A Reactionary Critique of Social Media – part 1

The more intellectual people become, the less they can find agreement on any matter. One of the few things most of us (intellectuals or not) can agree on is the fact that internet, social media and smartphones are impacting our lives mostly negatively, generating unhappiness, anxiety, social isolation and political polarisation.

In the early 2000s it was Evangelical Christians who warned against the addictive effects of social media and advocated for self restraint, daily discipline and other such quaint notions. Their warnings have ceases slowly as the Evangelicals themselves were drawn into the matrix by their limbic system so fully that a fundamentalist pastor like Joshua Harris, the author of ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ and other books that lamented the nasty effects of the internet, confessed that he was spending an enormous amount of time on social media platforms. The corrosive effects this phenomenon had on his faith were obvious when in 2019 he disavowed all his previous teachings, separated from his wife due to “significant changes that have taken place in both” and announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian. His current website advertises him as a wordsmith who can help you convert leads into customers and use the power of story to connect with them. The medium has become the message; the warrior – a sellsword.

This happened to all of us – religious or non-religious; these disruptive platforms have eroded our beliefs, our life principles and daily routines.

The social-justice culture of the left, as resistant as it is to categorisation and the identification of its causes, would have never materialised in the absence of the internet & social media and the new dynamics they triggered. And for all the headaches the movement has caused over the past 6 years, it is worth pointing out that leftists have also become some of the most vocal critics of social media and its ills. The critiques are, of course, lazy reapplications of critical theory in a contemporary context, lamenting ‘alienation’, ‘commodification’, ‘fetishization’ and so on, culminating with the liturgical demonisation of neoliberalism, capitalism and the evil rightwingers who were behind Cambridge analytica and subverted our beloved elections in the UK and USA. As insufferable as this rhetoric might be to a non-progressive, it still rings somewhat truer than the surreal optimism of Steven Pinker or the clicheic ‘clean your room bucko’ of dr. Peterson, who claim we live in the best possible world and if you are suffering from depression it must be your fault.

There clearly is something really rotten in the state of Denmark, and you shouldn’t blame it entirely on the SJWs, just as you should never succumb to their narrative.

The main change that social media has induced over the past two decades was a destruction of real-world communities.

‘In her book ‘Alone Together’ MIT’s Sherry Turkle reminds us thtat the root of the word ‘community’ means literally ‘to give among each other’ and argues that such a practice requires ‘physical proximity’ and ‘shared responsibilities’. The growing presence of social media fosters relationships that avoid either of these constitutive elements of community, replacing that thicker set of shared practices with the thinner and more evanescent bonds of ‘networks’, Turkle is not simply nostalgic – she acknowledges the difficult and even awful aspects of community in earlier times. She describes the community in which her grandparents lived, for instance, as ‘rife with deep antagonisms’, But the same thickness that gave rise to such contentious relations, she writes, also inspired people to take care of each other in times of need. Turkle fears that we are losing not only that experience but also the capacity to form the thick bonds that constitute community, and that our attraction to social media at once undermines these bonds and provides a pale simulacrum to fill the void’ – Why Liberalism has Failed, P. Deneen

In an article for the Atlantic titled ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely’, Stephen Marche shows hos Facebook is contributing to an epidemic of loneliness and its corresponding symptoms like sadness and depression. About 20 percent of Americans (60 million) declared they experience unhappiness due to being lonely. Unlike the mainstream critiques coming from the left, Marche avoids blaming Facebook or social media for this epidemic. ‘Rather, he notes that Facebook, and technologies like it, have facilitated or even enabled a preexisting predilection – the long-standing American desire to be independent and free. Facebook is thus a tool that elicits loneliness from a deeper set of philosophical, political, and even theological commitments. As Marche points out, “Loneliness is one of the first things that Americans spend their money achieving…. We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.” Technologies like Facebook, he writes, “are the by-product of long-standing national appetite for independence.” That appetite, as I have argued, is itself the result of a redefinition of the nature of liberty’ – Idem.

Other authors such as N. Carr have argued that persistent occupation with the internet changes the configuration of our brains, making us addicted to frequent changes in images and content, and less capable to focus, remember and use language properly.

There is also an established tradition of critics of technology (L. Mumford, J. Ellul, Postman) who emphasized the ways in which it destroys long-standing ways of life, attacking the very core of our culture and belief systems in the name of utility and efficiency.

These critiques all point to a structural problem that has more to do with the selective filters imposed on technological innovation, than any isolated technological product. Unfortunately, most readers will instantly associate this argument with the moronic blanket accusations of ‘structural racism’ coming from the left. This is not the case, as by the end of this article, we will show that the left itself is responsible for the dystopian aspects of our technologies. Boomer conservatives are another think-tank that have made it difficult to diagnose these problems. This faction managed to constantly lose to the left while posing as the ideal grumpy conservatives with comfortable sinecures, always ready to pick up the latest cause dropped by the left.

Their refusal to admit that technology might be driven by poor selective filters relies on a classical liberal definition of freedom, in which individuals are free to pursue their passions, maximise happiness and comfort. Technology, they say, is always a private enterprise aimed at attaining this goal. Therefore, it cannot be selected by any structural forces, because it’s all decentralized.

In his book ‘Why Liberalism has Failed’, the political scientist Patrick J. Deneen devotes an entire chapter to the nefarious consequences of technology and he links them all to the ideology of the founding fathers of liberalism – Locke, Mill and surprisingly, Machiavelli.

‘As I have argued throughout, liberalism above all advances a new understanding of liberty. In the ancient world – whether pre-Christian antiquity, particularly ancient Greece, or during the long reign of Christendom – the dominant definition of liberty involved recognition that it required an appropriate form of self-governance. This conception of liberty was based upon a reciprocal relationship between the self-government of individuals through the cultivation of virtue […] and the self-government of politics, in which the governing aspiration was the achievement of the common good. Ancient thought sought a “virtuous circle” of polities that would support the fostering of virtuous individuals, and of virtuous individuals who would form the civic life of a polity oriented toward the common good. Much of the challenge faced by ancient thinkers was how to start such a virtuous circle where it did not exist or existed only partially, and how to maintain it against the likelihood of civic corruption and persistent temptation to vice.

Liberty, by this understanding, was not doing as one wished, but was choosing the right and virtuous course. To be free, above all, was to be free from enslavement to one’s own basest desires, which could never be fulfilled, and the pursuit of which could only foster ceaseless craving and discontent. Liberty was thus the condition achieved by self-rule, over one’s own appetites and over the longing for political dominion.

The defining feature of modern thought was the rejection of this definition of liberty in favor of the one more familiar to us today. Liberty, as defined by the originators of modern liberalism, was the condition in which humans were completely free to pursue whatever they desired. This condition – fancifully conceived as a “state of nature”, was imagined as a condition before the creation of political society, a condition of pure liberty. Its opposite was thus conceived as constraint. Liberty was no longer, as the ancients held, the condition of just and appropriate self-rule.

The main political obstacle to be overcome was limitation upon individual liberty imposed by other people. The old political orders, previously devoted to the inculcation of virtue and the commendation of the common good, were attacked early by Nicollo Machiavelli as “imaginary republics and principalities”, dealing in oughts rather than taking humans as they actually are. In order to unleash the productive and scientific capacity of human societies, a different mode and order had to be introduced – a completely new form of political technology that made possible a technological society. That form of technology was the modern republic – posited on the rejection of the key premises of ancient republicanism – and above all it rested on the harnessing of self-interest in both the public and the private realms in order to secure human liberty and increase the scope, scale and extent of human power over nature. […]

According to J. Madison in Federalist 10, the first object of government is the protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men”, which is to say our individual pursuits and the outcomes of those pursuits – particularly, Madison notes, differences in attainment of property. Government exists to protect the greatest possible sphere of individual liberty, and it does so by encouraging the pursuit of self-interest among both the citizenry and public servants. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”: powers must be separate and divided powers to prevent any one person from centralizing and seizing power; but at the same time, the government itself is to be given substantial new powers to act directly on individuals, both to liberate them from the constraints of their particular localities, and to promote the expansion of commerce and the “useful arts and sciences”.

This new political technology developed to expand the practice of the modern understanding of liberty was designed to liberate us from partial loyalties to particular people and places, and make us into individuals who, above all, strive to achieve our individual ambitions and desires. Part of the new technology of modern republicanism is what Madison calls an “enlarged orbit” that will increase individual prospects for their ambitions while making our interpersonal ties and commitments more tenuous. One of the ways modern republicanism was intended to combat the ancient problem of political faction was not by commending public spiritedness but by fostering a “mistrust of motives” that would result from the large expanse of the republic, constantly changing political dynamics, the encouragement to “pluralism” and expansion of diversity as a default preference, and thus the shifting commitments of the citizenry. A technological society like our own comes into being through a new kind of political technology – one that replaces the ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good with self-interest, the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over a concert for public weal, and an acquired ability to reconsider any relationships that limit our personal liberty. In effect, a new political technology is invented – “a new science of politics” – that itself conditions our understanding of the purposes and ends of science and technology.

Technology does not exist autonomous of political and social norms and beliefs, but its development and applications are shaped by such norms. Liberalism introduces a set of norms that lead us, ironically, to the belief that technology develops independent of any norms and intentions, but rather shapes our norms, our polity, and even humanity, and inevitably escapes our control […].

In our remaking of the world – through obvious technologies like the internet, and less obvious but no less influential ones like insurance – we embrace and deploy technologies that make us how we imagine ourselves being. And in a profound irony, it is precisely in this quest to attain ever-more-perfect individual liberty and autonomy that we increasingly suspect that we might fundamentally lack choice about adoption of those technologies.

To secure our modern form of freedom through the great modern technology of the liberal political order and the capitalist economic system it fosters, we ceaselessly need to increase our power and expand the empire of liberty. Concentrations of political and economical power are necessary for ever-increasing individual liberty. In contradiction to our contemporary political discourse, which suggests that there is some conflict between the individual and centralized power, we need to understand that ever-expanding individual liberty is actually the creation of a sprawling and intricate set of technologies that, while liberating the individual from the limitations of both nature and obligation, leave us fealing increasingly powerless, voiceless, alone – and unfree. […]

Maybe the deepest irony is that our capacity for self-government has waned almost to the point of nonexistence. In our current lamentations about a variety of crises – the civic crisis in which we seem to have lost the capacity to speak the language of common good; our financial crisis, in which both public and private debt, accrued for immediate satiation, is foisted upon future generations in the vague hope that they will devise a way to deal with it; our environmental crisis, in which most of the answers to our problems are framed in terms of technological fixes but which ultimately require us to control our ceaseless appetites; and the moral crisis of a society in which personal commitments such as families so easily unravel and are replaced by therapy and social programs – we fail to see the deep commonalities arising from the very success of our modern liberal project. We are certainly right to congratulate ourselves for the successes of our technology, but we are also right to worry about the costs of our technological society. Our “culture of technology” was premised, from the very start, on a false definiton of liberty, and it now seems to be leading us ineluctably into a condition of bondage to the consequences of our own fantasy.’ – Idem.

To be continued. Click here for part 2.

Foucauldian Frauds and Firebrands
The Symbolic World vs. Fluid Ontology


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