Device Consciousness and Collective Volition

Joss Hands


The article will explore the augmentation of cognition with the affordances of mobile micro-blogging apps, specifically the most developed of these: Twitter. It will ask whether this is enabling new kinds of on-the-fly collective cognition, and in particular what will be referred to as ‘collective volition.’ It will approach this with an address to Bernard Stiegler’s concept of grammatisation, which he defines as as, “the history of the exteriorization of memory in all its forms: nervous and cerebral memory, corporeal and muscular memory, biogenetic memory” (New Critique 33).  This will be explored in particular with reference to the human relation with the time of protention, that is an orientation to the future in the lived moment.

The argument is that there is a new relation to technology, as a result of the increased velocity, multiplicity and ubiquity of micro-communications. As such this essay will serve as a speculative hypothesis, laying the groundwork for further research.

The Context of Social Media

The proliferation of social media, and especially its rapid shift onto diverse platforms, in particular to ‘apps’—that is dedicated software platforms available through multiple devices such as tablet computers and smart phones—has meant a pervasive and intensive form of communication has developed. The fact that these media are also generally highly mobile, always connected and operate though very sophisticated interfaces designed for maximum ease of use mean that, at least for a significant number of users, social media has become a constant accompaniment to everyday life—a permanently unfolding self-narrative.

It is against this background that multiple and often highly contradictory claims are being made about the effect of such media on cognition and group dynamics. We have seen claims for the birth of the smart mob (Rheingold) that opens up the realm of decisive action to multiple individuals and group dynamics, something akin to that which operates during moments of shared attention. For example, in the London riots of 2011 the use of Blackberry messenger was apportioned a major role in the way mobs moved around the city, where they gathered and who turned up. Likewise in the Arab Spring there was significant speculation about the role of Twitter as a medium for mass organisation and collective action. Why such possibilities are mooted is clear in the basic affordances of the particular social media in question, and the devices through which these software platforms operate.

In the case of Twitter it is clear that simplicity of its interface as well as its brevity and speed are the most important affordances. The ease of the interface, the specificity of the action—of tweeting or scrolling though a feed—is easy. The limitation of messages at 140 characters ensures that nothing takes more than a small bite of attention and that it is possible, and routine, to process many messages and to communicate with multiple interlocutors, if not simultaneously then in far faster succession that is possible in previous applications or technologies. This produces a form of distributed attention, casting a wide zone of social awareness, in which the brains of Twitter users process, and are able to respond to, the perspectives of others almost instantly. Of course the speed of the feed that, beyond a relatively small number of followed accounts, means it becomes impossible to see anything but fragments. This fragmentary character is also intensified by the inevitable limitation of the number of accounts being followed by any one user.

In fact we can add a third factor of intensification to this when we consider the migration of social media into mobile smart phone apps using simple icons and even simpler interfaces, configured for ease of use on the move. Such design produces an even greater distribution of attention and temporal fragmentation, interspersed as they are with multiple everyday activities. 

Mnemotechnology: Spatial and Temporal Flux

Attending to a Twitter feed thus places the user into an immediate relationship to the aggregate of the just passed and the passing through, a proximate moment of shared expression, but also one that is placed in a cultural short term memory. As such Twitter is thus a mnemotechnology par-excellence, in that it augments human memory, but in a very particular way. Its short termness distributes memory across and between users as much, if not more, than it does extend memory through time. While most recent media forms also enfold their own recording and temporal extension—print media, archived in libraries; film and television in video archives; sound and music in libraries—tweeting is closer to the form of face to face speech, in that while it is to an extent grammatised into the Twitter feed its temporal extension is far more ambiguous.

With Twitter, while there is some cerebral/linguistic memory extension—over say a few minutes in a particular feed, or a number of days if a tweet is given a hash tag—beyond this short-term extension any further access becomes a question of paying for access (after a few days hash tags cease to be searchable, with large archives of tweets being available only at a monetary cost). The luxury of long-term memory is available only to those that can afford it.

Grammatisation in Stiegler’s account tends to the solidifying extension of expression into material forms of greater duration, forming what he calls the pharmakon, that is an external object, which is both poison and cure. Stiegler employs Donald Winnicott’s concept of the transitional object as the first of such objects in the path to adulthood, that is the thing—be it blanket, teddy or so forth—that allows the transition from total dependency on a parent to separation and autonomy. In that sense the object is what allows for the transition to adulthood, but within which lies the danger of excessive attachment, dependency and is "destructive of autonomy and trust" (Stiegler, On Pharmacology 3).

Writing, or hypomnesis, that is artificial memory, is also such a pharmakon, in as much as it operates as a salve; it allows cultural memory to be extended and shared, but also according to Plato it decays autonomy of thought, but in fact—taking his lead from Derrida—Stiegler tells us that “while Plato opposes autonomy and heteronomy, they in fact constantly compose” (2). The digital pharmakon, according to Stiegler, is the extension of this logic to the entire field of the human body, including in cognitive capitalism wherein "those economic actors who are without knowledge because they are without memory" (35). This is the essence of contemporary proletarianisation, extended into the realm of consumption, in which savour vivre, knowing how to live, is forgotten.

In many ways we can see Twitter as a clear example of such a proletarianisation process, as hypomnesis, with its derivation of hypnosis; an empty circulation. This echoes Jodi Dean’s description of the flow of communicative capitalism as simply drive (Dean) in which messages circulate without ever getting where they are meant to go.

Yet against this perhaps there is a gain, even in Stiegler’s own thought, as to the therapeutic or individuating elements of this process and within the extension of Tweets from an immediately bounded, but extensible and arbitrary distributed network, provides a still novel form of mediation that connects brains together; but going beyond the standard hyper-dyadic spread that is characteristic of viruses or memes.

This spread happens in such a way that the expressed thoughts of others can circulate and mutate—loop—around in observable forms, for example in the form of replies, designation of favourite, as RTs (retweets) and in modified forms as MTs (modified tweets), followed by further iterations, and so on. So it is that the Twitter feeds of clusters of individuals inevitably start to show regularity in who tweets, and given the tendency of accounts to focus on certain issues, and for those with an interest in those issues to likewise follow each other, then we have groups of accounts/individuals intersecting with each other, re-tweeting and commenting on each other–forming clusters of shared opinion.

The issue at stake here goes beyond the question of the evolution of such clusters at that level of linguistic exchange as, what might be otherwise called movements, or counter-publics, or issue networks—but that speed produces a more elemental effect on coordination. 

It is the speed of Twitter that creates an imperative to respond quickly and to assimilate vast amounts of information, to sort the agreeable from the disagreeable, divide that which should be ignored from that which should be responded to, and indeed that which calls to be acted upon. Alongside Twitter’s limited memory, its pharmacological ‘beneficial’ element entails the possibility that responses go beyond a purely linguistic or discursive interlocution towards a protection of ‘brain-share’. That is, to put it bluntly, the moment of knowing what others will think before they think it, what they will say before they say it and what they will do before they do it. This opens a capacity for action underpinned by confidence in a solidarity to come. We have seen this in numerous examples, in the actions of UK Uncut and other such groups and movements around the world, most significantly as the multi-media augmented movements that clustered in Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park and beyond.

Protention, Premediation, and Augmented Volition

The concept of the somatic marker plays an important role in enabling this speed up. Antonio Damasio argues that somatic markers are emotional memories that are layered into our brains as desires and preferences, in response to external stimuli they become embedded in our unconscious brain and are triggered by particular situations or events. They produce a capacity to make decisions, to act in ways that our deliberate decision making is not aware of; given the pace of response that is needed for many decisions this is a basic necessity.

The example of tennis players is often used in this context, wherein the time needed to process and react consciously to a serve is in excess of the processing time the conscious brain requires; that is there is at least a 0.5 second gap between the brain receiving a stimulus and the conscious mind registering and reacting to it. What this means is that elements of the brain are acting in advance of conscious volition—we preempt our volitions with the already inscribed emotional, or affective layer, protending beyond the immanent into the virtual. However, protention is still, according to Stiegler, a fundamental element of consciousness—it pushes forward into the brain’s awareness of continuity, contributing to its affective reactions, rooted in projection and risk. This aspect of protention therefore is a contributing element of volition as it rises into consciousness. Volition is the active conscious aspect of willing, and as such requires an act of protention to underpin it. 

Thus the element of protention, as Stiegler describes it, is inscribed in the flow of the Twitter feed, but also and more importantly, is written into the cognitive process that proceeds and frames it. But beyond this even is the affective and emotional element. This allows us to think then of the Twitter-brain assemblage to be something more than just a mechanism, a tool or simply a medium in the linear sense of the term, but something closer to a device—or a dispositif as defined by Michel Foucault (194) and developed by Giorgio Agamben. A dispositif gathers together, orders and processes, but also augments.

Maurizio Lazzarato uses the term, explaining that:

The machines for crystallizing or modulating time are dispositifs capable of intervening in the event, in the cooperation between brains, through the modulation of the forces engaged therein, thereby becoming preconditions for every process of constitution of whatever subjectivity. Consequently the process comes to resemble a harmonization of waves, a polyphony. (186)

This is an excellent framework to consolidate the place of Twitter as just such a dispositif. In the first instance the place of Twitter in “crystallizing or modulating” time is reflected in its grammatisation of the immediate into a circuit that reframes the present moment in a series of ripples and echoes, and which resonates in the protentions of the followers and followed. This organising of thoughts and affections in a temporal multiplicity crosscuts events, to the extent that the event is conceived as something new that enters the world. So it is that the permanent process of sharing, narrating and modulating, changes the shape of events from pinpointed moments of impact into flat plains, or membranes, that intersect with the mental events. The brain-share, or what can be called a ‘brane’ of brains, unfolds both spatially and temporally, but within the limits already defined.

This ‘brane’ of brains can be understood in Lazzarato’s terms precisely as a “harmonization of waves, a polyphony.” The dispositif produces this, in the first instance, modulated consciousness—this is not to say this is an exclusive form of consciousness—part of a distributed condition that provides for a cooperation between brains, the multifarious looping mentioned above, that in its protentions forms a harmony, which is a volition.

It is therefore clear that this technological change needs to be understood together with notions such as ‘noopolitics’ and ‘neuropolitics’. Maurizio Lazzarato captures very well the notion of a noopolitics when he tells us that “We could say that noopolitics commands and reorganizes the other power relations because it operates at the most deterritorialized level (the virtuality of the action between brains)” (187).

However, the danger here is well-defined in the writings of Stiegler, when he explains that:

When technologically exteriorized, memory can become the object of sociopolitical and biopolitical controls through the economic investments of social organizations, which thereby rearrange psychic organizations through the intermediary of mnenotechnical organs, among which must be counted machine-tools. (New Critique 33)

Here again, we find a proletarianisation, in which gestures, knowledge, how to, become—in the medium and long term—separated from the bodies and brains of workers and turned into mechanisms that make them forget. There is therefore a real possibility that the short term resonance and collective volition becomes a distorted and heightened state, with a rather unpalatable after-effect, in which the memories remain only as commodified digital data. The question is whether Twitter remembers it for us, thinks it for us and as such also, in its dislocations and short termism, obliterates it? A scenario wherein general intellect is reduced to a state of always already forgetting. 

The proletarian, we read in Gilbert Simondon, is a disindividuated worker, a labourer whose knowledge has passed into the machine in such a way that it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice. Rather, the labourer serves the machine-tool, and it is the latter that has become the technical individual. (Stiegler, New Critique 37)

Again, this pharmacological character is apparent—Stiegler says ‘the Internet is a pharmakon’ blurring both ‘distributed’ and ‘deep’ attention (Crogan 166). It is a marketing tool par-excellence, and here its capacity to generate protention operates to create not only a collective ‘volition’ but a more coercive collective disposition or tendency, that is the unconscious wiling or affective reflex. This is something more akin to what Richard Grusin refers to as premediation. In premediation the future has already happened, not in the sense that it has already actually happened but such is the preclusion of paths of possibility that cannot be conceived otherwise. Proletarianisation operates in this way through the app, writing in this mode is not as thoughtful exchange between skilled interlocutors, but as habitual respondents to a standard set of pre-digested codes (in the sense of both programming and natural language) ready to hand to be slotted into place. Here the role of the somatic marker is predicated on the layering of ideology, in its full sense, into the brain’s micro-level trained reflexes. In that regard there is a proletarianisation of the prosumer, the idealised figure of the Web 2.0 discourse.

However, it needs to be reiterated that this is not the final say on the matter, that where there is volition, and in particular collective volition, there is also the possibility of a reactivated general will: a longer term common consciousness in the sense of class consciousness. Therefore the general claim being made here is that by taking hold of this device consciousness, and transforming it into an active collective volition we stand the best chance of finding “a political will capable of moving away from the economico-political complex of consumption so as to enter into the complex of a new type of investment, or in other words in an investment in common desire” (Stiegler, New Critique 6). In its most simplistic form this requires a new political economy of commoning, wherein micro-blogging services contribute to a broader augmented volition that is not captured within communicative capitalism, coded to turn volition into capital, but rather towards a device consciousness as common desire. Needless to say it is only possible here to propose such an aim as a possible path, but one that is surely worthy of further investigation.


Agamben, Giorgio. What Is an Apparatus? Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Crogan, Patrick. “Knowledge, Care, and Transindividuation: An Interview with Bernard Stiegler.” Cultural Politics 6.2 (2010): 157-170.

Damasio, Antonio. Self Comes to Mind. London: Heinemann, 2010.

Dean, Jodi. Blog Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 

Foucault, Michel. “The Confession of the Flesh.” Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon. 1980.

Grusin, Richard. Pre-mediation. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Life and the Living in the Societies of Control.” Deleuze and the Social. Eds. Martin Fuglsang and Meier Sorensen Bent. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2002.

Stiegler, Bernard. For a New Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

———. What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.


Twitter; collective consciousness; grammatization

Copyright (c) 2013 Joss Hands

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