Fragments of Reality, Fragments of Solidarity.
In this essay, I’d like to respond Michelle Maiese’s thought-provoking recent critical piece on APP, “Smithereens: Reflections in a Black Mirror.”
Maiese presents the following (reconstructed) argument:
(1) Socialism—whether democratic socialism or social anarchism (aka anarcho-socialism, libertarian socialism, etc.)—is fundamentally concerned with respect for universal human dignity; with human freedom of thought, expression, choice, and action; with individual and collective creativity and flourishing; and with the universal satisfaction of true human needs.
(2) Internet-based social media may appear to be highly promising and legitimate vehicles for the realization of socialist aims.
(3) But in fact, social media are an essential part of the “military-industrial-university-digital complex” that not only produces widespread mind-control and mental slavery, but has also enabled a worldwide mental health crisis of social media addiction.
(4) Therefore, anyone who recognizes the value of the fundamental concerns of socialism should:
(4.1) engage in a serious critical analysis of social media,
(4.2) “log the fuck off” on a regular basis, or even detach from social media altogether, in order to resist their largely malign influence, and also
(4.3) wholeheartedly individually and collectively commit to subverting and dismantling the entire system of social media.
Let us for the moment assume that we are in broad agreement on premise (1). The conclusion presents me with a conundrum: in order to respond in sufficient detail, I almost have to engage in a kind of “serious, critical analysis of social media.” So, either the argument is very good in itself, or else the very activity of commenting on it already confirms the conclusion—in which case it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy…!
But, now that I have had my fun, let’s turn to some of the more serious points I would like to make.
The reservations I have with the argument as reconstructed above, reside in the second and third premise. The second premise is:
Internet-based social media may appear to be highly promising and legitimate vehicles for the realization of socialist aims.
At first sight, there is nothing wrong with this premise. Indeed, one can argue that social media are useful and highly promising tools. But for what? Certainly not for the realization of socialist aims. This is a specific political goal. And the realization of any form of socialism rests on the recognition of “universal human dignity; with human freedom of thought, expression, choice, and action” as per premise (1).
The reality is that we do not need social media to realize socialism. The better part of the history of socialism was fought without contemporary social media. Granted, media like newspapers and pamphlets were heavily used, as well as radio and TV broadcasts. But for the better part of a century, social media did not play a role in socialism. The social dimension of collective, committed action did take centre stage via public debates in public spaces as open-air, freely accessible events.
I know that people have been extolling the virtues of, for instance, Facebook in rallying protests or social movements. And one could also point to the current regimes in Turkey, Iran, or China that have at times restricted Internet access because the feared a repetition of the Arab Spring demonstrations. Is therefore social media a useful political tool for rallying people to a given cause? Yes!, and that is exactly the problem. One can use Facebook to organize socialist or fascist rallies; create echo chambers for SJWs and Neo-Nazis alike; organize marches in solidarity with asylum seekers or against them. The premise that organizational tools and platforms like contemporary social media are useful for realizing just one set of political goals is a kind of half-truth.
One can organize all kinds of political and social events with the help of social media. That is their very problem and promise. Instead of favouring one set of political aims, social media function like an amplifier of all political thoughts. Often, they force users to condense these thoughts in the extreme (in the case of Twitter or FB) or reduce them to images (in the case of Instagram).
The result is a cacophony of voices, images, half-formed opinions, and textual fragments. It is evidently not a Rawlsian “marketplace of ideas” where we argue reasonably and rationally about political measures and/or preferences.
The idea that social media can start a grassroots movement has always been a favourite thought of the political Left—“look, the masses are protesting in a kind of direct-democratic participation!” In reality, what has happened is that real, prolonged and thoughtful commitment to whatever political cause has become easy to excite. With minimum efforts, one can stage a rally. All too often (due to poor living standards) people will happily join in when any type of change is promised or even remotely possible. This is not direct democracy. Instead, it is an easy-to-excite group thinking that can be activated for a variety of causes.
Recent protests such as the Occupy movement, SJW movements, the Arab Spring or more recently, the Yellow Vests demonstrate this:
“What do you want?”
“But what kind of changes?”
“… —Anything will do!”
Again, all too often, the political agenda of such protests is unclear and extremely broad. We want and end to racism, homophobia, misogyny, poverty, poor working conditions, immigration, etc., preferably now. Yes: we all want something to change. But staging protests via social media excites the wrong kind of engagement. It encourages superficiality over prolonged commitment; the heat of the moment over reflection; shouting over arguing; and the demand for gratification now! over the complexities of realizing a sustainable political change. The action inspired by social media is the total sum of fragmented, individual viewpoints that lack a real collective structure. Not only reality is fragmented, but so is the kind of solidarity inspired by social media.
Let’s specifically consider, now, the word “legitimate” in premise (2). Were social media ever legitimate tools for realizing socialist aims? I do not think so, for two reasons. First, social media did not create a cosmopolitan space despite their overblown promises in that direction. Second, social media were always commodities through-and-through in the first place, and only in the second-place were they ever organizational tools.
With regard to the first reason, while social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn advertise with catch-all terms like “visibility,” “connections,” and “shared understanding,” they promise far more than they can deliver. Human understanding did not flourish because of social media. Nor has hatred diminished since their widespread adoption by people across different cultures. The social dimension of collective action that we can find in early socialism is by and large missing on social media.
For a real, cosmopolitan, and globally (or regionally) shared understanding along socialist or proto-socialist lines, the condensed utterances on Twitter, small messages on Facebook, or pictures on Instagram are simply not sufficient.
Why not? In short, I think this is because to engage in a kind of prolonged solidarity that goes beyond clicking “LIKE,” one needs a deeper and more committed understanding of someone else’s predicament. To develop this understanding is fully within the capacities of human beings, but it takes time, effort and concentration. And this is exactly what contemporary social media discourage: namely, spending any prolonged amount of time on deeply understanding a single topic. During all the hours that we spend on social media, there is an endless supply of new stories, distractions, images and causes to get emotional about. This “swipe-and-scroll” environment is hardly conducive to developing a serious, well thought-out position on social, economic and/or political matters.
Certainly, we can find numerous echo chambers devoted to a single topic on social media. For every conceivable cause, one can find a specialized group of overtly committed and fanatical zealots. Nevertheless, these groups are precisely not characterized by their rationality or deep understanding. If anything, they are driven by the easy-to-excite group thinking, obsessive fears, and inside/outside frames of thought.
With regard to the second reason, one should not forget that contemporary social media are themselves products. They are maintained and refined by corporations for whom users are products. All our clicks, likes, preferences and choices are meticulously logged, analysed, dissected, and forcefully yet manipulatively directed back at us in the form of “customized advertisements.” This is their business model.
If Marx could see the operation of contemporary social media, he would be awestruck by its seamless efficiency, its almost-too-obvious integration with everyday life, and its ceaseless, global, 24/7 production cycle.
Because—and this is something Marx would have instantly recognized—the virtual environment of social media is both the means of production and the production process itself. As Benjamin Fong has emphasized, it is the expression of the Vampire Castle and the Castle itself.[i] Without the plethora of expressions and its global, all-encompassing infrastructure, the environment of social media does not exist.
In the best Marxist tradition, the relations that are forged between the labourer and his means of subsistence are controlled by those who hold the means of production and therefore determine the mode of production. Bad news for the users!, because social media heavily control what we see, when we see it, how we see it and how many times we see it. And to top this all off, social media trigger an endless stream of dopamine to make the whole production process seem pleasant to us. At least, in Marx’s time, the capitalists who owned the factories didn’t invent that.
Here, my reservations with regard to the third premise come in: to be honest, I think that it is not pessimistic enough. It is not that pessimism is my goal here: my basic worry is that we are in a more perilous predicament than we think we are.
The third premise says: [s]ocial media are an essential part of the “military-industrial-university-digital complex” that not only produces widespread mind-control and mental slavery, but has also enabled a worldwide mental health crisis of social media addiction.
As to the part about a worldwide metal health crisis, there is now enough empirical evidence to vindicate this point. So, I completely agree. But the part about mind-control and mental slavery needs an addition, in my opinion.
If we look at the idea of mental slavery, it is easy to imagine someone who “tells you what to think.” Its clearest example in literature is probably Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth,” which tells citizens what they must believe. A contemporary real-world example would be Turkish or Russian propaganda about the EU, or the EU’s propaganda about Russia. We are told half-truths, stories with obvious gaps, or heavily one-sided narratives, all in order to adjust our political viewpoints.
At least, in this case, the game is clear: mental slavery consists in buying the story. Mass-media have perfected this tactic and has turned the endless repetition of biased information into a potent and lethal political tool (remember the whole “crooked Hilary” affair?).
The same could be said of mind-control. Literally controlling one’s mind is, as yet, possible only in a rudimentary way. But there are ways to influence indirectly what one is most likely to think. The mass-media tactic is just one way of “indirect mind-control.”
The production of cultural narratives and a hostile Other is another way.
And so is the creation of a censored culture, providing platforms for influencers and ostracizing dissidents.
All these measures provide clear-cut moves in a very old game that we call politics.
And if you read up on your classics, you see that most of the tricks were also known to the Romans, not to mention to Machiavelli, although contemporary mass-media have enabled politicians, corporations and individuals to amplify their messages to a degree that Roman emperors and 17th century tyrants only could dream of.
We do not have a familiar concept, or term, however, to describe situations in which we physically or mentally enslave ourselves, and are not self-consciously aware of it, although William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles,” Foucault’s “governmentality,” and Sunstein’s “nudges” come close. Imagine it as a prison that is willingly and gladly built by the prisoners themselves. They do not know that they are building their own prison, and even if they know, they happily ignore the warning and continue.
This tragic picture relates directly back to Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” In it, Kant claims that it is immoral to give oneself over to dictatorship, because subsequent generations may not be able to reverse this decision. The amount of freedom needed for such a free (if unwise) choice is not guaranteed under a dictator. Any voluntary diminishing of choice robs future generations of their freedom. If we apply this reasoning to the voluntary slavery that social media induce on a personal (and collective) level, one cannot but face the grim facts: one must resist in order not to inflict a creeping self-mutilation at the hands of technology.
Being controlled in this way is a form of “controlled being.” And I mean this quite literally. It is not merely that we cannot do this or that, cannot say this or that, or are not allowed to go here or there. No, our very mode of being-in-the-world is actively controlled, curtailed, observed, monitored, stunted, deformed, and when deemed necessary by those in power, corrected.
This is an immersive kind of servitude that is genuinely new, especially since the mechanisms responsible for the control (e.g., dopamine production to facilitate addiction, and/or psychological tricks to trigger personal guilt trips or feelings of missing out) have become our favourite playthings that we won’t give up.[ii] It fundamentally alters the way in which we see and experience our everyday lives.
Contemporary social media fragmentize our reality, and thereby they fragmentize our commitments, and our capabilities for solidarity; and they slowly but surely obliterate the realization that we can organize ourselves without the subtle interference of social media tech giants. Fong alludes to this feature of social media as the “atomizing of individuals” and he is right.[iii] Each of us has a tailored universe, furnished to one’s—carefully manipulated—preferences, but we start to lose the collective dimension necessary for lasting, sustainable and reasonable political change.
Fong’s point can also be taken to its extreme. Not only are individuals atomized through social media. Individuality itself is atomized, fragmented into pieces of reality. We cannot be of one mind any longer, because our minds are torn apart by means of an extreme fragmentation of our perception of reality. The postmodern suspicion of “grand narratives” is not a theoretical choice any more: it is the inevitable outcome of a process of existential fragmentation and loss of coherence. In a world controlled by touchscreens and buttons, a grand narrative cannot but appear as an absurdity. What melts into air through social media is our grasp on reality itself, unless we manage to grasp it again.
In this sense, with these additional remarks, the argument’s conclusion seems correct to me: an analysis of social media from the joint viewpoints of ideology, existentialism, political control, institutional influence and human well-being is long overdue.
And, yes, in order to write such a critique, or, even better yet, in order to enact such a critique in one’s own life, one needs to “log the fuck off.” So, why are you still reading this blog? Take up your paper and pen, or even better yet, criticize and scrutinize, and in any case get to work, comrade! You have nothing to lose but your digital chains!
[i] B.Y. Fong, “Log Off,” Jacobin (29 November 2018), available online at URL = <https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/log-off-facebook-twitter-social-media-addiction>.
[ii] See <https://www.ad.nl/ad-werkt/sociale-media-websites-en-telefoons-worden-net-zo-verslavend-gemaakt-als-gokkasten~a03e4a60/>. Translation: “social media websites and mobile telephones are being designed to be just as addictive as gambling.” Accessed 12 August 2019.
[iii] See note [i] above.