Krakow Film Festival 2024

The «good old days» myth

TECH / As society suffers from increased digital anxiety and ecological collapse, Big Tech continues to push its nostalgia-based feedback loop of utopian myth.

The Circle of the Snake. Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech
Author: Grafton Tanner
Publisher: Zero Books,

The Circle of the Snake is an engaged and smoothly flowing argument for the disruptive power of Big Tech that culminates in a final call for dismantling the more and more visible totalitarian might of the US tech corporations. Written by Grafton Tanner as an extended, book version of his articles published in The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Hong Kong Review of Books, the work takes advantage of a recently noticeable popular nostalgia for the end-of-the-20th-century years in order to manifest means in which the Big Tech manipulates, detracts, and dumbfounds its users.

The old myth

The social media companies claim to create an ideal space starting with the intended, structural invisibility of human labour behind the Big Tech companies, be it on the Asia-located production sites or of content moderators traumatized by materials they have to go through of a measured and open public debate. They reverberate with the old myth that technology, the digital technology of our times, can solve all humanity’s problems. This digital utopia is being conveyed on many social levels simultaneously. It stands, however, in contrast with means of monetizing social media activity, based on garnering clicks, attention, active engagement, and finally, as extensive information about the user as possible. And these are the best achieved by arising emotions, especially anger, as the psychological research indicates. The attention economy that Big Tech created and operates with is deeply embedded within neoliberal practices of the last decades, especially the widespread market deregulation ensuring its global dominance, and could be changed only by recognizing its true psychological, social and political consequences.

The attention economy that Big Tech created and operates with is deeply embedded within neoliberal practices of the last decades…

The foregoing progress of technologies, miniaturized cameras, and growing surveillance off and online by commercial and institutional bodies emanate a sense of total control and constant visibility. In distinction to previous times, nowadays there is no backstage, no space where none is watching, and everyone lives with the consciousness of being observed always and everywhere. It affects all the people, regardless of their social standing, and results in more and more personal data being ingested into the system through various digital services, from Netflix to schools and educational institutions, to wearable technologies, measuring body indicators. Social media, constructed to induce psychological addiction, reinforce multi-tasking, short attention spans, and also – in the face of the gig economy, precarious jobs, and mounting student debt – escapism. These are only a few psychological effects we can now see after a few years of intimately living with them. The social media observable psychological shift is so deep that we hardly notice it in full yet, despite the turn-of-the-century optimism they were accompanied with, similar to – as we can see now – a failed promise of the internet hyper-text. Early theorists didn’t foresee that despite its outward richness and opening up multiple possibilities, hyper-text causes exhaustion of never-ending connections, possibilities, and references. A reading process gets disrupted by hyperlinks, becomes uprooted, and easily loses its centre. After a while, it seems everything is connected, and as such – the technology of the internet – facilitates thinking in terms of conspiracy theories.

The totalizing reality of mobile phones and social media is, for many, the only one they know. The time before computers are hardly imaginable, and one can access it through forms of popular culture, the majority of which present fabricated, simplistic, and filled with nostalgia productions for wide dissemination. Their popularity spans from Instagram and the times of the Great Recession is further strengthened by algorithms that create a «nostalgic feedback loop» in recurring rhythms.
Nostalgia as emotion inviting vivid reactions becomes a useful tool for controlling the engagement of social network users. It becomes one of the major hooks for perpetuating the Big Tech economy of attention, without which the corporate sector would not be able to function. It is also nostalgia that is widely used in politics that take advantage of a wide-array, social-media disseminated messages, whose political success rate have been proven with a 2016 surprise win of Donald Trump, Cambridge Analytica, the scope of fake news, and a rise of fascist, patriarchal groups worldwide.

Human downgrading

Continuing the tradition of the American public intellectuals, Grafton Tanner builds his argument within the various points of development of Western culture, from the sophists of ancient Greece, through Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Susan Sontag, and Andre Bazin, to Stranger Things and Black Mirror. He creates an ominous picture of the Ouroboros – a mythological snake eating its tail that becomes a symbol of our current, social-media-addicted society, hooked on nostalgia, in the eternal perpetuation of fewer and fewer simplistic histories, deemed to amnesia, uniformisation, and social engineering. In such a society, a man is an object. Only by stopping the unrestrained and unregulated Big Tech activities can we hope to prevent the further deepening of «human downgrading» we now observe on a big scale.

Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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