Twitter: a gravedigger of the ancien regime?

It is said that the social media – Twitter in particular – have disproved the thesis, hastily propounded in the days before digital, that history had come to an end. A new beginning is now under way. Marx (although his name is now taboo) was right, and the regime has produced its own gravediggers. With Twitter a regime of corporate servitude has unwittingly opened up a space in which people are finding a new-found freedom, cultivating something that may well topple the oppressive social order that produced it.

Writing long before our revolutionary era, Simone Weil looked at how Marx’s supposed gravediggers (the factories) were operating and suggested that the gravegigger hypothesis would never be borne out: Servitude cannot cultivate the spirit of freedom that a genuine revolution requires (Oppression and Liberty. p110). It can provoke angry reactions, but outbursts of anger don’t constitute a movement of liberation. So the question is: Has the new technology proved that Weil was too hasty in coming to her pessimistic conclusion? Has the regime finally given rise to its own gravedigger?

Everything depends on how we understand the situation that we find ourselves in. What is the regime exactly that Twitter threatens to topple, and when framing Twitter as a liberating force, how do we understand what that liberation consists in?

Those convinced of the radical, regime-changing character of Twitter see a revolution turning around three axes, which are the binary oppositions of the passive and the active, the voiceless and the conversant, the vertical and the horizontal. The old order with its pre-digital media kept people passive and silent, and it trained people to accept a vertical order. The new media open up a space for people to become active, finding their voice and denouncing that terrible verticality with a liberty previously undreamt of.

There are at least two aspects of this thesis about which one might be a little skeptical. One is the empirical issue of whether there is indeed something here capable of toppling the regime, or whether, instead, there is little more than a pseudo-liberation that ends up yoking the new energies to the old systemic imperatives. The second aspect is more philosophical, having the do with the understanding of what constitutes our oppression and what might constitute our liberation.

The fake crocodile

Long before the emergence of digital technology there was an established trend to prefer the fake – the pseudo – to the real. Umberto Eco described nicely how the fake animals in Disneyland impressed the public both with their technical wizardry and the way they satisfied people’s daydream demands far better than real animals could (Travels in Hyper-Reality). A fake crocodile can be experienced up close in all its well-timed and perfectly harmless ferocity after only a short wait in the queue, whereas the real crocodile might be little more than a rather inactive spot in the distance, glimpsed after a long, costly and arduous journey.

Eco sees here how the fake can take the place of the real, not because people are duped, but because they prefer it. He observed the same thing in American art museums where the main attractions were fake masterpieces, and where the effect was not to cultivate an interest in the original, but to diminish the need for it. The original is so very far away, and faded and obscured behind thick glass. The fake is close at hand and in full colour. The fake is better.

Does not Twitter operate in a similar way? Immediately, though, the analogy needs to be qualified, because when talking about our political situation, we don’t have an offline real crocodile and an online fake. When fakery has become total the real political crocodile cannot be anything other than a figment of our imagination.

A real political crocodile would have teeth capable of doing real damage. What would those teeth be? Surely they would be the teeth of an indignation – a refusal – that understands the systemic nature of what is to be refused. Our situation is a very complicated one, and the only indignation that could pose a real threat to it would be a very thoughtful one.

What we see on Twitter are events that gain prominence, following the less-than-thoughtful priority set in the old media: If it bleeds, it leads. Recently we had the shootings of unarmed black people in the US by police, and then the shooting of the Paris satirists at Charlie Hebdo – both events that satisfy the old preconception that the enemy is a man carrying a gun. The events aroused indignation, and the corresponding hashtags managed to trend higher than those referring to celebrity scandals. But it seems that hashtags only go viral on Twitter if they are divorced from any comprehension of what is to be refused.

charliehebdo twitter tribalism

Unthought indignation is toothless, and attacks from the toothless are easily deflected. The police shootings can be put down to a few bad apples, and the barrel is left unscrutinised and unchallenged. The commendable solidarity with the victims carries no threat if it isn’t tied to an understanding of the way in which the police, for instance, are also the victims of a deeper systemic violence. And the hashtag #blacklivesmatter risks affirming the idea that the best we can hope for is a right to go on living.

Or the unthought indignation is easily appropriated as support for the regime. After unanimously denouncing the violence of the system with #blacklivesmatter, the Twitter community then rushed to support the same violent system against a supposedly foreign enemy, and the offline demonstrations decorated with hashtagged banners became a nice photo-opportunity for the leaders of the ongoing war.

Another sign of a real political crocodile would be a concern for genuine dialogue and for a public life orientated primarily by the best possible debate of the issues we face. In a fake democracy the counting of opinions takes the place of dialogue and debate. Twitter provides a new way of counting opinions. It has not opened up a threatening new space in which people insist on the priority of a genuinely public dialogue and debate. Argument and debate count for nothing on Twitter. The only thing that counts is the popularity of an opinion that can be reduced to a hashtag.

The fact that people are happy to go along with this fakery may be because they are secretly glad that opinions in general now count for so little. It is immensely reassuring that there is a social mechanism that can be relied on, and a moment’s thought persuades everyone that that requires people to set aside their personal opinions and do their little bit to keep the cogs turning as efficiently as possible. We don’t even have to worry too much about the opinions of the prime minister. He too has a job to do, and in doing it, it is to be hoped that he will also set aside his personal opinions.

That reassuring feeling, which cannot bear to contemplate the idea of popular government, needs opinions to be expressed somewhere safe. Somewhere like Twitter.

Sartre once said that he never felt more free than under Nazi occupation, because every utterance, every action required an acceptance of great risks. Does Twitter not occasion exactly the opposite feeling, at least in liberal regimes where no one has yet been given a thousand lashes for the wrong tweet?

However, there could at least be a show of something risky on Twitter, like a universal chorus of whistle-blowing. But that is not what we see. The hype about the radically horizontal nature of the technology conceals the verticality of a new form of surveillance. Everyone knows that whatever they tweet will be taken down and may be used against them, either at work in the next round of promotions, or outside it in their acceptance by their chosen online tribe. And so the only things that go viral on Twitter are those that are perfectly safe.

Real dialogue is difficult. And the preconditions for dialogue are not only that everyone be able to speak, but also that everyone be willing and able to listen. There is no real dialogue without a certain kind of silence. The tweet is what remains of dialogue when there is neither the time nor the inclination any longer to listen.

And another precondition of real dialogue at the heart of a real democracy is what they used to call in Latin a sensus communis – a coming together which is not a falling into rank, but an identity of the different in which difference is preserved. Sensitive people signing up for Twitter might be aware of the need for this, and, having become dismayed with its absence offline, hope to find signs of it online. Do they find signs of it on Twitter?

Leaving aside the vexed question of whether the falconer is a human being, the fact remains that the falcon cannot hear him. If we could bring Yeats back and get him on Twitter, it is inconceivable that he would contemplate the noisy flock and repeat the line that a “terrible beauty has been born”.

The idea of a great multi-cultural digital flock gathering on Twitter as a force threatening to topple the old regime that set one culture against the others is utterly false. The technology that supposedly erases the old divisive boundaries allows twitterers in a few clicks or taps to ensure that they only hear voices that echo their own unchallenged preconceptions. The fake inclusion conceals a more ruthless exclusion.

The sensitive person looking for a new digital sensus communis on Twitter sees people at loggerheads and tries to intervene with the hope of uncovering some tweetable common ground. Sooner or later he will hear the imperative: “stay in your lane”. Insofar as there is such a thing as a Twitter ethic, this is its first commandment. The unity of the tweeting flock is as radical and as false as the unity seen on the highway. And the idea of digital citizenship speaks not of a radical new community, but of a dutiful respect for the highway code, as tribes learn to keep to their lanes and no one questions whether the highway might be heading off a cliff.

Twitter stay in your lane

Rather than pointing beyond the fakery, what has emerged on Twitter is another fake that matches a popular daydream about what politics ought to be: a realm in which people can express their opinions, take sides, and find a temporary escape from their crippling isolation during the coffee breaks at work without risking anything or having to take on onerous responsibilities, without having to worry much about what exactly one is protesting and what exactly ought to be done, and without raising the prospect that terrifies everyone: popular government, a democracy (δημοκρατία) that really does hand the kratos over to the demos (the people). And the fact that the opinions expressed don’t actually matter helps to support a daydream view of politics in which the twitterer flies high above the thing being tweeted about – a daydream world in which, for instance, people can tweet their outrage about conditions in the Foxconn factory while continuing to buy into the brand responsible for it and feel that they have the perfect liberty to ignore the contradiction.

The complicity of Twitter

How could the Twitter enthusiasts be so wrong? How could they see a man digging and wrongly think he was digging a grave when he was actually setting up new props for the regime? Part of the reason has to do with the way that regime is understood – the way its oppressive quality is understood – and how we imagine what the first steps towards liberation might involve.

There was a time in some southern states of the US when a black man could be lynched for looking a white man in the eye. The oppressors walked about with heads held high, keeping the oppressed fearful of raising their heads.

According to the prevailing view on Twitter, our oppression has the same form: one group of people with their heads held high is keeping down another group of people (and so the problem with the economy, for instance, is popularly framed as a conflict between the 1% and the 99%). And if we look at the popular political hashtags, we see twitterers identifying with certain groups of people against others, and the primary form of Twitter activism involves “calling out” the racist and the sexist or whatever – the digital equivalent of looking the oppressor defiantly in the eye.

There is no question here about whether or not the struggle against racism and sexism deserves support. The question concerns how that struggle is to be understood.

Perhaps it will help to recall a painting by Goya: The Third of May 1808. The oppressors here are the soldiers from France – that great source of revolutionary ideas. Their heads look down. With their backs to us they are almost faceless, but Goya has made a point of showing us their eyes. They are closed, and the soldiers are deliberately standing close enough to the rebels to be able to execute them efficiently without looking at them. The demand of the panic-stricken rebels is for their oppressors to look at them.

Goya third of May 1808

According to the comforting view of the Twitter activists, we are the Spanish rebels, full of an innocent humanity, and we face an oppressor who comes from elsewhere – an oppressor who has his head held high and haughty. But are we? Are we not more like riflemen who know how to keep their eyes closed when there is a job to be done to keep the system working smoothly? The infantile system the Napoleonic forces were fighting for has now matured into a global order that spreads the entire length and breadth of the globe, and we are all part of it. Both our work and our play lend support to it. We are not innocent outsiders. The last of the innocent outsiders died long ago.

Oppression persists, not because a foreign power prevails, but because we have become one with the system, just like the riflemen Goya painted as living tools of the regime. So any meaningful discussion of oppression has to revolve around our complicity – the way that we have become dutiful and rather thoughtless followers of systemic imperatives.

Is it not clear that instead of challenging that priority of the systemic, Twitter helps to extend its reach deeper into the psychology of the individual?

Twitter provides yet another seduction, persuading people to accept that priority. The very first experience of Twitter is one of flattery and subordination: the flattery of seeing your personal avatar there for the world to admire, and the subordination of having to trim one’s thought down to 140 characters, and see it fade into insignificance in an infinitely long feed of tweets that pour in at a dizzying rate. It is the digital equivalent of the education provided by the automobile, where the accelerator pedal massages an ego that then is forced to accept its insignificance when it has to crawl along with all the others in the rush-hour traffic.

Twitter seduces thought to submit to the dictates of the efficient manipulation of data. The form of the tweet springs not from some post-modern love of the aphorism (if only it did), but from systemic imperatives for which the quality of thought is completely irrelevant.

The imperative to stay in your lane is another complicity. The strength – the unity – of the system derives from its fragmentation, from a process of division and subdivision, with people and groups taking on narrowly-defined yet all-consuming tasks that make it almost impossible for them to develop a meaningful grasp of the whole. It is hard to think of a more system-friendly ethic than the imperative to stay in your lane.

And what counts on Twitter is merely what can be counted. The whole focus of attention is the statistics of what is trending. The technology of Twitter repeats the priority offline given to number (as with the other social media, where every profile notes the number of friends or followers someone has, implying that quantity matters more than quality). It has not opened up a space in which that priority is challenged.

Then there is the complicity of a certain form of thinking. In our own online discussion, it wasn’t long before we were labelled as belonging to a certain category of person: white, middle-class and suburban. The wrong category. A category known for talking trash. And it was obvious that that was the end of the discussion. But this form of thinking simply repeats both the systemic and the tribal refusal of what does not fit. Activism can be as guilty as the forces it quite rightly opposes.

We are supposed to greet the profusion of new voices on Twitter as a revolutionary event. No one is directing the tweets. The people are speaking with a revolutionary spontaneity. But there is also no one directing the traffic on the asphalt-covered roads, and yet we would not frame the automobile and the highway as revolutionary technologies. And surely Twitter serves the same conservative function as the highway (and the so-called free market), achieving a false union of the spontaneity of the individual with a faceless system that is antithetical to all genuine individuality and a genuine political life.

At the end of the day, the effect of Twitter is not to open up a chink in the machinery, letting us glimpse a liberated life of the mind and the polity beyond. No, the effect is to ensure that every last thought and every last political impulse submits to the prevailing imperatives (both of the rationalising system and of the tribe).

Those claiming to see a gravedigger of the regime were too hasty. At least in the case of Twitter, Simone Weil’s pessimism seems to be justified for the time being. And given its complicity, what Twitter calls for now is not enthusiastic support, but critique. So the only thing worth tweeting now is the anti-tweet.

written by Torn Halves on January 20, 2015 in digital revolution with 3 comments