Bernard Stiegler and the limits of anti-consumerism

This paper represents a critical engagement with Bernard Stiegler’s philosophical and prescriptive exposition of the condition of existence within current Western ‘hyper-industrial’ societies. I contend that Stiegler’s oeuvre is permeated by a complicity with capitalist distinctions, practices and forms of exploitation, as he restricts agency and the possibility for social transformation to the Western middle-class. The argument is developed thus. I proceed by offering the reader, through a Stieglerian approach, an illustration of the pharmacological dimensions and aporetic effects of the digital news media upon memory, work and proletarianisation. I then identify Stiegler’s prescriptions and motivations for a deproletarianised future as being shadowed his depoliticised outlook, as he seeks to oppose consumerism, leaving capitalist and colonial social relations untouched. Finally, I highlight the ethnocentricity and classism which permeate Stiegler’s work, impeding possibilities for emancipatory politics.


Bernard Stiegler’s major contribution to philosophy is represented by his call for abandoning traditional Western philosophical approaches to technology, and focusing our attention to ‘technics’ qua the exteriorisation of knowledge from the beginning of humanity until present. Technology, according to Stiegler, is a discourse on technics reduced to instrumentality and specialisation (1994:93). Conversely, technics, an end-in-itself, co-constitutes our lives as it facilitates the passing of knowledge ‘outside the domain of living’ and its transmission between generations (Stiegler 2003:73). Technics is a pharmakon: at once poison (we ‘lose’ our knowledge into it) and therapy (it allows for noetic practices), and it cannot be reduced to either autonomy or dependence. Going further, Stiegler refutes the postulation that the origins of the human precede technics – instead, he argues for their simultaneous genesis, co-evolution and co-existence (1994:141). As human memory is ‘technical from the start’, technology having always been a ‘memory aid’ (Stiegler 2003:67), it follows that the development of memory is epiphylogenetic: simultaneously composed by experience and technics (2010c:72; 1994:140).

The technical history of memory is characterised by transitions, tensions and tendencies. As such, originally, technics was a mnemotechnique: it had the role of memory collection, storage and support. This role has changed with the rise of digitalisation and ‘large scale technological systems or networks’ which established unprecedented possibilities for storing and manipulating human memory (now objectified into ‘digital data’) (Stiegler 2010b:37-43; 2014:48; 2003:67). By implication, technics has been increasingly dissociated from ‘the embodied act of memory’, becoming a mnemotechnology which ‘systematically orders memories’ (Stiegler 2003:66-67). The technology developed by the programming industry is replacing human memory to the effect that, whilst using it, we become ‘proletarianised’: consumers lose their knowledge of ‘how to live’ and producers lose their ‘know-how’ (Stiegler 2010b:37-43; 2014:48). Indeed, the figure of the proletarian (which used to be restricted to the working-class) is extended to encompass all workers and consumers (Stiegler 2010b:45; 2011c:104). Proletarianisation within Western hyper-industrial societies is marked by circularity, as its exacerbation encourages and is facilitated by an addictive immersion into passive consumerism which reduces the individual-qua-consumer to ‘an instance of purchasing power’, devoid of knowledge (Stiegler 2003:69). In the following section I follow Stiegler’s approach to briefly illustrate the ambiguous effects of the augmentation of memory with digital technology.

Digitalised news today
The deterioration of attention and the proletarianisation of consumers
We know about ourselves through the past which is discovered and inherited through the exteriorisation of memory via technological prostheses. Memory is a site of political struggle (Stiegler 2006:23), and news platforms are one of the mediated sites of memory formation, transmission, and struggle. Journalists (and, increasingly more, almost any internet user) are witnesses who make visible and amplify events, implicitly writing ‘the first draft of history’ (Kitch 2008:311-316). In this paper, I refer to ‘news’ broadly as the ‘phantom’-like, ‘ethereal’ text (Derrida 2005:30) of a story whose newness is marked by instantaneity, accessibility, ‘shareability’, and ‘popping-up’ on one’s (often personalised) newsfeed – be it on a ‘traditional’ news media platform or social media.

Attention is the currency, commodity and ‘raw material’ of the contemporary epoch of capitalist hyper-industrialism (Stiegler 2014:16): the attention grabbed and produced by online news through the advertising and programming industries always-already represents consumption (2010a:59). Within the process of switching from libidinal energy and desire to consumerist drives, attention is deteriorated, exhausted and consumed by the industry (Stiegler 2013): ‘the consumer becomes the producer of the network where he consumes and which consumes him’ (Stiegler 2014:64). The hypersolicitation of attention leads to ‘the detriment of deep attention’ (Stiegler 2010a:94), for reflection upon the content of news is reduced to mere mental processing and remembering of information – often leading to ‘information overflow’ and disorientation. The emphasis on the ‘now’ and the faith in technology’s capacity to capture all meaningful details of an event results in a problematic suspension of disbelief in the digital platform’s ‘neutrality’, leading to an illusory comfort which silences and erases memory.

A new retentional system is being formed as the consumer becomes addicted to always being ‘connected’ and having their attention grabbed instantaneously and spontaneously by soundbites of news displayed on increasingly affordable personal devices with inbuilt obsolescence – called otherwise ‘digital orthotheses’ (Stiegler 2010c; 2011c:143). As the news are accessible at the touch of a screen, the event is passed into ‘smart’ devices which become prostheses at all three organological levels (psychic, social and technical) – to be discussed later. Newsreaders, then, are encouraged to adopt the temporality of the object whose ‘flow’ coincides with their consciousness; their temporality is seemingly synchronised with that of the machine (Stiegler 2014:18-19). However, the machine’s temporality is much faster than ours, leaving us to feel the need to spend increasingly more time in front of the screen, to ‘catch up’ on the news whilst we are ‘taken by speed’ (Stiegler 2015b:16). This acceleration precludes knowledge retention and therefore learning, and through the commercial reasoning which underpins journalism and news creation more generally, collective memory converts into consumer products. Within an accelerated temporality in which the ideology of the ‘scarcity of time’ prevails, we become unable to take the time to care for ourselves and for others. Concurrently, thought processes are outsourced by increasingly more ‘stupid’ users who form a ‘market of fools’ (Stiegler 2010b:35-43) as they judge reality through attentional and retentional filters manufactured by the industry, affecting memories of our inherited past.

Whereas in the analogue sphere the news and their prioritisation were editors’ responsibility, in the digital world their selection is seemingly much more ‘bespoke’ for the profiled consumer through the practice of tracking and monetising one’s online behaviour with the aid of algorithms which accumulate and maintain psychotechnological power and capital in the hands of the industry. Within this process, irreducible singularities are particularised into profiles; preferences, attention, and retention are shaped by the market, and rationality is reduced to calculation/ratio (Stiegler 2014:66-68; 2011c:49). Hence, the programming and advertising industries’ power becomes concealed by a false discourse of ‘democracy’, ‘choice’, ‘public sphere’ as readers are content with the mere ability to challenge journalists’ work and profession through social media (Chadha and Koliska 2015:216; Dean 2003). Notwithstanding, ‘feedback’ is monetised and channelled into consumerist compulsions. The imposition of ‘user’ compliance with the technological algorithm inhibits one’s becoming and encourages inward-looking, as prejudices are validated and anticipated by the industry through the collection and manipulation of data generated through users’ past decisions. For instance, the personalised newsfeed shapes attention and retentions, and closes the possibility for readers to have their perspectives challenged and widened. Conversely, a caring friend would be able to tell us whether we have spent too much money on particular books, or whether, what, and why we should read something new (Self 2011). In effect, algorithm-based automatisation reduces responsibility inasmuch as through the exteriorisation of cognitive functions and the delegation of decisions to algorithms, we become subjected to the media and programming industries’ psychopower.

Within this consumerist model, readers proletarianise themselves as they produce their memory as an object of consumption, utilised by industries and their consumers. The possibility for establishing non-consumerist initiatives and platforms is proportionally being reduced, as consumers also play an active role in digital commodities’ visibility, fame, efficiency and monopoly through the unpaid work of ranking, commenting, reviewing, clicking and interacting (Morozov 2015:60-61). Google, Facebook, Twitter are all sui generis due to consumers’ involvement. Whilst both consumers and producers work, the former are unpaid are the latter are paid ‘enough to enable the adoption of increasingly standardized consumer behaviours’ (Stiegler 2014:79). The terms ‘prosumerism’ and ‘playbour’ (Fuchs and Sevignani 2013) reflect this situation well: consumerism has been blurred with production, and work is disguised as a form of play and leisure. In short, consumption, work/negotium and leisure/otium co-constitute one another, but at the expense of the latter.

Accordingly, journalism as a profession is reduced to information management/surfing under the regime of velocity, as access and short-circuits for finding ‘data’ become more important than undertaking time-consuming investigative work. News stories, then, are fragmented and discrete, and seemingly detached from the totality of social relations. The technologically savvy journalist, in effect, works towards their own obsolescence and self-abolition as a paid worker; they consume and are consumed by platforms whilst working. Through the exteriorisation and technicisation of their knowledge and of themselves (Stiegler 2011a:36), journalists are ‘disfigured’ and disindividuated (2014:48): their gestures become ‘tertiarised’ (2006:38) resources incorporated within the machines of the industry, machines of which they are workers (2010b:39).

Stiegler’s prescriptions
Stiegler calls for a ‘struggle against care-less-ness, a politics taking care of humanity, as opposed to the current politics’ (2010a:97). Given that the news is part of public, collective memory, its existence is crucial for collective individuation and memory formation. Accordingly, technology should be repurposed so that news-related practices would become techniques of otium (leisure, vocation – that which entails reflection) rather than negotium (pure employment, subsistence). Indeed, the problem is not that digital journalism in itself induces irresponsibility and carelessness, but that it has been largely developed as a form of practice that does not allow for reflection because it prioritises financial gain, short-circuited attention retention, and the monetisation of clicks and ‘brain-time’; it is simply opium (Stiegler 2011c:145). Accordingly, our task is to think the news with the digital in mind, to overcome its current poisonous features. As such, Stiegler calls for a reinvention of maturity so care and critical attention (responsibility, critique) are once again ‘cultivated’, and the psychopower of (in our case) media outlets is resisted (2010a:50-51). Deproletarianisation and individuation entail critical thinking and intelligence which reflect a social process of ‘being together’, responsibility being ‘the concrete form of intelligence’ (Stiegler 2010a:39-40).

The irreducibility of singularity is revealed by considering individuation processes as movement, rather than stasis. In other words, individuation is to mean more than merely existence (that is, fact), but rather consistence, a movement of trans-formation, elevation, and becoming which escapes calculation (Stiegler 2011c:41-49). Hence, individuation is ‘never finished […] individuation is always to come, and thus is always open only to a future’ (Stiegler 2010a:69). For individuation to occur, social collective individuation is necessary which can be established (1) through our relationships with others (our thoughts always representing collective intelligence) and (2) through technical transindividuation (Stiegler 2015c; 2011c:54). For instance, on the online medium, we already create bottom-up metadata which could lead to transindividuation and care, although at present ‘the fruits of the collaborative production of metadata’ (Stiegler 2012:14) are used top-down by programming firms. Inventing new forms of collaboration which allow for transindividuation would enable an engagement with the news as a noetic activity.

Stiegler argues for ‘noetic invention’ (rather than resistance or opposition), which must be socialised to allow for new circuits of transindividuation (Stiegler 2015a). A focus on compositions, rather than oppositions, supports the aforementioned trans-formation and individuation. To elaborate: a process represents a conjunction of tendencies which ‘pose together, one against the other’, not simply oppositionally, but com-positionally, and our struggle is to combat tendencies (Stiegler 2011c:37; 57-59; 2010b:43). For instance, Stiegler considers the technical, the body, and the social as ‘organs’ which cannot be separated; rather, they co-evolve and co-constitute one another, forming a ‘general organology’ (2010b:34-35). Technics is the glue between psychic and collective individuation, and by thinking through technics (and retentional apparatures) we make space for a new organology of (noetic) attention formation (Stiegler 2006:35; 2010a:35;103; 2011c:164-165).

However, I contend that a lack of opposition leads to an impossibility of taking individual and concerted action for social transformation, as inventing new futures within capitalism implies a top-down redistribution which leaves the framework of oppression unaltered. We need to think beyond and against structures of oppression, since we are confronted with their violence at every moment. Taking action and creating alternative possibilities, therefore, necessarily involves employing opposition and disruption strategically – dissensus being the essence of politics (Rancière 2003:226). It is therefore necessary to consider politics (outside and beyond the state) as com-posing general organology, to allow an emphasis of the urgency for radical social change. I will devote the rest of the paper to arguing that Stiegler’s concern with taming capitalism and breaking away from consumerism  (the current tendency of capitalism) without criticising capitalism’s fundamental tenets, depoliticises his argument and limits its potential to maintaining and reproducing already-existing processes.

Moving beyond Stiegler’s prescriptions
Stiegler’s motivations
Despite Stiegler’s compelling revealing of the organological and pharmacological mechanisms of capitalism, I sense a modernist, ethnocentric and classist approach to technology, (geo-)politics and society. In other words, we are told a Western colonialist and classist tale of the organological development of memory and technology devoid of colonial and class history which has led to, and is still implicated in, the present. In effect, his concepts (i.e. pharmacology) are shadowed by this depoliticised history; I posit that the philosopher’s responsibility is to make visible poisonous and exploitative historical processes of power relations. This is because without dismantling privileged epistemologies and clarifying what has been, it is impossible to reflect responsibly on becoming and individuation-to-come. Stiegler seeks to articulate phenomena disinterestedly, as a detached observer, and presents a distorted view of the past which erases the agency, resistance, and contribution of the subjugated people in creating the ‘modernity’ which he commends.

In his presentation of the history and necessity of individuation, Stiegler displays a level of melancholy for the politics, the state, and the ‘primordial’ narcissism of a triumphant Western past. Politics is restrictingly confined within the borders of the state which offers possibilities for individuation: ‘politics is the art of securing the unity of the state in its desire for a common future, in its in-dividuation, its singularity as becoming-one’ (Stiegler 2014:2). The state used to contribute to maintaining a primordial narcissism (‘as fictional as it is indispensable’ (Stiegler 2014:83)), narcissism whose ‘destruction’ by compulsive consumerism he denounces. Thus, the primordial narcissism which used to link the idea of a ‘we’ to national identity has been replaced by an obsession and identification with brands (Stiegler 2014:60-61). These changes inevitably result in dis-individuation and ‘symbolic misery’ (Stiegler 2014:5-10) as ‘individuals are stripped of their ability to form aesthetic attachments to singularities or singular objects’ (2014:5).

Whilst he deplores Westerners’ loss of individuation, Stiegler unapologetically maintains and reinforces discourses of colonial supremacy throughout The Decadence of Industrial Democracies where he reduces all experience outside the West in terms of suffering, survival, brutality and condemnation, without a trace of any possibility for the West to learn anything from outside of itself (2011c:31). Hence, as individuation in a Stieglerian sense is intrinsically connected with primordial narcissism, his vision for a deproletarianised future ought to represent a re-invention of the West. This re-invention would be possible by rediscovering an idealised version of the Western self and history, and ‘upgrading’ it with current technological capabilities in an aporetic fashion. Paradoxically, he is concomitantly too pessimistic about current Western societies’ catastrophic symbolic misery, and too optimistic about the opportunities for change offered by hyper-industrialism. To put it rather metaphorically, we are to assume that the spirit of Western ‘industrial democracies’ would rise like a Phoenix out of the ashes of their current decadence and political miscreance (as identified by Stiegler), without (the need of) any interventions from, or dialogue with, ‘the outside’.

Stieglerian Slacktivism: A Critique
Images and metaphors matter, as they have ontological, ethical and political implications, so the terms and the self-positioning of a writer represent deeply political acts. Stiegler’s choice of restricting agency and social transformation strictly to the Western middle-class inherently excludes Western working-class and Global South’s experiences, agency, and epistemologies. Whilst individuation, care, and attention are fundamental features of a potential non-capitalist society, it is difficult to see how the material reality of the violence of capitalism could be critiqued and counteracted within Stiegler’s work. This is because there is a significant disconnect between his theoretical propositions and his suggested solutions, as he does not seek to cultivate an urge to act on structure-changing prescriptions. Moreover, his readiness to share a platform with (and owned by) Capgemini  (Stiegler 2011b) undermines his stance against consumerism, legitimising neoliberal hegemony and trivialising exploitation. Hence, his discourse proves to be a mere exercise of moralism, as it does not seek to convert awareness into action (Morozov 2011:191); instead, it promotes what Morozov’s calls ‘slacktivism’:

Without a policy, the left prefers to imagine that democratic access to knowledge will magically materialize; that innovation will produce projects that look like Wikipedia—with a strong social dimension and free access. (2014b:8)
Stiegler says explicitly: ‘the question today for me is not the end of capitalism or the return of the communist horizon’ (2011a:39). Rather, he pleads for the creation of a new industrial organisation of society which could lead to a new political and economic system: ‘it is possible for example to produce a cooperative capitalism’ in which ownership of the means of production is held by a collective (Stiegler 2011a:40; 2011c:37). So, noetic digital projects can emerge within capitalism, despite the latter’s inherent exploitation. There are several problems with this assumption. Firstly, granting primacy to new ‘industrial models’ for political change may imply a degree of technological determinism, as well as an adoption of neoliberal practices which simply seek to cosmeticise the exploitative status quo. Secondly, were he truly to take the side of all proletarians, Stiegler would recognise that capitalism is embodied through social relations and institutions with a particular dehumanising legacy. Instead, he simply decries the arguably unprecedented loss of otium by the middle-class (Stiegler 2010b:63-64). Considering that in Stiegler’s oeuvre otium represents strictly the spiritually enchanting leisurely activities (and work) marked by bourgeois finesse, he dismisses the possibility of distinct working-class otium – this can be seen most evidently in his refutation of Rancière’s devotion to exploring working-class artistic work in Nights of Labour (Stiegler 2010b:40). This opposition maintains a Platonic, class-based hierarchy between (1) intellectual and manual labour, and (2) aesthetic and libidinal sensibility.
We are reminded by Hoggart that ‘each decade […] we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty’ (cited by Hanley 2014). In Stiegler’s analysis, the individual within hyper-industrial societies is ‘essentially a consumer’ (2014:59) and by implication, ‘proletarian’; even more, the proletarian ‘ceases to be a worker’ (2011c:62). This argument depicts the condition of the proletarian as a politically vacuous concept and a universalised experience – as existence, rather than consistence. Through a monolithic postulation of a classless society, a false equivalence between ‘consumers’ is maintained through a failure to indicate the particularity of the role of social and power relations, ownership, colonialism, division of labour, and the wage system. Employing the term ‘proletarian’ leaves us unable to distinguish between differently situated individuals-as-consumers, and to articulate their relation to structures and practices of oppression, resistance, and dissensus. For instance, those who do not consume or access the internet (due to choice or otherwise), are not given attention in Stiegler’s work, and, it could be argued that they may retain their know-how and savoir-vivre.
Yet, upon a close reading, important distinctions can be perceived between social classes in Stiegler’s writing. On the one hand, the middle-class consumer is equally the (new) victim and the (age-old) agent of change against stupidity. They are on the path of becoming (if we are to follow Rancière’s description of the petty-bourgeois) ‘less than a sophist’ of modern times who ‘can neither learn something correctly by heart nor make his own shoes’ (2003:62). On the other hand, I maintain that Plato’s shoemaker (here the working-class) is still present in Stiegler’s account: the hyper-consumer, who seems to have neither agency nor voice, as their behaviour reduces them to ‘a state of unspeakable misery’ (2014:79).
Stiegler assumes an audience which ‘still’ has time, access and interest in philosophy, and talks of the others as having been incorporated in this new era of non-knowledge (2014:78-80). He bemoans: ‘we who have access to human works that Kant said were the fruits of the spirit, we are becoming a tiny minority’ (Stiegler 2014:79) in a mafia-like capitalism ‘without bourgeoisie’ (2010b:63). This ‘we’ ought to take action against injustices, implicitly, on behalf of those whose living conditions that are ‘detestable, if not unbearable’ (Stiegler 2014:80). It is presumed that the latter’s precarious living conditions ‘degrade to the point where they themselves are physically and morally degraded’ (ibid.). Hence, there is an overt distrust expressed by Stiegler towards the capacity of the working-class and the precarious/unemployed because it follows that the most ‘duped’ are those marked by poverty. Given that Stiegler’s assumed audience is ‘still’ leading a comfortable life, I argue that their very individuation, which is always a ‘combat’ (2011c:47), rests, and has always rested, upon the exploitation (and disindividuation) of the already marginalised. Finally, Stiegler appeals to moralism to nudge his audience into reflecting upon its role within society, instead of challenging and calling it to change its passive stance:
not being yourself affected by this development […] you stand prudently to one side, at the risk of blinding yourself and becoming capable of denying without reserve [vergogne] existence itself. (Stiegler 2014:80)
A feeling of guilt pervades his statement, maintaining barriers between the two classes: ‘we know NOTHING, for the most part’ of the conditions mentioned above (Stiegler 2014:80).
Stiegler presents a depoliticised history of technology in which the role played by the intentionality of exploitation by individual owners of technology over others is hidden. Even if technology is always a pharmakon, that is, irreducible to either positive individuation or negative dependence and control, we still need criteria for (1) deciding which technology is politically better and why (especially considering that resources are finite), and (2) assessing the legacy and the ‘old enclosures’ created by particular technologies (Mies 2014:i108) – otherwise we fall into relativism. Stiegler, however, sees possibilities of ‘therapeutic effects’ even within (initially) destructive technology: ‘it always has effects that may eventually be positive, but that in the first place are negative’ (2011b:48). Surprisingly, he does not mention that ownership and intent may be the contributing factors of the negative effects. The digital is located and created within socio-political contexts, at human and ecological costs which are usually supported, globally, by the Global South and within Western societies, by the working-class. As Mies astutely put it:
The real human costs are paid by the workers who dig out these rare minerals from the earth in Africa or elsewhere […] This dumping of E-garbage is free of cost for the IT companies, but not for the environment and the people who live near these garbage dumps. (2014:i114-i115)
A lack of intentionality is also prevalent in how proletarianisation is articulated in Stiegler’s writing. Although he splendidly enunciates the relationship between the exteriorisation of memory and the accumulation of psychopower by the digital industry, he problematically puts the onus on the reader and the journalist by referring to this process as a ‘loss’ (of consumer-proletarian knowledge). Instead, I argue that theft and colonisation are more accurate signifiers: the stealing of public, to-be-transindividuated knowledge by the industry is a theft and colonisation of a past, present, and future that could otherwise be. The grabbing of attention is to be included here too, as it is a stealing of time, energy, and possibility for flourishing. ‘Theft’ and ‘colonisation’ are not mere metaphors. In contrast to ‘loss’, they allow for a political articulation of the material effects of capitalism. We can say that violence under the form of theft and colonisation is preserved within technology itself through waste; land; work; production; knowledge; algorithmic privileging of particular epistemologies, and others’ erasure. ‘Private’ which comes from the Latin term privare means ‘stealing, robbing, colonizing’ occurring not ‘without violence, without war’ (Mies 2014:i108). The Global North and multinational corporations call their appropriation of common intellectual property through the Patenting Agreement of the World Trade Organisation ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ (Mies 2014:i109). Notwithstanding, there is theft as long as technology and knowledge are not socialised and colonial reparations and epistemological interventions undertaken.
A Stieglerian critic of the socialist persuasion could find inspiration in Morozov’s calls for resistance against the industry’s ‘solutionist’ agenda which claims to save us time and rectify our (made-up) ‘imperfections’ i.e. human memory’s (anamnesis) fallibility (2014a:x), arguing that ‘imperfection’ is the very basis for democracy and change (2014a:116-119). In the context of digital news media, at the micro-level, radical acts could entail making up one’s mind; hesitating; being inconsistent; slowing down; committing errors, and assuming responsibility for them (Morozov 2013) to assert the radicality of becoming. Taking back (public) knowledge would be possible by socialising information services through publicly, collectively and democratically-run institutions outside the market realm ‘so that no company can own them’ (Morozov 2015:63-64). This idea resembles Stiegler’s argument for the socialisation of technics (2011a:39), but it also tackles ownership.
Despite the insights discussed in the first section, Stiegler’s outlook is universalising, thus incomplete. For an emancipatory politics, scholarly work ought to mobilise disbelief and be unapologetic in its antagonism to the violence of systems of oppression. The pharmacology, organology, and proletarianisation theses need to be underlined by an overt stance against and beyond dehumanisation and sterile social relations and structures, to displace colonial and capitalist discourses and distribution of identities, divisions and practices, and to cultivate decolonised collective retentions and protentions. The news media is one site through which memory and individuation can be (re)invented. Universal individuation cannot happen without universal liberation from colonialism and capitalism.


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