Despite new and potentially empowering platforms that allow us all a voice and an audience, why does it feel as though we are constantly struggling to control our own fate? The simplest answer is that power and politics (what has historically been the human expression of agency) have, as theorist Zygmunt Bauman speculated, split apart. Power, he wrote, “now rests in global and extraterritorial space” — that is, not just in the transnational banking sphere or even in something like the European Union, but even further beyond that, even more untouchable: in the algorithms that operate just beyond our screens.
So why, if power resides with the algorithms, do we feel so powerless when we express agency on the platforms powered by them?
Algorithms don’t actively force choice any more than they set a schedule for our day-to-day lives. What gives algorithms real power beyond that of suggestion (accounts to follow, news to read, etc.) is that they make the outcomes of our behavior unpredictable — most of us cannot get outcomes to match our desires. They create uncertainty of consequence and breed confusion and dependency; confusion because we can’t understand the world they show us and dependency on those same systems to explain the inexplicable. The platforms are where power lives, but it is not transferred directly to users in the way we might imagine. Instead, the relationship is more exploitative, drawing each of us in with the promise of amplifying our individual voices, and occasionally delivering on that, but less frequently motivating broad societal, or collective, change.
And while it’s still possible to take collective action in this environment, those actions often reflect the algorithms themselves, binary and dismissive.
In February, Matt Williams took to Twitter with screenshots of a 1971 interview actor John Wayne gave to Playboy magazine. “Jesus fuck, John Wayne was a straight up piece of shit,” Williams typed in a tweet that has amassed tens of thousands of retweets. In the interview, Wayne said, “I believe in white supremacy,” among other racist things. It wasn’t the first time in recent memory the interview caused public outcry. In 2016, lawmakers in California scrapped a proposal to name May 26 as John Wayne Day, partly because of Wayne’s comments to Playboy. But when the interview surfaced this time, it wasn’t just a commemorative day that was canceled — John Wayne was.
It was perhaps the zenith of “cancel culture” — the reactionary and frequently revisionist mass dismissal of people who don’t adhere to a strict code of modern acceptability online. In this case, Wayne, though dead for 40 years, was canceled. He joined a long line of people and things that have in the last year been canceled, including Kanye West, Bill Gates, Cardi B, and the year 2018. “Canceling” someone, or something, has reached meme status and a point of near-satirical overuse, but, as Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies, told the New York Times last summer, “it’s ultimately an expression of agency.”
Is it? And, if so, what kind of agency is this? Social platforms can and do offer a venue for people who have never been heard to speak to a large audience and create a movement for positive change — the most recent and best case being #MeToo — but they remain a venue of final recourse. Generally, people take to social media after change via traditional structures or systems, like politics, has proved impossible. Cancel culture is the logical end point of that. Canceling anything is a last resort, a throwing up of the hands and walking away and, importantly, an acknowledgement that you cannot change things for the better. It is a mark of helplessness.
What that agency really amounts to is obvious when considering the medium. Cancel culture takes place on platforms built on the same algorithms that obscure the consequences of our personal actions and are designed to create an illogical stream of information that holds our attention by keeping us confused and angry. If this is the only vehicle left through which the majority can affect change, if this is the only avenue of power left to most of us, then it’s no surprise that inequality of influence remains so stark, and the broad change most of us hope to see isn’t happening.