Digital Alienation 5

mobile Weihnachten

[Last byte of this essay. Phew, relief for all concerned…]

Generalising Absence

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.”)

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 20, 2014.

7 Responses to “Digital Alienation 5”

  1. Excellent stuff Peter. All too true. Copied all the links and emailed off to me daughters. But that doesn’t really get their heads out of the screens, does it. Number 4 is pretty much it. That’s where the real conversation starts. But it’s how to get it started, let alone keep it going. Huxley’s statement is just depressing. Maybe this is our fate then. Like cockroaches, we only have a certain capacity, and that is the ability to THINK or DREAM about a better world but not actually create it, and we don’t and can’t know it. The illusion of free will is the same as having it. It can’t be otherwise.

    • Thanks James. Yep….yep, and yep. Meanwhile back at the ranch, God big hombre was coralling da sheep and admiring his own sunset on his sunset app.

  2. Yeah, turns out I was totally wrong about you overstating the case. Just got back from a visit with my grandchildren and the four year old is totally addicted to gaming, can barely pull his head out to say hello.

    His parents are “techies” so they are ideologically invested in the whole shiteree. Pads and tablets and monitors everywhere.

    • yep, our grandson is just on three, and he’s still into books, make-believe games and reality (garden, worms, insects..). We’ve still managed to keep him free of TV and screens (apart from a photo or two on the PC or smartphone), but I dread the coming fights and losing battles over all that…

  3. i certainly find digital technology a double-edged sword…i love it and hate it…i find many of us raised up without it, can balance the benefits/risks better…but the digital natives are coming up with a hole in their development…their hands-on experiential learning is short-circuited… coupled with youthful self-centered-ness, raging hormones and it’s a recipe for extremely short attention spans, impatience, limited coping skills and superficial intellectual narcissism…
    not that this wasn’t already being exacerbated by compulsory education, children sitting still in an artificial environment while being force-fed arbitrary curriculum…then regurgitating answers on a life-course-determining exam…
    school police aren’t even questioned anymore…welcomed in fact…keeps the machine going, right ?!
    seems to me, when those “jokers in the pack” materialize, the digital natives won’t know what hit them…nor have the problem-solving skills to deal with it…perfect fodder for the machine ?

    • Sure Kristi, I agree it’s double-edged, and this essay was meant as a negatives-only polemic coz not many ‘progressives’ are talking about that sharp end of the sword of digitalisation. Must be pretty exhausting dealing with the little digital natives every day and seeing what’s being lost. And indeed another argument for home schooling, I agree.

  4. yeah…i think you’re right…digital is the solution to everything these days…and i’m guilty of pushing it too…it’s very convenient…all info is a mere click away…and i think maybe i’m being luddite by not embracing it whole-heartedly…gotta keep up…but there’s the ignored flip side that your essay expresses so eloquently, as always…
    how to get to a balance where everyone benefits, without destroying the planet…so many cultures, customs, opinions, justifications for greed and power…no easy answers… >heavy sigh<

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