Questioning the Extremely Online

This essay is in regard to a crime that too often goes unmentioned when the conversations turn towards political analysis, the contemporary journalistic scene, and broader social critique: the crime of being extremely online.

What does it mean to be extremely online? It mostly is as straightforward as it sounds. Generally, activities such as spending too much time on the web, scrolling through social media feeds out of habit, checking email or notifications dozens of times a day, all are symptoms of the extremely online person. Particularly, too much smartphone use is a devastating problem.

There is also a more specific version, which both mainstream journalists and alternative media commentators employ on both the right and left: constantly posting every news update; sharing a gazillion times every day each and every version and opinion on a current event/post/tweet about the lead news stories of the day, whether it is something interesting about global warming or something as ignorant and banal as the president’s tweets; prognosticating about the presidential election a year and a half before it happens;  using dubious polls or statistics to bolster weak arguments; and basically reacting to every media spectacle with behavior including, but not limited to, juvenile tantrums, posturing, faux outrage, jaded cynicism, pompous virtue-signalling, ironic detachment, and narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

Quite a few alternative media commentators tend to replicate and mimic the 24/7 spectacle that is mainstream news. That is to say, many have internalized the messaging style; the hyper-fast response time to current events…generally speaking, the norms of mainstream commentary and thus bourgeois values are being internalized. The more time spent posting for an online following on social media, the stronger the pull of an affinity to a certain type of power. Digital hierarchies become hardened, and the bourgeoisification of the web intensifies. As we shall see below, even those who identify as anti-capitalist or socialist are not immune.

The types of online behaviors regarding political debate exhibited above may be the exception, but with the expansion of social media along with its hyper-stratified tendencies, it may soon become the norm.

What research has shown is that digital literacy creates a path towards more open attitudes towards digital technology, which can be called Technophilia.1 This research points towards entertainment as one of the key drivers in promoting positive emotions and behavior when using digital technology, which results in a positive feedback loop leading to more intense and rewarding use.

If you extrapolate from this a bit, I’d suggest that the top online influencers in various political schools of thought will be more predisposed towards promoting digital technology, simply because they are benefitting from it financially. We have a situation where the most popular commentators are economically tied to social media, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that their naïve optimism regarding the power of digital media will not stop there, but rather, the naivety extends to industrial society as a whole.

The social media environment creates a logic of its own, just as most modern technology does. One obvious materialist analogy is to the medical industry. As long as for-profit companies are allowed to dominate pharmaceutical and research endeavors, the logic of the system will mean that more people are made sick, anxious, depressed, etc., to make more money for corporations. With social media, the logic of its internal dynamics precludes nuanced, informed, lengthy public deliberation in favor of sound-bite quotes, sloganeering, and focusing on personalities, along with the most shallow forms of identity politicking. Its logic depends on divisive, sensational, hateful, and ultimately fascistic rhetoric dominating political discourse.

Since the scope of Technophilia broadens and intensifies with continued use of labor-saving devices made under exploitative conditions, it ultimately results in many self-proclaimed anti-capitalists falling under the sway of propaganda emanating from mainstream technological society, as we shall see below.

Class is never taken seriously in our society. In many rural areas around the USA broadband internet access is still out of reach, and is expensive for many poor urban Americans as well, creating a digital divide. Thus it is no wonder that the rich and middle-classes are more “open” towards the web and smart-phone use. They derive more pleasure from them in terms of entertainment, increased digital literacy, and monetary success. The flip side of being more open is being more immature and blind to dangers, however. In contrast the poor and working classes respond to the digital life-world with more skepticism, as the above study indicates.

My contention here is that this digital literacy creates a new form of “digital spectacle” for technophilic Westerners on both the political right and left, especially for the middle classes. The elite implicitly understand that in a society based on artificial scarcity, only a certain amount of online influencers can vie for position in digital media. The professional and managerial classes, and their children ensconced in privilege, all too easily fall under the sway of the competitive forces in online media as well.

The poor and working class understand that in regarding to digital media, they are getting crushed under the weight of start-up costs, social capital which is either unobtainable or sleazy to get, and various online fees and hurdles to make it in a new rigged game of digital society. The digital divide is becoming a chasm, because it too it based on market forces.

As alluded to above, election cycle mania, the fascination with polling data, as well as fixation of GDP, job growth, and many other factors which the mainstream media focuses on are now internalized across the political spectrum, included much of Western Left analysis. This isn’t to say that socialists overly reliant on statistics and polling are wrong; simply that it’s mostly ineffective, as the tone is technocratic, academic, and is filled with the jargon that turns off the average citizen, even some of what is written here. I am not immune, this is a self-criticism as well, as the lack of engagement and overly analytical framework extends throughout journalism and academia across the entire social body.

Most of this behavior has been internalized and learned from mainstream media, which creates a market and manufactured interest in nonsensical statistics and banal news trivia, as Neil Postman points out:

Statistics create an enormous amount of completely useless information, which compounds the always difficult task of location that which is useful to a culture. This is more than a case of ‘information-overload.’ It is a matter of information-trivia, which has the effect of placing all information on an equal level.2

Once data becomes transmuted into a sort of holy substance, it is wielded by both the political Right and Left as a weapon: statistics back their cause and any deviation from the issue is irrational and illogical. This sets the table for false binaries and political polarization across the spectrum of political thought.

What being extremely online has done is given the very few big “influencers” in mainstream media as well as alternative spaces huge egos and warped their ability to think critically. This is most clearly seen in our “troll in chief”, Donald Trump. Time, space, and perception are distorted and it has led to a predictable and unimaginative online discourse.

When a post appears on social media, often if you know the contributor and some of the followers/friends, you can glean and predict what the reaction is going to be and who is going to say what. Depending on the news of the day, I can guestimate what the “takes” will be of my various friends and those I follow. I admit this can be sometimes comforting given the horrendous news we deal with daily. However, it also kind of implies that real people are reacting, thinking, and forming commentary algorithmically, as if our thoughts now mimic apps like Spotify and Pandora which play tracks from one’s favorite musicians; or at least similar artists which won’t offend the listener’s taste. How banal and horrifying all at once.

With podcasts or Youtube videos, as well as message boards, one can see political commentary forming a script, where individuals rattle off reels of their “greatest hits” of points, observations, and reflections, rather than engaging with the subject matter. No matter how hard we try, social media can never replicate oral traditions and real-life conversations. Dysfunction is baked into modern capitalist-based digital communication.

How being extremely online works to the advantage of the few at the expense of the many is easy to ascertain. We are told we are living in an “attention economy” and the extremely online predicate their behavior on this premise, even those who ostensibly identify as anti-capitalist. The extremely online mimic the 24/7 blather of mainstream media discourse, because nothing is too insignificant not to post, nothing too small not to get out in the lead as being “on top of” any given issue or current event. This is the sort of competitive striving absolutely essential to capitalism.

Outrage, shock, compassion, repulsion, empathy, and even “rational, objective” sober media analysis vie for our attention spans, and the extremely online prey upon those among their followers who due to loneliness, emotional issues, or escapism already spend too much time online, and are thus more vulnerable to screen addiction, sensationalist appeals, fear-mongering, gossip, consumer trends, etc.

Of course, the mainstream outlets have been deeply complicit, as it suits their financial interests. As seen by the CNN executive during the 2016 election gloating that the insane coverage of Trump was horrible for the country, but good for their bottom line, or something to that effect.

As for the reaction time of news sources, and thus political commentary, it may strain one’s memory to recall, but only twenty years ago any major news stories that broke after the evening news broadcast did not appear until the next morning, nearly an eight to twelve hour delay

Now, every media outlet is constantly bombarding us with every update and crisis in real time. The main reaction to this (notwithstanding the many sincere alternative media, community-level, and individual critiques) in the collective consciousness is shock and numbness, and it only compounds daily.

Now, many leftists tend to unconsciously mimic the same tendencies of mainstream media. This is done by copying the tactics of mainstream online influencers who use marketing, PR, and advertising firms to get ahead. This is done by pandering to the crowd and reacting to every Trump and establishment faux pas, whether Democrat or Republican. This is done by opportunistic virtue signaling and online activism viewed as a substitute for in person organizing. The virtual becomes more real than the real. Egos become more tied to the digital social environs, a derivative of a derivative.

Apparently the twisted logic is that if the extremely online use social media as a way for exposure and fame, it’s worth it. Social media becomes a tool, a means to an end to uproot the system. The downside tends to be that we become instruments of social media itself, not a new phenomenon in Western Civilization.

Posting dozens of times a day on social media simply is not in anyone’s best interest. It is in the best interest of capital, however. Why else would one post 30, 50, a hundred times a day if not to create an attention economy around oneself, to gain digital “followers” whose gaze will be diverted from possibly more important issues closer and dearer to their hearts…as well as to one’s family and friends, one’s material reality and ability to help the vulnerable and those in need close to them.

What should be obvious is every moment spent online is time away from the natural world and thus a huge time-suck where we exist as zombified, trance-induced crazy people for more information, useless updates, more drivel-data and bits of trivialities that do not change a thing.

Being online means being on the grid and the computing power needed to keep our information superhighway running is increasing like a runaway train. Despite the relatively low cost of powering one’s individual smartphone and computer/laptop/tablet etc., the internet via server farms, cell towers, etc. uses approximately 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption and the total energy use for the web increases by about 20% each year. The rollout of harmful 5G technology and internet of things only will accelerate the technological dystopia we’re enmeshed in.

Regardless of what technophiles and delusional people want to think, modern industrial civilization is a fad. We are going to have to go through an extended period of degrowth and lowering our power consumption and that will have to include less internet use. Most especially, too much smartphone use must be addressed head-on. Smartphones need to go away, for good, and it’s not too hard to imagine a workable society without them. It existed twenty years ago.

This should be simple enough to understand, but again, chronic habitual internet use and social media creates a form of addiction which leads to denialism. For those that do partake in nuanced forms of online discussion, in message boards or even in comment sections, yet limit, self-reflect, and moderate your use, congratulations. This is not directed at you. This is written is response to the serial social media addicts. For those in this group, I’ll posit that one of the root reasons for this malady is that our addict-Left comrades unconsciously identify with the system.

This isn’t meant to sound callous, these people are suffering to different degrees, and I do empathize. Boredom, loneliness, and lack of in-person human connection are endemic to our culture and these factors shouldn’t be minimized when understanding addictive behavior.

Part of the problem is the speed of society now. It’s understandable, people want to keep up with events and chime in with their two cents. It’s a human reaction. Part of the problem is also that the people who have convinced themselves they are part of the solution remain part of the problem. Mainly, because they are unable or unwilling to critically examine the technophilic ideology at the heart of the capitalist-based internet.

The “Left-opinion makers”, as the Situationists were wont to call them, thus fall hopelessly further into the spectacle.

Caveat

Social media use is not a horrible thing in and of itself. Although much of its use tends to replicate competitive and hierarchical relations, there are alternative visions of what the web could be like. Internet and social media companies could have been, and should be now, directed through public funding and non-profit models decades ago to engage and educate working class people, to provide jobs and new opportunities, and to raise the consciousness of the public sphere. This could easily be done even within the confines of a social-democratic system.

What we have now is a web and social media landscape that is largely, but not completely, irredeemable. Again, this does not mean one should completely ignore it, only that social media should be seen as a vessel to get people out of their homes and into the streets: like we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt and many other nations during the Arab Spring.

I don’t know if this metaphor is useful at all, but social media could be used as a sort of liberatory portals or gateways, networks to awaken the masses from their slumber, to take them out of the virtual and into the “natural” world. Web and social media technology can be used to “tune in” people to serious movement-building, to Marx, to environmental protests, to issues like climate change and nuclear war, through digital communication; but eventually there has to be a period when citizens step through to the other side and “drop out” to take the struggle onto the public squares. The thing is, many of those involved in just such struggles seem hopelessly “addicted” or too enamored with the power of internet technology itself, much like what has happened with the fetishization of the internal combustion engine, the printing press, the personal computer, and many other examples.

The Professional Bloviators

Sadly, quite a few self-professed anti-capitalist public intellectuals seem to be ensnared by bourgeois ideology today. Many rightly view our political and economic systems as hopelessly corrupt, yet still cling to the privilege, perks, and soapboxes offered by their academic positions (tied to student and faculty exploitation, which is either conveniently unmentioned or under-emphasized), viewing their own credentials as somehow a basis for a true and fair meritocracy, as if academia is somehow above the vagaries of blind chance, sheer luck, white privilege, and jockeying for power.

Any academic worth their salt should be either heavily insinuating, or outright stating to their students, that college is a huge waste of time and money, depending on how much “free speech” they can actually afford to say without getting canned. Universities function today as huge indoctrination camps to train the next generation of good “liberals” (or good Germans, it might be more appropriate to say) who will never question or threaten to overturn the system: the professional-managerial upper-middle class technocrats, financiers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

Thus, even some dissident academics manage to paint themselves into a corner with ineffectual arguments backing the college system, turf wars, theatrical posturing, lack of engagement with the working class, etc. This has all been said before, but again, it may be worth repeating. For instance, in 2011 in the US there were some “socialists” and “anarchists” supporting the US/UK/French bombing of Libya, and a few who equivocated and vacillated, citing the responsibility to protect civilians, parroting State Department propaganda. Oy vey.

The internet and social media has accelerated this trend, making things worse among the wider population, as even those with core anti-capitalist ideas fall into internecine bickering. This is peak aspersionary politics, or passive-aggressiveness if you prefer, which apes wider bourgeois culture. To recast Allen Ginsberg’s opening line of Howl for today, and I only mean this half-jokingly, we can think of something like: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by social media.” Some Left twitterati self-identify as being “extremely online”: brazenly, unashamedly, and unreflectively revealing the depths of their own screen addictions.

Aldous Huxley described the brain as a “reducing valve”, yet I’ve not heard a fully-encompassing phrase for the situation created by a digital milieu where web algorithms which reinforce harmful beliefs and behavior, prey on our addictions, amplify hatred, sow discord, polarize media and community; by devices that seize and sustain our attention long after we realize it no longer serves our interests; by neurotransmitter hijacking, empathy-deadening, critical-thinking atrophying smartphones and media built explicitly to mine us for money, use our thoughts/photos/creativity/etc. as free content while social media companies and those who advertise on the platforms make billions, and generally to simultaneously distract, outrage, and numb us. “Limbic capitalism3 is the closest term I’ve come across, but perhaps the more brutal, if less artful, phrase is more apt: mind control.

There is less and less nuance and space for radical dissent as many left-leaning alternative media and social media influencers close ranks and offer only very mild criticism of social democratic policies. Again, the striving is self-evident, is it not?

These are symptoms of unhealthy minds, formatted/manipulated/brainwashed to choose between false binaries no matter what contradictions follow from the starting premises of whatever topic is at hand. For instance, take the so-called socialist opportunists who offer very mild public criticism of the Green New Deal, or those who don’t mention the huge cuts in military spending needed to give the deal teeth, so as not to seem confrontational or radical, or perhaps to save what’s left of their perceived (yet, worthless) reputations. In other words, their take is: we don’t have time to build real socialism. Let’s form a coalition with the new social democrats, as if that didn’t end in complete disaster over 100 years ago.

Paths Forward

Now, of course it’s true that reform can indeed broaden and deepen the prospects for revolution, and it is not an either/or proposition, as Rosa Luxembourg explained so well. Yet, we cannot let the crass opportunism and striving for attention on digital media to enact important reforms derail us from steeping workers, students, minorities, and women in the rich intellectual tradition woven by the anti-capitalist Left.

Right in the introduction to the Social Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg states: “The entire strength of the modern labor movement rests on theoretic knowledge.” Despite big advances in the last three years, clearly there is a need for the deep type of work involving the framework for constructing and advancing a truly emancipatory Green New Deal, as well as fighting for open borders, the abolition of prisons and police, and the military-industrial complex.

Anything less than a systematic and intersectional approach will do a huge disservice to the movement and will replicate the cloistered, privileged milieu which unduly benefits the extremely online and their techno-utopian backers.

Reform is welcome because it can lead to tolerance, and its eventual byproduct, solidarity. Solidarity is a radiating emotional, behavioral, and intellectual stance from which flow social bonding and necessary healing mechanisms for our culture. The main ideals of environmental, social, and economic justice revolve around solidarity. Which gives us space to breathe, and here I’m reminded of Eric Garner’s last words. The minorities and the poor in this country have been suffocating for centuries. With no mass base, even the good intentions of those in Congress, such as the “Squad” who advocate for redistributive measures, will be for naught.

If some of today’s US socialist “thought leaders” are so spineless to feign from even mentioning how the prospect of renewable energy corporations left in the hands of private control will end in utter disaster, or to simply pretend it won’t, there’s not much left to say to these people. Then there are US socialists who advocate insanely for nuclear power. Forget theoretical knowledge.  This is basic common sense.  Nuclear energy is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. If there is intimidation by peers, or simply self-censorship, or to maintain a lifestyle by promoting such anti-life policies on the Left, well, it’s entirely understandable, predictable, and wretched. It’s also an abdication of responsibility: clearly these are bourgeois stances.

To sum up, pointing fingers at the ruling classes’ blatantly obvious sociopathic tendencies provides the convenient scapegoats and diversionary tactics from confronting the holes in many of our own thinking

Back to theoretic knowledge for a minute. First, we have to take into account the anti-intellectual climate here in the US. One encounters quite a few semi-influential figures, especially on the right but increasingly in anti-capitalist outlets, which are quick to criticize French postmodernists, or the Frankfurt School, or various strains of thought which are deemed too obscure or weighty.

There’s no time for theory is one of their complaints, because it is too time-consuming or turns off too many people. So whatever is too complicated for the gate-keeping digital left-liberal editors is thrown by the wayside, but it ain’t clear where this process is headed other than an even more dumbed-down society. What is clear is we are dealing with lightweights.  It’s pretty paternalistic too, because the subtext seems to be that regular people are just too dumb to be introduced to “Theory” and serious academic work.

The other side to this is that many of the same people who are wonderful at explaining theory or offering political critique, many of the “the Left opinion makers”, have absolutely no environmental or ecological knowledge base. You wouldn’t trust them with a shovel; never mind on a factory floor, a communal farm, starting an activist movement or union, or organizing a cooperative. The materialism part of the equation never kicked in. It’s a function of middle-class squeamishness that needs to be squashed.

Another point I want to mention is the US and UK analytic preference for social critique and philosophical investigation, in contrast to the continental style. And I cannot emphasize enough that the dominant Anglophone trend is to turn socialism into an equation, a formula. Put another way, to offer models of governance and even to organize in the technocratic style. Not only that, but to uncritically accept a model for the future based on unrestrained use of technology, with very little understanding of environmental impacts,  conservation, or basic ecology in general.

We see this techno-fetishism in some of the ideas floating around such as “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, notably Aaron Bastani’s recent work of the same title. Bastani is close to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. And look who gives a plug for the book, Bhaskar Sunkara. And if you follow these connections down the rabbit hole you’ll see Sunkara’s most recent work gets a plug from Ezra Klein of Vox. So there are all these ties from UK socialists to US democratic socialists to elitist technocratic liberals. And what is in common is a shared naivety regarding technology.

Again, ideas around degrowth are never discussed by the automation admirers. It’s clearly a total dismissal of the idea to preserve their own affluence. Total energy use in the West will have to decrease immensely. The economy, which is inexorably tied to energy use, will have to contract. Nearly all large buildings will have to be retrofitted to remain cooler in the summer and warmer in winter using natural insulation methods. Many large office buildings, skyscrapers, malls, etc. will simply have to be abandoned because there is no way to heat/cool them even remotely efficiently. Modern agriculture will have to be dismantled and converted to decentralized permaculture community-worked gardens.

None of this is even mentioned by the automators. This is because their thinking, their ways of being online, have already started to slip into the manner of the automaton. Which many people acknowledged, where Brzezinski dispassionately saw it as an inevitability of modern life, and famously Marcuse saw it as a downright horror in his One Dimensional Man.

The majority of the world can see through all of this talk of AI, robot, quantum computer, 5G drivel. Most people understand, even if they cannot quite communicate their ideas as coldly or eloquently as the technophiles, that the mind cannot be reduced to a mechanical device or a computer processor. As below, so above, society cannot be viewed or treated as a factory floor for renewable energy powered robots to bring us to some Jetsons or Star Trek lifestyle.

The opportunities for control and manipulation of minds have already grown at a frightening pace in the past fifty years. Even further automation would simply open up more avenues for alienation and exploitation. Here’s how. A pro-automation society would be more open to new hierarchies created by divides among the digitally literate, could empower the pharmaceutical companies to create dangerous new drugs to control moods and perception, could open up more geo-engineering of the planet, to more spying and tracking of individuals, and generally more of the full-spectrum digitization of our lives.

This isn’t to suggest that those among the extremely online don’t have any good ideas, or that the FALCers don’t either. It’s simply a reminder that some of these people are being very naïve in regard to the future of technology, some are materially benefitting from the current toxic social media environment and are therefore biased, and others do not realize the internal logic of the system which engenders some of the very barriers they wish to destroy. In most cases high technology acts as a drug, with an intelligence of its own, and once you’re on the ride you don’t control where you’re going to get off.

  1. Ronit, Purian, “Technophilia: A New Model For Technology Adoption” (2011), UK Academy for Information Systems Conference Proceedings 2011, Paper 41. []
  2. Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, New York, 1992. []
  3. Courtwright, David. “How ‘Limbic Capitalism’ Preys on our Addicted Brains”, Quillette, May 31, 2019. []
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. His articles have appeared at CounterPunch, Global Research, Countercurrents, Gods & Radicals, Dissident Voice, The Ecologist, and more. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.