1Shoshana Zuboff distinguishes surveillance capitalism form classic consumer capitalism, such that surveillance capitalism “…no longer [relies] on people as consumers. Instead, the axis of supply and demand orients the surveillance capitalist firm to businesses intent on anticipating the behaviour of populations, groups, and individuals. The result, as we have seen, is that ‘users’ are sources of raw material for a digital-age production process aimed at a new business customer. Where individual consumers continue to exist in surveillance capitalist operations…social relations are no longer founded on mutual exchange. In these and many other instances, products and services are merely hosts for surveillance capitalism’s parasitic operations”
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, US: PublicAffairs, 2019)

2 Tabish Khair, “The Age of the Neoliberal Virus”, The Hindu, March 24, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-age-of-the-neoliberal-virus/article31145453.ece

3 William Davies, “The Last Global Crisis Didn’t Change the World: But This One Could”, 24 March, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-crisis-change-world-financial-global-capitalism

4 Bratton proposes that “…we view the various types of planetary-scale computation (e.g., smart grids, cloud computing, mobile and urban-scale software, universal addressing systems, ubiquitous computing, and robotics, and so on) not as isolated, unrelated types of computation but as forming a larger, coherent whole. They form an accidental megastructure called The Stack that is not only a kind of planetary-scale computing system; it is also a new architecture for how we divide up the world into sovereign spaces.” When I refer to planetary-scale computation, I’m talking about the collective computational whole of the digital technologies that are changing how governments govern, and how we might think of ourselves as political subjects.

5 Benjamin H. Bratton, The Terraforming (Moscow, Russia: Strelka Press, 2019)

6 José Balsa-Barreiro, Aymeric Vié, Alfredo J. Morales & Manuel Cebrián, “Deglobalization in a hyper-connected world”, The Nature, 25 February, 2020, https://rdcu.be/b3fx8

7 William Davies, “Society as a Broadband Network”, London Review of Books, 19 March, 2020, William Davies · Society as a Broadband Network · LRB 20 March 2020

8 Sam Kriss, “Love in the time of coronavirus”, Idiot Joy Showland, 12 March, 2020, https://samkriss.com/2020/03/12/love-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/

9 Rob Wallace, Yaak Pabst, “Capitalist Agriculture and Covid-19: A Deadly Combination”, Climate & Capitalism, 11 March 2020, https://climateandcapitalism.com/2020/03/11/capitalist-agriculture-and-covid-19-a-deadly-combination/

10 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “(Sensitive) Consciousness and Time: Against the Transhumanist Utopia”, E-Flux Journal #98, February, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/98/257322/sensitive-consciousness-and-time-against-the-transhumanist-utopia/

11 Benjamin H. Bratton, “19 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism”, Strelka Mag, April 3, 2020, https://strelkamag.com/en/article/18-lessons-from-quarantine-urbanism

12 Lydia Kallipoliti, “Zoom In, Zoom Out”, E-Flux, 29 April, 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/at-the-border/325754/zoom-in-zoom-out/

13 Richard J. Aldrich & Athina Karatzogianni, “Postdigital war beneath the sea? The Stack’s underwater cable insecurity”, Springer Link, 25 May, 2020, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s42984-020-00014-x

14 Rana Dasgupta, “The demise of the nation state”, The Guardian, 5 April, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/05/demise-of-the-nation-state-rana-dasgupta

15 Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Massachusetts, US: The MIT Press, 2015)

16 Metahaven, “Benjamin H. Bratton on the Stack”, The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda), 6 May, 2016, https://youtu.be/_gtY5HHBp_Q

17 I spend more time in the second section of this paper detailing the different political subjectivities of the citizen-user and the classical liberal conception of the citizen, weighing up whether the citizen-user is a desirable or realistic political subject at all.

18 Robert Martinage, “Under the Sea, The Vulnerability of the Commons”, Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/commons/under-sea

19 Richard J. Aldrich & Athina Karatzogianni, “Postdigital war beneath the sea? The Stack’s underwater cable insecurity”, Springer Link, 25 May, 2020, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s42984-020-00014-x

20 Metahaven, “Benjamin H. Bratton on the Stack”, The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda), 6 May, 2016, https://youtu.be/_gtY5HHBp_Q

21 Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Massachusetts, US: The MIT Press, 2015)

22 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009)

23 Benjamin H. Bratton, The Terraforming (Moscow, Russia: Strelka Press, 2019)

24 Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,”  L’Autre journal, no. 1 (1990)

25 Ibid.

26 Riley Grant & William Shoki, “Woking Life, Living Work: Forms of Control in Johannesburg’s New Workplaces”, Ellipses Journal, (2020)

27 Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,”  L’Autre journal, no. 1 (1990)

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Joseph E. Davis, “The Commodification of Self”, The Hedgehog Review, 2003, https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/the-commodification-of-everything/articles/the-commodification-of-self

31 Jonah Peretti, “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution”, Negations, Premier Issue, (1996)

32 Joseph E. Davis, “The Commodification of Self”, The Hedgehog Review, 2003, https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/the-commodification-of-everything/articles/the-commodification-of-self

33 James Reveley, “Understanding Social Media Use as Alienation: A review and critique”, e-Learning and Digital Media 10, no.1, (2013)

34 Ibid.

35 Joseph E. Davis, “The Commodification of Self”, The Hedgehog Review, 2003, https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/the-commodification-of-everything/articles/the-commodification-of-self

36 Sam Kriss, “White Skin, black squares”, Idiot Joy Showland, 10 June, 2020, https://samkriss.com/2020/06/10/white-skin-black-squares/

37 Metahaven, “Future of the interface. Propaganda as interface”, The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda), 6 May, 2016, https://youtu.be/zay2MW_iIuY

38 Evgeny Morozov, “The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level”, The Guardian, 15 April, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/15/tech-coronavirus-surveilance-state-digital-disrupt#maincontent

39 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “(Sensitive) Consciousness and Time: Against the Transhumanist Utopia”, E-Flux Journal #98, February, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/98/257322/sensitive-consciousness-and-time-against-the-transhumanist-utopia/

40 Sam Kriss, “Love in the time of coronavirus”, Idiot Joy Showland, 12 March, 2020, https://samkriss.com/2020/03/12/love-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/

Materiality of the Immaterial (2019 - present) is an ongoing project which finds expression through various interlinked components across writing and research, video, sound and installation.

Through a cross-over of mediums, it looks to areas, problematics and crises of a neoliberal surveillance capitalism 1 – to which the mechanisms of algorithmic governance and digital technologies are subordinated – to try articulate the materialities, structures and failings of this particular type of globalised capitalism that now seems to be unraveling in this time of Covid-19, or what Tabish Khair has called “The Neoliberal Virus”2 whose “…transmission has followed the flightpaths of global capitalism”3.

Covid-19 has made a number of these underlying materialities, structures, and failings more tangible than ever, and this is the departure point for this particular body of work, writing and research – each component focusing on various interlinked dimensions of these materialities, structures and failings. The videos and the interactive elements that accompany this writing do not function as case studies that illustrate an argument, but rather as investigations and arguments in and of themselves that should be read alongside the writing to further generate questions and nuance in a less didactic form.

In this research paper, I first discuss the materiality (the physical infrastructure) of the internet that has not only connected, but also shaped the globalised world so radically that it calls for updated understandings of political geography and citizenship. In explaining the fundamental dependence of the internets’ physical infrastructure on fast-nearing scarce natural resources, I hope to highlight the fragility of the planetary-scale computation 4 (that makes so much of what we know as ‘life’ today, possible), in the face of impending ecological disaster –which itself, is only observable as a result of planetary-scale computation. “The notion of ‘climate change’ is an empirically validated pattern drawn from a comprehensive, planetary-scale biopolitical sensing, surveillance, modelling, and calculating apparatus. The most artificial of innovations, The Stack, is what has made this most significant artificial abstraction – climate change – into a legible and communicable concept.”5 That being said, planetary-scale computation as we currently know it, is itself unsustainable because of its negative relationship with natural resources, which it depletes. I look to Benjamin Bratton’s idea of The Stack as a way to reformulate political geographies as well as a model for a potentially more sustainable relationship between digital technologies and natural resources.

The second area of interest is concerned with the problematics of tech-fix transhumanist utopian thinking that tries to apply the logic of tech-fix solutionism to socio-political problems. I hope to show that transhumanism is fundamentally anti-human in its desires to overcome and augment our biology – supposedly through another tech-fix– to maximise our own efficiency and the efficiency and ease with which we engage our world. I am interested in the type of subjectivity and possibility for collectivity (or lack thereof) that is produced in a time of global hyper-connectivity. This is an inquiry into the character and cause of our alienated, isolated loneliness, in relation to ideas of connectivity and togetherness – which should be differentiated. I aim to give clarity to the type of alienation we might experience as users of social media, and how this produces the structure of feeling that we understand as loneliness.

The respective sections are titled In the Sky, Under the Sea and Society of Prosusers.

In the Sky, Under the Sea

What the Covid-19 pandemic has made concrete is how contemporary continued globalisation has indeed been modelled in the image of computer network topologies – sets of interdependent and hyperconnected nodes– which of course, are susceptible and facilitate the spread of viruses across entire networks even when the malfunction doesn’t come from the most important node.6 But globalisation, operating from a seemingly perfect market logic, never thought itself vulnerable to viruses, ironically. “Society conceived as a network isn’t about aggregates or averages, but is a complex system through which trends, behaviours, memes information and infections travel[between interdependent nodes or ‘nations’]”, William Davies writes, “The micro and macro are brought together in a new unpredictable intimacy…networks can be completely overhauled by minor events that begin on their fringes.”7 Covid-19 has made material the fragility of this hyperconnected interdependent network through its wild-fire global transmission, and the disproportionate blows to countries geographically far removed from the origin. What is unique about this pandemic is how the virus has been spread, amplified and facilitated through network topologies (modelled on the digital) that underlie the modern globalised world. Sam Kriss writes “The virus can feel like a wordless critique of modernity. Just look at how it spreads: air travel, tourism, the globalised economy. Like so many of our commodities, it’s put together in China, where it inflicts mostly-invisible misery, before circulating in the churn and frenzy of global trade.”8

Tracing the underlying structural cause of the virus to capitalist agriculture, Rob Wallace writes “When new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalised pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.” He traces the pandemic to the destruction of natural ecologies and the displacement of local sustainable farms by capitalist agriculture, “These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities.”9 Put differently, there is a forced computabalisation of the incomputable 10 – the streamlining of nature to maximise produce and profit – that lies at the heart of this pandemic.

I’d like to draw a connection between the infrastructure and function of the most common and evil type of capitalist agriculture, factory farms, and the infrastructure that houses most of our digital networks that have helped connect the world, server ‘farms’. I find the use of the word ‘farm’ in the latter structure curious and telling, especially in relation to its predecessor. Their eerie similarity should not be ignored. They both continuously produce without rest, they occupy windowless warehouses in the peripheries of our societies, they deplete natural resources, their primary goals remain profit, they’re exploitative and both facilitate the spread of viruses. I don’t think it would be far-fetched to then come to the hypothesis that factory farms have informed both the form and function of server farms, except server farms harvest humans. Both are examples of human-exclusion zones: highly securitised spaces whose priority is to protect from breach what is being kept inside in a way that is unfairly disproportionate to the efforts made to protect literally the world on the ‘outside’ from the lethal matter that might leak from these prohibited zones – be it digital or biological viruses. In both server and factory farms, the ecological principle of trophic cascades is dangerously at play, which is that, as Benjamin Bratton puts it, “...the agency of one form of life sets in motions changes with an outsize effect”, he continues by saying “This conclusion to be drawn is not that global interconnection is a bad idea (or a good idea), but that it is intrinsic and runs deeper than conventionally realised…our thinking and our interventions must be based on a higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations and physical economies, from scales of viral infection to intercontinental circulation and back again.”11

Networks (digital or not) and global connectivity are not inherently bad things. The issue is when it has been structurally and functionally informed by factory farms and the likes, i.e, made to work for capitalist exploitation. Put simply, the globalised interdependent network that Covid-19 has spread through has been modelled in the image of digital network topologies (not inherently bad), but whose infrastructure (server farms) has been informed by factory farms (indisputably bad), a breeding ground for viruses.

The spatial dimensions of our work and social lives, as well how we work and socialise, is now being actively remodelled in the image of network topologies in a way like never before, as those countries, cities and people who can afford to, bunker down in paranoid fortresses, turning urban centres into desolate human exclusion-zones, whilst our homes turn into microscopes for previously private parts of our lives, and telescopes into the lives of others. Whats interesting to observe in the cities and countries whose people cannot afford to move their lives into their homes and online, is that there is a completely different relationship between ‘connectivity’ and ‘togetherness’ wherein online connectivity cannot replace the physical togetherness that underlies the communities and functionings of a city so easily as it might in western and first world countries. A sense of togetherness and collectivity, not necessarily connectivity, is what is required to keep these less privileged and less technologically enabled communities and economies afloat. And so whilst we can observe how digital networks reformulate the spatial dimensions of some of our lives – particularly in the well resourced cities of the world –  we can also observe how a digital migration is neither possible nor the best solution for countries, cities, and people with less access to infrastructure, and whose economies are still reliant predominantly on the trade of physical goods and services. One can get a better sense of how the spatial dimensions of our work and social lives have been transformed, precisely by observing where lives cannot be transformed because of the limits of and limited access to digital technologies, in countries less privileged and whose economies and communities are sustained primarily by physical exchange and production. Technological and design theorists tend to forget that these countries and communities still exist, but you don’t have to look to the extremes to realise that digital networks and technologies cannot replace or transform completely, the spatial dimensions of our lives. Take for example the extremely urban and relatively digitally enabled city of Johannesburg – scattered with trendy co-working spaces, wifi-hotspot-coffee shops, and many other flashy niceties that resemble first-world smart-cities – and yet most students at Wits university still struggle with the online migration of education, because on an individual level, access to the necessary digital technologies is unequal, and mobile data to connect to the internet is incredibly limited, expensive, and sometimes only made available by network providers at ridiculous hours of the night. Even if the spatial dimensions of peoples lives have been transformed by the digital technologies and networks that are perhaps assumed to be readily available to make use of in times of pandemic, this transformation has been a great failure and obstruction to many peoples lives. In a sense, this realisation debunks the myth of ‘The Digital Sublime’; an escape route and also a solution for all of the worlds problems. Although digital networks and network topologies have long been at the core of our modern globalised world, they have previously existed as an invisible layer. In the western and technologically enabled cities of the world, they are being made visible and tangible as we literally live in the network, through a series of links and servers that facilitate our isolated connectedness. Lydia Kallipoliti writes, “The city today is a vast array of disconnected bedrooms, microcosms that come together in an abstract digital space, physically enabled by vital and essential data farms”.12 But the presence of the digital network can also be felt in the less technologically enabled cities of the world, through the clumsy and inefficient attempt to migrate life online (University students in South Africa will know this well), when in fact most people cannot afford and don’t even have access to the means to do so. For many students, for example, access to the internet was at university, and so being homebound means that their access is denied. And so this transformation by, and in the image of digital networks, is felt and made tangible in these cities and communities as a great nuisance.

For the cities and people who can make the online migration, the question to be asked is whether this isolated, individuated and privatised state-of-being are the perfect conditions for perhaps the ultimate ‘human farm’? One might begin to think so, seeing as it is the tech-giants who are thriving in this moment of crisis, as they harvest valuable data from us like never before as we upload our lives online to ironically avoid virus contagion. But these digital escape routes are only temporary, if not wholly superficial, seeing as “…ecological disaster does not accelerate a digital environment, but rather brings an end to it.”13

The pandemic, along with the planetary-scale computation that has connected and modelled the globalised world, has made clear the collapse of the conventional structure of geopolitics as well as the demise of the nation state…Rana Dasgupta writes, “Big data companies have already assumed many functions previously associated with the state, from cartography to surveillance. Now they are the primary gatekeepers of social reality: membership of these systems is a new, corporate, de-territorialised form of citizenship, antagonistic at every level to the national kind. And, as the growth of digital currencies shows, new technologies will emerge to replace the other fundamental functions of the nation state.”14 This shift can be observed on both a micro (interpersonal) and a macro (international) level.

On a micro, interpersonal level, our immediate communities or relations are not only constituted by those citizens of a shared nation state or city, but of citizen-users of the global internet – an infrastructure which has enabled our connectivity long before, but exaggerated in, this time of pandemic. We connect online – with even those who might share a city – as citizen-users of google, Facebook, instagram, twitter, reddit etc. On a macro level, we are citizen-users “…of the global aggregate urban condition […]of the vast, discontiguous city that striates Earth, built not only of buildings and roads but also of perplexing grids and dense, fast data archipelagos”15, writes Bratton. No single nation state controls the flow of information that connects the globalised world, and so sites, citizen-users, networks and events, may occupy and be governed by multiple forms of political sovereignty simultaneously.16 17 

But it is not only the intangible data flows of the internet that transverses the earth, evading the jurisdiction of any single political sovereignty. The physical infrastructure of the digital global commons is a hotly contested and rather ambiguous terrain that makes for an interesting case study to observe the desperate attempts of nation states to grasp at that which is fast escaping them, namely, legislation over undersea fibre optic cabling through which over 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic travels.18

Whilst the fibre optic cables that cross over a million kilometres of the worlds seabeds are indisputably a massively dispersed, shared global infrastructure, they are poorly protected by international law for the reason that historically, powerful nation states have relied on cable tapping and cable cutting as both an important form of intelligence and international conflict. However, this is complicated by the fact that the cable capitals of the world (which act as key nodal points for the global internet) are geographically far removed from the nation states who enjoy the most jurisdiction over them, meaning that any cable interference would not only impact the nation state who claims ownership of the cable(s) (or lack thereof), but also impacts every nation and continent with which the cable makes contact, and so the problem of ownership and protection of the digital global commons is fundamentally a global issue that the jurisdiction of any single nation state is not fit nor fair to handle. If the cables off Egypt’s shores were destroyed, for example, at least one-third of the global internet would be disrupted, whilst the unassuming Brazilian city, Fortaleza, is the connection point for undersea cables that connect most of North and South America, making up a large part of the data flow in the Western hemisphere. This should be reason enough that the digital global commons, and indeed fibre optic cables, should necessarily be protected by international law, such that cable espionage and sabotage would be prosecutable by any country who uses them.19

The desperate attempts by some nation states to try and control the data flows of the global internet –through cable jurisdiction– illustrates the losing battle they’re fighting to ensure the longevity and relevance of the nation state in a context in which the global internet and its associated Big Data companies, are fast turning them into archaic structures of the past. This radical transformation of our geopolitical reality should also be considered a materiality of planetary-scale computation.

Bratton offers an alternative model – called The Stack – to these archaic political geographies, that not only tries to account for the shifting and overlapping new geopolitical terrains that planetary-scale computation has produced, but also takes into account the materiality (both the physical infrastructure and the natural resources) that underlie and make possible the global super computational network.

He describes The Stack as follows:
“The development of planetary-scale computation – this accidental megastructure that I call The Stack – has both deformed and distorted the traditional Westphalian model. And so The Stack is understood as both an actual massively distributed technological infrastructure, in which, and on which, and with which we organise our cultures, economies and societies, but also as a kind of abstract model for how it is that we could conceptualise subdivisions of political geography that are not just about horizontal adjacencies, but actually about vertical layers where one site, and one person, and one event, and one network, may be part of the jurisdiction of multiple forms of political sovereignty at the same time, one on top of another.”20

This megastructure is comprised of six interdependent layers – Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, User – that are reliant on, and in some ways, produce each other. By putting these layers in direct relationship, one can begin to understand and observe the system of reliance that in turn sets the parameters for the type of political geographies that are produced. For example, the Cloud Layer – the place of global User-Citizenship in which people interact across borders through various interfacial regimes – is not itself placeless or omnipresent, because its physical infrastructure (fibre optic cables and server farms) exists physically within (and in the case of fibre optic cables, between) multiple political sovereignties, in which the Earth Layer of that land provides resources to fuel and make the infrastructure that not only takes/occupies physical space, but creates the digital space in turn. By mapping this complex system of reliance and production that striates the earth, we are able to better understand the types of political geographies that are produced as a result.

In many ways, The Stack is an articulation of that which already exists to varying degrees – “As a model, The Stack is simultaneously a portrait of the system we have but perhaps do not recognise, and an antecedent of a future territory, and with both at hand, we hope to prototype the alien cosmopolitanisms these engender for us and suggest to us”21  – but The Stack we have is different to The Stack we should be striving towards – a sustainable one. That being said, the model The Stack provides is helpful in trying to achieve greater sustainability going forth, because its design structure asserts the physicality or materiality of these interdependent layers (which are obfuscated in our current system of organisation), such that one layer cannot exist without the other. If we want longevity of the Cloud Layer, the Earth Layer needs to be treated carefully. If we want longevity of the Earth Layer, the Cloud Layer cannot exist in excess. This higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations allows for a model in which sustainability cannot be ignored in ensuring futurity.

I have attempted to visualise The Stack in a way that illustrates the interdependent and enmeshed layers. Each face of the cube represents one of the six layers of The Stack. Once scrambled, the faces of the cube could be symbolically read as the political geographies that emerge as a result of the system of reliance, interdependence and production between each layer. On the inside of the cube is a cross-section of undersea fibre optic cabling. In this model, The Stack reconfigures in form and direction according to each layers’ tides and fluctuations, not only in a fixed vertical hierarchy. This proposition of a modular Stack might not represent The Stack we have, but perhaps The Stack(s) to come.

Click and drag to rotate the sides.
Right-click and drag to rotate the cube.
View in fullscreen.

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is not that The Stack is the perfect model or even a complete one, nor is it that everything planetary-scale computation includes or embodies is desirable or even necessary. As discussed earlier, the current system of planetary-scale computation is accelerating us towards ecological disaster at an alarming rate. However, understanding planetary-scale computation through the lens of The Stack brings materiality back into sharp focus, offering more room for thoughts towards sustainability, debunking the myth of the wirelessly connected word, and in doing so, conceptualises the emergent political geographies. If The Stack is to put the breaks on hurtling us towards ecological collapse, it will be through considering the wise words of Mark Fisher: “The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, means that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability”22. Unfortunately, the mechanisms of planetary-scale computation as we know it are subordinated to serving the exploits of surveillance capitalism. In order for planetary-scale computation to move away from this instrumental relationship with surveillance capitalism, Bratton speculatively proposes that “… algorithmic governance itself needs to be far less anthropocentric, far less mobilised around individual wishes and wants, and far less fixated on micromanaging human culture. Instead, [it needs] to take as the subject and purpose of [its] project the material transformation of planetary biochemistry, regional ecosystems including cities, viable ecological heterogeneity – both given and artificial – and more.”23 But can any computational project that is planetary in scale ever be sustainable? Fisher might have argued that this accidental computational megastructure is the product of a capitalist ‘growth fetish’, and Deleuze suggests that “This technological evolution must be, even more profoundly, a mutation of capitalism”24. How then can it be separated from that which produced it?

But what happens when the Big Data corporations that dominate The Stack as we know it, treat humans as hyper-commodified live stock – “Individuals have become ‘dividuals’  ”, divisible sample groups, data and banks of information for extraction 25 – and where our status as ‘Users’ is predicated on endless consumption and production, wherein social life is subordinated to the mechanisms of market rationality and social media that requires of us always to market ourselves as the most desirable commodity possible. What does it mean for humanity if we are built in the image of The Stack, and what is at stakes if we are rendered, always and everywhere, as Users.

Society of Prosusers

In this set-up, we are ‘Prosusers’ – an adaption of the Tofflerian portmanteau, ‘Prosumer’, in which the lines between producer and consumer are blurred. We are now at once producer, consumer and user, “But, rather than emerging as some form of decentralised production ‘empowering’ consumers [and users] to customise products according to their preferences and tastes, in our electronic cottages we instead conspicuously produce cultural commodities in pursuit of sign-values, through tweets and the like(s). Have a break, make a TikTok. What has become of our free time– that precious thing for which we would all trade work for, has itself become a kind of work, consisting of endless hours spent on social media consuming ‘content’ and crafting the perfect public image”26 – as addicted, hyper-connected Users.

“The disciplinary man was a discontinues producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network. Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports27 – Gilles Deleuze described this shift from disciplinary societies, to societies of control (as well as their respective mutations of capitalism) with incredible foresight. If, in disciplinary societies, we were discontinuous producers who primarily laboured –for a wage – in fixed enclosures, and who’s mutation of capitalism “…always referred back to minted money that locks gold in as numerical standard”28, then in societies of control, “…capitalism is no longer involved in production, which it often relegates to the Third World…[It’s] a capitalism of higher-order production. It no longer buys raw materials and no longer sells the finished products: it buys the finished products or assembles parts. What it wants to sell is services and what it wants to buy is stocks. This is no longer a capitalism for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed”.29 In our current mutation of the capitalism that Deleuze pictured in the 90’s, the product to be sold and marketed is ourselves, propelled by our use of social media. We commodify ourselves, under the guise of self-empowerment, and our personal data is transformed into information commodities, not by us, but by internet firms who extract and sell our data to advertisers.

Through a process of production (crafting the perfect public image), consumption (aligning our sense of self-definition and identity with images and object commodities, chasing sign-values), and through use (both as users of social media, but also the use of the data we generate as users of a platform), The Prosuser becomes the ultimate commodity.

As Prosusers, Joseph E. Davis suggests that we commodify ourselves in at least two ways: “A first is that self-understanding is mediated by the consumption of goods and images. In this sense, self-definition depends on the appropriation of the traits of commodities. We know who we are and we judge the quality of our inner experience through identification with the things we buy [and post and like]. A second meaning of self-commodification involves the reorganisation of our personal lives and relationships on the model of market relations. This adaption is well illustrated by the recent practice of our ‘personal branding’, a strategy of cultivating a name and image of ourselves that we manipulate [and represent online] for economic [and social capital] gain.”30  The internet accelerates the rate at which we shed and assume identities, through the rapid, schizophrenic and non-linear consumption and production of images, attitudes, lifestyles and ideologies that we interface with. To affirm this exteriorised sense of self, one has to post so that this identity can be recognised, validated and evaluated. If the right people aren’t liking, then its time for self-reevaluation and reformation, until the desired identity is achieved. Drawing from Lacan, the CEO and co-founder of Buzzfeed –Jonah Peretti– wrote that “…consumer capitalism needs subjects who continually reenact the infantile drama of mirror stage identifications. The subjects must oscillate quickly between schizophrenic consciousness and idealised ego formations[…]the increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities. Because advertisements link identity with the need to purchase products, the acceleration of visual culture promotes the hyper-consumption associated with late capitalism.”31 He wrote this essay before co-founded arguably one of the largest targeted-advertising companies on the internet, and it’s interesting to observe how Buzzfeed content often enacts the logic of mirror stage identification through sponsored quizzes. Readers are invited to find or affirm their identities through sponsored quizzes that tell them which Harry Potter House, for example, they’d most likely be in, based on their personal values etc. This staging of mirror stage identification, through quizzes, is rather transparent, whereas most of our identify (re)formations tend to be less apparent, of course, so as to not break the illusion that our choices are ‘authentic’  and ‘free’ forms of self-expression.

Why is it then that we choose to subject ourselves to this clearly dehumanising and fundamentally anti-social process of self-commodification, accelerated through social media platforms? Davis suggests that it is because “…authenticity has been so thoroughly appropriated and packaged in the metaphorical stories of the mass marketers that we barely notice anymore. Advertisements rail against the conventional demands of society and sell products as instruments of liberation.”32 This same tone of liberation and so called free self-expression is adopted by the platform capitalists who’s mantra is that their services are free, the irony being that “…social media platforms[…]draw on time and effort supplied by unpaid users. Refracting Marx through the autonomist social factory lens, and employing the notion of value-creating labour extending well beyond the wage-relation, it is then but a short step to say that social media users are therefore alienated or even exploited.”33 As hyperconnected prosusers, we are alienated from each other and our shared humanity through the commodification of ourselves and our social relations, but we are also alienated through our unpaid social media use in which our labor: personal data and stats stored and created over time– return to us as an alien product: directed and personalised advertising, which in turn deepens the alienation “…by the insinuation of capitalism’s spectacular imagery into his/her consciousness”.34 The alienation we experience as social media users in an accelerated consumer society is not altogether new, although more abstracted and perhaps even more tolerated because its disguised as self-empowerment. Two types of alienation are exaggerated: we are still alienated from the product of our labor (although the product might not be physical anymore), and we are alienated from each other, now more than ever – precisely in this moment of hyper-connectivity; connectivity being the logic of social relations, when social relations have been reorganised to suit market imperatives.

Modern Love is an enquiry into the isolation, alienation and loneliness we feel in a time of global hyper-connectivity, and it tries to begin to understand the character and cause of our alienated, isolated loneliness, in relation to ideas of connectivity and togetherness.

It poses the questions: why do we (particularly young people who have grown up on social media) experience an often repressed, unconscious and undiagnosed deep sense of loneliness and isolation when we are all so connected? – an experience that has been accentuated in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This loneliness is not the ‘new normal’. Its onset began long before the pandemic. The pandemic exposed its materiality; a realisation of its insidious creep into our lives. And now, in our isolated states, gestures of touch already start to feel charged: forbidden, desired, dangerous, devoted. In many ways, ‘touching’ has been decoupled from interpersonal affective engagement, and subordinated to an interaction with a screen on which we try our best to simulate the above.

How do we rekindle a sense of togetherness in a context in which friendships exist for the cameras gaze; to fuel neoliberal individuation and competition – “I am friends with you when the optics look good for me”.  It is no coincidence that words like ‘connections’ and ‘network’ have proliferated in our social life lexicon.

“Commodifying and marketing ourselves also necessarily implies a change in our social relations. Relentless self-promotion, even if carried out without appearing to be self-absorbed and self-aggrandising, requires a carefully controlled and utilitarian way of relating to others. They too must be objectified in the interest of the bottom line.”35 The loneliness we experience is a structure of feeling that is produced as a result of the reorganisation of our relations with others, in which we treat ourselves and others instrumentality, such that any relationship only exists to serve capitalist objectives. So, no matter how ‘connected’ we might be, the connection is empty (if not cruel and fleeting), and so the more connected we become, the lonelier we get (as we are alienated from our own mutually shared humanity, as transformed commodities), and the lonelier we get, the more connected we desire to be, in an addictive feedback loop in which connectivity falsely promises fulfilling socialisation. As soon as we lose a connection with a person who no longer fits the requirements of our ‘personal brand’, we replace them with another person who does. It doesn’t really matter who they are, but rather how they look; the character of their sign-value as mediated commodities.

‘Togetherness’ has, for a while now, been slowly phased out, and replaced with a shallow and superficial imposter: ‘connectedness’ – bolstered by the Silicon Valley tech-giants. We need not think of nightmarish dystopias where computer chips are implanted into our brains by technocratic tyrannies…our reality is much more frightening. The ideology and functionings of computer networks has already been installed in our minds. We surveil each other on social media, sadistically waiting to out one of our so called friends…just to feel something, some sense of control. Our dystopia is accompanied by cute and customisable emojis.

In a perverted twist, our loneliness becomes our last humanising salvation…it is a testament to the fact that we are humans, not nodes, even though we are increasingly made to function as such.

We need to cast off the chains of social media, but how do we avoid the social death that awaits? We are lonely because of our warped sense of ‘togetherness’ that has been shaped to suit the capitalist exploits of social media. A new sense of togetherness needs to be forged away from the grips of social media, for social media is like a possessing tool…“Like the owner of property, but also like a possessing devil. It takes over your mouth and your hands, and it whispers right into your brain. It tells you that the people around you are enemies, that you might be an enemy; it sends you spiralling into the claustrophobia of yourself”, writes Sam Kriss.36

Creating opportunities for collectivity and togetherness is a difficult political task that requires time, patience and, of course, long lasting cooperation and communication between fellow people. There is no easy and efficient route to achieve this, and necessarily so. ‘Connectivity’, in this situation, is the tech-fix…the digital plaster to an actual bleeding wound. Connectivity is the interface-enabled blindfold that is pulled over our eyes, in which we are presented with a highly ideologically distorted lamination and narration of the real, through which our perception of reality is shaped by a set of buttons, words and digital gestures. Our isolation is mutually assured because the world is a fingertip away, in an interfaced form that is so narrated, so entertaining, so easy and so consumable that we’d rather interface the world than actually face it.37

If this is the character of the User that is produced in the image of The Stack, then we need to think about its futurity very carefully. If The Stack surrenders humanity and subjectivity to the dictates of the exploitative Big Data corporations who dominate it, then perhaps the only sustainability the model actually ensures is the longevity of platform and surveillance capitalism and its anti-social tendencies. “[Tech-fix] solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate ‘post-ideological’ measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.”38 Perhaps the very notion of the ‘User’ might be a type of tech-fix solutionism to avoid the political problem of citizenship in a time of global nation state instability, with nationalism on the rise, xenophobia, Brexit(s) and on-going immigrant crises. The concept of a global citizen-user is perhaps utopian for now, until citizenship affords everyone an equal or similar starting ground across various political sovereignties. Its easier for the person who has access to fundamental human rights and amenities (let alone the internet) to call themselves a ‘global citizen-user’, than it is for the person who cannot afford medical care in their own country, and who’s internet access is limited to times between 12am and 6am – after a long day of exhaustive, alienating and degrading work. What does global user-citizenship mean to this latter person, if anything at all? Whilst we may all become users of digital technologies, interfaces and infrastructures in varying forms, perhaps it only produces a meaningful subjectivity (if any at all) to those who already have security as citizens in the first place. What are our possibilities for collectivity and togetherness if the status of our political subjectivity is ‘User’, and if this status as User is exactly what Big Data corporations would like to keep us as? My goal here is not to dismiss the User as a possible political subjectivity, nor is it to argue that we are not already all ‘users’ to some degree (we are), but rather to caution against embracing it, as a political subjectivity, with open arms – as we do when we rush to click the “I agree” button without reading the ‘terms and conditions’ first.

Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of our times hottest commodity and producer of goods and data on which capitalism cannot function without: humans. Far from the mass produced calculated commodity, the hyper-efficiency of AI, and the mathematical probability of data and stats, we are made of blood, bone, skin and flesh, and we have bodily minds that are not optimised for efficiency. We are vulnerable to viruses and we “…live in the incomputable time of death as destination.”39 Standing in opposition to this is the tech-fix solutionism of the transhumanists of Silicon Valley who see our biology and fragility as something that needs to be overcome and augmented – supposedly through another tech-fix – to maximise our own efficiency and the efficiency with which we engage our world, in order to keep us producing, consuming and using on their platforms, at all times.

The transhumanist desire for supreme intelligence and efficiency has allowed for the artificial return of the natural order – the Darwinian survival of the fittest. But who are the fittest in this case? The fittest would be those who abandon consciousness, empathy and spirit for untainted intelligence and efficiency (and opportunists who mobilise moments of crisis for capitalist gain). The irony is that the ‘better world’ the tech-fix transhumanists envision…would be fundamentally anti-human. Perhaps the pandemic crisis we find ourselves in now is one of the symptoms of a burgeoning transhumanist world.


Instead of seeing human vulnerability as a technological failure, we need to reject the attitude that everything should be streamlined for efficiency, and embrace vulnerability as a human strength, that enables the potential for ‘togetherness’ through empathy. We should understand vulnerability as a biological reality that cannot and should not be changed. Here, Cedric Price remains evergreen, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

Whilst The Stack may be a useful framework to conceptualise geopolitics, planetary-scale computation and the possibilities of hyper-connectivity, perhaps more urgently, we need new (or old) frameworks to conceptualise ways of being 'together' again. We cannot lose sight of humanity, nor can we trade it in for maximised efficiency as the Silicon Valley transhumanists may wish to. If the futurity of The Stack is determined by the dictates of Silicon Valley Big Data corporations (which it likely will), we should then be weary of its approach and its stealthy replacement of togetherness with connectedness.

“Digital networks have unburdened the face of its communicative functions: thanks to the internet, people can become friends, form relationships, or nurture hatreds without ever looking each other in the eye. It’s all in the hands, in text[…]this isn’t really communication at all; it’s a collective project of inscription, a vast shared writing project addressed to nobody in particular.”40 Its time we removed the interface-enabled blindfolds that have been pulled over our eyes, and engage each other face-to-face once again.