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The Great Immobiliser

“Social media is bad and it’s ruining your attention spans” right? Done, nothing more to be written, the topic has been roundly tied off and thrown into a ditch. We may laugh or sigh at such proclamations by this point, so often are they wheeled out, often with the air of “when I was younger we used to go outside, things were so much better then” God, we know already, get off our backs. Because warnings about the addictiveness of social media tend to come with a side-order of finger wagging and moralising, indifference seems to be the widespread response, like kids ignoring the advice of a teacher because, well, it just isn’t cool to care.

Indeed, we can’t exactly just roll back the project, undo what has become such an integral part of people’s lives by this point. In many ways social media is now baked into the way many of us experience not just the internet, but life. We are told if we want to increase our publicity, we need a social media outlet, social media manager is not an uncommon position, and most events and get-togethers are now organised through the social media channels specifically designed for that purpose. While we could just sign off entirely and consign ourselves to more old-fashioned ways of organisation and information dissemination, there’s a distinct sense, and it’s not entirely unjustified, that by doing so we are losing out on a useful tool. Indeed, the only reason I still have a facebook account, when it comes down to it, is it’s usefulness in a communication and information capacity.

And if this is where it finished, as a tool, social media wouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, was this not the primary purpose of social media, as something useful, a way to keep in touch with people, a tool to augment life… the issue is where we cross the boundary from an augmented reality towards a virtual one; we find ourselves in a rhythmic limbo of notifications, auto-playing videos, vaguely “relatable” status updates, quibbling, nitpicking, self-aggrandisement..

I myself was lead to write this after spending about half an hour browsing Facebook before realising I hadn’t really seen anything interesting in all that time. It was the anticipation of seeing something interesting that drove me, the expectation that something might happen, against the odds. I had just been sitting there scrolling through nothing, and it struck me how this is precisely where Facebook, Twitter et al want you, sitting there motionless scrolling through a small rectangle, willingly or unwillingly falling into an experience of pure banality. Completely immobilised. We begin craving the small dopamine rush of receiving a notification and so we continuously check, a fear that something might have happened while we were looking in the other direction. It is, as cliched as this might seem, a form of addiction, one that can be extremely difficult to kick, removal from the matrix leading to a constant twinge to pick up the phone, log in, check once more, one more click. 

There was a Facebook advertising campaign, I’m not sure if its still running, called “Let’s Get to Work”, featuring a montage of people going about a variety of jobs; butcher, barber, candestickmaker, you get the jist, and I remember first seeing the ad in a cinema and openly laughing when the Facebook logo appeared at the end. It was a similar [if not quite as strong] surreal disconnect I noticed in that infamous Sainsbury’s Christmas advert clumsily welding their logo into the end of a tearjerking and well made short about the first world war. We have footage which over-bearingly signals that this is genuine, real, and that you, your small business, your life, is at the heart of it, and then a logo is imposed onto this footage of a company we know has no such concerns. Not only this, but the genuine-ness signalled in the advert is starkly at odds with the unprecedented levels of facade we encounter on the platform itself. 

Facebook had pulled that old advertising trick of trying to convince you that they are the exact opposite of what they represent, something they are pulling again in the wake of data scandals and evidence of their untrustworthiness by trying to convince us that we’re in safe hands, that there’s nothing to worry about. What this particular campaign, maybe unintentionally, put across to me however was a conflation between the reality being shown and the reality we encounter on Facebook, as if one was the equivalent or the same as the other. In showing nobody within the advert actually using the platform, no hints of information technology at all in fact before unveiling the logo at the conclusion, the advert seems to engage in a kind of bait and switch, leading us down one path and at the last second pushing us back in the opposite direction.

Social media relies on this confusion, a contradiction between the fake and the genuine, the direct and the distant, until we dull our ability to distinguish, between fake-genuine and genuine-fake. When one refers to Baudrillard’s popular term Hyperreality in regard to social media, many might assume what’s being talked about is social media as a wholly alternative reality, something you plug into the back of your head and phase into. If it were that simple. What we have is the ultimate development in postmodern condition, the next step in the great immobilisation. Think of politics, and the endless spats, call-outs, and arguments that constitute its  presence on social media. To put it bluntly, if people are busy quibbling endlessly online, they aren’t organising, and if you’re spending hours scrolling through vapid newsfeed posts, you’re not doing something constructive, but we see these things somehow as constructive themselves, we begin to find the distinction dissolving between uses of time, between interactions, the very fabric of reality becomes a digital smokescreen. We look at the world and only see something to post online, something to further our digital augmentation. Social media hasn’t simply become a reality in-itself as much as reality itself. 

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Non-Philosophy Notes 1

I drink a branded soft drink, from one can of billions manufactured worldwide every day, standing a building erected in the 19th century, watching a film made in the 1960s on a smartphone made in 2016. During the day I will consume items and culture from the past and the present and from countries spanning the globe. I will continue to assert some kind of identity through this consumption, some kind of construction founded upon a confusing and heady mixture of information chunks and mental patterns shifting in and out of focus as the world changes around me.

I have an idea of self, but no core, none of us can truly claim such a solid idea of who we are behind the layers of clothing and masks that form what we experience as a reality. This is the postmodern condition, a hyperreality of things where what is true and what is tangible is as difficult to place as where I was on this day six years ago, where hundreds of different identities suddenly mingle shoulder to shoulder and experience the difference of the world in simultaneously greater immediacy. Everything more immediate, more now, and yet immediacy breeds distance, information is here, and yet to process that information is to remove ourselves. Some say, for varying reasons that we are approaching some kind of end point, a level of saturation, and that we should either worry or hasten the end.

What if it has already happened? What happens if we are living within an aftermath of an event we didn’t even realise occurred? We might keep ourselves in a state of constant apprehension and expectation, but what happens if the true event isn’t the altering of our course but the lifting of the curtain. The more heightened things become the more evident its workings become, the more those systems work to cover them, the more we try to distract ourselves, the more we accept the state of events and centre ourselves around a future we are now certain will happen. As the late Mark Fisher once noted “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”, and yet why do we seem to automatically assume it is always an end, is this our brain reading understandable patterns onto random occurrences? Is it really easy to imagine the end of anything? Does anything end?

Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino proposed an idea countering the common assumption that all things return to the nothing from whence they came, an Eternity of all Beings, a dismantling of the notion of becoming, a deconstruction of the notion of distance between being and non-being, the proposal that perhaps, being does not come and go, we do not come into being and then dissipate. Being in this model is a constant, a shifting eternal thing, something that can never become nothing. In this most heightened postmodern technological future of constant information feeds and digital preservation this notion seems to gain practical resonance. Of course the digital is the physical, civilization is nature and nothing is eternal, and yet.. even when things dissipate, they remain, ineffable but there, a thread of being.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here but maybe counter to the idea that the eternal has nothing to do with the postmodern it has everything to do with it, for if anything is eternal is it not the transient, the temporary? It is the contradiction of countering the all consuming narrative by proposing an all consuming narrative of non-narrative that must be made if we are to tackle the non-narrative flow of modern life and reach some kind of understanding of any kind concerning ourselves and the people around us, if not the planet we reside on. Is not contradiction another constant, uncertainty? Surely this non-modernist interpretation is in itself a solid foundation? The foundation upon which to dismantle every preceding foundation? The establishment of a model with which to critique all other models?

For this is the defining response to the postmodern condition, that of critique and dismantling, that of examination, that of resistance. It is not destruction, but a close observation and understanding that defines this, a drawing back of the veil. Social construction, an all encompassing one, an increasingly complex one, defines who we are and that cannot be undone, but if we become aware of the machinery by which it operates social construction can be shifted and crafted anew, and to achieve this perhaps I suggest we must operate somewhere outside the bounds of both philosophy and Praxis, at some intersection of method and theory where contradiction breeds affirmation.

To sit in a room and call it philosophy, then hope the room tells us something meaningful in response, it is entirely ineffectual as any meaningful way of moving forward, and so we reach a point where culture and philosophy compliment each other, the avant-garde and the experimental, those forms of expression that dismantle the excepted modes and create a poetic dissonance, an aesthetics of transgression in response to a stifling unanimity of cultural homogeneity. We must manipulate the very forms of critique and expression to serve as an effective tool of protest, protest at the mandates of socially conservative appeals to normality, to mundanity and banality. To encompass the staggering variation in our number, to recognise difference as an essential component we must endeavour to practice it and look outside the construction of acceptability and prejudice we have erected like a fortress to protect our most fragile works of power and artifice. 

It is with an act that defies the narrative we are provided that this fortress can be dismantled, block by block, an act of creative manipulation. An act of creativity as transgression, as a political and philosophical interrogation of what we consider true, real, natural, human, sane, ordered, normal. Both the artist and the philosopher, and the point where both intersect, are at a unique spot somewhere at the fringes of social change, not driving it per se, but operating outside the eye of the storm. This makes the area of creativity and philosophy far more valuable to us than commonly believed. Think of both as encompassing the role of social critic, of helping us probe and investigate our assumptions of how we live. If there’s one thing that is necessary in this age of information, shifting conceptions of truth and power, of unprecedented complexity and progress despite staggering inequality and exploitation, it’s that. The ability to be critical of the values that drive us, the hierarchies that constrain us, unpick the prejudices that dictate our decisions, take a closer look at what we consider normal and fair. The humanities, the social sciences, art movements harking back to Dadaism, the genuine spirit of experimentalism that drives free improvisation and conceptual art; these more than anything provide us with the tools to interpret this subjective postmodernist cornucopia of horror and riches. Thus, fundamentally, the artist, the philosopher, the critical theorist, the free spirit, they have a key role to play in the times to come. They have the power to speak up for outsiders and to transgress the social norms that define us. We may not have to look to the agents of order to iron out our differences, but the practitioners of chaos to celebrate them.