We live in an age of rapid technological advancement, but what effect has this had on our cultural development? Mark Fisher’s[1. Mark Fisher is the author of Capitalist Realism (Zer0 2009) and the forthcoming Ghosts of My Life. He writes regularly for Film Quarterly, The Wire, Sight and Sound and Frieze, and blogs at k-punk.abstractdynamics.org. He teaches at the University of East London, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the City Literary Institute. He was a founding member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and helped to organise Virtual Futures ’96.] talk ‘No Time’ looks back on the original Virtual Futures conferences and draws conclusions on the ongoing cultural effects of technology.
Digital communication appears to give us time through the promise of greater efficiency, but it also takes time from us with its constant demands on our attention. Are we so obsessed with our mobile devices that we must ‘feel the relief of clicking’? Do we suffer a painful performance anxiety when communicating via a plethora of social media networks? Are our mobile phones ‘electro-libidinal parasites’?
Mark Fisher believes that the accelerated rate of technological development has actually had a slowing effect on cultural development. ‘What I wanted to register today was, I suppose, a sense of disappointment,’ he begins his talk at Virtual Futures 2.0’11, ‘[a disappointment] when we think about the expectations of the nineties and the reality of the existing “cyberspace”.’
Are our mobile phones ‘electro-libidinal parasites’?
Looking back to the original Virtual Futures conferences in the mid-1990s, he says that much of what was predicted has come to pass, but now we regard sophisticated technologies – such as email and smart phones – as normal: ‘there’s a sense that everything has changed but nothing’s really happened’, he remarks, ‘…technological upgrades have taken the place of a kind of cultural development, and what I want to suggest, really, is that there is a correlation between these two things.’
Take the idea that we have ‘no time’ for example; we feel endlessly harried because we’re tethered to mobile communication devices at all times. Fisher sets out a vision of technological progress in several thresholds: firstly, electronic mail (still a novelty in the 1990s), secondly, the arrival of Broadband; thirdly, the iPod in 2005. ‘[iPods] seem to have changed everything , but only at the level of consumption and distribution, not content or culture,’ he explains. ‘The more things change at the level of consumption, the less they change at the level of production. So what I want to draw attention to is two different speeds: the ever-increasing speed of communicative capitalism and the slowing, retarded time of culture.’
‘What I’ve noticed over the last few months is a growing sense of a kind of digital communicative malaise; a sense that we’re deep into this stuff and that we didn’t necessarily know what we were getting into. It’s like we’re the subject of an experiment which no-one is consciously really conducting,’ says Fisher.
Looking back ten or 15 years ago, who cared about constant communication apart from teenagers? Who has got control of time, and how have they got control of it? Fisher believes that our mobile phones are ‘communicational parasites with a very low-level jouissance’; they are capable of tainting all other levels of enjoyment with their constant pull on our attention. ‘Why are we so ready to accept the story that technology delivers modernity, when actually… it’s pretty clear from the last decade alone that changes in technology aren’t enough on their own to deliver new culture?’ he asks.
Fisher argues that contemporary culture is, in fact, a rehashing of what’s gone before; there is an emphasis on pastiche and retrospection: ‘At a time when all certainties collapse at an economic and political level, you reach for older forms of culture as a form of reassurance; but there are also cognitive difficulties [with this],’ he says. The alternatives of the nineties have faded, and the ‘dark capitalism’ predicted by Nick Land, is nowhere to be seen – instead we have a ‘banal capitalism’ dominated by the ‘neuroticising mechanisms of social media’. In the past, people expected to keep the same job for 40 years, but this has collapsed into a world of ‘precarity’, with short-term contracts and virtual workplaces created by sophisticated mobile technology.
Of course there are other uses of digital technology available apart from communicative uses.
Fisher speculates that following the collapse of neoliberalism in 2008, we have not found a new ideology to take its place; we are living in an ideological vacuum and in a state of ‘atemporality’.
‘The challenge for us, at this time, is to come up with [an] alternative, but I think it will have to be via precarity. Who wants to go back to working in a factory for 40 years? ‘ he says. The other obstacle is articulating these ideas in a way that is not technologically reactionary. ‘Of course there are other uses of digital technology available apart from communicative uses,’ he concludes, ‘and maybe we can look towards a digital psychedelia that would involve a dilation of time, instead of this constantly harried sense of time in which we seemed to be required to live at the moment.’