Published on http://www.counterpunch.org/
“[W]e don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people. . .We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. [O]n-line discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.”
— Wael Ghonim, quoted in Thomas Friedman, “Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?” The New York Times, February 3, 2016.
Bernie Sanders has won 84% of the 17-29-year-olds in the Iowa primary last week. Hillary Clinton had an advantage with moderate Liberals but voters who have identified themselves as moderate are down 12 points since 2008. It seems there is a “cresting blue wave” that will hit the shore of American politics, if not in this 2016 election, just ahead.
But maybe not. Maybe that cresting wave of the future will withdraw from a public beach, a real brick and mortar voting booth, but rather be lost in the virtual seas of cyberspace.
Might it be possible that electoral politics, an event conducted in the public domain, is destined for a “personalization” and “privatization,” that is now facing all things tied to the word “public”?
If “social media” now challenges what was previously held to be “social” and has created a notion of a self selecting “friending” society, might it be possible that politics is heading toward that same constriction?
Might it be possible that we are most certainly at the head waters of a different kind of consciousness, one that displaces a social/public consciousness with a techno-consciousness?
Might it be possible to observe this in the “cresting blue wave” of Millennials? Even though 72% of the Millennial demographic 18-33 as polled are looking for more government involvement in economic, social and regulatory issues and 42% prefer socialism to capitalism, only 16 percent knew what socialism is and all, according to polls cited in The Atlantic become “more economically conservative when they make more money.” (Derek Thompson, Millennials’ Political Views Don’t Make Any Sense,” July 15, 2014). They become opposed to the idea of income redistribution. They offer, in short, “a smorgasbord of paradoxes.”
You get a sense that Leftist or the kind of revolutionary politics Bernie Sanders calls for may not be what Millennials envision but rather the idea of upending politics outside a personal determination may be what is appealing. They may not be representing politics as “the art of compromise” but rather as ruled by personal preference, which as Wael Ghonim, who launched the Tahrir Square revolution on a Facebook page in 2011, now in 2016 points out is a no more than a communication with avatars of oneself.
This collapse of any social solidarity into a confusion of personal takes was a means, according to Ghonim, by which “we escaped our frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life.” This escape does not promote the development of a shared political reasoning but leaves the Millennial subject to any manipulation by those grounded in political realities and seeking recruits. This would explain what The Atlantic article concludes: “You get the sense, reading the Reason Foundation and Pew studies, that a savvy pollster could trick a young person into supporting basically any economic policy in the world with the right combination of triggers.” The smorgasbord then is made of millions of Millennial opinions, which means then that any view will spark a “Like” from someone. And because social media now gathers in cabals of “Like” minded “Friends,” polls can report “group” responses. And these responses are all over the map.
The entire universe of such social media groupings seems to be no more than congeries flying no common flag. Politics, or the art of dealing with others of differing views and developing a workable consensus, is neither tested nor created among the like minded. For any politics to work we must go beyond a tolerance for otherness and toward a capacity to empathize with what our own experiences have not brought to us.
We know that there is little empathy extended by Trump supporters, for instance, toward President Obama, or Wall Street toward Bernie Sanders. Empathy is on the wane in the U.S. We can observe the absence in many places, from immigration and Trump’s easy demonization of “aliens,” as well as in the Neoliberal defining the poor as “Moochers.” You can see it in the face of Martin Shkreli when he responds with a smirk to Rep. Cummings call for him to “change the system” for the good of everyone. This national attitude has been ushered in by a ruthless acceptance of Losers. Lack of empathy is a byproduct of an economic system that creates plutocratic rule.
Techno-consciousness has enabled and encouraged our loss of empathy. It is to be found quite shockingly in the Millennials who Sherry Turkle reports as having a 40% decline in empathy among college student over a ten year period. This is a very meaningful indicator for any future politics. Putting oneself into another’s shoes is, in our new techno-consciousness, not just difficult; it is unnecessary and unnecessary because “the other” has no place in an increasing solipsistic universe.
In Alone Together (2011), Sherry Turkle points to the role of technology in separating us from each other, though ironically we believe that a minute by minute texting of each other binds us more closely than ever before. What she and others now report is that the opposite has actually occurred: we have privatized all public spaces, all spaces of societal interaction, by interjecting our devices between ourselves and others.
We are attending a mediation of us and world and not attending to the world directly. We know this. What we will not know is whether technology’s replacement of the human interaction that grounds politics will eventually create an endless number of domains personally chosen, each of which is conducting an intraterritorial politics, which is not a politics at all.
Much of our present political dysfunctionality, from Congress to Presidential campaigns, is rooted in this movement of consciousness from the social/political to a dehumanizing technological intervention. If personal ruling passions were not lauded as a final arbiter in all matters but responsive and corrigible within a broader social consensus, we would not now be subjected to more than one Monster of the Id polling well in the 2016 Republican Presidential campaign.
Imagine that you not only go on your Facebook page but can see, as if you are on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Spaceship of the Imagination, everyone else’s Facebook page, every tribal cabal of social interrelationship expressed less in words than photos and video. Then direct the Spaceship to where Google wants to take you in regard to AI and machine learning, to where your own intentions are not only anticipated but are overwritten by the superior capabilities of AI. What we seem to wind up with is something like a social space fractured into discrete islands of private interaction within which each person is subject to an AI structuring of the “personal” itself.
Our movement from the social to the personal in every domain, including, paradoxically the political, is in transit to a technological transformation of the personal as the personal becomes enwrapped within a technological shaped as an alternative and then eventually as a usurping consciousness.
That usurpation has already happened to a very observable degree.
Eric Pickersgill’s photographic series Removed shows us everyday life without smartphones. “The result is images of people locked in an intimate gaze with the missing device that is so unwavering it shuts out everything else.” (quoted in Sue Halpern’s “The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs,” The New York Review of Books, Feb. 11, 2016). In answering the question as to why Steve Jobs’ technology had such a powerful influence on the American mass psyche, Sherry Turkle, interviewed in the film Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, said, “It wasn’t just for you, it was you.” That “you” seems headed to not some grandiose expansion of self, beyond the selfie, but to a “you” whose personal preferences, opinions, and idiosyncrasies have become what algorithmic interventions and not societal interventions have made of “you.”
Comparable to the way people feel that the wizardry of a Google search is guided by their own choices, the “you” of the near future accounts itself not subjected to an overpowering competitive techno-consciousness but as a ruling subject of all that. Techno-consciousness has a deep faith that Google results are empowering a personal and developing grasp of the world, a thoroughly self-designed knowledge. Caught within the bubble of our own identity, we cannot reach an external, observing point of reference, a second order of observation.
A comparative frame necessary to observe this transformation of consciousness disappears when the last born into and bred within an analog consciousness become extinct. We have been experiencing in a very short period the scheduled extinction of much, including the essay I am now writing which exceeds the preferred 140 characters. Without doubt, however, the transformative movement of techno-consciousness has upended our notion of the “social” and of “society” in ways that even Margaret Thatcher could not envision. And with the shrinking of a social sense and the need “to promote the general Welfare,” we see an attendant upending of the political sphere, of politics as an activity each must engage in to promote the moral good of society.
Politics as a social action cannot, in this view, be surpassed or subsumed by a private politics and personal determinations. However, when the notion of “society” is replaced by a personal will to power, which is underwritten by a resident, unchallengeable economics, politics falls into what we now observe in the 2016 Presidential campaign as carried on by the Republican candidates. Trump represents no more than a triumph of the personal over the political. His “society of self” is a “society” his constituents recognize.
An unknown portion of the angry visceral responses not on display in politics may disappear if at some point the country upends its plutocratic rule and strives once again for an egalitarian democracy. Bernie Sanders would be a start down that road, as would Elizabeth Warren, but whether the AI future that will be the Millennials’ reality in the near future continues down that road may be more of a matter for the owners of the AI and virtual reality to decide than electoral politics. More immediately, Sanders’ campaign to achieve some degree of economic equality may not matter if the angry disposition of Trump followers does not recognize at the start the connect between their problems and the existence of a plutocracy. This faction may remain virulently anti-government even when government comes to their rescue.
Those in the near future who conflate their identity with a techno-consciousness are not so irrationally opposed to either society or politics. The position here is one of expected obsolescence and advance, which everyone has come to expect as the rhythm of human progress because it is the rhythm of techno progress. We will in the AI/robotic future have naturally progressed to a place where both society and politics as we know it have become obsolete, as “back in the day” as old technology we are junking every day.
There remains, however, a link between Trump’s supporters and Sanders’ and it may be this: In the former, a disparagement of the institutions, practices and discourse of the social/political, and in the latter, an increasing displacement of the social/political by the attractions of techno-consciousness. Both seem to be melting into the same rejection of the socius and the politics tending it. Market Rule’s drive to diminish all instruments and forces of solidarity is paralleled by the equal drive of techno-consciousness to replace “off-line” life and socio-political determinations with “on-line” life and personal determinations.
As slippery and unpredictable a base Trump’s supporters may be because of their essential distrust and dislike of a politics that is hailing them to come and join, they may in the near future disappear within the many seductions and distractions of techno-consciousness. That, of course, is already happening. This, in other words, is a dissolving faction that might have risen to Bastille Day action if folks met face to face in wine shops, were on the same page in regard to what was going on, and carried on a day to day bitch about the real material conditions of their lives.
When a faction in the future, probably as many as now feel a smartphone an ontological necessity, withdraw into the shared space of a techno-consciousness, we will have entered a political space that does not extend beyond a personal space. Even what we amusingly call “social” media would have become too impersonal, too “social” in its engagement of political and social concerns, as well as too representative of people and issues beyond one’s empathizing frame.
We will have entered a personal space in which what is deemed “personal” would possess no personal qualities at all within the criteria of an outdated consciousness of human history thus far recorded. We will have entered a social space that confines the social and the otherness of society to the dimensions prescribed by the algorithms of a techno-consciousness. We are already at the dawn of the politics of such.