[Last byte of this essay. Phew, relief for all concerned...]
Digitalisation is the daily experience of capitalism’s core alienation: the absence of strong, autonomous presence in people and relationships, and the often palpable presence of absence in people and relationships. A strong self has a reduced need for mindless consumption and is thus surplus to requirements in advanced capitalism. Post-modern capitalism ideally needs infantile adults and pseudo-adult infants. Parents themselves may be spending more time checking and updating their ‘social’ media than talking with their children, affecting the latters’ emotional development. People are increasingly absent on their at-call devices even while seemingly present, and thus their remnant presence – a matter of being grounded in the here-and-now of their body and senses ‒ is also diminishing like the last vestiges of nature. The traditional survival mode of alienated labour, namely dissociating and inwardly ‘absenting’ oneself from one’s activity in order to cope with the stress and monotony, has now become generalised and facilitated by the 24/7 pseudo-personalisation of digital media.
Esse est percipi: the Lonely FOMO Crowd
Digitalisation increasingly entails the reduction of face-to-face conversation and conviviality, replaced with the crowded isolation and dispersed loneliness of ‘social media’, relationship simulations and the ‘crowd cloud’. We may now encounter gatherings of friends, even whole families at the dinner table, where all are at some point no longer looking at each other and communicating but scanning and flicking their little personal screens checking their Facebook and texts or email messages for ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). Even personal and family relationships are now becoming increasingly mediated by technology and commerce and thus abstract, exploitable and distant.
Having met a friend for a conversation, he puts a smartphone on the table. This is an important gesture: ‘I am here, but I am also not here, potentially on call or online. I cannot give you my full attention because my attention is now divided between talking with you and the phone, between reality and a machine.’ Conversations themselves have thus become precarious as they are routinely interrupted with ‘sorry, but I have to take this call’. The interrupting call always turns out to be more important than you, distant and virtual information exchange (‘communication’) more important than the intimate, real process of dialogue which needs space, time and uninterrupted, meandering yet focussed awareness in order to be able to develop or even exist at all. Teenage girls may now be interrupted every four or five minutes by the receiving or sending of a message. Neurologically, they are being programmed to ignore reality. They experience the constant interruption as constant ‘connection’. Digitalisation is the generalization of Being as Messaging-and-Being-Perceived, of being interrupted, of absent-mindedness and scatterbrainedness, of increasing intolerance of slowness, focus, complexity, ambiguity, depth. Digitalisation spreads us out like pancakes, it is the generalization of social shallowness.
Smartphones and social media have generalized what 18th century bishop philosopher Berkeley thought of as the human condition itself: ‘to be is to be perceived’ (esse est percipi). If I am not in constant pseudo-contact with my friends and followers, preferably in order to be somehow admired, I do not exist. Our western culture of narcissism has finally found its ideal technology and successfully globalised it. We are all like Samuel Beckett’s Mr. Knott: ‘And Mr. Knott, needing nothing if not, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, of himself knew nothing. And so he needed to be witnessed. Not that he might know, no, but that he might not cease.’ (Watt, p. 202)
The Integrated Spectacle
Constant plastic touching and image consumption can be seen as the next, more advanced, level of the ‘spectacle’ in advanced, post-industrial capitalism. It is, in Guy Debord’s terms, the ‘integrated spectacle’, in which man and machine have finally achieved Capitals’ dream and been integrated into one 24/7 image-consumptive unit. Debord: ‘When the spectacle was concentrated [as in the Soviet Union], the greater part of the surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse [as in post-war consumer capitalism], a small part; today, no part.’ In this oxymoronic post-modern mode, capitalist heteronomy is now realised not from without but by ‘free choice’ from within: in the apparent freedom and ‘autonomy’ of people constantly working their personal digital devices to consume programs, services, entertainment made and sold by others. Even when ‘interactive’, this ‘freedom’ is just the usual passive activity of buying and consuming a commodity.
1. The rapid expansion of digital technologies over the last two decades has greatly magnified all of the inherent tendencies of industrial-capitalist society and its centralised state to increase human alienation and dissociation from nature, from others and from inner nature (body and original self).
2. Unchecked by democratic debate, control and limitation/modification, total digitalisation, the radical cyber-biotechnologies spawned by capitalism’s ‘third industrial revolution’ and geo-engineering have the potential to both ‘rewire’ humans in completely new ways and to create a corresponding new form of ‘nature’ and hyper-capitalist ‘post-industrial’ society: i.e. some form of post-liberal capitalist totalitarianism within a totally controlled artificial environment, a commoditized ‘second nature’ replacing the first nature of the Holocene (both ex- and internal) which global capitalist development has almost irreparably degraded or destroyed.
3. The jokers in the pack of this possible scenario of capitalist Business as Usual are climate chaos, widespread ecosystemic collapse, nuclear war, ‘peak everything’, economic depression, civilisational collapse. Any or a combination of some of these would knock out at least sections of the global digital infrastructure and technology, and thus a great chunk of scientific and cultural memory, causing civilisational regression, much suffering and death.
4. Last but not least, a cultural and social revolution, i.e. the introduction of democratic self-management at work and in society, could halt and transform this ominous trend into a humanly and ecologically sustainable and benign one. Rather than left to ‘markets’, technology can be democratically determined and controlled. Another world is possible.
(Huxley, 1946 introduction to Brave New World: “Only a large-scale popular movement towards decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism. At present there is no sign that such a movement will take place.”)