Evan Selinger on Tech Criticism

Folks, just another PSA for you all.

CSET will be hosting a virtual talk delivered by Evan Selinger this Friday evening, May 24th. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll know that I think highly of Selinger’s work. He is a philsopher working especially in the field of philosophy of technology, who has written widely, for both popular and academic audiences, on matters of technology, ethics, and society.

The talk will begin at 7PM. If you happen to live in the Pittsburgh area, you can join a group of us who will meet in person for the talk. If you are not, you can still join in virtually.

You can find all the details you need here. Shoot me an email if you have any questions.

Symposium on Social Media

Just a quick post this morning to let you know about The New Atlantis’s symposium on digital discourse: The Ruin of the Digital Town Square.

I contributed a piece to the discussion titled, “The Inescapable Town Square.” That piece and all the others are available as of today. Take a look at the other entries, including pieces from James Poulos, Nolen Gertz, and Caitrin Keiper, among others.

Here’s an excerpt from my essay, which drew on the work of Walter Ong:

Consider, for example, the attention Ong drew to the mnemonic consequences of new media. Among the most important features of writing was that it allowed for an unprecedented degree of memory offloading. Ong invites us to “try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.” In a culture without writing, “You know what you can recall.” Consequently, oral societies are inherently conservative, structured by rituals of remembrance intended to preserve their knowledge and their history. Individual identity, which to a large extent rests on memory, is subordinated to the more important work of keeping the memory of the community alive.

Writing relieves societies of this imperative to remember, and thereby also weakens the conservative impulse. Additionally, as writing and its tools become accessible to large parts of a society, individual identity flourishes, both because writing releases the individual from the strong focus on collective oral memory, and because reading and writing, especially after the invention of print, tend to be solitary and interiorizing activities.

Digital technology scrambles these earlier dynamics. On the one hand, digital media dramatically expand our capacity to document and store information. Externalized memory hypertrophies as we rely ever more on easily accessible and searchable archives. You carry ten thousand images in your pocket and you can search them by date, place, or face. The library is in your pocket, too, and it is in many respects better stocked than any local library you were likely to visit in the pre-digital age.

On the other hand, the structure of our digital platforms also recalls a feature of oral culture: the evanescence of the word. In oral cultures, the spoken word is passing away just as it is coming into being; it cannot be locked down or frozen. As Ong notes, the spoken word is not a thing but an event; it is not static but acts on the world at the moment it is spoken. Literate individuals, by contrast, can barely help thinking of a word as anything other than its static alphabetic representation. Our digital media timelines, like oral communication, privilege the fleeting present; what we document — words, sounds, images, video — quickly recedes into the past. Indeed, even our digital images no longer primarily serve documentary purposes, but instead are a form of instant and transient communication. This is a reality that Evan Spiegel, co-creator of Snapchat, noted in 2016: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

Under these conditions, the function of externalized memory shifts. It is no longer for recording the past or preserving knowledge, but now for acting in the present. Memory loses its context and story. It neither integrates a society, as the rituals of collective remembering in oral societies did, nor does it sustain an individual’s experience of the self, as writing did in the age of print. Memory, much of it highly personal, is “there,” but without the person necessarily remembering. This allows memory to become weaponized. It exists in massive and accessible databases, ready to be resurfaced, without context and without warning, in a newly contentious field of public discourse.

Read the rest.

The Myth of Convenience

I once suggested that the four horsemen of the digital apocalypse will be called Convenience, Security, Innovation, and Lulz. These were the values, so to speak, driving the production and enthusiastic adoption of digital technologies regardless of their more dubious qualities.

I was reminded of the line while reading Colin Horgan’s recent piece, “The Tyranny of Convenience.” Horgan rightly highlights the degree to which the value of convenience drives our choices and informs our trade-offs.

“In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked,” Horgan observes. “But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Not unlike Kara Swisher in a piece from a few weeks ago, Horgan does not absolve us of responsibility for the emerging digital dystopia. Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that tech companies and structural factors play no role. That goes without saying, but, you know, I’ll say it anyway. 

I would certainly not claim that the playing field on which we make our choices about technology is always level or fair; nonetheless,  it seems to me that we have more agency than we are sometimes given credit for, which, of course, entails a measure of responsibility. Indeed, the idea that we are basically helpless in the face of some vast and inscrutable techno-corporate machinery undermines the critical reflection and action that may be required of us.

There’s a line from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life that has always stuck with me ever since I first encountered it:  “it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools.”

But if we are not fools, by and large, and we are making choices, albeit sometimes against a stacked deck, how is it that, in Horgan’s apt formulation, we find ourselves living “in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” (Granted: “we all chose” is in need of qualification.)

“[C]onvenience is a value, and one we hold personally,” Horgan concludes. “Ultimately, this is why it keeps winning, outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality, all of which remain merely issues for most of us.” “Convenience,” he adds, “doesn’t simply supersede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.” But this, too, requires a measure of explanation.

The Self-defeating Value of Convenience

Horgan’s piece recalled to mind Thomas Tierney’s The Value of Convenience:  A Genealogy of Technical Culture. Tierney’s book is over 25 years old now, but it remains a useful exploration of the value of convenience and its role in shaping our technological milieu. His argument draws on an eclectic set of sources and ranges over the history of technology, political theory, philosophy, and the history of religion.

Tierney’s work supports Horgan’s claim that convenience is an often overlooked factor shaping our technological culture, but he also tries to understand why this might be the case. What exactly is the nature of the convenience we prize so highly, and why do we find it so valuable? Perhaps it seems unnecessary to ask such questions, as if the value of convenience were self-evident. But the questions most of us don’t think to ask are often the most important ones we could ask. When we encounter an unasked question we have also found an entry point into the network of assumptions and values that structure our thinking but go largely unnoticed.

Tierney explains early on that there are two basic questions he is asking: “First, what is the value of technology to modern individuals? And second, why do they hold this value in such high esteem that, even when faced with technological dangers and dilemmas, they hope for solutions that will enable them to maintain and develop technical culture?”

Nietzsche looms large in Tierney’s analysis, and he introduces the primary focus of the book with a passage from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“I go among this people and keep my eyes open:  they have become smaller and are becoming ever smaller:  and their doctrine of happiness and virtue is the cause.

For they are modest even in virtue—for they want ease. But only a modest virtue is compatible with ease.”

For “etymological reasons,” Tierney chooses to call this desire for ease convenience. “The value of technology in modernity,” he will argue, “is centered on technology’s ability to provide convenience.” He’s quick to add, though, that he is not interested in lamenting the smallness or mediocrity of modern individuals and their virtues. Rather, he seeks “to throw some light on, and thereby loosen, the hold which technology has on modernity. The desire for convenience seems to be an integral part of that hold—that is, an integral part of the modern self.”

Tierney is also not interested in offering a singular and definitive account of technological culture. Early on, he makes clear that the nature of technological culture is such that it requires multiple perspectives and lines of analysis, and even then it will likely elude any effort to identify its essence.

Regarding the nature of convenience, Tierney sees in the modern value a reimagining of the body’s needs as limits to be overcome. “The distinction I would like to make between ancient and modern necessity,” Tierney writes, “is that ancient necessity was primarily concerned with satisfying the demands of the body, while modern necessity is largely focused on overcoming the limits which are imposed by the body …. And by the limits of the body, I mean certain features of embodiment which are perceived as inconveniences, obstacles, or annoyances.”

Following a discussion of necessity in the context of the ancient Greek household, Tierney insists that modern necessity, just as much as ancient necessity, “is based upon the body.” However, modern attitudes towards the body differ from those of the ancient Greeks: “While the Greeks thought that the satisfaction of bodily demands required careful attention and planning throughout the household, modernity treats the body instead as the source of limits and barriers imposed upon persons. What these limits require is not planning and attention, but the consumption of various technological devices that allow people to avoid or overcome such limits.”

At points citing the work of Paul Virilio, Tierney adds a critical temporal dimension to this distinction. The demands of the body are seen “as inconveniences in that they limit or interfere with the use of time.” Technology is valuable precisely as it appears to mitigate these inconveniences. “Time-saving,” as is well known, has long been a selling point for modern household technologies.

“The need for speed,” Tierney continues, “both in conveyance and in people’s ability to satisfy the demands of the body, is a hallmark of modern necessity.” But this is a paradoxical desire: “Unlike purely spatial limits, as soon as a speed limit is overcome, another limit is simultaneously established. The need to do things and get places as quickly as possible is a need that can never be satisfied. Every advance imposes a new obstacle and creates the need for a more refined or a new form of technology.”

It brings to mind a line from Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic: “The ‘end’ or ‘goal’ is to keep going. Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded, believe in the green light.” The green light, constant motion in whatever direction, acceleration—these are, of course, no ‘ends’ at all. They are what you have left when you have lost sight of any true ends. It is fruitless to save time if you don’t know why exactly your are saving it for.

There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all. There are a number of factors that may explain this dynamic. As Neil Postman noted around the same time that Tierney was writing his book, the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Tierney himself admits that what he has to say is likely to be met “with a degree of self-preserving … denial” because he will argue that “a certain value is not freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” Which is why, as Horgan put it, “we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Convenience, Asceticism, and Death

Tierney notes that others have focused on the domination of nature as the guiding value of modern technology. However, he makes a useful distinction between the value that animates the producers of technology and the value that animates the consumers of technology. The domination of nature, according to Tierney, “has been the value which guides the cutting edge of technology; it is the value pursued by the leaders of technological progress, the scientists and technicians.” Convenience, however, “is the value of the masses, of those who consume the products of technical culture.”

Admittedly, there is something about “the domination of nature” that seems somewhat archaic or passé. One doesn’t imagine Bill Gates or Jack Dorsey, say, waking in the morning, taking in a whiff of the morning air, and declaring, “I love the smell of Francis Bacon in the morning!”

However, there are a couple of interesting paths to take from here. One is presented to us by the evergreen mid-twentieth observation by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man that “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” If you seek to conquer nature, you will eventually run into the realization that humanity is just another part of nature and, thus, the last realm to be conquered.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis writes. “The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”

“The battle will indeed be won,” Lewis reiterates, “But who, precisely, will have won it?”

Well, again: “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

This does seem rather more familiar now than the older language about the domination of nature. For whatever else we may say of digital technology and its purveyors, it certainly appears as if a vast, often unseen machinery is being built in order to realize dreams of what Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann have called “engineered determinism.” The world, as I’ve noted before, is becoming our very own giant, personalized Skinner Box, and we assent to it, in no small measure, because of the promise of convenience.

So while Tierney’s claim that the technological elite are operating under the banner of the conquest of nature may have initially seemed somewhat dated, we need only observe that, in certain cases, it has simply morphed into its next phase. Which, to be clear, is not to say that this is the only motive at work among those who produce the technology most of us consume. But there’s another angle that’s worth considering, and with this we segue into something of the heart of Tierney’s claims.

In Tierney’s understanding, “the consumption of convenience in modernity reflects a certain contempt for the body and the limits it imposes.” This, in his view, lends to convenience a discernible ascetic quality. “[T]he fetishistic attitudes toward technology and the rampant consumption of ‘conveniences’ which characterize modernity are a form of asceticism,” Tierney explains.

This is an intriguing observation to revisit in light of the various accounts of the rather interesting practices that occasionally emanate out of Silicon Valley. Examples that come readily to mind include Jack Dorsey’s practice of intermittent fasting and his meditation retreats, Elon Musk’s sleep deprivation, and Ray Kurzweil’s diet- and pill-driven effort to live long enough to witness the singularity. Soylent obviously qualifies as a case in point, especially in light of its creator’s motivations for concocting the meal-replacement drink. Ultimately, of course, the apotheosis of this strand of body-denying asceticism lies in the aspirations of the posthumanists, so many of whom demonstrate a not even thinly veiled contempt for our bodily limits and whose eschatological visions often entail a radical re-configuration of our bodies or else a laying aside of them altogether. What this entails, of course, is a radical reimagining of death itself as a limit to be overcome.

Tierney already anticipated as much in the early 90s. He hints early on at how the value of convenience was becoming a leading factor on the production side of technology. His closing chapter is a reflection on this theorizing of the death simply as a problem to be solved. In it, he cites the astronomer Robert Jastrow’s 1981 work of futurology, The Enchanted Loom:  Mind in the Universe. “At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weaknesses of moral flesh,” Jastrow writes, 

Connected to cameras, instruments, and engine controls, the brain sees, feels, and responds to stimuli. It is in control of its own destiny. The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. The union of mind and machine has created a new form of existence, as well designed for life in the future as man is designed for life on the African savanna.

It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.”

Tierney includes an interesting footnote on this passage. He says that he first learned about it in an article by David Lavery, who described being on a panel on “Computers, Robots, and You” alongside what he called a “body-snatcher,” presumably someone who exhibited a disdain of the body and welcomed the day he would be rid of it. When Lavery expressed a reluctance to abandon his body, the “body-snatcher” called him a “carbon chauvinist.” (Lavery’s article, paywalled, appeared in The Hudson Review in 1986.)

The point, of course, is not these posthumanist fantasies—or (post-)Christian fan fiction as I’ve put it elsewhere—will necessarily materialize, rather it is that they are symptomatic of a set of values that do a lot of work in the conception and development of perfectly ordinary technology that many of us use everyday.

It is worth asking ourselves to what degree we have ordered our use of technology around the value of convenience. It is worth considering why exactly we value convenience or whether we have received the benefits that we expected. It’s worth considering what assumptions about the body structure our desire for convenience and whether or not we ought to reevaluate these assumptions. Would we not do better to understand our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Wendell Berry, rather than as obstacles to be overcome?

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Technology and the Inadequacy of Values Talk

Albert Borgmann has some useful, possibly urgent things to say to us in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. The book is, I believe, Borgmann’s most important work in the philosophy of technology. I recently discovered that Evgeny Morozov listed this work as on of the five books he commended a few years back as the best books on the philosophy of technology (it’s a solid list all around). Of Borgmann’s book, Morozov observed, “it was all hardcore philosophical theory, how to think and evaluate practices, and what to do about technology and what should be done.” Indeed. Borgmann’s work, though now 35 years old, seems to me as relevant as ever. I’ve drawn on his writing a number of times, and you can dip into the archive to read some of those posts if you’re so inclined.

For present purpose, I wanted to simply share a handful of excerpts drawn from the chapters dealing with technology and politics.

Writing about technology and social order, Borgmann observes that “it is widely admitted that there is a problem of orientation in the technologically advanced countries.” Citing a cheery paragraph from Buckminster Fuller, he acknowledges that not everyone is debilitated by the disorientation occasioned by modern technology, but he suspects that Fuller is an outlier. For those who do find modern technology disorienting, he notes that more often than not it is believed that “we can find our bearings in relation to technology by raising the questions of values”—ethics talk, we might say today.

But Borgmann is not impressed: “Such a procedure may only strengthen and conceal the reign of what we seek to question.” It would do so chiefly by reinforcing the means-ends distinction that Borgmann finds rather pernicious. “The relative stability of ends and the radical variability of means that again comes to fruition in the device is likewise congenial to values talk …”

Device is a technical term in Borgmann’s work, and a key component of what he termed the device paradigm. The device paradigm (or pattern), which Borgmann argues characterizes modern technology. It’s not an easy concept to summarize. It describes the tendency of machines to become simultaneously more commodious and more opaque, or, to put it another way, easier to use and harder to understand. Borgmann contrasted devices to focal things, and the differences was chiefly a matter of the form of engagement they generated. Basically, Borgmann believed that devices encourage what we might think of as shallow, superficial, ultimately unsatisfying engagement. I’ve suggested that we could get at this distinction by noting how we tend to call those who take up a device users. Such a term does not quite fit for those who take up with the sort of tool, artifact, or technology which Bormann labels a focal thing. It may be better to think of them as practitioners.

One aspect of the device paradigm is the radical interchangeability of means to which he alludes in the lines I cited above. The point of the device, in fact, is to offer us the same end we might have achieved through a focal thing but without the hassle, so to speak. Elsewhere, Borgmann spoke of what devices make technologically available being “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” In so doing, however, they have radically altered the nature of the end they procure. One cannot get at the meaning or significance of technology by presuming at the outset that means are basically indifferent and inconsequential so long as we arrive at the desired end or goal.

We might begin to see then why “values talk” simply unfolds within the device paradigm rather than challenging it. “No matter how the question of value is raised and settled,” Borgmann writes, “the patter of technology itself is never in question. Technology comes into play as the indispensable and unequaled procurement of the means that allow us to realize our preferred values.”

Borgmann acknowledges both that it is politically useful to resort to values talk and that, for the same reasons, it is difficult to commend focal things. Values talk typically centers on “hard” or “measurable” values: employment, resources, or productivity, for example. These are instrumental values, Borgmann notes, but “one can appeal to them as guides or ends in political controversies because the ends proper that they serve are understood and granted by almost everyone. Those final values are commodities.”

Commodities, he adds, “are sharply defined and easily measured. Focal things, on the other hand, engage us in so many and subtle ways that no quantification can capture them.” This is not a matter of “mysterious unquantifiable properties,” rather “their significance is composed of so many, if not all, of their physically ascertainable properties that an explicit quantitative account must always impoverish the greatly.”

Penultimate thought from Bormann: “When values talk is about [focal] things, it falters, and the object of discourse slips from our grasp. Discourse that is appropriate to things must in its crucial occurrences abandon the means-ends distinction. It must be open to and guided by the fullness of the focal thing in the world, and it can communicate the thing only through testimony and appeal.”

Final word: “In spite of its shortcomings one should, as a matter of prudence and pedagogy, encourage discussions that raise the value question. Without this familiar if inadequate approach, a fundamental analysis of technology remains forbidding. Moreover, values will remain indispensable as ways of summarizing, recollecting, and preparing for our experience with things.”

More from Borgmann forthcoming.

Stages, Structures, and the Work of Being Yourself

I have a half-baked theory, and I’m going to write about here to see where it goes.

My half-baked theory starts with the intuition of an analogy. I’ve been working on a piece for Real Life about the heightened self-consciousness our use of social media tends to generate (it was published today, you can read it here). I leaned a bit on some of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the self to make my case.

In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggested that we understand our social interaction by analogy to the theater. When we interact directly with others in their presence, it is as if we are actors on stage. On the stage, we are engaged in the work of impression management—trying to manage how we are perceived by controlling the impressions we give—the particular shape of which depends on the audience. But, in keeping with the analogy, we also have a back stage. This is where we are no longer immediately before a public audience. In our back stage area others may be present, but, if they are, they constitute a more intimate, familiar audience before which we are more at ease, some might say more ourselves. In our back stage area, we are able to let down our guard to some significant degree.

Goffman’s examples are all rather concrete and grounded in face-to-face experience. For example, for restaurant workers the kitchen is the back stage to the dining area’s front stage. Part of what I argue in the Real Life piece is that we can usefully extend Goffman’s analysis to the experience of the self on social media, especially when sustained by ubiquitous mobile devices. The idea is that we are now always potentially on the front stage, relentlessly managing impressions. When the stage is virtual, in other words, it is potentially everywhere. There is no backstage, or, to put it more moderately, the front stage begins to colonize what used to be backstage time and space. What I might’ve done a better job of explaining in the essay is that front stage work amounts to a practice of the self, a practice that becomes habitual and formative. It’s not so much that we internalize any one performance but that we internalize the performative mode. 

But it wasn’t Goffman’s analogy to the theater that I spoke of intuiting at the outset of this post, rather it was the analogy between Goffman’s dramaturgy and medieval carnival. Briefly stated, certain medieval festivals and carnivals had the function of relieving, if only temporarily, the burden and pressure of living a holy life. During these festivals or carnivals traditional roles were reversed, conventional pieties were overturned, even the sacred was profaned. All of it, mind you, ultimately in the service of the established order, more or less.

Charles Taylor, who discusses medieval carnivals at some length in his history western secularism, cites a medieval French cleric who explains the inversions and apparent profanations of carnival this way:

“We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels ….”

As Taylor notes, the French cleric did not think in terms of blowing off steam, a metaphor more at home in the industrial age, but that’s essentially his point as we might put it today.

In his discussion, Taylor draws on Victor Turner’s discussion of carnival in his work on the ritual process. In Turner’s view, medieval carnival is just one manifestation of a wide-spread phenomenon:  the relationship between structure and anti-structure.

Taylor summarizes what Turner means by structure this way: “the code of behavior of a society, in which are defined the different roles and statuses, and their rights, duties, powers, vulnerabilities.” Consequently, Taylor writes, “Turner’s point is that in many societies where this code is taken perfectly seriously, and enforced, even harshly most of the time, there are nevertheless moments or situations in which it is suspended, neutralized, or even transgressed.” But why?

Taylor notes again the “blowing off steam” hypothesis. If you don’t find a way to relieve the pressure within the relative safety of semi-sanctioned ritual, then you will get more serious, uncontrolled, and violent eruptions. But Taylor also notes an alternative or possibly complementary hypothesis present in Turner’s work: “that the code relentlessly applied would drain us of all energy; that the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Coming back, then, to my intuited analogy, it goes something like this:  carnival is to the ordinary demands of piety in medieval society as, in contemporary society, the back stage is to the front stage relative to identity work.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Indeed, I confess that I may be stretching a bit to make it work. It really only focuses on one aspect of the backstage experience as Goffman theorized it:  the backstage as a space to let one’s guard down, to relieve the pressures of a constantly calibrated performance before an ill-defined virtual audience, to blow off some steam.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something useful in the approach. The main idea that emerged for me was this:  in our contemporary, digitally augmented society the mounting pressure we experience is not the pressure of conforming to the rigid demands of piety and moral probity, rather it is the pressure of unremitting impression management, identity work, and self-consciousness. Moreover, there is no carnival. Or, better, what presents itself as a carnival experience is, in reality, just another version of the disciplinary experience.

Consider the following.

First, the early internet, Web 1.0, was a rather different place. In fact, a case could be made for the early internet being itself the carnivalesque experience, the backstage where, under the cloak of anonymity, you got to play a variety of roles, try on different identities, and otherwise step out of the front stage persona (“on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, etc.). As our internet experience, especially post-Facebook, became more explicitly tied to our “IRL” identity, then the dynamic flipped. Now we could no longer experience “life on screen” as anti-structure, as backstage, as a place of release. Online identity and offline identity became too hopelessly entangled. Confusion about this entanglement during the period of transition accounts for all manner of embarrassing and damaging gaffs and missteps. The end result is that the mainstream experience of the internet became an expansive, always on front stage. A corollary of this development is the impulse to carve out some new online backstage experience, as with fake Instagram accounts or through the use of ephemeral-by-design communication of the sort that Snapchat pioneered.

Indeed, this may be a way of framing the history of the internet:  as a progression, or regression, from the promise of a liberating experience of anti-structure to the imposition of a unprecedentedly expansive and invasive instrument of structure. Many of our debates about the internet seem to be usefully illuminated by the resulting tension. Perhaps we might put it this way, the internet becomes an instrument of structure on a massive scale precisely by operating in the guise of an anti-structure. We are lured, as it were, by the promise of liberation and empowerment only to discover that we have been ensnared in a programmable web of discipline and control.

Second, maybe the analogy that occurred to me is more straightforward than I first imagined. My initial focus, given the essay I was working on, involved the experience of hypertrophied self-consciousness. So the analogy in this light operated at a sort of meta level. No real moral code was involved, only the psychic burden of constant identity management. But maybe there is a moral code involved. Of course, there’s a moral code involved! Our experience of social media can be an infamously surveilled and policed experience. Undoubtedly, there is pressure to conform to ever-evolving standards regulating speech and expression, for example. This pressure manifests itself through blunt instruments of enforcement (blocking, harassment, doxxing, etc.) or more tacit mechanisms of reward. Either way, it is not a stretch to say that we negotiate the demands of an emerging, perhaps ever-emerging moral code whenever we use online platforms. We might even say that the disciplinary character of the social media activity takes on an oddly ritualistic quality, as if it were the manifestation of some ancient and deep-seated drive to cleanse the social body of all forms of threatening impurities. 

But it’s one thing to conform to a standard to which you more or less assent and arising from a community you inhabit. It’s quite another to conform to a standard you don’t even buy into or maybe even resent. This is basically the case on many of our most popular digital forums and platforms. They gather together individuals with disparate, diverging, and conflicting moral, political, religious stances, and they thrust these individuals into meta-communities of performative and competitive display. Not surprisingly, interested parties will take recourse to whatever tools of control and discipline are available to them within the structures of the platforms and forums that sustain the meta-community. The result, again, a disciplinary experience in a space that was assumed to be liberating and empowering.

[Taylor is helpful on this score as well. He tells a long and complex story, so I won’t do justice to it here, but one key concept he deploys is what he calls the nova effect. The nova effect, in Taylor’s analysis, is the explosion of possible and plausible options regarding the good life that emerge in the modern world. The result is, of course, experienced as freedom and liberation, but also as fragmentation and fragilization of the self. Social media, it seems to me, dramatically intensifies the nova effect. It brings us into a space where we become aware of and interact with an exponentially greater variety of perspectives, stances, and forms of life within structures that foreground the performative experience of the self, which only accents its sense of fragility.]

Think, then, of the dark perfection of a structure that has convinced it is really an anti-structure, a front stage that invites us to think of it as a back stage. We end up unwittingly turning to the very source of our exhaustion, anxiety, burnout, and listlessness for release and relief from the same. The result is recreation without rest, familiarity without intimacy, play without joy, laughter without mirth, carnival without release—in short, the feeling that society is on the brink of exploding and the self is on the brink of imploding.

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