The Myth of a Radical Digital Connectivity
We rebels, so keen to see the old world toppled and the first light of the New Age break over the dark horizon, have a weakness for seeing false dawns. And it is a weakness that makes it so much easier to fall into one of the traps of modernity. The modern epoch began, not with something etched in stone, but with an act of doubt that denied all the old authorities. Radical doubt and the refusal of authority are internal to the epoch we still live in, and this functions in such a way that much of what thinks of itself as hard-hitting critique ends up merely affirming the dominant trend. One of those false dawns and one of those lapses of critique into its opposite are seen in the wishful talk about a radical digital connectivity.
The wishful talk maps onto an older discourse. Back in the days when the critique of the factory model was developed into a three-volume analysis of capitalism, an idea emerged about capital unwittingly effecting a radical connectivity. Political agents so fond of dividing and ruling were seen to be building an economy that would unite the workers of the world, and for the first time in human history, people otherwise divided by language, culture and law would see their essential unity. A new horizontal would come into view (we are all workers; we are all the same), and inspired by that horizontal identity, the workers would overthrow the vertical order of exploitation.
The wishful thinking now is that consumer electronics might achieve what the forces of production did not. Digital connectivity is supposed to be revealing a horizontal logic that people can relate to (in contrast to the horizontal logic of proletarianisation), inspiring them to turn their backs on the old verticality.
In education the situation can seem blindingly obvious: the teacher represents an older vertical order that could only be legitimated by the scarcity of information (analogous to the capitalist and the scarcity of the means of production); digital technology then provides direct access to an abundance of information and to countless opportunities for self-directed education and for the spontaneous sharing of the products of all that self-motivated learning. Digital technology provides the material basis for a new set of horizontal social relations that have a radical political potential.
The old motto: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” is being replaced by: “Digital natives of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your teachers.”
Part of the problem with this wishful thinking concerns the binary opposition between the vertical and the horizontal. The founding assumption is that what needs to be toppled is the vertical. The bad old world was, and still is, vertical – the verticality of the demagogic factory boss and the teacher who still refuses to wrap the verb “teach” in quotation marks. By contrast, the shiny new world that owes its existence to consumer electronics is horizontal. The horizontal is new and good; the vertical is old and bad.
Wrong. The bad old world to which the Satanic mills belonged was, and still is, fiercely horizontal. Unlike the feudal order that preserved a hierarchy assumed to be divinely ordained, the new commercial order worked, and still works, on the assumption that no hierarchy is sacred – every settled order can be disrupted, torn up and rebuilt. As someone once said: All that was once solid gets thrown into the commercial furnace to become the hot, intoxicating air of profit. As a project of power empowering itself without limit, this is as vertical as it gets; but with its levelling logic, sweeping away all the old, settled hierarchies, it is radically horizontal.
At the cold heart of the world of commerce are two ideas: that of the person, free to leave the land and go wherever he pleases; and the idea that everything has its price and can be monetised. Both are radically horizontal. The former negates the older idea of a hierarchy of roles that people are born into, and the latter negates the idea of a hierarchy of value that commercial activity must be subordinated to.
The problem with the prevailing order is not that there is a vertical excluding the horizontal, but that a false horizontal is being instituted – an imposed identity that does no justice to difference. Everything is subject to commercial calculation, even time, which is, of course, money. The horizontal order of money erodes the value of everything that stands in the way of an infinite monetisation. And what helps sustain it is a belief in the equally horizontal idea of human agency – a conception of personal freedom that presupposes the rise of an impersonal monetary order.
The falsity of this horizontal is seen in the indifference to the fate of things – an indifference that animates all of us. The idea, for instance, of an attachment to objects now seems not just sentimental, but ridiculous. Why hold onto your old smartphone when a smarter, faster, shinier model has come on the market? The objects that are supposed to point the way to the future are not the sort of thing anyone in their right mind would become attached to.
The horizontal world fragments into a sphere constructed to flatter agents deluded by a false idea of their agency and a darker, hidden world that they remain indifferent to. In the preference for cellophane-wrapped meat, for instance, there is an indifference to the horrors of the abattoir.
In the industrial pleasure domes of the past it was obvious to horizontally-minded social critics that the fate of those trapped in wage slavery had to be a priority. In our digital pleasure domes, however, so much of the talk of the radical potential of a fibre-optic connectivity seems to be indifferent to that. The new horizontal belongs to a cellophane-wrapped post-industrialism that is indifferent to the horrors of the industrial order that still exists, but that is kept out of sight, like the abattoir.
The technocentric enthusiasm for a digital connectivity too often goes hand in hand with an indifference towards what is not connected. Or worse: disdain. A new in-crowd defines itself in terms of its favourite gadgetry. Those outside are either quaint or objectionable. The use of the term “Luddite” in the pejorative is indicative. As a thoughtless term of abuse used by the in-crowd it expresses an indifference to the history behind the word – the history of a group fighting the false horizontality of proletarianisation. “You are Luddites,” they say, unaware that they thereby side with a movement that had no qualms about using the gallows to silence its most articulate critics.
The indifference that is such a well-established feature of life offline is so prevalent online that one wonders how the idea of a radical digital connectivity ever gained purchase. The reality of life online is that of countless groups forming and insulating themselves from whatever might challenge their preconceived ideas. Life online is even more fragmented than life offline. In the village squares of old – offline localities rife with class tensions – it was possible to raise a challenge and begin a dialogue, however fraught. But online the challenger can be dismissed with a single click and not a second thought. A troll, or another idiot who doesn’t know how to stay in their proper lane. The internet is a highway with lanes each indifferent to the other.
And life online comes to be ordered according to a system of tags. For something to be found among the bewildering over-abundance of digital dross it must be tagged. It must be labelled. It must be identified and categorised. The medium has a built-in bias, therefore, towards the easily identifiable and against the oddly individual – a systemic indifference to alterity.
And the horizontal aspect of the digital is patently ineffective in resisting the influx of the worst of the old verticality. Witness the use of the #peasants hashtag:
And the hype about digital connectivity requiring a radical rethinking of education assumes that the most essential forms of learning are those that can happen online (not that education doesn’t need rethinking, but does it need it for that reason?), which expresses another form of indifference: to the quality of personal experience. Any talk of supposedly radical ideas about education that discusses learning in terms of access to information is vacuous. Learning at its best involves being touched by the very things that one does not expect to be touched by – a sphere of the most profound personal experience. For digital technology to be a boon to learning, it must be a boon to that kind of experience. But is it, or is it part of a general trend towards the attenuation of that kind of experience?
Any self-respecting social critique that seeks to champion a new universality needs some way of distinguishing between a true and a false horizontal. A suggestion: Falsity is seen in the indifference and antipathy to what does not fit into the new unity. The truth of a new form of connectivity is to be found precisely in the concern for what is not connected. If the concept of truth means anything, it points towards what cannot be reduced to the prevailing system of identification. It points to what cannot be connected in the simplistic manner imagined by the digital hype. The concern for the true horizontal is therefore more likely to motivate a disconnection from forms of connectivity both new and old that do not do justice to what is different.
Digital connectivity is neither a blessing nor a curse for radical connectivity. It functions more like a distraction from the real issue, which is how we relate to what remains and must remain unconnected.