Ingrid M. Hoofd
Department of Communications and New Media
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore
Abstract: How may we assess the ways in which new media technologies alter the face of community today? Do social media like Facebook allow for new forms of democratic living-together, or do they base themselves on or consist of a profound anti-sociality in light of new media’s cybernetic, accelerating and calculative logic which leaves no time and place for truly ethical relationships and differential thought? Working its way through the ideas of Paul Virilio and Martin Heidegger on modern technology, this paper argues that the nostalgic and apocalyptic narratives around the superiority or demise of community through social media are the current materializations of the humanist aporia and its contemporary culmination into analytical philosophy and the calculative techno-sciences. While social media then dissimulate the general absence of the social under late-capitalism, they also exemplify the fact that the neo-liberal economy in which they are implicated, founds itself on the eventual impossibility of harnessing social change through technical means; and that this is where the true promise and violence of cybernetic acceleration for community lies.
Keywords: social media, calculation, community, change, risk, neo-liberalism, infinity, acceleration, objectification
Unless what we are seeing is the emergence of a fusion-confusion, the paradoxical occurrence of a […] reality beyond good and evil. 
Introduction: virtual community and its discontents
The imperative to change society for the better is and always has been fundamental to the left-wing activist spirit. However, many activists today feel that change’s final fulfillment increasingly withdraws into some utopian future. After all, utopia concerns a ‘no-place’ or ου-τοπος as much as a ‘good place’ or ευ-τοπος. Besides this un-finishability of left-wing utopia, the conception and advocacy of change has also quite worryingly become one of the watchwords of the current neo-liberal paradigm. Popular academic rhetoric around new media for instance – whether these concern the old mailing-lists or the new ‘social media’ – more and more emphasizes the alleged connection-fostering and community-building aspect of these technologies, claiming that new media ‘change society for the better.’ This rhetoric tends to build on a kind of American ‘cyber-hippie’ tradition of celebrating new media that in effect started with the advent of information capitalism, but fails to investigate these media’s entanglements with precisely the vicissitudes of contemporary info-capitalism. For instance, in the early 90s, media-guru Howard Rheingold proclaimed in The Virtual Community that the Internet allowed for the happy emergence of new communities, which in turn created new spaces for sociality and left-wing activism.  Previously marginalized groups and individuals, according to Rheingold and those who share his viewpoint, could finally find their kin online and build new alliances in order to put pressure on the change towards the social equality and inclusiveness that neo-liberal capitalism increasingly seems to endanger.  The latest incarnation of this cyber-happy fantasy is the recent celebration of online tools like Facebook, Diaspora, Wikipedia and Twitter, which go by the rather curious name ‘social media’ – curious because the name seems to imply that all other media are somehow ‘anti-social’; a point to which I will return later. The enormous popularity of tools such as Facebook and Twitter has engendered a surge in social sciences research investigating again the community-building and positively life-changing aspects of these new online tools. Recurrent success-stories concern young people alone and abroad in financial or emotional distress being ‘helped out by strangers online,’  as well as the use of Facebook and XiaoNei (today rather confidently called RenRen or ‘everyone network’) for activist alliances and announcements. The latest abundant celebration in the Western media and academic work of such social media as the presumed harbingers of ‘freedom and democracy’ during the Arab Spring and Jasmine Revolution is another point in case. 
However, such a simplistic celebration fails to probe into the contradiction between the rather hasty claim, on the one hand, that social media are the new great left-wing, democratic and activist tools, and on the other hand, the fact that there clearly exists an intricate relationship between neo-liberal or information capitalism and such media. Furthermore, there seems to be a neglected or obscured tension at work between the supposed democratic and community-building aspects of social media and the ways these media facilitate a new and more vicious forms of capitalist circulation, disenfranchisement and oppression. Many critics of modern technology therefore usefully emphasize instead that the ways in which new media engender a disconnection and fragmentation of old communities, due to new media’s aesthetic of acceleration and simulation, should be given much more thought. Many such theorists, I suggest, try at base to urge us to revive a more ‘just’ communal living in the face of individualization. A good example is French phenomenologist Paul Virilio – arguably the contemporary critic of tools of speed and vision – who argues in Cyberwar, God, and Television that the virtual effectuates an ‘accidenting’ of reality, causing reality to break up into separate and essentially disconnected parts.  The issue for Virilio is not so much that new (online) communities emerge, but that old communities disappear, and that the accident of the latter outweighs the reality of the former, if only by sheer number of people involved. What is more, as Virilio contends in both Open Sky and Speed and Politics, is that online communities and publics are mere images or technological representations of community that have no equivalence to real communities, which are instead characterized by their existence in circumscribed space and time.  New media technologies, just like transportation technologies, shatter human and communitarian connections to a certain territory while also valorizing the real-time over ‘olden time’ or duration, so that in effect the very possibility – the ground, as one indeed says in common parlance – of the ethical relationship itself disappears.  Meaningful relationships and meaning as such exist after all by virtue of their temporality and spatial limitations. New media technologies instead, by accelerating processes of production to the point of destruction (and in turn capitalizing on destruction) allow what Virilio throughout his work calls ‘dromocracy’ (the oppressive hegemony of speed) to overtake democracy.  What is therefore required for Virilio is a return to the ‘olden time’ of duration and locality – a slowing down of society, as well as making visible the violence that new technologies seek to obscure.
Virilio’s rendition rightly insists on the negative and violent side of the alleged personal empowerment through multiplicities under post-modernity, in which new media technologies only superficially seem to allow for a democratization of expressive practices, instead engendering a situation in which, as he puts it in Open Sky, the “real-time public image prevails over public space.”  Indeed, one could argue that, if communities are becoming increasingly ‘computerized’ and calculated through so-called social media, then the new digital prostheses provide us instead with an illusion of community, in which a reaching out to the other becomes really a hell of the same. This is also why Virilio states in Pure War that “The delirium surrounding the Net is a paroxysmal form of propaganda,”  because the mere (online) image of community implicates itself in a quickening of social fragmentation under neo-liberal capitalism, while also seeking to numb us from its violent consequences. This assessment agrees in its broad outline with Jean Baudrillard’s observation in The Mental Diaspora of Networks of the general disappearance of (conceptual and ontological) distance under technocratic globalization, leading to the fusion of brain and screen as well as of self and other. The net result for Baudrillard is likewise a ubiquitous solipsism since “the screen screens out any dual relation, [and hence] any possibility of ‘response’”; the other becomes the merely self-same.  The consumption of the image of sociality and community through social media hence marks the general absence of the social and the communal. 
The conundrum of machinating an infinitely just community
In order to understand the problems surrounding such a collusion of ‘brain and screen’ – which according to Virilio signifies the ways in which contemporary society mistakes vision for understanding – for the claims around social media and our imperative of questioning after a just community, it may be helpful to recall the at first sight unrelated question Jacques Derrida uses at the start of On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy. Derrida asks here – or rather, one day the question came to him asking – “When our eyes touch, is it day or is it night?”  This question leads Derrida to an extraordinary discussion of the central tenets of humanism and its faculties, in which initially the question (and touch) appears as female, and the answer (and vision) as male.  I take from Derrida’s discussion (to which I cannot do justice in this short period), that if ‘social media’ are communities built on the idea of online fraternity by way of collapsing the distance between the visible and the real – of a transparent communication that ‘touches with the eyes’ – then they are arguably masculinist techniques in line with a long tradition of patriarchal communities and public spaces as such. Derrida is therefore rightly suspicious of Jean-Luc Nancy’s mobilization of the very concept of community itself,  tainted as the concept currently is with transcendental, phallic and capitalist overtones. We see here a tension emerging between Derrida’s ambivalence towards community and Virilio’s call for its return. Virilio’s analysis namely seems to assume that community in general is a good thing, or in any case, that any community is better than its complete absence or virtualization. This assumption appears to romanticize the idea of community and apparently fails to acknowledge how many ‘old’ communities also reproduced themselves by virtue of strong exclusionary mechanisms in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and class. Indeed, one could argue that Virilio’s critique of fragmentation inhabits a problematic nostalgia for an ‘original’ or ideal community that never was in the first place; and that even reproduces an essentially patriarchal vision. From our initial enquiry into the media then, the question in turn becomes how we may conceptualize a new form of global living-together that expropriates the idea of community away from this tainted tradition and its tools. However, in turn again, this necessitates firstly the exploration of the possibility that the cybernetic acceleration of thought engenders a simulation of a politics of community: a result of all the rhetoric in the social sciences and left-wing activism about the potentials of new technologies for connection, emancipation and empowerment. In other words: the possible causal relation between the utopia of a perfect community, and its obliteration today. What is at stake here, and hence what should be questioned further, is the very call for infinite justice itself that the quest for the ideal community implies.
So in light of the aforementioned calls for ‘change’ and their relation to a utopian ideal of a just community, we will have to explore Virilio’s positive conception of duration in relation to the problem of infinity as such. Let me at this stage take a quick detour into the abstract relation between calculation and infinity. In mathematics, the field of calculus purports to calculate change over a certain amount of time. The field consists of a variety of calculative methods, including differential and integral calculus, as well as theorems about limits and infinite series. The field postulates that it can calculate the net result of change in a group by way of an extrapolation towards infinity, where “the sum of infinitesimal changes over time adds up to the net change.”  This assertion, however, as many semioticians and mathematicians would concur, is nothing but a fantasy or abstraction conjured up by the possibility of ‘presenting’ infinity by way of its conceptual symbol ∞. One could therefore claim that the sign for infinity, as well as its mobilization and conceptualization in mathematics and in philosophy, comes to stand in for the fantasy of complete transcendence, justice and knowledge; but simultaneously also for its impossibility as it will always (infinitely) remain a calculated approximation of smaller measurements of change. Georg Hegel’s Science of Logic has explored this problem of infinity further in relation to ethics. Hegel argues that a ‘bad infinity’ is at work in any conception of a term that posits itself vis-à-vis another term that it is not;  for instance, anti-capitalist social media activism posits itself as not-capitalism. Capitalism is what it seeks to overcome. Yet, it requires capitalist globalization and its technologies on an ontological as well as logical level, because without these, anti-capitalism would not exist and not make sense. This is to say that anti-globalization requires globalization (it needs, for instance, new and social media that are the materializations of globalization); and that this situation importantly calls forth an ‘incessant ought.’ Hegel therefore concludes that “this spurious [bad] infinity is in itself the same thing as the perennial ought […] because it is in connection with the finite that the infinite is.” Such a process of opposition to something else, which is really constitutive of that something, therefore “does not go beyond the expression of its [internal] contradiction.”  The work of Emmanuel Levinas, especially his Totality and Infinity, is evidently an excellent example of this ambiguity that surrounds the conceptualization of the necessary infinity of (doing) justice on which I have no space to elaborate further here.  Suffice it to say that for Hegel, ‘good infinity’ would be the kind of continuation that realizes the ways in which a term is implicated in that what it claims it is not; in other words, that understands that a negation is also a self-negation and therefore a self-limitation. Reading Hegel with Virilio, I hence suggest that it is exactly the mobilization of this incessant ought itself that gets accelerated today, especially through social media. In other words, it is the humanist aporia around the conditionality of unconditional justice itself that gets increasingly wrapped up in capitalist technologies of speed.
Social media, or the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’
Let me at this point engage the issue some more through Martin Heidegger, whose work resonates with Virilio’s though not quite, written as it was in an earlier, ‘slower’ context. I am using Heidegger’s ideas on thought and technology especially because what is at stake today is how to think of a more just alternative – perhaps still through the tainted concept of community – to an increasingly exclusionary technocratic globalization by way of an unearthing of technology’s ‘essence’ that might aid Hegel’s suggestion of acknowledging a term’s limitations as a way towards a ‘good infinity.’ Heidegger argues in The Question Concerning Technology that one should look at the never-neutral essence (ειδος) of technology,  and at how human activity and thought is organized within the technological realm. The essence of modern technology for Heidegger lies in the intensification of the idea of instrumentalism.  This gives rise to the appearance of increasingly limited truths or mono-thought. So, as much as instrumentality is an idea that is essentially part of the productiveness of technology, technology en-frames the subject into the concept of instrumentality.  Technologies in this sense manufacture truth: they alter and stratify the way we think about the world, and hence also possibly shape philosophy. Heidegger’s critique opens up the possibility of an analysis of technologies in terms of their involvement in the reproduction of power relations locally and globally. He points to how the human subject is always already embedded in technologies and technological discourses, while the idea of instrumentality makes possible the illusion that it is the subject who wields the tool. For Heidegger, the subject of technology is always to some extent technology’s object, and modern technology simply extends this objectification.
One might duly wonder whether this objectification has undergone any aggravation due to the massive recent adoption of digital technologies for community building. For Virilio of course, the answer is an unambiguous ‘yes,’ but in light of Virilio’s unreliable nostalgia for community, I would like to re-open this as a question. Parallel to this, one could wonder what gives rise to the seemingly inconsistent claim in Heidegger’s The Question that on the one hand all τέχνη is art (ποιησις) and an opening up to singular thought,  and on the other hand modern technology is totalitarian, objectifying the subject in its en-framing logic. Once more, do we understand the adoption of modern technology for community building as oppressive or empowering, as an en-framing or poetic force? Heidegger himself later tries to erase this inconsistency, both in What Calls for Thinking? and The End of Philosophy and the Task for Thinking. He now confidently asserts that contemporary technology marks the completion or death of philosophy into its logical culmination, the techno-sciences.  Every form of conceptualization has ended up as a mere calculated digit in the new cybernetic space of flows. Philosophy could become that culmination because it has itself always, like the techno-sciences, assumed the ideal of transparent communication through the belief that concepts are transcendental truths; and to some extent, Virilio’s descriptions perhaps then simply appear to exemplify that culmination of philosophy – whether self-consciously or not. Even so, Heidegger states that this completion of philosophy means that “Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news […] scientific truth is equated with efficiency [… and] the operational and model-based character of representational-calculative thinking becomes dominant.”  In What Calls for Thinking, Heidegger stresses that this kind of thinking, whether it takes the form of rationalist philosophy or scientific empiricism, is in fact not thinking at all, but rather the setting to work of a pre-described path of reasoning that has suppressed its grounding gestures (its αληθεια or ‘unconcealment’).  As Lev Manovich puts it in On Totalitarian Interactivity, the cybernetic appeal of interactivity is precisely totalitarian because it inserts us into a system of command and control that renders us mere objects in a system for capitalist production.  Meanwhile, this objectification is experienced as more ‘freedom’ because the historical and aesthetic particularity of it is increasingly concealed from our conscious apprehension – thus making it today in Heidegger’s words “most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time that we are still not thinking.” 
Now at first glance, the new ‘social media’ are therefore themselves, just as Virilio would proclaim, ‘anti-social’ when we follow this trail in Heidegger, because their calculating logic seems to undermine the fundamental aspect of the possibility of a democratic and just community: differential thought and its requirement of a circumscribed space and time. This conclusion also agrees with Baudrillard’s point on the loss of duality.  Online thought and deliberation in ‘social media’ simply become reproductive of (and reproduced by) the neo-liberal network of capital flows, creating massive new forms of exclusion along lines of class and education. However, Heidegger, unlike Virilio, allows us also to make yet another argument in relation to the philosophical description of technology as such. Paradoxically namely, it is also precisely this growing gap or distance between the suppressed (concealed) and the obvious (unconcealed) techno-scientific truth about being today that for Heidegger calls for a more originary thinking: if one is willing to question those grounds that make philosophy and community today possible in the first place. In other words, there is once again a gap and a ground to be had, even if the gaps between brain and screen, self and other, now and future, have closed down according to Virilio and Baudrillard, and all ground apparently disappeared. True thinking incessantly slips away, as it always concerns in the end that what cannot yet be thought – a future that remains radically open, and even more radically so, no matter how much capitalist calculation tries to close it down. Heidegger’s critique can in this context then be set to work against itself. For how may we otherwise understand the ‘possibility’ of a critique like his (and Virilio’s, and even this essay’s one) in a contemporary social setting marked by the cybernetic en-framing of thought and the completion of philosophy? As Heidegger points out, the current state of affairs makes real thinking about such a relationship more urgent in its (incessant) obligation to question the global neo-liberal economy and its production of inequality. 
So if we were instead to take Heidegger’s distinction between true and false thinking as itself a symptom of the petrifaction of thought in the age of ‘social media,’ we can see that Heidegger in fact simulates thought through an apocalyptic rhetoric of philosophical and technological completion, thereby handily reviving thought as if it is singular. His argument showcases how ‘true’ thought is implicated in ‘false’ thought via the ‘incessant ought.’ This (essay’s) productive interplay between urgency and duration of caring thought that the injustice of the contemporary situation demands, is therefore nothing less than the present-day manifestation of the humanist aporia. I would claim that this aporia is exactly the one Virilio mobilizes as well (or rather, it mobilizes him): he is forced by the technological condition to use apocalypse and nostalgia, and these then are our true conditions in a world obsessed with and surrounded by so-called social media. This use concerns, on the one hand, the necessity of the apocalyptic argument to make possible a universal claim about community in the face of neo-liberalism; and, on the other hand, the impossibility of completing this claim for community due to its enmeshment with neo-liberalism. That is, a neo-liberalism that seeks to calculate change, just like mathematics, by way of online data capturing for future financial risk management. The anti-neo-liberal arguments for community are themselves effects of the harnessing of change and risk through ‘social media’ for neo-liberal capital. In all their urgency, ‘real’ thinking and claims for justice themselves are at this junction also increasingly complicit in the acceleration of production and its new forms of exclusion. Baudrillard, the quintessential philosopher of the evil in the good (and vice versa), has a forceful point in Fatal Strategies that perhaps philosophies like Virilio’s and Heidegger’s engage in the ‘fatal strategy’ of arguing for a slowing-down, which paradoxically entails a speeding-up so as to push the neo-liberal system to and beyond its limits.  Leaving, of course, considerable damage in the process.
Accelerating towards the beyond of (anti)social media
So where does this leave us, besides damaged? Essentially, in the gap opened up by Derrida, Virilio and Baudrillard between vision and touch, between contact and distance, which emerges because seeing and touching are today, and perhaps always already were, indiscernible. It is in this gap that a new global living-together must be thought, in all its complicity. Crucial for this is to grasp that the contemporary concept of community hinges on the tension between en-framing and poetics, between calculation and change; as well as on the tension or impossibility within the very notion of ‘calculating change.’ I therefore suggest that the proliferation of the obsession with community, whether in philosophy of technology or in techno-babble, marks the promise and deficit of humanism and its progressive implosion into neo-liberalism. Neo-liberal risk management, just as the field of calculus, can nonetheless never actually harness change over an infinite amount of time. Infinite justice – or any argument for justice through the useful mobilization of the concept of infinity – will thankfully remain forever incomplete and in process. On closer inspection, one could hence read Virilio’s nostalgia as an effect of his phenomenological approach that seeks to mimic our contemporary experiences and the ways in which these are an effect of new media’s aesthetics of simulation. Such a reading avoids the trap of simplistically romanticizing community, yet remains critical of the current forms of disenfranchisement of humans and communities alike. So, in light of Derrida’s question on touch and its gendered implications, this essay will hold by way of a quasi-answer that it is the ‘un-decidability’ of whether social media, as well as the neo-liberal convergence of calculation and change, are eventually ‘good’ or ‘bad’ à la Hegel, that may gesture to a more just being-together-to-come. Social media then are certainly not the ‘happy spaces’ that Rheingold and his allies envisioned, but may by virtue of unintentionally aggravating neo-liberalism tip the latter over the edge. Because no community or system of exploitation, however seemingly firmly grounded in apparently reassuring methods of computerization and calculation, can ever totally stabilize its boundaries: this is its vice and its virtue.
References and Notes Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, trans. Julie Rose (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 70.  Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 110-144.  Ibid., 241-275.  For instance, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s instant classic Networked opens with a long story of how new media provided all kinds of lifelines for a couple in medical and financial distress. See: Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 3-21.  Examples of such celebrations are plentiful. An illustrative instance of this is Michael S. Dorran, “The Impact of New Media: the Revolution Will Be Tweeted,” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East, ed. Kenneth M. Pollack and Daniel M. Byman (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2011), 39-46.  Paul Virilio and Louise Wilson, “Cyberwar, God and Television: Interview with Paul Virilio,” in Electronic Culture. Technology and Visual Representation, ed. Timothy Druckrey (New York: Aperture, 1996), 321-330.  Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 1997), 9-145.  Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology, trans. Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1977), 81-95.  Ibid., 27.  Paul Virilio, Open Sky, 18.  Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, trans. Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 2008), 199-200.  Jean Baudrillard, “The Mental Diaspora of Networks,” in The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Berg, 2005), 78.  See also Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila F. Glaser (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 1994), 6.  Jacques Derrida, On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 2.  Ibid., 11-12.  Ibid., 42.  Wikipedia, s.v. “Fundamental Theorem of Calculus,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_theorem_of_calculus (accessed September 2011).  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (London: Allan and Unwin, 1976), 276.  Ibid., 142.  Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979), 33-286.  Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time to the Task of Thinking, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 315.  Ibid., 320.  Ibid., 325.  Ibid., 339.  Martin Heidegger, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time to the Task of Thinking, 427-449.  Ibid., 434-435.  Martin Heidegger, “What Calls for Thinking?” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time to the Task of Thinking, 365 – 392.  Lev Manovich, “On Totalitarian Interactivity,” Lev Manovich’s website, http://www.manovich.net/TEXT/totalitarian.html (accessed June 1, 2011).  Martin Heidegger, “What Calls for Thinking?” 371.  Jean Baudrillard, “The Mental Diaspora of Networks,” 78.  Martin Heidegger, “What Calls for Thinking?” 372.  Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. P. Beitschman and W. Niesluchowski (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), 97-140.
Ingrid M. Hoofd is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interests are issues of representation, feminist and critical theories, and philosophy of technology. Her work, in particular her recently published monograph Ambiguities of Activism: Alter-Globalism and the Imperatives of Speed, addresses the ways in which alter-globalist activists and left-wing academics mobilize discourses and divisions in an attempt to overcome gendered, racial and class oppressions worldwide; and the ways in which such mobilization are implicated in what she calls ‘speed-elitism.’ This work explores in particular the intersections between various forms of contemporary political activism and the oeuvre of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Ingrid wrote her master’s thesis on Cyberfeminism at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She has been involved in various feminist and new media activist projects, like Indymedia, Next Five Minutes, HelpB92, AWARE Singapore, and NextGenderation.
Dr. Ingrid M. Hoofd
Department of Communications and New Media
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
National University of Singapore
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