The Social Dilemma and the Specter of Marx

Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ September 25, 2020

    I just finished watching the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, which shows how social media and big tech have been able to manipulate the desires of the masses in unprecedented ways. The film itself read like a seamless reel of algorithm recommended youtube videos I’d seen on the topic sewn together by a cinematic depiction of a family dealing with the issues of social media. I’ve been avoiding the algorithm wave on Netflix, but was summoned through friends propped up by the algorithm themselves.

    The documentary presents a convincing case that we are already living in a social media induced dystopia, but that there’s still a possibility of saving the fabric of society. To do so, as the last part of the documentary highlights, there must be both a foundational shift in our economic system and very specific regulations targeted at big tech. Absent, of course, is the political vocabulary to do so. Under the blanket calls for systemic change in our economic system is the hidden specter of ‘he who shall not be named’. Like a main character in a Marvel movie, he cannot be killed; the unavoidable critic and theorist for a solution to capitalism, the notorious Karl Marx.

The Fetishism of Big Tech and The Desert of the Real

    Just as big tech is able to hide the extensive means of data collection and sales, so too does the documentary hide from us the kind of future where a new system is possible. It nonetheless hints at one, tracelessely planting the idea into our unconscious; one that turns away from the current capitalist system while being palatable for a mainstream audience who are still reeling in the ideology of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism - the consensus that there is no alternative to capitalism.

    One of the interviewees from the documentary describes the process of, what Shoshana Zuboff calls, surveillance capitalism, as like being in the matrix without knowing you’re in the matrix. It hides the methods of accumulation behind the smartphone. Like Neo and everyone else trapped in the matrix, we are plugged in, secretly being drained for resources while the world crumbles.

    Like Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism (labor and production are hidden in the commodity), the warehouses of data storage and algorithms are hidden behind the reflective screen of a smartphone. It hides the realities that it produces while simultaneously exposing them virtually - using divisive violence and news of the real world as a virtual stimulation that then causes more real violence. We don’t know our labor (smartphone usage) is being exploited for profit, therefore there is no reason to think of an alternative. The same could be said of capitalism itself.

    The Matrix, loosely based on Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra and simulation (there is no original and the reproduction or simulation can be more real than reality itself, hyperreal), was essentially a science fiction prediction of the very world we live in today: one where the simulation produces the only kind of stimulation that satisfies us; where reality, or the social and political context, is one designed for the elite (in The Matrix it’s for the robots/AI) and only enjoyable to the majority through a simulation of a depiction of reality - an infinite drive of desire that can never be fulfilled. So the very idea that our reality is like the film, The Matrix,  which predicted this reality is falling victim to this very notion that there is no original. Only reproductions and simulation.

The upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077
The upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.

    More pressingly is the (mis)interpretation of big tech characters to co-opt the very dystopian futures that science fiction and cyberpunk predicted. Elon Musk is painfully similar to the evil boss who colonized Mars in the 1991 film Total Recall. Musk designed the Tesla cybertruck as if to fulfill the very prophecy and simulations of corporate cyberpunk dystopias. As if the entire message underlying cyberpunk - that deregulation, privatization and corporatization will ruin the planet and kill millions with unsustainable inequality - is a theme, like a costume, that can be omitted. Let’s not forget, after all, that The Matrix was mostly action sequences and slow motion flips. And now the ultimate flip is taking place with the upcoming release of the video game Cyberpunk 2077, where you can run around in a cyberpunk-looking city like a GTA game.

    The cyberpunk films Bladerunner and Akira were both set in 2019, so the fact that we’re recycling cyberpunk to be pushed to 2077 for the video game (or 2049 for the Bladerunner reboot) shows how fucked our notions of the future are. We’re not only living in a dystopia that mimics dystopian science fiction stories of 40 years ago, but we’re trapped within this vision of the future where we can’t think up anything for our future past this corporate dystopia.

Akira, 1988.

Alienation and Misery, or ‘Freedom’

    Us Americans love our freedom, or perceived freedom. Echoing the message of Adam Curtis documentaries like Century of the Self, The Social Dilemma touches on the fact that our desires are manufactured, steered by big tech’s profit incentivized algorithms. Social media algorithms prioritize divisize and conspiracy theories over everything else - as is said of fake news spreading 6x faster on Twitter than real news. This calls into question the very notion of freedom and free will. This is the same hiding of freedom under capitalism, which substitutes freedom for free trade and deregulated capitalism.

    It’s as if social media, as a form of production (production of data) is just as, if not more, alienating than the act of work itself. As Marx emphasized in the first volume of Capital, this alienation leads to higher rates of misery:

    [A]ll means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, [...] they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods… [Capitalist accumulation] establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 645.

    As the documentary states, this misery does lead to tensions in society and psychology, however, misery itself is exploited to fuel the very drive that is social media. It’s as if the alienation and misery of work, even in its current form in the gig economy, works to support and accelerate the usage and profitability of surveillance capitalism. Avoiding the drive of social media has become increasingly impossible during a devastatingly merciless pandemic and economic crash.

The Social Dilemma, 2020.

    The Social Dilemma of course emphasizes the real impact on our society, with election interference, political divide etc., but also adds the psychological side that leads to what is shown as causing a drastic increase in cutting and suicides among pre-teen and teenage girls. Marx reminds us that while capitalism can raise all ships, the expanding inequality can drastically limit the tide.
    [A]lthough the enjoyments of the worker have risen, the social satisfaction that they give has fallen in comparison with the increased enjoyments of the capitalists, which are inaccessible to the worker, in comparison with the state of development of society in general. Our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfactions. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature. Wage Labour and Capital, in: Selected Works in Two Volumes, Vol. I, p. 87.

    As is mentioned in the film, technology itself appears to not be the problem in itself. All of the benefits led to an early optimism before taking a turn for the worse. It then became socially imperative to be on social media and then financially imperative for the companies to keep users there. Many in the film state that the leadership can’t even be blamed because of the profit incentive that dominates our society, which Marx admits himself.
    But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 270.

“Welcome to the desert of the real”, The Matrix, 1999.

  Depression has, of course, increased due to social media, but when the film showed the graphs of cutting and suicides increasing among young teens I was reminded of a quote from Slavoj Zizek’s book Desert of the Real, in which he gave a psychoanalytic take on the phenomenon of cutting (which is obviously very different from suicide).

    [T]he 'postmodern' passion for the semblance ends up in a violent return to the passion for the Real. Take the phenomenon of 'cutters' (people, mostly women, who experience an irresistible urge to cut themselves with razors or otherwise hurt themselves); this is strictly parallel to the virtualization of our environment: it represents a desperate strategy to return to the Real of the body. As such, cutting must be contrasted with normal tattooed inscriptions on the body, which guarantee the subject's inclusion in the (virtual) symbolic order - the problem with cutters, is the opposite one, namely, the assertion of reality itself. Far from being suicidal, far from indicating a desire for self-annihilation, cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a hold on reality, or (another aspect of the same phenomenon) to ground the ego firmly in bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as nonexistent. Cutters usually say that once they see the warm red blood flowing out of the self-inflicted wound, they feel alive again, firmly rooted in reality. So although, of course, cutting is a pathological phenomenon, it is none the less a pathological attempt at regaining some kind of normality, at avoiding a total psychotic breakdown. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, p. 10.

    While dark and a sign of misery, the increase in cutting is parallelled to the introduction to social media’s popularization, as is shown in the film’s graph. The phenomenon appears not simply as a product of social media, but, following Zizek’s reading, as a resistance to it; a ‘passion for the Real’ or an attempt to escape the matrix. But escaping the matrix has its limits. Like the urban ruins in The Matrix films, what are we returning to? It’s not like the ending of Wall-E where we arrive on the ship to an empty earth with an understanding of what not to do moving forward. There is no blank slate, but a preexisting one that fights any attempt to change it, even if it's done for the survival of the planet and the people that it exploits in order to exist.

    When we return to the Real and what is now a creeping desire for an alternative, we come up short and so we return to a necessity for an alternative, albeit nameless. Since Marx and communism have become curse words tainted by the 20th century, our future remains without a name; some kind of new communism that ‘prioritizes life over profit’. Over the past 5 or so years there has been an increasing amount of writings imagining alternatives to capitalism - what is referred to often as postcapitalism. However, it’s not yet crossed over to the mainstream yet. Books like Inventing the Future, Postcapitalism and Fully Automated Luxury Communism are perhaps the starting point for a new imagination, but like The Social Dilemma shows, we have developed a distaste for the failing system that exists, but have yet to discover a new desire; an alternative desire to our social media fix and capitalism.

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