Anti-Oppression & the Internet

we receive and transmit:

by de flori

Information technology is ubiquitous in present day, it is now considered odd and suspicious to not have a smartphone or any social media accounts. Many people who were not using these technologies heavily in the past are now suckered in by them, partially because they are the new normal that everyone else is doing.

I grew up spending hours on the internet and playing video games every day, back before it was socially normal to do so. Most of my leisure time during my adolescence was spent staring into a screen. I have since realized how much damage it was doing to me, and the extent to which it ruined my concentration, helped stunt my emotional maturity, and generally made me an anxious person. Now I am hesitant to subject myself to the alienation of passively consuming spectacles like television and video games, and carry a deep mistrust of the control inherent in information technology. That these technologies are being cast in a liberatory light seems like a serious error to me, and this essay is a theory I’ve developed over time while participating and noticing others participate in life over social media.

Isolation and atomization are at the core of capitalist society. The internet is increasing this separation and is subsuming more and more of daily life. Nevertheless, there’s a popular narrative which casts this technology in an anti-oppression light, it goes something like this:

“Before the internet, marginalized people (people with oppressed identities and neuro-atypical people) would not have much of an opportunity to see and discuss their experiences with each other. With social networks, marginalized people can connect with each other and realize that they share overlapping experiences of oppression. The internet has fostered a mass ‘wokeness’ (gaining of political consciousness) of young people not seen in decades. People with mental health disabilities can now share coping strategies and feel assured that others suffer from their ailments, and that they are not alone in the world. It offers a method of finding & creating community that bypasses face-to-face interactions that are stressful or debilitating. Without the internet, they would have just been hidden under the normative culture, and felt alone and frustrated, or simply unaware.”

This line of thought is flawed, but it makes some sense. Life in the west since World War II has been very isolating and atomizing, in that people are kept to their homes, codependent relationships, and toxic nuclear family mores, while spending their leisure time passively consuming entertainment media. The conformity of the 50s seems like a stark example of this, but as the decades went on this phenomenon actually increased. Participation in social clubs and adult team sports declined, public space was enclosed and privatized, and average hours of television viewing increased. In this basic context, yes, the internet fosters a connection between people that is appealing due to any other connection being absent in the recent past.

That said, while there probably has been a relatively large-scale “wokeness,” it has not created a situation where politically conscious people rise up against systems of domination and oppression. As of yet, it has primarily produced non-revolutionary identity politics that, through groupthink, aim to discipline an ideal set of personal behaviors onto isolated individuals. Revolutionary impulses against capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy crumble into scolding an individuals’ language and behavior based on privilege resulting from generalizations about static identities. This tendency has been used to extinguish revolts by separating those in struggle via a relation of “allyship” and ultimately strengthening reformist non-profits. How is it that non-profit groups in Minneapolis using Black Panther imagery and rhetoric were so successful in weakening the forces of rebellion last year? The answer is in the medium, and specifically not the message.

Bonds produced through internet social connections are weak and generally don’t yield feelings of power and the capacity to have an impact on the world. Likely this is because working together to end those oppressions is not even an option, since capitalism’s separation between people isn’t actually broken. Where to turn then with ones’ ideas and critiques? The focus becomes insular: on one’s own individual behaviors, language, and projected image.

Often relationships over the internet are maintained via text, or the occasional image and short video. These communications can be drafted and redrafted, while phone calls and interacting face-to-face in real time are increasingly being seen as too “awkward.” What causes this and then follows from it even stronger is neurotic introspection. That which marginalizes becomes a fixation, as opposed to basis of a bond between people that has the potential to make one another stronger through resistance to it. Anxiety and awkwardness result from a heightened fixation on oneself as a result of any ability to develop solid bonds between becoming stunted.

When isolated people find each other in life, they potentially become more powerful together. This is quantitative, in that more people means more possibilities, but more importantly it’s qualitative. Relationships can deepen through experiences that are shared together. And stronger relationships make stronger people. Think about the courage that people seemingly spontaneously acquire when someone they love is in danger. Bonds between people aren’t always that dramatic, but they are ubiquitous in daily life. When my friend thinks of a funny joke and smiles as they begin to tell it, I smile back even before I’ve heard the punchline. What’s happening in this moment of affectation is not located inside them, nor inside me, but instead in the invisible bond between us. Emotions are contagious, and that makes them political.

Another reason why this post-Occupy wokeness hasn’t produced gains for revolution and anarchy is the lack of power that comes from it. The immense focus on victimization and shameful self-flagellation is directly opposite from the anarchist idea that one should try to gain control of ones’ life. To be clear, I’m not posing anarchy as a bootstraps mentality, but rather to posit that anarchists see themselves as protagonists in their own lives. The bonds between us aren’t based on our victimhood, but on our resistance to what hurts us. “Destroy what destroys you.” I am constantly trying to think of ways to project myself onto this world, and to attack those things which I see as sabotaging the possibility of me living a free life through healthy relationships with other people and the planet.

When one isn’t able to wage war against the world around them, they do battle in the world inside themselves. And judging by how neurotic, anxious, and paralyzed the population has become, it’s a losing one.

In “We Are All Very Anxious” by Plan C, a valuable essay that can be easily found online, it’s suggested that anxiety is a defining characteristic of our era. Social media and the internet are surely related to this. Everything that one says on the internet has the potential to stay archived and accessible for people to see and judge you, possibly for decades. Additionally, social media promotes bite-sized thought, ideas, and communications, where complex ideas are shrunk and ethical conundrums are flattened into oversimplified dichotomies promoting moralistic reaction and denunciation. Face-to-face interaction provides at least the possibility for empathy, in that you see the person whose feelings you are about to hurt; but the style of communication through the internet promotes cruelty. It also enforces a social life based on the mini-rewards of notifications and likes.

What all these recent cultural developments have brought is an expansion of performance in everyday life, where one is constantly trying to impress those around them, or if not that, at least worried about the things they say. As every psychologist and self-help book will tell you, this is the exact opposite of a healthy way to approach life.

Progress is destroying the earth and putting another layer of colonization over our social relationships, including one to ourselves. It was briefly de-enchanted after the 60s but now, at the worst time possible, it’s looking seductive again. Let’s put a hostility towards progress back alongside the social struggles and projects we’ve been a part of. Or, at the very least, let’s realize that technology is not neutral, and that it carries the culture and social relationships of the systems that created it.