Revelations like those from Snowden and the Pegasus Project have this same unexpected and counterintuitive effect. Instead of rejecting the control, we increasingly learn to adapt and self censor. The panopticon effect lies exactly in this acceptance of the new normal. Afraid to say the wrong thing, we self censure our discourse and the allowable range of ideas becomes more and more narrow. Those who fail to ‘check their words’ are cancelled and provide an example for the rest.
Articles on Silicon Valley
Is the world a better place? Opinions vary, though the enduring Western-centric belief is that humankind has never had it better. This belief is commonly espoused by technologists who praise the information age for ushering in a new era of opportunity and prosperity. The information age, coupled with industrialization, has certainly shaped the world in ways previously thought unimaginable. Advances in technology have transformed everyday life. Facial recognition software. Artificial intelligence. Microchip implants. Renewable energy. Genetic engineering. A revolutionary mRNA vaccine designed in just two days.
Given all this progress, it’s hard not to believe in the “prosperity presumption,” the belief that the world, as a whole, is getting better. Indeed, techno-utopians who adhere to the prosperity presumption also hold the belief that any form of technological stagnation is antithetical to progress. Some of the biggest technologists fall under this category.
Over the past several months, many of these reputable voices – including high-profile journalists – have been jumping ship from their safe, cushy jobs to join Substack, a newsletter-based subscription platform, to escape the onslaught of ideology, censorship, and rigid editorial control.
Some are calling this migration the “beginning of the gold rush," others are comparing Substack to the old Internet, while others are likening it to the early newsletters of the 17th century. In some ways, Substack does harken back to the old blogosphere; it is reminiscent of a former Internet, and elicits a certain sense of nostalgia. As tempting as it is to see this as a step towards building a rich information ecosystem, I fear this mass migration will simply re-organize the establishment class in new ways and create more toll booths on the information highway.
The democratizing potential of the Internet echoed across the world: it was seen as a true equalizer, a force for good, and one that looked the same everywhere irrespective of one’s geographical location -- it defied all territorial borders. This vision was hardly seen as radical or controversial. Quite the opposite, it was widely embraced among tech circles, even by the likes of Microsoft.
But that Golden Age of the Internet is long gone.
Individualism is highly coveted in Western culture. Entire industries exist exclusively to profit off of our increasingly unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves. And with the arrival of the Internet, many more opportunities for people to express their individuality emerged.
Chatter about individualism grew amid the pandemic, with issues of identity being the focal point of many debates. The question of identity and its related discontents became a mainstay of public discourse.
These issues didn’t start in the pandemic, nor did they emerge with the rise of post-modernist thought – which has been years in the making. Indeed, today’s preoccupation with identity has a long history – and its popularity largely stems from transformative changes undergone in the centuries preceding, though at that time, it had a different name.
A decade ago for a brief moment following the 2008 global economic crash, there was a world-wide wave of angry emotion when the unbridled greed of the dominant capitalist elite was suddenly laid bare. Here in the US this engendered a movement called Occupy, which started in Zuccotti Park in the New York City financial district and spread quickly throughout the country.
Occupy, with all its imperfections, was widely viewed as a genuine populist movement. The movement focused on issues of economic inequality and coined the phrase ‘we are the 99%.’ Chris Hedges said at the time in an article on Truthdig that “Occupy articulated the concerns of the majority of citizens.”
Occupy set off a powerful emotional surge that swept across the country and genuinely frightened the elite. The State moved quickly to ensure that Occupy was effectively quashed. Under Obama, the federal government and local police forces joined to dismantle, often brutally, Occupy encampments across the country. No effort was spared in terms of mass arrests, surveillance, and other forms of State powered repression to ensure that Occupy couldn't metastasize into anything lasting or inspire any actual challenges to power.