William Blake challenges addiction to digital platforms.
Paradoxically, today’s malaise about identity loss is directly related to social media – originally intended to bring people closer together but, as we now know, hijacked by corporate interests to create a new form of capitalism in which personal data is traded for massive profits and without the permission of its owners.
The Internet and digital platforms were supposed to provide access to the totality of the world’s information and knowledge for the greater good of humankind. In doing so, the world became digitized. Words and images now cascade at speeds of one billion bits a second and more, while conversation between real people and stepping out to enjoy the scent of freesias or to caress the bark of a redwood are being forgotten.
Fifteen years after Facebook was conceived, it has 2.2 billion users and the company posted a record profit of $6.88bn for the last three months of 2018. Since Facebook is free to its users, where does that money come from? The answer can be found in Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is currently being compared with Karl Marx’s famous book on Capital. Zuboff writes:
“Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
That’s it in a nutshell, although Zuboff states her case in full in 691 pages! Zuboff demonstrates how online platforms have quietly taken over the world by offering ways to make busy lives easier and persuading us to swap convenience, efficiency, and social connection for surveillance, intrusion, and concocted identities. This all happens at the whim of social media giants like Google and Facebook, who have turned us into performing seals.
In “Death of the private self: how fifteen years of Facebook changed the human condition” (The Guardian, 31 January 2019), John Harris writes:
“The Facebook age marks a break from traditional human behaviour in a key aspect. In the past, we could regularly take a break from acting, and revert to some sense of our private, authentic selves. Now, as we constantly prod at our smartphones and feel the pull of their addictive apps, when does the performing ever stop? Along with Russian interference in elections, fake news, Facebook’s approach to hate speech and its insatiable appetite for personal data, this is surely one of the most malign ways in which its presence in our lives is playing out.”
Worse still is the vacuous content on many social media platforms such as Instagram and the insidious way in which real life is being smothered by the artificial and mediocre. How the poet William Blake would have hated the isolation and alienation of today’s digital age and might never have described real-life experience as:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”