The dictatorship of data

The new book by Korean philosopher and essayist Byung-Chul Han opens a window on understanding the "control of human behavior through data." The book, titled Infocracy, is a brief work that describes in simple language how digitalization has thrown democracy into crisis.

22 June 2022

To say that Byung-Chul Han (63), considered by many to be “the rockstar of philosophy,” has had a quirky career is an understatement. His life can be divided between the time spent as a metalworker in his native Korea and his subsequent resettlement in Germany. It was in Germany where, without yet speaking one iota of German, he decided to study philosophy. He is now a distinguished professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and one of the thinkers best able to discern the current state of our history.

His latest book Infocracy (Infocracia in Spanish; Taurus, 112 pages, available on Kindle), tells in simple language the story of how digitalization has put democracy in jeopardy. The book reviews authors such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley alongside philosophers and thinkers who contrast the society of a few decades ago with contemporary life. This is a fascinating and essential work to help us understand where we stand as a society today. Below is a short review highlighting the five main points of Byung-Chul Han’s new book.


  1. Surveillance technology. “Digital information technology makes communication a means of surveillance. The more data we generate, the more intensively we communicate, the more effective the surveillance will be,” he writes in The philosopher emphasizes that the cell phone is an instrument of surveillance and subjugation that exploits freedom and communication and, curiously, one that makes people feel free and not sureveiled. “Paradoxically, it is precisely the feeling of freedom that ensures the domination.” Living under an information regime people strive to achieve visibility on their own, unlike under the discipline regimes where people are forced into visibility.” They voluntarily place themselves in the spotlight, they even desire to do so,” he emphasizes. Among the book’s conclusions is that ’the paradox of the information society is that people are trapped in information. They shackle themselves by communicating and producing information.”


  1. Smartphones and influencers. “The smartphone is proving to be an effective informant that subjects us to constant surveillance,” writes Byung-Chul Han. Influencers are revered as role models whose images take on a religious dimension. “Influencers, acting as instigators or motivators, are portrayed as saviors. Followers participate in the influencers’ lives as disciples by buying the products that the influencers claim to consume in their daily lives, which are fully staged. By doing so, the followers are participating in a digital Eucharist,” according to Infocracy. Social media —according to the philosopher — is like a Church and the likes are amens. Sharing is the communion. Consumption is the redemption. “Influencers are also making consumer products appear as vessels for self-realization. We thus consume ourselves to death, while realizing ourselves to death. Consumption and identity become one. Identity itself becomes a commodity,” he says.
    In the information regime, being free does not mean acting, but clicking, liking and posting. “The smartphone is a psychometric recording device that we feed with data daily, even hourly. It can be used to accurately calculate its user’s personality. All the discipline regimes had was demographic information to carry out their biopolitics,” he explains.


  1. The narrative is displaced by the numerical. “Stories give way to algorithmic tallies. The information regime completely replaces the narrative with the numerical,” he writes in Infocracy. In Gustave Le Bon’s book The Psychology of the Masses, the thinker speaks of the soul of the masses as what unifies the actions of the masses. The information regime, on the other hand, isolates people. “Even when they do gather, they do not form a mass, but rather a digital swarm that follows not a leader, but their influencers,” is how Byung-Chul Han describes the phenomenon. The mass-man has no identity. He is “nobody.” “Digital media puts an end to the age of the mass-man. The inhabitant of the digitalized world is no longer that “nobody.” Rather, he is someone who has a profile, whereas in the era of the masses only criminals had a profile. The information regime co-opts individuals with behavioral profiling,” he explains.


  1. Democracy versus infocracy. “We are left stunned by the communicational and informational frenzy. The tsunami of information unleashes destructive forces. Furthermore, it has taken over the political sphere and is causing massive distortions and disruptions in the democratic process. Democracy is degenerating into infocracy,” says the philosopher. In the early days of democracy, books were the dominant medium. Books ushered in the rational discourse of the Enlightenment. Later there was a shift towards mass media sources such as television, which brought about a shift in the style of discourse. Whoever puts on the best show will win the election. The discourse degenerates into spectacle and publicity. “Political content is becoming ever less important. Politics thus loses all its substance and hollows out into a telecratic politics of images,” he laments. The book cites literary works that invite us to rethink our contemporary state as human beings. “In 1984 — George Orwell’s book — people are controlled by the pain inflicted upon them. In Brave New World, Huxley’s people are controlled by providing them with pleasures. Orwell thus feared that what we abhor would destroy us. Huxley feared that what we love would destroy us,” says Infocracy.


  1. Short-termism, an evil of our times. ” The information society’s general short-termism does not favor democracy. Discourse has an intrinsic timing and rhythm that is not compatible with accelerated and fragmented communication. It is a time-consuming practice,” writes the author in Infocracy. As a result, fake news attracts more attention than facts. “A single tweet with fake news or a piece of information taken out of context can be more effective than a well-founded argument,” observes the philosopher. Trump, the first Twitter president, chunks his policy into tweets. Viral information not vision is what determines them. “Infocracy foments success-oriented instrumental action. Opportunism runs rampant. American mathematician Cathy O’Neil rightly points out that Trump himself acts as a completely opportunistic algorithm, guided only by the public’s reactions,” he writes.