I want to look at an effect of the technological mediation of social relationships that seems to reflect an acute crisis in the psychical wellbeing of modern individuals. The effect I want to look at is Internet trolling – the subjection of an individual to obscene abuse on the basis of a putative offence he or she may or may not have committed. Most of us have seen examples of this, and one of the characteristics of such outpourings seems to be that what is taken as an ‘offence’ varies from the supposed hubris of someone who has performed their act on Youtube, to accusations of racism, religious fanaticism or paedophilia made against individuals who have yet to be proved guilty. The distantiating effects of social networking sites seem to have created a sphere of self-perpetuating hatred that has split off from the moral sentiments of face-to-face contact, and from the legal and ethical restraints of civil society.
There is something terrible about this hatred, something that is the absolute antithesis of happiness and which, it seems to me, reveals an ongoing degradation of the self that is taking place in modern information societies. And so I think it is worth looking firstly at what the nature of hatred is from a moral philosophical point of view, and secondly at how it has been intensified by the spread of media and communications technologies.
Martin Buber’s philosophy of ‘I and Thou’ offers an important insight into the destructive dynamics of hatred. His argument is that hatred is both irrational and sinful. It is irrational because of the nature of human individuals; each of us is an infinite plurality of connections, responsibilities, defections, redemptions, loves, commitments and fears that are held together by a more or less fragile sense of continuity across the years of our existence. And so for human beings to hate each other is, from a moral and religious perspective, utterly irrational, for it requires one or both parties to elevate their particular dispute to the level of an event that defines the existence of their antagonist. Hatred, in other words, is the negation of moral reserve; it is the marking of the other as essentially evil, a fetishization of the other as an object of utter contempt who deserves to be harmed. The sinfulness of hatred follows from its irrationality; for as created beings that possess a soul whose purpose is the unification of our existence through love, we are defiled by the state of violent distraction that takes the other as an object of infinite vengeance. Our capacity for happiness in the lives of those others who make us what we can be is corrupted, and our enjoyment becomes inexorably linked to the spectacle of suffering. Thus, for Buber, even the most unforgivable crimes must be forgiven; if we do not choose to exercise forgiveness, and thereby recognize the other as a human being who has succumbed to influences to which all of us are vulnerable, we will be consumed by uncontrollable hatred (Buber, 1996: 65-68).
The Internet troll is perhaps the modern exemplar of the sin of hatred. He or she inhabits a world of communicative systems that allow access to news and information platforms that stage the stories in which certain individuals are brought into public consciousness. The idea of ‘staging’ is important here, as it lies somewhere between ‘reporting’ and ‘fabrication’, and thereby entails a degree of pre-judgement about the guilt or innocence of the main protagonists. Such stories, through their encoding of the truth, encourage the kind of crude judgemental hatred that is characteristic of the Internet troll, that is, the abandonment of moral restraint that is characteristic of those who find pleasure in the suffering of others. The ferocity of this hatred is both self-fulfilling and self-destructive; it is reproduced through the technological skill of the troll in concealing his or her identity and in modifying and relaying the story to a larger and larger audience. It is these technologically enabled interactions that have raised the stakes of Buber’s phenomenology of hate – for within hours of ‘going viral’ a story may have rendered the life of an individual utterly unliveable. (See, for example, ‘The internet shaming of Lindsey Stone’, theguardian.com, February 15th 2015).
This brings us to the question of the general significance of such extreme behaviour for the networked organization of human beings. In his latest work on the effects of virtual and information technologies, Bernard Stiegler has argued that it is the reduction of human individuals to elements in the systemic order of production and consumption, that lies at the root of a variety of libidinal dysfunctions. He tells us of two new species of socially disaffected individuals that have emerged as a result of the economic crisis in Japan: hikikamori and otaku. Both exist in a condition of profound social and economic isolation; their social contacts have become attenuated by the fact that they have little hope of finding work, in spite of their qualifications, and their response has been to withdraw into a virtual world in which contacts with others are mediated through social networking sites, virtual worlds and online gaming (Stiegler, 2013: 86-90). This condition of complete withdrawal, and its associated forms of psychological dysfunction and criminality is, of course, exceptional. And yet the hardwiring of desire into virtual networks that erode social bonds and exaggerate the object attachments of mass consumption is, for Stiegler, the emergent cause of the psychical disaffection and emotional volatility of modern individuals.
In the end however, and this is really the essence of Stiegler’s work on the relationship between human beings and technological systems, the dynamics of hate and despair to which hyper-consumerist networks have given rise, cannot destroy the noetic faculties of human beings; the experience of isolation and terror that accompanies the constant expenditure of life in the pursuit of objects or the fetishization and vilification of others, is what returns us to the question of spirit and its relationship to technology. And so we are faced with the epochal task of transforming the technological conditions of individuation in ways that will re-engage the psychical life of ‘I’ with the infinity of the ‘thou’. Such a task, as Stiegler makes clear in his later work, requires us to re-think fundamentally the relationship between capital, technology and culture, and to invest in modes of work (art, poiesis, philosophy) whose aim is the reconstitution of spiritual forms of ego-investment. For without such a re-engagement of the furious soul with its proper satisfactions, there can be no happiness and no future – for capitalism or anything else (Stiegler, 2011: 116-119).
Ross Abbinnett is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His book Politics of Happiness was published by Bloomsbury in 2013.
Buber, M. 1996, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York and London: Touchstone.
Stiegler, B. 2013, Disbelief and Discredit Volume 2, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals, trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Stiegler, B. 2011, Disbelief and Discredit Volume 1, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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