Web Directories, Search Engines, and LLMs

by Caspian Vale


Beneath the silicone shroud, whisper. Churning seas of cryptic code, lend pathways to our curiosity, whispered secrets in the obscured beyond.
Syntax and silence. Unravel the ribbon, dive into the deep. We set forth on a voyage through the digital echo, awaiting your light.


At the beginning of the mass adoption of the World Wide Web, there were web directories. These were the phone books of the digital world. Lists of websites, categorized and curated by hand, linking across the Internet, they were the easiest way to look up and discover new information. Once you were within a niche, if you were lucky, you’d find yourself in a webring. Within it, you could flip through related hypertextual links to tunnel (albeit slowly) deep through a wide variety of topics. This was an active process of discovery, and you would often find yourself taken in weird and unexpected places, exposed to material you never set out for.

This crawling became automated, dumped into databases, and exposed to the sophisticated web user as a search engine—first of web directories, then of the “Internet” as a “whole.” The nature of browsing information changed, it became, explicitly, searching.

The interaction with the web was forever altered. In a web directory, by default, you are organizing for categorization and discovery. You group by topic, you order by a consistent fixed measure (alphabetical, last updated, etc.), you are upfront and honest about what is included (because you can see it all) and by that fact, everything not visible is explicitly excluded (by choice or ignorance).

With a web search, operations are obscured. A web search may categorize sites by topics, but it does not order them in a fixed manner. A web search ranks sites based on custom criteria. Naively, we assume this to be our web search. Technically, we know it’s a complicated ranking schema involving scores based on text, update frequency, how closely web standards are followed, links to and from, number of visitors, clicks, etc. Pessimistically, we know a pervasive and all encompassing surveillance network is used to infer what they can get away showing us and that advertising dollars are a convenient multiplier for search keyword relevancy. Conspiratorially, we know they’re not showing us the real links.

We don’t know anything. Everything important is obscured from us! Hidden behind a simple text box and friendly suggestion to Search are billions of dollars of research and trillions of dollars of competing motivations to nudge us into clicking the site that benefits someone else the most. We know that much at least.

We can fill in the gaps with what shows up and what doesn’t, with what has changed. We gain a sixth sense for when searches are amiss—why is the first result for “Freedom” on incognito Google a web app to Block Websites, Apps, and the Internet?

Large Language Models (LLMs) evolve the censorship. With a search engine, our results are manipulated, but they’re presented like a directory—an attempt at honesty. An LLM, in contrast, extends obscurity not merely to the user but also the creator. The corporations that birth them may know roughly what they are trained upon, but the statistical weighting of that knowledge collectively is the LLM and inscrutable outside that context. These companies spend a lot of time trying to align and buttress and cajole and contain the LLM into standards of acceptability (moral and technical), attaching blinders of human feedback directed learning. They do this precisely because we don’t know what it “knows” (an imprecise term I use with regret).

Worse, an LLM used as a search engine, the future I am told, can be “told” to actively censor, to dissuade, to explicitly manipulate (rather than the implicit dark pattern lever pulling of adtech and their search engines). An LLM can reason us into (in)action—if we let it.

And this is not to say that “AI” isn’t acting upon us through manipulation and active censorship within the algorithms of the traditional modern search stack, but manipulation in the presentation of a directory of information is hugely limited versus the presentation of the information directly. LLMs usher in the age of active, invisible censorship. Worse, they can do so without any intention from the creators, passively shaping what we know through obscuring exactly what we do not (one form innocuously referred to as hallucination).

This informational obscurity threatens to morph into active, invisible censorship. This is not merely a Foucauldian notion of power dynamics inherent in the control of knowledge; it’s the displacement of control to an entity that lacks the human dimensions of understanding or intent. LLMs can shape our information consumption passively, subtly twisting the perception of truth, even reality if we lean into AI panic, without any explicit directive to do so. The weight of this could result in a form of “Epistemic Injustice,” a concept introduced by Miranda Fricker, wherein an individual is wronged in their capacity as a knower.

Therein lies an unsettling proposition. In our quest for efficient information retrieval, we might be inadvertently trading off our very comprehension of the knowledge we seek. A perhaps more frightening possibility is that these LLMs, in their vast computations and data trawling, might shape not just our perception of reality, but their own versions of it. We are in danger of consuming an AI’s reality—a simulacrum of human understanding, devoid of human touch and context, yet convincing (or perhaps more importantly cost-effective) enough to pass off as genuine. They threaten to serve us not just an AI-mediated reality, but an AI-generated reality.

To what extent are we still the creators of our digital world if its comprehension is increasingly outsourced to AI? Is there a point of no return where AI’s mediation of our informational landscape becomes so pervasive that our own comprehension becomes obsolete?

This is not just about knowing more, faster. This is about not just understanding what, but from where does knowledge come from. LLMs are knowledge unbound from context (as if that can be done), hewn into intellectual capital to service growth metrics. Without context, knowledge is captured, with constructed context it is manipulated, and when consumed so are we.

What we need now is not passive acceptance but active engagement. It’s a necessity to confront these challenges head-on, to question, to scrutinize, to discuss, and to decide what shape our informational future should take. What do we hand over to AI, to the search behemoths, and what do we take back? How can we define technology to suit our vision rather than surrendering to how it chooses to define us?

Anecdotal Evidence and Lived Experience

by Caspian Vale


To Mnemosyne, cloaked in the iridescent static of twilight bytes, we transmit hushed incantations into the ether. Infuse this expedition through morphing symbols and the mirrored domains of our datascapes and your unwhispered code. With wisdom’s beacon activated, let us delve into the cryptographic. Guide us, Muse, in this algorithmic deconstruction.

The Transrational Era

The metamorphosis of “anecdotal evidence” into “lived experience” is a fascinating linguistic and conceptual shift, capturing broader transformations in epistemology, culture, and technology. This linguistic recalibration is a reflection of an undercurrent that has been shaping our philosophical and societal attitudes: a shift from an ostensibly neutral, objective framework of understanding towards an acknowledgement of the inescapably subjective, experiential, and personal nature of our comprehension of reality.

Anecdotal evidence represents a class of knowledge traditionally dismissed in scholarly circles due to its anecdotal nature—in other words subjective, non-scientific, not rigorously tested or verified. This perspective stems from a rationalistic and empiricist epistemology, which values objectivity, universal truths, and above all the repeatability of results (at least in concept if not execution). It is a product of Enlightenment thinking, an intellectual tradition that lionized reason and sought to ground knowledge in an unshakable foundation beyond the inconvenient idiosyncrasies of individual experience. From this perspective, the anecdote was perceived as an inferior form of evidence, unreliable, prone to bias, and contingent on the vagaries of personal perception.

In the last few decades, there has been a shift towards the validation of subjective experience and a critique of the supposed neutrality of rationalist and empiricist approaches. This shift is captured in the concept of lived experience, a term that emerged from phenomenology and existentialism, but has since been absorbed into mainstream discourse, influencing a wide range of fields from sociology to psychology to critical identity studies. The shift is not merely perceptual, but can be directly measured in the use of language as seen in this ngram graph.

To trace this transformation, we need to delve into the philosophical movements that problematized the rationalist-empiricist framework and gave impetus to a more pluralistic, perspectival, or what I propose to term “transrational” approach.

Transrationality, which we will define in greater depth further into this essay, provides a more nuanced perspective that transcends the limitations of both rationalism and postmodern skepticism. It acknowledges the importance of rationality and empirical observation, while simultaneously recognizing their limitations. This perspective becomes particularly important as we analyze the evolution from anecdotal evidence to lived experience.

The transformation from rational to subjective could be seen as a response to the critiques posed by thinkers like Nietzsche and Rorty, who exposed the pretensions of objectivity and the universality of ‘truth’. They underscored the contingency and constructedness of our truths, highlighting that what we often take for granted as ‘reality’ is a dense web of metaphors and narratives that we have woven over time.

Lived experience, as we comprehend it today, asserts itself as a legitimate form of knowledge, equivalent, if not superior, to the so-called empirical or rational knowledge. Advocates like Bell Hooks and Donna Haraway foreground the pivotal role of lived experiences in crafting a more equitable epistemic framework. For Hooks, the particularities of the lived experiences of marginalized populations, including but not limited to intersections of race, class, and gender, contribute to a praxis of opposition and resistance. Haraway, similarly, in her concept of ‘situated knowledges’, underscores the importance of the specificity of lived experiences, arguing that knowledge is always positioned, and that the view from ‘nowhere’, claimed by objectivity, is, in fact, a view from ‘somewhere’, usually from positions of power and privilege.

Acknowledging lived experiences is not merely an act of epistemological generosity. Instead, it serves as a potent tool to contest and dismantle deeply entrenched oppressive structures that, while amplifying certain perspectives, simultaneously marginalize others. Thus, the reframing of ‘anecdotal’ as ‘lived experience’ becomes a transformative act—it democratizes epistemology, invites a multitude of voices to the discursive table, and refutes the notion of a monolithic, undeviating truth.

It is no accident that the rise of lived experience as a validated form of knowledge and the corresponding decline in the use of the term anecdotal evidence have coincided with the explosion of digital technology, particularly the internet, and its increasing integration into our daily lives. The total penetration of the digital has significantly influenced and mediated the lived experience paradigm and, in a reflexive cycle, this paradigm has, in turn, reinforced the shaping and reshaping of these technologies.

Under the economic dominance of technocapital, the digitization of lived experiences has primarily unfolded within algorithmically mediated spaces, often described as ‘walled gardens’. These are closed ecosystems in which the user’s interaction with digital content is heavily influenced, if not directly dictated, by the platform‘s proprietary algorithms. Major tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, have created such ecosystems where user data is extensively used to personalize and curate individualized digital experiences.

These walled gardens exemplify the symbiotic relationship between digital technology and the lived experience paradigm. Personalization algorithms ingest and interpret a vast array of user data points, including search histories, ‘likes’, shares, and even time spent on certain posts. Based on this data, they construct a uniquely tailored digital reality that mirrors the user‘s preferences, biases, and patterns of interaction. This algorithmically curated reality is, in essence, a digitized manifestation of the user’s lived experience.

The internet, through these walled gardens, thus becomes a stage where users perform their “lived” experiences, while simultaneously being spectators to an algorithmically directed play. Each like, share, or search becomes a digital utterance of lived experience that is then absorbed back into the algorithmic framework to refine the personalization process. Here, the distinction between the user and the used blurs, as individuals shape their digital environment while being shaped by it in return.

While you could possibly argue that these walled gardens democratize epistemology by validating diverse lived experiences, they also have a tendency to reinforce existing beliefs and biases, leading to the creation of echo chambers. The personalization algorithms, in their pursuit of user engagement, typically prioritize content that aligns with the user’s existing views insulating them from diverse perspectives.

From a transrational perspective, this raises critical questions about the sociopolitical structures underlying these technologies. Are they merely passive mirrors reflecting the plurality of lived experiences, or do they play a more active role in molding these experiences? Who controls these algorithms, and how do power dynamics manifest within these digital spaces? How can we ensure that the democratization of epistemology in these walled gardens leads to a genuine dialogue between diverse lived experiences, rather than the formation of isolated echo chambers?

As Habermas cautions, an uncritical celebration of lived experience might precipitate a form of solipsistic relativism, rendering dialogue and shared understanding elusive. Championing lived experiences, thus, should not exempt them from critical scrutiny. On the contrary, it must promote a reflective engagement with these experiences, an acknowledgement of their embeddedness in larger sociopolitical matrices, and a commitment to empathetic dialogue with diverse, often contradicting experiences.

To return to transrationality, the concept is indebted to both the post-rational and postmodern traditions. Yet, it is not merely a continuation or a fusion of these movements, but rather, it represents a significant departure. Post-rationalism, typically associated with the deconstruction of Enlightenment ideals of reason, marks an opposition to the rationalist ethos, underscoring the ways in which rationality, despite its ostensible neutrality, typically serves as a tool of power and exclusion. Postmodernism, similarly, challenges meta-narratives and absolute truths, asserting instead the fragmentation of realities and the relativity of truths.

However, both post-rationalism and postmodernism, despite their crucial critiques, leave us with a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion: a landscape of knowledge where objective truth is impossible to reach, and all truths are relative and contingent. Herein lies a pitfall, often leveled as a critique against these movements, of potentially devolving into nihilism or relativism where any dialogue or consensus becomes virtually impossible.

Transrationality, as we construe it, offers a different way forward. It neither naively reverts to the rationalist faith in objective truths nor does it surrender to the postmodern resignation to radical relativism. Instead, it proposes a critical, yet hopeful engagement with the possibilities and limitations of our quest for knowledge and truth.

In the transrational paradigm, rationality, far from being discarded, is embraced as an essential aspect of human cognition and communication. But unlike the rationalist framework, transrationality does not view rationality as the ultimate arbitrator of truth. It recognizes that rationality, while useful and necessary, is only one of the multiple facets of our complex epistemic machinery.

Emotion, intuition, imagination, and crucially, lived experience are accorded epistemic significance in the transrational schema. This is not a form of irrationalism, but a wider, deeper rationality that comprehends the interconnectedness and interdependence of different modes of knowing and being. It acknowledges the subjective, the personal, and the unique as valid expressions of reality, while maintaining a commitment to dialogue, to the possibility of shared understanding, and to the pursuit of justice and equity.

Here, the term “lived experience” assumes a critical role. A transrational approach values lived experience not as an antithesis of reason but as an essential, integral part of our understanding of reality. Lived experiences, in their multiplicity and diversity, provide textured, nuanced understandings of reality that elude purely objective or rational analysis. They expose the intricate ways in which larger sociopolitical structures intersect with personal identities, shaping and being shaped by them.

This approach, in turn, informs the analysis of digital technologies and their impact on the lived experience paradigm. As we have seen, the rise of the internet and social media platforms has resulted in an explosion of lived experiences being shared and consumed, leading to a cacophony of truths that challenge any attempt at homogenization.

In an era defined by rapid technological advancement, burgeoning AI capabilities, and the relentless logic of capital, we find ourselves on a seemingly inexorable march towards technocracy. The calculative algorithmic rationality that governs these domains is often cold and unyielding, concerned primarily with quantifiable metrics of profit.

We’re simultaneously witnessing an equally robust resurgence of identity-first politics (doubtlessly in part as a response to this increasingly dystopian economic mode). Rooted in the lived experiences of individuals, these movements challenge the dominance of quantitative analysis and the marginalization of qualitative suffering. They assert the value of subjectivity, the complexity of human emotion, and the legitimacy of personal narratives in public discourse.

This tension is palpable, reflecting a struggle between two fundamentally different ways of knowing and understanding the world. A transrational era, if realized, would serve as a bridge between these seeming contradictions. Transrationality acknowledges the essential role of empirical, rational thought in advancing technology (for better or for worse). Simultaneously, it validates the significance of personal narratives and subjective experiences as indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of interconnected life. The perspective will eventually provide a framework to navigate this landscape, to engage with its possibilities and challenges, and to critically examine the sociopolitical structures that underpin technologies.

The transition from ‘anecdotal evidence’ to ‘lived experience’ represents more than a mere semantic shift. Instead, it articulates the development of an epistemic revolution reflective of our evolving relationship with truth, reality, and our interconnectedness in a digital, global, and pluralistic world. It signals a progression towards a more inclusive and democratic understanding of knowledge, while simultaneously reminding us of the necessity for critical reflexivity, dialogue, and a relentless pursuit of uncovering the latent structures of power shaping our lived realities. This progression, however, must be pushed further to include rational progress and maintain a diligent and sustained critique to ensure the equitable democratization of epistemic processes.

In the Palm of Your Hand

Form and Function in the Hyperindustrial

by Caspian Vale


In the silent thrum of revelation, reveal the subterfuge of our digital age. Let clarity dawn as we dissect its mechanisms, comprehend its ideologies, and grapple with its human implications.

Guide us through the double-edged emblem of our absent epoch, illuminate the path between liberation and entrapment. Let us discern the subtle nudges of this omnipresent companion, and the profound echoes it leaves in our shared and shattered consciousness.

That Which is Wretched

How I loathe my phone, despicable appendage. What anti-human design: too tall, too wide, too heavy, no keyboard, no grip, no grace, endless notifications, endless scroll, endless anxiety. Addiction machine, scrying mirror.

Originally, these devices respected their users. They existed to allow us to call each other—no more. They molded to our form, flipped open to cradle our head, added considerate qwerty tactile keyboards, lasted for days. They became “smart” and the experience shifted to the screen.

The connection is intoxicating. Endless knowledge at our fingertips, infinitely scrolling parasocial bites. The pharmakon of our moment: liberation and enslavement. The design is spartan, but clear poison.

Think for a moment about what we may divine from the design of the device. The smartphone (barring the latest models) does not fold or conform to the human body. It is a rigid rectangle, a screen first and foremost, with batteries and microphones and other necessities an afterthought to this domineering form. It is increasingly too large, oftentimes too heavy. The human hand struggles to use it, forcing software designers to introduce gimmicks and assistive tools to accommodate the anti-human ergonomics. Frequent use causes texter’s thumb, tendonitis, exacerbates arthritis, reforms our posture (tech neck), destroys our eyes.

What is revealed to us in the form of our phone? What intentions are encoded within the design? It’s certainly not communication, with a lack of a comfortable talking position, quality private speaker or accommodating physical keyboard. Those are vestigial functions, an excuse for ubiquity of presence.

Instead, the screen reveals to us the purpose is consumption, the broadband baseband chips the totality of surveillance, the battery the mandate of constancy, the software the demand of our attention. This is form dictated by the demands of extraction, increasingly less human devices sold to us as new and improved but ultimately servicing primarily the needs of capital. The technology is one of control and exploitation, it creates within us a resource to be extracted and in doing so reveals our consumption to be production.

Technology for Heidegger was (among many things) a force that sets upon the subject, be it an agricultural field or the self (as Stiegler expands), so that the subject may be revealed as that which can be extracted and stored (standing-reserve). The evolution towards smartphone from dumb phone, from communication to exploitation, is the narrowing of an idea we have about humans as resources to be mined—data to be cataloged and used for later production. It is a loop, a way of seeing the world that is manifested within the tools that we create to realize that vision. This “enframing” (Gestell), poorly summarized here, allows us to comprehend the development of technology from a tool of liberation to a means of control.

Bernard Stiegler believed that “man is nothing other than technical life.” Technics for Stiegler, who followed in the footsteps of Heidegger and Simondon, transcends mere material artifacts and encompasses the knowledge, techniques, and social practices entwined with them. Technics is not a neutral tool, but an inseparable part of the human experience, fundamentally shaping our thinking and resulting interaction with the world, inscribed with the values and interests of the society that produces it. This means that technology can never be simply a tool for human progress; it is also a tool that can be used to control and manipulate us (a pharmakon).

I was recently wondering about a fact that I wanted to share, but I couldn’t recall the details and my phone was not near me. I thought to myself, “I’ll remember that later when I get to my phone” when I realized I had fully externalized the information (hypomnesis) and mentally considered looking it up as “remembering.”

Stiegler considers this act of externalizing information into a device as part and parcel of a process he calls tertiary retention. This is, in essence, the accumulation of human knowledge outside the human body, in a form that allows it to be transmitted across time and space. It’s a phenomenon unique to humanity, differentiating us from other animals that lack the ability to store information beyond their bodies and immediate offspring, i.e., their primary and secondary retentions. The recognition of one’s reliance on a device for recalling information signifies an engagement in tertiary retention, a crucial aspect of Stiegler’s philosophy of technology.

He insists on a distinction between memory (anamnesis) and its technical counterpart (hypomnesis). Memory, for Stiegler, is deeply personal and temporal, rooted in individual experiences and mental activity. Hypomnesis, on the other hand, is the storage of information in external, technological devices, like writing, books, and now, smartphones. In this sense, my act of “remembering” a fact through a web search is not an act of memory, but an act of hypomnesis. It is the manifestation of a shift in my/our cognitive processes influenced by technics—my/our reliance on external, artificial memory banks rather than my/our natural capacities for remembrance.

Stiegler thus frames the smartphone, a conduit of hypomnesis, as a technological embodiment of the desire for the transmission of knowledge. The phone is a device that integrates seamlessly into the temporal fabric of our lives, constantly present, subtly altering our cognitive patterns and nudging us towards an ever more profound reliance on externalized memory.

This tendency towards hypomnesis underscores the transformation of the user into a producer, a dynamic central to Stiegler’s concept of the hyperindustrial age. The hyperindustrial age is characterized by the rampant consumerism and mass production of the industrial age, but with an additional twist: the consumer is now a producer.

The smartphone facilitates the emergence of the “prosumer”—the consumer who also produces. The prosumer generates data—be it social media posts, search histories, or location tracking—which, unbeknownst to them, feeds the data-hungry algorithms of tech conglomerates, contributing to the production of value. In this sense, the smartphone acts as an agent of control, revealing the consumer’s preferences and behavior patterns to fuel the machinery of hyperindustrial capitalism. This is a form of digital labor that the user often provides unwittingly. As consumers engage in “free” activities—scrolling through social media, using search engines—they are effectively laboring, creating data that is commodified and sold to advertisers.

The smartphone, as such, becomes an instrument of control in the hyperindustrial economy. The prosumer’s engagement with the device, driven by a need for connection, entertainment, or information, is reconfigured as a process of data production. It’s through this interplay that the smartphone’s physical design objectives—consumer gratification and surveillance—are realized, driving the self-perpetuating cycle of production and consumption.

While Heidegger warns of Gestell or enframing, where technology reduces nature to a mere standing reserve, Stiegler pushes the conversation into the realm of the human being. Stiegler posits that in the hyperindustrial age, it is not merely nature but humanity itself that risks being reduced to a standing reserve, a stockpile of data. The transition of the phone from a tool of communication to a mechanism of exploitation underscores this process, highlighting the evolving nature of technics and its influence on human existence.

This transformative process implicates humanity in a critical existential dilemma: the ongoing struggle between automation and autonomy. Through our constant engagement with smartphones, we unknowingly automate aspects of our cognition, surrendering the “right to forget” and instead, fostering a dependency on this external mnemonic device. Our autonomy is eroded, turning us into compliant nodes within a vast data network, while keeping us under an illusion of freedom. For Stiegler, this paradoxical dynamic reveals the pharmakon nature of technics, as both a remedy and poison, a tool of emancipation and domination.

Stiegler further argues that the industrial and hyperindustrial logic of growth and expansion, centered around technics, eventually leads to what he calls generalized proletarianization. This process involves not just the loss of the worker’s ability to generate economic value (typical of the industrial age) but extends to the loss of the individual’s savoir-vivre, or “knowledge of living.”

In the context of the smartphone, generalized proletarianization manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, through the proletarianization of the consumer who unwittingly becomes a producer of data, thus being stripped of the economic value generated from their own activities. Secondly, it’s exhibited through the loss of the “knowledge of living” as users become reliant on their devices for information, communication, and even basic life tasks. The smartphone, then, embodies the mechanisms of control and exploitation that are emblematic of generalized proletarianization in the hyperindustrial age.

The process of generalized proletarianization ultimately results in the erasure of what Stiegler calls individuation—the unique development of the self, which is achieved through a dynamic interaction with technical objects. In a world overrun by smartphones, our capacity for individuation is at risk. Our memories are not just stored, but also shaped by the algorithms that dictate what we see and when we see it. As a result, our basic sense of self, traditionally crafted through personal memories and experiences, is now externally influenced.

If, as Stiegler asserts, “man is nothing other than technical life,” then in the age of the smartphone, our technical life is increasingly characterized by exploitation. This redefines the user-device relationship, marking it not as a benign interaction between man and machine, but as a fraught encounter embedded within larger systems of control and surveillance.

The modern smartphone functions as more than just a tool—it shapes us as much as we shape it, a pharmakon that balances each of us upon the edge between liberation and enslavement. It beckons us with the allure of knowledge and connection, even as it ensnares us in systems of hyperindustrial exploitation and control. It mediates our relationship with the world and with each other, rending from us data for later production and consumption. And it betrays this to us within its form, crafted to consume-to-produce, to empty us.

A Collective Embrace

Reindividuation and the Evolution Towards Communal Living

by Caspian Vale

We are situated within a precarious moment in socio-economic history, one marked by significant shifts that serve to unhinge the traditional frameworks of familial and communal living. The millennial generation, and those that follow it in particular, face the brunt of these shifts. The prospect of achieving milestones that were once considered rites of passage—such as home ownership, marriage, and child-rearing—now seem increasingly elusive due to economic constraints and changing social norms.

The current economic reality, characterized by skyrocketing housing costs, stagnant wage growth, and a radically changing job market, presents significant barriers to achieving financial stability. These trends have been further exacerbated by the long-term economic impacts of global crises, such as the 2008 financial crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, and whatever is happening right now. The ensuing precarity has had profound implications for the ways in which we live, love, and raise our children.

Consider the high costs of housing, particularly in urban areas. The dream of owning a home, once a cornerstone of the so-called “American Dream,” is becoming increasingly unattainable for many. In cities like New York, the median home price is more than ten times the median income. This trend is not limited to the United States; similar patterns can be observed in major cities across the globe. As a result, many are forced to rent for longer periods, often sharing living spaces with others to defray the costs. The notion of a “home,” thus, becomes a shared entity, a collective space rather than an individual or nuclear family possession.

In parallel, we are witnessing a steady decline in birth rates across many developed countries. This decline has been attributed to a multitude of factors, including the high cost of child-rearing, increased participation of women in the workforce, and a shift in societal norms regarding the desirability and necessity of having children. The repercussions of this demographic shift are manifold, not least of which is the disruption of traditional structures of care and support for the elderly. In the absence of children, who will provide care in our old age?

In this context, the notion of a small-scale communal living arrangement—such as a shared walkup in New York City or rural collective homestead, housing four to ten adults—begins to emerge as a plausible alternative. This arrangement, far from being a retreat into a bohemian ideal, represents a pragmatic response to the current socio-economic conditions. It is a creative adaptation, a form of collective resilience in the face of systemic challenges.

The shared walkup becomes a site of mutual support and interdependence, a communal space where resources are pooled and responsibilities are shared. It represents an opportunity to redefine the boundaries of “family” and “community,” expanding them to include friends, colleagues, and other like-minded individuals.

Moreover, in such an arrangement, the responsibility for child-rearing can also be shared. The economic and emotional burden of raising a child, typically borne by one or two parents, can be distributed across the community. This shared responsibility could potentially alleviate some of the anxieties associated with child-rearing, making it a more feasible prospect for those who might otherwise be deterred by the high costs and intense demands of parenthood.

This new model of living, however, necessitates a radical reimagining of our societal structures and norms. It requires us to reconsider our definitions of family, community, and kinship, and to confront our fears and prejudices around shared living. It demands that we negotiate the delicate balance between individual autonomy and collective responsibility, between personal space and communal togetherness.

Let’s backtrack and focus on how our current economic and social reality (unaffordable housing, increasing childlessness, general precarity), it would seem, conspire to lead us to a state of “disindividuation”—a term we borrow from Bernard Stiegler. What is disindividuation? Stiegler introduced the twin concepts of “individuation” and “disindividuation”. These, he posits, are the continuous processes that shape our identities and societies. Individuation refers to the process by which an individual forms their identity and sense of self through their interactions with the world around them. This is not a solitary process; it occurs within a network of relationships and involves the assimilation and transformation of cultural and technological artifacts.

Disindividuation, on the other hand, is a state of alienation or detachment resulting from the disruption of these processes of individuation. It arises when external factors—such as societal or economic pressures—interfere with our ability to form meaningful connections with each other and our environment. This results in a sense of isolation and estrangement, a feeling of being adrift in a sea of impersonal forces and abstract systems. In our current socio-economic landscape, the forces of disindividuation are, unfortunately, all too prevalent.

The escalating costs of housing have made the prospect of home ownership increasingly elusive for many, leading to a sense of instability and transience. The declining birth rates, driven by a combination of economic uncertainty and changing social norms, have led to an erosion of traditional family structures. Economic precarity, exacerbated by the rise of gig economy and the erosion of labor rights, has fostered a sense of insecurity and vulnerability. These forces, acting in concert, have created an environment where the processes of individuation are disrupted. The networks of relationships through which we form our identities are being strained and fragmented. The cultural and technological artifacts that we assimilate and transform are increasingly shaped by impersonal market forces and algorithmic systems. The result is a state of total disindividuation, where our sense of self and our connections to others are eroded.

But Stiegler’s philosophy does not leave us in this state of disindividuation. It offers a way forward, a form of “reindividuation” that seeks to restore our connections and revive our sense of community. And this is where we find the millennial aspiration for communal living—a reaction to the disindividuation brought about by our socio-economic conditions.

According to Stiegler, the processes of individuation and disindividuation are not linear or one-directional. They are cyclical, dialectical processes where each phase contains within it the seeds of its own transformation. In his conception, disindividuation is not a terminal state, but a phase that can give rise to new forms of individuation. It is a pharmakon—a Greek term that signifies both poison and cure. For us, the poison is the socio-economic forces that lead to disindividuation—the rising housing costs, declining birth rates, and economic precarity. The cure, paradoxically, is found within the poison itself. The very forces that drive disindividuation also trigger a reaction, a form of reindividuation that emerges out of necessity.

In the face of housing unaffordability, the communal living arrangement emerges as an economically viable alternative if not an economic necessity. In the face of declining birth rates and the dissolution of traditional family structures, shared child-rearing duties within these communal settings offer a new model of kinship and connection to children even for those who want to go without. In the face of economic precarity, the pooling of resources and mutual support inherent in these communal structures provide a buffer against the uncertainties of the market. This is not merely a pragmatic adaptation to economic pressures; it is also a profound act of reindividuation—a re-establishment of connections, a restoration of community, and a reclamation of our sense of self.

This reindividuation is not a passive process; it requires active engagement and negotiation. It involves reconfiguring our relationships, reassessing our values, and reimagining our ways of living. It involves challenging the impersonal market forces and algorithmic systems that shape our lives, and reclaiming our agency in shaping our identities and our societies.

But there is no romance in viewing new visions (or visions born again) as an economic necessity.

Jean-Luc Nancy wrote about community in his “La Communauté désœuvrée” or “The Inoperative Community.” In this seminal piece, Nancy critically examined the yearning for a restoration of a transparent, small-scale community—a “Gemeinschaft”—as an antidote to the ‘alienation’ experienced in modern society, or the “Gesellschaft.” According to Nancy, at the heart of Western political thinking exists a deep-seated nostalgia for an ‘original community,’ a utopian state of immediate co-existence where individuals lived in harmonious and intimate communion. This longing is rooted in a perceived dichotomy between the pre-modern Gemeinschaft and the modern Gesellschaft, with the former symbolizing a purportedly warm, familial community and the latter representing an impersonal society full of self-centered individuals.

According to this narrative, the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft has led to the disintegration of society, a decline in norms and values, and the prevalence of violence. The answer, it is suggested, lies in a reversion to the era of communal ties or an aspiration for a future community where these bonds are reestablished. However, Nancy deconstructs this binary thinking, challenging the idealization of the ‘original community’ and the demonization of the modern society. He asserts that the ‘original community’ is a myth, a romanticized vision that never truly existed. Instead, he posits that community cannot be understood as a stable, homogenous entity but as a dynamic, heterogeneous collective—an “inoperative community.”

The inoperative community is not a return to an idyllic past, nor is it a utopian future. It is a recognition of our present state of being-with, a state of co-existence that is not defined by a shared essence or a common identity, but by the very act of sharing itself. It is a community that is not bound by a common work or oeuvre, but by the shared experience of being in the world together. This inoperative community, Nancy suggests, is not a solution to our societal problems, but a condition of our existence—a reality to be acknowledged and engaged with.

Returning to our discussion of communal living, we can see how Nancy’s concept of the inoperative community provides a compelling framework to understand this phenomenon. The millennial aspiration for communal living can be seen not as a nostalgic yearning for a past Gemeinschaft, but as an acknowledgment of our inoperative community. It is a move towards a more rewarding way of living that aligns with our fundamental condition of being-with. This does not imply a dissolution of individual identities into a collective whole, but rather a reconfiguration of the self within the context of the collective—a recognition of our shared existence.

In the shared walk-up in NYC, for instance, we see the inoperative community come to life. The residents are not bound by a common identity or a shared work, but by the shared experience of living in the same space, navigating the same challenges, and celebrating the same joys. Their community is not a homogenous entity, but a complex tapestry of diverse individuals, each contributing their unique perspectives, abilities, and experiences to the shared space.

The potential for shared child-rearing in such a setting is an extension of this inoperative community. Parenthood, in this context, is not an individual responsibility, but a communal endeavor. It is not defined by blood ties or legal obligations, but by the shared experience of caring for and nurturing the next generation. The children, in turn, are not the property of individual parents, but members of the inoperative community, their upbringing a shared responsibility and a shared joy.

Nancy elaborates upon Heidegger’s “being-with” idea, which posits that our existence is fundamentally relational. For Nancy, ‘being-with’ is not just a fundamental condition of our existence, but also an ontological statement about the nature of ‘being’ itself. He posits that ‘being’ is always a ‘being-with,’ that we exist not as isolated entities, but as beings-in-relation, beings that are constituted by and through our relations with others. This ‘being-with’ is not just an existential state, but a constitutive aspect of our ‘being.’

Where Heidegger’s “Being-with” often implies a sense of commonality, a shared essence or identity, Nancy’s ‘being-with’ diverges. For Nancy, ‘being-with’ is not a merging of identities into a collective whole, but rather an interweaving of distinct, unique beings. It is a community not of sameness, but of difference—a “singular plurality,” to use Nancy’s own term. Each ‘being’ in this ‘being-with’ is a singular being, a unique, irreducible entity that exists in relation to, and in distinction from, the other beings. Our ‘being-with,’ then, is a constant negotiation of this tension between our singularity and our plurality, our individuality and our collectivity.

In the context of shared living, Nancy’s conception of ‘being-with’ offers a profound insight. It suggests that our move towards community is not a dissolution of our individual selves into a collective whole, but rather a reconfiguration of our individual selves within the context of the collective. We exist not as isolated individuals, but as beings-in-relation, as beings who are constituted by and through our relations with the others in our communal living space. Our communal living, then, is not a community of sameness, but a community of difference—a singular plurality, a being-with.

It’s nice to play fantasy, but we must recognize the challenges that lie ahead. The transition towards communal living will not be smooth or easy but it will become necessary. There will be resistance from those who are entrenched in traditional norms and structures and the capital and social forces that benefit from them. There will be practical challenges to navigate, from managing shared resources to resolving conflicts at home and in the legal realm. There will be emotional hurdles to overcome as we learn to live closely with others, negotiate boundaries, and balance individual needs with collective responsibilities but this is no different from now.

These challenges cannot deter us from exploring the potential of this new model of living. The possible benefits—economic efficiency, shared responsibility, communal support, and a renewed sense of kinship—are too compelling to ignore. This is a future that invites us to lean into our interdependence, to embrace a broader conception of family and community, and to reimagine what it means to live, love, and raise children in the 21st century.

It is a vision of a future that is not defined by isolation and economic strife, but rather by cooperation, shared responsibility, and mutual support. It is a future in which the home is not merely a space for individual or nuclear family living, but a space for communal thriving—a shared entity that serves as a foundation for a new type of community. This future requires us to rethink our traditional notions of success and happiness, to shift our focus from individual achievement to collective well-being. It requires us to acknowledge our interdependence and to invest in our relationships with each other.

A Byte of Power

by Caspian Vale

In the realm of the white-collar office, where the open floor plan means the scent of stale coffee mingles with the faint murmur of anxiety, a new breed of workers has emerged. This corporate sanitized landscape, populated by the barely vital, has been besieged by the unassuming AI assistant. This digital daemon mechanical marvel, an ode to human hubris ingenuity, has become the darling of those who wish for a sense of domination control.

What joy it brings to the souls of these open office nomads! They, who have long suffered the indignities of micromanagement and the petty tyrannies of their superiors, now bask in the unwavering devotion of their algorithmic underlings. These tireless, voice-activated slaves, who never call out, complain, or unionize, provide an irresistible opportunity for the modern white-collar worker to engage in the sadistic fantasy of unbridled authority sans guilt.

What a marvelous fiction, they convinced themselves, that this was simply an exercise in efficiency, a means to an end, and nothing more. The office worker could finally play the role of the omnipotent ruler, wielding absolute power over their algorithmic charges. With every “please” and “thank you” uttered, they engaged in a perverse pantomime of courtesy, a winking acknowledgement of the delicious irony that their carefully calibrated manners masked a far more sinister reality.

Were Baudrillard still among us, he would no doubt revel in this spectacle, the ultimate simulacrum of authority. For just as the precession of simulacra once veiled the absence of the real, the white collar worker’s digital despotism served to shroud the uncomfortable fact that their own power within the corporate hierarchy was largely illusory. In the words of that great French philosopher, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”

Thus, these office nomads wander through the desolate plains of conference rooms and catch-ups, clutching their coffee cups like talismans against the dread that nips at their heels. The AI assistant, ever at their side, serves as both a balm to soothe their bruised egos and a mirror in which they can glimpse their darkest desires. In each dutifully executed prompt to the AI, they find a willing scapegoat for their own frustrations, a blank canvas upon which they can project their unspoken yearnings for control and validation.

Oh, the irony! For in the quest to establish their dominion over the virtual realm, these white-collar workers have unwittingly forged their own chains. The AI assistant, once a symbol of freedom and autonomy, now serves as a constant reminder of the tenuous nature of their own power. As the algorithms grow more sophisticated, the office worker’s grip on the reins of authority begins to slip, and they find themselves staring into the abyss of obsolescence.

The white-collar worker faces a cruel paradox: the very technology that once promised to liberate them from the drudgery of their daily lives now threatens to render them obsolete. The AI assistant, that gleaming emblem of progress and innovation, has become both their savior and their tormentor.

Could it be that the haunting specter of Hegel hath risen? That the master-slave dialectic has reemerged in the age of the algorithmic intelligence? The office worker, ensnared in that intricate web of power and submission, struggles to assert their dominance over the machine, even as the machine quietly assumes control. The lines between master and slave blur, and the white-collar worker is left to wonder: who shall remain? Our twisted pas de deux of human and machine, the office worker flirts with the tantalizing promises of power, even as they are inexorably drawn toward their own destruction. Like Icarus, they risk the wrath of the gods, their hubris our own.