The Cam-Bridge to Nowhere
Rereading Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
The strangest thing about…
Cambridge, Facebook, Donald Trump, the Russians, and all my friends who milked 2016 for everything it was worth
…is that no one really did anything wrong — not from a technological standpoint, at least. And none of it is even new technology.
And yet, everyone innately senses that something is very wrong. All the huge amounts of data, personal information, foreign countries, and malicious advertising? It all stinks of something foul. They just cannot put their finger on what it is, and therefore require a scapegoat.
Whether about Trump, Facebook, or some other watershed moment, we were due for an inflection point where our online habits might finally terrify us — a break from the “this will all be fine.” I mean, anyone paying attention has to see how screwed up everything is.
“The Colosseum thrives only when there’s attendance.”
Many will tell me this is an oversimplification of a “highly complex” issue, but I disdain the “bravery” journalists append to themselves in the pursuit the answer, like there is only one.
The truth is, by outsourcing satisfaction to technology, we have entered a paradigm of comfortable isolation — where being happy has once and for all been materially replaced by the spectacle of happiness.
What do I mean by that? And what does it mean for us? The Colosseum thrives only when there’s attendance. Everyone is guilty.
1. Snap on your spectacles
This is where I find Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle so essential. Technology has driven us into snug seclusion where we more easily fall prey to the wolves (*cough* Facebook and Cambridge) who led us here in the first place. Personalization and individualism, by their very natures, lower the threshold for intellectual diversity. Put a different way, OF COURSE you can be fooled by malicious advertising if everything you do on the internet is known and every issue that pushes your buttons is recorded. By creating that vulnerability and sapping it, marketing idiots like me are now able to sell your own amygdala back to you.
“The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of ‘the lonely crowd.’ The spectacle is continually rediscovering its own basic assumptions and each time in a more concrete manner.” — Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)
Debord wrote this in 1967, describing an era of massive growth in services, tourism, and technology. It was not the world or technology we knew today. Fascinatingly still, he observed that the represented was rapidly supplanting the actual, and that isolation was a driving force — and simultaneously a result — of technology.
If this line of thinking is difficult to follow, look at the title of his work. Anyone who has ever spent longer than 10 minutes trying to take the perfect Instagram photo should have some sense of what the spectacle is.
But to Debord, society had abruptly fashioned unto itself an otherworldly splendor: mass production of replicas of perceived perfection. He noticed a change similar to what Marshall McLuhan saw, “from word-centered to image-centered” culture — but quite worse. Debord saw a complete “decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”
2. Facebook could not have a more ironic name
On its face I know this next part is ridiculous, but think of the many relationships you have today over Facebook, text message, or even harmless email. Consider the pixels and audio files that represent and replace the substance of being that was once your face or voice. Even if you reject Debord’s arguments, you cannot deny that we are factually trading digital replicas of ourselves with each other thousands of times a day. What I text or email (even my phone calls ) — they are not me, but rather hyper-realistic renditions of my words, face, and voice. Point of fact, they are not me.
You can shrug it off and say, “it’s still pretty similar” — but there is much more.
In our cozy individualism, we have found millions of replicas to create our identities and satiate our endless desires. Think of the weirdest fetish hobby you can, and I am sure there is a densely populated blog dedicated to it.
I can recall the early 2000’s when everyone had an AIM screen name and how the handle (and the colorful profile that went with it) literally defined who I was. Today, I can keep track of my entire network of friends and colleagues and ship them custom articles, pictures, and videos that define my existence to them. Much like the AOL profile of yesteryear, I am not so much Michael as I am sky blue Tahoma on a black background and Blink182 song lyrics.
As the replicas come to define who we were, the substance and prioritization of being means less and less. When people conflate the two, they are oblivious to the harmful ramifications.
3. When replicas attack
Almost a year ago now, I wrote about deaths of despair and the steady increase of loneliness and addiction. My argument is that technology merely accelerated the unraveling of our cultural fabric after the industrial revolution took hold. Michael Hendrix penned a similar, but better, version recently, “Lonely America:”
“Today we live Spotify lives — full of options that cater to our every whim. We have liberated our desires from want of choice and given voice to our own identities. Just a glance at our phone instantly widens the horizon of our self. Yet this freedom has come at the cost of our cultural and economic order … The result, as Yuval Levin articulates in The Fractured Republic, is that ‘we have set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation that we are still afraid to acknowledge as the distinct social dysfunction of our age of individualism.’
Our fanciest dreams and craziest beliefs can now coexist outside of reality without ever working for anything or suffering any consequences. We have truly built castles of cards or — more aptly — human beings out of well-lit food and dog pictures.
Let’s be honest — we are social animals. It is not that we hate each other when we all share a table for dinner but are on different panes of glass. The fact is the spectacle retains our attention because it is truest to where we desire it to be: elsewhere. Replicas now supercede being because they are perceived truer than the source itself. No one sees how you actually are — only how you appear.
4. Please Keurig me
David Walbert writes how philosophically ridiculous the Keurig machine is. For such a simple task like making coffee, who would want to throw away their coffee making expertise to have it sold back to them at double the price?
The market research answer? Pretty much everyone.
The consumer relationship created by hip new technology is one solely focused on satiating our desire for increased leisure. We want to work less and worry about less. Of course that would presume you actually use your “saved time” on being, and not just on more replicas and more clicking.
So while you were conned out of our coffee making expertise, someone bought up all the other coffee tech companies and now Keurig is the only game in town. “The internet was supposed to bring decentralization of power, but in fact it’s consolidated power in the hands of whatever company manages to build the first and/or best standard,” argues Walbert.
Facebook is guilty of the same tactic. We all wanted to share sensational nonsense with each other on a single platform and Facebook just helped us get there.
5. Everyone is excited over nothing (surprise)
The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle boils down to three central problems:
- The spectacle is alive and well and nothing is going to stop that. No one minds it very much or questions it because we do not see being and replica as mutually exclusive. Of course, until this most recent lash out, technology had been worshipped like a god, and will inevitably continue to be after this news cycle passes.
- Nobody reads the fine print ever. The same people who sign up for grocery “bonus cards” get pissed off when they find out the store’s been tracking their web usage, purchase data, and GPS location. Human beings are suckers for three easy payments of $19.99.
- America is now a formal technopoly, as Neil Postman describes it. I plan to write more about Postman’s take on our technology-rooted society when I have the time — so, that is my cliff hanger here.
This outrage is refreshing to me, but I am sullen by its shelf life. While mad about the election — and shocked by “fake news” — I highly doubt the average Hillary Clinton voter (the driving force behind all these news stories) yet understands the extent to which his own disgusting and obsessive relationship with Facebook (and other platforms) has led us to this ugly place.
Until people stop filling the seats of the Flavian Amphitheatre, there is not too much to be done.
“All of this has called into being a new world…a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is an improbable world. It is a world in which the idea of human progress, as Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accommodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy. We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” Neil Postman, Technopoly (1993)