On the Bulldozed Brain

I often find that the web moves to quickly for me.  I come across an interesting post or article, something that warrants serious reflection, something to which I would like to respond, but by the time I have formulated my thoughts on the subject, the post is days or weeks old, and the discussion has long since shifted to other things.  I had this experience a few weeks ago when I read James Shelley’s post on his “bulldozed brain“, or on how new media is saturating him with so much information about people that he no longer has time to relate to these people in person.  I thought it was a compelling article at the time, but I am only just now finding the words to respond to it.

The issue that James raises is one that very much concerns me, and I have spent a good deal of the last few weeks reflecting on it, formulating the question, as I often find myself doing, in terms of the books that I am reading, in this case, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.  I am not sure that I have arrived at anything coherent, but there are a few ideas that I think might be helpful in understanding how the web mediates social relationships.

Using Debord’s terminology, I would suggest that the web, especially with the kind of applications that have been labelled as web 2.0, where users create content for one another, has dramatically shifted how spectacle becomes produced in our society.  Spectacle has until recently been the language spoken by the dominant modes of production in order to mediate social relationships in such a way as to create people as consumers.  Now spectacle is increasingly becoming the language that consumers speak to one another as they produce content for one another.  While practices of consumption are and always have been productive of something, the web permits consumers to produce for one another to an unprecedented extent. Consumers have essentially become producers of their own spectacle at precisely the same moment that they are consumers it, though they always do so within limits imposed by the dominant modes of production.  They produce themselves and their relationships as spectacles for others to consume.

This shift in how spectacle is produced has several effects.  First, it ties the language and the production of spectacle much more closely to the social relationships that spectacle mediates, so that the two are now almost indistinguishable.  Traditional media like television and print presented spectacle in ways that appeared fairly distinct from the activity of social relation.  Even if people do gather socially around these media, and even if they provide the subject of much social interaction, there is no illusion that people actually relate through them.  With web media, however, especially with many social media sites, but even with less direct means like blogs and emails, there is the illusion that relationships are being actually conducted through them.  Thus, rather than having spectacle mediate social relation as an effect of its consumption, spectacle now mediates relationship as an integral part of its production as well.

This is what creates the compulsion that James describes, the compulsion to consume more of the web, because there is the illusion that this activity is in fact relational. The relationship, however, is not between me and my friends, but between me and the spectacle that my friends have created themselves to be, a spectacle that functions precisely like a tabloid, only with the added personal interest that comes with actually knowing the celebrities involved.  I learn much useless information about these celebrity friends, these friends who are spectacles of themselves, but I come to know them very little.  Because spectacle appears on the web as indistinguishable from the relationships that it mediates, the consumption and production of this spectacle takes on a significance that other spectacle lacks, and people feel a compulsion to consume and produce it for one another.

The shift in how spectacle is produced also has the effect of extending exponentially the saturation of society by spectacle.  While the language of spectacle was mostly the domain of the producer, the necessity to profit from spectacle always placed limitations on how completely this language could be spoken.  There was only so much television and so much radio and so much live entertainment that could be made profitable, and there remained large, though certainly diminishing, portions of social interaction that escaped the direct mediation of spectacle.  As soon as consumers begin to produce their own spectacle, however, the necessity of making a profit no longer limits this production, or limits it in only very indirect ways.  In fact, the only effective limits for this kind of production become the  constantly expanding limitations of the technologies themselves.  Users of web media, therefore, are saturated with spectacle to a much greater degree than users of traditional media, particularly as the web becomes increasingly portable via cellphones and and other handheld technologies.  There are no longer any spaces that remain absolutely beyond the reach of media spectacle, and there remain very few that are practically beyond this reach.  It is now possible to conduct our relationships in entirely mediated ways, entirely through the mediation of the spectacle.  Indeed, the sheer volume and reach of spectacle produced through the web compells users in this very direction.

This, then, is the effect that James describes in his post, where the web produces far more information about people than he can possibly assimilate.  As opposed to traditional media, which could only produce so much spectacle and tailor it to our interests only so closely, the web permits us to produce immense amounts of current information that is tailored just for us and that is at least superficially connected with people to whom we feel some sort of obligation.  What is more, as soon as I begin to respond to this information, I begin creating it for others also, and I only increase the immensity of the social spectacle available to myself and to others.

Now, this shift in the production of spectacle to the consumer of spectacle is not necessarily bad.  It does, in effect, within very set limitations, permit the consumer to take the role of the producer.  I use the word ‘role’ here very specifically, because the consumer never has real control over how this production takes place, but there is nevertheless an opportunity here, I believe, for people to produce in ways that were unforeseen and are even resistant to the applications that they use.  There is the possibility, not to change society, or to change the mode of production, or to change the web, but to operate within these structures in ways that are tactically resistant to them, in ways that change only ourselves and perhaps those who we influence directly.

Shifting now to the terminology of Michel de Certeau, whose book I have not yet finished, and whose ideas I therefore reference with a certain amount of hesitation, I would say that the web, by permitting the consumer to take the role of the producer in even limited ways, becomes an interesting tactical space.  De Certeau recognizes, what is true, that all practices of consumption are productive of something, and he is interested in the tactics that consumers use in order to produce effects that are unintended and by producers and even resistant to them.  It seems to me that, if this is true of a system in which consumers have little access to the role of the producer, it becomes much more true in a system where consumers also play the role of producers, even in limited ways.  Though this new role may only serve to tie consumers more tightly to the spectacle that defines them as consumers in the first place, it may offer more opportunity for the kind of tactics that de Certeau is describing.

For me, the logic of this move would look something like this:

1.  The web permits the saturation of society and the mediation of social relationship by spectacle to a degree that was completely unattainable through traditional media, simply because it employs consumers themselves to produce their own spectacle.

2.  The web permits tactical interventions by consumers to a degree that was completely unattainable through traditional media, simply because it allows the consumer to play the role of producer within certain limitations.

3.  Therefore, we must approach the web tactically, in order that its spectacular effect might be exposed, and in order that its resistant opportunities be exploited.

4.  Therefore, we must also develop and disseminate tactics that are useful to this end, employing them here and there, now and again, where they might do most good, in the spaces that are opened by the kinds of freedom that the web permits to consumers as producers, to you and I.

This is, I believe, the challenge to all of us who would do the web justice and who would use it to do justly.

  1. Isaiah said:

    I’m not sure if this is completely relevant.

    But the idea of the internet and spectacle is an interesting one because it asks the question of the role of context.

    The internet is the ultimate death of context. For example, many north american universities (and high schools) teach philosophy from an analytical perspective. Thus the philosophical context of north america in analytical.

    Yet with the internet, particularly Wikipedia, I have learned and begun to appreciate the work of the continental philopshers, from Kierkegaard to the poststructuralist. Thus my philosophical context seems to be very continental though I’m a North American.

    Furthermore I am, to a certain extent, an evangelical Christian. Even though I identify this way my language is heavily influenced by existential though, Kierkegaard and Buber specifically. But that doesn’t really express the truth either. My favourite author is Jacques Ellul, and that adds a whole other dimenseion.

    The context is fragmented.

    The ‘spectactle’ I produce within my internet persona is reflective of that.

    And because of all this I seem to become increasingly anti-media. Whether it is radio or television, I can no longer consume what they give to me. Although I can stand the occasional sitcom, I can not deal with the fact that the mainstream media operates in “Closed Context”.

    An example of closed context is this. I open up the paper. I see that there is an article that talks about music and human nature. I excitedly turn to the page to be disappointed by a neo-darwinist attitude. Why? Because that is the closed context of the media.

    Where as the internet, not always but generally, allows more freedom in context.

  2. Isaiah,

    I would agree that the web alters how information becomes contextualized, though I would say that it destabilizes context rather than kills it. After all, it is never possible to eliminate a context of some sort, and the web often presents information in precisely the same kinds of contexts as do traditional media. The experience that you describe with the newspaper, for example, can be replicated with almost any web source also. The difference is that I might approach that information from any number of contexts and in any number of ways. I might go to the article that you mention as I browse the paper online, as I scan my Google Alerts, as I follow a link from a friend, as I check a link in an blog I am reading, or in countless other ways. I come to the article, in other words, from a wide variety of constantly changing contexts. My context for the article, therefore, may not be at all the same as yours. This has always been true in a general way, of course, because the contexts of our lives are different, but it is now true in a more specific way, since even the immediate context of the article may differ widely between us. This contextual stability that was offered by traditional media is radically destabilized by the web.

    I am not sure that this destabilization in always a good thing, though it does enable me to determine more fully the ways that I approach what I read. The problem is that this ability is accompanied by the difficulty posed by having little or no shared context from which to understand what others are saying about the article. My contextual location is often too different to permit me to discuss usefully with others. This is the cost of destabilized context. Most of the time, I think it is worth it, but there are times I am not so sure.

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