Going with the Flow
Having sworn to a Lent-long sabbatical from social media, I am enjoying the space away from the frenzy, a brief escape from the algorithms that dominate the ether of our lives transmitting outrage and hysteria back and forth in an ever-escalating war of exhausting in-consequence.
A report last year told us that people look at their mobile phones once every twelve minutes. Once every twelve minutes I thought? What are they doing for the other eleven?
Online culture through our poorly named ‘smart phones’ and our mis-named ‘social media’ is all-pervasive, all-encompassing and completely immersive. It means we are “on” all of the time and this isn’t conducive to “being” or “thinking” in a way that is healthy for us as individuals or as a society.
Being “on” means we are consuming all of the time – either the adverts that infest our visual landscape – or the Cookies that search our behaviour (with our endless permission) – or the facial recognition that we rejoice in from our latest gadget (but also tracks down protestors across the world).
We are being bought and sold and we are the willing brokers.
As the Enough collective which launched “Less for Lent” this week argued:
“Capitalism is based on the belief that the best way to organise the economy is by giving us what we want, all of the time. We are addicted to capitalism because we are blinded by the illusion that we can satiate our desires by consuming more.”
We are consuming not just endless apps, goods and crap we don’t need to clutter up our lives until we buy the de-cluttering book to do away with it all – but ideas too.
We are in the business of endless hot-takes, positions and postures and it is destroying both our common sense, our sense of perspective, and our ability to see a bigger picture of empathy, solidarity and commonality.
There’s an irony here, that the “net” that unites us in an awesome rich and wonderfully deep pool of instant knowledge, also transforms us into isolated narcissists.
Political and social division, despite Gordon Brown’s recent words, are just a reality of life. The fact that they are being surfaced through new forms of consciousness, itself partly accelerated through the free exchange of information and the new media that the internet makes possible, is a good thing, not a bad thing. Britain is “divided” because it is riven with class power, social inequality, political centralism, institutional racism and feudal hierarchy. It is “divided” because it is dominated by corporate power elites, patriarchal institutions and culture and because it is a constitutional basketcase of unresolved and antidemocratic forces. It is “divided” because it is suffering the inter-generational betrayal of Unionism and the Brexit fantasy. Not just Britain, but the entire world is “divided” by our inheritance of a worldview which separates us from the natural world, a perspective which is catapulting us into a catastrophic future which we can now glimpse when we look up long-enough to face it.
It is “divided” because, as Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University told BBC News this week, Scotland and England are ‘splitting apart’ on social policy spendings & outcomes which is seeing England becoming more like USA and Scotland moving to more Scandinavian models.
These divisions are real, not imaginary, and they can’t be wished away by another plea for “unity” or “healing” whether that be from tired old Labour politicians or from the maniacs who brought you Brexitland.
That is not to say that we can’t avoid the instant binary reaction of Twitterland and Redditsphere, the culture wars that are raging around gender, sexuality and identity are just the latest expression of a society that can’t speak to itself.
The discussion of the presence in a primary school by a drag artist who performs under the alias Flow to talk about LGBTQ issues last week was the latest incarnation of this malignant phenomena.
Rather than being able to have an adult conversation about how you balance the needs for exhibiting diversity of the wider society with the need for child safety and inappropriate sexual images – we instead just descended immediately into default settings and positions of moral outrage, blame and attack.
This is partly because the “trans issue” – or discussion of the Gender Reform Act – has been weaponised out of all recognition – often by people with their own deeply reactionary attitudes – and who can’t face their own social conservatism (which is often masked by a nominally constitutionalism “radicalism”).
The result is disinformation boosted by people working in bad-faith masking their own prejudices and using these issues as a proxy for their own wars.
This is a disastrous situation for social solidarity and even for our ability to hold public discourse. It prevents, for example, us listening or understanding other peoples perspectives or lived experiences, or recognising that it might be possible to simultaneously be both an ally to vulnerable trans people and to women and to feminists. It prevents us from the realisation that a set of emerging conditions might be complex and not simple and that our attitudes and actions might need to be updated and re-appraised.
It was through this lens that the controversy waged this week about “Flows” appearance at a school.
As Darren McGarvey wrote in the Daily Record:
“This idea primary pupils need protected from sex-related discussion, as some have suggested, is painfully conservative. Children in primary school are smart enough to understand concepts like death, illness and war but not sexual identity and relationships? Then there’s the LGBTQ matter. I’m less sympathetic to those who oppose these issues being discussed in schools. Are we arguing that children are capable of conceptualising God but can’t comprehend everyone isn’t heterosexual?”
This is not so say that people don’t have legitimate issues about protecting their children in a hostile world, and this should be acknowledged not ridiculed.
If we are all in bubbles and silos created by both ourselves and the algorithms – and it seems we are – then this is true also of the world of “intersectionality” and the myriad worlds of the LGBT community. To many people some of the language of these communities is just an arcane jargon, and the tropes used seem infused with a sort of narcissism and privatisation of the self that feels self-indulgent when set against the chaos of poverty and social inequality.
How do we resurrect a public sphere so that we can hold difficult uncomfortable conversations?
God alone knows when this level of toxicity has been cultivated. But one way out of this is to step away from the pinball of social media conditioning. Another is to exhibit actual solidarity in all directions and stop having a “position” or point of view to defend at all costs. Stepping out of your own silo, and stepping away from the keyboard might be a first step to healing our broken public realm. Stepping away from the frenzy of online life might help gain some perspective out there, and stepping away from the grimly constant “now” might help gain a historic look at complex issues.
As George Gunn has written this week:
“The present “now” is a grim comedy where capitalists do not have any capital, communists have no communism and Scotland has no state-hood. In this sort-of Kodachrome society where negative information is always more popular than positive interaction and where the fake is always bigger and shinier than reality.”
Relentless negativity – ‘Kodachrome society’ – is a marked feature of the online world.
But the funny thing about the apparent culture war raging is that there is a mirror effect.
The notion that hyper-partisan émigré bloggers might have women’s best interests at heart lacks any credibility. But the idea that “the personal is political” has no ramifications in an era when were are losing all sense of the collective and the social, also feels lacking.
In an age where socio-ecological crisis mount daily – and difference is amplified boosted and hyped through our contemporary means of communication, this is important. The performative dance of outrage needs to be replaced by real-world solutions and solidarity.
The message this Spring is: it’s not about ‘you’ anymore.