~ Performance @NeMe/Limassol, December 11, 2021 ~
Let’s dive into social media weariness, the cause of our tired eyes. What are the techniques of resignation that we are exposed to? The blissful ignorance after browsing an entire ecosystem of narratives is not surprising. Culture is a pendulum, and the pendulum is swaying. The organized optimism, hardcoded in online advertisements and other forms of algorithmic advice, turned out to be merely producing anxiety. As Caroline Cowles Richards stated: “What can’t be cured, must be endured.” The suffering, sorrow and misery is getting tagged and filtered by our own self-censorship. We’ve been captured and feel frozen. What we receive is the anger and anxiety of the Online Other. The growing imbalance in the distribution of digital enchantment is neither causing a revolution or revolt, nor does it fade out.
During the 2020-2021 lockdown misère we’ve literary been stuck on the platform. What happens when your home office starts to feel like a call centre and you’re too tired to close down Facebook? “How to get rid of your phone? Wrong answers only.” We wanted to move on, and use the pandemic as a reset, but failed. The comfort of the same old proved too strong. Instead of a radical techno-imagination that is focussed on the roll-out of alternatives, we got distracted by fake news, cancel culture and cyber warfare. Condemned to doom scrolling, we suffer from an oversaturation of cringe memes, conspiracy theories and a never-ending barrage of Covid factoids and stats, including conflicting interpretations and senseless comments. Random is fun. In this seventh volume of my chronicles, we’re staying with the trouble called internet and continue to dig deeper into the current stagnation phase while also asking how to ‘unstuck’ and deplatform the platforms. As you and I are not able to resolve platform dependency, we remain glued to the same old channels, furious at others about our own inability to change. Stuck on the Platform starts with the confession, much like step 1 from AA’s 12 steps: “We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Once we’re locked-in, the path to infinity has been blocked. Instead, we’re caught in a Truman Show-like repetition of the perpetual now, toiling around in the micro-mess of online Others that try to do their best, masking their failures and despair—like everyone else. Franco Berardi observes the mental state of today’s students: “I see them from my window: lonely, watching the screens of their smartphones, nervously rushing to classes, sadly going back to the expensive rooms that their families are renting for them. I feel their gloom, I feel the aggressiveness latent in their depression.” In the social media era the Oblomov position is not an option—in particular for those that cannot economically afford to get stuck in the abyss. The design is elegantly forcing to engage, make choices, click, agree and respond. If only we were capable of taking action and making decisions. We experience the sadness of online existentialism minus the absurdity. If only Robert Pfaller’s ‘interpassivity’ was ever really implemented in code (instead of being yet another Austrian idea), we would indulge in a permanent state of indolent apathy. Instead, there’s nothing passive about human-machine interactions.
We, the streaming egos, scroll and swipe, obsessed with self-creation. Facebook, the sociological constant of our times, equals the unbearable lightness of nothing. Surrounded by this massive bubble of light matter, we literarily see no alternative options. No multiverses for you. Jailed in the digital monad, you are free to dream about as many worlds as you like. Being on social, the Zen status of detachment is an ontological impossibility. We’re never really lurking—our presence is always noted—and we can therefor never truly enjoy the secretive voyeur status. Interaction is our tragic existence. Instead, we’re constantly asked to upgrade, fill in forms and rank our taxi drivers.
You’re enraged, feel engaged, but still retreat in your safe rabbit hole. When you’re feeling tired and nothing seems helpful, you’ve reached the end of the downward spiral. You ignore the signs and will pay dearly but for now nothing matters much. What happens when your social graph falls flat and you have nothing to talk about, you forget to like and follow and no longer respond to texts? The networks around you collapse but you feel incapable to act. Is this the joy of missing out? The epic shit of others no longer impresses. The perfectionism has killed you and now you are face-to-face with an empty bucket list. Ducking tired, bored with Reddit, Facebook, Insta and nowhere else to go, it’s damned sure you’ve lost interest in everything you were once passionate about.
In his Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier asks, “why do so many famous tweets end with the word ‘sad’?” He associates the word with a lack of real connection. “Why must people accept manipulation by a third party as the price of a connection?” According to Lanier, sadness appears in response to “unreasonable standards for beauty or social status or vulnerability to trolls.” Google and Facebook know how to utilize negative emotions more readily, leading to the new system-wide goal: find personalized ways to make you feel bad. There is no single way to make everyone unhappy. Compared to others your ranking is low—and this makes you sad.
Even technological sadness is a style, albeit a cold one. The sorrow, no matter how short, is real. This is what happens when we can no longer distinguish between telephone and society. If we can’t freely change our profile and feel too weak to delete the app, we’re condemned to feverishly check for updates during the brief in-between moments of our busy lives. In a split second, the real-time machine has teleported us out of our current situation and onto another playing field filled with mini reports we quickly have to investigate.
Omnipresent social media places a claim on our elapsed time, our fractured lives. We’re all sad in our very own way. As there are no lulls or quiet moments anymore, the result is fatigue, depletion and loss of energy. We’re becoming obsessed with waiting. How long have you been forgotten by your love ones? Time, meticulously measured on every app, tells us right to our face. Chronos hurts. Should I post something to attract attention and show I’m still here? Nobody likes me anymore. As the random messages keep relentlessly piling in, there’s no way to halt them, to take a moment and think it all through.
Delacroix once declared that every day which is not noted is like a day that does not exist. Diary writing used to fulfil that task. Elements of early blog culture tried to update the diary form for the online realm, but that moment has now passed. Unlike the blog entries of the Web 2.0 era, social media have surpassed the summary stage of the diary in a desperate attempt to keep up with real-time regime. Instagram Stories, for example, bring back the nostalgia of an unfolding chain of events—and then disappear at the end of the day, like a revenge act, a satire of ancient sentiments gone by. Storage will make the pain permanent. Better forget about it and move on.
In the online context, sadness appears as a short moment of indecisiveness, a flash that opens up the possibility of a reflection. The frequently used ‘sad’ label is a vehicle, a strange attractor to enter the liquid mess called social media. Sadness is a container. Each and every situation can potentially be qualified as ‘sad’. Through this mild form of suffering we enter the blues of being in the world. When something’s sad, things around it become grey. You trust the machine because you feel you’re in control of it. You want to go from zero to hero. But then your propped-up ego implodes and the failure of self-esteem becomes apparent again. The price of self-control in an age of instant gratification is high.
We long to revolt against the restless zombie inside us, but we don’t know how. Our psychic armour is thin and eroded from within, open to ‘behavioural modifications’. Sadness arises at the point we’re exhausted by the online world.After yet another app session in which we failed to make a date, purchased a ticket and did a quick round of videos, the post-dopamine mood hits us hard. The sheer busyness and self-importance of the world makes you feel joyless. After a dive into the network we’re drained and feel socially awkward. The swiping finger is tired and we have to stop.
We should be careful to distinguish sadness from ‘anomalies’ such as suicide, depression and burn-out. Everything and everyone can be called sad, but not everyone is depressed. Much like boredom, sadness is not a medical condition (though never say never because everything can be turned into one). No matter how brief and mild, sadness is the default mental state of the online billions. Its original intensity gets dissipated, it seeps out, becoming a general atmosphere, a chronic background condition. Occasionally—for a brief moment—we feel the loss. A seething rage emerges. After checking for the tenth time what someone said on Instagram, the pain of the social makes us feel miserable, and we put the phone away. Am I suffering from the phantom vibration syndrome? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were offline? Why’s life so tragic? He blocked me. At night, you read through the thread again. Do we need to quit again, to go cold turkey again? Others are supposed to move us, to arouse us, and yet we don’t feel anything anymore. The heart is frozen.
Let’s compare fleetingsadness in its technical form with the ancient state of melancholy. The melancholic personality seems to suffer from a disease. Unable to act, she withdraws from the world, contemplating death and other transient phenomena. While some read this condition as depression and boredom, others reframe this ‘lazy’ passivity as a creative strategy, waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead of a fascinating dérive into the vast arsenal of literary sources, I propose here a digital hermeneutics that short-circuits philology with the eternal presence of the digital that surrounds us.
Melancholy, often described as ‘sadness without a cause’, has strong existential connotations. While paying tribute to Kierkegaard, who liberated melancholia once and for all of its medical stigma, describing it as the deepest foundation of the human in a Godless society, the problem here is not a vertical one of going deeper, but a horizontal one. The democratization of sadness happens through its thin spread across our plateau—homeopathic doses flatly distributed via technical means.
Melancholy is a thing of the past because there is simply no time anymore to indulge in a wistful state. One could, of course, defend that techno sadness still bears the possibility of melancholy. The implosion of the factor time has all but sabotaged the possibility to seriously drift off. Realtime machines constantly draw us back online, capture our attention and do not allow extensive mourning. Strangely, melancholy requires concentration and focus. Distraction on the other is all over the place and sadness is ‘micro-dosed’.
The metric to measure today’s symptoms would be time—or ‘attention’ as it is called in the industry. While for the archaic melancholic the past never passes, techno-sadness is caught in the perpetual now. Forward focused, we bet on acceleration and never mourn a lost object. The primary identification is there, in our hand. Everything is evident, on the screen, right in your face. While confronted with the rich historical sources that dealt with melancholia, the contrast with our present condition becomes immediately apparent. Whereas melancholy in the past was defined by separation from others, reduced contacts and reflection on oneself, today’s tristesse plays itself out amidst busy social (media) interactions. In Sherry Turkle’s phrase, we are alone together, as part of the crowd—a form of loneliness that is particularly cruel, frantic and tiring.
What we see today are systems that constantly disrupt the timeless aspect of melancholy. There’s no time for contemplation, or Weltschmerz. Social reality does not allow us to retreat. Even in our deepest state of solitude we’re surrounded by (online) others that babble on and on, demanding our attention. But distraction does not just take us away from the world—this is the old, if still prevalent way of framing the fatal attraction of smart phones. No, distraction does not pull us away, but instead draws us back into the social. Social reality is the magic realm where we belong. That’s where the tribes gather, and that’s the place to be—on top of the world. Social relations in ‘real life’ have lost their supremacy. The idea of going back to the village mentality of the place formerly known as ‘real life’ is daunting indeed.
How can redesign the ‘social’ in such a way that will become impossible—even unthinkable—for trolls and bots that try to permanent disrupt our thinking and behaviour to occur? We cannot spend all time and energy to reinvent the social without taking freedom into account. Not the ‘liberty’ as defined by right-wing Libertarians but freedom as Hannah Ahrendt and Isaac Berlin speak about. This is not just freedom from addictive and manipulative software. Can we rethink bots and algorithms in such a way that they become pets or toys, tools that work for us, instead of invisible, oppressive system that try to deceive and ‘educate’ us. Technological freedom means the ability to them aside, turn them off. We long for tools that assist us, instead of colonizing our inner life behind our backs. Our sadness will not be overcome with anger.
* View entire project @ https://wearenotsick.com/
* All of the tracks from the album are available for remix on the Internet Archive!