Garbage, Human Beings
Arthur Rackham, She Looked With Angry Woe At The Straining And Snarling Horde Below, 1920
by Justin E. H. Smith
Social Media as the “False Representative Class”
Substack is not social media, at least not in the narrow sense. But that narrow sense is growing less important, with each passing day, for understanding our new reality. For in a non-narrow sense everything is social media. Some things are social-media satellites floating just outside the atmosphere, barely hanging on up there in gravity-free orbit; other things are more like comets, with wide elliptical trajectories bringing them back around to the new true center of our cosmos only irregularly. But everything gets drawn into social media’s pull sooner or later, and the “leaders” in our society, AOC and Trump and the others, are the ones who understand that social media are not an auxiliary to whatever other calling one has in life; they are themselves the calling.
Social media have gutted institutions: journalism, education, and increasingly the halls of government too. When Marjorie Taylor Greene displays some dumb-as-hell anti-communist Scooby-Doo meme before congress, blown up on poster-board and held by some hapless staffer, and declares “This meme is very real”, she is channeling words far, far wiser than the mind that produced them. We’re all just sharing memes now, and those of us who hope to succeed out there in “reality”, in congress and classrooms and so on, momentarily removed from our screens and feeds, must learn how to keep the memes going even then. “Real-world” events, in other words, are staged by the victors in our society principally with an eye to the potential virality of their online uptake. And when virality is the desired outcome, clicks effected in support or in disgust are all the same. Thus the naive idea that AOC wore her “Tax the Rich” gown to a particular event attended by a select crowd within a well-defined physical space completely distorts the motivation behind the gesture, which was, obviously, to make waves not during, but immediately after, the event, not for the people at the event, but for all the people who were not invited.
Because hate-clicks will do just as well as love-clicks in the game of virality, there is by now a steady stream of content produced by people who know that what they are doing is stupid, and who go ahead with it not in spite of that fact, but because of it. Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American, might well be dumb enough actually to believe that her magazine’s recent editorial, “Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, is, as she wrote on Twitter, “SO GOOD”. I hope she is in fact that dumb, because the alternative is much more dispiriting still: that she knows full well this is cynical click-seeking, she knows people will share it and link to it only because it is such a gross desecration of everything Scientific American once represented, and because sharing and linking is good for business, whatever the affective and cognitive state of the sharer.
I try to keep my Substack somewhere out in the Kuiper Belt, if we wish to maintain the orbit analogy, yet I am continually reminded that it would be preferable, if exposure were the only goal, to set myself up as a heap of space-junk tightly hugging the Earth, circling visibly in the night sky. I write something about botanical expeditions in eighteenth-century Siberia, and I get 5,000 readers (thank you from the bottom of my heart, my loyal 5,000); I throw out some chum on whatever culture-war issue is keeping Twitter aflame at the moment, and I get 50,000. The numbers are consistent, and incontrovertible. So I promise you some fish guts today, my sharks, but you’re going to have to sit through a bit of long-winded and unmemeifiable point-making in order to get your reward.
The internet, obviously, runs on hate. Ordinarily we take this to mean that it incites people to argue pointlessly, to abandon the ordinary ethical norms governing disagreement, and so on. This sense of the claim is true, but another respect in which the internet is an engine of hate is the one I have just identified: that in click-seeking there is no incentive to weed out hate-clicking. I’ve argued before that all of this might be for the better, that by absorbing so much of humanity’s hatred, the engine may be sublimating it into something extremely unpleasant, but not literally violent. When it comes right down to it, I’d rather see the IDF trolling the ayatollahs than bombing Iranian civilians. I would myself much rather get impotent death threats than get killed.
What makes the sublimated form of violence produced by this engine seem more potent, sometimes, than the real thing, is the fact that the engine invites universal participation. This is the same thing, curiously, that has also at times made the internet appear as an engine of democracy and as a great hope for advancing towards the goal of rational, collective deliberation. What has prevented this ideal from taking hold, one might argue, is that the expansion of power to individuals through this new technology has not so much followed the path of greater democratic participation, as rather effecting a traduction downward, and as it were a privatization, of tyranny.
This in fact seems to be a common historical process, for which other instances may help us better to understand the generic problem. Every couple married in the Eastern Orthodox church, down to the lowliest goatherd, wears a crown as part of the ceremony, symbolically transferring the power and glory of the Byzantine emperor and empress down, momentarily, to these very common men and women. Traditions such as this date back to antiquity, but with the rise of capitalism we see many other important new ways in which previously noble or royal powers devolve down to the common people. What is that “wedding palace” in a Long Island strip mall but a devolution of royalty, however distorted its forms become in the passage downward?
In fact such devolution is a reflection of the highest political aspirations of the modern era, which at least in principle have sought to marry —in the strip-mall wedding-palace of modernity— capitalism with egalitarian democracy. Thus there also emerged the expectation that ordinary people should own their own property, their own little ‘estates’, without for that being the lords or sovereigns of ‘states’ — although these are in fact the same word if we go back far enough into our Norman linguistic heritage. And the perceived need for each of us to have at least a sliver of sovereignty to ourselves, to be the kinglet of our own little tract house in Irvine, has led to what Joan Didion coldly described as the “false ownership class”: the people who desire this symbolic status so desperately that they will take a mortgage under any shoddy terms offered in order to obtain it, at least for a while, before a new global economic crisis imposes a periodic “correction” that corrects them right back into the peasantry.
And similarly reading and writing came to be seen as part of the basic package of citizenship. Properly functioning republics have universal literacy, rather than the specialization of a royal scribe or a privileged caste. In short, the growth of democratic participation has led to ever more ways in which regular people symbolically embody sovereignty, and are even, sometimes, expected to act in a manner befitting a sovereign. This process of expansion quickens at times of technological transformation, and can lead to extreme new forms of behavior that seem to have more to do with role-playing than with democratic participation. Thus in the present moment it is curious to see so many little sovereigns ‘issuing statements’ after every political event of note. Twenty years ago a prophetic Onion article reported that the Dinty Moore soup company took a firm stand against terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. Today this is no longer satire; it is just business as usual, and not only for soupmakers and HVAC technicians, but for absolutely everybody.
The problem is only compounded by the fact that much of our ‘speech’ today can be traced back to no intentional agent. If you are attempting to set up bots to hawk your hair-loss supplements on social media at randomly spaced intervals, the online how-to guides will warn you of a great peril of full automation: you run the risk of accidentally pitching your product when the rest of social media is having a moment of somber catastrophe-mongering: bots, however advanced they have become, still can’t “read the room” like humans can.
It is of course fitting for politicians to say something when, e.g., the president of the US has a military opponent assassinated by drone strike. By contrast it is troubling when ordinary private citizens are expected to withhold whatever they might have planned to tweet about their recent Netflix experiences because something big just happened in Afghanistan, and some nebulous pressure obliges them to speak only of this, or, if they are aware of their own ignorance, to simply remain silent. But what is the nature of this pressure? It cannot be noblesse-oblige, because they are not nobles; it cannot be the dignity of the office, because they hold no office.
Is this what true democracy looks like: not only where everyone owns property and selects their representatives, but where everyone is expected to have something to say about everything that ever happens? Where everyone is compelled to stay “on message” as if they were up for reelection? It seems to me this is false democracy, an untenable situation, and that we are witnessing the emergence of something like a “false representative class” analogous to the “false ownership class” that rushed to sign up for subprime mortgages.
Often when I find myself particularly alienated as I scroll through my Twitter feed, I note that this is not because I disagree with the particular content of what my contemporaries are saying. Quite often, politically, we are very much on the same page. Where we differ is only in our understanding of what we take social media to be good for. I take the expression of substantive political opinions there to be something like the expression of substantive political opinions on, say, Fortnite: an absurd proposition, as whatever the opinions are, they are interrupting the flow of an otherwise engaging video game. When in turn the expression of perfectly sound and laudable political views is multiplied by thousands, or hundreds of thousands, the nature of these views mutates into something else altogether. What was “true” when one person said it becomes something you are “vile” for not saying along with the hundreds of thousands of other people who are saying it: you are “trash”, a “garbage human being”. This is why, in my view, it is morally imperative to not say true things on social media. Social media are not a suitable medium for truth. Go ahead and shitpost. Fuck around. Maybe advertise stuff you’re doing elsewhere. But the pursuit of truth, in that place, can only ever amount to an expression of devolved tyranny.
Michelle Goldberg, a Times columnist I like very much, recently wrote a piece on cancel culture that was revelatory for me even as I disagreed with much of it. In her view, the problem of being shunned for holding incorrect views has been greatly exaggerated by a certain sector of the elite class, namely, Gen Xers, mostly male, who have been left disoriented by the seismic shifts in our culture over the past decade. “Many people I know over 40 — maybe 35 —,” she writes, “resent new social mores that demand outsized sensitivity to causing harm. It has been jarring to go from an intellectual culture that prizes transgression to one that polices it.”
I’m 49, I’m depressed, and I have to agree with Michelle that my depression is not a political emergency. (I’m not sure but I think Michelle and I met once long ago, hence the first-name casualness that might otherwise come across as a parasocial presumption. Somehow I know she likes Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and even before I read this article I could have told you she knew where the name ‘Joy Division’ comes from. In short whether we know each other or not, Michelle is one of my people.) My depression is my own problem to work out — and in fact I often appreciate this condition, as a lens for observation of the world as it is.
Yet the new social mores are not going to last forever either, and sooner or later the young people who memory-holed so many of the things I once thought would last forever are going to have to begin again the work of mining the past for tried-and-true moral sensibilities with the suppleness and vigor to help them navigate through this objectively problematic world, and to thrive. We might be depressed, but we are not without purpose: our purpose is preservation. The bubble of “false representation” is going to burst sooner or later, and when it does the value of our investment in old-style commodities will become clear again.
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
Rackham’s illustration is from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens.