Social media as technology of control: Looking for a left critique of new media

Social media: we are alone together.
Social media: we are alone together.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make this kind of argument for someone else, particularly since it is an argument coming from a perspective I used to battle against: educated, insightful post-Marxist left critique.  The kind of critique that used to be everywhere in the 1970s and even in the 1980s, but now almost completely absent in public debate in the US, in Australia, and from what I can see, even in the UK.  This sudden and apparently complete demise of an educated, erudite, literate and vocal left opposition to the grasping voices of plutocracy and robber baron capitalism seems to have left the way clear for a complete dominance of capitalist excesses in Western societies.

The argument is that social media represent an unparalleled potential technology of control, of the deliberate alienation of social consciousness and solidarity by isolating individuals in a sphere of fabricated, fake community that is in fact not community at all, but a narcissistic contest of all against all to achieve an arbitrary personal approval rating, and to do so in preference to and exclusion of seeking social and economic justice or community with others whose material circumstances and interests are the only real basis for the social, and for collective action of any kind.

Before explaining what this all means, let’s turn to Rob Horning’s blog on the New Inquiry site.  His thesis is pretty simple.  Class conflicts, based on economic inequality, exploitation of the surplus value of labour, and monopolisation of the means for capital formation, have been displaced in social media by an artificial and ultimately futile pursuit of individual popularity, as measured by an arbitrary standing in a contrived scale of popularity, influence, and ‘hipster’ cachet.  That scale is revealed to the unknowing public by the ridiculously phoney concept of the ‘social graph’, a kind of Kloutish attempt to ‘rank’ people by algorithm that is not much more sophisticated than Zuckerbergish frat boys voting on what girl on campus they’d like to fuck.

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