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Social Media and the Society of the Spectacle

“The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.”

― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

― Edward Bernays, Propaganda

“We think we’re searching Google; Google is actually searching us. We think that these companies have privacy policies; those policies are actually surveillance policies. We’re told that if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear. The fact is, what they don’t tell us and what we are forgetting, that if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing, because everything about us that makes us our unique identities, that gives us our individual spirit, our personality, our sense of freedom of will, freedom of action, our sense of our right to our own futures, that’s what comes from within. Those are our inner resources. That’s our private realm. And it’s intended to be private for a reason, because that is how it grows and flourishes and turns us into people who assert moral autonomy—an essential element of a flourishing, democratic society.”

― Shoshana Zuboff, author of Master or Slave: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization 

“Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

― Edward Snowden

Recently I was rereading some of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. I was reminded of how essential this work by the late French Marxist philosopher is to today’s age of social media. Debord’s understanding of how the forces of capital shape our collective experiences and thoughts speaks to our time where algorithms dominate the trajectory of the psyche against a craven backdrop of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has described as “inverted totalitarianism.”

Every day we are bombarded with the imagery of empire and capital. It is relentless. Our minds have become both a marketplace and a commodity to be traded. And it is a lucrative industry with Facebook and Google as prime examples. Their data collection and surveillance typify a conjoining of the state and capitalist economy; and they have carved out insidious new spaces in the human brain to coerce self-imposed censorship and conformity to the prevailing consumerist global order.

This social conditioning is a process which requires mass compliance. The infamous propagandist for industry and vaunted “father of public relations” Edward Bernays understood that. It takes time to manipulate the multilayered strata of the human psyche, especially in regard to large populations of people. But history is replete with tragic examples of its successful implementation by powerful interests. Today those interests lie squarely with capital and empire; but the effects are the same, distraction, censorship, alienation, coerced, compliance with the norms of the status quo and the numbing of the critical mind.

Debord said, “Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.” This profound observation is even more important today. The state, via mass media, informs us of the villains and phantoms they believe we should fear. Other, far more destructive, deadly and oppressive threats such as the continued proliferation of nuclear arms, catastrophic climate change, collapse of ecosystems, dangers to public health from industrial pollutants, vastly unequal, racist and brutal economic and legal systems, militarism or plutocratic tyranny can then be relegated as non-issues, or at least lesser ones.

Most people on the planet will not suffer or die from a terrorist attack, but they are very likely to be severely affected by the other issues mentioned above. Imagery on portable screens that virtually everyone in the West and around the world has access to communicates messages that may speak to some of these dire or existential problems, but they do so in an abstract manner that divorces the observer from the subject.

As Debord observed, this kind of culture of spectacle informs our personal relationships as well. Whether one is “present” on social media or not has become a sort of litmus test of ones presence in life itself. “Likes” or emojis have replaced and truncated language to such an extent that now older forms of communication are often looked at with novelty, suspicion, or even disgust. What’s more is that emojis in social media, particularly Facebook, have been employed all too often as tools of ridicule or even harassment of weak or vulnerable people. But what is perhaps the most striking about the current social media age is its repetitive narrative of self-aggrandizement. One so repetitive and hypnotic that it almost appears invisible. The “selfie” and “status update” are examples of the unending drive of social media to create a false sense of self to present to the world. Of course this self must conform and be well adjusted to consumerist society in one form or another lest it be tagged for “mental health issues,” subversive thought or behavior, or simply be rendered unnoticed or unimportant by society in general.

Indeed, I am certain Debord would be horrified at the age of social media. At no other time in human history has there been a greater confluence of authoritarian dominance or social control implemented in such an intimate and ubiquitous manner. Unlike Debord’s time, social media provides a new medium to not only socially condition the masses but for the corporate state to gather what was once private information about those masses via their personally owned devices and apps.

That it masquerades as a form of democracy is equally disturbing, especially since at its core it represents the policing of thought and dampening of dissent. He wrote as if penning a prophecy: “The spectator’s consciousness, imprisoned in a flattened universe, bound by the screen of the spectacle behind which his life has been deported, knows only the fictional speakers who unilaterally surround him with their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle, in its entirety, is his “mirror image.””

This spectacle reigns supreme in today’s social media culture. It is essential to its formulation and operating guidelines. Under such a paradigm history must be sterilized of analysis and ultimately atomized into unrelated instances to make an eternal present, divorced from any transformative potential. Therefore corporations and industries which have long records of polluting the environment or lying to the public about the safety of their products can continue to expand and even be celebrated by the corporate owned media. Religious institutions with long histories of abuse, patriarchy and repression can maintain their status as trusted institutions. The military can repeat the lie over and over that it is noble despite a history drenched in the blood of well documented atrocities and ongoing crimes. The United States and many other nations can keep calling themselves democracies despite quite obvious facts that strongly refute that designation. The mere notion of revolution then is made to be farcical or even dangerous. After all, how could revolution ever be seen as necessary within a democracy?

Social media does not necessarily signal the death of democratic freedom, but in its current form and under the aegis of capital it is certainly a nail in its coffin. This is because under such circumstances it is incapable of being anything other than a means for capital accumulation for the corporate state and a platform for its narrative, and it will do this through ever more invasive, censorial and repressive means. As Edward Snowden pointed out, people are less free when they feel that they are being observed. This is especially so when the observer is the state. Several studies have indicated that there is a sharp decline in certain online searches among the general public following any indication that government agencies are logging those searches, even if those citizens have not committed any crime. And the chilling effect is not unfounded. One incident involved an innocent couple who were visited by counter-terrorism police after searching Google for pressure cookers and backpacks. Since the internet has become the world’s public library, the implications for democracy are as dire as they are clear.

Unplugging from any of this isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily virtuous, but there are ways to divest from its social control personally and collectively. There are also ways to use it which defy its dominant algorithms. Détournement, which merely means rerouting or hijacking in French, is one of those ways. This involves inverting the imagery or messages of capital and empire to illustrate and even amplify their mendacity. It has a long history of effective use in bending the dominant narrative to one which reflects reality.

All of this is not to say that technology or social media are inherently bad, but to recognize that much of it has become a vehicle for a rather pernicious authoritarianism. And its danger lies in the fallacy of its benign appearance. Whether it be Google maps or one of countless other “helpful” apps one uses on a daily basis, surveillance capital becomes a means of controlling behavior, transactions, choices, as well as determining which members of society present a threat to the order. In other words, conformity is strongly reinforced while any form of dissent is rendered dangerously subversive. But although the algorithmic maps to our collective psyche are being endlessly drawn by programmers and their corporate and state masters, we still have the agency to navigate these landscapes with our eyes open. And indeed, the best tool we possess will always be that critically informed dissent the powerful so fear the most.

More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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