"The coils of a serpent are even more complex than the burrows of a molehill." Deleuze
Something I’ve been thinking more about is the encroachment of digital media into all aspects of our daily lives. I’ve been thinking of our relationship to these digital media, whether it is of a symbiotic nature, or a parasitic one. If it is of a symbiotic nature, more the good for us. Our lives are irrevocably improved by being instantly connected to the neurons of mankind and a good deal of its R.A.M as well. Our ability to access a specific home cooked curry from an Indian Grandmother means never before has the potential outputs from our kitchen been so aromatic while planning a party or an event or even a protest has never so easy.
Push that boat out a bit and the internet has proliferated the mediation of everyday life to the point at which institutions have not been so undermined in their ability to declare what is what since the 1960’s. The Arab Spring, often called the “Twitter Revolution”, was spearheaded by the activists’s ability to communicate effectively through the internet and to broadcast their battle to the world. (A good account of the internet’s impact in the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 can be read here.)
Then of course you have the fact that the internet makes institutions more prone to leaks, from Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency is effectively stockpiling the internet and spying on just about every citizen that passes through American servers to Manning’s revelations through WikiLeaks that the Empire is behaving with sadistic impunity overseas. As Assange states in his introduction to “The WikiLeaks Files”:
The study of empires has long been the study of their communications. Carved into stone or inked into parchment, empires from Babylon to the Ming dynasty left records of the organisational center communicating with its peripheries.
Besides providing a keen summary of the war crimes and human rights abuses documented in WikiLeaks publications, along with a detailed historical overview of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the consequent unfolding disaster there, the chapter also draws conclusions about the ideological and conceptual substructure of America’s “war on terror,” and investigates how an aspect of the imperial prerogative of the United States is to exercise decisive power to ensure that terms like “just war,” “torture,” “terrorism,” and “civilian” are defined in its own favor.
This is the power of institutions, the ability to control language, to define how we understand the words that come out of our mouth. They bequeath us our languages, our words, they ensure they are passed on from one generation to the next. They, as Althusser has stated enforce “submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’.
The internet is for modern states the means of internal communication. States are basically conglomerations of institutions, and once the state can effectively communicate to and within these institutions, its influence is assured. The point at which the American state cannot communicate with its internal administration is the point to which its influence wanes. Probably about 40 light years away from Washington.
Yet at the same time if the means by which an Empire operates is through its means of communication, those means of communication have never been so vulnerable as WikiLeaks has highlighted. Because of the sheer number of people that have access to a range of internal communications, (think of Manning’s ability to access so much files that were above his station), Assange estimates that 71,000 people work in U.S government agencies worldwide, the means of the state to work without its direct agenda being exposed is more vulnerable than ever. It’s interesting to note briefly here the trouble Donald Trump is having with Washington at the moment and the number of leaks that are happening there, that shows, surprisingly enough, that internal bureaucracies have some degree of personality.
That is a pretty severe achilles heel that no doubt the Empire is looking to rid itself by placing all of its ill guided faith in personality tests and algorithms, but at the same time, never before was an administration susceptible to the transcript of its truth being broadcast to so many so quickly.
These are some of the symbiotic relationships through which the internet has enhanced people’s lives. The effects of this relationship have been bloody and violent as power has retaliated back but they aimed at positive freedoms, to expand the potential to life in a civil capacity and didn’t have conservatism as its goal. Yet if you were to look at how the war in Syria was framed by the narratives constructed by the states involved you would believe it was something like a coup d’etat by an external agency i.e. Islamic State that brought the war to the innocent Assange rather than it initially being a rising that began without the ideological baggage of -isms but seeked rather an expansion to the civil sphere.
What was ultimately aimed at was a re-creation of the democratic sphere, the sphere where people come together to make decisions regarding the conditions of their life, rather than the conditions of their life being imposed upon them.
They are what Hannah Arendt would describe as revolutionary as they aim at freedom, at the creation of a civil sphere while the state apparatus’ are intent at repression, at narrowing the civil sphere to the point that it no longer exists and all decisions are made by a narrow diktat, an oligarchical sphere that we are edging ever closer to.
Ok so that’s just a rude trajectory of my own rather narrow view of our symbiotic relationship with digital communicative technology and especially how it interrupts previous social structures that were all top down channels of discourse to a more interactive platform, one in which we can share ideas and information and broadcast ideas more efficiently. How this influences and alters society in one way is of the paramount interest to any sociologist while so too is the kickback. It is the kickback we are currently experiencing, or at least it currently feels like that.
So if that’s all tangled up in the positive aspects of our relationships to technology, what about the parasitic aspects of the relationship? The fact that it mediates our relationship with, dare I say it, reality. That it is the hourly engagement with various forms of media that is the chief input into the grey matter of our heads, scaffolding our thoughts, constructing our view of the world, both at that particular moment but also over time, in the way stalagmites form, formless at first then physical.
And not just that, the construction of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world but also that it is slowly becoming the world. That this non-physical space that exists within the frame of the scheme is becoming the environment at which we are adapting to rather quickly, where the rules of social engagement are compartmentalised in a way that keeps the bureaucrat at ease. Our social engagements in real life, especially with strangers, are terrains plagued with mines where we exist in a state of hyper anxiety having bereft of smileys and emoticons to navigate the arbitrariness of life away from screen.
It is as if we immerse part of our very selves, our souls into the waters of hyper connectivity that lay beyond the screen and lives half in this world, half in that, never quite experiencing either. It is borderline parasitic, keeping our desires hostage to an urge we believe will be satiated by checking once more our Facebook, twitter, gmail, slack, instagram, tumblr, the list goes on.
Yet is all this necessary, do we not have a choice to use the internet in such a way? Can we not use it like the telephone as old, only engaging with it when it rings. For the writer Mark Fisher, the salient point of why the internet is being used and constructed in such a way, i.e. in a way that is invasive, both in a manner that it is constantly on our person and that it mines so much of our personal experiences, archiving them as evidence for the crime of existence, is that it is invasive because Capitalism as it exists now without it being so.
Capital has no need for labour any more that is stagnant and confined by a geographical space, the possibilities of consumption are always on and thus labour needs to be always on. If anyone has seen the movie Christine will know that the lead character Christine, a television journalist is losing favour with her boss because the type of stories she is reporting are of community interest stories so she gets a police radio and leaves it at her bedside locker where she is no longer able to sleep due to the constant interruptions. She is however fulfilling her bosses demand. Work is no longer 9-5.
Mark Fisher defines this parasitic phenomenon of “smart” technology and its necessity to “late” capitalism below in an interview with Dazed Digital..
Control doesn’t any more need to operate by directly intervening in the brain: rather, we ourselves go “voluntarily” to technology to be controlled, becoming addicted to the clicking of our smartphones and the red alert-stimulus of social media. Of course this appearance of voluntarism and choice is itself highly controlled – by the libidinal engineering (PR, branding and advertising) which constantly cyberblitzes our brains and nervous systems.
As the structural make up of society shifts from being based on the production of goods to one based on the provision of services, so too does the manner in which power executes its control over a populace. We have moved, in Deleuze’s words, from a society of the panopticon in which the threat of we being observed makes man act as if his boss is always standing over his shoulder to one in which we are given the “freedom” to work even outside the factory and in our own homes, but this freedom comes at a cost of always potentially being at the beck and call of one’s boss.
Free time, like everything else in capitalist society, has been alienated from itself.
All the old institutions of power are crumbling but in this vacuum new forms of power are taking their place. One just need reflect on why services like Facebook which do not charge the user a service fee are one of the most valuable companies in the world. The same with Google. They are creating the parameters of our lives, collating our searchable desires and facilitating our sense of increased freedom.
It is important for the society of control to maintain the illusion of freedom, but we should note the ways in which freedom here is not merely an illusion. One can say or do whatever one wants, at least within the circumscribed parameters. Most of us fall within those parameters without even thinking about it—since the only forms of discourse truly proscribed are radical indictments of our political system, calls to “terrorist” action, and the like—and so experience ourselves as fully free to express our views, live our lives, and so on. The important thing to grasp is the way in which an apparatus of power can exert control over us precisely by letting us “do whatever we want.
In being always on, on being constantly within capital’s grasp we are confined by the mediated reality that is voiced by power. We are granted freedoms but when we act on them such as what occurred in Syria, we are met with violent and brutal opposition. Can we still envision a techno utopia when the promise of such was buried more than a decade ago?
Is the smartphone a noose or a shears?
I have failed to answer my own question.
All images taken from ChromeDestroyer (they’re really cool and worth checking out more https://www.instagram.com/chromedestroyer/ )