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Cultural Studies

Another Internet is Possible! Or is it?

by Ingrid Hoofd

Karl Marx famously proclaimed in The Poverty of Philosophy: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill a society with the industrial capitalist.” (p. 92) Now as some have been keen to point out, Marx may not have meant to say that for instance the existence of the steam-mill necessarily corresponds to a capitalistic social organisation – after all, Marx was also keen to point out that capitalism on the whole had a transformative potential which eventually could or would segue into socialism. This extraordinary faith Marx exhibits in the potential of radical change that capitalism supposedly harboured nonetheless seems far from having materialized today – one need only to witness the contemporary aggravation of all kinds of forms of oppression and disenfranchisement under neoliberal capitalism, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) since the emergence of new and social media in the last decades. Perhaps Marx’ admonition was more insightfully techno-deterministic than he himself had hoped to display at that time – a kind of Freudian slip of the tongue, in which his optimism around social transformation may itself have been a product of an economy increasingly reliant on technological innovation? Or perhaps those that deny Marx his techno-determinism engage in a kind of optimistic slip themselves?

Karl Marx (ca. 1869; photo: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Marx (ca. 1869; photo: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is around the same kind of ‘critical optimism’ that Christian Fuchs’ student handbook Social Media: a critical introduction revolves. Fuchs’ handbook illustrates through many illuminating examples, discussions, and tables, that social media are imbricated in a fundamentally exploitative and oppressive political economy, in which one part of the nexus of exploitation has shifted from the mere consumer to the ‘prosumer,’ and the other part towards the extreme exploitation of rightless workers in the various global electronics factories. By revealing the many ways in which capitalism has extended its grip on the population by means of the blending of work and play (‘playbour,’ p. 117), the private and public realms (p. 200), and consumer ‘choice’ and audience participation as data commodities (p. 63), Fuchs’ handbook is an undeniably necessary addition to all the other handbooks on social media that are already out there, and that often forego an earnestly critical analysis of new forms of exploitation by talking merely about the ‘affordances’ of these new media.

Fuchs’ book is also a must-read for all those academics who still think that new and social media in any major way make global society more equal or less oppressive – a dream of the democratic and emancipating effects of new technologies under advanced capitalism that Fuchs’ book handsomely dispels. Especially the debunking of the so-called ‘Facebook or Twitter revolutions’ like the ones in Egypt and Tunisia (p. 194), or the ‘digital mobs’ like those of the recent riots in the United Kingdom (p. 201), by showing that both struggles emerged from a profound dissatisfaction of many with the exigencies of global capitalism, is useful for combating the pervasive techno-fix mentality as well as the near-nauseating techno-utopianism of our era. Also, the discussion around private ownership of the means of production – how the main earnings of corporate social media platforms go into the pockets of a very select few – gets usefully foregrounded in the handbook, and helps to understand why ‘prosumption’ does not equal individual emancipation or empowerment. The handbook is furthermore logically organised – explaining some of the main critical social theories (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Tönnies) in the first section; spending the second section mostly on concrete examples (like Google, Twitter, and Wikileaks); while the third section ponders over alternatives. The handbook also contains helpful ‘grey boxes’ with guiding pointers at the start and end of each chapter, which serve as a conceptual compass to the student or reader.

In order to mount the case against corporate social media and neoliberal capitalism in general however, Fuchs’ handbook relies rather heavily – too heavily, in my opinion – on Karl Marx’ insights and viewpoints. Now while this mobilisation of traditional Marxist theory undoubtedly leads to many revealing analyses of the new forms of domination under global capitalism, there are nonetheless a number of problems with this heavy-handed Marxist approach. Firstly, Fuchs rhetorically collapses the entire field of ‘critical theory’ into Marxist and socialist theory in the handbook; but arguably, the two fields are hardly the same thing. Critical theory after all encompasses not only Marxist analyses combined with a socialist politics, but also crucially – one need only consider the wealth of theories coming out of the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools – a variety of feminist and anti-racist perspectives, as well as the whole lineage that has segued into post-structuralism and philosophy of technology. Importantly, all these under-discussed lineages and theories contain vital extensions and complications of Marx’ position. A telling example of Fuchs’ lopsided non-inclusion of such newer critical theories is his claim that Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx shows that Marxism haunts capitalism (p.237), where in actual fact Derrida’s more shocking point in Specters is that Marx’ basic assumptions about the productive and creative human being (‘man’ as the agent of revolution via his tools) was very much in line with the basic liberal ideology of capitalism; Marxism is in this sense indeed the ‘ghost’ or twin-sister of capitalism (see also Jean Baudrillard’s astute critique of Marx’ ‘productivism’ in The Mirror of Production). It comes perhaps as no surprise then that “Marx already had a vision of a globally networked information system;” (p.41) after all, communism shared capitalism’s fervent fantasies of technological grandeur.

Hong Kong protest against working conditions in Chinese electronics factories (Photo: SACOM, released under CC-BY SA 3.0 License, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong protest against working conditions in Chinese electronics factories (Photo: SACOM, released under CC-BY SA 3.0 License, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, because Fuchs refuses to question the myth of technological instrumentalism, the whole Marxist notion of capitalist society being made up of ‘owners versus the proletariat’ that the handbook mobilizes, together with its narrow interpretation of ideology-critique as a mere critique of class structures, seems like a hopelessly outdated model for a more comprehensive critical analysis of social media. This becomes especially apparent when one considers the puzzling questions regarding the nature of those media that the handbook glances over. For instance, do not activist social media work through the very same networks of corporate ISPs and IXPs, as well as Western-centric supra-national bodies like ICANN, as corporate social media? So why does the handbook claim that the former have ‘potential,’ while the latter are merely ‘oppressive’ – just because its owners of organisers have different intentions?

In light of this oversight, it is significant that Fuchs disregards (pp.18-19) Herbert Marcuse’s insightful conception of techno-capitalism and the ways in which the technological base exerts its logic over society in One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse in fact explains that the cultural-economic logic of exploitation that the media partake in functions by falsely portraying the media as mere tools that one can use for either good or bad ends depending on one’s politics, and that all classes (since the demarcations between them are no longer oppositional) have become differentially subjected to this general falsity. (p.8) Fuchs is so keen to disentangle the ‘goodies’ (activist social media, the ‘potential’ of Wikipedia) from the ‘baddies’ (all corporate social media) of neoliberal capitalism – which of course serves the purpose of eventually arguing, in the third section of the handbook, that social media can be ‘revolutionized’ for a socialist purpose – that his critical analyses eventually become themselves rather repetitive, one-dimensional, and simplistic. Don’t activist social media also base themselves on the very same fantasy of technologies leading to utopia as the corporate media would want us to believe? There is no sense that the handbook at least wants students to grasp some of the complexities that are operative here.

Thirdly, the final slogan “Another Internet is possible. Social media are possible”, (p.266) while certainly sympathetic and seemingly parallel to the alter-globalist slogan “Another world is possible”, mirrors the central problematic that runs throughout the handbook, namely the uncritical assumption that communication as such is essentially a good thing. This unjustified tenet can also be glanced from statements that are sprinkled throughout the book like “Communication is an important aspect of a society free of dominations” (p.18), and “Social media in their current form advance the socialisation of human activities” (p.256). Now, one may argue that such vulgarisations are required for a student handbook, but this simplification in the end again serves to greatly obscure the rich field of critical theory that disagrees with this Western-centric instrumentalist claim. Besides drowning out important alternative voices, it therefore also does an injustice to the promising title of the handbook. Perhaps the main problem of ‘prosumer society’ is instead that more communication leads to the lessening of community, accountability, and democracy? Fuchs’ examples in the various chapters about Foxconn (p.119) and Google’s company culture (p.132) certainly seem to corroborate the latter. What also about the internal disparities regarding gender, race, and geographical location in projects like Wikipedia and Wikileaks? Is it a coincidence that both are headed by white male ‘data-cowboys’ with a complete faith in the Western cultural logic of communicative transparency and the supposedly emergent ‘world brain’? Again, the handbook here erases a plethora of tensions and contradictions that may aide students’ critical appreciation of social media.

ICANN Headquarters in Los Angeles (Photo: Coolcaesar, released under CC BY SA 3.0 Licence, source: Wikimedia Commons)

ICANN Headquarters in Los Angeles (Photo: Coolcaesar, released under CC BY SA 3.0 Licence, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, regarding the side-lining of the rich tradition of critical perspectives on gendered and other kinds of inequalities, the most unpardonable misrepresentation in the handbook surely consists of the short paragraph titled “The Feminist Critique” (p.182). Fuchs here mentions briefly that some feminist and postmodern scholars have critiqued Jürgen Habermas’ idea of the public sphere by pointing out that the ‘public’ sphere is internally divided and historically has worked by ways of exclusion various groups (of women, for instance). In the next paragraph though, he single-handedly swipes this critique off the table by proclaiming that “one needs unity in diversity in order to struggle for participatory democracy”, rendering the entire and enormous problematic of internal hierarchies in contemporary social movements seemingly irrelevant. (p.182)

Fuchs’ proclamation towards a forced ‘unity’ performs a tellingly white masculine form of symbolic violence, which mirrors rather unnervingly the old-fashioned and limited Marxist perspective that runs throughout the handbook. As with Marx, is it possible that Fuchs resorts to such tactics so as to serve the selling – as a good branding exercise in ‘prosumer’ capitalism would – of his particular handbook as if it is a radical instrument for the student population in the contemporary universities to stage a ‘social media revolution’? Does his socialist intention not remain thoroughly embedded in the logic of contemporary capitalism? Indeed, if this is so, then the stakes for a true socialist resistance against contemporary capitalism would have been raised far beyond the purview of the academic as political agent indeed. It is namely this compulsion to be upbeat about the potential of new technologies in the hands of the political agent that Fuchs demonstrates, rather than the fact that many social media are at base corporate entities, that should have his students and readers worry most in regards to the near-total grip of neoliberal capitalism on our existence and imagination.

Despite these serious shortcomings though, the handbook has a lot going for it, especially in light of the current dearth of critical analyses of social media in general, and of the urgent necessity of teaching students today to critique capitalism more than ever before in particular. I might therefore surely use parts of the handbook for my own teaching, but only by having my students critically engage the handbook’s simplifications and erasures as well. After all, by Fuchs’ own logic, another handbook is (and should be) possible too.

Christian Fuchs: Social Media. A Critical Introduction
ISBN-13: 978-1-4462-5731-9
Price: GBP23.99
London: Sage 2014, 304 pages, paperback.

References

Baudrillard, Jean (1975). The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1994). Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international. Transl. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Marcuse, Herbert (1964). One-Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Marx, Karl (1920). The Poverty of Philosophy: a reply to “La philosophie de la misere” of M. Proudhon. [1847] Transl. H. Quelch. Chicago: C.H. Kerr & Co.

 

Ingrid M. Hoofd is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Culture at the Humanities Faculty of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her research interests are issues of representation, feminist and critical theories, philosophy of technology, and information ethics. She is the author of Ambiguities of Activism: Alter-Globalism and the Imperatives of Speed (London: Routledge 2012) and is currently working on her next monograph tentatively titled The Accelerated University: Complicit Dislocations at the Bleeding Edge.

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