Platform capitalism and the compulsive search for signs

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the eclecticism which characterises emerging political movements. For example the anti-lockdown movement often incorporates elements from libertarianism, a conservative distrust of the ‘nanny state’ alongside a paranoia about technocapitalism which comes straight out of the new left. This is particularly pronounced in the popular book A State of Fear which combines a popular polemic about the rise of behavioural science as a mode of governance (much of which I find basically unobjectionable, albeit simplistic) with elements ranging from critical theory and the sociology of science through to alt-right conspiracy theories and millenarian allusions to a coming collapse.

A defining strand of this political current, much as with the QAnon meta-movement it is adjacent to and often overlaps with, concerns the importance of doing your own research. Political agency is seen to be grounded in the reaction of common sense (mediated by the mainstream media) in favour of personal exploration using the affordances of platform capitalism e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the wider web they lead towards.

What kind of research do these platforms incline people towards? There’s an obvious abundance in the sense of a dizzying array of perspectives on the world, accessible with an immediacy that would have once been unimaginable. There’s also a powerful driver to encourage people down rabbit holes, enthusiastically feeding them further and often more extreme examples of content they’ve expressed an interest in it. There’s a bias towards explication and polemic, rewarding people for linking things together in attention grabbing ways and discouraging those who would prefer to dwell in nuance. The result is a cacophonous environment replete with noisy signs clamouring for attention, leading to the semantic overload described by Franco Berardi on loc 198 of The Third Unconscious:

Some psychiatrists view schizophrenia as a form of over-inclusion within the signification process. When we open too many lines of semantic flight, when we attribute too many meanings to the signs that we receive, when the surrounding environment seems overloaded with messages that we must decode, our existence can turn difficult and painful and can grow so chaotic that our mind feels on the brink of explosion.

This captures something of the phenomenology of the conspiracy theorist but also, I think, the stalker: the compulsive search for signs. A sense that it it all connected and that we can trace out those connections, if only we exhibit enough independence of thought and reject those agencies which kept us unknowingly under their tutelage until we began to do our own research. This enthusiasm for finding the connections, the men behind the curtain and their many machinations, might often entail an obliviousness to the more immediate reality of their existence within the world:

I think it also tends towards eclecticism, in the sense of synthesising a uncharacteristically broad range of sources in pursuit of these understandings. The economy of reaction found on social media platforms rewards bakers who synthesise these sources, within the emerging framework which characterises a nascent movement, granting them visibility and encouraging ever more people into this eclectic ecosystem. The work of the bakers is not infinitely eclectic but it does tend to draw upon a diverse range of sources. If this rough sketch of a causal theory of political eclecticism has any accuracy, it raises a set of really interesting questions about the conceptual grammar through which we try and make sense of nascent movements.

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