There is no Rift in Reality

I don’t want to ruin EastEnders for you (that’s the writers’ job, to borrow a joke from Charlie Brooker) but if you haven’t caught up with the Who killed Lucy Beale? storyline yet then best to skip this paragraph, at least. After the cliffhanger culminated in its Maggie shot Mr Burns double-header on Thursday, the cast of EastEnders readied themselves for Friday’s unusually live broadcast. A television critic on BBC Breakfast News the day before had summed up the enthusiasm for these occasional live shows, reminding viewers that “something will go wrong!” But by all accounts the cast pulled it off, and the episode was both a critical and ratings success. Never a guarantee for any production that includes Danny Dyer.

Last week I gave a bad lecture. I’ve been ill for a while, starting with a cough, then a sore throat and a cough, then swollen glands and a sore throat and a cough, all the time feeling over-heated and lethargic. I plan my lectures meticulously but unlike the cast of a TV soap there’s no script. It’s a performance, and one that involves improvisation and constant adjustment, as a lecturer has to stay in tune with the feeling in the room. You can pick up on whether ideas you thought were clearly expressed haven’t fully sunk in, on when you’re labouring the point, and you can adjust the pacing or turn up/down the expressiveness of your delivery to get the right balance between being entertaining and being informative. Sometimes, like poor Jack Branning, it just doesn’t click as well as it could. There’s always risk in this kind of performance, and illness certainly doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for an engaging lecture.

Perhaps there’s an argument in favour of MOOCs in that realisation. Since not all academics can nail it every time like that guy who plays Ian Beale, maybe something that can be reworked until it’s perfected will take the contingency out of lecturing and offer a polished product. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, higher education delivered via the Internet in a way that transcends geographical barriers and opens up HE to a global audience who no longer need the means to relocate at great expense. Online lectures have their place but I’m not convinced by the arguments behind them, and especially the understanding of what a live lecture entails. There’s none of the spontaneity or the sense that students are, together, involved in an event that is immediate, that something is happening and it’s happening to them. There’s also a problem with the unthinking propaganda of progress associated with new technologies, whereby they will democratise the educational process and transform the economics of study. Why? We see time and again that technological development entrenches and accelerates already existing social, political and economic conditions – so why would MOOCs be any different? The idea that technological advancements are radical is a sad reflection on the state of alternative political thinking today.

There’s also this idea that something new has to be adopted, and that what took place before is somehow lacking. We have all this communication technology, so it goes, so it’s old-fashioned not to use it. We have to get online and bring the academy into the 21st century! But in what reasonable sense is a lecture offline? Where does all the information that constitutes the slide content come from? How is it that those slides even appear on a screen? The quality of a MOOC may be more consistent in terms of delivery, but the experience of the audience is nothing like what is in the lecture theatre, it’s altogether too passive; those who petition for their widespread adoption should drop the technology angle and simply be honest: they see money to be made.

It was reported last week that a Twitter user called Bobby Beale had received a barrage of abuse since she happened to share the name of Lucy’s killer (spoiler alert: you shouldn’t have read that bit either). This was clearly a wind-up but it reminded me of the way that media start to produce their own realities. The sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has questioned the assumptions people make when they maintain a distinction between the virtual and reality . He calls this position digital dualism and argues that it’s ontologically unsustainable: either they’re both equally real or they’re both equally virtual; the distinction is wholly arbitrary. When web users write IRL (In Real Life) in chat forums or instant messaging, they’re making a bizarre claim about the nature of reality; if I write “let’s continue this discussion when I see you IRL” – then what do I think is happening at the moment? Nothing? A fiction? What does it mean to refer to Facebook Life, as has appeared in an article in the Guardian? This sort of thing seems to suggest that the Internet isn’t real, that what happens when it is mediated in this way is virtual, a simulation, or maybe the documentation of the real – but not the real itself. This suggests a sort of zero sum game, whereby one can be online or offline but the one is mutually exclusive with the other, when instead we know that both together construct and shape each other. The eulogisers of MOOCs, I think, fail to see the intimacies of the physical and technological dimensions of all lecturing.

A lot of the problem seems to stem from the spatial metaphors that we use to understand online activity. The cyberspace of William Gibson’s Neuromancer looked nothing like the World Wide Web that came into being a few years later but the term seemed to stick. It suggests that the Internet and new media create a Third Space between whatever locations users occupy, a space we enter into for communication. As Jurgenson points out, this is a strange thing to do, since we don’t say things like “I’ve jacked into bookworld and I’m surfing bookspace”. Terms like cyberspace reify, or seem to make concrete, the real/virtual divide. This loses sight of the importance of the local geographies of Internet use. It also erects a separate social space in the imagination rather than understanding networked communication as an object of study that is continuous with society.

In an interview with Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio once remarked: “Today we are faced with a kind of slack-jawed optimism with respect to new technologies, which is for me perhaps the last conformism […] a thinker cannot be an optimist, or he isn’t thinking”. The idea of the Internet as Third Space feeds into optimistic proclamations about its radical potential for social and political change, a new start away from existing power structures and structural inequalities. But the internet is embedded in the physical world and reproduces its inequalities and power structures. Jurgenson again: “If you’re talking about the internet as a separate space or that digital communication isn’t real, that’s not a very good critique of the internet […] the power of the internet, the things we should be critiquing, are real”. MOOCs cannot be a magic fix for righting any perceived wrongs in HE; if you don’t change the institutions of a society then the circuits of communicative capitalism will only serve to transmit and accelerate the existing logics.

One of the most obvious examples of digital dualism comes in the form of the digital detox, beloved of lifestyle columnists in broadsheet newspapers. The very idea of digital detoxing treats being connected as if it were a toxin, and so communication becomes pathologised. It sets up a binary logic: disconnection is healthy and so normal, authentic because normal, and ultimately real because it has authenticity. Connection, on the other hand, is unhealthy, as a result abnormal, therefore inauthentic and ultimately unreal. There’s a lot of baggage we carry around in the simple metaphors we use about communication.

***

In his Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard sets out what he calls the order of simulacra (or signs) as follows:

1) Counterfeit

2) Production

3) Simulation

The counterfeit was predominant in pre-modern/early-modern society. It is, essentially, a representation of something that exists in nature – like a painting of a tree. So, it has a naturally existing referent but it is understood as distinct from this. The product was predominant in modern industrial society. It is without a naturally existing referent and is instead a simulation of exactly similar simulacra produced in a series; we can think here of mass-produced chairs, each one an indistinguishable reproduction of the last. Finally, the simulation is the predominant sign in what Baudrillard called our postmodern society. The simulation is not just a representation or a productive force, as with the counterfeit or the product, but is instead a generator of meaning. The simulation has no origin; it is not of nature or of a series – but of itself. Baudrillard’s example is code.

When we enter the era of simulation we see the way that media come to produce reality itself, rather than create a virtual that can be opposed to some sacrosanct reality. Code is interesting insofar as it can create environments or events that can be predicted and modelled, and I’ll come to this presently. The most obvious way that reality is produced today comes in the form of the mediated presentation of global events, or news. Baudrillard famously argued that the Gulf War in 1991 did not take place. First it was a non-war: if, as Carl Von Clausewitz argued, war is politics by other means then, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and the vacuum this created in terms of ideological opposition, then this was the “absence of politics pursued by other means” (Baudrillard). It was also unilateral: 20,000-30,000 Iraqis died in military service along with 3,500 Iraqi civilians; there were only 190 coalition military casualties. “It is the bellicose equivalent of safe sex: make war like love with a condom!” (Baudrillard). This wasn’t a war but a one-sided cake walk, with the military acutely aware that the public wouldn’t tolerate mass casualties on their side for a war that didn’t appear to be protecting them from tyranny and the destruction of their way of life. Second it was a media construct: “It’s not war taking place over there but the disfiguration of the world” (Baudrillard). The Gulf War had been packaged for a viewing public back home, transformed into a form of entertainment by accentuating or focusing on the information that would attract TV audiences and retain them amongst heightened competition in broadcast news. Sure, the war happened; but for the viewing public it was a production of reality – not something that was ever immediately experienced, but something that had no place in their lives beyond its consumption, that was overtly produced and over-produced by the media.

This only seems to escalate for Baudrillard when he discusses the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. He argues that 9/11 shows how all events are now always already image-events, that is, inextricable for the majority of those that experience them from their mediation. We see this event, he continues, through the prism of Hollywood; the collapse of the towers was something that we had seen played out through countless blockbusters. Thus, our experience of reality is shaped by our consumption of media images; again, the way we navigate the world is informed by the way media produce that reality.

Away from Albert Square it was also revealed last week that Facebook will be launching apps for its recent acquisition, Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift is marketed as a VR headset but if we think of the economics of social networking we can see how separating the supposedly virtual from the rest of the world is a loaded and dangerous move to make. VR headsets have been around for decades, and they have struggled to become commercially desirable. Facebook, Inc. needs to make good on its $2bn investment, and so is seeking to combine the technology with its social networking site, such that users upload VR content to Facebook as well as the usual videos, images and so on. According to Andrew Keen, Facebook, Inc. is valued at $190bn, more than Disney or Coca Cola, demonstrating the value of information over traditional media or something as ubiquitous as fizzy pop. From the same source, we learn that during every minute of every day in 2014 the world’s 3bn Internet users:

1. Sent 204m emails;

2.Uploaded 72 hours of YouTube video;

3. Undertook 4m Google searches;

4. Shared 2.46m pieces of Facebook content;

5. Published 277,000 Tweets;

6. Posted 216,000 new photos on Instagram;

7. And spent $83,000 on Amazon.

Communicative capitalism is a system for the production of value through the exchange of signs. When we focus on the virtual we lose sight of the very real power and wealth that corporations like Facebook, Inc. possess in society. VR content is no less real by being constituted by code, anyway, it’s just a different kind of sign to a painting or a mass-produced chair; but it exists in an environment that capitalises on user-generated content and the gift of information that users offer when they participate in social networking. This is the reality that something like Facebook produces: an enclosure of control made of code. All of the transactional and relational data that sweats from every pour when we occupy these sites sustains the economic power of those that own them. They can predict what users will purchase, who they should network with, what events they might attend, and follow what sites they visit elsewhere when they’re online. This is not a virtual reality but an augmented reality, both in the sense that it overlays information when we interact (by way of a Facebook profile, say, and the content that is uploaded) creating the “more real than real” (Baudrillard) or a a kind of social existence in High Definition, and in the way that it supplements the strength of the already powerful new media corporations.

It’s not only the data-miners that can use structures of code to model encounters and events. Slavoj Zizek introduces the idea of the interface simulacrum, the way that communication technologies produce the reality of the people we interact with. The representation of another person on a screen reduces them to a stand-in or proxy, something altogether less burdensome and demanding than someone who is co-present, since we can simply switch them off if they begin to act unpredictably or in ways we are not comfortable with. Zizek asks: “If I never  really want to encounter the Other, why bother at all with a Real Other? Isn’t a machine which manipulates and fabricates substanceless signals of the Other good enough?” Other people are fundamentally unknowable since we cannot get in their heads, since we cannot know their intentions with 100% certainty, since the social realm is contingent and spontaneous. Zizek goes so far as to say that other people are, in this respect, toxic. Perhaps that’s the real pathology of communication, that disconnection is toxic insofar as it is dangerously unpredictable, that the real digital detox comes in maximally enlarging other people on our screens, through social networking, whilst controlling and minimising their presence face-to-face? Perhaps, also, this is the real problem with MOOCs, that it’s too perfect, more real than real, since it lacks the spontaneity of the encounter with the audience, that it doesn’t take place beyond simply happening? We’ve begun to over-produce social reality in ways that be can manipulated and edited, and this has very real, and not virtual, consequences.

***

Throughout Saturday I began to lose my voice, starting with a croak and finishing with a tuned-out whisper. In the evening I wanted to meet some friends in the pub, but the presence of a loud band playing in the corner meant that my puny voice was totally drowned out, I couldn’t talk to anyone, and so I upped and left after a quick pint.

As we see with the value of Facebook, for example, communication has today become one of the most important productive forces. It’s not just social networking: we see this from the lecture theatre to the call centre. It’s instructive to think about what’s happening when someone loses their voice in the course of doing their job. Owen Jones has reported that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists have raised concerns about the increasing numbers of call centre workers needing referral to speech therapists for losing their voices. Long hours spent communicating with little opportunity to even take a drink of water exhaust the worker’s capacity for productive labour. At the same time, it uses up something that is so vital to our social lives, our ability to talk to others (in loud pubs or elsewhere). Christian Marazzi explains:

“In the post-Fordist context, in which language has become in every respect an instrument of the production of commodities and, therefore, the material condition of our very lives, the loss of the ability to speak, of the “language capacity”, means the loss of belonging in the world as such, the loss of what “communifies” the many who constitute the community”.

The way that are we are in the world is transformed by the productive demands of communication in ways that affect our being with others. This isn’t a problem just for the spoken word; what we see today is the over-production of communication in what we might call an attention economy.

In January this year Facebook launched its Facebook at Work portal. This has all the familiar features of the social networking site but is populated by the users’ work colleagues rather than their friends so that they can use it to communicate about work tasks. The portal has a different colour scheme so that when the user’s boss or supervisor peers over their shoulder they will instantly recognise that this is work and not procrastination. It’s being sold as a way of increasing efficiency in work place communication but at heart it’s motivated by the need to capture more of the market share of users’ attention. If workers are reluctant to be seen using Facebook in the office then this limits the amount of time they’re sweating out all that valuable information into Facebook’s data banks. Lars Rasmussen, Facebook director of engineering, has said: “Some people are less comfortable than others using their personal Facebook in the work context […] With Facebook at Work, you get the option of completely separating the two”.

More likely, such a tool will ensure that work communication seeps out into non-working hours, whilst, anyway, exploiting our enthusiasm for the social in the first place, translating our propensity for talking and connecting into an enthusiasm for work itself. The role of email and especially the smartphone suggests that an excess of communication begins to eat into our supposed leisure time. Even more worrying, this migrates work activity into an enclosure of control constituted by code, whereby communication can be monitored in terms of its productivity, where individual users’ communicative contributions are visible to all, so introducing a competitiveness around communication. Like at the call centre, workers will be measured and valued in terms of the amount they communicate.

And like the call centre they may well end up using up what they’re forced to put to work. Human attention is a scarce commodity; it also has diminishing returns, that is, it is a perishable commodity, and information and communication consumes attention such that a wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention. The primacy of communication as a generator of value puts tremendous strain on the brains of workers. “Today capital needs mental energies, psychic energies”, writes Franco Berardi, and “these are exactly the capacities that are fucking up”.

We simulate events and encounters, we over-produce reality and attentive stress at work, and we augment our experience of the world at the same time that we supplement the wealth and power of media organisations. It’s reality all the way down but we cannot afford to lose sight of who made it this way.

David Hill

Image Source: tsquirrel.com

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