On Friday 8 April, Dominic Smith and Ashley Woodward, from the Scottish Centre for Continental Philosophy, will be speaking on a panel at the conference Law, Technology, and the Human (University of Kent).
This event and others at the conference (6-8 April) can be freely accessed on line.
2:30 – 4pm, Friday 8 April
Remembering to Forget: Data and Loss in the Infosphere
Panel convenors: Ashley Woodward (University of Dundee) and Dominic Smith (University of Dundee)
It is easy to forget to remember – much harder to remember to forget. It seems that the ideal of the information society is to render everything unforgettable, to permanently store all information and make it available at a touch. It is easy to understand why when we live with the dread of crashed computers and lost data, and readily understand the negative consequences when our human memory fails us. But in the euphoria of information storage, are we perhaps forgetting the importance of forgetting itself? Jorge Louis Borges wrote The Library of Babel, a fantasy of complete information storage, often repeated as a fable of the information age. Borges also wrote Funes the Memorious, a short story telling of the descent into madness of someone who can never forget anything, even the tiniest detail. While certainly not denying the value of memory, some notable philosophers have also defended the importance of forgetting as necessary to the healthy constitution of human beings and their culture. For Nietzsche, failure to forget can lead individuals to dwell in unhealthy feelings of ressentiment, and to cultures obsessed with the past, unable to invent anything new. One interpretation of the Eternal Return (Klossowski’s) has it that the thought experiment would destroy any coherence of the individual by making them remember every state they have ever passed through. For Bernard Stiegler, the human is constituted through mnemotechnologies, but only because forgetting part of the nature of the human; we need prosthetic memories because of our essentially falible memories. Memory also seems to be at the heart of the law: how can we have law without continuity through time, both of the law itself, and of the persons subject to the law? But forgetting, too, has its place, as records must sometimes be stricken in the interests of justice. This panel proposes to interogate various ways in which the impact of information technologies on memory and forgetting have ramifications for the meaning of the human, for the law, and for the complex network of relations between these terms.
What a Lot of Rot: Philosophy of Technology Beyond the ‘Fantasy of Abundance’
Dominic Smith (University of Dundee)
In a June 2021 article entitled ‘The Internet is Rotting’, Jonathan Zittrain points towards ‘link rot’ and ‘content drift’ as growing epistemological challenges facing legal practitioners and scholars today (Zittrain 2021). Link rot occurs when embedded links within documents no longer work, and content drift occurs when linked content is changed; these are, Zittrain argues, acute problems for the legal community today because they affect a growing number of documents that are fundamental to legal cases. In this paper, I foreground these problems, and consider the extent to which they are not merely the specialised concern of the legal community. Rather, the acuteness of the problem at this level points towards broader philosophical and educational challenges that are endemic across information societies. What is most fundamentally required to address these challenges, I argue, is a paradigm shift away from Jodi Dean has called a ‘fantasy of abundance’ model of the Internet (2005), towards a model of educative practice that is capable of recognising and dealing with issues of rot, decay and omission that are in fact central to our technologies. To make this case, I focus on one clear example where a practice of building technologically-mediated links was sustained in spite of acute issues of rot, decay and omission: Walter Benjamin’s radio work (2014).
- Walter Benjamin (2014), Radio Benjamin, L. Rosenthal (ed), London: Verso
- Jodi Dean, ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’. Cultural
Politics 1 March 2005; 1 (1): 51–74. doi: https://doi.org/10.2752/174321905778054845
- Jonathan Zittrain, ‘The Internet is Rotting’, The Atlantic, June 2021. Available here:
Who is the Subject of the Law?
Ashley Woodward (University of Dundee)
Locke’s famous ‘memory criterion’ of personal identity has it that I am the same person over time because of the continuity of my memory (the person I remember being at an earlier time was me). The notion of identity seems essential to the law – for example, we do not want to punish the wrong person for a crime. Yet, as is well known, contemporary information technologies are problematising the establishment of identity. On the one hand, identity theft is a major problem; on the other, adopting alternative identities on line can be embraced as a liberatory practice of the self. It seems that information technologies are troubling the unity and identity of the subject, an issues which has implications both legally and existentially. This paper will examine some of the philosophical arguments for the importance of forgetting in the constitution of the subject, and consider their significance for law in the context of the information society. Might it be possible to reconcile the value of forgetting for the human with the importance of establishing and remembering identities for the law? And who, after all, is the subject of the law if we accept that information technologies are changing the ontological status of the human?
Law Forgetting its Media: Decision Quality and Automated Decision-Making
Connal Parsley (University of Kent)
Algorithmic decision-making is known to challenge procedural-political values of the rule of law, like fairness, transparency, and accountability. Predominant responses—technological, legal, and theoretical—have characterised these procedures and values as ‘human’, and sought to protect them as such via existing legal frameworks, translate them into code or design affordances, or mandate human oversight. This may not surprise legal scholars, but it is notable given the otherwise widespread consensus that human agency is being reconfigured by a plurality of new information agents, and that decisions are a product of broader socio-technical ecologies. Little legal attention has been given to the potential reconfiguration of public law decision-making by the contingency of decision quality on information media (which historically ‘transformed how humans remembered, what they forgot, and how they made decisions’ (Cevolini, 2016)). This paper will suggest that normative accounts of government decision-making must seek new conceptions of ‘decision’ that do not use the cognitive operation of the human as their cantus firmus, and so too, new measures of decision quality within a technosocial ecology. Can the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler, and a cluster of related thinkers, offer new normative resources for public law, as humans and machines cooperate to ever greater degrees?