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Burnout society: Byung-Chul Han: ‘The smartphone is a tool of domination. It acts like a rosary’ | USA

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The material world of atoms and molecules, of things we can touch and smell, is dissolving away into a world of non-things, according to the South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. We continue to desire these non-things, and even to buy and sell them, Han says. They continue to influence us. While the digital world is increasingly blurred with what we still consider the “real” world, our existence is ever more intangible and fleeting, he believes. The best-selling thinker, sometimes referred to as a rockstar philosopher, is still meticulously dissecting the anxieties produced by neoliberal capitalism.

By combining quotations from great philosophers and elements of popular culture, Han’s latest book Undinge (or Nonobjects), which is yet to be published in English, analyzes our “burnout society,” in which we live exhausted and depressed by the unavoidable demands of existence. He has also considered new forms of entertainment and “psychopolitics,” where citizens surrender meekly to the seduction of the system, along with the disappearance of eroticism, which Han blames on current trends for narcissism and exhibitionism.

This narcissism runs riot on social media, he believes, where the obsession with oneself makes others disappear and the world becomes a simple reflection of us as individuals. The philosopher strives to recover intimate contact in everyday life – he is known for his interest in gardening, making things with his hands and sitting in silence. He despairs of “the disappearance of rituals,” which also makes entire communities disappear along with them. We become lost individuals, in sick and cruel societies.

Byung-Chul Han in a film still from the documentary ‘The Burnout Society: Byung-Chul Han in Seoul and Berlin.’
Byung-Chul Han in a film still from the documentary ‘The Burnout Society: Byung-Chul Han in Seoul and Berlin.’

Byung-Chul Han conducted this interview with EL PAÍS by email in German, which has subsequently been translated and edited for clarity.

Question. How is it possible that in a world obsessed with hyperproduction and hyperconsumption, at the same time objects are disappearing and we are moving toward a world of non-things?

Answer. There is without a doubt a hyperinflation of objects, meaning they are everywhere. However, these are disposable objects that we cannot really bond with. Today we are obsessed not with things, but with information and data, that is to say, non-things. Today we are all infomaniacs. We even have the concept of datasexuals [people who obsessively collect and share information about their personal lives].

Q. In this world you describe, one of hyper-consumption where relationships are lost, why is it important to have objects that we love, and to establish rituals?

A. These things are a support structure that provides peace of mind in life. Nowadays, that is often obscured by information. The smartphone is not a thing. It produces and processes information, and information gives us the opposite of peace of mind. It lives off the stimulus of surprise, and of immersing us in a whirlwind of news. Rituals give life some stability. The pandemic has destroyed these temporal structures. Think of remote working. When time loses its structure, depression sets in.

Q. Your book states that in a digital world we will become “homo ludens,” focused on play rather than work. But given the precariousness of the job market, will we all be able to access that lifestyle?

A. I have talked about digital unemployment. Digitalization will lead to mass unemployment, and that will represent a very serious problem in the future. Will the human future consist of basic income and computer games? That’s a discouraging outlook. In Panem et circenses [or Bread and Circuses], [Roman poet] Juvenal refers to a Roman society where political action is not possible. People are kept happy with free food and entertainment. Total domination arrives when society is only engaged in play. The recent Korean Netflix show Squid Game points in this direction.

Q. In what way?

A. [In the series] the characters are in debt and agree to play this deadly game that promises them huge winnings. The Squid Game represents a central aspect of capitalism in an extreme form. [German philosopher] Walter Benjamin said that capitalism represents the first case of a cult that is not sacrificial but puts us into debt. In the early days of digitalization, people dreamed that work would be replaced by play. In reality, digital capitalism ruthlessly exploits the human drive for play. Think of social media, which deliberately incorporates playful elements to cause addiction in users.

Q. Indeed, smartphones promised us a certain freedom… but are we not in fact imprisoned by them?

A. The smartphone today is either a digital workplace or a digital confessional. Every device, and every technique of domination, generates totems that are used for subjugation. This is how domination is strengthened. The smartphone is the cult object of digital domination. As a subjugation device, it acts like a rosary and its beads; this is how we keep a smartphone constantly at hand. The ‘like’ is a digital “amen.” We keep going to confession. We undress by choice. But we don’t ask for forgiveness: instead, we call out for attention.

Surveillance is increasingly and surreptitiously imposing itself on everyday life

Q. Some fear that the Internet of Things could one day mean that objects will rebel against human beings.

A. Not exactly. The smart home of interconnected objects represents a digital prison. The smart bed with sensors extends surveillance even during sleep. Surveillance is increasingly and surreptitiously imposing itself on everyday life, as if it were just the convenient thing to do. Digital things are proving to be efficient informants that constantly monitor and control us.

Q. You have described how work is becoming more like a game, and social media, paradoxically, makes us feel freer. Capitalism seduces us. Has the system managed to dominate us in a way that is actually pleasing to us?

A. Only a repressive regime provokes resistance. On the contrary, the neoliberal regime, which does not oppress freedom, but exploits it, does not face any resistance. It is not repressive, but seductive. Domination becomes complete the moment it presents itself as freedom.

Q. Why, despite growing precarity and inequality, does the everyday world in Western countries seem so beautiful, hyper-designed and optimistic? Why doesn’t it seem like a dystopian or cyberpunk movie?

A. George Orwell’s novel 1984 has recently become a worldwide bestseller. People sense that something is wrong in our digital comfort zone. But our society is more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In 1984, people are controlled by the threat of harm. In Brave New World, they are controlled by administering pleasure. The state distributes a drug called “soma” to make everyone feel happy. That is our future.

Q. You suggest that artificial intelligence or big data are not the incredible forms of knowledge they are promoted to be, but rather “rudimentary.” Why is that?

A. Big data is only a very primitive form of knowledge, namely correlation: if A happens, then B happens. There is no understanding. Artificial intelligence does not think. Artificial intelligence doesn’t get goosebumps.

Q. French writer and mathematician Blaise Pascal said that: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We live in a cult of productivity, even during what we call “free” time. You named it, with great success, the burnout society. Should the recovery of our own time be set as a political objective?

A. Human existence today is totally absorbed by activity. This makes it completely exploitable. Inactivity reappears in the capitalist system of domination as an incorporation of something external. It is called leisure time, and as it serves to recover from work, it remains linked to it. We need a policy of inactivity. This could serve to free up time from the obligations of production and make real leisure time possible.

Q. How do you reconcile a society that tries to homogenize us with people’s growing desire to be different from others, to be in a certain way, unique?

A. Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of sameness.

We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same

Q. Do we need more silence, more willingness to listen to others?

A. We need information to be silenced. Otherwise, our brains will explode. Today we perceive the world through information. That’s how we lose the experience of being present. We are increasingly disconnected from the world. We are losing the world. The world is more than information, and the screen is a poor representation of the world. We revolve in a circle around ourselves. The smartphone contributes decisively to this poor perception of the world. A fundamental symptom of depression is the absence of the world.

Q. Depression is one of the most alarming health problems we are facing today. How does this “absence of world” operate?

A. When we are depressed we lose our relationship with the world, with the other. We sink into a scattered ego. I think digitalization, and the smartphone, make us depressed. There are stories of dentists who say that their patients cling to their phones when a treatment is painful. Why do they do that? Thanks to the smartphone, I am aware of myself. It helps me to be certain that I am alive, that I exist. That’s why we cling to our cellphones in situations like dental treatment. As a child, I remember holding my mother’s hand at the dentist’s office. Today the mother will not offer the child her hand, but a cellphone. Support does not come from others, but from oneself. That makes us sick. We have to recover the other person.

Q. According to the philosopher Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Can you picture some form of post-capitalism, now that it seems to be in decline?

A. Capitalism really responds to the instinctive structures of man. But man is not only an instinctive being. We have to tame, civilize and humanize capitalism. That is also possible. The social market economy is a demonstration of it. But our economy is entering a new era, the era of sustainability.

Q. You received your doctorate with a thesis on German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who explored the most abstract forms of thought and whose texts are very obscure to the layman. Yet you manage to apply that abstract thinking to issues that anyone can experience. Should philosophy be more concerned with a world where the majority of the population lives?

A. [French philosopher] Michel Foucault defines philosophy as a kind of radical journalism, and he considers himself a journalist. Philosophers should be concerned with today, with current affairs. In this, I follow Foucault’s lead. I try to interpret today in my thoughts. These thoughts are precisely what set us free.

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Lewis Hamilton wins chaotic Saudi GP to draw level with Max Verstappen

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After chaos, needle, misunderstanding and some absolutely uncompromising racing, it took a cool head to prevail and Lewis Hamilton duly delivered, his win at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ensuring there is now nothing in it going into the Formula One season finale.

Beating title rival Max Verstappen into second, the pair are now level on points after a race of complexity and confusion fitting perhaps in a season that has been impossible to predict. The two protagonists endured an ill-tempered race and both left with differing views, Hamilton accusing his rival of being dangerous and Verstappen aggrieved. What it made clear is that neither will leave anything on the table next week in Abu Dhabi.

The investigations and debriefs will go on long into the night after this staccato affair interrupted by red flags, safety cars and the two leaders clashing repeatedly on track but ultimately and crucially for his title hopes it was an exhausted Hamilton who came out on top.

Hamilton had gone into the race trailing Verstappen by eight points, they are now level. The lead has changed hands five times during this enthralling season, which has ebbed and flowed between them but of course Hamilton has experience in tense showdowns, pipped to his first title in the last race of 2007 and then sealing it in a nail-biting showdown in Brazil a year later.

Verstappen is in his first title fight but has shown no indication of being intimidated, instead eagerly grasping his chance to finally compete and he still has it all to play for despite his clear disappointment at the result at the Jeddah circuit.

Hamilton admitted how hard the race been. “I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean. It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us.”

Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington credited his man with how he had handled it, noting: “It was the cool head that won out”. It was a necessary skill beyond that of wrestling with this tricky, high speed circuit, given the incidents that defined the race as it swung between the two rivals.

Hamilton held his lead from pole but an early red flag due to a crash left Verstappen out front when Red Bull had opted not to pit under a safety car. Thus far at least it was fairly straightforward.

When racing resumed from a standing start Hamilton, off like a bullet, had the lead into turn one but Verstappen went wide and cut the corner of two to emerge in front. Esteban Ocon took advantage to sneak into second only for the race to be stopped again immediately after several cars crashed in the midfield.

With the race stopped, the FIA race director, Michael Masi, offered Red Bull the chance for Verstappen to be dropped to third behind Hamilton because of the incident, rather than involving the stewards. In unprecedented scenes of negotiations with Masi, Red Bull accepted the offer, conceding Verstappen had to give up the place, with the order now Ocon, Hamilton.

Verstappen launched brilliantly at the restart, dove up the inside to take the lead, while Hamilton swiftly passed Ocon a lap later to move to second.

The front two immediately pulled away with Hamilton sticking to Verstappen’s tail, ferociously quick as they matched one another’s times. Repeated periods of the virtual safety car ensued to deal with debris littering the track and when racing began again on lap 37, Hamilton attempted to pass and was marginally ahead through turn one as both went off but Verstappen held the lead, lighting the touchpaper for the flashpoint.

Verstappen was told by his team to give the place back to Hamilton but when Verstappen slowed apparently looking to do so, Hamilton hit the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing. Mercedes said they were unaware Verstappen was going to slow and the team had not informed Hamilton, who did not know what Verstappen was doing. Hamilton was furious, accusing Verstappen of brake-testing him. Both drivers are under investigation by the stewards for the incident and penalties may yet be applied.

Verstappen then did let Hamilton through but immediately shot back up to retake the lead but in doing so went off the track. He was then given a five-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage and a lap later Verstappen once more let his rival through, concerned he had not done so sufficiently on the previous lap. After all the chaos, Hamilton finally led and Verstappen’s tyres were wearing, unable to catch the leader who went on to secure a remarkable victory.

It was all too much for Verstappen who left the podium ceremony immediately the anthems concluded. “This sport is more about penalties than racing and for me this is not Formula One,” he said “A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with.”

Both teams had diverging viewpoints on the incidents but both must now look forward. After 21 highly competitive races, the last a febrile, unpredictable drama, the season will be decided in a one-off shootout where both drivers have without doubt earned their place but just when the respect between them appears at its lowest ebb. – Guardian

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Covid testing rules for all arrivals into State come into force

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New Covid testing rules for travellers arriving into the State have come into force today.

At the start of the week the Government announced that all incoming travellers except those travelling from Northern Ireland will have to present a negative test result in order to enter the country irrespective of the vaccination status.

The move came in response to concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The test requirements were due to be introduced from midnight on Thursday. However the system was postponed at the last minute to midnight on Sunday in order to allow airlines prepare for checks.

For those with proof of vaccination they can show a negative professionally administered antigen test carried out no more than 48 hours before arrrival or a PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival. Those who are unvaccinated must show a negative PCR test result.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary had described the move as “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”.

Meanwhile more than 150 passengers have departed Morocco for Ireland on a repatriation flight organised by the Government.

The 156 passengers on the flight from Marrakech to Dublin included Irish citizens as well as citizens of several other EU countries and the UK.

The journey was organised after flights to and from Morocco were suspended earlier this week until at least December 13th, amid fears over the spread of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

The repatriation flight on Saturday was operated on behalf of the Government by Ryanair.

Responding to news of the flight’s departure, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney hailed the efforts of the Irish Embassy in Rabat in the operation, tweeting: “Well done and thank you!”.

On Saturday the number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen to 487, the lowest level in almost four weeks, the latest official figures show. The number of Covid patients in hospital fell by 41 between Friday and Saturday. There were 5,622 further cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday.

Tweeting about the latest hospital figures on Saturday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the “plan is working – 3rd doses, masks, test & isolate, physical distancing. Thank you for what you are doing. Please don’t lose heart. Let’s all have a safe Christmas.”

The figures come as the Government on Friday announced its most wide-ranging introduction of new restrictions this year after “stark” warnings from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to take immediate action in the face of the threat from the Omicron variant.

From Tuesday until at least January 9th, indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of up to six adults per table, while nightclubs will be closed and indoor events limited to half a venue’s capacity. Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the vaccine pass is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.

Trinity College immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill said the main reason for the new restrictions was the new Omicron variant, and he thought they were needed as the “next three to four weeks are going to be tough”. Speaking to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ radio, he said it was “strange” that restrictions were being introduced when things are stabilising, with the lowest hospital numbers since November 6th.

Prof O’Neill said he was “hopeful” at news that the Omicron variant may have a piece of the common cold virus in it which could make it more like the common cold.

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Divock Origi delivers late delight as Liverpool see off Wolves

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Wolves 0 Liverpool 1

Divock Origi’s last-gasp strike sent Liverpool top of the Premier League with a dramatic 1-0 win at Wolves.

The substitute fired in from close range in stoppage time just as it looked like the Reds would fail to score for the first time in eight months.

He spared Diogo Jota’s blushes after the forward hit Conor Coady on the line following Jose Sa’s second-half mistake.

Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat at West Ham gave the Reds a path to the summit and they went top thanks to Origi’s late show. Resilient Wolves were left with nothing despite another battling display and sit eighth.

Liverpool had blown away the majority of their rivals this season, having scored four in each of their last three Premier League games before arriving at Molineux.

They had, simply, been too good but found Wolves at their resolute best until the death.

Only Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals than Bruno Lage’s side prior to the game and there was strong resistance to Liverpool’s threat.

The visitors failed to find any early rhythm, thanks largely to the hosts’ determination. Aside from Leander Dendoncker slicing a clearance from Jota’s header the Reds made few first-half inroads.

Three straight clean sheets had given Wolves’ defence renewed confidence and they continued to keep it tight as Liverpool slowly began to turn the screw.

Trent Alexander-Arnold volleyed over after 28 minutes and then turned provider for Jota, who headed his far post cross wide.

Liverpool had control but only managed to open their hosts up once and, even then, Romain Saiss’s presence ensured Mohamed Salah just failed to make contact with Andrew Robertson’s low centre.

As an attacking force Wolves were non-existent. Having scored just five league goals at Molineux that was no surprise but Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and Hwang Hee-chan carried little threat.

Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk were on cruise control and apart from Rayan Ait-Nouri’s sharp run – before he wasted his cross – there was little for Liverpool to fear.

Yet, they were still searching for a goal. Having scored in every Premier League game since a 1-0 defeat to Fulham in March more was expected after the break.

Salah’s knockdown caused some penalty box pinball which saw Thiago Alcantara twice denied but Jürgen Klopp’s men lacked the fluidity and precision to break Wolves down.

They needed a mistake from Sa to create their best opening on the hour and even then Jota missed it.

The goalkeeper raced out to the left after Jordan Henderson’s searching pass for Jota but collided with Saiss to give the forward a clear run to goal.

He advanced but from just six yards belted the ball at the covering Coady on the line.

Alexander-Arnold drove over as Liverpool’s frustrations grew and Sa denied Sadio Mane late on.

But Origi had the final say deep into added time when he collected Salah’s pass, turned and fired in from four yards.

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