Geert Lovink is a media theorist, internet critic and author of Zero Comments (Routledge, 2007), Networks Without a Cause (Polity, 2012) and Social Media Abyss (Polity, 2016). He founded the Institute of Network Cultures at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and teaches at the European Graduate School.
The digital realm not only blends into the everyday, but increasingly impinges upon it—contracting our abilities and constraining our realities. In Sad by Design, Geert Lovink deals with social media issues such as the selfie cult, meme politics, internet addiction and the new default of narcissist behaviour.
Welcome to the New Normal. Social media is reformatting our interior lives. As platform and individual become inseparable, social networking becomes identical with the “social” itself. No longer curious about what “the next web” will bring, we chat about the information we’re allowed to graze on during meager days. Forward-looking confidence has been shattered—the seasonality of hype reduced to a flatline future. Instead, a new realism has set in, as Evgeny Morozov tweeted: “1990s tech utopianism posited that networks weaken or replace hierarchies. In reality, networks amplify hierarchies and make them less visible.”1 How can one write a proper phenomenology of asynchronous connections and their cultural effects, formulate a ruthless critique of everything hardwired into the social body of the network, while not looking at what’s going on inside? Rather than a stance of superiority, a judgment from on high, could we take an amoral approach toward today’s intense social media usage, delving into the shallow time of lost souls like us? Let’s embark on a journey into this third space called the techno-social.
Our beloved internet may be portrayed as an “inverse hydra with a hundred assholes”2 but we love it anyway: it’s our brain-junk. While social media controversies have hit mainstream media, the fallout has been zero. We barely register the online frenzy that surrounds us; we can’t even pretend to care about the cynical advertisement logic.3 Social media scandals appear to us, as Franz Kafka once wrote, “like a path in autumn: no sooner is it cleared than it is once again littered with leaves.” From behavioral manipulation to fake news, all we read about is the bankrupt credibility of Silicon Valley.
However, very few have suffered any serious consequences. Evidence is apparently not enough. Muck gets raked, data gets leaked, and whistles get blown—yet nothing changes. None of the outstanding issues get resolved. There’s no “internexit” referendum ahead. No matter how many hacks and privacy violations occur, no matter how many awareness campaigns and public debates are organized, overwhelming indifference prevails. Witness the rapid return to normal following the March 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. The centralization of infrastructure and services that provide us with so much comfort is seen as inevitable, ineluctable even.4 Why aren’t there already viable alternatives to the main platforms? Someday we’ll understand the Digital Thermidor—but that “someday” never comes.
What’s the fate of critique without consequences? As Franco Berardi explained to me when I visited him in Bologna to discuss this book project, it is truth that makes us sad. We lack role models and heroes. Instead we have paranoid truth-seekers. As our responses to the alt-right and systemic violence are so predictable and powerless, Franco suggested to me that we should stop speaking. No reply. Refuse to become news. Do not feed the trolls. The techno-sadness, as explained in this book, has no end, it’s bottomless.
How do we reverse the acceleration of alienation, a movement that inevitably ends up in trauma? Instead of pathetic, empty gestures, we should exercise a new tactic of silence, directing the freed energy and resources toward creating temporary spaces of reflection.
Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism by Geert Lovink is available now. It is part of the Digital Barricades series.