“One of your very suicidal friends has started a live video. Watch it before it ends…”
I think it was the former co-worker popping pills while crying into her phone saying ‘good-bye’ that finally broke me.
Not that hers was the first live suicide-attempt on Facebook I’d witnessed. Before her there was the bi-polar former lover: he always changed his profile picture to some scene from a Black metal album cover and quoted one-line lyrics as status updates before the walk to the bridge or the knife-blade to the wrists.
It wasn’t just the real-time suicide attempts, though. It was also looking at the Facebook profile of the man I fucked three days after he got out of jail for meth-related crimes. Before the meth he was a Pagan leader, inspiring hundreds to go out into the woods and be primal animists communing again with the spirits of place and ancestor. Then the meth, then the prison, and when he gets out the comments on his update about being released?
“Hey bro woof glad u back on FB where u been?” and “Wat up hottie missed ur posts” as if his descent into pain and trauma were just another thing to “like” in The Feed.
It wasn’t just that, or the suicides. It was also all the arguments with people I’ll never meet. People who consider themselves in “community” with me but have none of the shared mutual existences that create community. “You’re a transmisogynist” said someone who’s never met me, “you’re a gaslighting manarchist” said someone else. And then the social crusades following upon these comments, complete strangers with their trousers around their ankles sitting on toilets across the world demanding I apologize for some sentence in an essay they misread.
It was all that, I guess, but also something I’ve always known: The Feed wants. The Feed demands. And The Feed hungers.
…And Dwelt Among Us
As a Market arises in complexity, it begins to dominate each individual within it, inculcating its logic and demands into its participants. None of those participants have any say in what those logics and demands are; the agency of each is limited to binary choices: buy this or that, work here or there, but always buy and always work.
It is the same with a City. Though a community within it may attempt to influence policies and interactions in the sphere they inhabit, the City has its own logic, limiting any community’s ability to fully wield power over their lives. A Black neighborhood can demand less-violent policing all they want, just as a white neighborhood might demand a greater focus on property crime; neither can hope to influence policing itself, only its aesthetic manifestations.
These greater logics, these egregoric demands, also inhabit the individuals which comprise it. This is why you cannot ‘escape’ Capitalism: your rent is determined by capital, your food is produced by capitalist modes of production, your wages are determined by capitalist manipulation of labor markets. Even if you lived unwaged, homeless, and only ate food out of trash cans, you are still limited by Capitalism, which also determines where you are ‘allowed’ to live (all land is owned…), how much food is available in those dumpsters you dive, and how much the police are paid to imprison you for sleeping rough on private property or in ‘public’ parks.
This inescapable logic makes each of us both subjects to Capitalism as well as re-producers of its logic. When we don’t trespass or when we pay for groceries instead of stealing them, we re-inforce the sacrality of private property and the capitalist mode of production. When we buy anything, or pay for anything, or sell anything, we participate in this constant reproduction even if we do so in ‘anti-capitalist’ ways.
As with The Market and The City, The Feed’s own logics and own demands inhabit ours, reproduce themselves through the actions of each participant. These operations and these reproductions are obscured in the same way that the connections between the demands of Capitalism and our individual decisions within Capitalism are obscured. We cannot view the whole from the part, the forest from just one tree from which it is comprised.
A lone tree in a field exists differently from a tree within a forest. It need not compete with other trees for sunlight, but likewise does not benefit from the deep processes of decay and renewal which arise in forests. Not least of these processes are the fungal mats or mycelium which sometimes span thousands of acres, connecting entire forests within an organic communication network sometimes likened to human nervous systems. Trees within such networks seem to respond to each other through this network, slowing or increasing their growth in accordance to environmental changes elsewhere within the network.
Some have attempted to suggest such networks, organic and otherwise, are the origin of consciousness, or create a kind of consciousness. But “complexity theory” (or whatever the new pop-psych-science term is for it these days) is usually accompanied by the same sort of exuberant utopianism that predicts an impending Singularity or an end to war and poverty, scientists drunk on what the Age of Aquarius idiots were drinking decades ago.
We were also promised jetpacks and assured that globalizing capitalism would make Africa wealthy, propaganda all of it. So we don’t need to propose that mycelium networks and social networks are the precursors to consciousness, however. Simpler materialist parallels are sufficient to show that The Feed affects the individuals within it in similar ways and changes their behaviors to operate in tandem.
Genuflecting At The Altar
The selfie is the perfect example of this, but not the selfie itself. Here I do not speak of the images littering social networks (I’ve plenty, by the way), but the human act of the selfie. Remove the meaning-content of the selfie (the image itself) and instead consider the human actions which produce the image: humans with an arm extended, their heads trained on a rectangle in their hand, their heads usually slightly tilted. They then smile at the rectangle and then put it away.
The selfie has cultural content, of course, and it is not done randomly. Only at certain times and during certain conditions do humans extend their arms and smile at a rectangle. One needs first own a rectangle, and then experience the correct conditions during which the individual divines the correct time for the behavior.
The moment of the selfie is individually-determined, certainly, but the imperative of the selfie is collective. In this way, though, the human actions of the selfie start to sound a lot more similar to religious behavior such as genuflection or prayer: one crosses themselves at certain moments determined by individual decisions, but crossing oneself is a thing one does because one is Catholic.
The Feed (social networks in general) can be said to affect the material conditions and actions of those within it in the same way that Catholicism does. Though one might be likely to object that Catholicism has ideological & religious content while Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all the rest appear to have none, such an objection misses the materialist perspective. The content of Catholicism (or any other religious or ideological system) obscures its material existence. The Catholic Church is a network of hundreds of thousands of churches, charities, properties, missions, hospitals, and agencies funded by donations from participants and headed by priests, bishops, cardinals, and a pope; this is its material reality, its physical structure through which political, religious, cultural, and ideological content is distributed and reproduced by catholics who have no real influence or power over what content is actually distributed.
It is the same with The Feed. We are parishioners in the Holy Church of Facebook, reproducing behaviour-as-content (taking selfies, writing posts, sharing tweets, clicking reactions) which The Feed distributes according to its own logic (Facebook’s deeply-obscured algorithm). And like the devoted at Mass, we passively take in what the priests have transubstantiated by occulted processes we can only accept, not engage in ourselves.
To what purpose, though? Because at least with religions we feel we can determine the motives of the priests; with Social Media there is no published doctrine nor sacred texts we can sort through. For such an answer, we need yet again use a materialist framework and ask not “what do they believe?” but “what are its effects on us?” Here a recent essay from Slavoj Zizek gives us more clarity:
…to understand how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom, we have to focus on the shadowy relation between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies. We shouldn’t be shocked at China but at ourselves who accept the same regulation while believing that we retain our full freedom and the media just help us to realize our goals (while in China people are fully aware that they are regulated). The biggest achievement of the new cognitive-military complex is that direct and obvious oppression is no longer necessary: individuals are much better controlled and “nudged” in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as the free and autonomous agents of their own life…
In a word, the doctrine of The Feed is control. And one need not delve very deep to find proof of how much control over human behavior they already wield: we can start by noting (with wonder and awe) the millions of people daily standing with their arms extended in public places, staring at a rectangle and smiling, in order to feed The Feed with a digital reproduction of their face. Because of a physical network of corporations, servers, electronics manufacturers, and a vast army of technological workers, we take selfies. What seems like a “free and autonomous” act of individual agency is, like all our actions within capitalist markets, determined by an external logic over which we have neither control nor influence. And again like capitalist markets or the Catholic Church (and unlike mycelium or other organic networks), there are central authorities which rule over these logics and demands.
Indeed, the logics and demands are theirs. We, participants in The Feed, merely enact, fulfill, manifest, and reproduce those desires. The live-feed suicide attempt of my friend manifested their will, just as all the twitter-battles and internet social justice wars also reproduce their logic. They shape us into devoted citizens of the world they create, ensuring we do not stray too far from the flock and are never led into temptation or delivered into evil by dangerous ideas they helpfully prevent us from seeing.
I don’t know how this will end, what more they will change in us, nor can I foresee any hope of escape. Just as there is no market outside the dominance of capital, there is no dissemination of ideas outside of social media any longer: when this essay is done it will go into The Feed along with all the effluvia of our social production. Perhaps it will appear for you below a selfie or a cute kitten photo, just above a stranger’s complaints about their job or loveless marriage, somewhere near an ad for a product you don’t need and a listicle about how you are being oppressed.
Maybe it’ll even appear along with a live feed of a friend’s suicide attempt. Be sure to watch it before it ends.