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How to Look at Facebook

Devon Bombassei considers the irony of our ‘liberation’ in the digital age.

In his 1954 essay ‘How to Look at Television’, the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno examined the layers of oppression at work in television, then a novel artform. Meant to entertain, evoke, and, perhaps most importantly, to liberate, Adorno argued that television instead hypnotized humanity as the charlatan herald of a new Golden Age. An inconspicuous medium, television established itself as the newest and perhaps most intimate form of domination. Watched in our living rooms and bedrooms, the earliest programming was, on a conscious level, relatable, heartfelt, at times absurd, but enjoyable. Maybe its role as a simple diversion – after the work day, much easier to engage with than the tiny font of a paperback – amplified its appeal. On a subconscious level, however, Adorno argued, television had a grimmer effect. Using humor and other devices to make the treatment palatable, television programmed its audience to tolerate economic conditions and social stereotypes that would have otherwise engendered thoughtful scrutiny. To Adorno, it was television’s ability to mesmerize – to relieve the individual of critical thought – that both ensured and endangered its audience.

In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote that “Men have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self.” Mankind was able to conquer nature by divorcing science from mythology using the cold calculus of reason. With the triumph of man over nature, however, came the “self-alienation of [those] who must model their body and soul according to the technical apparatus.” As humans came to dominate nature, so technology came to manipulate the wants and needs – the very lives – of humanity. Disenchanted from myth, mankind subsequently succumbed to the whims of the machine.

The original inspiration of the Enlightenment as a cultural movement was to free reason from superstition. This has to a remarkable extent been realized, but it seems we are now confronted by a new, but also elusive, threat to reason: that which dictates from the faceless algorithm.

The shape of our present culture is molded by our digital fingerprints. The telegraph, typewriter, and transistor radio, increasingly even the television, are nostalgic relics of a bygone era. But in today’s Information Age we are once again swindled, by a new form of domination, through seductive and omnipresent social networks.

In the New York Review of Books for April 9, 2020, the legal scholar Tim Wu remarked that Google, Facebook and their peers lead a new ‘attention economy’. This new era – a digital Enlightenment of sorts – thrives on social connection, immediate gratification, and diverse expression. A new meta-language – a cacophony of tweets, texts, likes/dislikes, memes, etc. – has emerged. For many, the relative ease and accessibility of a platform such as Facebook makes it a comfortable interface for intergenerational and international communication. Yet, as Wu notes, this new era is also the age of ‘Bigger Brother’.

Similar to television, the dawn of the social media algorithm has introduced a new form of oppression. Like virtual temptresses, Facebook, YouTube and the rest enchant an individual with an incessant stream of appeasable content. Yet whereas television manipulated the reactions of its audience through various preset narratives, Facebook etc. go a step further, programming the actual content viewed – on an individual’s news feed, for example. A simple ‘like’ may incite a surge of similar content, including tailored recommendations, for the user to absorb. It’s just as Adorno spoke of television: “everything somehow appears ‘predestined’.”

Unlike television, however, the algorithm has the ability to jolt the very foundations of our democracy. Social media algorithms function to repeatedly affirm the perspective and beliefs of an individual, by spoon-feeding him or her agreeable content. Here Adorno’s ‘wholesale deception of the masses’ is visible in the appeal of easy content devoid of critical reflection. But the mindless scroll through tailored content on our feeds often blinds us to counter-narratives or critical perspectives with which we might have otherwise engaged. Algorithmic bias thus breeds a reluctance to constructively engage with beliefs different from our own. Although Facebook’s algorithm was born from otherwise innocuous commercial intentions, it leads to the repeated exclusion for its clients of voices and ideas. As citizens kowtow to algorithms, technology may quickly turn into weaponry, and any disagreeable or controversial idea may be targeted as a ‘problem’ to expediently resolve or to crush. In this way, our willingness to tolerate and engage in the democratic struggle has atrophied. As a collective, we have lost a critical sense of democratic participation through face-to-face, authentic deliberation with each other – not as adversaries hidden behind our screens or our virtual identities, but as citizens with diverse aims, interests, needs, and wants. Moreover, we have lost a sense of agency, as regards determining what content we may view.

Adorno and his most notable colleagues in the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas, never failed to illuminate the irony of the industrialised human condition. Ironically, with the liberating pursuit of technological advance comes a great risk of oppression, they warned. Indeed, it seems that the warning of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818) about the dangers of runaway unforeseen consequences of new technology, rings especially true in our digital age. Unlike her fictional Creature, however, the real if artificial intelligences behind our screens pose a threat to our democratic processes.

The irony of the Enlightenment was to be seen in the alienation of the working masses – liberated from superstition and old social assumptions by the Enlightenment, yet oppressed by a narrow economic purpose. The Enlightenment, wrote Horkheimer and Adorno, “behaves toward things as a dictator toward men.” In our modern era, a new irony is visible in the alienation of people crouched behind their screens, thinking they are free. We are a populace driven by the liberating thrill of technological progress, yet enslaved to the whims of that same technology.

© Devon Bombassei 2021

Devon Bombassei is an economics and philosophy student at Emory University with an interest in German philosophy, legal theory and ethics.

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