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Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd

by Greg Van Alstyne

In this essay I have tried to elucidate a number of crucial theses from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle by reexamining them in view of conditions within the growing digital economy. I have also considered what the spectacle is not in the hope of avoiding the kind of oversimplification of Debord's theory which is all too common.
The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. (Guy Debord,The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 1)

Originally published in Paris in 1967 as La Societé du spectacle, Debord's text, a collection of 221 brief theses organized into nine chapters, is a Marxian aphoristic analysis of the conditions of life in the modern, industrialized world. Here "spectacular society" is arraigned in terms that are simultaneously poetic and precise: deceit, false consciousness, separation, unreality. Debord's influence today is beyond dispute.

Upon revisiting this book I have been impressed by the immediacy of the theory. For Debord seemed to be describing the most intensively promoted phenomenon of this decade, the planet-wide network of existing and promised digital commodities, services and environments: cyberspace.

Cyberspace is supposed to be about interactivity, connectivity and community. Yet if cyberspace exemplifies the spectacle through the relationships which we will investigate here, it is not about connection at all -- paradoxically, it is about separation.

The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges.

That this along with numerous other passages from The Society of the Spectacle seems to describe the imploding virtual world of digital communications is not a coincidence. But note well: the nature of the "unification" in question here is at the heart of Debord's theory. He continues:

Being isolated -- and precisely for that reason -- this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation. (Thesis 3)

As we will see, within the spectacle, as within the regime of technology, cultural differences are made invisible and qualitative distinctions between data, information, knowledge and experience are lost or blurred beyond recognition. Our minds are separated from our bodies; in turn we are separated from each other, and from the non-technological world.

The Transformation of Knowledge

...the spectacle is by no means the outcome of a technical development perceived as natural; on the contrary, the society of the spectacle is a form that chooses its own technical content. (Thesis 24)

What can it mean to say the spectacle chooses its own content? The words of Jean François Lyotard offer some explanation. Lyotard is concerned with the transformation of knowledge through the changing operations of language, including the rise of computer languages. In his book The Postmodern Condition, he discusses ways in which the proliferation of information-processing machines will profoundly affect the circulation of learning. He writes:

The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language.

Editing, in any medium, has always been a valorizing process with aesthetic as well as practical costs and benefits. But this is something different. There is an inevitable and incalculable loss of context and connotation involved in getting objects "into the computer," not to mention the purely technical thresholds of information density (resolution, throughput, bandwidth, etc.).

Contrary to our technocratic wishful thinking, there are much deeper problems here than technical ones. For when all information is to be digitized, that which is not digitized will cease to have value, and that which is "on-line" will acquire a significance out of all proportion to its real meaning.

The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: "Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear." (Thesis 12)

Of course a transformation of this magnitude is not unprecedented, as we know from the examination of typographic and printing technology in Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy. Neither is it going unnoticed. Lest we forget that we are in the midst of a "revolution," we are reminded of it daily by a thousand advertisers. But who can say what kind of distortion is taking place when all qualitative relationships are miraculously transformed into quantitative ones?

The Transformation of Ourselves

Though separated from his product, man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail of his world. The closer life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically he is cut off from that life. (Thesis 33)

What is our role in this epistemological shift? Why are we allowing it, and how are we changed by it? For Jerry Mander, the extended use of technology involves an inevitable adaptation:

Humans who use cars sit in fixed positions for long hours following a strip of gray pavement, with eyes fixed forward, engaged in the task of driving. As long as they are driving, they are living within what we might call "roadform." McLuhan told us that cars "extended" the human feet, but he put it the wrong way. Cars replaced human feet.

Following this logic, Allucquere Rosanne Stone has written a number of enthusiastic but cautionary investigations of "prosthetic" communications technology and its positive potential to decouple the gendered subject and the physical body. To find the most incisive answers, however, we must return to McLuhanand the myth of Narcissus. The word Narcissus, McLuhan tells us, comes from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness:

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became a servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

For the solipsist, there is no problem here: in this view, one cannot know anything other than the contents of one's own mind or consciousness -- the mind is always a closed system.

When we are enthralled in any immersive virtual environment, the body seems to become mere baggage (or "meat"). Any synthetic illusion which is sufficiently well resolved to convince or even confuse the senses can capture our undivided attention. So why should we not try to pack up and move in? If perception is constructed, then there is no reason to privilege the "real" -- there is no "real" at all.

Suppose we allow that reality is not "an inherent property of the external world," but instead is "largely an internally generated construct of the nervous system". All the more reason, then, to recognize the principal operative condition of every synthetic environment: sensory deprivation. The relative poverty of any artificially generated experience seems quite evident when compared to a day spent in the country, our attention cast toward the infinity of events surrounding us.

It is the desire for immortality and for control, the kind of control and self-empowerment which we are denied in everyday life, which drives us. Virtual reality is not an antidote to the anaesthetizing built environment. It is simply a different formulation of the same drug.

The Promise of Total Connection

The spectacle ... makes no secret of what it is, namely, hierarchical power evolving on its own, in its separateness, thanks to an increasing productivity based on an ever more refined division of labor, an ever greater comminution of machine-governed gestures, and an ever widening market. In the course of this development all community and critical awareness have ceased to be.... (Thesis 25)

Cybernetics, the transdisciplinary subject which gives its name to cyberspace, originated in the 1940s as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. It thus concerns itself with the flow of messages, and the problem of controlling this flow to ensure the proper functioning of some complex system, be it organic or artificial. So what happens when the system in question is a social system?

"Virtual community" is the latest in a series of oxymoronic expressions used to articulate the indispensibility of computers, which will allegedly unleash the forces to reconstitute mass society as the "public" once again. Of course the promise of a fully wired planet is not new, and we are all familiar with the basic connotations of McLuhan's "global village." What is new is the feverish pitch of these claims that computers will return us to an ideal form of participatory democracy, a new "Athens without slaves."

Not everyone shares this New Age optimism. There are some dissenting voices even among the digerati (as the digital intelligensia are known). According to Larry Keeley, at a recent TED conference (Technology, Entertainment and Design), a number of attendees:

... disagreed that the Internet is, or ever could be, a true community. [Author Daniel] Boorstin observed that seeking brings us together and finding separates us. The Internet, which makes finding very easy, substitutes commonality of interests for shared long term goals.

Clearly the race to become wired is fueled by some anxiety. Just how far will it take us?

The Growth of the System

There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle all activity is banned -- a corollary of the fact that all real activity has been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle. So what is referred to as "liberation from work," that is, increased leisure time, is a liberation neither within labor itself nor from the world labor has brought into being. (Thesis 27)

Why is the Internet, currently said to incorporate millions of computers and tens of millions of users, growing at a rate of 20% per month?

Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and the concept of a 500 channel infobahn is has triggered the goldrush of the information age. There is a lot of liberal rhetoric about the need to circumvent a system of information haves and have-nots. Yet the Western economies are charging ahead surrounded by chronic workaholism and chronic unemployment -- two sides of the same postindustrial coin.

The Society of the Spectacle is Not About Images

The spectacle cannot be understood either as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm -- a world view transformed into an objective force. (Thesis 5)

Until recently the Internet was largely a world of text; one writer called it the place where people "do the low ASCII dance." (Low ASCII refers to the basic character set on American keyboards: upper and lower case letters, numbers, basic punctuation.) Yet there is no doubt that even now, in ever-increasing proportions, the Internet and virtually all other manifestations of cyberspace is carrying more than raw text. Images, sounds, compressed animations, entire radio shows and video sequences are already available over the net as digitized files. By definition cyber-space will come to represent data through spatial forms rather than purely alphanumeric ones.

However, this evolution is not pertinent to my argument. Neither am I claiming that the increasing commercialization of the net is the real threat, though this is as inevitable as it is regrettable. I suggest that the central issue is the problem of representation -- in particular, computer-mediated communication -- not the presence or absence of visual images.

More precisely, it has to do with reification.

... the spectacle's job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations.... It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule. (Thesis 18)

It's About Capital, Stupid

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images (Thesis 4)

The Society of the Spectacle is not about images. It's about the manufacture of lack and the manipulation of desire. It's about separation and isolation.

The telephone is a piece of technology that almost no one chooses to do without. It facilitates "communication." Consider the phone sex advertisements in any major metropolitan centre. What are all these buyers and sellers looking for? In whose interest is this circulation of desire, labour and credit being orchestrated?

Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as the weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of "the lonely crowd." (Thesis 28)

The Economy has Autonomy

The spectacle is the self portrait of the economy. Naturally, an information-based economy will create a digital self portrait. That self portrait is cyberspace.

The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it has become image. (Thesis 34)

The Myth of Neutral Technology

If the spectacle -- understood in the limited sense of those "mass media" that are its most stultifying superficial manifestation -- seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it, and that it answers precisely to the needs of the spectacle's internal dynamics. (Thesis 24)

At the root of all enthusiasm about digital technology is its seemingly limitless potential for abstraction. That anything may be encoded and symbolically mapped onto anything else within digital space makes the computer the most arrogant and fascinating invention ever conceived.

The computer represents the quintessential modern-day tabula rasa; when it is "booted" it must "pull itself up by its own bootstraps." Its output is only as good or bad as the data it is given: Garbage In, Garbage Out, as the saying goes. This tremendous plasticity incessantly reinforces the notion that it is a neutral tool.

Jerry Mander carefully dismantles the myth of neutral technology in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. His arguments are holistically constructed. While he is primarily concerned with TV and those aspects of it which are "not reformable," his thoughts apply to technology in the broadest sense. In the following passage we glimpse the web of symbiotic relationships which inextricably tie specific social forms to specific technologies:

If you accept nuclear power plants, you also accept a techno-scientific-industrial-military elite. Without these people in charge, you could not have nuclear power. You and I getting together with a few friends could not make use of nuclear power. We could not build such a plant, nor could we make personal use of its output, nor handle or store the radioactive waste products which remain dangerous to life for thousands of years. The wastes, in turn, determine that future societies will have to maintain a technological capacity to deal with the problem, and the military capacity to protect the wastes. So the existence of the technology determines many aspects of the society.

Cyberspace Serves Itself, Not Us

The unreal unity the spectacle proclaims masks the class division on which the real unity of of the capitalist mode of production is based. What obliges the producers to participate in the production of the world is also what separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from local and national limitations is also what keeps them apart. What pushes for greater rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchical exploitation and repression. What creates society's abstract power creates its concrete unfreedom. (Thesis 72)

As the technological progeny of a given social system, cyberspace cannot help but reproduce this society that created and nurtured it. The only kind of revolution that computer-mediated communication will sponsor is one in which computers and capitalism themselves will flourish ever more effectively. There can exist libertarian tendencies within cyberspace (by all means, the more the merrier), but ultimately it cannot be fundamentally liberating. To do so it would have to succeed in dismantling itself. But this will never happen.

The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.
--Audre Lord

My Folly

The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle is inborn in us.
--Paul Valéry

Perhaps this exercise will counter some of the hype of the cybernautical cheerleaders who are spilling ink (electronically and otherwise) in the service of something which seems to promise everything to everyone, and which is faulted solely on technical and logistical grounds, for failing to deliver on schedule.

There is a need for a critique of technology which is not based in instrumental rationality, rather which proceeds from epistemological or even spiritual concerns: How do we know what we claim to know? and why do we have faith in certain ideas? Alongside the palatable optimism of Marshall McLuhan and the intoxicating nihilism of Jean Baudrillard there must be voices which are dissonant enough to stand out against the 500 channel chorus.


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