What is hyperhistory?

“Technologies as users interacting with other technologies as prompters, through other in-between technologies: this is another way of describing hyperhistory as the stage of human development”

― Luciano Floridi

The way human beings live can be divided into two with the development of our increasingly robust ability to pass information between generations using Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). This division is usually expressed by the terms prehistory and history, adverbs that describe how people lived, not necessarily when. A further division of history occurred with the advent of the digital information revolution, the way we now live described as hyperhistory.

This new way of living is characterised by certain unmistakeable features:

1) Our technologies are now capable of more than just mediation between us – as users – and other technologies or the world. ICTs are also able to control our other technologies, often removing us from the process altogether, except as ultimate beneficiaries.

For example, home automation software can control our robot vacuum cleaner, ordering it to clean a room. Then shop from an online grocer based on what it determines we want and what we have in our fridge. All this on top of the increasingly sophisticated environmental and energy usage controls built into our appliances.

2) The narrative of our lives generate vast stores of data which are consumed by ICTs in ways that we do not actively endorse or control. We cannot even attune our awareness to what processes are involved in creating this data. This is more than just an issue of privacy, but a matter of our sense of being in the world.

Consider the smartphone in your pocket capturing your location and proximity to nearby landmarks, local audio to determine what music is playing and the social graph of your calendar events. These in turn feed complex engines of analysis and prediction, fitting you into semi-anonymised profiles of aggregate behaviour, then in turn generating even more data.

3) Societies that have entered hyperhistory are particularly vulnerable to attacks using ICTs. There are a multitude of vectors of attack from infrastructure controlled by ICTs, through economic disruption to disinformation campaigns that damage social cohesion and political institutions.

Coordinated attacks against infrastructure or strategically important programs, ransomware (such as the Wannacry virus that targeted the NHS), deepfakes and other emerging patterns of attack are well-understood by cybersecurity experts. The democratisation of more sophisticated tools for analysing segments of the population and the systems they rely upon will create new vulnerabilities.

4) In hyperhistory, individual human beings attempt to define themselves in terms of the ICTs they use. They try to fit into the imposed data models and system processes, redefining what it means to be human for themselves, through their understanding of their role within these structural systems.

Social networks require us to reconsider the types of relationships we have and structure the information we share through the filters of the data models of these systems. We begin to see ourselves in terms of our Facebook profiles and in the stream of our thoughts on Twitter. Our visual experiences are filtered through actions oriented towards how we will present them via Instagram or Snapchat.

Our relationship with the wider society is further defined by our identities in the systems of governments, corporations and other institutions. How these systems collaborate in defining us, shapes how we internalise our own being. Whether it is government systems defining citizenship, welfare beneficiaries or taxpayers or it is corporate networks defining authorised personnel, the overlapping identities imposed by these systems are internalised in how we talk about ourselves with each other in society.

5) The distinction between being connected (“online”) and disconnected (“offline”) becomes meaningless when your being is always represented in ICTs. You cannot avoid being tracked and managed, just like any other component within the network. At least not without total isolation from hyperhistorical societies, which may turn out to be impossible. People are instead adjusting to a new mode of life which Floridi calls “onlife” [PDF – Onlife Manifesto]. We are always connected, always mediating ourselves via digital technologies. These technologies have become transparent.

My own particular interest regards human life as a process and how that process is changing in hyperhistory. In particular, I am interested in the permeable boundaries between individuals with their specific faculties to make sense of the world and their sense of agency (to choose freely) in this context.

In this blog, I will try to approach this from multiple angles in subsequent posts. I’ll be asking what ceding greater control to ICTs means for us, how the vast generation of new data affects our sense of self, whether we can free our relationship with technology and what this new onlife existence means for being human.

Bibliography

Floridi, L. (2014) The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, OUP Oxford.

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