A Quick Aside to Whet your Appetite (proper post coming soon)

Cop27 (the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, 2022) seemed to mostly be spent negotiating financial support for the poorer countries suffering most from the breakdown of the planet’s climate systems in a welter of extreme weather events. The hammering out of a treaty, and the billions of dollars these countries should now receive, is absolutely necessary and incredibly urgently needed. It is to be welcomed and applauded.

The unfairness and inequality of the situation must be acknowledged, also – the fact that the countries that caused most of the climate damage in their successful pursuit of wealth are consequently much less vulnerable to the climate havoc they wrought than the countries they exploited and impoverished.

However, I’m unconvinced of the efficacy of rebranding the problem as the search for “Climate Justice” and the money as “Reparations.” Such an antagonist, blaming and self-righteous approach seems likely to stimulate conflict and cause resistance from the citizens of richer countries who feel they are not to blame for the sins of their parents. They had no more choice over where, and to whom they were born than the poorest slum-dweller. Why should they be born guilty while successful, prosperous diplomats, admittedly advocates for the poor, are born innocent by accidents of nationality?

Life is not fair. All of us have some “advantage” over some other people, although most are more trivial. That is why it is the duty of every one of us to strive to make it the world a fairer place. However, there is no more logic (or justice) to cries of “Climate Injustice” or “Complicity”as there would be to “Aesthetic Injustice” based on the fact that you are better looking than I am due to the fact that your mother got to marry a model and my mother didn’t, because she wasn’t rich enough to impress the glitterati.

Is there any evidence that this new approach is more effective, in the long term, than calling on the common interest and humanity of the unjustly affluent? Why, after all, did it seem to take the whole conference to work out these treaties that do nothing to address the immanent world-destroying problem of run-away climate change that also need urgent solution?

Was this because developed countries were dragging their feet and wrangling, reluctant to bear financial responsibility in a global economic down-turn, and knowing many of their citizens would feel resentful and defensive about being blamed and penalised for the sins of their forebears that they had no hand in?

A Very, Very Brief History of Social Media’s Twisted Values

Some of us were very excited, in the early days, by the idea that the internet was an infinite library of knowledge, that we could log on and learn anything we wanted about any subject under the sun. How Naïve!

We were quickly disabused

Internet culture and experience is based on that of the USA, and US culture retains a traditional cartesian mindset in matters of the separation of the spirit and the body. This perhaps owes something to its puritan roots. 

We are all aware of the historical narrative that charts a causal link from the rediscovery of Classical literature and knowledge to the renaissance and a renewed interest in the human individual and the self, outside the medieval Christian collectivist frame. We’ve heard how this led to the enlightenment, with its idea of spiritual self-realisation as the ultimate goal and aspiration of human endeavour. We know about the reinforcement to these ideas given by the development of the moveable type printing presses and the translation of the bible into European languages, allowing Christians to develop a personal relationship with their god, resist the tyranny of the established church, and replace it with the authority of personal conviction. 

We’ve read how these new concepts and theories, and their fierce, proud independence, were transported to a new continent by rebellious and indignant puritans, seeking the freedom to live, think and worship according their own personal judgements, and how they were translated into the pioneering spirit and the idea of “Manifest Destiny”: the belief that not only was it admirable and desirable, but also morally just and right for an individual to carve out a life and a home for themselves in the wilderness, in direct competition with other, often older, more indigenous claimants to the same territory. The self-satisfied pioneer then has a perfect right to put down self-derived roots, and to enjoy the profits of their own labours, without obligation to other people or to higher authorities, just like The Little Red Hen[1].

This, we’ve been led to believe, has led to the rise of the heroic individual, the self-made man (traditionally masculine), rampant consumerism (literal, financial, mercantile, intellectual) in pursuit of self-fulfilment, Reaganite/Thatcherite economics and the erosion of community and civic responsibility (“Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Mrs Thatcher, 1987, from an interview in Woman’s Own magazine.)

Of course, such an overarching meta-narrative is far too simplistic to be true for the complexity of human life, with its 8 billion contributors. Yet there is a beguiling explicatory coherence to it. Every one of these ideas echoes and resonates on the internet and social media, not just in the tweets and posts and comments of its billions of users, but also in the ethos and values that seem coded into its most basic programming: its attempts to facilitate a pioneering freedom on a new frontier, escaping those who would restrict and regulate you;  the belief in free speech, in the inherent virtue in rebellion, in staying true to your own beliefs, in disrupting orthodoxy.

[1] Appropriately, this story is American in origin, according to Wikipedia, and was first published by Mary Mapes Dodge in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1874. She claimed her mother used to tell it to her. It may owe something to the Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper and clearly promotes a capitalist, pioneering ethos of self-sufficiency. Wikipedia also draws our attention to the story of The Enormous Turnip, which they claim is a Russiantale, first published in Archanglesk Governorate in 1863, by Alexander Afanasyev. This, significantly, is a chain story, where the whole family and community must collaborate to successfully pull up the titular root vegetable and feast upon it together: much more socialist!

Sick of Me Belly-Aching about Social Media? I am

Curating our images online, knowing that we haven’t been entirely truthful about ourselves means we cannot find a satisfying identity in our comrades’ acceptance of who we say we are. In our hearts, we know it’s not really us they are embracing. We have dressed up a mannequin to look like a better version of ourselves. It is this that we have pushed forward into their arms, while we stand behind it, unknown, sorrowful and unloved. We have distanced ourselves from others by our very eagerness to be included. 

What’s worse, behind all our defensive assertions is a terrible knowledge: we know, from our own uncertainty and distrust online, that our companions, in their turn, mistrust us, our very existence. They know we can claim to be whatever we want, whatever we aspire to. And we know they know we have lied to them. 

So, our truly shared knowledge and experience online, what we all really have in common, is a mutual distrust dressed up in a pantomime of acceptance. 

And there is always the chance , somehow, that we won’t get away with it, that, at least in some existential way, we will be unmasked, shamed, reviled as liars and  cheats – distrusted and thus disbelieved in anything we say in future. 

This is the most abject of humblings at the best of times, but online it is truly terrifying, because in a world without substance, you only exist in your verbal communications. Being disbelieved, being banished from your trust-circle means you are nothing. 

If you spend your time on social media, rely on it for the validation, predicate your identity on your online presence, this puts you in a worse position than the most isolated and lonely people in the real world. Theycan fall back on their sense of animal self, however unpleasant, however greasy, overweight and farty, and on the rhythm and habits of their physical existence. Their loathed and sagging, stubbly, hungover reflection in the mirror is still their own, themselves. 

But, online, being ignored or disbelieved or ghosted extinguishes the soul.

You become a doubtful phantom, prey to great storms of soul-destroying self-doubt.

 Because we are herd or pack animals. We need company. Physically present, warm, human companions. We are not solitary creatures who rely only on our own singular, changeable fancies to prove we exist. We need and crave recognition and reinforcement of our selves to be sure that we are truly present, that we truly exist.

Social Media’s Sleep of Reason Brings forth Phantoms

These regrettable truths should remind us, though, that we do not have sole ownership of ourselves. Our identity is communally owned, because we are who we are recognised to be and how we respond to that recognition, so that the self is negotiated with our communities, and is all the better for it. Our identities are so much more weighty, more complex, more rounded, flawed, troubled, interesting, rewarding than the flimsy list of boastful inanities, childish make-believe and desperate self-justifications we lay claim to online. 

There is much that can be altered, changed, bettered about ourselves. But to claim that your self is wholly under your own conscious control, that you exist solely by an act of self will  is to become an unreliable, mutable phantom self, the unprovable self, the self of whims and fashions, of language, of changing thought yet also half-recognised, misunderstood wordless feeling; the self that needs constant monitoring, curating, defending, restating.

Online solipsistic heroes of the solitary self are increasingly ungrounded and unanchored to facts and truth and the body, prey to their own lies, to being consumed by their own untruths, their own unreality, capable at any point of blowing away, like shreds of mist. 

And this has become the primary medium for human attention and aspiration. 

The Regrettable Truth about Trans

In fact, we are not just who we want to be or say we are. Parts of our identities, such as sex or gender, are biologically inescapable. They dictate the manifestation and the fundamental shape of certain foundational experiences that form our identities, whether we embrace or resist them. 

If you are born with a Y sex chromosome, for example, you will not experience menstruation, period pains, pregnancy, or childbirth; you will not lactate or nurse a child. You will also not be seen or treated as girls and women are in your society, subjected to, and conditioned by, the expectations and prejudices imposed on them. In other words,  you will be unable to have some of the formative experiences that, in aggregate, add up to define girl-, woman- and motherhood. 

No womanly identity consciously adopted by someone born male can be the same, although their experiences are equally valid. Trans-women are fundamentally different from those who form the defining template of the sex/gender “Women.” Their sex chromosomes remain XY, and the life paths this has set them off on are not those open to women. In some ways they can become a “sort-of” woman by assiduously adopting the behaviours and artificially constructing the body parts that signal femininity in their societies; in others, they remain a sort of man: an altered man, and thus, in a structuralist sense, they are still a sort of “not-woman.”

Nothing can be done about this. It is nobody’s fault. We all need to learn to live with the undeniable fact of our unsatisfying and inadequate selves, although I’m not saying the burden is equally felt. 

We all must support each other with understanding, compassion and tolerance as we try out different strategies to do this. 

Why Making Up New Genders Doesn’t Make You Happy

We’ve established that the internet is a realm of doubt and uncertainty, where nothing is verifiable. We cannot be sure our comrades online are who they say they are. Everything about them could be a lie, their photos photoshopped or stolen, their biographies complete fictions, their motivations deeply suspect and often suppressed and hidden even from themselves. We can’t even be sure they are human, rather than bots. The suspicion engendered by all this has led to a whole new category of online behaviour: Catfishing. And no matter how much catfishing the internet hosts, it is sure to sustain an even vaster network of discourse, discussion and anxiety around it, simply by being named and defined.

Online we can construct wonderful, aspirant, entirely fictional personas, but, to do so is to indulge in make-believe, and we know it isn’t true. Others may be unkind if they refuse to play along, but we ought not to be able to force them to say they do, and we cannot force them to think it. So, we must live with their suspicion and scepticism (or suspected scepticism) adding greatly to our insecurity and existential angst. 

You cannot become someone else, simply by wanting it and then telling people you are what you want to be. Wanting will not make it so. We know this in our hearts. By not accepting the truth of our flawed and limited selves, our identities become increasingly false and artificial. 

The Internet has Reduced Us all to Fantasists, Fictions and Cheats

Why fantasists?

Well, since long before the digital age, advertisers had discovered that the most effective way of making a product desirable was to show the target market images of the lifestyle it promised. These, of course, were ideas; constructed images, sounds. They were viewed on flat, impermeable surfaces: Televisions, newspapers, magazines, posters. 

The internet offered a much more interactive, personally tailored, and thus immersive experience. Advances in data gathering have made it possible to target consumers more and more accurately, targeting their particular appetites or aspirations or vulnerabilities. 

Fundamentally, though, the whole sentient human is still blocked, stopped dead by little glass screens through which we cannot pass. All human experience may be depicted on these little glass screens, but they are tiny, unreachable and enclosed within frames. They are referenced, rather than lived. 

In other words, the internet is only capable of engaging language, picture-symbols, and abstract thought. The biological, sentient, social self, reinforced and grounded by physical, geographical, and historical context, by the recognition of a living community and family, must be left at the internet’s portal. The self of body language, of uncaring shrugged shoulders, humorously cocked eyebrows or annoyed moues; of warm hugs and hands held secretly under the table, of shy, soft kisses; the self of laughter, raised voices or excited volubility; of hunches, impressions and sudden pangs of empathy – all that self must be given up.

Only the insubstantial, mutable, phantom self can enter: the self of language: unproven, unprovable, existing only through doubtful verbal assertion. Untrustworthy.

The Next Part: Social Media is an Imagination Parasite, Feeding on your Brain

For its financial backers, the purpose of the internet, especially social media, has never been connecting people, or building communities, or allowing people to access information. The internet has always been a tool for collating data on potential customers, all over the world, combined with new ways of reaching them with more precisely targeted decoys and persuasions, and, finally, a portal through which to actually sell them things. 

Happily for them, it has turned out to be effective beyond their wildest dreams. Its vast scope and reach, its universal accessibility has amplified sellers’ messages and influence a thousand times. Even better, innovative coding has made the medium itself increasingly addictive and inducing of obsession. It’s brilliant!

However, for them it remains a tool, a particularly effective and exciting new gadget, not an all-encompassing, totally absorbing, escapist alternative reality. Increasingly wildly enriched and influential, these financiers, executives, IT engineers and coders remain pragmatists, inhabitants of the real world. Think how many coders of algorithms designed to be addictive restrict their children’s access to the internet.

We, their victims, though, have become helpless fantasists, dependent on the fumes of hopeless dreams

How This All Ties Together, part II (Stay with me!)

Start-ups need funding: coders need to eat; take aways cost money. From the outset, internet projects, programmes and sites were built, managed, developed and expanded around the world on their potential as business and marketing tools in the American consumer-capitalist model. 

Marketing is aspirational: if you buy the product, life will be better than it is now. Aspiration is predicated on dissatisfaction with present reality, with the bruising and upsetting compromises we have to make, every day, with other people, our physical and mental limitations, and the limitations of our world.

So the internet was soaked , from its very first lines of code, in the notion that technological advances: progress and development, would inevitably create a better world; that progress, innovation and development (like democracy) were by definition good things. If you can demonstrate that your activity or your organisation represents progress, innovation, or development, (or is arrived at through a democratic process) then it is automatically exonerated, no, it is exalted, morally virtuous. 

To which I would say two things:

  1. The Manhattan Project
  2. Zyklon B

(or, in the case of democracy:

  1. The German Election of 1933
  2. Brexit
  3. The election of Donald Trump.

Although, in all three of these examples, the democratic model was deeply flawed and thus not actually representative: In a truly representative democratic model Hillary Clinton won: more people voted for her. We all know this in our hearts. Truth exists, even if it’s difficult to arrive at.)

Trans Rights, Social Justice, Critical Race Theory: How This All Ties Together (Part 1)

Consciousness embraces the reality of our bodily sensations and experiences and the thoughts that arise from these experiences. Yet millions, most western people, I suspect, neglect and disdain the embodied self. Instead, they believe in an interior psyche of pure thought, of a-priori, pre-existent spirit, separated from, even entirely hostile to, the corporeal facts that imprison it. This spirit has, for them, a far greater reality and truth than that of the scientific, directly, sensually encountered realm. Despite being whole-heartedly embraced by social media, this is not a modern, progressive idea. It’s thoroughly old-fashioned Cartesian Dualism.

Of course, I blame the internet and mobile phones, for promoting this fiction. (I would!) For a start, these devices have standardised and homogenised youth culture and life events all around the world, and this new culture is saturated with Americanism.

Whatever Britain’s and Tim Berner-Lee’s claims, the ground-breaking coders and designers of the internet were American citizens, born into, fostered by, and brought up in an amniotic bath of American cultural assumptions and experiences. 

American society, its core, collective beliefs, its whole atmosphere, are underpinned by the concept of the pioneering individualist. Theirs is an adventurous rebel nation founded on personal acts of rejection and dissent. Americans have always been taught to pursue their own goals, forging their own path, building their own homestead, free of interference, free to live their own life and to become their best, true selves.

These are the values of consumer capitalism, for what could be more virtuous than a society that grants all the freedom to prosper, and the opportunity to satisfy their own personal appetites?