Graham is author of "the Shock Doctrine of the left"
Back in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, social media could do no wrong: it was spoken of in reverential terms as the handmaiden of a coming new democracy. Today, its reputation is in tatters. From Mark Zuckerberg being dragged in front of the US Congress to answer about the Cambridge Analytica data-selling scandal and Facebook’s half-million pound fine in the UK, to Twitter failing to act against Nazis gaining popularity on their platform, there is a growing sense that the structure and dynamics of social media are a key contributor to our extremely polarised and chaotic political situation.
People are looking for solutions, and one increasingly popular suggestion is simply to cut away from social media altogether. Jaron Lanier's new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is one such example. Aside from moments of implausible pop psychology, on the whole it provides an astute and accessible analysis of what is wrong with social media. He playfully characterises social media as a 'BUMMER': Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. He argues that social media is little more than a machine of capitalist accumulation, of which we are both its product (access to our data being sold to advertisers) and unpaid workers (producing that data through our online interactions). Where he falls down however is in justifying the theme of the book: that the answer is for us to leave.
Social change doesn't happen without collective action – whether it's getting a party into power to enact national reforms, a trade union movement that mobilises tech workers against their bosses, or a grassroots campaign that forces concessions through consumer pressure. And on these issues of organising, many activists on the ground today will attest to how useful social media can be for that purpose. Used correctly it can provide easy access for newly politicised people to take small actions; it helps to find and build relationships between otherwise disconnected people; and its an essential tool for spreading news quickly, to respond to changing events.
The impulse to escape is understandable, but losing an important tool for organising will only make it harder for us to create change – a result of what Erik Olin Wright disparagingly refers to as 'escaping' logics. I draw on his analysis in my book The Shock Doctrine of the Left, but instead of 'escaping', I've reframed these as attempts at 'healing', and asked how they can be retained whilst contributing to a social movement. By placing this alongside alternative logics such as Smashing our enemies, Building alternatives, and Taming through the state, we can analyse how these might interact in creating a broad movement.
Taking 'Healing' as a logic of social change allows us to integrate concerns around social media with discussions of care, trauma, and intersectionality, in general showing the importance of considering the human body in our organising, and in the vision of the world we aim to create. In spite of its uses, social media clearly does harm collective political consciousness in other ways, and these need to be understood before we can imagine an alternative.
The Mind Online
We are collective beings. I am not just a brain in a piece of meat, but a complex, autonomous embodied mind. A mind embedded in a shared sociocultural environment. One that is extended into our physical environment through tools and language. Which learns through action in that environment. And that feels as much as thinks, where emotional and rational are inextricable. Our 'selves' emerge out of all of these connections within us and between us.
Contrary to how we currently understand 'social' media, its very structure actually attacks these cognitive interconnections. We enter platforms as individual disembodied users initially cut off from one another, and brought together only through the mediation of a platform we have no democratic control over. We connect to others, but don't share their contexts – we each have a different feed tailored to us by an algorithm – and so can't see the world they live in.
Our emotional links, and the source of our empathy, are simplified. Social media has none of the complex ongoing feedback of face-to-face interaction, only the binary communication of likes, the linear constraints of text, and the indeterminacy of memes. This simplicity amplifies misunderstandings, and robs us of the detailed human feedback that is necessary for creating resilience in our relationships, communities and organisations during moments of emotional crisis.
And it provides a virtual environment that does nothing to encourage us to extend out into our physical environments; what could be a tool for facilitating offline engagement becomes its replacement, and a potential amplifier of our growing mental health crisis.
Together, this provides little scope for action which can change real world power structures, whether on the local, national or global scale.
Stack, State and Market
Social media clearly contributes to these problems, but cannot take all the blame.
These characteristics are made possible by how we are approached as an individual user by the Stack (Benjamin Bratton's word for the whole internet megastructure, from cloud platforms through to physical interfaces and city infrastructure). This is analogous to how the State hails us as an individual citizen, and the capitalist market as a worker or consumer. Each of these creates a rigid framework and a delimitation of possibilities: the immigration status, the employment contract, and the bank balance, each restricting the subject's rights, responsibilities, movements, and powers to act.
In one of his final talks, Mark Fisher mentions how the movement of broadcast media into people's homes – and now through smartphones – has enabled this kind of individualisation and erosion of the public sphere we've seen under neoliberalism. I've noticed how recently, whenever a meme goes around criticising people for staring at their phones in public, it's now common to respond with older pictures of people staring at newspapers, as though to say 'It's fine, this happened before'. What this fails to see is that this comparison doesn't excuse the individualising tendencies of social media, but merely shows how it was reflected in earlier mass media.
Along with this public individualisation, the capitalist annihilation of empathy can also be seen on a much broader scale, in the history of state borders and imperialism. The rigidly exclusive 'us vs them' dynamic of contemporary bordering practices is a phenomenon only a few centuries old, and has always been premised upon dehumanising discourses like racism, orientalism, and nationalism, that reduce empathy for the foreign Other. In the face of these tenacious state-reproducing forces, the utopian promise of the internet to bring together a global community has not been fulfilled, and cannot be assumed as inevitable.
Without these global identities (and with localised identities increasingly rigid and violently policed), without an active public sphere in which to act, and an embodied sense of empowerment to take those actions, we cannot activate or even imagine our potentials, neither locally nor globally. Add to this the ballooning complexity of the world – without popular mental frames to understand it – and you have a recipe for continued disempowerment and inaction, even in the face of extremely frightening social forces.
But social media is only one aspect of this, a path that our society has been developing down long before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. If, as with Lanier, we are critical of how social media restricts freedom and attacks our perception of the world, we must be prepared to analyse the other systems around us through the same lens.
A Better World
To empower people to take action to change society, we need not only a systemic critique of the past, but also a realistic vision of the future, and a strategy for transition. I would not want to prescribe an eternal blueprint for the future, but from the vantage point of the present there are certain demands I think we should be making and forming collective action around:
We need social media platforms in which individuals and collectives have genuine power to shape their digital surroundings – including democratic control, cooperative ownership by workers and users, and total transparency and customisability of algorithms. These are aspects in which we are Taming the current model, reforming it through pressures from both the state and autonomous social movements.
We need new digital spaces which emphasise their entanglement with the physical world – where 'big data' is not used to sell us things, but to physically bring people together around shared needs and interests, to help build new social economies away from the capitalist model. Where augmented reality is used to bring social media's liberating ease of navigation into the offline world, at the same time bringing face-to-face empathy to the online. Here we are Building new models that we hope to flourish, and perhaps become the dominant form.
We need new embodied practices, cultivating collective care and self-mastery in the face of the difficult emotions kicked up in our accelerating world. These must also break down the psychic shaping effects of neoliberalism: that we are merely individuals, that we are in essence competitive, that There is No Alternative. To this end we have recently founded London Radical Mindfulness, to explore new methods of 'consciousness raising' for navigating our multifaceted social crises. These are Healing logics.
And if worst comes to worst, and things aren't changing in the direction we need to see? Occupy the offices of the major social media companies, perform disruptive lock-ons at data centres, and organise wildcat strikes by tech workers, until we achieve change; these are the Smashing logics that should always remain on the table.
The polarisation and chaos we currently experience may be lamented, as Lanier does, but it also opens up possibilities. It creates space to experiment with the different institutions, practices, and forms of consciousness needed to usher in the relations of care and the commons that we desire. However, breaking out of this moment will require a collective response, which requires collective organising. And we will need all of the tools at our disposal – including social media – to succeed.