The scopic totalitarianism

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By EUGENIO BUCCI*

In today's totalitarianism, the dominant fear is the fear of invisibility. That's why the power of algorithms terrifies everyone

The digital world has thrown humanity into a new type of totalitarianism. There is no other word to define the relationship between the mass of billions of human beings and the global monopoly conglomerates such as Amazon, Apple, Meta (owner of Facebook and WhatsApp) and Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube), not to mention the Chinese.

People know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the functioning of the algorithms that millimetrically control the flow of information and entertainment through the networks. At the other end, the algorithms know everything about the psyche of anyone who accesses a computer, a cell phone, a tablet or a simple wristwatch, the kind that monitor physical exercise, heart rate, blood pressure, steps and strokes. We are in the society of total control – totalitarian control.

The most astonishing thing is that this control is only possible thanks to the contented docility of the crowds. In shudders of exhibitionistic excitement, they opened up their own intimacies to the machines. Then, not satisfied with the frenzy of exhibitionism, they surrender to cavernous voyeurism to snoop into other people's lives. Looking and being looked at, they work like a charm in the service of the immense extraction of personal data, which, after being captured, are sold at stratospheric prices.

You do not believe? Well, you should believe it. Where do you think the market value of conglomerates comes from? Answer: it comes from capturing (free of charge) and selling crowds' personal data. The digital world managed the feat of establishing a total surveillance order, in which everyone is watching everyone else and, on top of that, delights in it. And who wins in the end? Yes, themselves, the conglomerates – himself, the capital.

No more optimistic illusions. A coexistence pact in which algorithms see everything and a little more about individual privacy, while individuals see nothing of algorithms, which are the center of digital power, can only be called a totalitarian pact.

Hannah Arendt teaches that everyone's adherence is one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism. She saw that, under Nazism and Stalinism, every citizen was quick to act like an employee of the political police and betray even family members. Hitler and Stalin relied on the voluntary services of the common people to decimate dissidents. “The collaboration of the population in the denouncement of political opponents and in the voluntary service as informants”, writes the philosopher in Origins of totalitarianism, “is so well organized that the work of specialists is almost superfluous”.

In the totalitarianism described by the great thinker, fear impels everyone to obey. Today we know that fear does not act alone. Beyond him, there is passion: the masses nurture a libidinal desire for the figure of the leader. “Thirst for submission”, in the words of Freud. There is an unspeakable pleasure in servitude.

In today's totalitarianism, the dominant fear is the fear of invisibility. That's where the power of algorithms terrifies everyone. As for desire, it manifests itself as an imperious passion that leads a teenager to kill and die in exchange for a moment in the spotlight on his name and his photograph. The extreme tare of some contact, even if remote, with the stars that shine on the virtual stages leads to total subjection.

That slave labor appears in this universe of enjoyment and panic is not surprising. The people, affectionately and cynically called “users”, work for free for the networks. They dedicate hours and hours of their leaden days to cramming the platforms with their texts, their images, their favorite songs, their audios and their affective miseries. And it is precisely the product of this labor – slave labor – that attracts billions of other “users”. The conglomerates do not need to hire photographers, singers, actresses, editors, journalists, none of that, since they already have their fanatical and enslaved followers. Never, in the entire history of capitalism, has the exploitation of work – and feelings – reached such absurd levels.

Not surprisingly, too, anti-democratic far-right propaganda fares so well in this environment. The totalitarianism of the networks repels the discourse of democracy with the same force that encourages autocratic messages. Is obvious. Democratic politics needs free men and women, who have critical autonomy and value rights. Those are down. Autocracy is the opposite: it only spreads among violent groups, intoxicated by hatred and impelled by irrational beliefs, which are on the rise.

As the totalitarianism of our days is woven by exploitation and by directing the gaze, it should be called “scopic totalitarianism”. The look is the cement that glues the desire of each and every one to the overwhelming order. If we want regulation to face it, we must start by demanding unconditional transparency of algorithms. It is unacceptable that an opaque and impenetrable black box presides over social communication in the public sphere. More than unacceptable, it is totalitarian.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of The superindustry of the imaginary (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.


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