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We must dig the grave of digital capitalism

Image description: A crowd of people in a red-lit room holding up their phones with flashlights on

“Everything is boring, no one is bored.” – Mark Fisher

It used to be the case that I would savour those moments in which I was not subjected to the discipline and surveillance of my employer. Be it from the Victorian factory, the Fordist production line, or the paper-pushing office complex, whatever non-working time I had belonged to the refuge of the personal sphere: it was, in theory, time to myself. Totally free of capitalist influence it was of course not, and it is no wonder that the expansion of commodity consumption and media like commercial television expanded in accordance with the amount of time people spent away from work. Still, at a distance from the physical and intellectual deference demanded by my employer, I might spend time doing things that improved my quality of life: reading, playing sport, making music, spending time with family or in the community. In the space that was perceived by capitalism to be empty and non-productive lay the source of much human happiness.

We should not be so naive as to assume that the conquest of our ‘non-productive’ time today, that is to say the absorption of the personal into the digital – nor the resulting transformation of our social existence – has been the work of some kind of neutral technological force. On the contrary, we have been rendered catatonic consumers of what Guy Debord called “pseudo-history”,[1] and commodifiers of our own lives, in service of some of the most grotesque conglomerates capitalism has ever produced. It may have donned a new mask in the form of digital hyper-modernity, but the true face of capitalism remains: a vast majority of the population is exploited in service of the inhuman end of profit. In the spirit of Marx and Engels, it is up to us – the children of the digital revolution – to become the “gravediggers” of the system that has made us what we are.

If this sounds all too predictably histrionic for someone with an end-of-days belief in ‘just how bad things have got’, consider it another way. How much of your actual engagement with the world is little more than parenthesis in a day otherwise spent being fired around the same feedback loops of instant gratification, or the same perfecting of yourself as a marketable digital commodity? To what extent does it really involve the kind of critical thinking that is not in any way compromised by the urge to experience life, if not physically online, then mediated by its patterns of thought? I know it, in my case, to be vanishingly little.

We are engaged in a collective Faustian bargain. One that was forced upon collectively unconscious children the moment our equally oblivious parents, ambushed by the Blitzkrieg of big tech, allowed to be placed into our hands the means of our addiction. It goes like this: we never have to be bored again, just so long as they get all of our time, our data (friends, personal history, sexual preferences), and our attention. And they sell it on so that things are marketed to us that we neither need nor fundamentally desire.

“…as the tech gets smarter, we get stupider.”

I am, to be quite honest, not entirely sure what it is that this ‘absence of boredom’ even involves. I often find myself distracted from the vain attempt at engaging in some actual thinking to ‘find something out’ online, only to emerge as though from digital slumber five minutes later having caught glimpses of the iced lattés of fifteen different pseudo-friends and completely forgotten what it was I intended to find out. My friend recently told me that the iPad is often referred to in China as a “digital pacifier”. I can think of no better description of a technology which aims to permanently dazzle me with an infinity of meaningless ephemera, and which keeps me in a state of button-pushing infantilism so as to extract from me ever greater heaps of commodified data.

There is a troubling paradox which lurks beneath all this. If my previous paragraph holds true, I would not be online were it not for the possibility that it might teach me something about the world. There is vast emancipatory potential in digital technology. It makes vast sums of knowledge and information available to people who would never previously have had access to it; indeed, this article would not be possible were it not from the Internet. Applied to the world of work, it offers the promise of automation, liberating masses from degrading, mechanistic labour. No radical should be making the case for a return to shitting in the woods. Today though, digital technology is inseparable from capitalism. We experience it overwhelmingly in its infantilising, addicting, gamified form. Just as big money has a monopoly on technology, so too does technology have a monopoly on intellectual development: as the tech gets smarter, we get stupider.

I hold that social media represent capitalism’s most resolute victory yet over all those things which lie outside its traditional sphere of exploitation. It has changed the way we live and think in ways which we are only now beginning to acknowledge. It has rendered us universally proletarian, insofar as we own nothing of the valuable data we produce, we work fastidiously on selling ourselves as digital commodities, and we are ritually fed through cycles of control. So just as we seek to end the stranglehold of big pharma over life-saving medicine, so too must we emancipate technologies with revolutionary potential from the all-corrupting force of big tech.

If this article has concerned itself with the abstract, then its aim going forward will be more concrete. I want to examine the way that digital capitalism has transformed our relationship with ourselves and the world around us. My hunch is that there is no longer any such thing as a ‘digital presence’. Social media change the way we think and behave well beyond the time that we actually spend online, and hence the reality of social existence even for those of us who are not on them (a group to which I unfortunately do not belong). They render us narcissistic pseudo-radicals, who have the sense of changing everything while doing nothing of the sort. And while total abstention is both unlikely and probably unproductive, we must radically rethink our relationship to them. This, after all, is our reality.

[1]Debord, G., 1967. “The Society of the Spectacle”. §200

Image credit: Luis Quintero via Pexels

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