The world has entered an unprecedented period of uncertainty and political instability. Faced with the challenge of knowing and acting within such a world, the spread of computers and connectivity, and the arrival of new digital sense-making tools, are widely celebrated as helpful. But is this really the case, or have we lost more than gained in the digital revolution?
In Post-Humanitarianism, renowned scholar of development, security and global governance Mark Duffield offers an alternative interpretation. He contends that connectivity embodies new forms of behavioural incorporation, cognitive subordination and automated management that are themselves inseparable from the emergence of precarity as a global phenomenon. Rather than protect against disasters, we are encouraged to accept them as necessary for strengthening resilience. At a time of permanent emergency, humanitarian disasters function as sites for trialling and anticipating the modes of social automation and remote management necessary to govern the precarity that increasingly embraces us all.
Post-Humanitarianism critically explores how increasing connectivity is inseparable from growing societal polarization, anger and political push-back. It will be essential reading for students of international and social critique, together with anyone concerned about our deepening alienation from the world.
In the summer of 2012, I made a chance discovery, from which this book has grown. An internet search focusing on humanitarian work in Sudan returned some unexpected results. Since 2003, the UN had been working with a number of geospatial research institutes on the feasibility of using high-resolution satellite imagery to help the emergency response in Darfur. Apart from mapping refugee camps, this included remotely finding water sources so that new camps could be located nearby. Particularly striking, however, was the development of algorithms able to estimate the varying size of these settlements almost as they changed, without the need to go there. Moreover, advocacy groups were already using satellite imagery in the usually dangerous work of documenting sites of possible human rights abuse, by identifying things like burnt buildings or disturbed ground safely from the air.
Having visited Sudan many times for work and research purposes, this remote sensing was new to me. For a while, the discovery conveyed an excitement akin to having stumbled into a parallel scientific universe. Reflecting the widespread belief among humanitarian agencies that aid work had become more dangerous, my research at the time focused on the growing retreat of international aid workers into fortified aid compounds and gated-complexes. Given this withdrawal, the significance of remote sensing was immediately apparent - that is, the potential of being able to understand and act from a distance without the need to be entangled on the ground. This ability is the central theme of Post-Humanitarianism: Governing Precarity in the Digital World. It explores a double movement, whereby a loss is also a gain. What is given up is the textured familiarity that disappears with remoteness. What is gained are the new visualization techniques, smart sense-making tools and novel governmental possibilities resulting from the digital recoupment of distance.
This discovery sparked a sustained period of enquiry, deepening interest and growing concern around the issue of remoteness and recoupment. There is more to becoming distant in order to get closer, so to speak, than meets the eye. Darfur quickly proved to be a small demonstration of that much wider event known as the computational turn - that is, from the mid-1990s, the rapid spread of computers, mobile devices, software platforms and social media into all aspects of personal, public and international life, without exception. Moreover, as the retreat of aid workers suggests, this veritable electronic globalization gathered momentum at the same time as the world was being seen as more unpredictable and dangerous than before. For most people, the two are unconnected. Indeed, given the often-claimed growth in political complexity and uncertainty, the new sense-making tools appear fortuitous. Sceptical of such coincidences, Post-Humanitarianism is more open to their formative interleaving and interdependence.
The ideas of remoteness and recoupment beg the question of what has been lost, and what exactly has been gained? The computational turn has fundamentally changed our understanding of the world and what it means to be human. Together with a loss of familiarity, a growing reliance on machine-thinking means that reason, human agency and being present in the world no longer occupy the valued place they once did. For much of the twentieth century, human behaviour was measured against the often untrustworthy, but rational, decision-maker Homo economicus. Displacing this once familiar liberal avatar, a new behavioural yardstick has appeared. Compared to the confident Homo economicus, this new figure is unsure of itself. Cognitively challenged by the speed and complexity of contemporary life, it relies more on automatic and unconscious sense-making mechanisms rather than on conscious rational thought. This post-human avatar struggles to take in more than the immediate givens of its environment and accessible networks. The pages of this book are haunted by this overwhelmed, distracted and necessarily ignorant subject that, for want of a better term, is here dubbed Homo inscius. While challenged by a complex and uncertain world, Homo inscius is comfortable with its own inner vulnerabilities and human limitations, and its consequent dependence on the compensatory attentiveness that smart technology affords.
Rather than accept this rather unappealing subject as the guide to our purported post-human future, this book has sought perspective through a return to the materiality of capitalism. As an object of study and critique, capitalism has been long neglected within the academy. The computational turn is an intrinsic part of the transition from the mass production of Fordism to the personal consumption of today's new economy where Homo inscius is its ideal customer and pampered savant.
When this work began, it was unforeseen that it would demand a reinterpretation of my previous research and experience. After decades in the post-structural wilderness, I was emboldened to return to the structuralism of my Marxist youth. Earlier work on global governance, disasters and security, once felt to be outside and critical of the status quo, now feels inadequate. Not least, the crisis has deepened. With its alienation, patriarchy and racism, the past was never perfect. Since the 1960s, when these oppressions and insults were forcefully identified, a limited institutional progress has been made. The original aim, however, had been to change society radically as a whole for everyone. This revolutionary impulse has stalled and been deflected. Today's world, moreover, is different. Those areas of educational, economic and political autonomy that once supported independent circulation, allowed resistance and encouraged utopian visions of a better life have narrowed and disappeared.
While contestation and protest continue, much of this energy has been captured and set to work on adapting and deepening the system rather than fundamentally changing it. The problem is that, while reform may have worked in the past, the dots no longer join up. For those vast and ever growing numbers of people obliged to live on the edge of disaster, a future of precarity in an automating and polarizing world is calling. Capitalism, moreover, is being adapted to realize and profit from such a techno-barbaric future. Pitched against this violence-edged intent, however, new and diverse areas of autonomy and forms of recalcitrance are struggling to emerge. In this dangerous interregnum, speculative theory, searching critique and, not least, a solidarity born of political faith in humanity are needed more than ever.
Writing a book is as much a lived relationship as an academic exercise. Acknowledging one's debts is always incomplete. Over the last few years, they have been many, diverse and sometimes unexpected. In taking stock, a warm thanks to Finn Stepputat and his colleagues at the Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS) in Copenhagen. In the spring of 2013, I had the pleasure of being a guest professor at DIIS. This provided an opportunity to embark properly on the preparatory work for this book. Many thanks also to Luis Lobo-Guerrero for kindly arranging a similar visit at the end of 2014 to the department of International Relations at the University of Groningen. Over the past few years, I have presented the evolving themes of Post-Humanitarianism in a dozen workshops and conferences in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Lebanon. As such occasions are useful for testing ideas and getting audience feedback, I would like to thank their organizers. In particular, I am grateful to Jolle Demmers in the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of Utrecht for her interest and support.
At the beginning of 2014, I returned to Sudan to revisit the village where I completed my Ph.D. fieldwork in the mid-1970s. This was invaluable in helping me understand the changing nature of international space. For their advice, help and friendship, I must thank Ahmed Gamal Eldin, Al-Amin Abumanga, George Pagoulatos and Osman el-Kheir, together with Babiker Osman Shanowa, Fiesal Kaghu, Mohammed Osman, Sameer al-Tayeb al-Shami and the rest of my friends in Maiurno. Kind mention must also be made of the many people who have in some way inspired, helped or been tolerant. These include Adbullahi Gallab, Alison Howell, Antonio Donini, Bertrand Taithe, Colleen Bell, Dan Large, David Turton, Diana Felix da Costa, Jan Bachmann, Jonathan Fisher, Judith Squires, Juliano Fiori, Martin Gainsborough, Mathew Bywater, Nada Ghandour-Demiri, Nick Stockton, Norah Nihland, Oliver Richmond, Orit Halpern, Roger Mac Ginty, Sara Pantuliano, Sarah Collinson, Sophia Hoffman, Thea Hilhorst, Tim Edmunds, Tom Scott-Smith and Zoe Marriage. Given my frequent requests for deadline extensions, I am grateful to Louise Knight and Nekane Tanaka Galdos at Polity Press for their patient support. I hope the wait has been worth it.
My friends and academic comrades Jens Sorensen and Ray Bush deserve special thanks. It's always great to meet and talk things through. Many thanks also to Vanessa and Mladan Pupavac for opening my eyes to literary critique and the realities of the migration crisis. Douglas Spencer's work on neoliberalism and architecture has been inspirational. For the changing regimes of international aid, Susanne Jaspars' pioneering research has been immensely helpful. In terms of how we understand the world and our place within it, Brad Evans, David Chandler and Julian Reid continue to challenge conventions and set the pace. Not least, I owe Rupert Alcock a huge debt of gratitude for kindly reading...