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Dataism and Capitalism (III): An Absence of Trust

First published on 24 May 2024 – on The AfroDiscourse Substack

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Written by Adrian Nyiha

The common root of both dataism and capitalism is the distrust of man who does not adequately receive from God the gift of himself.


(reading time: about 14 minutes)

Introduction

In Part I of this short series, we suggested that the connection between capitalism and dataism is a factor common to both money and data: the reduction of things and people to measurable, manipulable quantities. We explained how data does this by prescinding the quantities of things from their natures, negating contemplation, ignoring the intrinsic order of people and things. Finally, we suggested that, in the economic realm, dataism is but a technological extension of capitalism, understood as an economic system in which the accumulation of wealth by individuals is the motor of the economy. Throughout this article, we insist, this is what we refer to when we use the term “capitalism”.

In Part II, we focused on money and its inner logic. Money functions as a store of value, a symbol capable of representing all things in terms of their utility, which makes it appealing to our desires, so that it strongly (but never irresistibly) encourages us to set our hearts on accumulating the mere appearance of wealth, on accumulating money considered primarily as a store of value, as “utility”. In this last, we see the relationship between money and the manipulability of data.

Having examined how both data and money reduce things and people to manipulable quantities, we can now turn, in this third part of the series on dataism and capitalism, to the common root of both: a lack of trust.

Capitalism and Distrust

As we mentioned in Part II, our desires for the pleasurable want to be satisfied immediately. The supremacy of these desires in individuals leads to the drive to accumulate wealth, to locate all the pleasurable things of the earth (to the extent possible) in a single, easy-to-reach place—these days, that place is our smartphones, where our money is. We noted that ravenous desire tends to accumulate things because of the immediacy to which desire aspires, as well as the limitations of desire. Being corporeal, our desires for the pleasurable are subject to the limits of space and, more importantly, time.

The temporality of material things is an expression of their radical contingency, the radical impermanence of their existence. By this, I do not mean mere material impermanence. I do not refer to the durability or the lack thereof that we observe in a flower, or a cliff, or a radioactive isotope. I refer rather to the fact that, once these things disappear, they cease utterly to exist. Like all these things, man, too, receives his being from God. Man, too, is radically dependent on God—this condition is common to every creature. But when man dies, his spirit lives on. This, in fact, is a consequence of the radical depth of God’s gift of man to himself. We might say that man receives his being so fully that he receives even the capacity to possess himself, the capacity to be, to a certain extent,¹ the ground of his own existence.² However, nature, as well as man in his corporeality, are doomed to wither and fade.

Man’s impermanence means that his plans for the future are always fraught with risk. There are few things of which he can be certain. And more to the point, he has no basis for a certainty of enjoying the fruits of the earth tomorrow, in an hour’s time, or even a few seconds from now. This presents a problem when we attempt to accumulate wealth. Either we accumulate actual things and run the risk of not enjoying them (contrary to the immediacy to which desire tends), or we accumulate them in potencyin appearance, in symbol (i.e., money), and we have the security of possessing them all at once, but only in the abstract and, therefore, in a mode that we cannot enjoy. In short, the effort to accumulate wealth seems to be an effort to negate risk, to maximize security. However, since we cannot enjoy anything without the risk entailed in dealing with real things, it seems that, as we accumulate wealth, we must instead content ourselves with a balance between security and risk. Furthermore, the more we immerse ourselves in the real, the more risk we incur, and the more precarious our enterprise of accumulating wealth becomes.³

The reason for this lies in a profound distrust at the roots of capitalism.

Rafael Alvira offers an intriguing analysis of this distrust, locating its origins in Adam Smith. This Scottish thinker intended to develop a science of economics, and of man’s economic action, that had universal value. But a science of man can only have universal value if there is a “common man” who represents everyone. The Smithian common man is never a “hero” (which could lead to loving risk over security) nor a “perverse egoist” (who seeks security amidst a general war of clashing interests). Rather, he is disposed to minimal risk, as long as some minimal security is guaranteed. By respecting certain rules and institutions of the economic and political system—the free market, some rules, and a State that enforces them—this man has the security to take on a certain amount of risk. What guides him in this pursuit of risk is his individual interest.

Alvira notes that the fact that man’s freedom is, in effect, reduced to individual interest means that man’s freedom is directed towards things, not persons. If it regards persons, it regards them as a function of things. The Smithian common man responds to the incentives of things like a dog subject to a Pavlovian conditioned reflex. The freedom of the Smithian common man and of modern economics is directed to things (thanks to things, thanks to wealth, I can do what I want) and away from persons (the absence of firm bonds and obligations). To offer just one illustrative example, in economic transactions, what is primary is the things being exchanged and not the interpersonal relation between the persons involved in the transaction. The identity of the buyer and the seller, considered in themselves, are inessential to the transaction. And, therefore, the primary function of money is not a medium of exchange, but a store of value, because what is primary is not persons, but things.

Therefore, modern economics is founded on a profound distrust of other persons. This distrust goes hand in hand with the supremacy of desire and the primacy of wealth accumulation, and the ill-fated quest for security in the ephemeral things of the earth. To this, we can add that modern economics is also rooted in a profound distrust of oneself and of God. The man who never casts his gaze to what is at once higher and deeper in reality also refuses to look with those eyes within himself that are higher and deeper than his bodily frame. He does not accept the profound gift of God that he himself is. Shying away from his own heart, he shuns interpersonal bonds, and out of fear, he never comes to taste the austere joy, sweeter and richer than honey, of living the truth.

Here, we arrive at the common root of both dataism and capitalism: the distrust of man who refuses to contemplate reality in its depth, and to respond with his being to the truth that he sees, because he does not adequately receive from God the gift of himself.

Dataism and Distrust

Yes, dataism, too, is distrust. In his genealogy of dataism, or as he calls it, the “metaphysics of information”, Marco Stango makes a compelling argument that dataism is a culmination of Western modernity’s rejection of the divine, of transcendence, and of man’s own openness to transcendence. We encounter the essences of things as preceding us, as always already having been there. Moreover, the essence of a thing is a simple whole. In Stango’s words, “[the essence or “form” of a thing] is the wellspring from which all the features and intelligible aspects of a thing come and in which they are always already rooted and gathered together as in their generous, originating unity.” Data, on the other hand, does not precede us, but rather comes into being with our own quantitative measurement. And data is fundamentally fragmented into bits, bits that have no intrinsic purpose, but on which we may instead impose our own purposes, which we may instead manipulate with reckless abandon. Here again, we may quote Stango’s poignant words:

[One] might say that the new metaphysics of information has “transubstantiated” the world: it still looks the same, with its accidents and qualities—trees still look like trees, rivers look like rivers, birds look like birds, and human beings look like human beings—but thanks to the notion of information, we now think that their substance is quite different: trees, rivers, birds, human beings alike are, at bottom, complex forms of information, sophisticated algorithms that can be digitally measured and intervened upon. The world has become an “infosphere” or a digital globe.

What, then, is the proper response to this distrust? What is the proper basis of both economic exchange and of knowledge? What attitudes ought we Africans foster within ourselves in our ongoing encounter with and adoption of Western modernity? Where ought we place our trust? We shall address these questions in the fourth and final part of this series on dataism and capitalism.

The essences of things are replaced with digit-al—quantitative—reconstructions. Our minds are reduced to hollow, complex computers. And like money, and like the Smithian common man, what is a computer for if not to be used for one’s own interest?


Notes

  1. We must always remember man’s creaturely condition. The ultimate ground of his being is God, without whom, in every instant, he cannot exist. However, the fact that man has received the gift of himself in such a profound way does not detract from his creaturely condition. Rather, his creaturely condition is deepened. God gives man his being, and a gift is only complete if it is given away, if it is non-returnable.

  2. Here, we refer the reader once more to the discussion in Part I of this series of the immaterial reality that is the essence of a thing. If the essence of a thing is immaterial, and it is real, and if we are able to perceive it, then within us there must be a faculty capable of perceiving the immaterial, of receiving the immaterial into itself, a faculty that is, therefore, itself immaterial. This faculty is referred to as the “intelligence”, from the Latin words “intus” (“into”) and “legere” (“to read”)—it “reads” or perceives the interiority of things. Man’s intelligence shares in the character of the immaterial being that it perceives. And we also observe that, unlike the matter to which they “belong,” essences are incorruptible. It is matter that fades and withers and dies; essences are unchanging. Therefore, the intelligence in man, and the soul that is the subject (the possessor, so to speak) of his intelligence, is incorruptible. It continues to exist even after man’s death. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 79 (here).

  3. The economic sphere is not the only realm in which we observe this contrast between security and risk. For instance, in the political order, the State acts as the guarantor of conflict-less coexistence, but it does so only by assuming upon itself the responsibility of one man to another, so that persons bear a much-reduced responsibility for each other, a much-reduced trust in each other, and pale (rather than rich) interpersonal relations. This is the typical justification for contractual relations: it is the enforcement power of the State, and not each person, that guarantees the performance of the contract.

  4. See Rafael Alvira (2002). “El riesgo y la seguridad desde el punto de vista ético” [Risk and security from the ethical point of view]. Revista Empresa y Humanismo 5(1), pp. 47-56.

  5. Marco Stango (2023). “A Modern Genealogy of the Metaphysics of Information”. Communio 50(3), pp. 553-586 (see here).

Previous Articles:

Dataism and Capitalism (II): The Inner Logic of Money

Dataism and Capitalism (I): Tracing the Connection

Africa and the Question of Revolution

The Word and ‘human words’ (Part I): The Word at the heart of history

Human words and The Word (Part II): African languages and The Word


Read more on: The AfroDiscourse Substack

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Afrocentricity, Arts & Culture, Next Gen, Value Exchange

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