“Captive Cyberspace is Conquering its Victor”: Onlife and the Spectacle Society

It must not be forgotten that every media professional is bound by wages and other rewards and recompenses to a master, and sometimes to several; and that everyone of them knows he is dispensable.

– Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

Reading Debord now is like revisiting a world of hope that no longer exists. From the time he documented the Society of the Spectacle to now we’ve been immersed in the simulated worlds of information and communciations technologies (ICTs); or, what Lucian Floridi would later term, the infosphere of our onlife.

“Infosphere” is a word I coined years ago on the basis of “biosphere,” a term referring to that limited region on our planet that supports life. By “infosphere,” then, I mean the whole informational environment made up of all informational entities (including informational agents), their properties, interactions, processes, and relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, “cyberspace” (which is only one of the sub-regions of the infosphere, as it were), since the infosphere also includes offline and analog spaces of information. We shall see that it is also an environment (and hence a concept) that is rapidly evolving. – Luciano Floridi, ‘Peering into the Future‘.

The notion that our actual material lives has merged with our virtual lives, that in fact the supposed distinctions or barriers between the two have disappeared, vanished, and have become one and the same flow of a new form of technocapitalism in which 24/7 workday is the rule rather than the exception is becoming part and partial of this strange new hyperworld we’ve constructed for ourselves. As tells us everyone, we are told— not just businesses and institutions— needs an “online presence,” needs 24/ 7 exposure , to avoid social irrelevance or professional failure. But the promotion of these alleged benefits is a cover for the transfer of most social relations into monetized and quantifiable forms. It is equally a shift of individual life to conditions in which privacy is impossible, and in which one becomes a permanent site of data-harvesting and surveillance. One accumulates a patchwork of surrogate identities that subsist 24/ 7, sleeplessly, continuously, as inanimate impersonations rather than extensions of the self.( Crary, 104)1

One aspect of the medification of material existence is that individuals – or, as Deleuze and Guattari once termed these new creatures of the technocapital spectacle, ‘dividuals’, have lost touch with history. As Debord implies people are now datasets to be manipulated at will by the masters of the spectacle, commoditized creatures of information, or as Floridi terms it inforgs (i.e., informational organisms that are neither fully material or immaterial but rather flows in a material process to be analyzed,  updated, reontologized as part of an ongoing 24/7 engineering project. “We have begun to see ourselves as inforgs not through some transformations in our bodies but, more seriously and realistically , through the reontologization of our environment and of ourselves. It is our world and our metaphysical interpretation of it that is changing” (Floridi, 15).2

Or, as Debord, in the old parlance, told us: “A person’s past can be entirely rewritten, radically altered, recreated in the manner of the Moscow trials – and without even having to bother with anything as clumsy as a trial” (Debord, 18).3 In a world wrapped in the mediafication of everything in which dividuals exist onlife 24/7 as data to be worked in by ICT systems the rules have changed. Whatever we think we are as creatures of flesh and blood, as brains processing our environments, as living, breathing beings with families, friends, children, etc. we have become more than that in the eyes of the mechanosphere. As Crary states it there is a pervasive illusion that, as more of the earth’s biosphere is annihilated or irreparably damaged, human beings can magically disassociate themselves from it and transfer their interdependencies to the mecanosphere of global capitalism. The more one identifies with the insubstantial electronic surrogates for the physical self, the more one seems to conjure an exemption from the biocide underway everywhere on the planet.(Crary, 100)

Floridi calls the mecanosphere by a different name, infosphere, and tells us that the ICTs within which we have become dividuals or inforgs is radically reshaping us into new forms:

By “radical reshaping,” I mean a very radical form of change, one that not only structures a system (e.g., a company or a machine) anew, but also fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature. In this sense, for example, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies are not merely changing the world in a significant way (as did the invention of gunpowder) but actually reshaping our world in that both enable us to create fundamentally new substances that didn’t previously exist and enable us to interact with and manipulate the world in previously unimagined ways.  – Luciano Floridi, ‘Peering into the Future‘.

This brings me back to those posts I’ve spent time on in the past couple week about Smart Cities of the Future, etc. (see here, here, here, herehere, here, here(Edmund Berger), and here). The market economy or neoliberalism seems to be in process of reinventing itself once again, and is now merging technologies of the virtual network society into the very materials of the infrastructures and archetectures of cities themselves thereby reinventing capitalism and coopting egalitarian notions of creativity – that the left for so long has argued for – into the very fabric of our onlife lives. But this process is not for our benefit, not at all, instead what they are creating is the material conditions for the invisibility of command and control in a new capitalist vision of utopia.

As Floridi explains it:

The convergence of digital tools and resources potentially eliminates one of the most long-standing bottlenecks in the infosphere and, as a result, there is a gradual erasure of friction, the forces that oppose the flow of information within a region of the infosphere. Reducing friction in the infosphere thus reduces the amount of work and effort required to generate, obtain, process, and transmit information in a given environment, by establishing and maintaining channels of communication and by overcoming obstacles in the flow of information such as distance, noise, lack of resources (especially time and memory), amount and complexity of the data to be processed, and so forth. Given a certain amount of information available in a region of the infosphere, the lower the friction in it, the more accessible that amount of information becomes. – Luciano Floridi, ‘Peering into the Future‘.

One could not better state what is at the center of this new capitalist initiative: nothing more or less than the reontologization of human time, labor, and value. As Moshe Postone in his great work Time, Labor, and Social Domination argued by “formulating a critique of labor in capitalism on the basis of his analysis of its historical specificity, Marx transformed the nature of social critique based upon the labor theory of value from a “positive” to a “negative” critique” (Postone, 63).4 The difference between the two is the difference between two worldviews. As Postone iterates positive critique is based on the premises of classical economics – it is transhistorical, undifferentiated notion of “labor” – and uses it to prove the structural existence of exploitation in positive terms (Postone, 63). While negative critique basis its critique of capitalism not on what is but rather on what could be – which points to the possibility of another social formation. (Postone, 64) As Postone elaborates:

In this sense, … the difference between the two forms of social critique is that between a “bourgeois” critique of society, and a critique of bourgeois society. From the viewpoint of the critique of the specificity of labor in capitalism, the critique from the standpoint of “labor” implies a vision of socialism which entails the realization of the essence of capitalist society. (Postone, 64)

What such a conception leads to is an almost diametric reversal of the intentions Marx set out for himself. As Postone tells us the “notion of the self-realization of the proletariat, based upon the affirmation of “labor” as the source of social wealth, was adequate to the immediacy of that historical context. This notion, however, was projected into the future [negative critique] as a determination of socialism; it implies the developed existence of capital, however, rather than its abolition” (Postone, 71).

All of this leads back to the inexorable conclusion that as Postone tells us that Marxist critique is one of “unmasking”, one that proves that “labor” is the source of wealth and the proletariat represents the historical Subject, that is, self-constituting humanity” (Postone, 82). He goes on to elaborate:

Such a position is closely related to the notion that socialism entails the realization of the universalistic ideals of the bourgeois revolution, ideals that were betrayed by the particularistic interests of the bourgeoisie. (Postone 82-83)

Ultimately Postone argued that a return to Marxian analysis must be informed by a theory in which the form of social mediation in the capitalist society constitutes relations rather than class analysis is central to any ongoing critique. As Postone remarks, this “focus on social mediation, rather than on “labor” (or class), means that Marx’s social theory of knowledge, relating labor and consciousness, should be understood as one that grasps forms of social mediation (constituted by structured forms of practice) and forms of subjectivity as intrinsically related” (Postone, 385).

This brings me back to this key notion of social mediation. The Information and Communications Technologies ICTs are the platform within late capitalism within which social mediation is carried on in this commodified multiverse. It mediates us as and shapes us in ways we have yet to fully understand, and as the last remaining barriers (typified by the new NBIC technologies, Smart Cities, etc. ) between the artificial and natural become naturalized within this social mediated world of the Spectacle we must ask ourselves What is to be done?

For as Debord reminds us there “is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because hey can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and the various forces organized to relay it” (Debord, 19). We are immersed in an onlife world in which reality is the infosphere and we have become inforgs caught in a web of deceit without outlet.

Again, What is to be done?

As Floridi remarks:

During the last decade or so, we have become accustomed to thinking about our online lives as a mixture between an evolutionary adaptation of people to a digital environment, and a form of post-modern, neo-colonization of the digital environment by people. This is probably a mistake. Information and communication technologies are as much recasting our world as they are creating new realities. The threshold between here (analog, carbon-based, off-line) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred, but this is as much to the advantage of the latter as it is of the former. Adapting Horace’s famous phrase, “captive cyberspace is conquering its victor.” – Luciano Floridi, ‘Peering into the Future‘.

In fact the  infosphere will not be a virtual environment we plug ourselves into everyday through mobile phones, iTunes, iPads, computer screens, etc., all supported by the material real world around us will vanish, and instead the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere. At the end of this shift, “the infosphere” as Floridi reminds us, “will have moved from being a way to refer to the space of information to being synonymous with Being”. Floridi imagines new informational metaphysics and religions arising in our midst to embrace this new view of the onlife worldview.

Yet, as these capitalist utopias rise in our midst what about all those outside the fold, all those in the slumworlds below the technocapitalist gates, those whose lives will be enslaved by capital to service this synthetic onlife SmartGlobe? What of them? All those dispensable, disposable individuals who will be the untouchables – the invisible people, of this synthetic society of socio-mediated bliss (or, rather nightmares). Floridi quotes the EUNESCO paper he’d once written which related: “Today we are giving the body of organised knowledge a new electronic life, and in so doing we are constructing the digital heritage of the next millennium. Depending on how we meet the challenge, future generations will consider us as new Pygmalions or as old Frankensteins.”

Maybe Godzilla should have had his place in this, too. Maybe instead what we need is a return to Marxian theory that is situated in an understanding of how these very socially constituted mediations are changing the game, that show us how capital is remaking our world in its image, and how we might begin to instead of being captives of this cyberspatial synthetic realm once again learn how we can liberate ourselves into another social form.

Again I ask, What is to be done?

As Debord once stated surveillance “would be much more dangerous had it not been led by its ambition for absolute control…” (Debord, 81). What he was referring to was the inability to analyze and summarize the massive datasets that were being accumulated on humans during his era. But he did not see that capitalism would shift forward and develop new engines of data-capture and analysis, that new AI systems would take over what humans could no longer hope to do: the actual analysis, codification, construction, modeling, and transformation of data into machine code to be used by other machines to command and control still other machines – those very synthetic beings we are becoming, the inforgs or dividuals of technocapitalism. Debord imagined that instead of operating on real humans, these surveillance teams would be operating on theories. Yet, as we’ve seen the demarcation lines between real and artificial, material and immaterial, inforg and individual are coming down and merging creating unexpected creatures who are socially mediated by these very machines for purposes that no longer have a human purpose or meaning.

Floridi thinks that this is why “a philosophy of information that can look into today’s technology is our best chance to shape a better tomorrow”. I’m not quite that optimistic. I tend to remember all those actual real humans outside the synthetic gate who have been forgotten in this new vision of humanity. What about them? Again, What is to be done?

Maybe that is not up to me, but is up to you… and, you, over there… and the girl next to you… and that other one, nodding off, almost asleep in the lecture hall…. the light is dimming, almost dark, the sound has slowed down… the students have left the hall… you stand there alone in the dark… what will you do?

1. Crary, Jonathan (2013-06-04). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (p. 104). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 15). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
3. Guy Debord. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. (Verso, 1998)
4. Moshe Postone. Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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