There are two features of social media that are particularly worth emphasising, namely that such “information flows” have the quality of being both immediate and novel. There is a need for constant updating (e.g. via twitter), so much so, that what was present a mere few weeks ago takes on the character of “ancient news”, news that can be, in the light of the latest updates, simply discarded. For example, one can see that the US President, Donald Trump, deploys his “tweets” in this way. If last week it was about the “China conspiracy” and yesterday how the coronavirus is in rapid retreat (when it is not), well today the “big news” – what one should really be worried about – is “Obamagate”, all of which does not prevent previous themes re-emerging, albeit with a twist (i.e. as an update).
What seems clear is that this ever-changing information flow both contributes too and plays on the fact that the modern subject, living his or her “liquid life” (Bauman, 2000) and faced with unprecedented levels of uncertainty (at both personal and more global levels), struggles to find a foothold, meaning precisely that space given to self-reflection, contemplation, the room for what-has-to-be-thought, but is not yet at hand. Clearly this has given rise to our so-called “post-truth” era, whereby what one believes can function more as an “identity marker”, a mark of belonging to some community of fellow-believers, rather than represent an effort at genuine thought or interrogation, not only of the “facts” but also of the prism one uses to interpret such facts. However, it is I would like to argue, a mistake to simply blame technology/our “screen world” for this state of affairs, this entropy of reflective capacity.
In other words, what we must become aware of is that technology/social media is being actively deployed in two main and indeed complimentary ways, namely, to keep us consuming to the point of commodifying ourselves and as an effective propaganda tool for underpinning a neo-liberal worldview – a worldview that with the virtual collapse of any credible alternative (i.e. genuine leftist politics) has gone Global. To take the latter point first, I quote from an early book by Edward Bernay’s (he was a nephew of Freud) entitled, Propaganda:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested … they who control the public mind … contrive new ways to bind and guide the world” (emphasis added: p. 37, 1928).
If this “engineering of consent” sounds like wishful thinking, one can nevertheless see, and here Trump provides a paradigm case, that so-called “populist politics” is not based on an appeal to ideals or reasoned argument (the neo-liberal passion for de-regulation and unfettered capitalism does not base itself on the ideal of a “better society”) but instead seeks to speak to and emotionally connect with peoples sense of dissatisfaction and discontent. The manoeuvre is very basic: you are victims of “X”, I will stop/make “X” pay, and then, the “good old days” will come rolling back. Of course, the “X” here necessarily takes on multiple values if always aiming its address at the insecure subject with a promise of greater safety and/or personal enhancement (e.g. jobs/wealth). The trick, if one can call it that, is to keep the focus on the “what is said” rather than on the question, “why is this being said?”, and here the world of bite-sized symbols and slogans play their role, alongside the so-called TINA principle (“there is no alternative”), a slogan made popular by the pro-market British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher during the 1980’s. Meanwhile economic inequality, which includes health and lifespan inequality, increases everywhere.
My second point relates to the fact that we cannot see technology/social media in isolation as it is essentially situated, and put to use, within consumerist society. In his book Consuming Life (2007) Zygmunt Bauman charts the way in which, in the move from a society of producers to a society of consumers, immediacy and novelty take on high value. He writes:
“… [consumer society] has degraded duration and elevated transience. It lifts the value of novelty above that of lastingness … It has shortened the timespan separating … want from fulfilment … Among the objects of human desire, it has put the act of appropriation, to be quickly followed by waste disposal, in the place once accorded to the acquisition of possessions meant to be durable and … [of] lasting enjoyment” (pp. 85-86)
Moreover, he argues we are not just consuming but are increasingly obliged to ensure our marketability, to present ourselves as good quality, cost-effective and useful commodities, or risk being condemned to the margins of society, and as the “collateral casualties of consumerism” – beyond rehabilitation (i.e. in a society of producers there was an argument for rehabilitating unemployed labour but, in the logic of “late capitalism” and the shift to consumerism, “failed” consumers/commodities can be discarded). Essentially, what we see here, is that in the push towards “self-creation” (e.g. from Facebook profiles to work-related “skills set”), subjective desire is increasingly moderated by technologically mediated fantasies and services, alongside paid “influencers”, that supervene on the ways we work out who and how we are in the world.
Obviously, I am not suggesting that there are no direct effects of technology/social media on our lives. Our screens can and do distract us, inducing us into a whirl of information/entertainment that quite literally is capable of “stealing” our attention. Moreover, it brings new problems and issues that have yet to be addressed, for example, reducing lives to data that can be bought, sold or manipulated (e.g. via so-called “target marketing” that in the last US election morphed into targeting so-called “swing voters” with tailored information designed to influence the way they voted). However, the main point being made is that we must see this in terms of a wider context, one that, in making use of online technologies, seeks to saturate human desire and with it our ability to account for, or face the question of, what it is we desire beyond the immediate – something that calls on us to wait, reflect, contemplate. In this time of the coronavirus, bearing witness to this seems more important than ever, for it is a time when “big tech” and Governments are seeking ways to move a lot more of human life online (e.g. within education/medicine/work etc.).
Bernays, E. (1928/2005). Propaganda. Ig Publishing, New York.
Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity
Bauman, Z. (2007). Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity