We communicate because we want to. This simple fact is easy to forget. Communication is like beer which, in the words of Homer Simpson, is both the cause and solution to all the world’s problems. Communication is also like love. If we break down the affects of love, we get a combination of fear, desire, meming, and magnetism.
Meming: By your very symbolic exchange, you become like that with which you communicate.
Magnetism: Communication occurs between parties that recognize a kind of likeness and a kind of difference and are thereby attracted to one another. There is a seeking of bringing structural difference into equilibrium via symbol exchange (meming).
Desire: There’s something beyond the simple magnetism, something more complex, which drives us. Maybe desire is a bit like magnetism plus network effects. Or maybe we have to leave purely logical explanations behind and just take it at face-value. Why must we experience that relative of magnetism “as desire”? This is an open question. I can only say that it is self-evident that desire is its own unique entity and a feature of love. Again, we communicate “because we desire to.”
Fear: Fear is the apparently concomitant of desire. It is the fear of the frustration of love. Again, any definable logic only gets us so far. The content of fear takes on a life of its own, which may more may not be reducible to the other forces.
Love is the elevation of the mysterious/emotional features of an inherently mysterious process: the what, how, and why of communication. On the one hand, it’s easy to forget that there is a piece of attraction that is purely magnetic and memetic, that is pre-biological, that is, “pre-desirous.” On the other hand, It is easy to forget that we communicate because we desire to. This is not to take something away from love, but to highlight the “loving” nature of all communication. We experience symbolic exchange as far more than simple inputs and outputs. The rich/textured nature of experience should not be ignored. It is precisely the content of life.
So communication is symbolic exchange, a symbol being an abstraction plus other stuff. The kernel of the symbol is the abstraction. Whatever is abstracted is reduced to something containing less information, but it is a useful reduction. It’s a mapping. For example, a map of the US is generally an abstraction of our current sociopolitical system layered onto an abstraction of the country’s geography. The American flag is another kind of symbol containing another kind of abstraction. But a symbol is not just an abstraction. It comes with other stuff too. It is an abstraction incarnate. This is part of what people mean when they say: “the medium is the message.” That is, the medium of the abstraction is just as necessary to account for as the explicit/formal significance of the abstraction itself. The medium of the abstraction itself pulses with a host of potential meanings. When these potential meanings are not recognized as such, they are sometimes called noise. But then when the noise itself starts interfacing with other pieces of the system in a way we can construe as causal or somehow significant, we shift our model to attempt to account for the newly recognized signal. Even when not consciously recognized as such, the signal lurks in the noise, just as the noise lurks in the signal.
It’s a bit like evolution. An organism has potentials that only emerge after other mutations and environmental forces bring them to the fore. Even to the point of developing complex mechanisms ex nihilo, as it were. This is noise-becoming-function. Just as vestigial organs are like functions-becoming-noise. This process creates a kind of continuum between what is perceived as necessary and what is perceived as accidental in the symbol. Sense is protean. Symbols are never quite amenable to any one form of reductionism: biological, physical, psychological, or otherwise. Sense-making precedes all these. In the words of Levinas the caress of love speaks prior to language. The symbol hides a host of abstractions and more.
This all matters because the logic of information technologies is determined by the logic of (human) communication.
Undeniably, these technologies have not lived up to expectations. But few seem to understand the nature of the problem, or that there is even something to be understood. Often, the internet is talked about in terms of factors external to the system itself. But the internet, as a giant symbolic system, already implicates enough ambiguities that it would be worthwhile to consider these mysteries before venturing further afield into, e.g., corporate greed or Russian hackers.
Structuralists like Marcel Mauss and Levi-Strauss observed that all social interactions could be understood in terms of communication. Marriage, economic transactions, gift-giving, and of course language can all be interpreted as symbolic exchanges, as information. But now, what was only implicit to earlier modes of social organization has become explicit. Likes and followers and right-swipes and hashtag movements now transpire damn close to the metal. The technical distinction between a federated network (like email) and a closed garden (like Facebook) now has deep and far-reaching consequences for how we relate.
Thesis: Insofar as information technologies reduce a symbol to its abstraction, there is a proportional reduction in the human possibilities of such communication.
The map is printed on paper that yellows and curls. The smell of food means calories, but also conveys a host of possible meanings, only a few of which make their way into our consciousness, but all of which have a kind of efficacy. These unconscious perceptions are sometimes called prehensions. In psychological terms, a symbol is both apprehended and prehended, but an abstraction is only that which one apprehends.
It is the host of latent possibilities in the symbol that give it content, depth, texture, worth, what-have-you. An abstraction without content is worthless to a human. It’s food without flavor or sex without love.
To be human is to create and play and love and think. On all levels, an impoverished symbolic system reduces our ability to satisfy these basic existential needs/directives. It was a great breakthrough to observe that a gift or a kiss is a kind of symbolic exchange. But these symbols and systems of symbols constitute so much more than just positions in a structure. Along these lines, the primary insight of post-structuralism was that symbols are not just negatively defined, but are positively pulsing with possible significances. A gift of bread can be abstracted into its “position” within a system of gift-giving, but it can also be eaten/savored, can also grow mold, can also be packed for lunch; it is constantly breaking out of any finitely defined boundaries. A Facebook like, by contrast, represents almost exactly and only that. A gesture of approval completely denuded of any creative externalities.
An impoverished symbol positively forecloses human possibilities
I think of it in terms of space. A symbol like Facebook forecloses the possibility of other symbols. It takes up existential space and chokes out other possible modes of social organization and satisfaction. Facebook’s image compression algorithm determines the resolution at which your visual memories are stored. Its sorting algorithm determines what you hear from your community. And, in both cases, so much is lost!
Thus, we ourselves become impoverished symbols within the network. Only the shells of our complete selves are allowed to interface at all. This is why Instagram, which trades entirely on the superficiality of a human being’s life, creates so much frustration for those with low social capital on that platform. The old “tree in a forest” problem again rears its head. If you don’t post a picture of what you ate, did you really eat it?
Lukacs claimed that society is ontology, that we are no more and no less than the sum of our social relations. In a certain sense, this claim is true. Insofar as the mode of social organization does not allow for an experience to be expressed, that experience becomes insignificant.
From the dizzying complexity of life, both the complexities of social reality and those of our inner emotional existences, social media struggles to admit more than the grossest particles through its narrow aperture.
A social media platform struggles to translate such perceptual experiences as:
- Touching: carressing, cuddling, huddling
- Smelling. Teaching one how to smell. One experiences a kind of smell from a thick description of one, one can be taught to smell, by a word like sillage, or a mindful breath of mountain air, or the smell of a stranger.
- Hearing. All the watery noises of a Tarkofsky film. The nightmarish droning of David Lynch’s bugs.
- Seeing. Of course, this one is more conceptual, since social media is manifestly first and foremost about seeing. But so are many other media: painting, sculpture, film, hikes. When hiking, one sees great and new things, but when surfing Facebook, one only sees what one already expected to find. The creative possibilities of sight are unceremoniously hacked out.
Beyond the affective or perceptual, social media struggles with time. This goes back to the idea that it is the “noise” within a symbol–its apparently extraneous content–that provides the substrate for change or evolution, for developing into something new. The reduction of symbolic exchange to mere abstractions produces a largely static (synchronic) social structure, which has no patience for its nodes (us humans) to steal away, or remember, or gestate, or give birth.
Perhaps the signposts in one’s emotional life flash into and out of immediate experience in a relatively short period of time. Traumas and lessons alike. Maybe understanding the anger of a terrorist is not a matter of summary, but of discovering and appreciating the unsaid, of mining those few catalyzing experiences that turned a person into a wreck or an enemy or a stranger or a true love. But social media platforms simply have no time for such concerns. They are ahistorical: the existential role of both memories and dreams (as matters of emotional interiority) become increasingly irrelevant.
What does a “good” social platform look like? Despite all the insights of this