Garry Glass discusses our addiction to the Internet and the impacts it has on our culture, politics and health.
We find ourselves in the midst of an unparallelled social and technological change that is commonly referred to as the Digital Revolution. This ever greater reliance on connectivity has opened us up to mass surveillance, targeted advertising and echo-chamber politics. Our obsession with the little computers we carry around has enabled an enormous system of electronically mediated social control. Far from being something which we are consciously constructing as empowered agents, this is a revolution which is happening to us and is in this sense anything but revolutionary.
Above: Video on surveillance-based advertising, yellow arrows show how data on website visitors is shared
The corporate fascist state now has more data about our movements, thoughts, intentions and behaviours than it knows what to do with. We urgently need to develop our analysis of how our reliance on the internet makes us vulnerable to the strategies of hegemonic power.
The Internet has now attained ubiquity in contemporary culture. A great deal of public relations work is goes into convincing us that being connected to the Internet is essential to the functioning of our daily lives. Even non digital media is saturated with images pertaining to online activity. Advertisements for Facebook adorn bus shelters alongside images of Messenger-like conversations trying to sell you anything from life insurance to your place in some eternal paradise.
We are told that soon the Internet will be everywhere and in everything, that our lives will move seamlessly from one screen to another. As we are given the promise of augmented reality, every conceivable nook and cranny of actual reality is augmented with images that remind us of life on our device’s screen. Attempts to dissolve the boundaries between the mediated and the actual amount to a systematic promotion of the enchantments of cyberspace. This all at the cost of eroding our sensory experience of material reality.
Digital connectivity is far more powerful in reach than television or print media yet where is the space for a critical conversation about its adoption? How might we reconsider our relationship to that LED glow we all seem captivated by? How might we interrogate its apparent inevitability? Is there an inversion where in using this technology we are actually being used by it? What information do we give away when we search online?
The Internet is almost a generation old, meaning for the time being, there are still those who remember life prior to it, equally there are many with little inclination to imagine such a dark age.
The trajectory is clear, the whole world is to be viewed with respect to the Internet of Things (IoT). Our homes, our cars and even our bodies will be represented as data streams related to some URL. When our biological functioning is being uploaded onto the cloud for the purveyance of health professionals and insurance companies the alarm bells of dystopia ring loud.
The blind insistence that all of this is the inevitable march of progress precludes critical reflection on the matter. Silencing rational dissent, the glow of the digital rapture seems to beckon with the promise of a connectivity so dense that we unify into some kind of pure transcendent state. A future where we retreat from the dying natural world into archived footage of life prior to techno-utopia. Embodied reality is a different matter with bad posture, burnt out retinas and toxic landscapes.
Whilst we are better at finding the information we want, our commitment to remembering things has yielded to a reliance on digital information retrieval. Attention spans in the industrialised world are only around two-thirds what they were at the millennium. Dividing our ‘screen-time’ between multiple tasks, called continuous partial attention, drastically limits the assimilation of our mental processes into our longer term memory. Essentially our relationship with the Internet is changing not only what we think, but how we think, leading us on a course of ever greater digital dependency.
An ontology which sees reality only in terms of information seems to promote a rationality in service to information processing machines. If the mind is seen only as a computer, then the journey from life in vivo to in silico will simply be seen as our inevitable evolutionary destiny. The life extension profits, with even talk of uploading the memories of dead loved ones into an AI so that a chatbot can “help the grieving process.” This is simply the logical extension of the data analytics that are currently being applied to your own search history. Such tropes are the Internet’s version of Epcot or the 1950’s robot tea-maid; props to a future imaginary whose day may never come but serve as a guiding image for techno-optimism. At what point does our plugging into the global information architecture become obscene?
The combined ambiguity and ubiquity of the words digital revolution mean that from within the arc of this epochal transformation, they barely register as meaningful. Given the scale of this envelopment by connectivity it is curious our language is so bereft of any up-to-date concepts. The pace of change has consistently stayed ahead of our ability to understand it. We have embarked on a pathway of adoption without any real grasp of the implications, we are locked into a future we cannot predict or comprehend.
Smart devices (Can we move away from calling them phones yet?) were sold to us by the merits of portable communication and information access yet there is less accounting for the unforeseen costs. This seems to be characteristic of many new technologies, their adoption operating like a trojan horse, in this case connectivity is a mask for near total surveillance.
Whatever liberatory potential social networking and social media might have offered has been turned to the advantage of the NSA and GCHQ. As much as the Internet has helped promote global protest, it is also a key component of the modern apparatus of state repression.
Our eyes, brains and fingers are engaged in a subconscious dance which daily registers data on our desires and aversions. These services are offered for free yet come at the cost of mass information harvesting that informs how we may be made more pliable as consumers. Focus groups were once the vanguard of understanding how to exploit our unconscious desires, now data analytics enable advertising to be tailored to each individual.
Firms like Cambridge Analytica use your ‘like’ history to create a digital model of your predilections, your choices are now reducible to this ‘psychographic universe’ thanks to predictive analytics. Targeted marketing and political campaign messaging is designed to resonate subliminally, we are subject to being conditioned like Pavlov’s dog via ever more sophisticated methods.
Ex-Google employee James Williams has called the click-bait internet the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.
Many are now arguing that the attention economy is making us more impulsive, less rational and as a result more susceptible to being lured by reactionary political tendencies – read Trump and Brexit, incidentally both campaigns were conducted with the help of Cambridge Analytica.
The revelations that Russia has actively focussed on exploiting divisions in American society along lines of race, gender and class, via paid adverts and chatbots demonstrates the ability these platforms have for social manipulation. As much as the Internet has fostered political debate it has also obfuscated it and allowed division to become entrenched and exploited.
Global tech firms such as Google and Facebook have become totally unaccountable and are more powerful than many sovereign nations. Their preeminence has not simply led to the end of privacy but also to the end of democracy. The internet has been the subject of so much uncritical cheerleading that its potential has been squandered and it’s been hijacked by those in the business of social control.
Digital dependency is not only a product of Capitalism but has become a central component of Capitalist reproduction.
Cashless payment systems mean our transaction history and purchasing habits are archived, our consumer desires are catered for with a terrifying precision. Whilst traditionally political economy was the concern of government now cybernetics is the mode of modern government with information being the locus of control. From intelligent marketing to data-driven political messaging what we once thought were our own choices seem increasingly determined by optimisation algorithms.
The Snowden revelations verified in detail the scale of contemporary mass surveillance operations yet even though the ‘end of privacy’ was being publicly acknowledged it did not lead to anything resembling an exodus from web 2.0. We already knew we were being watched but it was easier to pretend we did not.
The world is changing and we are compelled to change with it, as though there were no choice in the matter. We must play catch up to a world ever more connected and where our agency is being systematically eroded.
Connectivity is a privilege, in a modern world ever more reliant on connectivity this digital divide exacerbates pre-existing class divisions. How long will it be until all of life’s affairs must be dealt with online, where paper bureaucracy is an outdated modality? Border agents are already legally requesting to see travellers Social Media data. How long until your digital identity is synonymous with your legal identity?
Just a few years ago Portable Electronic Devices had nothing like their current ubiquity. Though occasionally helpful, it’s worth remembering we still live in a world where we don’t actually need them. We don’t need to entertain the fear of missing out on some online trend or the status anxiety that may come from not having the latest release.
An outright rejection would be a failure to acknowledge the great advances which it has brought society. Yet it makes sense to continue to ask questions about the consequences of connectivity without being called a neo-luddite.
We need a gentle reminder that if there is not a web presence for something, it doesn’t mean that thing is irrelevant, in turn just because something is trending online doesn’t mean it’s relevant. The Internet is at best occasionally unavoidable. It must surely be possible to appreciate its minor merits without drinking the kool aid.
Then we can watch with delight as the afterglow from the glory days of the early Internet fades..
For more on this topic please check out Electronic Frontier Foundation. www.eff.org
Let’s decouple from our devices!
Here is some practical advice to halt and reverse smart phone culture:
Next time there is a new phone released, simply ignore the hype.
When your battery runs out, don’t panic, enjoy being uncontactable.
If you lose your phone or its screen smashes, just replace it with a burner.
When your contract runs out, don’t renew it, switch to a pay as you go phone.
Meet up with them the old school way by setting a time and place and sticking to it.
Write a letter and post it.
Dont have important conversations online or on the phone, wait to have them in person.
If you are in company and they get their phones out for no reason, call them out on it.
If you find yourself habitually multiscreening, put some music on and do something engaging.
Next time you have an existential crisis because you’re not sure why you got your phone out in the first place, just launch it in the sea.