When There Really Shouldn't Be An App For That: Read This
By R.H. Lossin
Many years before our social selves were wedded to an algorithm, philosopher Herbert Marcuse observed that any activity that seemed to diverge from technological rationality appeared irrational or even neurotic. If attempts to resist technological imperatives make us seem neurotic, embracing them, we are starting to realize, makes us act neurotic. But even though we are suddenly mindful of the psycho-social pathologies induced and exacerbated by constant smartphone use, Marcuse’s observation still holds. We might be willing to criticize ourselves and the way that we use technology, but robust interrogations of the technology itself are sorely lacking.
This is not surprising—individual solutions to structural problems are par for the capitalist course. In true techno-rationalist fashion we have prescribed meditation and mindfulness apps and on-line only articles about unplugging and ‘presence’ (whatever that means…) as a cure. For all the individual harm that we can recognize, we remain unwilling to actually address the very cause that we just identified. Instead, the solution to technologically induced psychic disturbances is learning how to better use technology. Simply quitting Facebook or getting a flip phone would be weird or even anti-social.
Our commitment to technological rationality is deep and abiding and very few books risk a solid and pointed critique of the apparatus that reproduces this logic. But in 2013, Jonathan Crary, published one of them --a slim polemic entitled 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. If at mid-century when Marcuse was writing, techno-rationality could be figured as a logic developed by industry and imported into personal lives in a residual and abstract way, it might now be considered a more central, even more material, fact of life. Although, as if to highlight the prominence of critical stumbling blocks, ‘material’ seems like a bad word to describe the Internet and its operations. This is though—in the same way that mindfulness apps are supposed to unhook our faces from our phones—how the internet as both a technical apparatus and ideology operates. It is this combination of protean illegibility and impossible coherence that makes it such a formidable social force. “There is,” Crary writes “an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. ‘Products’ are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.”
The Internet is a capitalist technology, evolving in a dialectical relation to the social and economic relations in which it is embedded and the ‘ontological template’ it offers is both familiar in its general form and novel in its intensity. What Crary has done, that so few people seem willing to do, is to point a finger squarely at the technology itself. Which is not to say that the book is reductive and determinist. Rather it sees technological developments as part of political developments—ascribing to the material stuff of our daily lives a greater social importance than we are generally willing to admit. Technological advances, and communication technology in particular, he forcefully argues, play an active role in the development of capitalism. And the technology that we cannot seem to detach ourselves from is the latest phase in an historical development shaped by the ever-expanding frontiers of capitalism’s never ending quest for surplus accumulation.
Crary quotes Marx’s observation in The Grundrisse that “capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange—of the means of communication and transport—the annihilation of space by time becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” But, as the title suggests, the limit that is now being expanded is temporal rather than spatial. While annihilating space by time is certainly still a factor—think 2-day Amazon delivery—what the internet encourages is the expansion of a temporal frontier. Why is time important? Because when you sleep you don’t buy things. The ability to consume goods and media constantly, to produce intellectual property for Facebook free of charge and provide various companies endless information about your preferences (again for free) is a way for corporations to profit almost constantly from your time.
The book begins with a meditation on sleeplessness and a description of military experiments aimed at figuring out how humans (soldiers specifically) might be relieved of their need for sleep. Sleep, Crary, suggests, is a thorn in consumer capitalism’s side. The only time left when we are not either producing or buying things. The book was written just before the profusion of sleep apps that promise you a better night’s rest by collecting information about your bodily processes and sleep patterns and sending it to a company for analysis. This means, effectively, that your dreams have become productive.
As Americans, we think of totalitarianism as the product of heavily regulated markets, explicit state-enforced censorship and a lack of transparent legal processes. In short, we think that capitalism is incapable of producing repressive nightmares. It might be time to reconsider these Cold War left overs and think very seriously about what it means to have your sleep mined for data.