Faced over the past few years with a deepening sense of dread around the increasing irrelevance of academic political theory, I shifted much of my perspective on the accelerating unraveling of the modern order to media theory–specifically, media theory rooted in the work of Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric. While political theory as an endeavor is far from dead, the profound disconnect between the conceptual frameworks dominating the discipline and the reshaping of our inner and outer realities by digital technology has made it difficult to push the political debate around “tech” today in the direction the McLuhans draw us.
One way to make the attempt is to contrast two kinds of critiques of technology today. As Rob Atkinson suggests in his recent post, one criticism is that “big tech” is decadent. Rather than building a new foundation for a new socioeconomic era of American flourishing, or even just bolstering up a declining America, possibly buying us precious time to figure out something new, critics of tech decadence warn that our top corporations now mostly monetize our idleness and mindless entertainment and hoard their winnings, innovating nothing of real use or power.
I would agree that a criticism like this is at least incomplete, but at its best, criticism of tech decadence is more fundamental and incisive than that. What concerns me most, for instance, is that a fundamental confusion about the difference between televisual media and digital media has caused many highly intelligent people, including many within “big tech” itself, to pour vast resources and energies into building a psychological and social superstructure dependent on ways of life that are violently obsolescing due to the digital triumph.
This sounds rather abstract, but it is easy to flesh out concretely, and doing so will give anyone in policy or politics a significant leg up on understanding how and why the modern order is whirling apart. What follows is a distillation and restatement of the work on this topic I have done in many other places. I feel it has been all too vindicated in the events of recent weeks and in the outlines of the looming shadow of what is yet to come. Regardless, hopefully the below may still be of some additional use.
The McLuhans help us understand that media are “extensions of man”–tools of communication which stand in a reciprocally formative relationship with us. We shape them, then they shape us.
Importantly, the way we shape our media is not identical to the way they shape us. In fact, they are crucially distinct. Our way of building tools, raised to a high science in modernity, is by making a plan to construct certain things out of materials and then executing that plan. This is not the kind of manner in which our media cause us to be shaped one way or another. The McLuhans show that our media shape us through what Aristotle calls “formal cause.” Formal cause is, in brief, the kind of causation that environments have on those within them. Several other theorists have done related work on how the surrounding environment that we create fosters influences that form our perceptions, sensibilities, and even souls in ways that other theories of causation don’t capture and can’t comprehend.
This is important because formal cause allows us to see how different media shape us in different ways, drawing into the foreground or pushing into the background different features of our psychological and social anthropology. The medium of television, for instance, shaped us in ways that made our imaginative faculties preeminent, privileged, and prized. The content of television programming, the source of so much controversy during the peak age of television, does not matter nearly as much according to the McLuhans’ analysis as the features of the medium itself: this is what the famous chestnut “the medium is the message” means.
So, by sharp contrast, the medium of digital technology is all about the faculty of memory, not the faculty of imagination. The twist is that digital elevates to supremacy the memory of machines over the imagination of us humans. This is easy to see everywhere online: digital technology creates and maintains a vast archive of all things, reducing both us and our artefacts to bits of information, mere content. That is not just a big blow to the preeminence, prestige, and power of televisual media. It is a blow to all those who make it, and, especially, all those who master it–and, most of all, those who have exercised socioeconomic leadership and political rule through the expert exercise of that kind of mastery.
The seriousness of the controversy over “big tech” has to do with the way it has profited so immensely from its muddled mix of televisual and digital innovation. On the one hand, the leading tech corporations are responsible for the vast explosion of digital tools that has pushed digital media to its place of dominance over all of us, all our creations, and all people and creations that have come before. Today everything and everyone goes into the universal digital archive. To the bots that run it, this grand archive is analogous to a library, and often we feel this way too. But we ourselves are within this library, our status greatly reduced from what it was when television ruled. Psychologically and socially, the digital world therefore often feels more akin to a labyrinth or a trash heap. The pride and identity we formed under televisual conditions had to do above all with our sense of ourselves as the imagining animal. It was our power of make believe, as John Lennon’s televisual-age anthem made clear, that we believed would save us. It was what made us special, made us matter–perhaps even made us divine. In the digital medium, all this is obsolesced, leaving us feeling lost, bitter, resentful, fearful, uncertain, and desperate about finding shelter from what comes next.
So it matters a lot that “big tech” has actually not confined itself to pursuing digital technology. In fact, much of what has made it so powerful and controversial has been its focus on pushing the televisual medium to its technological limit. Nowhere is this clearer than in the realms of advertising and social media. The biggest social achievement of “big tech” has been to push television to its limit by democratizing or socializing it. Today, online, everyone can be their own TV show; but not just that: they can be their own TV channel, or station, or broadcast network, or televisual media conglomerate, all at the same time as they can also be the person, or set of online personas, yelling at any number of TV screens, from which any number of other TV-entities are themselves screaming back.
This alone is, as we are now finding out all too late, a recipe for individual, social, and mass insanity. But, coupled as it is with the simultaneous reduction of all fantasy work to a new digitally-imposed obsolescence, the result is not just insanity but a vast, doomed scramble for frameworks of fantasy that feel extreme enough to shelter believers from the great digital disenchantment that threatens to flood over all things and all people.
For me at least, as a result, the real problem with “big tech” from the standpoint of media-informed political theory is not simple decadence but derangement. Whatever its achievements and benefits, at least some of which are undeniable (and functionally irreversible), most of our leading technologists–whether innocently or more corruptly–have created a psychological and social media environment that makes us crazy just as it strips ever more levels of craziness of their generative power. We see the consequences of this double derangement every day: on the one hand, total mental breakdown, exhaustion, escapism, and retreat; on the other, paradoxically but even more importantly, a headlong rush among refugees from mildly crazy fantasies to the uttermost derangements, which seem to possess more staying power, and offer greater access to identity and pride, than now-banalized “normie” ideologies such as “classical liberalism” on the Right and “neoliberalism” on the Left.
Today millions of Americans seem to genuinely believe that the most farfetched, absurd, and radical visions of the good life can be manifested in America through the sheer power of the will to fantasy. They seem to believe this is the future, when, in fact, it is the last violent death rattle of the brutal twentieth-century era of political rule by absolute and absolutist fantasy. The leaders of these movements believe they can and must re-found America, and indeed the world, on a new rule by fantasy so total and complete that it can claw back control from the digital machines, restoring make-believe to its place of ultimate power, and pushing the authority and supremacy of memory deep into the background of human life.
These beliefs, in my judgment at least, are mistaken and foredoomed. They will lead only to ever more violence, and a squandering of what’s left of America’s brutally hard-won achievement and fortune, until at last, as they must, they collapse.
I hate to say it, but as of right now I am not sanguine that there is enough time for America’s leaders to embrace and act properly on this way of seeing the situation “big tech” has done so much to help plunge us into. I am not sanguine that enough of our leaders are willing to accept the view I have sketched out, and not sanguine that they are capable of bringing it to their fellow citizens in a way that will help them, in turn, to understand how high are the stakes and how limited our options in responding well. What I see coming, if it is not already here, is a totalized, nationalized, globalized, and fundamentally bogus “conversation,” a “discourse” usurped and controlled by the most deranged and vengeful of our ideologues–aided and abetted by a cowardly, cynical, and corrupt elite, more than willing to lie to itself and others by mouthing the “right” propaganda and continuing to collect the checks.
In response to this meltdown of American life, millions of citizens are apt to rush for a clean break with the systems of rule and social management their elite has imposed on them. They are apt to check out completely on both “the news” and “the socials,” withdraw from major institutions like corporate America, academia, “entertainment”, and the fantasy-industrial complex, and begin work on reconstructing social and cultural life on firm foundations within defensible borders both online and off. This may offer a shred of hope. But it would be a damning testament to the impotence of American policymaking.