I LIKE TO look in mirrors, a predilection I suspect I share with many others – all of us too afraid to be caught out in our hidden vanities to admit it.
It feels innate, the biology of my eye’s neurons firing in synchrony with my body’s movements, triggering something deep and unavoidably alluring. But as I stop and appraise myself, something else catches. I am pleased: Narcissus, staring into the pool.
We inhabit a world crowded with mirrors, whose presence we only dimly intuit (as the hiding of a power only makes it increase). These mirrors draw their strength from the conjunction of two technologies, one innate, the other newly developed: ‘social’ media.
By the end of 2018, I’d clocked up more than 289,000 tweets, nearly 30,000 a year, averaging seventy or more per day. All of this energy, I assured myself, had been spent in the name of research. Joining Twitter on April Fool’s Day 2007, I set myself up as an experimental subject, willfully choosing to ‘follow’ and receive Tweets from what grew to nearly 14,000 people, in an attempt to learn what it might feel like to share in all of their thoughts.
I can remember when Twitter made sense to me – not the moment I joined, but the moment when I understood and fell in love with it.
It began in tragedy. Following the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008, eyewitness reports filtered in from BBC reporters who had somehow found enough of a mobile network to send breathless 140-character reports from the scene: massive loss of life, shocking mudslides and poorly built schools collapsing on a generation of Sichuanese children born to parents who had their one allotted child, and lost everything with them.
I’d never seen anything like it: immediacy and disaster tourism all in one massive injection, piped directly from hundreds of millions of smartphones into the cranium. It left me stunned, irrational, and believing myself to be on the way to becoming better a person, as my networks of awareness extended globally – until not so much as a sparrow could fall without it being tweeted.
That belief in the unalloyed good of awareness belongs to the ‘before time’: Before Trump, before Xi Jinping’s neo-imperial rise, before half a generation had been lost (invested, so I believed) in a qualitatively new collective connectivity. Before the Arab Spring and the crackdowns and the censorship highlighting the tremendously disruptive qualities of this so-called ‘social media’, when everything came through, all of it unfiltered.
It seems to me that those days before I knew everything going on everywhere were happier than the ones that came later – the first Obama win dissolving into Fukushima, Benghazi, the second Obama win, Bowie, Brexit and, terminally, Trump. I press a ‘Tweet’ button and a browser window spits me out a good deal older, in a different world.
It is often said that Twitter is a place for only the very angry and the very bored. It is less often said that Twitter is also, at least for those of us who came to it in its beginnings, a place that seemed for a bright shining moment the perfect global cocktail party, where everyone could be fascinating and interesting and au courant with Wildean levels of repartee. From time to time I wondered if I hadn’t opened the doors too wide, whether the cost of this hyper-connectivity outweighed any possible benefits, but I determined to continue the experiment until I had definitive results.
In Australia’s midwinter of 2018, exhausted from overwork and spent emotionally, I cancelled a planned trip overseas and unplugged for ten days of rest. And, finally, I acknowledged one result that came from that experiment: it is distinctly possible to linger too long at the party.
In some ways I had been preparing to leave, cutting my exposure to the unfiltered feed of all those thousands of others that in a peri-Trump era had become a continuous current of shrieking madness, a succession of ‘outrages du jour’ keeping emotions continually stirred. Shutting that down, I focused on connections to a precious few who really mattered. At New Year 2018, I had withdrawn to two fifteen-minute engagements per day, my resolve falling apart within a fortnight as I realised how much I had come to rely on Twitter for its unique form of ‘alone togetherness’. Curled on my sofa every evening, sharing reactions to the news (so much news), I finally began to sense how Twitter filled a need to have connection without consequence.
If I’ve learned anything from my experiment, it’s that connection always carries consequence. We each bear the burden of those we reach toward, even in the most attenuated of media. I could not tell you when that understanding began. All I know is that it was very bad that midwinter. Everything that was said on Twitter I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. I could no longer sit and listen to someone kvetch about Trump or Turnbull or watch another echo-of-an-echo-of-an-echo meme drift by or see another photograph of the corpse of another victim of conflict. I found it too easy to hurt the people I cared about, and insult those I did not. I had become someone that I did not like and did not want to be, and the only way I could see to become someone else, someone that I did like, was by ending the experiment.
When I unplugged, I thought a few day’s break from Twitter would do me a world of good. But the longer I stayed away, the better I began to feel, and I began to intuit something that should have been long obvious: my emotions had been misplaced, outside myself, and only when situated within myself could I manage them.
That realisation marked the point of no return.
In the months since, I have disentangled myself emotionally from Twitter, an act of spontaneously healthy narcissism made by myself, for myself. Many of the people I know ‘from Twitter’ think this a curious aberration, and have told me so. I have no adequate, or immediate, reply, and so I give certain stock answers, those that everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for me to ‘manage’ a continuous social media presence, about how ‘busy’ I’ve become.
In truth, stiffening under overwhelming connectivity, I became more brittle. I thrive in relation to others, yet too much connection produces not the flexibility of conviviality but its opposite. I wanted to open up, but instead shut down in an attempt to bring some meaning to the madness of others – always present, but never before directly experienced. I consciously chose to overdose on others, and learnt that, for myself at least, beyond a certain point connection exacts too high a price for its benefits. I cannot function as a know-it-all, feel-it-all nexus, and this attempt to force the hand of my evolution as a social being, although intellectually exciting, brought me needless pain.
From the failure of my mad desire to grow beyond all limits, I learnt I am human because of those limits and, amid a pervasive pressure to connect, have finally accepted the necessity of separateness as one price of being human.
OF ALL OF humanity’s gifts, it’s our peculiar nature as a social species at scale that has proven both so unexpected and so successful. None of the other hominids have shown any propensity for social organisation beyond their troupes, nor did humans until perhaps 10,000 years ago. Then…well, something happened, something that paleo-anthropologists and ethnographers and sociobiologists continue to debate the mechanics behind, but the effects are obvious: humans socialised at scale, expanding well beyond our ‘natural’ limits into something that had never been seen before: we became civilised. In other words, we built and inhabited cities.
The first of these, places like Jericho (10,000 years ago) and Çatalhöyük (9,000 years ago), gathered thousands together in a single society, forcing us into a new kind of social order. A strong case has been made that the ‘civilised’ forms of law and religion emerge from this new social density. Without tribal custom to enforce behavioral norms, humanity developed an ‘enforcer’ culture of laws and commandments, together with a new kind of social sanction: ostracising lawbreakers and heretics. The root of the word ‘religion’ means ‘to bind’, and so the civilisational forms took human social capacity and scaled it via a scaffolding of the laws of gods and man.
Come forward ten thousand years to the late 1960s, to the complete triumph of the urban form, peak managerial culture and ‘organisation man’. Civilisation had achieved complete dominion over both the earlier agricultural culture and the natural environment. Everything from this point forward was seen as wholly within the human sphere, even the stars above. True to the tragic arc, this moment of complete victory marked the start of its undoing.
Heading into that moment, Marshall McLuhan laid out the future of civilisation in Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill, 1964), reinterpreting the myth of Narcissus for the era of hyper-connectivity: ‘In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.’
Already, a few computers had been networked together in occasional, spasmodic connectivity, sufficient to exchange a few messages, something that became ‘electronic mail’. These messages sparked an outsized reaction in the far-flung community of computing researchers, who ‘found the others’ – those who shared their interests, passions and their peculiar points of view – and planted the seed for everything that followed. The tremendous capacity for social organisation at scale met the amplifier-of-everything: the internet. Three-hundred-plus generations of urban socialisation – from Jericho to the present – reached their culmination in just the billion seconds between ARPANET (1969) and Friendster (2002), first of the modern ‘social networks’.
TO THE PALEO-ANTHROPOLOGISTS of the thirteenth millennium, it will appear as though the transition occurred within an instant. Only we, who have lived through and continue to live through this transition, feel it as something that’s taking any time at all, a feeling peculiarly present within myself and my peers in generation X. We’ve lived half our lives pre- and half post-transition, thrust unprepared and unexpectedly into a world where every surface has become a mirror, where the power of the reflection emanates from every point, and where we find ourselves largely unequal to the task at hand: resisting the lure that captured Narcissus.
Any arguments about the historical inevitability of the present moment (such as those just supplied) must be reframed in the knowledge that other forces have been at work: late capitalism, converting an entirely relational landscape of human activities into universal, transactional balance sheets of assets and liabilities; and the smooth, invisible workings of power that, although slow to the game, have, through their enormous gravity, bent the arc of the inevitable.
Our sociality at scale has been technologised in a prelude to being monetised. This seems simple enough to understand, but the second- and third-order consequences of this act, so fundamental to the market economy of the twenty-first century, threaten the world order as profoundly and as broadly as the invention of the nuclear weapon almost seventy-five years ago. A new bomb has been dropped, one which situates itself between us, at scale, disrupting the historical pattern of human relationships, even disrupting the prehistoric pattern of familial relationality, a far more ancient and reliably innate biological order of being.
Framing social media as a new kind of weapon makes sense, now that it can be seen how late capital fashions it into a tool for the operation of power both by design and by default. That design reveals itself in the two faces of the ‘social credit’ system now deployed in the People’s Republic of China, a system of continuous online surveillance that maps and seeks to govern behaviours within the citizenry by assigning them a social credit ‘score’. Commit thoughtcrime within the re-imperialised Chinese state, and that score drops, until the individual (and, in an implementation of pseudo-Confucian collective responsibility, their family) loses access to schools, housing, jobs and other vital social services. Compliance, its other face, brings with it the benefits of access to a state system of validated credit where the various arms of the state and its proxies reward doubleplusgoodthink.
Such an amplification of state power can be almost too easy to loathe because of its visibility. The visibility of the social credit system remains its most curious aspect, as if the performance of power is, in fact, its defining feature and, because of that, relies less upon the reality of pervasive surveillance than the broadly accepted belief (supported by a few, well-chosen examples of individuals who have violated norms and have been publicly punished) that such surveillance is far more ubiquitous than is actually the case. Where a people internalise the secret policeman, censor and party ideologue, they remove that burden from the state. The social credit project can be seen as a gigantic labour-saving device, not so much automating the authoritarian impulse as hijacking the existing social-technological amplification toward the ends of power.
Where capital lacks any ideology other than that which acts in service of itself – accumulation as raison d’être – these amplifiers become the strategic equivalent of a nuclear weapon fallen into the hands of non-state actors, a too-powerful tool that, even in the smallest revelation of its capacity, can change the course of entire civilisations.
It will be a generation or more until we have sufficient distance, both historical and emotional, from the chaotic wreck of recent politics to understand what happened as forces both atavistic and narrowly ideological stumbled onto these tools, realised their import, and put them to work.
What happened in the UK in June 2016, or in the US five months later or Kenya in 2017? We understand a few of the specific activities of those who used these new weapons, but the broader implications of tools of targeted persuasion at scale remain elusive, largely because of a pervasive but unjustifiable belief that neither we as individuals nor our democracies as institutions are so susceptible to such targeted tampering.
The facts speak for themselves: in the years following its IPO, Facebook developed an algorithmic strategy for ‘increasing user engagement’; that is, making the site irresistible by profiling its users’ activities, using that data to build a simulacrum of their emotional state, then using that simulacrum to deliver just the right newsfeed content at just the right moment to maintain maximum engagement. Facebook built the equivalent of a global pokie machine, carefully designed to trigger our social-reward mechanisms, and so gained the capacity to modulate this newly amplified sociality-at-scale. In a literal sense, Facebook had been given the keys to the kingdom and, as a purely capitalist enterprise, sought only to make money from this global-scale machinery of mood manipulation.
Facebook wants users to embrace their infantile desire to tirelessly consume, but its ‘partners’ wanted those users to believe. With a tool for the manipulation of mood, and the sure knowledge that even the most rational of minds will bend fixed tenets in congruence with mood, they had everything needed for a tool of political persuasion beyond the wildest dreams of any twentieth-century propagandist.
The bombs dropped on Brexit, on Hillary, on Kenya’s Raila Odinga, each delivering a result in contradiction to both accepted wisdom and polling data. We cannot know how the use of such tools affected these results, but neither can we deny that these tools were deployed at scale for the first time during these campaigns. Correlation is not causation, yet those deploying these tools believe in their efficacy, and we need to acknowledge that this is how such tools will be put to use in the absence of a framing ideology or ethical framework: ‘We shape our tools,’ wrote Father John Culkin, ‘then our tools shape us.’
IT’S BECOME TOO easy to pillory Facebook for its evils, Zuckerberg for his continuous stream of apologies, and Cambridge Analytica for assuming the pose of puppet master. All point beyond themselves, to the power supporting these capacities, toward many other ways the conjunction of social-order-at-scale-amplified-by-technology can take form.
Consider Twitter, focused on the one social act Facebook has elected to avoid: the unfiltered encounter with the other. Type a 280-character message into a text box, hit send, and pretty much everyone everywhere can immediately read your words.
Where Facebook turns the whole world into a mirror of the self-in-simulacrum, Twitter produces its opposite: amplifications and reductions and reverses and inversions in continual distortion, showing the breadth of individual and social possibilities, from the most uplifting (such as after a natural disaster) to the most foul (such as Gamergate’s targeted harassment of women).
In this new, global polity, we have voices and access and speed and, via technology, large-scale connectivity. But we lack any framing laws to serve as a check on our behaviours, impelling us toward higher (or at least less self-destructive) codes of behaviour. We cannot reinvent law or religion, yet we need something analogous to them; in their absence we have angered ourselves into complete mindlessness, and consequently find ourselves prey to the operations of power.
WE KNOW ONE thing: social change begins with individual acts.
Few embody this better than Evan Mawarire, whom I had the good fortune to meet in late 2018 when he spoke at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 conference. In 2016, Mawarire released a video in his native Zimbabwe, #ThisFlag, a searing indictment of an anti-colonial movement betrayed by Robert Mugabe and the clientelist state that grew up around him. #ThisFlag hit Twitter, went viral, and Mawarire found himself the face and voice of the revolution that, eventually, brought Mugabe down. But not before repeated jailings, treason charges and exile for his family. The cudgels of the powerful struck Mawarire and, as the revolution spread, they responded in whatever way they could to maintain their power.
Before social media, control of the newspapers and television stations and radio broadcasters granted authoritarian states exclusive access to the mass mind. Today, we live in a world where authoritarian governments either heavily censor or ban social media. In the space between, Evan Mawarire posted his video, lighting the spark of revolution.
If social media has polarised and poisoned democracy, it has also proven itself an antidote to the autocratic. Because both of these can be true simultaneously, we can’t give in to our desire to ban or shut down or censor our need to connect and share. We need this disruption-in-connection, because it creates conditions wherein people can free themselves.
Yet this sociality-at-scale also imprisons individuals within their own beliefs: few things are so reinforcing to an individual’s belief than to have that belief publicly challenged. When publicly challenged by a planet, beliefs become adamantine.
Our future, connected, will continue to present us with dilemmas. A dilemma cannot be solved; it can only be endured. We will never have the world we want, even if we can occasionally glimpse an ideal where everyone gains from connection, and no one suffers under its burdens. Gravity may keep the planets and stars in their orbits, but it also means they sometimes collide. As Evan Mawarire knows, those collisions can smash through the ramparts of power. For this reason, every discussion of the evils of social media (including this one) needs to be examined carefully and critically: behind both cool arguments and hot emotions may lie the hidden manipulations of the powerful.
The arc of the last decade – a great opening up followed by a pervasive clampdown – shows how power reacts to disruption. It tells us that power has entered into a dialogue with social media, seeking to control it, and where it cannot control, reframing social media as an agent of evil intent.
The rising arc of Evan Mawarire, the best and most positive example of a disruption to power, plays out in synchrony with the falling arc of Cambridge Analytica, which used social media to frighten, anger and disempower. Everything we learnt in 2018 about the targeted manipulations of voters in both Brexit and the 2016 US presidential polls shows us there is a need for transparency in the use of and controls around these new tools. These stories also transmit an alarming message: that social media is an agent of evil intent. Power has been served both by the activities of Cambridge Analytica, and by the fear of social media those activities produced.
The wedding of technology and human sociality-at-scale gave birth to the mirror-image twins of freedom and domination. How do we manage this dilemma without serving the ends of power? Can we find a space for a critical examination of social media that increases our capacity, if not always our desire, for freedom?
WE’D BE WELL served by reversing one small design change made to Twitter back in late 2009, one that made retweeting an almost automatic and reflexive process. Before that, retweeting involved a manual act of cut-and-paste. It required thought, and a certain degree of skill, because those retweets often had to be edited down to fit within Twitter’s tiny character limit. In consequence, retweets were far less common, ensuring Twitter authentically presented the product of all of its users, not just its most popular or most clever.
When it became too easy to thoughtlessly retweet someone else, the polarisation always somewhat visible in Twitter’s communities amplified into the online equivalent of civil war, replete with a range of disinfo- and info-war techniques deployed on a regular basis, techniques that now find themselves amplified by millions because it is so easy to retweet.
It should not be too easy to share one’s thoughts. It should require some work because in that work we earn the space for reflection. We need barriers and gatekeepers and curators, not because they stand in the way of the truth, but because without them we simply overwhelm and shut down our capacity to know anything at all.
Would we reward the design of media that embodies this discovery of where our best interests lie? Could we choose to make ourselves just a bit more difficult to share? The design choices we make and have made and will make determine how sharing shapes us. Capital teaches us ‘more is better’; this wisdom of restraint will need to be delivered by some means other than the market.
As someone very much in the world, and connected to the world, I have found, post-midwinter 2018, that I thrive by managing my connections in inverse proportion to their distance from me. My friends and family remain as close or closer than ever. Those who come to me via broadcast and social media filter through an intentionally narrow keyhole of my consciousness.
If not ignorance, it does somehow feel a bit like bliss.
Whether this could (or even should) work for everyone I cannot say. I can only speak of my experiment in over-connectivity, what it did to me, and how I have sought to remedy my ills. Social change begins with individual acts.
Yet this feels too simple. My response, applied at scale – a collective, willful nescience – provides an opening almost too easy to exploit. In the land of the ignorant, knowledge is all-power. Evan Mawarire is a living proof of this.
Perhaps a middle path: to know a little, but not too much; to be connected, but resist over-connection; to share, but thoughtfully; to be open, but sceptical. All of which rolls off the tongue as a series of aspirations far more easily than it takes form in behaviour.
These choices remain open to us, at least as long as we know there’s a choice to make. Yet the world continually lures us into over-knowing, over-connecting, oversharing, and an unguarded acceptance that denies us agency to serve its own ends.
Nor can the middle be neatly drawn in black-and-white: I have not withdrawn from Twitter entirely. My 45,000 followers are far too important a marketing and messaging resource to be set aside. It remains my primary connection to the thousands of listeners of my various podcasts, but the emotional has been replaced by the transactional, a fluorescence of late capitalism that could speak poorly of my character if it had not been in response to a greater flaw.
I’ve even opened an Instagram account, to promote a new podcast. As I went through the account set-up process, I felt keenly both the Narcissus-lure of new connection and a simultaneous revulsion: Instagram, with all its allure, is a Facebook property.
Am I hypocritical? Only if one asserts an absolutism that speaks more of machines than humans, more of doctrine than experience, more of brittleness than fluidity.
Social changes begin with individual acts. Contradicting myself, muddling my way into deeper connection, at the end of my experimenting I hope to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time.