Disorientation and decomposition

The modern Internet is an immense and finely-tuned engine for distraction and diversion. The big tech companies have some of the smartest people in the world working around the clock to ensure that their platforms are as engaging, addictive, widespread, and panoptic as possible. (Indeed, I’d like to see the economists who complain about the low observed productivity gains from the information revolution do a study on whether productivity gains were simply undermined by workers wasting a good chunk of their work time with dithering around on the Internet).

I think this is a key reason why the modern world feels like its in a state of constant frenzy, and why its so easy for people today to feel disoriented. As commented on in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, a wonderful essay from n+1 published in late 2015, the Internet has created an endless stream of information, audio-visual consumables, and social media chatter. This is part of a larger trend where capitalist innovation in labor-saving technology has created the paradox where workers (in the imperialist cores) by and large have more free time than they once had, but also find this free time under constant stress, pulled apart by an unceasing barrage of inescapable nudges and tugs, in an infinite number of directions, by an infinite number of competing corporations pushing an infinite number of goods and services. Combine this with the stress of working meaningless jobs and running on the hamster wheel of bills and debts, and disorientation becomes one’s natural state.

Systematic attack on our minds is not new. Such is the entire history of the advertising industry, as laid out in Tim Wu’s excellent book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016). What is new is how effective, intrusive, and ubiquitous advertisements today are, with the ability of advertisement technology corporations to soak up huge amounts of information about our social and psychological dynamics and adjust their ads accordingly. This is not just the result of technological advancements, but also the absorption of huge amounts of social activity into social media platforms, which can then apply data science and artificial-intelligence techniques to continually analyze and manipulate human behavior. Our social lives have become increasingly sucked into intelligent and interactive billboards, and our thought processes increasingly outsourced to advertising algorithms. This Twitter thread by a Google AI researcher is a good description of all this (although it is amusing that he puts all the blame on Facebook, as if Google isn’t doing the same thing).

The framework of class composition can be useful in analyzing all of this. Economic restructuring — shutting down and moving factories, deploying labor-saving automation, stratifying the labor markets by race and gender — disrupts working-class organization by breaking up the economic foundation on which such organization was structured. Likewise, social and psychological restructuring — pulling social interactions and individual entertainment into a world of infinite scrolling, push notifications, and constant information overload — disrupts our own ability to sustain in-depth, complex lines of analysis, and build and maintain relationships that are genuinely on our own terms. Of course, the flip side of economic restructuring is that even as old working-class forms of organization are decomposed, the new economic structures drive new forms of working-class organization, as seen in the major worker rebellions in China in the late 2000s, or in the unrest among tech professionals and gig workers in the US in recent years. Likewise, the flip side of social-psychological decomposition can be seen in the subversive uses of the Internet to drive networked, decentralized movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

However, it is essential that we don’t mistake these positive flip-sides to mean that there is some kind of teleological, automatic process where capitalist development generates an equally powerful reaction. It should be clear by now that the networked, decentralized movements dependent on social media have been unable to undermine capitalist power, and easily dissipate on contact with the hard, well-organized forces of capital and the state. This should be expected — as observed in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, the social spaces provided by techno-capitalism don’t allow for particularly deep experiences or relationships. These will only come about in the “real world”, outside of and autonomous to state and capital. Thus, while radicals should make use of social media platforms and related communications technologies, it is crucial that the ultimate purpose of such uses points outside of these disorienting spaces.

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