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What impact does our relentless fixation on gadgets have on the struggle for new kinds of solidarity, political articulation and intelligence?

Joss Hands, author of Gadget Consciousness: Collective Thought, Will and Action in the Age of Social Media, explores the new political and social forces that are emerging in the age of social media.

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The popular press has taken against gadgets. Inflating a strand of public sentiment – in particular, against smart phones and Internet connected digital devices – they have turned against gadgets in the name of children’s safety and in the noble defence of adult probity. The great organs of the fourth estate have kept their readers ‘informed’ of the latest research and cutting edge opinion, so it is that ‘The addiction of children to their mobile phones could threaten the very fabric of society’, or that ‘Teenagers addicted to their smartphones suffer from high levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia and impulsiveness’. Although according to the tabloid worldview adults are also at grave risk, we are ‘addicted to our mobiles’ given that ‘Britons now check their phones every 12 minutes’. Or indeed that ‘Brits so addicted to their phones, they ‘lose touch with the real world’.

There is also a great alertness to stories about cancer and other ill effects of devices, so users should be worried that there is ‘Alarming evidence that normal levels of mobile phone radiation can harm the brain’, and that ‘Mobile phones are at the centre of new safety fears after scientists found the first evidence of a link with brain cancer’. Of course, it is not only the phones themselves that pose a grave danger to health and sanity, but also the social media apps that populate them. So, we are told that ‘THIRTY families blame social media firms for their roles in children’s suicides’ and readers are warned of a ‘Millennial meltdown’ because ‘Social media raises the risk of depression in young people’. Such stories are by now the common currency of the popular press, ironically often having been driven online by the logic of falling sales and the appeal of funding from clickbait.

There is also a special kind of understanding of political ‘consciousness’ prevalent which often now manifests via fears of manipulation and, somewhat ironically, ‘fake news’, corrupting our perceptions in which the construction of evil others is a familiar trope. The combination of the Russian enemy and the (already demonised) figure of the hacker, combine well in building a narrative of fear and anxiety. Wherein, ‘Moscow’s web of hackers hit high-profile targets across the globe’ in which they, amongst other things, ‘created fake ‘hacktivist’ Fancy Bears group’. Again, this narrative is prevalent in explaining political actions; we are told that French yellow vest ‘riots’ were ‘whipped up by Russian Twitter trolls sharing fake news’. Such reports are also somewhat ironic given that the Daily Mail has itself been categorised as a fake news source with their ‘reputation for poor fact checking and sensationalism’, and the basis of the Sun’s story is an organisation called ‘The Alliance for Securing Democracy’, an opaque group ostensibly supported by US neoconservatives propagating anti-Russian counter-propaganda.

This is not to say that these reports are simply untrue, or at least do not contain grains of truth, rather it is the emphasis on the most immediately obvious and most readily digestible explanations for complex problems that is most telling. Targeting the latest and most culturally visible technology creates a social mood or ‘structure of feeling’ – it happened with film, then television, then video, the Internet – now smart phones, social media, mass communication platforms, all take the blame. The placing of blame for the London Riots of 2011 on Twitter and Blackberry messenger was perhaps the opening gambit in this wave. The deeper, more profound social and political roots are too complex and too challenging to cover, and also do not suit the narrative line – they don’t fit well into a 24-hour news soundbite. The ‘official’ narrative is one of innocent and individuated agents influenced or dominated by nefarious external forces, of a dulled, supressed and manipulated political consciousness to be defended by the actually existing holders of power.

A view of gadget users as dulled and contained is not unknown in more serious writing and commentary. In Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget (2011) he makes the case against gadgets, in which we are captured and subsumed by them, where they suffer from ‘lock in’ – that is the building into software of constraints and limitations that don’t get replaced and severely limit or even proscribe their uses. While there is foresight in this work, there is a lack of ambiguity. Such accounts entail a blind and largely unjustified conjunction of the ‘mob’ and the ‘collective’ – with no time for more subtle aspects of solidarity, shared imagination and consciousness. The problem with the critique is that it begins with the notion that we are primary units – in this case, economic units – and that the crisis has emerged out of things like open culture; the incapacity of capital to realise its investment in the recuperation of labour power. The solution Lanier offers is a micropayment system for all online activity, a kind of Task Rabbit writ large – yet this indicates an even greater neo-liberal ‘lock in’. The same applies to more obviously political critiques, for example in Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion he argues that far from view that networks and social media are forces of liberation and political opportunity – a view popularised following the Arab Spring – rather they are organs for surveillance and political control in which activist groups willingly give away their memberships, strategies and tactics. Morozov’s is a fair claim, but one that underestimates the extent that the making of common cause comes from a deeper more fundamental aspect of mutual becoming, one that cannot simply be short circuited by a particular group of power users.

It is not that such interventions are wrong as such, they are valuable and necessary, but they are one-sided and non-dialectical. They don’t account for the entire situation or, as the great cultural theorist Raymond Williams would frame it, the ‘whole way of life’.

The critiques of gadgets I find more convincing are those that draw from their fuller context. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi explores how our connected devices spring from the imperatives of capitalism, supporting a culture of precarious labour in which workers are needed to be perpetually ready to report for duty, where every aspect of social life is quantified and monetised and we find ‘the soul at work’. This is not because of the technology, but because the technology enables and intensifies the logic and desire of a feral form of capitalism.

Yet, even here, with these broader technological and social critiques, something is missed. Just as a form of consciousness captured by marketing agents, platforms and algorithms can pacify and victimise whole segments of society, so the intense and thoughtful interactions of tens of thousands can create a different perspective; can turn our attention back onto ourselves and create new forms of self-consciousness through loops of communication and mutual-recognition – and in so doing produce a different kind of will power. This is loosely what I call ‘gadget consciousness’.

Collectives can come together using gadgets for concerned cooperative purpose. There are numerous, and ever-increasing examples of this kind of collaboration. The #MeToo movement used one of the features of Twitter to gather together a multiplicity of experiences and turn them from isolated moments of suffering into a publicly visible moment of collective consciousness, this became the basis of further action and solidarity. We can see this most present today in groups like Extinction Rebellion and the climate strike call. The result of which was thousands of children walking out of school on 15 February 2019 (16 years to the day after one of the first, and most massive, networked protests, against the 2003 Iraq war) to protest the failure of governments to seriously address climate change. This was started by the actions of the Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s sit-down protest outside the Swedish Parliament and the circulating of a profoundly articulate and compelling call to action via social media. Under the hashtag #schoolstrike4climate, the spread of consciousness and collective will is an exciting and impressive source of hope, as the children strike back and resist the narratives being written for them as victims of technology. The point is not to focus attention on horror stories or to try to capture the meaning of gadgets in any one simple moral framework, but to recognise the deeper reality that gadgets are entwined in our world and are here to stay. We need to understand how best to gather together via our gadgets, how we can shape the economic and social context of their further development, and whether we do so in the mode of isolated and fearful economic units, or in the way of mutual concern and collective consciousness. It is the fear of the latter, and a commitment to the former, that sits behind a large part of the attitudes expressed in the popular press and beyond: when The Daily Mail and the Sun hate something so much, you have to suspect there is value and power to be found therein.

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Gadget Consciousness: Collective Thought, Will and Action in the Age of Social Media is available from Pluto Press.

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Joss Hands is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author of @ is For Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in Digital Culture (Pluto Press, 2010).