Americans, rich or poor, now live in a culture entirely perceived through simulacra-media images and illusions. We live inside a self-referential media hologram of a nation that has not existed for quite some time now. Our national reality is held together by images, the originals of which have been lost or never existed. The well-off with their upscale consumer aesthetic, live inside gated Disneyesque communities with gleaming uninhabited front porches representing some bucolic notion of the Great American home and family. The working class, true to its sports culture aesthetic, is a spectator to politics … politics which are so entirely imagistic as to be holograms of a process that has not existed for decades in America, if ever. Social realism is a television commercial for America, a simulacrum republic of eagles, church spires… and ‘freedom of choice’ between holograms. America’s citizens have been reduced to balkanized consumer units by the corporate state’s culture producing machinery. We are all transfixed on and within the hologram and cannot see one another in the living breathing flesh.
— Joe Bageant, from a 2005 interview with my late friend, Richard Oxman
We need to understand that technology is not simply a relation between humans and their natural environment, but more fundamentally a way of organizing global human society.
— Alf Hornborg, “Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism”, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 31, no. 4
Note to readers: This is an impromptu, long overdue, unsolicited, and frankly incomplete second attempt at describing aspects of digital media and “extremely online” culture and ideology. You can read my first essay “Questioning the Extremely Online” by clicking the link. There are conservative, liberal, and leftist variants of the extremely online crowd; what unites them are social media as well as internet and screen addictions, a lack of class analysis, and technological fetishism.
The Psychology of the Terminally Online
It is not enough to change the world. That is all we have ever done. That happens even without us. We also have to interpret this change. And precisely in order to change it. So that the world will not go on changing without us. And so that it is not changed in the end into a world without us.
– Günther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man, Volume II
There are a few very inconvenient truths about the internet, digital media, and technological “progress” that Western societies have largely failed to account for. They are as follows: the technology and mediums are addictive, alienating, manipulative, exploitative, and violate privacy. Also, the glut of information that the internet and online media stores no longer seems to be able to advance any coherent cultural education or socio-economic framework for change that corresponds to what is necessary to avoid the devastating effects of climate change and various forms of collapse that are on the horizon.
One of the obvious and pernicious aspects of social media is its addictive and manipulative nature. As we have known for awhile now, social media amplifies negatives news and posts that anger and/or irritate us through algorithms designed to capture and hold our attention. As Silicon Valley guru Jaron Lanier explains in a British TV interview, our social media feeds are designed using behavioral modification techniques to serve an attention economy; where data is sold off to third parties to hook the user on products and/or digital services. This represents a new era for humankind, based on full-scale data accumulation and manipulation of our digital selves, one that Shoshana Zuboff details in her work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. As Lanier and Zuboff aptly point out, the addictive and manipulative elements inherent to social media leads to degradation of the self and society.
The nature of time spent on computers and smartphones necessarily involves the lack of use of one’s material body. By atrophying our senses, we no longer question what it “feels like” to be online, allowing the alienating “manipulation engine”, as Lanier puts it, that is social media and web advertising to distort one’s neurobiology: the corporeal biochemical and physiological makeup of each person, and part of what makes an individual unique. Then comes addiction: as Lanier points out in the same interview, the addict is hooked to both the positive and negative aspects of the addiction: in this case the social media addict experiences positive emotions from validation, exposure and pseudo-solidarity and in the best cases deep connections, but also a perverse enjoyment from diving into the swamp of “rancor and abuse” that posting inevitably stirs up. Furthermore, fighting (in this case posting) for a cause becomes an end-in-itself and rationalized as worthy of the time spent: one cannot just give up, as the “sunk costs” of obtaining an outlet, platforms and followers self-justifies the “need” to always be broadcasting one’s unique or even brilliant ideas as well as inane and banal trivia and gossip.
One main and obvious critique regarding digitally-based sociopolitical manipulation is that people increasingly confuse, if only on subconscious levels, digitally-based “virtual” and “cyber” interaction, friendship, and activism with in-person connections and organizing. Certainly, a great many people fall into this category, as the substitution of virtual life for face-to-face offers a palliative to the endemic depression, anxiety, and host of psychosocial issues caused by the reactionary nature of capitalism and the hollowing out of communal life and civil society. Social media has become the new center of spectacle for post-modern society. As Guy Debord wrote in 1967, “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
Capitalism has managed to thrive in our screen-driven world, even with the forces of production being shifted to the developing world, by profiteering off humanities’ sharing/cooperative communal ties: through harvesting personal data, then using targeted advertising to get users to buy and thus hook them on the platform and its products, and also selling one’s digital profile to third parties. Not only that, but mainstream capitalist ideology has managed to insinuate itself into every corner of the internet, and drive public narratives of events, through a process of regimenting the public on every issue, instantaneously, all the time.
Still, not many are going to readily admit that they believe most mainstream news sources verbatim, or even that advertising is particularly useful or accurate online. In terms of activism, most people still understand that signing online petitions has very little impact compared to in the street protest movements. Many people can see through the “bad faith” inherent to social media. Even taking into account the addictive nature of the medium and the resulting physiological manipulation that social media use causes, on both the conscious and subconscious levels, this still does not explain the immense forces behind internet and social media addiction and its hegemonic position within the cultural landscape.
What is taking place is quite broader in scope than a “substitution” of communal face-to-face activism and social connection with virtual, internet-based networks. While quite a lot of people fall into the first category above, as somehow ignorant and oblivious to the alienating and exclusionary nature of social media, there is another large group that needs analysis: the ruling class “winners” of social media, those with large platforms and significant followings, as well as those among the “extremely online” who engage in non-stop socio-economic and political commentary.
The Disintegration of the Digital Commons
On the floors of Tokyo
down in London town’s a go go,
with the record selection,
And the mirror’s reflection,
I’m dancin’ with myself
— Billy Idol, “Dancing with Myself”
This second group — one that explicitly acknowledges the inequalities and injustices baked into digital media — may indeed have more education and wealth, and some of whom even readily understand what has been lost; yet still view the new world of social media and digital engagement as the only game in town, and therefore the only way to gain new adherents/followers, or in the case of the extremely online left and right, political power.
Sadly, many on the left appear to be resigned to LARPing: playing an online game where they do not make the rules, do not have any leverage, power, or any money for that matter, and cannot possibly win. There is not any significant need for liberal/left journalists providing day-to-day “hot take” commentary, using platforms and influencer methods to gain followers and viewership, if the goal in mind is revolutionary change and/or attaining political power. If the goal in mind is likes, shares, streams of revenue, and even new forms of social capital, then the actions of these users makes more sense. What is needed is organizing skills and the ability to bridge gaps between classes and cultures in order to activate a working class base, and that is sorely lacking.
The terminally online in this second category can perceive that notions like the community, a social contract, and democratic consensus based on a shared culture of trust and reciprocity have been demolished in the Western world. They mostly fall into liberal-left/progressive camps but there are certainly conservative and even isolationist/anti-war libertarian variants. The common thread is that even with the implicit acknowledgment that “local community” and even face-to-face interaction is waning (especially in light of the technocratic and authoritarian reaction to the pandemic) the urge remains to put internet technology to work for the good of their own brands and content promotion.
So a new digital hierarchy of opinion and commentary is becoming entrenched, and has been for over a decade now, controlled by the ruling class and its mainstream media mouthpieces with the ability to censor and shadow-ban dissenting voices. The significant followings of online political commentators have created its own monopoly on user engagement and viewership — whether through a Google search, Youtube stream, or social media account, the masses are herded to the opinions of the same tiny group of influencers by the invisible algorithm. It was always easy to discredit a cable news commentator as biased and untrustworthy, but now the personalized feeds of social media give a new sheen of legitimacy and respectability — even if digital commentators with large viewerships are simply parroting mainstream lies and distortions (which they mostly do).
A related issue that has come to the fore is that the virtual nature of online “work” and digital influencing models simply mimic the wider mainstream capitalist model of capturing attention; through clicks, “likes”, advertising, and hawking merchandise. This certainly doesn’t take away from the valuable educational and activist networks that are coerced into adopting these models, but simply to point out that the most facile, vapid, compromised, lowest-common-denominator political analysis and trends will float to the surface, and become the most popular, in this environment. It’s no surprise, then, that the serious alternative media on the left has been taking a beating from Google’s adjustment of search algorithms, social media censorship, “shadow-banning” and “throttling” on platforms, as well as being ignored as usual by the mainstream.
Of course, just taking a wider lens of how most of the non plugged-in world and the poor (in the West and worldwide) views the often bitter, internecine factionalism and sometimes irrelevant controversies within social media would be helpful. When the usual posturing, identity politic culture wars, and cos-playing in online turf squabbles are put ahead of the material needs of the people, open-minded individuals who could be potential allies and comrades check out of the milieu and view socialism as an arcane subculture. Within the maelstrom of fighting for more reach, subscribers, and content promotion, nothing becomes more relatable in a narcissistic culture than endlessly talking about oneself.
This debased charade of public discourse has been allowed to fester, with basically no resistance, precisely because it suits late-stage capitalism — not only is the profit motive of targeted advertisement too lucrative, but the mechanisms of social control and surveillance too tantalizing, as it enters an era of semi-controlled collapse and corporate consolidation of the entire planet. There are alternate “post-truth” realities (Q-Anon, Russiagate), bubbles of echo-chamber subcultures preaching to the choir, the labeling of any ideas contrary to mainstream media as conspiracy theory (a term invented by the CIA to discredit anyone questioning the official story of the JFK assassination), ego-trippers taking pot-shots and “dunking” on those less knowledgeable, and sections of an overzealous cancel culture which all contribute to dividing, disempowering, and disincentivizing a populace from understanding how the dominant mode of production on the planet, capitalism, is holding the world hostage for the sake of short-term monetary profit.
The privileges of the extremely online (coming from mainly middle class backgrounds) create insular echo-chambers which keeps them sheltered from the realities of daily labor; it also alienates working class people who might otherwise be attracted to anti-capitalist thinking. The lack of blue-collar life experience and organizing skills from the self-proclaimed “leaders” in online discourse face problems relating to the cultural and aesthetic styles of the working classes, in terms of social capital, personal affect, to how theories and obscure references are flaunted, as well as artistic taste.
Connected with this notion are a perceived lack of authenticity and dedication; in this context, it is understandable how it is hard to take successful bloggers, podcasters, journalists, and even academics seriously because many do come from more privileged backgrounds, with all of the blind spots of class that this usually entails. This would not be as much of problem if the nexus of the extremely online was not nearly always targeting content towards their own white-collar milieu and focusing on fringe aesthetic pretensions and/or nice forms of cultural capital: instead, if the animus was focused against the ruling classes consistently, the snarky and cringe-worthy cultural signaling, non-stop commentary careerism, and thin gruel of cosmopolitan affects could be dropped.
Since much of the terminally/extremely online is middle class, they invariably come off as out-of-touch at best; dilettante, effete, or “soft” to put it politely: some re-create bubbles of professional class affluence and gate-keeping hierarchy online; others mimic the non-profit bureaucracy and the pseudo-organizing principles of white-collar NGOs; and more ape serious civic groups, community organizations, subversive ideology, serious strategies of resistance and protest, all the while staying within the confines of their self-imposed defanged and declawed liberal “progressivism”.
The Memeification of Society
The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world.
— Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
It would be remiss if we did not mention one of the dominant forms of expression on social media: the meme. The function of the meme: a pictogram, is telling insofar as it reminds us that people not only do not want to read anymore, but also often don’t have time to invest in watching a short video, essay or novel, or even examine worthy works of art, either. Memes have become a form of postmodern hieroglyphs for screen-addicted Westerners. The meme acts as a floating signifier par excellence; when there is very little common ground or shared reality inherent in the online world, users (netizens is one cute name scholars like to use) pass along memes and interpret them to fit into prefabricated narratives and beliefs.
Not only that, certain extremely online media “poison the well” of nuanced online discourse by using the same generic tropes and stereotypical styles borrowed from memes and mass culture, and endlessly regurgitating one-dimensional thinking. Posters then inevitably adopt the same styles of humor from memes, and appear in the form of pre-packaged personalities: there’s the preening virtue signaler; the petit bourgeois influencers hawking a channel, brand, or merchandise; the bipartisan shrieking about the perils of socialism; the self-deprecating very earnest posters with endless commentary; the low-key spiritualist humble-bragger; the perpetual oversharer; the haranguing trolls and snarky “edgelords” who get off on other’s misery; the cantankerous self-appointed ideology police who admonish everyone who deviates from their purity politics; and many other prefabricated templates of virtual personality types to follow and waste one’s time “engaging” with.
“Posting wars” have taken the mantle from the culture wars that began heating up in the early 2000s: everyone can engage in their own lame version of liberal, conservative, or radical punditry; everyone can be their own asinine Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Bob Avakian — whatever skin one wants to try on for the day; parroting the same tired tropes, shuffling through the never-ending news cycle, applying embarrassingly childish levels of critique, and usually stoking nationalistic fervor on all sides. Through algorithms that amplify the most simplistic, most milquetoast, most authoritarian, and frankly the most enraging and ignorant voices, social media performs a key element of social engineering and low-level psychological warfare: it keeps the population in perpetual angst, disorientation, and even fear; just off-kilter enough to be swayed by authoritarian demagogues, and just desperate and delusional enough to be assuaged by the liberal “resistance” that “democracy” will be restored soon.
This is just more Hollywood: we can find the same types of styles of media personalities, the same shows and movies promoting US foreign policy, the same jokes and narratives online as in mass consumer culture. Even if the “content” is likeable, or wholesome, or whatever, we often find the same tedious set-ups, the same formulaic variations to get to the punchline, the exact same references online that one might see in a lame superhero movie.
Again, there certainly is worthwhile work and even political education being done within online culture, but some of the problems with posting are the inexorable rise of the hyperreal blurring of truth and illusion, the layers of shellacking with ironic distance to make things “funny” or acceptable to an audience. Much like the sadistic overseer at one’s job who confuses “being the boss” with having a personality, the new cadres of the extremely online misunderstand that simply having an online presence, significant following in terms of numbers, or a media platform does not confer experience, brilliance, uniqueness, the ability to lead or be a role model about, well, anything. Much like politicians and modern celebrities (who are increasingly becoming the same thing), the extremely online are simply popular for being popular.
Through the Cyborg Looking Glass
It’s not an experience if they can’t bring someone along
They hang on emotions they bottle inside
They peck at the ground
And strut out of stride
— Phish, “Birds of a Feather”
Another issue that establishment commentators cannot seem to wrap their heads around is the liberal-dominated kitsch and camp social media behavior, attitudes, and posts that appeal to specific subcultures and make things go “viral” within small communities, but face the same echo-chamber issue when confronted with going beyond the “target audience”. By pandering towards in-groups, many internet-savvy influencers (even socialist and radical-minded ones) unconsciously adopt the same tactics as PR and marketing firms relying on focus groups to target audiences. Developing a following now consists of who can shout the loudest, report the fastest, and spurt out the most ridiculous and sensationalist click-bait. In other words, socio-economic control no longer simply functions with capitalist monopolization of the means of production — as many astute observers have pointed out, non-waged labor, leisure time, biopower, and cultural reproduction now are absorbed into the nascent “new world order” of global capitalism; which is in turn reshaping human consciousness in totally unforeseen ways.
Apparently variations of the above happens among leftists quite often on social media: the retweet/sharing of another’s post followed/captioned by a snappy or poignant comment to provide context, an added emphasis, an angry denunciation and disavowal of the concept, or a gentle nudge to offer clarity. Certainly this is necessary in some cases, but the idea of becoming each other’s constant 24/7 news aggregators, soundboards, and amplifiers…in order to accomplish what exactly? Is there an unconscious desire to carry on with this quasi-forced show, which is obviously coercive due to social pressures, in order to meet the perceived need to regularly signal one’s beliefs and develop monetization models?
Another way of framing the question is to what extent are the flurry of posts about daily “news” and critiques of current events required, and to what extent do individuals yearn for and crave the never-ending spectacle of discourse to feed egos, get a dopamine rush, and/or gain popularity? To what extent is the drive to secure social capital an excuse to develop a liberal-left version of having “credentials”, and to what extent are those involved softening the edges of critiques, compromising values, and slowly becoming assimilated into a virtual world where technological power is worshipped and fetishized? Is there an engaged and dedicated minority of revolutionaries ready, willing, and able to storm the barricades physically, or do our online connections consist of a simulacra of ally-ship, and represent the dying embers of a burnt-out husk of a public sphere masquerading as serious discourse?
Putting aside the ignorance and vitriol all over the web for a minute, and there’s plenty of that, what comes to the fore is the quite boring and tedious background to online discourse. Not only is it incredibly lonely, nearly everyone is in some important sense going through the motions, performing in service of whatever fad or niche subculture, instantly sucked into commentary on any media narrative and scratching the itch; in this environment, political commentary in the West resembles sports news, or movie reviews, or fashion advertising; a running conversation on trendy, stupefying, salacious current events where no serious response to the power structure or the money system is offered. Not only are we faced with online/digital ennui, but internet commentary has become downright predictable- running the gamut from “influencers” who are demagogic authoritarians, to establishment types pandering to centrist neoliberal notions of “bipartisanship”, to libertarian pseudo-spiritual grifters, to tech moguls and celebrities incessantly reminding us “we’re all in this together”. Pretty soon we will have algorithms and AI writing TV and movie dialogue as well as political news, if it’s not already happening, in order to gauge and profiteer off of what machine learning tells us is “fun” and “likeable” to the public.
The common thread is that high technology will somehow save us and make the world a more interesting and enjoyable place, which is a technophilic worldview: only the vast arrays of screens, robots, AI, internet of things, smart-grids, ever-watching and listening surveillance, and multinational corporations can solve the problems they themselves have created. No one stops to think — and this is another part of the equation, the lack of free time in the always-online world — maybe, just maybe, modern technology is diverting us from coming together, forming community-level mutual aid groups, organizing the working class, protecting the environment, and many other deadly serious issues.
As for the reasons why we keep diving head-first into the toxic stew of social media, here’s a quote from one Jay Hathaway at the Daily Dot to ponder over:
Why do we continue to lap at this useless, mean trickle of garbage juice? Even worse, why do we seek out more of it? Is it because we hate ourselves? Quite possibly, yes. Is it because we’re lonely, and we’re hooked on this simulacrum of human connection even as it makes us less relatable to the real people around us? There’s definitely some of that… At some point, you have to admit that you’re Extremely Online because you want to be. Or because you once wanted to be, and now it’s part of your identity. Who would you be if you weren’t Extremely Online?
We’re all liable to badger on about whatever pet issue we stand up for, and sometimes rightfully so; but the majority don’t really want to take action or even think through the implications of what would be needed to change our cultural momentum or our personal inertias. This is because, through the money system and the vagaries of an extreme social hierarchy, mainstream liberals and conservatives have become so beaten down that they adopt fatalistic and nihilistic mentality. Part of the reason they despise each other so much is that they recognize so much of themselves in each other. On varying levels of cognition they despise themselves. Being told their entire lives that more money and technology will bring more happiness and progress, and yet not being able to partake in any tangible culturally enriching activities or soul-expanding journeys, many become schizoid.
Social media and the denizens of the extremely online compound this problem. The loudest, meanest, crudest of the bunch are amplified in our social media feeds by algorithms designed to capture our attention, most obviously for ad revenue. Of course this is how the game got started in Silicon Valley, so we are ostensibly told that this whole racket is all about the money, no other nefarious “agendas”. Unfortunately the extremely online liberal and soft-left has swallowed this hook, line, and sinker that the only motive driving these companies is profit.
Yet, Facebook and Google are known to have taken start-up money from In-Q-Tel, a CIA created venture capital firm, and intelligence agencies are known to use backdoors through every browser, operating system, social media app, etc. Further, just thinking through what an “attention economy” and Shoshana Zuboff’s notion of “surveillance capitalism” really entails brings up rather unpleasant truths. One of which is that the national security state is monitoring the web at large not to play “defense” but to actively plant and stir up counterrevolutionary ideology not only in the mainstream but in the furthest recesses of online discourse. In short, there are now intelligence operators whose job is to act as an online COINTELPRO.
Beyond that, the full-scale push for more time spent in online communities as well as the wide availability of broadband internet connected to nascent “digital identity” technologies in the developing world will only allow for the wider use of cyber-based, psychological warfare, propaganda, and counterinsurgency techniques. Even pushing further, establishment narratives and media stories can be amplified through algorithms that favor “trusted sources”. The fact is that the public is not aware of the full capabilities of the national security state, and that social media can operate to create the same sorts of conditions that the CIA program “Operation Mockingbird” used to bribe journalists and editors into printing mainstream-favored news over dissident opinions.
We’ve already seen Facebook manipulate individuals media feeds as a social experiment to see if it would provoke more positive and negative emotions, and it worked as they readily admit. If, in previous generations mass propaganda worked through the model of “manufacturing consent”, today we are faced with perhaps an even more intractable situation: the normalization of consent and the amnestic erasure of the social, erosion of community, and destruction of a slower type of deliberative discourse, and of history. The regiments of mainstream liberalism and co-opted progressives are stirred into action to promote the interests of the status quo. Take two glaring recent examples from the US and the UK: Bernie Sanders’ supposed misogyny and Jeremy Corbyn’s so-called anti-Semitism.
Driven by an absurd, relentless media narrative, both messages were amplified and both candidates tarred and feathered in public because of an inane social media discourse. 2016 may have been the year that Twitter became relevant for national politics because of Trump; four years later, things have gotten even more absurd. To cite just one example in the 2020 election race, Elizabeth Warren became incensed about Bernie Sanders’ supporters being mean to her online- this become somehow debate-worthy and relevant enough to provoke national discussion. So not only has mass media become fixated on reactions to bad jokes or distasteful references on Twitter, but it now parrots the same maudlin sentimentality and priggishness as the denizens of the extremely online world.
Similarly, across the pond Corbyn was smeared over little more than insinuations and hyperbole; again amplified by ridiculous anti-socialist social media influencers, liberal and conservative alike. Then there was the mother of all the liberal delusions and overreactions the past four years: Russiagate. While the mainstream media played the dominant role, social media trolls, bots, and liberal officialdom continued to hammer away at collusion, becoming the mirror image of the nascent conservative post-truth fake news era. Narratives are now almost entirely driven by the profit-motive, money values and celebrity click-bait begin to exclusively dominate discourse, gossip becomes the main focus in a doomed capitalist economy where its leaders can no longer alter its course.
The fact is that this intentional manipulation of human nature serves the ultra-rich classes through more than their bank accounts. It’s not just about advertising money and profit, and not just about surveillance, or a new form of attention economy. It’s all of that and much more, much darker and dystopian. Social media, the web, and streaming services are the new fuels that run the alienation and atomization engine of our culture. They have become the dominant form of online expression, and through ads, codes, and algorithms have found their way into our collective unconscious. Not only do these pervasive media elements divide those with obvious ideological differences; the intricacies of the algorithms stir up unconscious impulses and polarize those with largely overlapping interests.
Of course we all know this phenomenon well (the narcissism of small differences) and it predates the internet age, but what is novel here is not its reappearance on a bigger “stage” but its targeted, precise, insidious deployment into our social newsfeeds. Individuals are made to feel the need to keep up with internet flame wars, memes, and obscure references or else the feeling of being “left out” and/or uninformed begins to creep up out the recesses of one’s consciousness. Social isolation and stigmatization for not being able to “keep up with the facts” (Fear of Missing Out-FOMO) and events in our modern world is a very real thing, just as ruthless on social media as the various hierarchies in the corporate world, civic life, and academia, just to name a few instances.
Further, the lack of being able to have one’s opinion heard or validated online in the maelstrom of discontent it has sown often gives young people, especially those with low self-esteem, the idea that their thoughts and opinions don’t matter and are somehow unworthy of attention. This is compounded for those that, due to propaganda uncritically filtered from others or simply naiveté, believe that the best art, theory, and culture rise virtuously to the top in the great “democratic” marketplace of ideas that the internet and social media has come to represent.
Unfortunately the trend of the extremely online is to uphold the hegemony of the insulated, college-educated, the mostly liberal but also conservative petit bourgeoisie. Working class leftists and anti-capitalists, and even the very minor celebrities in the international left, will continue to be marginalized, censored, and their work ignored because they do not bear the stamps of officialdom: the Twitter blue check-mark or “verified” Google news.
All of these trends and addictive technologies converge into a dystopic framework: one that will attempt to enslave humanity in some form of digital prison; one where real-time sensors, AI driven and smart-grid internet hyperconnectivity will be able to drive human behavior on an unprecedented scale. Our “docile bodies” are being reprogrammed and conditioned to accept this, one ad, TV show, one scroll through the feed, one dopamine hit at a time. In order to accomplish this nightmare, the ruling elites need to “data-fy” us by hooking us up — by merging man and machine. Hence, this is why wearable technologies have been marketed so hard: it is not enough for a smartphone or external biosensors to do the job of extracting surplus value from our bodies. The falling rate of profit will eventually force the “data is the new oil” tech oligarchs to police our thoughts, modulate our pleasures and pains, and keep up the façade of a world of obedient workers, even if it means resorting to dystopian totalitarian tactics such as implants, virtual reality gaming systems, cheap or even free housing for those who live where they work, and a host of unforeseen emerging concepts as global civilization continues down the glide path towards oblivion.
Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s BASIC-MS operating system, which they sold to IBM and ended up dominating the global market for many years, was written in BASIC computer language. This language was developed by professors at Dartmouth in 1964 with funding from the National Science Foundation…The PARC research facility, from which Steve Jobs obtained the basics of the graphic user interface that became the Mac and later all computer interfaces, had several former ARPA researchers working on these display concepts…Facebook’s deferential corporate biographer David Kirkpatrick admits, ‘Something like Facebook was envisioned by engineers who laid the groundwork for the internet. In a 1968 essay by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor, ‘The Computer as Communication Device,’ the two essentially envisioned Facebook’s basic social network. They worked for ARPA… Google itself, considered the most academically inspired of the megacaps, was originally google.stanford.edu, where it was developed through the state and federal tax funding of California and the United States…Page’s first research paper included the note, ‘funded by DARPA’.
— Rob Larson, Bit Tyrants
One thing to remember is that Western governments are never going to willingly reign in the monopoly transnational corporations that dominate the internet. The five biggest (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon) form an internet oligopoly, as Nikos Smyrnaios explains. Through a process of the convergence of IT, web, media, intellectual property rights domination, deregulation of the digital sector, tax avoidance, and a never-ending slush fund from the biggest banks, as well as the “network effect” that herd consumers to a very few web conglomerates, the big five have managed to create basically a private internet cartel, based on inventions and achievements made with public funding, which have been effectively stolen and privatized using intellectual property and patent laws.
As Rob Larson explains in his book Bit Tyrants, the network effect occurs because the very few big social media networks offer increased connections and usefulness for people as more people flock to the platform. This makes the Big Five and a few other platforms virtual monopolies that can exert leverage; whether through algorithms, censorship, banning, and other opaque measures to destroy competition.
Naomi Klein pointed out in The Intercept in her piece “Screen New Deal” that the tech oligarchs are prepared to use the pandemic as an excuse to push their business model onto the world. As she writes:
It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails. Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration ‘in the community’ was already booming. But in the future under hasty construction, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.
Another glimpse into a high-tech dystopia revealed itself in Toronto, where citizens smartly made an uproar about turning part of the waterfront area known as Quayside into a “smart city” constructed by an innocuous sounding company, Sidewalk Labs. Of course, it turns out that Sidewalk is affiliated with Google, and concerned citizens and privacy advocates shot it down for obvious reasons, such as privacy and surveillance violations which would undoubtedly occur.
A similar idea has been introduced recently in Nevada, which goes by the innocuous name of the “Innovation Zone”. The Governor has been preparing to allow private corporations to buy land, develop cities, and form private governments, courts, police, and essential services to residents, who would live under private law which would have the same weight as county laws in the state. A company called Blockchains LLC, part of a holding company with very little transparency, has bought a ton of land outside of Reno and is all in on forming a new “smart city” there. This sort of techno-libertarian dystopia is ostensibly being introduced to raise tax revenue and boost economic growth. Yet for a governor to hand over sovereignty to an unaccountable corporation, it begs a number of questions, no? Especially since the company has donated to the Nevada governor, one would think the obvious conflict of interest would be enough to kill the project. Something much larger than the petty corruption of a US governor and the greed and opportunism of a technology company are at play here. As we shall see below, these private-public partnerships and deceitful collaborations are signs from a possible future of total social control and surveillance.
Online Labor and Value
If a free market economy plus intellectual property leads to the “underutilization of information”, then an economy based on the full utilization of information cannot tolerate the free market or absolute intellectual property rights. The business models of all our modern digital giants are designed to prevent [access to] the abundance of information.
– Cryppix, “The End of Capitalism Has Begun”, Blog Post from Medium.com, 2019
People understand that essential jobs are the only ones who really matter in our economy: food production, construction and housing, keeping store shelves stocked and life-sustaining services running, nurses and surgeons, those kinds of jobs. The rest of the economy falls into the category of what the late David Graeber rightly called “bullshit jobs”. These are jobs that exist solely for the sake of making corporations more profit, and provide no tangible material benefits in terms of food, housing, clothing, making domestic and communal life easier, and even art and culture for humanity.
White collar jobs (the extremely online included, at least those who benefit considerable or have a career closely related) in the US mainly exist to sell tangential perks and benefits for rich elites and the affluent; whether it’s fancy gadgetry and high technology, or either to reduce their own labor within their households, or to manufacture false consumer needs in the wider populace, or to exploit labor forces domestically and abroad. The modern West increasingly does not physically make or manufacture anything of value. The tech-heavy jobs of the future, as well as the new high technology and extremely online jobs of today, whether it is mainstream jobs in media, journalism, graphic designers, computer coders and software developers, engineering and science in service to the military industrial complex, Ad and PR firms, political consultants, armies of middle managers and think tanks wonks all reinforce and re-circulate narrow-minded and ignorant neoliberal economics and conservative cant about how the US is a shining beacon of freedom and democracy, and not a capitalist-imperialist authoritarian oligarchy bent on world domination and driving the world towards ecological annihilation. This is connected to too much time spent on digital devices. Upper-middle class white collars are “making bank” and have gotten intellectually lazy and morally corrupted by their ill-gotten wealth and they have effectively substituted online life for local community. They decry gentrification and white privilege even as they are the ones pushing minority and working class communities out of desirable inner city areas.
One of the reasons this happens, whether its liberals or libertarian Silicon Valley acolytes on the coasts or conservative tech-savvy suburbanites in the Midwest and breadbasket of the US, is because the upper-middle class thinks of itself as a meritocracy. What they’ve created of course, is a bougie neo-Victorian aristocracy of wealth, social status, and cultural capital, a “New American Aristocracy” as one Matthew Stewart explained in The Atlantic. What is interesting about Stewart’s piece is that he is at least cognizant of his own position in what he calls the “upper 9.9%”, and how the people and families in this class all slavishly service, idolize, strive towards, and navel-gaze at the top 0.1%. Reading his essay one can feel his consternation, as he acknowledges his complicity:
But that is not to let the 9.9 percent off the hook. We may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation. We should be prepared to embrace the consequences.
Of course, as Stewart states, “running the machine” is a euphemism for improving the bottom line, and the only way that’s done today is to make blue-collar people work harder for less money, to deregulate industry, to smash labor rights, and to transfer production offshore to countries using essentially slave labor and indentured servitude. We do not live in a Taylorist-Fordist manufacturing economy anymore and even the ruling elites acknowledge that producing more for the sake of more is insane, as most affluent and upper-middle class people just binge on a steady diet of useless mass-culture goods, cycles through endless perks that the service economy provides, and consumes digitally-based mainstream lowbrow entertainment. Anyone who tells you different is mostly likely either a snake-oil salesperson or a sycophantic brown-noser for the ruling class.
The white collar professional milieu now functions mainly to create make-work jobs to sop up the millions of university educated indoctrinated into the capitalist world order, who otherwise would find their fields outsourced just as the working class jobs have been for the past forty-odd years. Elite overproduction does present a problem, insofar as late-stage neoliberalism no longer affords the opportunities for obedient, conforming middle-class workers who feel entitled to a slice of the American pie that in the postwar period was more equitable divided — at least towards white, educated citizens. These educated, professional class individuals ostensibly would prefer a modicum of social democracy, but today instead are bribed with aforementioned bullshit jobs in the corporate world, who are eventually psychically broken down and assimilated into “normal” capitalist relations, become inured to human suffering, and begin to accept the self-fulfilling prophecy of capitalist realism.
The Normalization of Technocratic Language
The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.
– Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, Callingbullshit.org
Paeans to productivity and a smarter, more efficient economy while doing nothing to alleviate poverty, homelessness, environmental problems, etc. also reinforces the striving, overachieving, smarmy, centrist white-collar dweebs in the professional classes and political wonks of the world whose smugness and arrogance only increases as they delude themselves into believing they are the winners in a fair meritocracy.
The milieu of the extremely online crowd are the ones occupying these “bullshit jobs” and whose role it is to filter and mediate who, what, when, where, why, and how issues are framed and discussed in the media. This explains some of the sneering dismissal and resentment from the right about the “coastal liberal elites”: the conservatives understand that media liberals have no real expertise and are not serious thinkers, and they doubly resent them because they see in liberals the same moral relativism and nihilism they see in themselves. This can be made clear when one considers who the modern far-right respects and fears among world leaders more: effete neoliberal elitists who peddle bullshit, such as Obama, Clinton, Macron, and Trudeau; or staunch socialists of the recent past and present like Morales (and now Arce), Lula, Chavez, Castro, etc.
As for what increases in productivity in material terms even means anymore at work for white-collar jobs in 2020, it’s laughable on its face, as our economy has become so divorced from reality. I’m not even referring to small businesses offering tangible, physical products here, but rather professional class jobs which exist solely to make money for giant corporations, aka more bullshit jobs, without any actual corporeal objects to sell.
What we do know is that, besides tech and computer workers, the only people who talk about increasing productivity and GDP in glowing terms are sadist executives and managers in soulless corporate America, delusional mainstream economists, Wall Street sociopaths, real estate speculators displacing the poor and gentrifying inner cities, CEOs who rely on slave labor overseas, people who work for pyramid schemes, tech moguls destroying middle class jobs and transmuting them into a precarious gig economy, hedge fund managers who instigate hostile takeovers of companies and lay off loyal employees, military contractors who build more drones and bombs, etc.
Simply put, only the most craven and bougified people used to talk like this about economic issues, but with the emergence of online culture and the double expansion of the financial and computer-centric sectors of the economy, this sort of Orwellian PR-speak has expanded to the “attention economy” and is becoming normalized, internalized, and disseminated by tech entrepreneurs, the culture industry and Hollywood/web influencers, “lean-in” liberals, and social media-addicted journalists, who then feign responsibility for the type of hyper-fast, work all the time environments and disposable culture and entertainment that they help to cultivate and profit off of.
Essentially, the denizens of the extremely online normalize liberal, bourgeois ideology by couching their ideas in the “woke”, “hip”, rhetoric of identity politics and neoliberal economics, which they interpret as somehow being “progressive”. They normalize an ever-shrinking political discourse which excludes radical thinkers and promotes an updated, social media-savvy version of Orwellian corporate-speak, which Pierre Bourdieu dubbed as “NewLiberalSpeak” in 2001.
Screen-Captured Subjectivity: Digital Interpellation and Algorithmic Control
Hence the exclamation ‘another world is possible’ today seems to be confronted with the riddle, ‘would another digitality be possible?’
– Jan de Vos, “Fake subjectivities: Interpassivity from (neuro)psychologization to digitalization”, Continental Thought and Theory, Vol 2. Issue 1
Regardless of the many brilliant complex analysis of social ills, either on social platforms or digital media more broadly, it appears that the web and social media provides a very strong new avenue for what we might term digital interpellation. Users of the web and social media are constantly hailed, as in Althusser’s famous example, and continually modulated and nudged by algorithms to conform to bourgeois ideology, and endlessly diverted by the mass culture industry. Again, this constant feedback loop of being online only gives the ruling classes more power — simply logging into social media and posting does this. Academics have even attempted to calculate the monetary values of posts, retweets, and photos shared online: we are literally making money for tech corporations when we post on social media. The only real option is to stop feeding the beast and boycott these monopolies altogether; finding ways to bring people off these platforms onto non-monetized, secure, non-surveilled services, or at the very least use them sparingly — to instigate revolutions, for example.
Whereas in Althusser’s example it was the policeman doing the “hailing” in the physical environment, today we have moved to the digital plane: and it’s the thought-police and propagandists peddling mainstream narratives that define the new enemy. Jan de Vos describes this evolution from the Althusserian “discourse of the master”, to the modernist “discourse of the university”, and now we are faced with what I’d call a “discourse of the algorithm.” Power is being displaced onto the micrological level, where absent causes have real life devastating effects. In the internet panopticon, which stretches beyond the confines of spatio-temporal planes into the digital ether, not only do we self-censor what we post and share but also annihilate the processes by which we are able to think critically.
Not only do we take for granted what we know, but how we know what we know ceases to be a domain of contestation: the economic and power relations of how knowledge is constructed and wielded by the ruling class isn’t questioned, and the ways in which invisible actors and algorithms decide what is “popular” and newsworthy are assumed to be neutral and balanced. Whereas Althusser’s concept stemmed from interpellation as the discourse of the master, clearly now this archetypal ruling class figure has dissolved and seeped into the social body with no central character — we now enter the age of the discourse of the serpent, where algorithms and thus viewpoints on subjects as disparate as “science” or “international relations” which guide “professional” mainstream journalism and polite, acceptable thought which conforms with the demands of capitalism.
Why are these new forms of control so important and relevant in today’s times? Simply put, the national security state and corporations care very much about what we think, and how we feel. As late capitalism lurches towards semi-controlled collapse and contraction due to its internal contradictions, the old model of the corporate state’s indifference to the masses, the “f*** your feelings” approach, is no longer realistic for the goals of social control, especially after the mass outcries against the travesties of Vietnam and the second Gulf War in Iraq. Modern institutions care very much about our feelings nowadays, and are heavily invested in our collective emotional reactions; not only for monetary reasons, but to gauge policy decisions, for psychosocial mass monitoring of dissent, for biopolitical control of birth and death rates, and to market the imperial national security state to the public, among just a few examples. For instance, we know the CIA and intelligence community has been seeding itself into Silicon Valley and Hollywood for decades now, with shadowy agents literally rewriting movie scripts and tech executives making regular trips to Langley and DC to discuss integration and public-private partnerships.
The new tools of social control involve not only the hard aspects of indoctrination into nationalism and imperialism, but also the “soft” underbelly of manipulating our emotional states, and programming our tastes to like or at least accept aspects of our society that are crass, barbaric, camp, kitsch, trendy and faddish. The culture industry has evolved over the past fifty years to anticipate and channel public discontent into consumption patterns and “acceptable” resistance. The next stage invariably involves the immaterial realm of molding minds: of pacifying the unrest of the gig economy precariat, service economy workers, and unpaid household domestic laborers; of offering endless streaming services and apps to modulate and condition the populace to accept whatever technological mediated and biosecurity-centered “new normal” is coming, and of substituting “cyberspace” for local, grounded, in-person relations.
“Cruel Optimism” and “Ugly Feelings”: Affect Theory and Interpassivity in Relation to Digital Media
As a judgement, however, the gimmick contains an extra layer of intersubjectivity: it is what we say when we, unlike others implicitly evoked or imagined in the same moment, are not buying into what a capitalist device is promising. Robert Pfaller refers to this structure of displacement as a ‘suspended illusion’: beliefs like the superstitious ritual of the sports fan that ‘always belong to others, that are never anyone’s own [beliefs].’
– Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form
It would be a disservice to understanding the extremely/terminally online without applying the lens of two heavyweights of cultural criticism, Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai. Berlant became prominent after her book, Cruel Optimism, managed to thread the needle of accessibility and scholarly erudition: her notion of cruel optimism can be succinctly defined as follows: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing”. There is hardly a better way to explain the effect of social media today on individual psyches and the body politic. As Berlant aptly points out, her idea is connected to the notion of the “American Dream”: a delusional belief system fraught with contradictions; and one increasingly predicated on insecurity and ever-looming economic precarity. In the context of the digital age, social media use is mostly just another escape and addiction for the growing precariat — we know too much web use is bad for us, a way to pass the time with pop-media pablum and ignore the reality that our lives are being wasted on performing pointless rote work — as internet users learn experientially as the addiction takes hold and spirals.
The figure of the internet/computer addict and the ambivalence the subject has towards the object; the computer or social media account- simultaneously attracted and repulsed by it- provides a good segue towards understanding the work of Sianne Ngai. As Ngai and Berlant point out, these contradictory reactions towards commodities and media at large in some sense determine what the late Raymond Williams called the “structure of feeling” in late capitalist society.
Ngai builds on this model through a brilliant examination of cultural affect and “aesthetic categories”. Spanning decades now, her work analyses categories of emotion endemic to late capitalism: the “cute” consumer creature-comforts and the dark side of how cuteness is used to manipulate; the “zany” which can represent, among other things, the precarious hyper-active work environment, emotional labor and super-productive demands of the service economy; and the “interesting”, which can stand in for withholding judgment: here the interesting is an invitation towards a discourse with another; how aesthetic judgment comes from shared understandings and mimesis. Ngai’s varied and textured analysis leaves room to show how political subjects today can enact many categories simultaneously — the “cute” always smiling, ever-happy disposition of the service worker and the emotional labor expended performs alongside the zany ever-increasing demands of a super-fast paced retail store.
There can be no doubt that alongside social media’s hacking of our neurobiology, the systematic playing off on citizen’s mental states and emotionality represents the new “dark arts” in politics. This is why Berlant and Ngai are so prescient, because they foresaw this decades ago, just as, for example, the novelist Octavia Butler was able to foresee the slogan “Make America Great Again” in 1998.
Ngai’s most fascinating concept is her notion of “stuplimity” — a combination of shock and boredom — of the sublime with the stupid. Really, there is hardly a more apt word to describe being online today, or on social media. The incessant chatter and news headlines may at the same time excite, titillate, awe, bore, and depress us- again, the blended attractive and repulsive nature of which, like capitalism itself, is ingrained into the structure of our everyday lives.
In her most recent work, Ngai analyses the nature of the “gimmick”, and strikingly reveals the economic undercurrents of how and why we critique commodities as such. Not only do gimmicks simultaneously entertain and annoy us, they show labor and value are at the core of how we judge and develop tastes for consumer goods as well as art (here is a good interview with Ngai to explain).
To tie back to modern technology — media outlets, social media, and many overproduced devices (computers, cars) as well as superfluous ones (smartphones, tablets, private jets) well, these are all modern gimmicks of an extractivist capitalist economy. They are not capable of being produced sustainably in the long-term. Not only are these objects not built to last, trendy and faddish in a cultural sense, they are built by supply chains and manufacturing techniques which require mass exploitation, coercion, and environmental degradation. The laptop one uses for create surplus value for one’s employer is still just a softer version of accepting a blood diamond — the “cost of doing business”. Laptops with which rare earth elements are mined by child labor and victims of human trafficking in Africa, manufactured into circuit boards under unsafe and extreme conditions in East Asia, and shipped and sold by precarious laborers in transport, big-box stores and online retailers worldwide. If society is in fact unaffected, indifferent, and ignorant of such things, it does in fact reveal that our aesthetic judgments — our interior worlds of emotions as well as discernment of what constitutes truth, beauty, and various affective states has been hijacked by a culture that is hell-bent on advancing technological progress at all costs — even if it means the collapse of our web of life and the enslavement of humankind.
As the epigraph for this section points out, Ngai reminds us that the gimmick has a fungible quality — one person’s gimmick is another’s useful, or even adored good — and vice versa. The gimmick can also slip between pretentious and useless to utilitarian and labor-saving: Ngai likes to point out how the Google Glass morphed from a fad that was (appropriately) derided by consumers into a workplace device for hands-free smart-device used in industrial work.
Ngai’s work on the gimmick can be compared to Robert Pfaller’s (with an assist from the inimitable Slavoj Zizek) notion of interpassivity: the delegation of enjoyment. With social media we delegate positive experiences to the “anonymous other” — when we post, we trick ourselves into believing another is viewing and enjoying our content — even if, in fact, there is no one observing. This faces us with prospects of staging “illusions without a subject”; no one may be watching but we take pleasure in the illusion someone is doing so, in Pfaller’s examples of the TV fanatic who records shows without watching them, or of the academic who photocopies books at a library where no one else is watching. Whereas the gimmick relies on the subject who believes someone is being “duped” into buying a trivial kitsch consumer item with no “value” to most people, while they can see through the gimmick; the interpassive subject may be staging an illusion, but either no one is there to question the motive, or there is a perceived “naïve observer” in the mind of the stager.
Yet with the delegation of enjoyment, and more broadly, life experiences, are transposed in our age from material consumer goods to the immaterial realm of the internet, what passes as a gimmick becomes even trickier to define. Also, just as endless signifying chains can mutate, fold, or implode upon themselves, interpassive subjects can infinitely delegate, one to the other, feeding memes, art (which now has been degraded into “content”), videos, and journalistic forays through endless cycles. Thus the progression of an economy based on production to one based on reproduction and circulation that we find today in the West, solipsistic and self-generating, with varying degrees of simulation and hyperreality.
Technological Salvation: The Religion of the Ruling Class
Left ‘accelerationist’ ideas of a post-work society based on state-supported ‘4th industrial revolution’ development, with a UBI to pacify surplus populations, could well be enabler of, rather than alternative to, large scale capitalist AI development. Ecosocialists might also suggest that the idea that human emancipation is identical with the advance of a high-production, high-technological networked society is precisely what is thrown into question by global heating and other environmental-crises…
– Nick Dyer-Witheford, “Left Populism and Platform Capitalism”, tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Vol. 18 No. 1
As we have seen above, the profit motive is not the only thing being served by social media. Driven by individualized “feeds”, web and screen-based news/commentary are being unleashed with additional benefits — one of which being that it is an updated model for social cohesion and mass obedience, based on elements of what Gilles Deleuze described as a “Society of Control.”
As the epigraph to this section suggests, many within progressive and even socialist spaces favor the expansion of modern technology into nearly every aspect of our lives, in order to supposedly make labor easier and alleviate undue suffering. These “left-accelerationist” and “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” (FALC) promoters have a lot of overlap with green capitalist and eco-modernist thought.
To use clumsy and obscure analogy, just as twenty years ago it was written that “Empire can be read as the Lexus and the Olive Tree of the Far Left”, today we can confidently say that FALC and its promotional grifters can be viewed as the Al Gores, Steward Brands or Alvin Tofflers of the far left. Indeed, in a sense the FALCists continue in the starry-eyed idealist vein, in the sense that the technological salvation the former believe in can be juxtaposed with the supposedly inevitable deterritorializing process of “Empire” for the latter: both presuppose and give preeminence to very Western notions of social change and the role of technology.
Why is FALC delusional, exactly? In part because the technology required to create these notions of automated communism (never mind full or luxurious) would have huge carbon and environmental footprints. Also, an AI driven 5G and eventually 6G smart grid would make even today’s omnidirectional surveillance states look like child’s play. Compounding these delusions of grandeur is the uneven development between the advanced industrial economies and the exploited postcolonial states. Where do the Western FALC advocates believe the physical infrastructure and manufacturing power will come from? From poorer developing nations of course, as there is no real desire of organizational understanding of how to revolutionize an international working class among those hoping for technological salvation. This sort of pseudo-leftism desires the comfort and security of an advanced industrial system without taking into full consideration the levels of sacrifice necessary to create an eco-socialist economic model.
These are just a few examples of how semi-radical thought reproduces and reinforces capitalist hegemony, but the wider trend has been visible for decades now. As Baudrillard wrote in Simulacra and Simulation:
It is the justice of the left that reinjects an idea of justice, the necessity of logic and morals into a rotten apparatus that is coming undone…the system puts an end one by one to all its axioms…all the objectives of the historical and revolutionary Left that sees itself constrained to revive the wheels of capital in order to lay siege to them one day…everything that is disappearing, that the system itself, in its atrocity, certainly, but also in its irreversible impulse, has liquidated, must be conserved.
The Ouroboros Economy
All corporations become increasingly organized around the worship and control of information. Control over the value chain through ownership of the information vector extends even into life itself…through monitoring its states, through modifying its functions with drugs that alter chemical signals, through patenting aspects of life as design. What is at stake is neither a bios nor a polis but a regime of property in information extending into the organism. The novel forces of production as they have emerged in our time are also forces of reproduction and forces of circulation.
– Mckenzie Wark, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?
When Debord noted, and rightly so, that the spectacle is a “social relation among people, mediated by images”, it was understood that we all participate in and collectively make up the spectacular worldview. Yet that is not how many people today think, and when it is casually mentioned, spectacle is situated outside the self, not a set of social relations. Unfortunately, being able to detect vacuously transparent and craven corporate advertising as well as political rhetoric mostly is not sufficient for the second-level effects on the unconscious. As “desiring machines” integrated into late stage capitalism, the prison is not longer only physically constructed around us- and not only have we become both inmate and warden, oftentimes we take it on ourselves to perform the labor, both at work and in leisure time, that entrenches the powers of corporations and the national security state.
Here, it helps to have a grasp of a few key basic concepts from thinkers such as Debord, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and also Bourdieu, and even Latour. As many have noted, the pandemic has conveniently set the stage for capital and computer technology to fully absorb nearly all facets of everyday life, which reinforces the arguments of the terminally online and their worship of technology, and thus, American empire.
For Baudrillard a metaphor of simulation could be visualized as the Mobius strip, and for Deleuze describing the society of control it was the serpent. Today we can conjoin the concepts into the archetype of the ouroboros — a self-contained system of simulation and hyperreality, embedded to an immanent, infinite process of death and rebirth, one that contains within it seeds of destruction and the potential for renewal and societal transformation. The ouroboros encapsulates our era: from cybernetics, to algorithmic feedback loops of code, to cosmology, and even evolutionary anthropology, to the financialization and cannabilization of economies, the circuital globe-spanning nature of capital, the ineffable mimetic nature of cultural transmission and (re)production.
The consolidation of media narratives into social media outlets performs one unique function insofar as it renders the “official” establishment narrative into the only possible reasonable, logical way of seeing the world. Analogically, one can see this as a digital version of what Deleuze and Guattari called “state philosophy”, the incorporation and transmutation of “proper” stories and events into those which uphold state hegemony and corporate control. Of course, there can never be a totalization of these views online, just as there could not before in the age of print, or before in oral traditions. Reality cannot be consolidated into a tweet, just as it could not before in a newspaper editorial. What comes out of the void are “post-truths”, “alternative facts”, and other unruly features foreseen decades ago by Bruno Latour, when he undertook that could be called an anthropological study of modern science. Thus, what used to be called misinformation or half-truths have been reified by mainstream media, as objects with viral properties that must be censored before they can “infect” the populace.
What seems to be happening over and over again on the media satured/technophilic left is the refusal, the blind spot which keeps repeating the mantra that media monopolization and social media misuse by tech elites is somehow only driven by money and profit motives. The elites already have all the money. Certainly, their greed is a huge driving force, but what’s another billion to someone with a net worth of 50 or 100 billion. At a certain point one has to concede that there are deeper, more sinister agendas, which involve shaping reality and perception, and total social control. As one can easily see with a healthy degree of skepticism towards technological progress, lockdowns and restrictions due to Covid-19 are a perfect excuse for the nascent authoritarian biosecurity state, just as the legitimate protests against police brutality will be used by the state to implement more curfews and police state measures.
Social media and digital media are in the midst of a totalizing process in which all dissent will be censored, shadow-banned, or posts that differ from official narratives “throttled” by tech algorithms. The age of book-burning may be over but a new age of technological authoritarianism is emerging. To assuage the worst aspects of this emerging techno-feudal society, where “the economy” has fully replaced society and monetization of content and followings has replaced spontaneous and anarchic/communistic web interaction are the extremely online celebrities, influencers, and the corporate cut-outs and shills who fund them: and they strive towards and imitate tech owners and executives, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and various professional class snake-oil salespeople who offer escapist fantasies, slavish devotion to modern technology and overconsumption.
Since the upper and upper-middle classes are surrounded by corporate and state propaganda like fish in an ocean, which conforms to varying degrees to Bordieu’s notion of habitus; they are the most likely to “buy in” to the new prison system mediated by new repressive technology apparatuses, which is in line with Herman and Chomsky’s findings in Manufacturing Consent.
Like the sirens of Greek mythology, the job of the influencer, backed and financed by the ruling class, is to hypnotize the masses, and lull us back to sleep — “be like us” they intonate, we’re rich, successful, famous, powerful. While the vast majority toil away working for technological advancement and capital, the tech tyrants and web celebrities succeed by making internet technology and monopolized media work for them. Since the ruling class and new media elite earn passive income from conglomerate platforms, algorithms, and computing power, they have no interest in discovering how they have become the new architects of inequality and mass immiseration. It’s up to us to show them.
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