Don’t Retweet This

By Tim Hardy

Ubiquitous personal communications media turn our activity into passivity, capturing it and putting it into the service of capitalism. Angry, engaged, desperate to do something, we look for evidence, ask questions, and make demands. Yet the information we need to act seems perpetually out of reach; there is always something we misunderstand or do not know.

Jodi Dean, Communist Horizon 

I’ve never made a secret of my unease with social media. For all its potential advantages, I always feel lessened by the time I spend using it. Whether I’ve been engaging in a collective Two Minutes Hate in response to the troll du jour, or trying to argue a point before the number of participants in the thread overwhelms the claustrophobia of 140 characters  or digging into a new story that old media is reluctant to touch, the effect is always the same. I feel slightly depressed, emotionally drained and frustrated every time I engage with the world via twitter. I cannot bring myself to use Facebook where the despair sets in the moment I see the front page.

Social media is compulsive in the way that a fruit machine is compulsive. It is designed to hook you in and to keep sticking coins in the slot in the hope of a jackpot retweet or response, the little ego-strokes of recognition and reward that condition us to keep coming back.

It promises a cure for boredom and in doing so robs us of the time alone and silence needed to think.

Let me just check one more time if anyone has responded and then I’ll move on.

We switch from our phone to our laptop – then check once more that nothing has changed in the moments we were away.

At times we scroll backwards endlessly, trying to read everything, determined that nothing will escape our attention, like Canute trying to turn back the tide, until, hours later, we tear ourselves away with painful, dry eyes and cramped fingers, having learned nothing.

Social media plays on the same anxieties from which advertising profits. Am I popular? Do people think I’m interesting? Attractive? Funny?  And it measures it with ruthless precision. You know exactly how many people follow you. You know exactly how many times someone has liked or repeated your words or images. You cannot switch this off or ignore it.  It is by design part of your identity on that network and the bare statistics are shoved in your face every time you log in.

Perhaps this is just me but I do not feel that I am alone in responding this way.

In a substantial excerpt from her new book Communist Horizon at Guernica, Jodi Dean warns of the danger that social media encourages us to focus on the spectacle at the cost of organising:

The cost of the exponentially expanding circuit of information and communication is particularly high for progressive and left political movements. Competition for attention—how do we get our message across?—in a rich, tumultuous media environment too often and easily means adapting to this environment and making its dynamic our own, which can result in a shift in focus from doing to appearing, that is to say, a shift toward thinking in terms of getting attention in the 24/7 media cycle and away from larger questions of building a political apparatus with duration. Infinite demands on our attention—demands we make on each other and which communicative capitalism captures and amplifies—expropriate political energies of focus, organization, duration, and will vital to communism as a movement and a struggle. It’s no wonder that communicative capitalism is participationist: the more participation in networked media environments, the more traces to hoard and energies to capture or divert.

She hints in the following parenthetical aside at ways in which network technology could however be used to empower left political movements:

The limits of attention are not only the limits of individuals (and so can be resolved by distributing labor and crowdsourcing).

We cannot return the genie to the bottle nor would I argue is it desirable to do so. I am deeply concerned about our collective political failure to adjust to the many consequences of technological change not least that of “de-skilling” – the automation of routine manual tasks – but to wish for a return to a simpler past is simply nostalgia and an indulgence we cannot afford. Just as technology can send labour overseas so to can it be used to organise collective labour for our own ends. The Global Village Construction Set is an example of using distributed intelligence and skills sharing to build an open source, low-cost, high performance technological platform that will enable industrial productivity on a small scale, allowing small communities to become self-sufficient more easily.

Technology can be genuinely disruptive. Even if, in the long-term, social media distracts and makes dissent easy to track and control, it can mobilise at short notice, bringing people together onto the streets in sufficient numbers to topple a regime.

The negatives do not mean that we should reject technology but that we need to be more critical about it, to ask more questions about the circumstances of its production, the purposes to which we put it and the potentials we are not using. It is too easy for most of us to confuse the flickering shadows on the cave wall of our screens for reality.