Imagining the real when the real is imaginary

From a work in progress with Fulano de Tal


These notes represent a preliminary outline of what we hope in due course will be developed into a fuller piece of writing designed, as ever, to support the human project and the transformation of everyday life. Small ambitions, then.

As is so often the way, we were overtaken by events, and these notes were assembled before both the online data surveillance revelations regarding the UK and US States, and also the events taking place in Turkey and Brazil. A preliminary reading of the role of the internet in these latter events suggests that its major role has been to drive up the speed of extension of social struggle, while the Prism and Pandora reports confirm the views of ‘conspiracy’ theorists (already proven many years ago by the discovery of universal monitoring of all telephone calls to/from the entire island of Ireland, for example). These revelations also highlight the forked tongues of the major cyber-players (contestational in public, craven in private), and their willingness to voluntarily initiate the will of State.


What will we ultimately be attempting by putting the final version of these thoughts down on paper? The fulfilment of two inter-connected aims:

  • An attempt to understand how the Spectacle has benefited from the development of the internet (and other ‘new’ media) and how the internet offers the means to coordinate social contestation
  • A desire to make an assessment of  the impact on the individual, both as ‘atom’ and as member of the social collectivity, of ‘new’ media, and the implications these have for fundamental phenomena such as identity
Audience and style

This is an open-ended endeavour, and one we aim to make as accessible as possible to non-techies and non-academics. It is not an item to be filed under cultural theory, but represents the beginning of an attempt to put this new world at our disposal once and for all. We draw on known schools of revolutionary thought, such as the Situationist project, council communist theory etc, but do not wish to confine ourselves to the company of other middle-aged men with questionable personal hygiene, sitting in free-house pubs and speaking in abstruse tongues.

The Game of being

The chance offered by the internet to masquerade as personalities we are not is more than a potentially sinister ruse to ensnare the unwary, but offers infinite opportunities for self-invention. In that sense that it makes ‘real’ the proposition that we are who we say we are and choose to be. Given that more people are spending more time engaged in remote communication, the notion of reality (also challenged by some post-modernists as being spurious because off its contingent and relative status) is itself opened to debate.

In this view, the persona becomes a more sophisticated self-chosen variant of Raoul Vaneigem’s division of the self into a series of roles (father, partner, worker, etc). Perhaps we should also consider Immanuel Kant’s categories as the framework by which a ‘self’ is defined, or as the Velvet Underground put it, “I do believe we are what we perceive”. However, the introduction of effectively mandatory online IDs, which is gaining currency via the Cloud, once again limits us to a given identity.

There is an intrinsic tension between the ‘anonymous’ movement as a strategic means of developing resistance and evading State scrutiny, and the progressive ‘selfism’ that characterises human behaviour, namely the stressing of the primacy of the individual’s status and experience over the value of the collective, which the new social media promotes. If all that anonymity means is the individual freedom to not be surveyed and to pass passively unnoticed, it is a defensive, conformist. and utterly negative freedom, and contributes nothing to the project of human community. If, however, it is a flag of convenience for all those individuals whose starting point for mutual unmediated recognition is to be free of the State’s panoptical gaze, then it is positive.

‘New’ media and human perception

The rate of acceleration of production and dissemination of perceptible images and ideas has been immeasurably increased by the development of electronic and cybernetic media. If, as the McCluhanite school observed, visual images penetrate our consciousness far more quickly and in a far less mediated fashion than the spoken word, then this progressive acceleration is merely a matter of degree following on, eg, from TV and motion pictures..

Whether orthodox Darwinism is sufficient to entirely account for changes in brain development is debatable, but it seems likely that being exposed from shortly after birth to new forms of media may alter the brain’s hard wiring within a single lifespan. Once again, this is merely consistent with the dialectic between humans and matter, whereby tool development, a human activity, affects human perception and behaviour in turn.

Suffocated by thin air

The development of ‘new’ media has been co-terminous with radical changes in economic activity in the West, to the extent that commentators can talk about ‘living on thin air,’ which at first hearing, seems to posit that the grubby-nailed world of industrial production is a thing of the past. This fallacy is relatively easy to sustain in economies where the production of things is overshadowed by the production and exchange of services, concepts, and experiences. However, it overlooks the daily horror of multiple fatalities in Bangladeshi sweatshops due to working conditions, for example.

Apparently, Charles Leadbeater, author of Living on Thin Air, argues that production has not only been superseded, it has been replaced by ‘participation’, a term that not only carries the characteristic Blairite whiff of false consultation, but also overlooks the ubiquitous price of admission associated with any activity under capitalism. “Partnership” and the pretence of consultation (the politicised variant of participation) create a notionally non-hierarchical world where fundamental disagreement has been left outside the hall, and the rules of discourse and behaviour are determined by their ‘appropriateness’, an unexamined ethos that places greater importance on the manner by which a message is conveyed than on its content.

Representation and ‘reality’

There are further challenges associated with new forms of media, in particular the primacy given to the representation over the reality of the thing or the experience, to the extent that gap-year students will talk about having ‘done’ a given country, as if  such journeys were something ‘outside’ the traveller, rather than part of the process of living. The temptation to record actuality rather than experience it, and the facility the internet provides to channel-hop such representations makes us all part of a movie that we seek to create, rather than living. However, as we observe when we examine the construction of memory, the apparent transience of experience that characterises online activity conceals the invariance of the version of ourselves held in aspic by those who control us through our self-representation ossified as data objects. The trivial attractions of an eternal present help to create the control we cede over a current version of ourselves, which can be re-transmitted to haunt us.

Electronica as police-person

The internet provides the opportunity to communicate freely and learn about the daily lives of others on a scale simply not imaginable twenty years. Thus, the Net and other media, such as mobile messaging services, have provided the opportunity to extend social interventions rapidly and efficiently. It is therefore no surprise that States have been keen to impose their control as soon as they are able, in a not dissimilar fashion to income-generating market enterprises seeking to penetrate such a rich mine of no-cost peer activity.

We would also do well to remind ourselves of the policing possibilities offered by social media, which have been used to identify geographical concentrations of the expression of particular views, as was the case following the recent street killing in the UK of a person wearing a Help for Heroes (and therefore implicitly pro-military) T-shirt.

The Enemy without a leader

The problem with the internet and the fuzzy lines between national and international capital formations in general is largely one of control. The phenomenon of poacher turned gamekeeper at senior levels is well illustrated by Eric Schmidt, executive Chair of Google, who was previously an adviser to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. However, the porosity, flat structure, and flexibility of the internet are capable of ultimately defeating any attempts to contain and suppress it, assuming this is what the mass of users want.

Hacking and other forms of counter-attack become inflated into full-blown assaults on the machinery of state, acts of terrorism. Fractally, but not effectively, there is some logic in this position, but this form of ‘psyops’ deliberately ignores the myriad motivations of participants, eg, self-defence, journalism, subversive humour, all-out assault etc, and the blurred lines between these categories. The conflation of all contestation as ‘acts of terrorism’ is a powerful ideological weapon, and needs to be challenged.

The deadly seduction the internet offers is to act as the consolation of the defeated, in the form of online games, pornography etc. Capitalism would be happy for us to scuttle from office to home (assuming one has to leave home to work or one has a job) in order to download our lives. Who would we challenge and who would we blame for this state of affairs?

The personalisation of data strengthens this isolating tendency yet further, ensuring that the ‘news’ which people receive online is selected according to the existing political assumptions of the consumer. The only contact we would have with others would therefore be virtual, and the selection of ‘facts’ and, by extension, contacts, would be predicated on one’s existing worldview, caught in  a solipsistic, self-reinforcing bubble.

Anonymity cuts both ways. One could vote for different shades of s*** via online survey, and, generally, communication would become increasingly unnecessary. Julian Assange argues (New York Times review of The New Digital Age,  02/06/13)  that this false reciprocity and illusion of participation actually creates the opportunity to “build and fine tune a political figure” (an apparent citation from the book being reviewed) by knocking off the ideological rough edges of an individual, who could be re-designated, for example, as challenging and polemical, but ultimately compliant. The political subject is thus dissolved by consensus, and becomes an object, a work in progress.

The logical endpoint of this impersonal scenario would be a re-imagining of the human as an entity who understands ‘the social’ as itself a story or a game, rather than a defining and irreducible core from which all other possibilities flow.

Space is the place

Space has long been contested, between nation-states and between classes, not only for the resources it might contain but also for the dominance it represents. Proletarians are right to be suspicious of containment, given the consequences of the expropriation of common land (acts of enclosure), and the reduction of nature to a theme park. In 1945, British dock workers ‘on the lump’, who had previously been financially dependent day to day on being chosen for work, were offered a stipend, even for workless days, on condition they waited to be chosen for work in a purpose-built hall. They refused, on the grounds that being incentivised to move from street to hall represented an invasion of liberty. This demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of space as a vehicle of containment, and is poignant given the subsequent defeat of the dockers’ power by the introduction of containers to transport goods.

Space exerts a phenomenological fascination on the human mind, not least perhaps because of the ‘elective affinities’ between space and the human mind – unconstrained by limitation, superseding time, and resonating with possibilities. It may be that resistance to  enclosure was not simply a rejection of the act of converting ludic space and common ground into ‘resource mines’, rather than free, mutable, ragged zones where anything could happen. This parcelling up of a  universal dimension of physics could be usefully compared to the introduction of the measurement of time, making what is infinite into a domesticated servant of Capital.

Thought, memory, and imagination share the characteristics of space, unlimited and infinite. It is tempting to assume that data is indeed as free as the air, escaping the limitations of the geographical, but this belies a reality of vast, energy-guzzling data bunkers, a fact that relegates the fable of online indeterminacy and lack of permanence itself to the status of political ephemera.

Marx was right to assert that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, and that Capital’s desire to roam freely across the globe puts the nation state in jeopardy.The struggle for space also plays itself out in the negotiation of the respective powers of national and international law and the significance of formal boundaries, such as the case of the Icelandic MP who was pursued under US national law for using US-owned social media to disseminate Wikileaks footage of US army attacks on Iraqi civilians. Somewhat naively, privacy was invoked by the MP in question, who argued that her online existence was (or should be) as susceptible to confidentiality as her offline life. However, the cultural effect of the near ubiquity of Western social networks imposes a vehicle that promotes free-market values at the expense of ‘local’ attitudes and social structures. In pointing this out, we do not seek to defend Islam, state capitalism, etc, but merely point out the apparent ‘givenness’ of the Facebook cosmos.

Who’s the tail and who’s the donkey?

It is hard to measure and describe the constellation of relationships between big capital and national governments that facilitates this centralising process, but the mutual benefits are clear. Monopolisation favours large corporations and thus provides an incentive for them to undertake activities that serve the agendas of government. The State’s desire for secrecy and the suppression of information is self-explanatory, and it appears unlikely that the two factions (Capital and the State) will disagree on anything more fundamental than matters of detail.

Other writers have noted the lack of reference to the political economy in critiques of cyber-society, and the assumption that the prevailing social relations are ‘always with us’, like the weather (or the poor, as St. Matthew would have it). Enthusiasts of the possibilities offered by the Net choose not to recognise that as long as we live in a society where power relations prevail, the internet will not be ‘allowed’ to act as the fundamental agent of democratising change, while critics tend to view things in tactical, piecemeal terms, rather than strategically. That is to say, it is easy to wage single-issue battles and/or devise plans to, for example, evade individual surveillance techniques, without recognising that these are one of the many and self-replacing heads of the hydra.

It has even been claimed that the development of scientific theory may be wrested from the hands of academics, and arrived at by a consortia of peers, wiki-style. Once again, this optimism overlooks the reality of real-world constraints, in this case academic gatekeeping. However, it does re-introduce the role of chance to the nature and acquisition of knowledge, pushing the boundaries of constraints in order to effect often unsought paradigm shifts.

Memory as a ghost from the past

As soon as we learned to record our thoughts, we created a world outside ourselves to which we could refer, and which could be drawn on by others to corroborate or challenge our arguments. This represented a reification of human consciousness, and created the means by which our thoughts could be remembered without us being present, or indeed alive. This process has been made richer by the ‘netification’ of daily life, but the principle remains what it was at the time the Rosetta Stone was inscribed.

Clearly the nature of communication is deeply affected by the extent to and the method by which data is/can be recorded, and this development is invaluable in resolving disagreements regarding what we said and when. However, the frozen memorialisation of life by Facebook and other media is qualitatively distinct in a number of profound respects:

  • The self and how it is objectively (in the sense of being an object) presented is a matter of our own choice
  • Our existence as ‘cyber-memory’, and ultimately the uses to which this data is put, is in the hands of others, the data managers

The first point is crucial inasmuch as it is risks removing the continuing and unique relationship between oneself and another implied by subjective memory, and holds individual reminiscence up to ‘objective’ comparison with the cybernetic self as the individual has chosen to construct it. The relational aspect of memory (eg, the dead ‘live’ in memory as recollections of how they related with the individual) is extinguished and is replaced with scrutiny of an object.

Regarding the second point, to one extent or another, engagement with storecards, Facebook etc, are acts of ‘living agency’, and can be avoided or minimised if desired. However, the ‘decampment’ of memory makes it the property of others, and it is added to the vast databank dealing with human behaviour, tastes, desires, etc. What we are describing goes beyond the more intangible world of alienated commodities that Marx describes in relation to capitalist social relations, in that what comes back to confront us is an ossified version of ourselves.

2. New York Times review of The New Digital Age, 2 May 2013.

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