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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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The Silence of the Masses Could Be Social Media

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In working my way through Baudrillard’s early 1980s writings about the “masses,” I’m tantalized by the passages where he seems to anticipate the arrival of social media, of mass connectivity and Big Data modeling on the basis of ubiquitous surveillance. They make me think that he has some valuable insight, if only his abstractions and idiosyncratic terminology could be translated into plainer language addressing everyday contemporary examples. I’m thinking of passages like this, from the “…Or the End of the Social” chapter in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities:

End of the perspective space of the social. The rational sociality of the contract, dialectical sociality (that of the State and of civil society, of public and private, of the social and the individual) gives way to the sociality of contact, of the circuit and transistorised network of millions of molecules and particles maintained in a random gravitational field, magnetised by the constant circulation and the thousands of tactical combinations which electrify them. But is it still a question of the socius? Where is sociality in Los Angeles? And where will it be later on, in a future generation (for Los Angeles is still that of TV, movies, the telephone and the automobile), that of a total dissemination, of a ventilation of individuals as terminals of information, in an even more measurable — not convergent, but connected — space: a space of connection? The social only exists in a perspective space, it dies in the space of simulation, which is also a space of deterrence.

So frustrating: He identifies the form of sociality beyond mass media — the way social media has made individuals into “terminals of information” in a space of connection where they cannot converge into a collectivity — but then concludes by evoking a bunch of his amorphous pet concepts: simulation, deterrence, etc.

It may be a gross distortion of what Baudrillard actually was trying to say, but I find it useful to think of Big Data and predictive analytics every time Baudrillard starts talking about simulation and deterrence. We are “deterred” or steered into certain ranges of behavior by the way reality is mediated to us (“simulation”) based on predictive analytics, recommendation engines, filter bubbles, and so on. In “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social” Baudrillard describes this with unusual clarity:

This is our destiny, subjected to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, absorbed by this permanent  refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. We are no longer even alienated, because for that it is necessary for the subject to be divided in itself, confronted with the other, contradictory. Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other,  like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself into the undivided coherency of statistics. There is in this a positive absorption into the transparency of computers, which is something worse than alienation.

To me that sounds a lot like the combination of social media and Big Data: Surveillance and quantification produce the self as a set of statistics, a manipulatable data object. Baudrillard says this is “worse than alienation”; in the past, I’ve called this condition “postauthenticity.”  Rather than capturing “our own will,” it circumvents it; it predicts what we want without our willing anything. Even if the prediction is initially wrong, preferential placement in the platform, and the efficacy of the subsequent feedback loops can make it so, as David Auerbach points out in this essay on the recent Facebook and OKCupid experiments. Postauthenticity (social media plus Big Data) makes our will superfluous.

Rather than existing in some “real,” the media overlay on reality means we exist in statistical models that purport to measure reality but in fact are tautological, capable only of grasping what it is has already predicted and modeled. This makes me think of Facebook’s control of your Newsfeed, which attempts to shape your conception of your social reality, of what your friends are talking about and what sorts of political ideas are “important” to them, all while injecting advertisements determined through data analysis to be the least disruptive and most persuasive. Facebook promises to entertain you, but it turns out that promise is synonymous with manufacturing demand. (Being entertained becomes no different from learning how to desire; pleasure is no longer desire fulfilled, but desire itself, the condition of desiring.)

Within that model is where power is exercised, modulating behavioral outcomes at the level of populations. (Foucault writes about this as “governmentality”). For Baudrillard, those deindividuated populations ruled over through monitoring, statistical modeling, and predictive analytics are supposed to be “the social” — i.e. the “reality” of what the data measures, the population on which power can be exercised by what he tends to call the “system” — but they instead are becoming “the masses,” an amorphous blob of individuals that eludes certain management by its sheer inertia, which proves uninterpretable even as the system throws more resources at trying to understand what it wants or where it is headed. In In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, Baudrillard writes,

And it is this which today turns against it [the system, or “power”]: the inertia it has fostered becomes the sign of its own death. That is why it seeks to reverse its strategies: from passivity to participation, from silence to speech. But it is too late. The threshold of the “critical mass,” that of the involution of the social through inertia, is exceeded. Everywhere the masses are encouraged to speak, they are urged to live socially, electorally, organizationally, sexually, in participation, in festival, in free speech, etc. The spectre must be exorcised, it must pronounce its name. Nothing shows more dramatically that the only genuine problem today is the silence of the mass, the silence of the silent majority.

Hence, social media, which masquerades as communication between peers but primarily functions as individuals consuming the social as isolated atoms while compiling and generating data for the system. Social media are a huge effort to prevent the masses from being silent in Baudrillard’s subversive sense — if the masses are silent, they move beyond manipulation, beyond influence, beyond desire, beyond control, beyond comprehension by the forces attempting to exercise sovereignty over them. If the masses seem to speak, as they now do in social media (and through all the other means for surveilling their everyday activities with “smart” devices), they yield the data that appears to make them manageable. They become “social” again, in the sense of being amenable to the mechanisms of social control.

But data collection only raises more questions than it answers about the populations under surveillance; as Kate Crawford explains here, the more data you have, the more crises of interpretation you confront, leading to more data collection and deeper crises. Baudrillard puts it this way:

It is a contradictory process, for information and security, in all their forms, instead of intensifying or creating the “social relation,” are on the contrary entropic processes, modalities of the end of the social. It is thought that the masses may be structured by injecting them with information, their captive social energy is believed to be released by means of information and messages (today it is no longer the institutional grid as such, rather it is the quantity of information and the degree of media exposure which measures socialization). Quite the contrary. Instead of transforming the mass into energy, information produces even more mass.

The more information about the masses we have, the more we uncover that there is to know, which makes the masses recede even further into their massive inscrutability. It turns out that the ways the system can allow us to speak, in social-media platforms and in a stream of cell-phone metadata, amount only to so much more silence.

It’s hard to tell through his multiple layers of irony, but it seems that Baudrillard thought this “implosion” process had the potential to short-circuit the imposition of power as it made the social disappear. It manifests a refusal to participate in the flexible ways control is administered not through repression but through encouraging expression, and letting people build their own jails. The more you say and interact and connect, the better you can be modeled, and the more your reality can be seamlessly shaped around you, so that control is experienced as freedom within the circumscribed matrix. This is basically The Matrix, only now, much more plausibly, the Matrix is a simulation generated by data streams harvested from phones and social media. You get out of the matrix by disappearing into the mass, by going normcore. Baudrillard argues in “The Implosion of Meaning in Media,” that “the system’s current argument is the maximization of the word and the maximal production of meaning. Thus the strategic resistance is that of a refusal of meaning and a refusal of the word — or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of nonreception.”

Maybe then, the way to resist the demand to make one’s subjectivity productive for capital is to use social media in a “hyperconformist” normcore way, emptying “self-expression” of its value for social-media companies and shifting the location of selfhood elsewhere by perpetually deferring its “genuine” expression.

But what would hyperconformist use of social media look like? And how is that any different from how we might use social media naively, without any subversive intent? At times Baudrillard makes this kind of resistance seem a deliberate strategy, requiring conscious intent, but mostly he suggests that intention doesn’t matter, in part because resistance is automatic and futile at the same time. (Power’s operation generates the “masses,” which automatically resist power by absorbing its blows and growing — all efforts to measure it extend its immeasurability.) Worrying about intentionality is like worrying about authenticity in a postauthentic age.

Instead of being “true” to yourself to evade the forces of control, one trusts to the “evil genius” generated perversely by the system itself in its efforts to function smoothly. “This is what one could call the evil genius of the object, the evil genius of the masses, the evil genius of the social itself, constantly producing failure in the truth of the social and in its analysis,” Baudrillard says in “The Masses: Implosion of the Social in Media.” He posits a “radical antimetaphysics whose secret is that the masses are deeply aware that they do not have to make a decision about themselves and the world, that they do not have to wish, that they do not have to know, that they do not have to desire.” They don’t have to do anything; they don’t have even to “be themselves,” which would be a form of production, manifesting a certain consumer demand.

Instead we have desire, subjectivity, selfhood served to us, which threatens to close a feedback loop — the self Big Data is trying to capture ends up just being the one which it has already reported to us. This, Baudrillard hopes, will eventually suffocate the system, while the masses enjoy the spectacle of themselves as a kind of consumer good. Simply liking what we are told or expected to like becomes deeply subversive to a system that depends on our innovating new desires, new demand. “The deepest desire,” he argues, “is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else.” This “expulsion,” as he calls it, can now show up as a surrender to the self that social-media platforms serve us; it shows up in the ways compulsive social media use (“hyperconformity” to the expectations of our sharing things on it) can effect depersonalization. Even self-expression (as I try to argue in this post) can be a way of offloading the burden of self, dismantling identity as much as building it. Self-expression can become inertial, a form of noisy silence.

“Information overload” too, can provoke depersonalization and escape from the responsibility for identity and all the risk management that comes with having a palpable, foregrounded “personal brand.” Having a deep personality merely compounds the risks of having a self exponentially — there’s so many more things one would have to be strategic about presenting and managing. Becoming “the masses” alleviates the stress that neoliberalism’s intensifying emphasis on human capital and individual resilience and flexibility generates.

The effect of a having an automatic identity generated for us as our lives progress is that we can, in theory, be more fully present in the moment, not as “ourselves,” worried about the continuity of our identity, but as a consciousness skating on the surface of sensual experience, liberated from any meaning. Likewise, virality promises a similar liberation. Baudrillard claims that “the present argument of the system is to maximize speech, to maximize the production of meaning, of participation.” Social media testify to the continued vehemence of that argument. “And so the strategic resistance,” Baudrillard continues, “is that of the refusal of meaning and the refusal of speech—or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is another form of refusal by overacceptance.” Virality may be considered in general as a kind of “refusal by overacceptance,” a hyperconformity. It is a way of speaking without saying anything. When something goes viral it can no longer signify anything but its virality; its original content is negated. It becomes silent in its ubiquity.

If communication has emptied itself of meaning through the intensification of the means by which it is circulated, the self is probably next. In “The Ecstasy of Communication” Baudrillard describes the condition of viral selfhood, of identity that consists of circulation, of a subjectivity that finds itself in the way it has been already simulated in advance in data. He notes the “forced extroversion of all interiority, the forced injection of all exteriority that the categorical imperative of communication literally signifies” — the kind of inescapable connectivity that sometimes gets described now as “the end of privacy” — and then points outs the consequences. We are no longer estranged from the real, the misplaced fear of “digital dualists” who worry that, say, the people taking pictures with their phone aren’t allowing themselves to take part in what’s “really” happening. (This Sherry Turkle op-ed is a quintessential example of this discourse, which Nathan Jurgenson critiques here.) Instead, we are characterized by “absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things, the feeling of no defense, no retreat.” The “always on” self is not separated from the real but helplessly immersed in it, beyond the fiction of transcending it with a walk down a Cape Cod beach. The networked self “can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as a mirror. He is now a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence.” At this point the self can only signify the fact of its being connected, of being able to establish network connections. The self is a modem.



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