Monday, July 24, 2017

An Enemy of the Sheeple

Someone I know posted this meme to Facebook the other day.  The best part of it, of course, is the irony of someone bitching about social media on social media, denouncing those who won't look up from their screens while keeping her eye glued to the screen to search for memes to show how woke she is.  You can never go wrong attacking Kids Today for real or fancied Internet abuse; it goes viral even after it's been debunked -- and who makes it go viral?  People with smartphones, of course.

A close second is that the supposed Orwell quotation is not actually by Orwell.  According to Snopes, it's cobbled together from some passages in Nineteen Eighty-Four for a 2017 stage version of the novel.  The reference to people looking up from their screens is a giveaway, since Orwell's telescreens were on the wall, like today's flat-screen TVs.  Whoever adapted it changed it to make it into a reference to smartphones.

I pointed this out to the friend who'd posted it.  Though she didn't get pissy over the correction, she replied that she hadn't checked the accuracy of the quote, she just posted it because she "liked the sentiment."

While the attribution is not unimportant, it's more important to me that the sentiment is bogus. The Internet, cell phones, and social media have often been used to organize resistance to unjust systems: from the Sanctuary movement to the Arab Spring to Occupy to the movement that helped bring down President Park in South Korea this year. True, many people just watch cat videos and such, but if they didn't have smart phones they'd be watching soap operas or reading Harlequin Romances and dime novels, or playing Candy Crush, or going to bear-baiting and public floggings.  Many people probably watch cat videos, etc. and organize to smash the state; they're not mutually exclusive.

I don't mean to exaggerate the extent to which people use electronics for activism, let alone to celebrate social media as "new forms of language production" that will turn us all into awesome post-human cyborgs.  I have no idea how much screentime is spent on political activism compared to celebrity watching, or what the proportion ideally ought to be.  My point is just that people are responsible for the uses to which they put their phones and their social media.  Many people aren't happy about that thought, of course: they have their priorities, following college and pro football trumps informing themselves.  But most Americans have never had much interest in informing themselves.

And don't forget that governments don't regard smartphones and social media as the opiate of the people: that's why we have mass surveillance of these media, shutting down Internet access when the natives get restless, etc. Our rulers and owners would be happier, it's true, if people were as passive and manipulable as this meme pretends; and that's one reason for smug top-down propaganda like this -- which is obligingly spread by people who fondly believe they're better than the brainwashed Sheeple.  The friend who shared it is apparently a Democratic loyalist; I doubt she was bothered by Barack Obama's attempt to harness the Internet to keep activism against his policies in check, or by the vacuousness of much of the liberal #Resistance to Trump's election.  (We've known each other for a couple of decades, but didn't become friends on Facebook until the past few weeks. What she has posted in that time has been consistent in its politics, so it's probably better for both our blood pressure that we weren't friends during the 2016 election campaign.)  I'm going to make a meme of my own using a photo of a bunch of young people staring at their phones: there will be a thought-bubble coming from each one's head, as they think: "Gee, I'm glad I'm not shallow and stupid like all these dumb people who never look up from their screens!"