In Gadget Consciousness, Joss Hands unpacks some of the ways social media helps and hinders collective consciousness and activism, finds Peter Stäuber
The subject that Joss Hands’ tackles in this dense volume already fills quite a few shelves in the bookstore: the ubiquitous digital gadgets that have become, in the past ten years, such an essential part of our society that it’s hard to imagine life before them. Much has been written about the dangers of social media, the psychological effects of our smartphone addiction, as well as the economic models on which the digital behemoths are based.
Hands’ book is an interesting, if at times overly theoretical, addition to this literature. The author, a lecturer in Media Studies at Newcastle University, is not primarily concerned with questions of ownership, ‘platform capitalism’ and the economic models on which our social media are based. Rather, he is interested in the possibilities our gadgets offer in terms of collective thought and consciousness, and therefore political organisation.
The book is hard to get into, at least initially. Hands starts off with a rather abstract examination of some fundamental questions about the nature of the subject at hand: What is a gadget? What is consciousness? The excursions into Heideggerian philosophy and Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of ‘strange loops’ might be useful for readers with an academic background, or people with a lot of patience and determination, but for the average reader the first part of the book is not easy to grasp in its complexity.
It gets more tangible and therefore interesting once Hands begins to tackle concrete questions, such as the usefulness of Twitter for collective thought. He explains that our actions on the platform, such as re-tweeting, following other people, commenting on other tweets and using hashtags to sort thematic categories, has the effect of creating ‘clusters of shared opinion that are carried on through time’; a kind of collective consciousness. Twitter allows us to ‘get inside each other’s heads, our voices can loop into each other’s in such a way that we move closer towards a “thinking” assembly’ (p.108). That is to say, they facilitate collective thought, which can then be carried on to political organising.
Hands distinguishes between ‘resonant’ and ‘idiotic’ usage of gadgets. By ‘idiocy’, he refers to the original meaning of the word as ‘self-serving, dislocated and private’: ‘a set of values typical of the market ideology of neoliberalism’ (p.123). This usage is characterised as the absence of any kind of collective meaning and relies on the horizontal relationship to the platform and with the ‘narcissistic mirror of the self that captures desire in the circular cybernetic loop’ (p.125). He reads the London riots of 2011 as an instance of this tendency: He sees an ‘expression of frustrated consumerist desire, not a reflective or overtly political reaction, but one that extends the coordinates of neoliberalism’ (p.130). In short, there was a lack of collective thought and intention, the riots remained an ‘aggregate of limited individual and isolated drives’.
While it’s true that the riots did lack a common aim and were unfocused, Hands seems to underplay some aspects of the riots that belies the claim that they revolved purely around consumerism: for many of those involved, the resistance against police violence, structural racism and an attempt to reclaim the streets for themselves were the crucial factors; that in itself is an expression of political intent and consciousness.
As an example of gadget ‘resonance’, i.e. collective consciousness facilitated through gadgets, Hands mentions the Occupy movement, which relied on social media to connect, organise, spread its message and build consensus; the ‘fabric of the multiplicity can be understood in terms of concentric rings of gadget consciousness’, he writes (p.117). The events of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 give an even starker example. Here, social media allowed the activists close collaboration and coordination over spatial distance, thereby forming a virtual collective: ‘The resonance of the mutual commitments of the people […] was activated by the event of Tahrir Square and amplified in the feedback loops between the bodies in the square and the gadgets connected to them’, Hands writes (p.142). In this way, social media helped to build and intensify a collective direction of the protests.
By unpacking some of these ideas, Hands gives a theoretical underpinning to concepts that many activists will instinctively feel to be true. As such, Gadget Consciousness is a useful contribution to the study of social media, even if the tendency towards abstraction at times obscures rather than illuminates.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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