Professor Brad Evans pens an open letter to Facebook (now Meta), detailing why he’ll no longer be sharing political commentary via the platform.
I don’t want to live in a world where everybody thinks alike. I value difference. I want to be exposed to thoughts I profoundly disagree with. Sometimes they strengthen my opinions. Other times they force me to change my mind. I hold no universal truth. I am open to being challenged, including by things I find intolerable.
It seems strange addressing you in the Meta. But I guess that’s exactly what you want. You hide behind the myths of your own connected virtues; claiming to help connect people across the world and allow for the free expression of thought and ideas to thrive. Studying your system, I have however since learned that you are far from this. What some refer to as “online culture” I prefer to call “political coding”. You use this to regulate thought, to promote certain acceptable visions of the world, to silence others.
Since the start of the pandemic your power and influence has increased exponentially. It even made me revise my entire way of thinking, recognising how big tech, of which you are a leading part, has become the unrivalled source for power in this world. The way you disposed of Trump (who you also helped create, only to rescue us from) was telling as to where real power lay on this planet. Politics is inseparable from truth. And resistance is inseparable from having the courage to speak truth to power. But truth doesn’t live in a box. It is constructed, and it is mediated. You have become the most powerful mediator of the truth, regulating its performativity. It’s not enough to simply say that people have the right to say. What matters is precisely the issues they can openly and freely discuss.
I appreciate that you allow for the discussion of certain topics. Indeed, you thrive on collapsing all conversation into the question of identity politics and its defining emotional spectacles with their angry emoji markers of solidarity. These issues are political. No doubt. But we know they can also so easily be commodified. Big tech capitalism was born of a late 1960s dream for difference, so long as that difference could be profitable and framed within a technological gaze. And yet, when it comes to discussing the two most important contemporary issues we confront right now, namely 1) the way big tech has become the unrivalled source for political power in the world, and 2) contested opinions concerning the lockdown, the question of health choice and wider issues on the Covid economy (including the unrivalled big tech profits generated) you shadow ban, censor, and knowingly silence.
As a political researcher, I like to believe I am attentive to change and notice the transformations in the organisation of power. I learned a long time ago that power is all about circulation. The circulation of ideas, the circulation of goods, the circulation of thoughts, the circulation of images, the circulation of words. If we are so oppressed, it’s not that our rights are denied, but our movements restricted, as a famous philosopher once said. What I have noticed, curiously, since the lockdown, is that a number of people who regularly appeared on my feed started to simply vanish. They stopped circulating on the web of life, so to speak! Did they even exist anymore? It was only after seeking them out, virtually of course, that I noted how they were writing critically about the exact issues I raised. I also noticed the same with my own posts. Anything which criticised big tech tended to have zero engagement or an hour of interaction before it seemingly fell into a virtual abyss.
I want to be clear here. I disagreed with many of those I sought on some of these issues. But I want to make that choice myself, even and especially when I feel deeply offended by somebody’s position on things. I am a believer in free speech. Not of a liberal kind, but one tied to a radical spirit of outrageousness. The problem is that your vision of radical interconnectivity has turned the radical into the radical bourgeois, which in turn really means the bourgeois with all its newfound emotional currency. The dialectics of identity are profitable categories that are easy to connect with. Our addictions and dependencies to enslaving technologies however, especially the ones we have learned to desire as liberating and the very vehicle that will take us into tomorrow, is another thing!
I believe in complete freedom for art. You believe in complete freedom for technology. That’s where our visions of the world collide. My idea of the world demands sustained critical reflection on the tragedy of existence, which includes facing the intolerable and being opened to having everything challenged. Your idea of the world is based on a new religiosity of technological salvation.
All this makes me sound very conspiratorial. I get it. Maybe nobody is interested in the power you have at your disposal. That’s another weapon you now have. You see, I have no idea how you operate. You encourage me to exist in full view of the world, whereas your operating system is as invisible as the surveillance cloud. Sounds like the blueprint for a perfect system of authoritarianism to me.
But don’t get me wrong, I sympathise with your agenda. The more we embrace the permanence of automated lives, which the lockdown conditions accelerated beyond all conceivable measure, the more people will live in the virtual and look upon images of paintings or trees instead of walking into galleries or woods. That’s the digital wet dream you want us all to desire, right? We even already have the gloves to touch and feel it. How ironic the very intellectual tradition which criticised the Meta-narrative ended opening the technical doors to a Meta-universe of superartificiality!
I could make several suggestions here, but I doubt you’d listen, even though I know you are listening! I could make a public call for algorithmic transparency so that we’d all have a better sense of your inner workings. I could say that I would strongly resist the calls to have your content more regulated, because I know this is what you want as it gives you far greater legitimacy in terms of the power over truth. I could also say I would suggest all “friends” see everyone’s posts to ensure there’s no selections made on our behalf on the types of content your less-than-objective algorithms deem personally relevant. Or maybe we could choose who exactly we want to see what and how? Simple ideas really.
As humans, we have been taught to believe that without you our meaningful lives would cease to exist. As professionals, we have been taught that to do away with your reach would be tantamount to virtual career suicide. As globalists, we have been taught that the world means nothing without you. That’s delusional. To be human, unlike a machine, means to be flawed and open to real change (not just a change in masters). To be professional means we slow things down, taking our time to produce something meaningful, not get seduced by the tyranny of immanence. And to be globalists means we engage the world for real, not sit in our homes and let others bring it to us in a mediated form.
I left Twitter a year ago because I felt it was killing the political imagination. I haven’t missed it for a second. Should I do away with you too? I wish it were that easy. But in this lockdown world you have helped create, the choices are defined by the technological limits you have now helped impose. We humans need to communicate, and you have ensured that such communication conforms to a particular vision. What I can do is no longer give to you my extended political commentary and thoughts. I may post links, the odd photograph or two for family and friends to see, but nothing more. Might you be vengeful? I am not so deluded to believe I have any importance here. I am but one in 1 billion. A nobody in a sea of virtual nobodies, who only truly matter when collectivised.
But out here, I am a somebody in this life. We all are. A life in which I can gaze upon the stars and know there’s nothing you can do to rival them. A life in which I can walk into a gallery with Rothko and know there’s nothing you can create in the Meta-verse that would come artistically close. A life in which I can debate with people I profoundly disagree with and be content that your algorithms are anything but transgressive. And a life in which I can hold the one love and know no technocrat or scientist’s explanation for how I feel will ever do justice to the poetry it brings into the world.
The world you want is so filled with digital noise we can barely feel ourselves breathing. I once thought silence was the most violent of words. I now see it is perhaps the only response we have in the world you are augmenting, in which there is no time to disconnect and contemplate. We need another conversation about how you have come to impact us from the way we feel about ourselves, to a deeper restricting of our very neurological conditioning. This is not just about the way our concentration is being undone. It’s all about how we imagine the future. Sometimes we need to withdraw in the hope that when we speak elsewhere, we will through the repose of the night follow the shadows and listen to the unspoken voices so that we may just have something meaningful to say!
Silently Not Yours,
Read Wales Arts Review’s interview with Professor Brad Evans here.
brad evans brad evans brad evans brad evans brad evans brad evans brad evans