In this keynote from Virtual Futures, Mark Fisher, author of the stunning Capitalist Realism, talks about the role which innovations in communicative technology play in the unfolding of late capitalism.
He talks about the growing ‘digital communicative malaise’ which can be observed in contemporary society while suggesting that there’s still to much reluctance to address this issue on the left. Yet why should attacking a technological development be seen as reactionary? He suggests that digital technologies can be seen as communicative parasite that destroy other enjoyments: it destroys our capacity to attend to the pleasurable (described by others as Continuous Partial Attention) and tightens the grip of disciplinary power on our everyday lives. As he observes, “as soon as you have e-mail you no longer have working hours”
As I’m sure many others can, this point is an intimately familiar one from everyday experience. For instance not being able to focus on a film or book because of the urge to check e-mail or twitter. Nonetheless does he overstate the technological aspect to this? My e-mail checking got horribly obsessive for much of 2010 and, although I didn’t put it as articulately as Fisher does, the idea he’s suggesting what on my mind a lot during that time. Phenomenologically it was a loss of agency, as a basically unsatisfying habit (scratching an itch) frequently undermined the decision to switch off and relax. Yet in 2011, as my life circumstances have changed and my life has gone back to being fun, the compulsion has waned massively. E-mail’s gone from something that actively draws me in to being a much reviled chore. While experientially it feels like a reclamation of agency, the change is only contingently related to the technology itself.
When we’re unhappy, bored and/or dissatisfied we often choose to absent ourselves from the situation we’re in using whatever means are available to us. A retreat into internal dialogue is a universally available form of self-absenting (with ‘daydreaming’ etc being its most obvious social label) with our digital communicative parasites (be they e-mail, twitter, mobile phones, mindless web browsing, facebook or whatever else) being a recent and rapidly growing addition to our escapist arsenal. Yet could the technology be said to be meaningfully causing this? In a way, yes, in that it is the necessary condition for the expansion of this process which Fisher highlights. But in another more important way no because the technology is merely one pervasive means of meeting a need which it does not itself generate – athough frequent self-absenting, as a product of situational dissatisfaction, may breed more escapism because of its capacity to erode prolonged enjoyment and experiential immersion. So we shouldn’t decry communicative technology for finding itself implicated in everyday practices which lead to effects like this – instead we should be looking to explore how this technology can be used to enhance rather than debase human sociality.
Longer version of a post on Sociological Imagination