The Paradox of Agency

Digital automation is specifically designed to render human agency redundant for the processes and procedures being automated. The historically necessary role in production for human consciousness and action becomes, with the advent of all forms of automation, a mechanism operated without the need or requirement for human direction. This replacement of agency by automation in digital capitalism enables the apparent dissolution of the distance between design and facture by removing the formerly-required human intermediaries and replacing them with autonomous machines. This process creates an illusion of control around this immanent instrumentality precisely because of the unintelligent nature of these autonomous systems—they are fully constrained in advance of any activity by the rationalized frameworks of the digital systems employed. Machines are limited: they only do those things they are designed to do, only performing the activities allowed (literally by design) a priori by their builders. These constraints remain especially true for the “intelligence” of algorithms of expert digital systems.

The constraints that result from this instrumentalized automation only appear to be a liberating force enabling fluid forms of identity/action/being in the digital society if human agency accepts the range of constraints generated by the digital system’s builders: all actions and activities not contained by this architecture of control and monitoring are invisible and unknown to the system. The hierarchy these machines impose emerges as an innate feature of their construction, reified as the mechanism itself. The complexity, range, and availability of options presented by these autonomous systems—the “degrees of freedom” allowed by actions within the system itself—are information feeds that reinforce and maintain the containment of actions and possible engagements within the system. The hierarchy produced is intransient, resistant to challenge, critique or change. The apparently fluid, open identities and ranges of actions offered by the limited “degrees of freedom” presented by these autonomous systems reifies what the system’s designers chose to allow during their construction—what is rendered unavailable by this action also disappears from consciousness following the elision of physicality from consideration by the aura of the digital. The options provided have the affect of a fluid, free play of potentials—in aspiring to the state of information, the “degrees of freedom” offered by these systems create the affect of increased freedom only because its a priori containment disappears from consideration.

A new, contemporary alienation originates from within this affective surplus of agency created by digital systems. Any action or behavior not contained by this structural preconception is designated as “invalid”—rendered impossible through a technology that transforms the social restrictions into instrumentalities that cannot be questioned. The limits of this “freedom” are immediately apparent in the situation of “gig” workers (such as on-demand labor) whose work is managed by autonomous systems. The separation of action from result by the aura of the digital reveals this alienation in the paradoxical dispersal of efficacy and immediacy of control. The time at which “gig” workers work and their payment for that labor are determined by an autonomous system. Their options are determined by the demands and potentials of the digital software that directs their labor, a system that renders their autonomy insignificant.[1] The emergence of these autonomous technologies introduces a seemingly unbounded “agency”—what the “gig” economy terms the freedom to choose the work done—however, this “freedom” is managed by autonomous machines.


The intellectual component of facture, agency, is the difference between an automated process and an autonomous one: the automated process requires the oversight provided by human agency, an autonomous one, by definition, does not. “Autonomy” means there is no required oversight, it functions without the need for human action once it has been set in motion. This dependence on human agency for its activation means the digital is always awaiting instructions (from its human masters). Emergent in this paradox of agency is the conflict between the “open” freedom allowed by the system itself and the underlying restrictive nature of the system: every allowed option must be accounted for in advance, the “freedom” offered being simply to select from the range presented. Human agency is not directed by which option to choose, yet remains contained in the full range. This totalizing action is how digital systems implement and manage information; their instrumentality is an attempt at mirroring the nodal ranges described by the state of information. The new alienation resides not in a loss of agency, but in the insignificance of any agency—in the specific powerlessness created by the way historical control systems of industrialization become the autonomous valorization of human action specific to databased surveillance. Human actions must be constrained into/by a limited set of potentials for this valorization to proceed—the digital semiosis that creates value requires a standardized series of samples to proceed. This system is dominated by demands for compliance that create an alienation utterly distinct from industrial capitalism, where the only option is to meet the autonomous demands imposed. This new alienation masquerades as fantasies of empowerment and autonomy associated with digital technologies. Their containment reflects attempts to reify the state of information as the digital instrumentality. The “degrees of freedom” offered by these ranged options renders human agency as only a specific selection from within these made available in/by the autonomous system. The fluid complexity of this system is at the same time a contained, pre-determined, and rationalized instrumentality linked to the same requirement for fragmentation-of-productive-action employed in historical (non-digital) industrial processes such as the assembly line. Both procedures originate with an abstract sampling protocol that limits options to isolate them as component actions for procedural combination.

Although managed and implemented by autonomous digital systems that seemingly propose greater fluidity and more “degrees of freedom” for human action within their confines, these machines are an intensification of earlier capitalist protocols initially developed for the efficient management of human labor. The autonomous systems are fundamentally unintelligent, however complex they may appear. Governed by algorithms, these machines reify the assumptions of their builders. The instrumentalities thus produced become dynamically rigid, revealing that the shift to digital automation is an intensification of earlier capitalist methodologies and techniques employed in the human factory as rationalization: the conversion and abstraction of human labor and physical processes into a series of discrete stages and actions for production. Historically, alienation has been understood as a disassociation of an individual from their agency. It is a well-theorized result of industrial production and the assembly-line in particular, but is common to historical capitalism generally. The shift from human labor to autonomous labor comes as only a revolution in technical means for its implementation—the logical systems that enable automation do not require it for their implementation. The trajectory of capitalist production from human labor to autonomous systems is governed by the demand for perpetually increasing profit—something that inevitably requires a displacement of human labor by machines. In digital capitalism, a new type of alienation has arisen not based in disassociations of agency. The transition from a human-centric production to autonomous systems represents a technological “tipping point” anticipated by earlier developments, such as the assembly line and its rationalization of processes.

The shift from homocentric labor to autonomous facture enables the illusion of value creation without the need for agency, labor, or resource consumption.[2] The break-up of production on an assembly line employs individual actions incapable of producing a finished commodity, yet when arranged in sequence, collectively produce the commodity more cheaply and efficiently than the direct production of one commodity by one laborer. Repeated singular tasks do not require high skill or understanding of their individual significance and require labor to surrender agency to the capitalist. Digital production replaces this fragmentation of human labor with highly responsive and autonomous algorithmically managed systems, creating the illusion that no labor has occurred. The underlying demand in capitalism for a continuously increasing rate of profit makes the shift to digital facture and the embrace of this fantasy inevitable, and the paradox of agency creates the new alienation based in an excessive and simultaneously insignificant agency contained in advance of any decision by the rationalized digital systems’ “options” and “choices” on offer. Its dominance via the autonomous facture of digital capitalism is responsible for the emergent contemporary alienation.



Earlier ideologies of emancipation are the foundations of the paradox of agency. To understand this transformation requires a consideration of the linkage of social, aesthetic, and political engagements as parallel activities, enabling the recognition of futurity as a continuation of the nineteenth century impacts of disruptive technologies on established arts by new technologies such as photography, audio recording, and motion pictures. These new technologies transformed then-contemporary social relations to more closely resemble the demands of industrialization, reified dramatically in the arts via the avant-garde as a reductive approach rejecting social and cultural institutions and traditions, thus mirroring their liquidation by capitalist expansion.[3] Digital capitalism’s denials of futurity (the “futurist” impulse) enabled it to disassociate human agency from its historical significance–evading the alienation of earlier materialist capitalism based in rationalization that separated labor from its agency–but creating the foundations for the new alienation in the integration of this rationalization into the digital autonomous systems managing access to on-demand/just-in-time production and social services. Italian art historian Renato Poggioli explained the avant-garde’s “futurism” (futurity) through the convergence of historical political and aesthetic developments as a process of change and improvement over time, with the “advancement” of society, not its maintenance or equilibrium:

So evident and natural a political parallel [to the aesthetic avant-garde] could not escape Leon Trotsky, who in his book of literary theory and criticism, defined the historical mission of Russian futurism as follows: “Futurism was the pre-vision of all that (the imminent social and political crises, the explosions and catastrophes of history to come) within the sphere of art.” We can then sum up the tendency in question by saying that the initiators and followers of an avant-garde movement were conscious of being the precursors of an art of the future.[4]

Poggioli’s theorization, while specifically addressing avant-garde art, describes how the avant-garde’s internalization of industrial/technical developments was an orientation towards both a negation of the past (nihilism) and a concern with calling into existence a new, different social/aesthetic order (futurity). This matrix of change, reorganization, and implicit interiorization of capitalist effects characterizes twentieth century Modernism as it develops into digital capitalism. The contemporary rejection of futurity illuminates social and political issues distinct from art that indicates digital capitalism’s transformation of alienation revealed by the paradox of agency. Alienated agency in digital capitalism derives from an evacuation of meaning and importance for human agency rather than from its surrender. Digital capitalism has enabled a panoply of potential choices and decisions all requiring agency, yet this range and quantity of opportunities to exercise individual agency are all contained in advance, rendering any choices moot. When there can be no change or challenge, agency becomes insignificant, generating an alienation akin to “learned helplessness,” distinct from that of historical industrial production and capitalism where workers must externalize their agency and surrender it for a wage.



Futurity reveals the underlying contradiction contained by rationalized production: the organization of an assembly line follows a process of analysis, fragmentation, and sequentialization, the purpose of which is maximal efficiency, and which requires a surrender of agency to the system-demands imposed by this rationalization. Thus, once constructed, these systems become inflexible: their internal logic does not enable change, development, or revision. The optimization of process and protocol that is the purpose of rationalization cannot allow further development once configured; it is (theoretically) already optimally deployed. Futurity is important to this process only until the rationalization arrives, then it becomes destructive “noise” challenging the coherence of established orders and so must be minimised. Ideologies of an “end” to history common to Modernism all reflect this rationalization and abstraction of agency. Once an ideal arrangement is achieved, further development is no longer necessary or desirable. The organization of digital systems develops this rationalization to be independent of human labor, yet paradoxically dependent upon/anticipating human agency to set them in motion. The productive action of these autonomous systems remains as profit generation for their (human) owner-masters.

Futurity is banished from these digital systems as extraneous, as they are designed to attempt an instrumentalization of the state of information. This completeness is meant to ensure their function without the need for revision or change. Thus, they are inherently a denial of futurity. The contemporary alienation emerging in this rejection of futurity demonstrates the paradox of agency contained in digital facture’s responsiveness to human demands within a limited range of potentials. Understanding its development as a logical product of historical processes originating with industrial production breaks the aura of the digital’s illusion of freedom, allowing this (denied) alienation to emerge into consciousness.

Rationalization enables the particular type of mass production that defined capitalist production in the first half of the twentieth century. “Taylorism”, codified by engineer and theorist Frederick W. Taylor in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), is concerned with the organization of industrial processes and creating assembly line production. For human labor, Taylorism is the apogee in the historical alienation of agency. This solution to how factories organized their processes approached manufacturing as an engineering problem wherein the human element (in the form of the individual worker’s agency) was the factor to be eliminated. The precisely regimented activities of Taylorist production isolated human labor into independent actions rendering human labor an appendage to the production process, necessary but incidental to the activity being performed—functions are prescribed and fully delimited in advance of the work being done. Acknowledging the links between earlier physical industrial processes and their transformation into the semiosis characteristic of digital systems’ automation renders the earlier transformation of human labor into an unintelligent rendering of managerial agency the origin point for the later deployment of digital automation. The thinking required in assembly line production is no longer the domain of labor, foreshadowing the elimination of the now unintelligent human labor by autonomous systems:

The work of every workman is fully planned out … describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish as well as the means to be used in doing the work.[5]

Taylor’s approach removes the individual’s knowledge and expertise from performing their work, replacing it with decisions made by management—in the process fully erasing the need for their agency in production. In removing the worker’s engagement in how to do a task, and replacing those choices with a methodology supplied by an empirical study—most apparent in the fragmentation of production into singular repetitive actions—Taylorism increased efficiency (and profit generation) enormously. Machine labor began as an extension of human action—the mechanical amplification of human labor. Rationalization changes this relationship. It is a rhizomatic automation, immanently emergent in the transformation of labor that begins with the implementation of machinery and continues through the fragmentation of the assembly line. “Scientific management” isolates essentials and eliminates everything else. This active suppression of the individual’s engagement with what they do in favor of a centralized, disinterested contemplation that provides no opportunity for its subjects’ feedback begins a disassociation of human agency from the physicality of production. The full implementation of this process is realized in the digital system, demonstrating the historical process that leads from assembly-line industrialization towards autonomous machines.

Both the assembly line and autonomous machines remove the “human intermediary” from production, revealing the continuity between the fragmentation of the assembly-line, wherein tasks are organized around the repetitive action of masses of human labor (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization) and digital automation, wherein digital machines leave only a limited role for humans in an all-or-nothing framework that enacts its instructions in a uniformly unintelligent fashion. Shifting from the material fragmentation of the assembly-line to automated fabrication, wherein the design is generated by/on digital systems and then implemented by other digital machines with only a minimal role for human labor in the facture process, apparently removes the once-necessary human labor mediating between the work of designer-engineers and the fabrication of their plans. The historical foundations for alienation vanish: in such a transformed factory there is only a limited role for humans, and it necessarily renders large sections of the “human resource” idle as their manual functions in production are now automated. Removing “human intermediaries” from digital production reveals an underlying continuity between the fragmentation of the assembly-line, wherein tasks are organized around the repetitive action by masses of human labor (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization), and digital automation, which offers a fantasy of total control and immediate response, the direct translation of human agency into facture.



The centrality of unintelligent action allows human labor to be replaced by machine labor, rendering autonomous digital facture as a shift of means rather than of degree. Taylorism presages the algorithmic description of labor and its replacement by digital technology; it challenges the continued validity of the “Luddite Fallacy.”[6] The historically false claim that machinery will displace human labor clearly applies to some kinds of mechanization such as the machine tools and automated processes which amplify human action and create efficiencies via the assembly-line. However, the creation of autonomous tools raises fundamental questions about the assumption that technological innovations eliminating human labor necessarily shift it to other sites within the economy.

The “Luddite Fallacy” continues to be valid if and only if the invention of autonomous tools do not function in a fashion similar to a machinic slavery—that the “robot” (a word derived from the title of Karel Čapek’s 1920 play that means “serf labor” in Czech) does not displace or entirely replace human labor. The issue posed by autonomous tools is not about a finite quantity of jobs, as the “Luddite Fallacy” is commonly understood. The issue is whether human labor continues to receive a wage. In the familiar formulation of capitalism wherein wages are a crystallization of human labor traded as a commodity, as human labor receives wages in direct relation to the quantity of labor, and as the human labor required by all stages of the production process decreases towards zero, the wages paid to human labor must also decrease towards zero. This relationship is fundamental to capitalism.



Rationalized production compartmentalizes and isolates industrial facture as/into a sequence of discrete, disconnected actions not requiring any conception of the totality in the performance of each action. This process removes intelligence from the productive process. The elimination of conscious control and understanding is a prerequisite for automation by unintelligent algorithmic functions. This conversion to an unintelligent component task (assembly line) renders the final result irrelevant to the individual actions performed in its creation. The elimination of this concern will result from the way in which the action of labor anticipates automation by eliding the intelligent aspects of agency. Assembly line labor only repeats a specific set of tasks. In effect, human labor working on an assembly line is performing as a machine, as Karl Marx notes about the subservience of intelligence to machinery in his “Fragment on Machines”:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.[7]


The personification of machinery is reversible, rendering human labor mechanical. In the mid nineteenth century, human labor was essential to the operation of machines. The automation Marx knows is an accentuation of human labor. Labor must surrender its agency to the demands of the machines, human agency minimized to perform tasks no machinery of the era could. With the development of digital systems and their algorithmic automation, this historical need for human agency is minimized still further. The dislocations of human labor by autonomous machineries emerge from attempts to transfer agency to them: the limited behavior of automation developed at the end of the nineteenth century imposes a clock-work conception on the relationship of instruction to output that structures the Taylorist protocols reimagined in digital automation.

The heritage of rationalization in digital systems is the paradox of agency: a simultaneous centrality and insignificance for human agency—the digital machine is utterly dependent on human action, but only so long as it provides appropriate, already-anticipated responses. Human actions are central to digital production, but entirely constrained and controlled in advance. The automated phone system that hangs up on uncooperative human respondents demonstrates the logical outcome of these systems’ inflexibility. A.I. systems learn to perform actions formerly only possible for intelligent humans, yet any response that does not match the a priori expectations of the designers cannot be acknowledged by the automation itself—the range of options and “helping” behaviors designed into digital systems create contemporary alienation by rendering human agency fundamentally irrelevant (any decision not already allowed is ignored as invalid). The rationalized limits of the assembly-line’s organization come to dominate all aspects of human activity through the assimilation of those behaviors by digital systems when they transfer the fragmentation-rationalization into all their interactions and engagements with the social.

The negation of human intelligence, begun in the nineteenth century and expanded in the industrial production of the twentieth century assembly line (the dominant feature of rationalized production protocols), inaugurates a reconception of futurity and change as detrimental to the generation of value. The underlying capitalist pursuit of profit and the structural enabler for profit-generation (automation) at the foundation of Taylorism becomes manifest as a denial of futurity. For such a conception of order and structure as a priori completed forms, the most efficient use of resources is the continuous recapitulation of the already-produced, apparent in the dominance of “reboots” and other revisitations of existing cultural production. In denying futurity, this system also denies historicity, allowing a constant return, a remaking of what has been profitable in the past. Change is rendered unnecessary since it challenges the structural framework itself. Idealized production via maximal efficiency is at the same time an elimination of capacity to generate other values: concerns with potentials that are as yet undeveloped or nascent—the definition of futurity—are beyond the scope of rationalized production. In digital capitalism they are systematically minimized and denied in a demonstration of the aspiration to achieving the state of information as instrumentality. Difference and change become invisible, simply additional dimensions of a timeless, crystalline configuration—thus futurity is necessarily denied as it is no longer possible to conceive it as such.

These ahistorical protocols reiterate the fundamental contradictions of capitalism between the preservation of past labor as produced-value and the need to continuously generate new values. Unlike the alienation of nineteenth century labor whose agency, while traded as a commodity, remained a valuable asset contemporary automation renders human agency a hindrance to production, but essential to its activation. The importance of agency is ambivalently displaced, the paradox arising from a lacuna between the productive role and the result.



Reifications of human agency as currency (in the form of debt) necessitates a focus on immanence—the continuous, interminable presentness of the Contemporary—as both the past and future have been elided by the immediate demands of capital. Transformation of a utopian ideal (futurity) to immanent value (debt) liquidates future production, effectively consuming the future in advance of its realization. The disparity between historically Modern and Contemporary views of futurity are precisely attuned to this changed relationship. Potential, material, and immaterial values become interchangeable in their realization as production under digital capitalism. Being immanently available as a “perfect reproduction” responding to the vagaries of human desires is readily served by debt’s role as an entitlement that sets productive facture in motion: debt reifies any vestigial futurity as its own liquidation.[8] Ownership of debt is thus the ideal value form for digital facture and the dominant immateriality of digital capitalism. Philosopher Katerina Kolozova explains the dematerialization of value into immaterial production in her book Towards a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism:

There is nothing material in the 21st century’s form of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is not only based on “immaterial labor,” as Negri and Hardt claim, but also on pure abstraction and elevation to the immateriality of both labor and capital. This situation is the result of the complete mathematization and speculation of the real.[9]

With a debt-based economy, the future is necessarily a void that must be filled in the present—in the process, negating the utopian aspirations of Modernist avant-garde discourse—creating a fundamental demand for ever-increasing valorization. The dissolution of concerns with physicality and dominance of immateriality accelerates this shift, apparent in the change from currency as store of past value to currency as a title to future wealth. With debt as the basis of currency, capital’s foundation as reified agency is exposed: only capital, sui generis, activates production that is otherwise bereft of agency. In the emergence of just-in-time and on-demand facture, capital’s role as activator of production, becomes an underlying determinant of the system itself., This forces the paradox of agency into an immediate confrontation with the social functions of production, revealing the new alienation at the center of immaterialist disavowals of physicality realized by the debt-basis of currency.

Labor produced a crystallization of value, preserved as the commodity and reified as currency. Established value, in being realized prior to exchange as the physical commodity, is also quantified as value in a way that immaterial production’s value cannot be. Once realized, physical production challenges the immanence of digital systems and the just-in-time nature of automated facture through its intransigence. Physical currency, just like physical commodities, impedes the immaterial and fluid control/movement of capital. The shift towards a fully immaterial currency, one contained only in digital systems and without a physical presence (already underway through digital “debit cards” and other forms of “digital cash”) enables this fluid movement of capital. Its emergence and deployment are logical consequences of the underlying demands of digital capitalism, making attempts to eliminate physical currency inevitable. Debt reconfigures currency’s storage of value as the right to demand delivery/production of new values. In digital capitalism this process valorizes agency independently of commodities already produced, while autonomous facture displaces human labor from value production.[10] These changes reinforce the illusion that value is not connected to utility and is not determined by its transformation-consumption of resources and labor.

The paradox of agency is revealed in this perpetual immediacy, matching precisely the demands imposed by digital systems. Digital facture, especially the immaterial presentation on computer screens and via on-demand fabrication, is always newly made for the moment of encounter and is then just as easily discarded. The paradox of choice created by the vast array of potentials available for consumption[11] identifies this doppelganger for learned helplessness alienating human agency from its efficacy in the world. The scope of choices—redolent of human agency—are limited by the potentials offered and are a functional support of the continuous circulation that allows digital capitalism to continue. Realized value in/as the physical commodity demonstrates the uncertainty of potential values, while debt (entitlement to future production) restores their virtualities, enabling a continued circulation. All established and existing stores of value are inevitably valorized once debt dominates commercial relations and historical stores of already-produced value, not as a repayment of these debts, but from the need to instantiate potential values offered by digital facture. In such a productive framework, futurity necessarily marks the recognition that potential values are virtual until rendered tangible by some human use; its denial is essential to the realization of these immaterial potentials.

Historical alienation arose from challenges to human agency. Contemporary alienation emerges from the disassociation of immaterial value from human use. The denial of the needs of historical production, homologous with utility, is the illusion of immanent control offered by digital instrumentality and the aura of information. Digital facture depends precisely on this denial of agency inherent to past production. When rendered immaterial, what has been already made is “recycled” to allow for new facture in a dissolution of its significance—this collapse creates contemporary alienation via the paradox of agency. The simultaneous denial of futurity coincides with this denial of use as constraint on value production, since to introduce the contingencies of past and future into the consideration of value allows a return to concerns with the conservation of past production. In the immaterial realm of screens and virtual digital production, this erasure and on demand facture proceed continuously and unnoticed, managed by autonomous systems that organize and reallocate memory. In being transferred to physical facture the overconsumption and waste of resources becomes instantly apparent as concerns with environmental degradation, pollution, and the hoarding of commodities.



The elimination of futurity is the same as the collapse of historicity. The shifts from an historical, chronological understanding of process as causative, to the ahistorical database wherein hierarchy and cardinal structure are mere data points, are immediately recognizable in what C. B. Johnston described by “the contemporary” in Modernity Without A Project—a book detailing the eclipse of futurity in contemporary art. His account reverses the process Poggioli described in the 1940s:

The flows of “the contemporary” are mapped in what follows in terms of a third phase of modernity that global capitalism is going through. This contemporary modernity, or “contemporaneity” (more radically overcoming what Heidegger called the gigantic in time and space with digital online realities than the philosopher could foresee), has no project in the old sense of Western modernity, except maybe growth itself. […] This was modernity: a time that oversaw vastly different ideological movements all trying to bring their own visions for the future into being, however opposed, ghastly, or desirable. It was the last time that society really believed in a future that was grasped as better than the present. […] The latent but powerful claim of “the contemporary” is that it is all we have left—a perpetual present. It is opposed, by definition, to the chronological imagination, to great before and after structures of feeling. Indeed, the attitude of “the contemporary” describes a fear of singularity and unification sent out of favor by the ills of high modernist Utopianism.[12]

The disappearance of futurity in Johnson’s theory, while a continuous point of reference and central characteristic of his configuration of the Contemporary, is presented as a social configuration with only suggestive links to the political economy. Digital technologies make the collapse of unbounded agency into contemporary alienation an instantly comprehensible feature of the aura of information. The disappearance of a concern with the future (futurity) that Johnson identifies is the organizing principle in digital capitalism. The replacement of historical orders with recombinant ones necessarily negates futurity—the full potential of any database is immanent at the moment of its construction. This aspiration to achieve the state of information as instrumentality organizes a range of processes active in digital capitalism, from the prosaically jumbled chronologies apparent in digital search results presented based on popularity, to the more threatening and invasive tracking and recording performed by surveillance’s pervasive monitoring of all human activity. The paradox of agency arrives as these mutually exclusive processes. Johnson’s conception of the “Contemporary” corresponds to the emergence and coming-into-dominance of digital capitalism. Capitalism denied human agency through the disassociation of human intelligence from the production process; digital capitalism makes human action central to its managment of human agency through surveillance and agnotology, leading to the contemporary elimination of futurity.

Change and variability reveal themselves as antipathies within digital capitalism: the production of variations within a limited set of potentials denies all possibilities that lie outside the limited scope of the specification. Johnson’s Contemporary “freedom” is the illusion of a severed link to the past:

To its subjects, this mode appears to offer a safety zone or suspended time within which one experiences a kind of creative freedom once again. It offers a quick route out of the overburdened, over-historicized and over-theorized paradigms of modernity and postmodernity. This exit, however, is something of a mirage. Upon examination, “the contemporary” can be seen as elitist and rigid in its own way, often concealing order within “openness” and surface change. At its most mainstream or democratic, “the contemporary” appears more like the brutal past that Post-Modernists thought was outmoded than the future free from oppression that Modernists so dearly desired. It might be viewed in this sense as a weird or incoherent restoration of the experience of the high modern.[13]

Johnson describes the Contemporary as High Modernism without a coherent conception of the future (without futurity)—yet, his proposal suggests that the Contemporary is the arrival of what the historical avant-gardes described by Poggioli anticipated. The abandonment of futurity in favor of an ongoing, interminable present accommodates the particular recombinant strength of digital technology as an autonomous productive system: the continuous semiosis of rearranging the database. This reconfiguration of a limited range of potentials is immediately and logically exhaustive— the productive protocol contains the full range of possible configurations in advance of their actual generation. This distinction becomes apparent in the limitations of rationalization and the Taylorist regimentation of capitalism, especially apparent in the inflexible, unintelligent autonomy of digital technology. The atemporality of the Contemporary is a necessary reflection of the leveling impacts that digital technology (and the aspiration to the state of information) have, via the way the database transcribes information as isolated data for immanent semiotic production of potential values.



Alienation emanates from digital systems, which are always awaiting human activity for their functioning. The continuous flows and churn of data ultimately depend on the human subjects of its constant vigilance, any productive application simply a demonstration of already-existing potentials. Variation is the configuration of permutations within the database. Change implies extension beyond these parameters—and proposes the possibility of organization and structure outside the range of potentials already enumerated by the database. This transformation of information to data corresponds to the elimination of chronology and hierarchy. The mutually reconfigurable search, sorting, and analytics of databases challenge any pre-established order through the rendering equivalent that is the digital.

The elision of human agency emergent in this process is ironic. What is contained by the database has only a finite quantity of relationships, all of which are mechanically delimited even when they are merely immanent potentials, only needing a human command to be realized. Within such a structure, there is neither hierarchy nor chronology—the database is a different order of organization, one that elides the cardinal and temporal causative relationships of historical forms. The database’s nonlinear accessibility is redolent of alternative organizations, each rendered momentarily through individual searches within that information space. In automating the collection and organization of the database, all arrangements become equally significant—the potentials contained by the database overshadow any particular individual arrangement, and in the process enshrine human choices while the capacity to choose becomes insignificant.

In the reification of human social actions—reified in digital systems via the database that records behaviors such as the act of liking, favouriting, or putting something on a “wish list”—markets discover an expanded (immaterial) arena for the extraction of wealth, but one not accompanied by an increased production of capital or shift in the production-consumption dynamic. With the emergence of the global information networks, and their close connection to marketing, all those decisions that might previously be considered instances of human agency (the act of shopping for example, or reading a newspaper) become commodities within the database. Organized through the pervasive monitoring common to digital surveillance, historical ideas of privacy are foreign to this transformative valorization. The database must violate privacy in this transformation of agency into commodity: this is the reason that social networks will and must violate the privacy of their members. For companies such as Facebook or Google to function, they need to collect as much information about their users as possible in order to better tailor sales pitches to the individual interests and tastes of their audience. Google’s initial demand that the users of “Google+” use their actual names, rather than be anonymous, is a reflection of this desire to more directly and closely associate specific individuals with the database of information collected about them that other social networks such as Facebook have also embraced. The anonymous (or masked) identify (and more fundamentally, the concept of privacy) will inevitably be challenged and actions taken to minimize it precisely because pervasive monitoring needs to achieve its total information awareness according to the same rationalized protocols of efficiency that create the database and semiotic production. The proximate reason for such eliminations—whether achieving “security” or via a financial demand—are irrelevant because the underlying rationalization implicit in digital systems requires these identifications.

The fantasy that the digital opens onto a magical realm without need for concern over production and consumption—the aura of the digital—is fundamentally disenfranchising for human agency since it removes the consideration of cost in time, materials or energy that would otherwise guide and constrain human actions. In placing humanity at the center of this automated universe organized through the fragmentation protocols of Taylorist automation and algorithmic analysis/decision making—the process of changing human actions (agency) into a database—allows human agency to be free to engage in demiurgic fantasies that mask the underlying powerlessness produced by these autonomous systems. Digital systems render all actions equivalent, creating the contemporary alienation not from a lost capacity to decide as was the case with historical capitalism, but from the insignificance of any decision made within a rationalized system wherein all agency is controlled and anticipated in advance and denied by the aura of the digital, creating the illusion that futurity is an irrelevant, historical concept.



[1] Sarah O’Connor. “When your boss is an algorithm,” Financial Times (8 September 2016): (accessed on 13 September 2016).

[2] Michael Betancourt, The Critique of Digital Capitalism, (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2015), 61-74.

[3] Betancourt, Michael. “Disruptive Technology: The Avant-Gardeness of Avant-Garde Art” CTheory (5 January 2002): (accessed on 2 Nov 2016).

[4] Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-garde, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 69.

[5] Frederick Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, (New York: Harper, 1911), 39.

[6] Betancourt, 33–35.

[7] Marx, Karl. “The Fragment on Machines,” The Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1973) p. 707.

[8] Michael Betancourt, “The Limits of Utility” CTheory, (3 November 2015): (accessed on 2 November 2016).

[9] Kolozova, Katerina, Towards a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism, (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2015), 41.

[10] Betancourt, 215-225.

[11] Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004).

[12] Johnson, C. B. Modernity Without a Project (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2015) pp. 6-9.

[13] Johnson, 9.


Michael Betancourt is a theorist, historian, and artist concerned with digital technology and capitalist ideology. He is the author of The ____________ Manifesto, The History of Motion Graphics, Beyond Spatial Montage: Windowing, or, the Cinematic Displacement of Time, Motion, and Space, and The Critique of Digital Capitalism. He has exhibited internationally, and his work has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, and Spanish.