By Brad EVANS
2021 has already started in the most surreal and dramatic of ways. No sooner had we celebrated in isolation the passing of a difficult year, we looked on as Flintstonian Trumpesters stormed the Capitol Hill in Washington. While this theatre of the absurd was no doubt worrying, it was far from a coup, as what can only be described as dangerous idiots revealed the thoughtlessness of violence.
While attention invariably turned in the immediate aftermath to the reckless words of the soon to be departed President, there was another momentous development taking place, which was effectively cheered on by nearly everyone who stood against Trumpism and his band of cos-play followers. Deciding to act in unison to save democracy and perhaps the world from itself, so all the major technological giants decided to act together and banish the President of the “free world” from their platforms.
Let us be under no illusions this act represents a deeply symbolic moment in the history of global political affairs. Political power is after-all ultimately the ability to regulate and control the circulation of freedoms experienced. This especially includes the free circulation of language, ideas and the communication of thoughts.
I am in no doubt Trump is dangerous and has behaved in fascistic ways, continually stoking division and racial hatred. I am also acutely aware of the dangers of language and the need to confront hateful speech.
But we cannot underestimate what’s been happening the last few days. It is worth reminding that Trump was effectively made by these technology firms who gave him the mass divisive audience he craved. He also mastered better than anyone the spectacle of distraction they permitted, showing in the process how social media can actually be complicit in the infantilisation of political discourse. This has led to a lack of nuance and a simple appreciation that it’s fine and indeed healthy to actually disagree and engage in the conflict of ideas, instead of falling back upon siege mentalities.
That every tech company could work together to effectively block the President of the United States, however much of a dangerous person he has become (or always was) is not something to take lightly. Real power today is not with politicians or the banks, it’s with these new media and big data organisations who have fundamentally transformed lived conditions on earth. I appreciate technology has always been with us. But today it’s different. Technology has become a new religion, the unmediated power that promises to save us from ourselves. The pandemic already provided these companies with such a momentous condition of possibility for changing the lived reality of life on this planet. That we now see even the most “radical” of thinkers and activists cheer them on when they assume for themselves the ultimate political power – the ability to take command of the circulation of thoughts and ideas, however threatening, demands serious critical attention.
This is not just about joining the “free speech” debates, which have also been complicit in creating highly reductive with us or against us narratives. It’s to ask deeper questions about who ultimately decides and who has the power to effectively say a person has no use. For let’s be clear too, Trump was both useful and then utterly disposable for these firms, which will continue to profit from divisions.
There have admittedly been calls from both a number of concerned critical scholars and indeed right-wing preservationists to bring about more control and regulation over the conduct of these entities. Whereas those on the right see the challenge of bringing the corporations back into the national fold, the more radical have demanded more regulatory power over both their profitability, their very status as private entities, and also to have more say over the ethical nature of their content. The latter being more an extension of the cultural wars and the fight over permissible speech.
None of these however deal with the fact that ultimately these platforms have really transformed the political landscape of our times to become the dominant actors shaping the conduct of life, its ontological and epistemological claims, its technological visions, and its new metaphysical orientations. And none of them therefore deal with deeper philosophical questions on the links between life, technology and theology, including how we have fully given over to the idea that the correct use of technology (including the ethical regulation of thought itself) is able to rid the world from its evils.
Twitter is notable here having become a formidable public forum in its own right, which has led to the infantilisation, hyper-moralisation, simplification and suffocation of the political imagination. Having been on the platform for a number of years, a week before Trumps banishment I decided to leave. I had come to realise how it effectively exists for its own purpose, with much of its vitriolic content concerning what others had said on its very terrains – often to deride and publicly shame their provocations. Dramas about said tweeted dramas, fifty-character witch-hunts by actors who demand the freedom to all think alike, morality aside what’s revealed is the luxury and privilege of time wasted.
Not only had Twitter become a self-perpetuating motion machine whose sole purpose was its own activity. While emboldening the bigoted politics of the identarian right, it has also resulted in a notable collapse between the radical and the religious by a new tribe of morally certain priests on the left, who invoking tired modernist terms (we might have hoped students of Nietzsche had long since settled) such as “progressive” “rational” and “reactionary” have become a parody of predictability.
Just another personal observation, every time I have written a sustained critique of technology on social media platforms, it tends to get considerable interaction for about 1 hour then somehow magically falls off a cliff. I guess the algorithms deem these interventions to be less important or at least have less staying power than pictures of cats! Then again, in an age where nothing is certain, maybe it’s also about making everyone feel they are on the verge of being some conspiratorial whack!
Like many, I admittedly breathed a sigh of relief knowing there won’t be another four years of a Trump Presidency. But the political solution to dealing with the dangerous divisions now facing the planet is certainly not to give more regulatory power to undemocratic, nameless and faceless entities, which have already become the key power brokers in global politics and like all good students of politics, they have learned that Sovereign power begins with one notable decision: the right to ban.