During my Instagram hiatus, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with networked technologies.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to rehash boring takes from The Social Dilemma. (I’m going to rehash boring Marxist ones!) When The Social Dilemma premiered, I was surprised at how revelatory it seemed to be—in 2020, mind you—that Facebook and Google monetize attention, violate privacy, manipulate users, surveil them, on and on. It was no surprise to me, however, that conversations around this issue felt surface-level and depoliticized. The Social Dilemma did not frame this problem in terms of economic or political stakes, but personal ones: anxiety, depression, mental health.
These are important, of course, but it’s also a neoliberal dissection of the problem. Neoliberalism distributes responsibility for structural problems to individuals in a “radical abstraction of self from social and material context.” This is very convenient for industries and people hoping you won’t notice their exploitive bullshit. 100 companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but instead of challenging the economic and political structures that abet this horrifying statistic, you should bring a reusable mug to Starbucks! 🌟
Once upon a time, I wrote a proposal to win advertising business from the American Petroleum Institute. API wanted business-flavored sponsored content about how “energy” (which is what lobbyists call oil) moves through global supply chains. As with all branded content on the web, my employer would meet campaign KPIs through paid social.
Let me draw this out: we, the publisher, would pay Facebook to drive traffic to an article we were paid to write for Big Oil. The more we paid Facebook for social impressions, the more we could happily report to API that “their” “content” “resonated.”
When it comes to technology, social media, and neoliberalism, nothing will jade you quicker than paying Big Tech to pump oil propaganda to Davos bros and TED Talkers.
Jaded folks like me embrace the absurd. That’s why I downloaded Yo—a social app that mocks all of the above. Or at least it would if it wasn’t defunct, which in a way feels like its own kind of performance art.
Yo reduces social media to “yo.” Literally. That’s all you can say and share. No, really. You can only send people “yo” back and forth until you die! No other words, or images, or gifs or links or videos.
I came across this app as I was reading about communicative capitalism. This is Jodi Dean’s theory that networked technologies are not just profoundly exploitive, but antithetical to the democratic ideals they claim to engender.
For me, this is where it gets interesting (and it’s where the The Social Network stopped short). My time spent working in the weird, niche nexus of media and digital advertising confirms a premise of Jodi Dean’s theory: “You” are not the product in social media. “You” are not the commodity. Only circulation generates value for advertisers. What you have to say—your message, your behavior—doesn’t matter.
The message is simply part of a circulating data stream. Its particular content is irrelevant. Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That it need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool. Any particular contribution remains secondary to the fact of circulation. (via)
Digital advertising is built on the assumption that there are predictable, useful patterns of behavior in this circulation. But evidence does not support this. When circulation is the sacred cow, any pattern or message is moot (moo’t lol). As we share and communicate across these technologies, we simply perform free labor—producing commoditized data for technological capital. Goliath is wearing a helmet and selling the stones we throw.
This has undeniable economic and political ramifications. For example:
When the White House acknowledged the massive worldwide demonstrations of February 15, 2003, Bush simply reiterated the fact that a message was out there, circulating—the protestors had the right to express their opinions. He didn’t actually respond to their message. He didn’t treat the words and actions of the protestors as sending a message to him to which he was in some sense obligated to respond. Rather, he acknowledged that there existed views different from his own. There were his views and there were other views; all had the right to exist, to be expressed—but that in no way meant, or so Bush made it seem, that these views were involved with each other. (via)
Networked technologies certainly feel democratic. But they absolve high-level actors (politicians, institutions, corporations) of engaging in good faith. They have the luxury to hunker down and ride out momentary discontent because the speed and scale of circulation is on their side. Even for organized social movements, it is impossible to simultaneously fight oppression and the unrelenting force of 24-hour news and social media.
Those anti-war demonstrations—and similar mass movements like BLM, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring—did not sprout up because social media mobilized people (although it certainly helped). And at their core, these movements are not “democracy in action” or even about ideals like “freedom” or “justice.” At their core, these are class struggles.
After a weekend in which protesters in the United States, Europe and much of the rest of the world urged giving diplomacy more time or ruling out war altogether, Mr. Bush said he welcomed the right of people in democracies to express their opinions.
''Size of protest—it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group,'' Mr. Bush said. ''Evidently, some of the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace. I respectfully disagree.'' (via)
“You have the right to express your opinions.” “I respectfully disagree.”
Power in polite society hides behind clichés. What better way to diminish the stakes, occlude morality, and placate righteous anger than to say “That’s the great thing about America. Everyone can express their opinion.” Oh gee, thanks. I’m glad I can express my opinion that you shouldn’t separate families and put children in cages.
Even if the technologies we use for expression didn’t exploit our time and labor and privacy, I think we valorize expression to an extent that can be dangerous. Expression is important to democracy, but it is not democracy itself.
Communicative capitalism breeds circulation so vast and incessant that I think it’s natural to just check out. To crave clichés and positivity and harmony because damn, turns out a lot of people are mad. It’s depoliticizing and, if you’ll allow me my tinfoil hat, I think that’s the point.
I’m wary of this impulse. I’m wary of how we justify harmony in a deeply unjust society. To me, “agree to disagree” always feels less like harmony and more like a pat on the head. “No!” I always want to fire back. “I disagree to agree!”
The only way I’ve ever moved myself forward is by disagreeing without compulsively trying to make people feel better about it. I’m sure people question the utility of my combative yammering online, especially vis-à-vis Mormonism. To which I say: it’s trauma, dummies.
But in my more vulnerable moments, sometimes I think the dummies have a point. And I guess the smarties too, because Jodi Dean might say the same thing. What have been the fruits of my exploited online labor? I still don’t have the priesthood (lol). Rosie Card continues to sell temple dresses that gay people can’t wear. And when President Nelson dies, Elder Oaks will assume his post as guard of the Mormon panopticon.
Religion did not liberate me and neither will technology. I don’t even really know what liberation looks like—only that I feel more of it now than I did before. I really loved something my friend Courtney wrote the other day, which is that writing and fighting and fucking up online never changed much of anything, but it did change me. That’s not for nothing, right?
For a long time, I gave away my spiritual power to the Mormon church. And in my leaving, I gave much of my creative, expressive power to networked technologies. What would it look like to move the force of myself to a place I control? I know the answer because I’ve done it before. It would look like art.
When I wrestle with the things that have exploited who I am, I reclaim my gifts. Like a nesting meadowlark with little twigs in her beak, and bunches of grass, and cottonwood fluff, and all the parts of me they tried to take away.
YouTube video of Jodi Dean. The top comment made me laugh out loud 😂
A solid primer on neoliberalism. This word gets thrown around a lot and can feel vague, but it’s a very specific ideology with important history.
I mean, I can’t NOT include a drag on David Brooks on this list.
Subprime Attention Crisis. Just started this short book and it’s good.
Communicative capitalism: Circulation and the foreclosure of politics (2005) Yo, Dean has been on about this since BEFORE TWITTER EXISTED.
Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle (2014) Long as fuck and heavy on theory. Great section about big data and the conclusion of the article is 💯
Predictive analytics: How capitalism’s “knowledge economy” profiles us all. Again, this shit ain’t new. The CIA and DoD used real-time data and IBM computers to decide which hamlets to bomb in South Vietnam.
The Anti-War Movement and the Class Struggle. A speech given just prior to the Persian Gulf War. Succinct, perfect.
Thanks for reading Gemini Mind! Elsewhere, you can find me as @yokizzi 💫