All My Friends Live In My Phone and So Do I Part IV: The Anxious and the Bored

by Michael Malloy

So now we have left behind the “home computer” and are in the process of replacing the “personal computer” as the primary means of digital communication. Without delving into senseless techno-pessimism or generational abstractions, we have to ask what this technology is doing to us, and how it structures our lives. The benefits are obvious, but the psychological and social impacts of workers under modern capitalism have been irrevocably affected by this technological landscape. Workers have never had an easy life, before or after the arrival of these technologies. However, the ways in which these technologies impinge on workers has created new avenues for exploitation and the manifestation of new forms of immiserated labor. Life is convenient, but life is stressful and boring.

In the recently published collection of writings by the late Mark Fisher, there is a gem of an essay titled “No-one is bored, everything is boring.” In this piece, he develops a critique of what he terms the “politics of boredom.” The mixture of “boredom and compulsion” characterizes the neoliberal era’s model of consumption: unfettered access to enormous streams of meaningless information, simultaneously overwhelming and hollowing out the consumer. Rather than being pacified by corporate strategies, we are overwhelmed by them, invited constantly to view ourselves in development, to set goals and benchmarks for ourselves to attain more, do more, expand more—to become a more efficient producer and consumer amidst a sea of similarly attuned producer/creators.

There is no way up in a world where we are forced to constantly be finding ways up—the logic of stock markets applied to human life.

The fixation on innovation disguises that the upward march of technology has slowed significantly, and our returns on venture capital billions no longer get us market-defining technologies, but sad, alienated urbanites with too much money, reinventing concepts like “buses” or “domestic servants.” We subjects of this fixation are asked to take up the slack, to drive ourselves more, spread ourselves more thinly, to (as brutally soulless advertisement campaigns will ceaselessly remind you), become “doers.”

Fisher cites a fascinating analysis of the “dominant reactive affect” under capitalism, published by Plan C. It argues that “each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect,” produced by its particular arrangement of economic and political power, and that previous dominant affects included misery (opposed by strikes, wage struggles, political organization, etc.), boredom (opposed by refusing work, development of subcultures, and new forms of direct action), and, most recently, anxiety. The authors claim that this newest development requires a new form of resistance, which has not yet materialized.

Anxiety has infected our lives in ways that brutally mangle our relationships with each other, highlighting the destructive impulses of capitalism. We experience these anxieties in multitudes of ways; the payday loan, the double shifts, the “clopenings,” the daily indignities of gig economy work, the infectious invention of the “gifted kid burnout” in response to the fact that the economic reality we are forced to endure has presented young workers with an impossible situation. There is no way up in a world where we are forced to constantly be finding ways up—the logic of stock markets applied to human life.

Even more destructive than this personal distortion is the emergent effect of this ever-upward mindset: fakeness. When benchmarks for views, engagements, or content production are missed, rather than accept the impossibility of permanent growth, a fiction is invented. This fiction is performed through click farms, faked metrics, and imaginary businesses. Deranged content-mill output, like a truly mind-bending number of procedurally generated children’s videos, pepper video hosting sites to take advantage of toddlers with access to iPads and other technology. Algorithms intended to increase viewership accidentally created the perfect recruitment tool for fascist organizers on video sharing sites; who makes a more committed and reliable audience than a politically invested cult? When growth programmatically cannot end, it will simply continue beyond reason, beyond comprehension. There is no upper limit.

Growing out of this particular phenomenon of obsessive development, the fetish for newness has complicated our relationships to technology. These deeply personal devices with which our lives and memories are trusted are also expected to be cycled in and out of our lives every few years or so. Our anxieties distort us into disturbing versions of ourselves, contorted into effusive, artificial advertisements for ourselves. We create a lens through which we permit ourselves to be viewed, because the alternative, if one exists, is to be further alienated from others, to suffer brutal ignominy.

Orson Welles, a man of voracious and genuine appetite for life, was interviewed shortly before his death and offered his thoughts on professionally anxious nerd and sex predator Woody Allen:

I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man. […] That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge. […] His arrogance is ­unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably ­arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest. To me, it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

What therapy do those of us afflicted with this neoliberal brand of anxiety derive from our multitude of screens? We are given control over the uncontrollable in this small way—we can present ourselves, and make ourselves presentable. We are all familiar with the grossest distortions: the committed online troll, dedicated to continuously producing obscure and bizarre embarrassments, because the alternative is to concede that there is something seriously wrong with being so isolated, so removed, that reply-trolling becomes a reasonable way to spend your days.

In what ways are we becoming arrogant or anxious, as the process of identity construction bears down on us? Why is it that an arrogant, anxious, slightly obsessive user base is beneficial to the operators of the platforms we use?

Technology does not inherently give rise to these anxieties—we have capitalism to thank for our ever-growing “productivity,” our stagnant wages, the lowered ceiling of opportunities for working people. What we have instead is a creation of identities that could not previously exist without both the anxiogenic forces of capitalism and the canvas of the virtual spaces we inhabit. We are only one component of the process by which these are created. The particular limitations and features of the environments we inhabit online provide contextualizing and controlling elements that help to manufacture and replicate such spaces.

For as much as we use these outlets to vent, to express personalized and curated frustrations and relieve the intense pressure of modern life, these identities are in many ways out of our control. In what ways are we becoming arrogant or anxious, as the process of identity construction bears down on us? Why is it that an arrogant, anxious, slightly obsessive user base is beneficial to the operators of the platforms we use? Our marketable identities, our branded personas, our tailored portrayals of our lives have become commodities unto themselves. The data collected from our social media accounts where we are ostensibly engaged in this interplay between our conception of our own identity and our portrayal of it serves an entirely different material purpose: to smooth out errors in consumption data and streamline the targeting of advertisements.

The degree to which we are affected by the endless parade of content that frantically occupies our personal space and consumes our time and energy is a question best answered by long-term psychological studies. But to the extent which we personally, as consumer-producers for these websites, experience these anxieties and crises of identity, we should be able to determine the causes—to know who has done this to us. This is not the fault of phones or computers on their own (though the goddamn things can definitely be frustrating), but the fault of those who have made the decision for us that “we never have the luxury of feeling bored.” Just as the role of female programmers was decided by external social conditions, technology is reflective of the broader struggles of various agents in capitalist society.

These effects also cut across reductive generational analysis. For those convinced that millennials are uniquely deranged by digital and social media, a quick scan of Facebook impressions and engagements will quickly correct this. Such impulses are instead tied to the unique conditions of modern political economy and information technology. Given that smartphones and social media are the primary tools by which these anxieties are mediated, we should pay special attention to the ways in which our agency has been eroded as we use them.

The history of computers has, since at least the 1990s, been a history of data, and of the increasingly esoteric and defensive control over data by corporate interests. These interests, incidentally, are rapidly approaching monopolies in their respective industries, providing them with even more control over information. The data is, of course, not of broad, state-level importance, but instead hyper-mundane details, the daily “wheres” and “whens” of millions of ordinary people. We know the history of IBM earlier in the 20th century. We know where this can lead.

Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley. He has been semiprofessionally anxious online for the better part of a decade.