Han describes as “infomania.” He admires the philosophy of technology by prominent German thinker Martin Heidegger (1889‒1976), who saw human being-in-the-world, our daily existence, as naturally intertwined with respect for craftsmanship, because objects made by human hands were necessary, helpful, “present and handy.”

Photo: cottonbro studios / Pexels

They had great significance. Humans invested time, energy, and labor in creating them and thus regarded them with respect. However, today we live in the age of the infosphere. It is not humans who control objects, but objects that possess us by providing access to information, thereby exercising power over us. We have witnessed several outages of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms in recent years. Occasionally, banks report system malfunctions. In such events, humans become helpless, victims of software programs and their flaws. Observing the progress of technological capabilities, Han diagnoses: “The infosphere has a Janus-faced aspect.

It gives us more freedom but also exposes us to increased surveillance and control.” His concerns are clear: are we aware of these processes? Do we feel the need or find the time to pause in this pursuit of information and “staying updated” to recognize the dangers and weaknesses associated with such a lifestyle? Amidst rapid technological development, questions about human freedom and independence come to the forefront.

Ethical Doubts

Observing the unfolding of a digital utopia, powered by specific programs and objects, Han identifies the crossing of moral boundaries. He writes, “In an algorithmically controlled world, humans gradually lose their ability to act autonomously, confronted with a world beyond their understanding.” French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926‒1984) described the societies of the 17th and 18th centuries as dominated by the power of state institutions (psychiatric hospitals, prisons, armies, schools, etc.), posing a major threat to individual freedom. Citizens then became victims of state power despite their resistance.

Han, often referencing Foucault’s analyses, argues that the 21st-century dilemma lies in the lack of rebellion, as people fail to see the threat of control and dependency emerging from the infosphere. Technological advancements and digitization are perceived as symbols of prosperity and aids for daily living. The greatest ethical threat, according to Han, is the voluntary surrender of freedom by individuals who fail to recognize their growing dependence. Constant scrolling for information on smartphones and checking emails every five minutes are signs of yielding autonomy to the system.

A second significant ethical concern relates to truth and factuality, concepts frequently referenced by Hannah Arendt, whom Han cites. Arendt’s simple definition of truth as factuality is complicated in today’s infosphere. The overwhelming influx of information leaves little time to distinguish between truth and falsehood. While adults might discern fake news, adolescents and children are more vulnerable. Han notes, “The distinction between truth and falsehood is blurred. Information circulates without any reference to reality, in a hyperreal space. Fake news, perhaps more potent than facts, prioritizes short-term impact over truth.”

What Next?

Both Han and all of us are aware that the processes unfolding before our eyes cannot be halted. Objectively, it must be acknowledged that the development of digitization also brings many positive changes and contributes to maximizing the good in our surrounding world. However, what is crucial, and what we must advocate and remind everyone of, is the importance of being conscious: vigilance and mindfulness. Maintaining healthy boundaries between the virtual world with its technological advancements and the real world, grounded in the earth beneath our feet, is essential for preserving a healthy balance. Remember, “We live on Earth, a real planet, not in Google Earth or the Cloud.” The displacement of things by information leads only to a world of illusions, not to real life.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Magdalena Kozak

Autorka


Deals with contemporary philosophy, mainly French, in the current of existentialism, philosophy of dialogue and relations, and phenomenology. Privately, passionate about Mediterranean vibes, crime stories – preferably Scandinavian and a lover of animals and long walks. In the surrounding world, unfortunately, less and less surprised.

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