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The discomfort of breathing

Our disappointment on social media only stimulates the pursuit of ever more refined manipulation techniques. Detoxification is not the answer, writes Geert Lovink.


Welcome to the new normal. Social media is reforming our inner lives. As platform and individual become inseparable, social networking becomes identical to "the social" as such. We are no longer curious about what "the next web" will bring – instead we talk about what kind of information we can graze on in barren periods. The previous belief in the transient nature of hype has been shattered, and a new realism reigns in its place. As Evgeny Morozov put it in a tweet: “1990s tech utopianism claimed that networks weaken or replace hierarchies. In reality, networks strengthen hierarchies and make them less visible. " (1) [For references in the article, see the English version on Eurozine, ed. note] An amoral attitude to today's intense use of social media would be not to judge, but instead to bury oneself in the superficial time of lost souls like us. How can one write a phenomenology about the asynchronous connections and their cultural effects, or formulate a critique of all that is connected to the social body of the network, without looking at what is going on inside? Let us therefore embark on a journey into this third room, the so-called techno-social.

Network discomfort

Networking is not exactly an amusement park. The unease about their form and cause is growing: from Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election to former Facebook President Sean Parker's admission that the website operates with "designed addiction." Parker: "It's a social confirmation feedback mechanism ... just the kind of hacker that myself would have found, since you exploit a vulnerability in human psychology." feature, which compares Snapchat to heroin. Or Leah Pearlman, a former Facebook project manager, who admitted that she too has developed a reluctance for the "like" button and similar addiction-creating features. (2) Or Chmath Palihapitiya, another former Facebook boss, who claims that social media is about to tear our society apart and that recommends people to "take a real break". (3)

Who does not feel betrayed after reading such stories? The cynical reason sets in as we realize that we have been subjected to dirty tricks. The screens are not what they pretend to be. Behavioral marketing is revealed and our suspicions are confirmed, but the impact diminishes rapidly, and marketing departments continue their quest for the next form of public opinion. Will it ever end? What does our awareness of the phenomenon of "organized dispersal" really mean? We know we are being interrupted, but continue to let it happen: This is Spread 2.0.

What do we do the moment we realize we are pushed into a corner and have to accept our mental submission? What role does criticism play, and what alternatives do we have in this situation of desperate ubiquity? Depression is a general condition, whether it is realized or unrealized. Internet – is that all we have? Dissatisfaction with the cultural matrix of the 21st century necessarily goes from "technology" to political economy. Let us consider our collective powerlessness to change the architecture of the web in the light of "democratic attrition" and the rise of authoritarian populism and "the great regression." (5)

Critical analysis, not moralism

But at the same time, let us beware of moralism that pretends to be critical analysis. We have to confront the uncomfortable question of why so many of us have been lured into the abyss of social media in the first place. This may be due to "the lack of organization of the will", as Eva Illouz writes about in her book Why Love Hurts? (6) Those who defend the usefulness of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, at the same time, express some ambivalence in meeting Mark Zuckerberg's role as a moral police. In the process Illouz describes as "cool ambivalence", rational and emotional considerations are mixed together, which creates a crisis for engagement – a pattern we also see in the debate around social media. I want to go, but I can't. It's too much, but it's boring. It is useful, but disgusting. If we only dare to admit it, our addiction is filled with an emptiness at the thought of a life disconnected from the current. Dopamine is the metaphor of our time. The neurotransmitter accounts for the accelerated cycle of ups and downs before we descend again. The flow of social media varies from outbursts of anticipation to long periods of numbness. Social mobility is characterized by similar fluctuations. Luck and bad luck take turns. Life goes on until you suddenly find yourself in an extortion trap where your device has been hijacked by ransom virus. We are moving from intense experiences of collective satisfaction in the labor market to long periods of unemployment filled with boredom. Our interconnected lives are the story of a blast of growth followed by stagnation, where being connected no longer serves any purpose. Let's call it social vacuuming: We are sucked in again, lured by promises of improvements that are never fulfilled.

The problem is not our lack of willpower, but our lack of collective ability to force change.

Social media architecture locks us in, with the network effect as legitimation. Everyone agrees, at least we assume so. The certainty we still felt a decade ago about users behaving like swarms moving from one platform to another has been refuted. The departure seems persistently useless. We must have an overview of what our ex-girlfriend is doing, of activity calendars or social conflicts between old and new tribes. One can Unfriendl, unsubscribe, log off or block individual tormentors, but the tricks that bring you back to the system are the last to win. Blocking and deletion are considered self-loving actions. Leaving social media completely seems beyond our comprehension.

The unrest we feel in the face of "the social" begins to ache. Lately, life has started to feel overwhelming. We are silent, but return shortly. Hans Schnitzler reports on the releasing symptoms of his abstinence students experience when they discover that they can walk through a park without having to take Instagram photos. (7) At the same time, we hear of a growing aversion to new-age-inspired "school of life" solutions to the digital overload. Internet critics give voice to the rage over the instrumental use of behavioral science aimed at manipulating users, only to see their own concerns end up as recommendations for "digital detoxification" in self-help courses. It does not happen much after Alcoholics Anonymous-like confessions of MyDistraction.

Should we say we are happy with a ten percent reduction in the time we spend on our devices? How long does it take for the effect to diminish? Do you also feel restless? Well-intentioned advice becomes part of the problem, as it reflects the avalanche of applications designed to create "a better version of yourself". (8) We must instead find ways to politicize the situation. Above all, a "platform capitalism" approach must avoid any solution based on the addiction metaphor – the billions of people online are not sick, nor am I a patient. (9) The problem is not our lack of willpower, but our collective inability to force change.

We are facing a return to a division of society between high and low, where an offline elite has delegated its online presence to personal assistants, in contrast to the panicky 99 percent who can no longer live without Internet access 24 hours a day, and struggling with long commutes, more jobs and social pressure while juggling complex sexual relationships, friends and relatives with noise in all channels.

Another regressive trend is the "televised reversal" of the online experience as a result of online video, the remediation of classic TV channels on Internet devices, and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix. One Shower Thought on Reddit it put it this way: "Surfing the web has become like watching TV in the old days, browsing through a handful of websites looking for something new." (10) The role of social media as a substitute for television is part of a prolonged erosion of the once celebrated participant culture, or a movement from interactivity to interpassivity. (11) This world is massive but empty. All that remains are the traces of collective rage in the comments section. We read what the trolls have to say before we sweep away the verbal garbage in anger.

Dislike of verbal communication

One of the unintended consequences of social media is the growing aversion to direct verbal communication. In his blog post "I Hate Telephones", James Fisher complains about the dysfunction of call centers and calls all synchronous telecommunications ineffective: "Asynchronous textual communication is the way everyone communicates now. It has come to stay. " (12) According to Fisher, the killing of the phone has become a major market. The development is part of a quiet revolution. The most effective way to sabotage the medium is to Xla be answering calls. During a visit to a vocational media college in Amsterdam, I was told that the school had introduced a course in "communication" for digital natives after companies had complained that the interns were unable to talk to clients on the phone.

One of the unintended consequences of social media is the growing aversion to
direct verbal communication.

Dialogue, whether it takes place over the telephone or in a café, constitutes an expansive semiotic landscape where meaning is not linked to obligations. Instead, it's all about avoiding making decisions, about probing the possible world. We get lost in time as we ask, explain, interrupt and wonder, while we must read our partners' hesitation and body language. This extensive experience is the opposite of the compression technique, manifested in condensed form in the meme. These compress complex questions into a single image accompanied by an ironic quote, with the ex-
Obvious goals are to propagate a message that can be understood in a hundred seconds before it is swept away.

"Please come to me, amaze me." No matter how perfect the technology is, creaky and fast exchanges remain the exception when we encounter the concrete reality of the other. The moment we send a text message, we expect to receive one back. "Every time my phone vibrates, I hope it's you." As Roland Barthes remarked, "Making someone wait is a constant privilege of power." (13) I always have to wait.

After the excitement of the first, dark times, social media no longer fills the void. On loveless days one feels like a failure. Some get lighter: Social anxiety is becoming more prevalent. When the medication is no longer working and you are not getting dressed in the morning, you know that you have been vacuumed.

Swiping fingers move the mind to other places. Checking your smartphone is the new form of daydreaming. We are unaware of our own brief absence and enjoy the feeling of being remotely present. One moment we are moving in another direction as we check status updates – the movement is reversed and the other enters our world unannounced. Like daydreaming, visiting social media can be compared to a "short-term detachment from an immediate environment where a person's contact with reality is erased". (14)

We must shape a freedom that undermines the technological requirement to live a predictable life

However, the second part of this Wikipedia definition does not quite fit. Do we pretend to be somewhere else when we sweep through messages in the elevator? A quick glance at social media may be a form of escape from reality, but do we retreat to the world of fantasy? Hardly. We review updates and incoming messages for the same reason we daydream: To kill time. Should we see social media as an expression of repressed instincts? Or should we instead read social media as a stream of digital characters from scattered tribesmen? Must the human psyche reestablish social ties to regain a sense of kinship in a time characterized by tighter social networks? We gather our loved ones on our devices. Can we describe the online version of the social as a secondary revision (Freud), as a method of processing complex processes in our everyday lives? Can we understand the use of social media in cafes, the street, trains, the kitchen and in bed as an altered form of consciousness, this time fed by the outside world? A definition of social media such as "another's vigilance" or even "techno-telepathy" is surely at odds with the many calls for a stronger physical and spiritual presence, which in turn leads to a less distracted brain capable of concentrating both longer and better.

Vanens media

Admit the Envy: Others have rewarding experiences in your absence. The fear of missing out on something creates a constant desire for engagement with others and with the world. Jealousy is the shadow side of the need we have to be part of the tribe, of the party, face-to-face. They dance and drink while on the outside, left to yourself. There is also another aspect involved: net voyeurism, the cold, distant form of monitoring friends who carefully avoid direct interaction. We see and are seen online.

Overwhelmed as we are by a false sense of familiarity with the other, boredom and restlessness quickly result. While we are still aware of our historical duty to contribute, upload and comment, the reality is different. We've gone back to news channels and professional opinion makers: Only a few know how to turn attention to one's own advantage.

When applications are no longer new, their use becomes a habit. This is eye-
when nerds, activists and artists leave the stage floor to parents, psychologists, computer analysts and marketing experts. IN Updating to Remain the Same Wendy Chun argues that "the media are most important when they do not seem important at all, or in other words when they have gone from the new to the ordinary." (15) Chun describes habits as strange, contradictory quantities, both inflexible and creative at the same time. The habit enables stability in a universe where change is fundamental. Its repetitive nature is not considered a disadvantage. "The habit is, contrary to the instinct formed, cultivated: it is a proof of culture in the strictest sense of the word." (16) The habit's privatization policy destroys the private sphere, which results in Internet users being turned inside out and being incriminated as private subjects in the public sphere. The "media of habit" draws on this need for an anti-experience by sharing information within one's own filtered bubble. Disconnected as they are from the other's radical news factor, social media satisfies the desire for something different. The phenomenon is also active at the interpersonal level. "Experiences become piercing, annoying, invasive," states Mark Greif. "It is no longer the gain, even though this is the goal everyone else aspires to. It's a curse. The only thing you want is a way to reduce the feeling. " (17)

Social media is reforming our inner lives.

We begin to feel distanced as friends become too demanding emotionally. When we no longer care, and the melodramatics are over, we take a look, like it and sweep on. The social anxiety subsides and flattens out in a state of indifference, where the world still goes its own way, but now with a feeling of numbness. When the world is emptied of meaning, we are more than ready to delegate experiences to friends. No hard feelings. Jealousy
as the distance increases. To explore the concept of "social cooling", technology critic Tijmen Schep has created a website that attempts to observe the long-term effects of living in a reputable economy. Cooling describes the simple fact that one changes behavior if one knows that one is being observed. "People are realizing that their 'digital reputation' can limit their opportunities." (18) This leads to a culture of conformity, to risk aversion and social rigidity. The opposition will have to try to dismantle the algorithms and criminalize data collection. Only when data analysis services are no longer available will it be possible to collectively "forget" these cultural techniques and their consequences. Schep's conclusion: "Data is not the new gold, but the new oil, and it damages the social environment." A recent Data Prevention Manifesto argues in a similar way: It is not enough to "protect privacy" through regulation – both data
Initially, production and storage must be prevented. For Schep, privacy means the right to be imperfect. We must shape a freedom that undermines the technological requirement to live a predictable life, otherwise we may soon find ourselves under a regime of social credit. Welcome to the Minority Report community, where the prevention of deviations has been internalized.

The war on attention

Do you remember the movie Here? The main character, a man in a midlife crisis, falls in love with a female operating system named Samantha. The film is both a parable about narcissistic loneliness and a "soulful" story about machines that help us in the difficult transition between one relationship and another. In the film's retro-futuristic scenario, people have adapted to a uniformed life that sheds diversity. But we can not claim that the grades in Here is absent of spirit. The "artificial space" they inhabit is structurally inattentive to outside things and shields citizens from contact with the outside, much like the innocent Hello Kitty dresses that have been a common sight in Asia's big cities for decades. In the book Distributed Attention offers the media theorist Petra Loeffler a new perspective. (19) After going back to Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Krakauer's texts, she observes that dispersal was claimed as a right by the early labor movement. Repetitive factory work had to be compensated for with entertainment. The demand for leisure was supported by technologies such as the panorama, the world exhibitions, the kaleidoscope, the stereoscope and the cinema: an urban culture with the staring man as a representative figure.

With the growth of media technologies after World War II, this attitude gradually changed. A phase with «decorientering»(Bernard Stiegler) took place. Now that we have detached the distraction from entertainment, we are no longer able to see how the smartphone is a necessary toy in the reproduction of the workforce. (20) At what price? Instead of punishing digital daydreams, we should focus on the horse called boredom. At some point, Silicon Valley will lose its war on attention, and its add-driven economy will face its inevitable decline. But we are not there yet. Their strategies for behavioral fine-tuning and surprise still work.

Loeffler's historicization can help us to free ourselves from the morality that surrounds the discourse of distraction and to ask exactly what it is that draws us deeper and deeper into these networks. As Roland Barthes did with the photograph, we should examine the "dot" in social media. How can you identify and analyze the striking element that hurts and attracts you, the rare detail your eye seeks? The answer is the possibility of freedom and liberation from orchestrated stimulation, or the pursuit of the unlikely information that will break the routine. What we want is the next wave of interruptions, at the same time as we feel unable to interrupt our own behavior. Addiction "programs for continued use by blocking our ability to imagine alternatives" (Gerald Moore). We are locked in a situation that makes it impossible to "interrupt the interrupters".

As the dissatisfaction with the dispersal discourse spreads, we can see a growing rebellion against the notion that this is our problem. Take Catherine Labiran, who no longer wants self-care to be synonymous with pampering, and admits that she "got tired of conversations where self-care was solely linked to some form of meditation." (21) Digital detoxification therapy only combats the symptoms, writes Miriam Rasch: "It overlooks the causes of perpetual dispersal, loss of concentration and burnout. Going out into the woods without a phone won't help in the long run. " (22) According to Rasch, detoxification and other disciplinary strategies only help companies make even more money.

Michael Dieter disagrees. He warns that it is too easy to condemn digital rehabilitation centers as a neoliberal trap. "The Rehabilitation Center highlights the need for collective practices and to change the user environment," he argues. "I'm not sure if we should rely on our personal interests alone in the fight against dispersal. … As medical experts have emphasized, pure detoxification is a risky undertaking: it can strengthen the impulses or habits we are trying to get rid of. Hybrid media experiences, diversified interdisciplinary forms of training and more-than-digital methods are some of the ways forward, along with a willingness to experience crises as moments of clarity. " (23)

The dispersal epidemic

The elite cannot decide what to think about the "epidemic of dispersal," a confusion with far-reaching implications for the standard of education and the approach to pedagogy. The rulers demand digital skills and the ability to read in depth at the same time. It is not in their interest to bring the shallow user to life. We are not just talking about doubts rationalized as ethical issues – the issue of attention touches the core of the way the global economy is shaped. On the one hand, research reports have repeatedly concluded that productivity will increase significantly if employees do not have access to social media during working hours. On the other hand, an increasing number of companies earn on the same blurred line between work and private life. Under working conditions that make permanent internet access a prerequisite, going offline can be potentially dangerous. The app that hijacks us will also set us free.

Should the answer to "access for all" be "the right to relax"? Can we move past this dichotomy? (24) Today's social media lacks hubris, style and enigma. It is their petty, sly behind-the-backs-our mentality that must be attacked. To avoid offline romance, we must ask ourselves what kind of information we really need, how we can obtain it anyway, and to what extent we can accept the built-in delays. Can vital information overcome air gaps and reach us even if we are no longer present in the networks? Whether we are connected or not: The essential thing is whether we can escape the calculated life together. It was fun as long as it lasted, but now it's time to move on.

This article was first published in German in Lettre International 120 (2018) – in English in Eurozine. It is printed with permission from Eurozine ( where Ny Tid is one of the members.

Twitter, July 11, 2017.


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