| TECHNOLOGY & FREEDOM |
IN THE METAL HEDGEROWS
By Paul A. Toth
The Montréal Review, March 2011
"Eight Strong Winds" by Marcel Dzama
Ink and watercolor on paper
4-part drawing. Framed: 49 3/4 x 33 3/4 inches (126.4 x 85.7 cm)
at David Zwirner Gallery
How did it come to this? The Internet, in its Wild West days, promised a truly-wild frontier. For a while, anything went, but now everything must go. The current American leader recently said the magic words: "Watch what you post online." It is no exaggeration to consider that statement analogous to phrases spoken as the Third Reich reached deep into social life. If the algorithms that provided the basis for the Internet pointed the way to infinity, simple algebra replaced them: Social networking = social control.
In the States, it is often said that freedom of speech does not equate the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But what if the theater is on fire? What if your employer's building poses a fire risk and you announce that risk online? You may be terminated. But it runs far deeper than that.
In all but a few states, anyone can be legally fired for absolutely anything posted online. Fact. What matters is not how many people actually are fired for what they post online; such a threat hanging above anyone "lucky to have a job" in this shambles of an economy is enough.
I have witnessed more and more people shielding themselves from the Internet's public eye, when the opposite was the Internet's promise. But we break promises without pause these days. Given that the Internet permeates our socializing in a world where actual socializing has become more and more difficult -- we must busy ourselves training our children to become well-adjusted specialists and soccer players -- this threat essentially eradicates the First Amendment and any equivalent right in any nation.
Consider all that may offend an employer's precious sensibilities. Hesitating to "reveal" that one is gay assumes we live in a nation that persecutes gays. We do live in such nation as proven by the fact that gays may be fired for announcing that fact. Replace "gay" with "Jew" and make the connection. Of course, how can anyone, including any governmental agency, prove exactly why a gay employee was fired? It's not as though any employer would record the true reasons for such a person's termination, having his secretary record on the appropriate for, "I hate gays. Unsuitable worker." Many have been fired for "inappropriate" videos posted in college. Nothing is forgiven in the most self-described religious nations, but that merely disguises the true problem. In a world of surplus labor, no one is indispensable.
Advertising poses a unique problem. To some degree, we may appreciate that sites like Amazon.com use technology in recommending items of interest. However, subterfuge again reveals itself with some reflection. Purchasing more and more products via Amazon.com will create an ever-expanding array of temptations. The better-targeted those recommendations, the deeper the temptations. Always we are tempted, and we can quite easily be seduced into buying more books than we can possibly read or films than we can possibly watch during the next decade. I know.
Facebook tries a similar tactic, but the ineffectiveness of it methods and the quality of its advertisers provide comic relief. Simply by having attended a certain school for a few months and making that information available on Facebook, I am constantly besieged by advertisements for psychiatric seminars. I would rather subject myself to a lobotomy than attend a conference of disinformation.
The Internet also serves a constant stream of spectacles. Videos and the "ideas" they entail go viral. Suddenly, the public stops wondering why their lives are falling apart in an economic depression. Instead, they speak or write of dead birds falling out of the sky or some other "extraordinary" event that always proves ordinary. By that time, another "extraordinary" event has taken its place. Meanwhile, the end "product" of the spectacle equates the last "product" of a concentration camp: corpses of the damned. Teeth sink into these corpses of the spectacle, the Michael Jacksons who, like Jesus, atone, only the latter atone not for sins but to maintain the public's desire for more, more, more . Having outlived his usefulness as a spectacle, Michael Jackson and others like him are then spent to the last penny, the debt collector demanding the grand finale. As always, the public witnesses. It does not act because it cannot act; there is nothing upon which to act. Thus, witnessing seems to be an act precisely because no real action affords a comparison that would reveal witnessing as mere witnessing, a form of absorption, either unmitigated or, at best, analyzed and understood as manipulative and yet still incapable of being diffused. The witnesses sees bombs and the aftermath of bombs. That is all the witness does, and that is all the witness can do.
For these reasons, 9/11 was a non-event of witnessing for all but the unfortunate statistical few. The true target was not the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or those who died in them but the surviving witnesses. The political actors -- precisely labeled -- all but went nuclear in response to the event they also witnessed and knew was coming. All conspiracy theories may stop with that one provable statement. It was coming, and nothing was done to prevent it. Nuclear war in in fact the final spectacle that, no matter intensely all may deny the desire for such a catastrophe, all desire that catastrophe. Irrational? Yes. Spectacles have become educators, pounding into brains that irrationality is rationality.
The Internet, and before that television, increased the number and power of spectacles and also embed irrationality as the "real" rationality. Eventually, pseudo-political debates in which even the most seemingly-vicious political showdown's aftermath can be easily imagined: The "opponents" pat each other on the back and say, "Good show!" They know that they always debate irrelevant cultural issues, or minor economic changes, or "reform" disguising its true and opposite purpose. The louder the screaming, the more transparently facetious any difference between opponents becomes. And yet, this is presented as rational and intellectually stimulating content. Instead, it is the void of all spectacles. Like the hole in history ripped open by the Holocaust, "Why?" becomes a question followed by an infinite array of unprovable theories. Any void creates only more voids, and by that means, all spectacles reproduce.
The Internet does disseminate ideas, but as ideas piles upon ideas, they become like so many E-books, disappearing in the mist. Most users slide into news that is not news, like the spectacles already mentioned. This is an intentional dumbing down of public dialogue, forming virtual public dialogues that descend into facsimiles of televised pseudo-debates. That's the bright side. The majority of users engage in discussions of pure trivia. They may also discuss the "symptoms" of their "mental illnesses," which are nothing but uncomfortable recognitions of the technological environment in which all exist and the source of all alienation. Nature is for tourists. Life is "lived" in an entirely constructed "over-environment," and while it may be seen as "absurd," it couldn't be more rational. Its construction benefits those who financed and directed the construction. "Follow the money" is the golden key to determining the motivations of those who provide the spectacles.
The original thesis of this article was to suggested that the Internet had been released to the public with social control being its goal from the start. Instead, the Internet developed organically. The result remain the same. What developed organically is now in the hands of ornamental gardeners, forever trimming rights, reshaping minds, and ultimately rendering even the virtually organic as entirely inorganic and within their control.
Self-censorship, trivia, fixation on spectacles, and the disappearance of any true public dialogue have been hyper-magnified and accelerated by the Internet. The economic crisis has abetted the process by frightening the free speech out of anyone with even the simple desire to express their thoughts, so long as that person requires a job. Almost everyone exists in and as cells, yet only a very few of us are terrorists. Nevertheless, almost everyone lives under observation. With the obvious exceptions, humans have become ants wandering the metal hedgerows of ornamental gardeners, subject to pest control should they gather an army.
Paul A. Toth is the author of three novels, his latest being Finale. His next, Airplane Novel, will be released in July 2011. He also publishes poetry, nonfiction and multimedia pieces. You can find his work at www.tothworld.com.