Dystopian Cyberspace

There’s an increasingly totalitarian streak in how we interface with technology, and with each other through technologically augmented cyber spatial forms of communication (AKA, social media). The 90s dream of limitless communication with infinitely diverse strangers has been all but squashed. Facebook, for example, made explicit changes to its algorithm last year to show you more of the people you already know—essentially a curated list of the people you’re most willing to tolerate—in your news feeds, rather than public figures, communities, and online publications. In response to the harassment campaigns of the mid 2010s (e.g. #gamergate), Facebook and Twitter have both introduced a wide range of features to limit who you can see and who can see you (via muting, unfollowing, blocking, etc.). Most notably, Twitter allows for publicly shareable and importable block lists, whereby Twitter communities collectively block hundreds or thousands of accounts altogether, creating heavily curated walled cyber-gardens. Clearly, things haven’t quite worked out, but I don’t think many of us saw the situation getting as bad as it did through the course of the 2010s. And it’s probably not getting any better.

Nick Land famously (and rather racistly) detailed how emerging technologies “which will also be unevenly distributed by SES [socioeconomic status], will certainly intense the trend to [neo-]speciation”, giving birth to a “trans-racial, infra-racial, and hyper-racial” future that will leave “‘race politics’ as a gibberish ruin in its wake”, tearing apart human populations on increasingly stratified lines. Land explains:

Assortative mating tends to genetic diversification. This is neither the preserved diversity of ordinary racism, still less the idealized genetic pooling of the anti-racists, but a class-structured mechanism for population diremption, on a vector towards neo-speciation. It implies the disintegration of the human species, along largely unprecedented lines, with intrinsic hierarchical consequence. The genetically self-filtering elite is not merely different—and becoming ever more different—it is explicitly superior according to the established criteria that allocate social status (Land 2014).

We see this already in social media, where communities trends toward increasing insularity and stratification, on both identitarian and ideological lines. But while meatspace segregation may restrict one to single-identity states or communities, the new cybersocial stratification allows that and more: ideologically uniform cyberspaces. Though we would prefer our communities to be diverse on account of their geographic spread, and that on this account we are somehow exempt from emergent hyper-stratification, the new ideological unitarianism is nonetheless a new cultural speciation (this need not be biological or genetic) that greatly alters the type and quality of our interactions with difference. In this ideological neo-speciation, social relationships are reconfigured into misalignment with meatspace communities—cyberspace is a diaspora, after all—and these reconfigurations may be even more totalitarian than their meatspace predecessors.

Queer cyberspace is a good example, particularly because the proliferation of any notion of the ‘queer’ has occurred largely through social media, rather than through physical interaction. Virulent conflicts rage over proper language and abstract notions of “inclusion”—Who gets to call themselves ‘queer’? Is queer better than ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’? Is x or y group being erased? The rhetoric here is quite extreme, and quickly becomes wrapped up in moralizing language about who or what is ‘hurting’ the imagined community or who/what is ‘dangerous’ to the ideological cause. This works in no particular direction: anti-queer LGBT cyberspace (i.e. people who reject queer politics and theory) is just as rabid as pro-queer LGBT cyberspace. That’s not the point, rather, what is important is that these communities are imagined in the most literal sense: they don’t exist in any given locale. They are purely ideological assemblages.

Location in cyberspace is not physical. Instead, it is ideological—it pulls together diverse and opposed groups because it is established through disposition, orientation, and relationship to others. Consider gaming communities, where previously geographic communities—loosely predicted based on culture, identity, or status—are replaced with massively online international cyberspaces, which are instead oriented toward ideological beliefs such as “Overwatch is a good game”, often devoid of any practical element (i.e. not just communities of Overwatch players, but communities interested in Overwatch that believe it to be a good game). The most bitter conflict of the 90s—Nintendo vs. Sega—had something to do with organizing around a common physical object (a console and its games). But nowadays, the biggest games are multi-platform, and gaming communities organize around connected bits of software (i.e. Overwatch, Fortnite, or some other game), rather than physical hardware. In cyberspace, locations are purely signifiers, and this tends to magnify ideological difference, bring together awkward bedfellows and tentative allies. For gamers, that means constructing community based on disposition (not just video games as a practice, but video games as a “good”), rather than some kind of meatspace commonality. And because these are primarily ideological communities, any critique of video games (as a whole or in the particular) is taken as particularly injurious. The Sony fans, the Xbox fans, and the PC fans all set aside their differences and relocate to a common orientational locale to “defend” the hobby from the injurious entity. As Nick Land points out, “…racists and anti-racists can be expected to eventually bond in a defensive fraternity, when they recognize that traditionally-differentiated human populations are being town asunder on an axis of variation that dwarfs all of their established concerns” (Land 2014).

Cyberspace is a multiplicity of locales, meaning that every possible ideological permutation sparks new micro-communities, infinitely overlapping and violently opposed. Activist spaces are a particularly potent example because the stakes seem so high, and terms like “the black community”, which once referred to geographically contingent communities, are now infinitely splintered and ripped apart as new space is carved out online. More than ever, black women, for example, are spoken of in oppositional terms to black men, regardless of geographic proximity, they are discursively rendered “apart”. In crossover with trans communities, the need for specificity has manifested in long series of identifiers—it’s not “trans people” who are facing violence, it’s “black trans women sex workers…”. Black trans women are then pried apart from the cisgender black community—it’s an infinite dialectic, and in the new cyber-homesteading, specificity is a virtue. The constant fracturing of new, overlapping subspaces in ever more oppositional terms is made possible precisely because cyberspace is so limitless; we see nothing so extreme in meatspace, where creating microspaces is costly, difficult, or even impossible. Online, to be oppositional is to be informed, moral, even woke.

Coming and Going to Capital

As our connectedness to cyberspace grows, so do the swiftness and intensity of our efforts to defend our space from ideological transgressions, real or imagined. Being “connected” technologically (having technocapital and knowing how to use it) births social capital, and well-connected and Extremely Online People (TM) are able to exert a larger role in not only establishing cybersocial norms, but also meatspace norms that are increasingly subordinate to cyberspatial politics. And because technocapital and the knowledge to use it is distributed unevenly across the world and across socioeconomic status, the emergence of the cyperspatial primacy effectively cuts off most of the world from these processes, or segregates them into more local communities divided by language, time zone, etc. And within those segregations, they are further devolved into the same mesh of micro-cyberstates as the West, but these are even more hyper-local.

In terms of punishment, two distinct forms arise: social and technological. In the former, which is not exclusive to cyberspace but greatly magnified by it, individuals are subject to brigading, denouncing, mobbing, etc. In the latter, individuals fall victim to banning, blocking, block lists, block chains, DDoSing, doxing, hacking, SWATing, etc. All of these require a certain connectedness to technocapital—access and knowledge of technology. Technological forms of punishment result in complete social isolation/solitary confinement—a form of torture—or in terroristic assaults on life and property (DDoSing personal websites, hacking bank accounts, SWATing randos at 3AM, etc.). On Twitter, I’ve found the willingness to block quite extraordinary; a critical quote tweet here or a skeptical reply there means being blocked within seconds, often by complete strangers, regardless of the quality or intent of one’s criticism. It’s worse than automated. Unlike meatspace, where we cannot ‘ban’ or ‘block’ others for minor transgressions, banning and blocking becomes a second nature and thoughtless act. And while mobbing may be quite the physical exertion in meatspace, mobbing is effortless and inevitable in cyberspace. The technological intersects the social even more profoundly with Twitter’s shareable block lists (coupled with third-party tools like Block Together), which allow hundreds of people to collectively isolate a particular user within minutes. While this happens informally in meatspace and elsewhere on cyberspace, on Twitter proficiency with advanced blocking tools plays a directly deterministic role in the kinds of people and ideologies we interact with. Naturally, social capital shapes which blocklists are followed—simultaneously deciding who is allocated social capital.

This interplay between social and technological forms of punishment shows precisely how they congeal to form technosocial capital, and in cyberspace technosocial capital (or cybernetic capital) emerges as technocapital augments and transforms existing social or symbolic capital—it’s the hyper-currency of our hyper-racist cyberspace. In The Logic of Practice, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “symbolic capital is credit…a kind of advance, a credence, that only the group’s belief can grant those who give it the best symbolic and material guarantees…symbolic capital is one of the mechanisms which make capital go to capital” (Bourdieu 1992, 120). While Bourdieu doesn’t address cyberspace (obviously), he does address at least one similar yet comparatively primitive technological innovation: literacy (and after all, are we all not “computer literate”?). Bourdieu argues:

By detaching cultural resources from persons, literacy enables a society to move beyond anthropological limits particularly those of individual memory - and liberates it from the constraints implied mnemotechnic devices such as poetry, the conservation technique par excellence of non-literate societies; it makes it possible to accumulate the culture previously conserved in the incorporated state and, by the same token, to perform the primitive accumulation of cultural capital, the total or partial monopolizing of the society’s symbolic resources in religion, philosophy, art and science, through the monopolization of the instruments for appropriation of these resources (writing, reading and other decoding techniques), henceforward preserved not in memories but in texts (Bourdieu 1992, 125).

In this case, new communicative computing technologies propel the circulation of cultural capital by a function of economic capital (access to technology) and non-computing technologies such as literacy. In the emergent hyper-capitalized (cyber)space, these kinds of capital, along with references to prior cybercultural events, are affectively what makes inclusion happen, by creating shared reservoirs of cultural knowledge and practice that are crucial to shaping highly stratified and totalitarian micro-states.

But this conversion is two-way, because techno social capital can be readily converted into economic capital. We’ve all seen it happen: someone with thousands of followers starts a GoFundMe or shares a Cash App link and it fills up within hours. Someone starts a YouTube channel. Someone gets a brand deal on Instagram and they’re rolling in the dough. We all know this would never happen if they had a few dozen followers. But nevertheless, this new hyper-stratification means even those with few followers may be surrounded by small groups of rabidly loyal and ideologically homogenous fans—ready to mob, defend, and donate. In cyberspace, we’ve seen a rapid proliferation and decentralization of social capital. It’s no longer just a have-some/lack-some game of elites vs. everyone else (or bourgeois vs. proletariat), it’s a game that everyone plays and from which we all benefit. We’re all implicated in this.

Affective Impossibilities

I think some may take issue with characterizing social media as ‘totalitarian’, and would probably disavow this game in its most abstract excesses. They’ll probably assert the right of communities to form these spaces, or that these communities actually return socio capital to the marginalized through some narrative of empowerment. They might also argue that the violence comes from the forces outside the community that demand entry. But technosocial violence arises precisely because violence is disavowed in key contexts. Bourdieu puts it well:

So long as overt violence, that of the usurper or the ruthless master, is collectively disapproved of and is liable to provoke either a violent riposte or the flight of the victim - that is, in both cases, for lack of any legal recourse, the destruction of the very relationship that was to be exploited - symbolic violence, gentle, invisible violence, unrecognized as such, chosen as much as undergone, that of trust, obligation, personal loyalty, hospitality, gifts, debts, piety, in a word, of all the virtues honoured by the ethic of honour, presents itself as the most economical mode of domination because it best corresponds to the economy of the system (Bourdieu 1992, 127).

Bourdieu’s point on invisible violence is reiterated by the late Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism. Building from Žižek, Fisher explains that “[c]apitalist ideology…consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief—in the sense of inner subjective attitude—at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange” (Fisher 2009, 26). Capital thus relies on a series of disavowals, and my point is that one need not explicitly hold the violent effects of technosocial capital as virtuous in order to participate in its exchange. And it’s not just capital that’s exchanged in these interactions, it’s also affect.

Exchanges of affect are instrumental in orienting individuals with space. Sara Ahmed suggests that emotions “…create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds”, and that emotions “do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments” (Ahmed 2004, 117-119). In cyberspace, communities (and bodies) are not so much separated by physical location anymore, but rather in their affective orientation towards the Other. Cohesive communities depend on a kind of affective cohesion, which is usually accomplished through fear and hate toward the Other—and as Ahmed notes, “hate is economic; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (Ahmed 2004, 119).

Long ago, Anthropologist Mary Douglas noted that along lines of purity, “anomalous events may be labelled dangerous…attributing danger is one way of putting a subject above dispute…it also helps to enforce conformity’’ (Douglas 2013, 40-41). Ahmed’s work on racist hate is particularly applicable here:

The emotion of hate works to animate the ordinary subject, to bring that fantasy to life, precisely by constituting the ordinary as in crisis, and the ordinary person as the real victim. The ordinary becomes that which is already under threat by imagined others whose proximity becomes a crime against person as well as place. The ordinary or normative subject is reproduced as the injured party: the one “hurt” or even damaged by the “invasion” of others. The bodies of others are hence transformed into “the hated” through a discourse of pain. They are assumed to “cause” injury to the ordinary white subject, such that their proximity is read as the origin of bad feeling: indeed, the implication here is that the white subject’s good feelings (love, care, loyalty) are being “taken” away by the abuse of such feelings by others (Ahmed 2004, 118).

Hate thus relies on a discourse of terrorism. Ahmed further suggests that “fear works to create a sense of being overwhelmed: rather than being contained in an object, fear is intensified by the impossibility of containment” (Ahmed 2004, 124). This sense provides the impetus for totalitarian excess.

Obviously, many on the left would take issue with being compared to the white supremacists in Ahmed’s work, and many might argue that technosocial tools (banning, blocking, muting, etc.) were necessary innovations to better combat online harassment, especially in the post-GamerGate era, or that these tools are actually emancipatory because they make people in marginal positions safer, and that the persistence of harassment is reason enough for their existence. But as Mark Fisher points out, “[t]he role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief” (Fisher 2009, 25). Fisher explains:

For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic. The War on Terror has prepared us for such a development: the normalization of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable (when will the war be over?) (Fisher 2009, 10).

The unimaginability of anything other than these totalitarian doctrines is closely related to Fisher’s capitalist realism—”the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 10). The normalization of crisis is all too familiar in the post-GamerGate era, and leftists often stress the need to “protect themselves” or their communities from sexist or racist assault. But we’ve created the Patriot Act of cyberspace: totalitarianism in the name of liberty. Go Figure.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a moral condemnation of anyone who’s ever blocked someone—or anyone who’s ever harassed someone, for that matter. I’m not particularly interested in moralism. But what I am suggesting is that the incentive structure in cyberspace is such that we cannot imagine a cyberspace free of capital and totalitarian border practices. That doesn’t mean cyberspace is all bad—clearly, it’s put people in contact that would have never met before. We don’t know how things will be, and there’s potential in that. But for now, this is the way things are: we’re in a feedback loop that stabilizes the cyber-structure, deepening its stratifying powers. The popular self-help gospel of the cyberage is to log off and disconnect, our phones and tablets already have utilities built-in to help us/force us to log off, as if going back to meatspace is supposed to be somehow more healthy. But is the solution really to try to go back to some primitive pre-internet state? Following Mark Fisher’s beautiful work on the same subject, Terminator vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism, I’m not convinced we can go back to a meatspace not implicated in cyberspace, or that it would even be desirable if we could. And, given that cyberspace is multiple, it offers a loosening of connections never possible in meatspace. In meatspace, if your identity-community decides to shut you out, there’s no exit. In cyberspace, you just go somewhere else, throw up a different pseudonym, and do your best to move on: there’s always an exit, and another opportunity. It may strike us as foreign, but is there really any other option? We’ve got to see this through: even if we become unrecognizable in the process.

References

  1. Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22 (2): 117–39. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-22-2_79-117.
  2. “Block Together.” n.d. Accessed April 20, 2019. https://blocktogether.org/.
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1992. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford University Press.
  4. Douglas, Mary. 2013. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2013.
  5. Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books. Winchester: O Books.
  6. ———. 2010. “Terminator vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism.” Mark Fisher ReBlog (blog). April 14, 2010. http://markfisherreblog.tumblr.com/post/32522465887/terminator-vs-avatar-notes-on-accelerationism.
  7. Land, Nick. 2014. “Hyper-Racism.” Outside In (blog). September 29, 2014. http://www.xenosystems.net/hyper-racism/.
  8. Owen, Laura. n.d. “Has Facebook’s Algorithm Change Hurt Hyperpartisan Sites? According to This Data, Nope.” Nieman Lab (blog). Accessed April 20, 2019. https://www.niemanlab.org/2018/03/has-facebooks-algorithm-change-hurt-hyperpartisan-sites-according-to-this-data-nope/.
  9. “Urban Dictionary: Meatspace.” n.d. Urban Dictionary. Accessed April 20, 2019. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meatspace.