"Pettman argues that the contemporary subject is being guided by “hypermodulation: the attempt to distract us from the fact that we are indeed being synchronized to an unprecedented degree” (Pettman 2016, 130). The contention is that social media’s apparatus distracts its users with small bursts of content that elicit various affective states, often at different times as other users, and at an ever-faster rate. Our emotional states are, therefore, compartmentalized, reduced to quick, sharp reactions to images, reports or actions on an algorithmically determined feed of news unique to the user. He argues that this flattens the user’s experience of social reality, which is perceived as a series of unrelated, chaotic micro-events, without a basis to form a coherent overarching social narrative. Social media leaves the subject fragmented and attempting to form a cohesive sense of identification by curating their feed to serve as an echo chamber, or by jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions.
Instead of the conventional understanding of critical theory that we are “always-already” to become a subject, as we operate with an understanding of the signs, symbols and language used for the interpellative process, the fragmentation caused by media representations causes the user to remain “always-nearly” a subject, uncertain of our place in the world: meaning is deferred by the infinite series of distractions. Rather than distraction being used to take our attention away from events that we would otherwise see, Pettman believes that the distraction is the decoy itself: social media is addictive because it distracts us with numerous interpretations, commentaries and reactions to the event that would be conventionally occluded: the political event is distorted through extensive coverage, rather than remaining unknown (Pettman 2016, 11).
The Internet provides users with access to more information, of varying degrees of authenticity and credibility, than ever before in human history, and social media is the most sophisticated attempt (so far) to compartmentalise that information in such a manner as to provide an ongoing report of social experiences, and in doing so, positions the user’s auto-curated profile as the location from where to orient this information. Pettman’s provocation is that social media protects the status quo by showing you what is happening, but as a series of seemingly unrelated experiential nodes, and at different times as your fellow users, so that you may vent your anger at injustice in isolation, rather than finding a means of protest or resistance in collective outrage. By showing all information and presenting it with the same level of urgency and immediacy, it induces a “flattening” affect for the user: “matters of potentially historic import, like a civil rights issue […] are now flattened into the same homogeneous, empty digital space as a cute critter or an obnoxious celebrity” (Pettman 2016, 35). By receiving these various interpretations and media representations of numerous events alongside one another from different perspectives, the important political events, and indeed the larger social world, appear chaotic and unintelligible, which discourages active political participation.
However, Pettman’s analysis veers towards the conspiratorial in his claim that “it is quite deliberate that while one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video […] that nebulous indignation which constitutes the very fuel of true social change can then be redirected safely around the network” (Pettman 2016, 29-30, my emphasis). That this controversial claim is made without evidence leaves it dubious but taken as literary license rather than a po-faced accusation, it can be plausibly argued that social media produces this circulation of emotional responses around the network as a coincidental consequence of the platform’s structure, in a way that may feel intentional.
Later, Pettman gives the example of Facebook admitting to “experimenting with users” feeds to ascertain the extent to which they can transfer via “emotional contagion”: leading unrelated individuals to experience the same emotional state because of the platform’s active intervention and manipulation” (Pettman 2016, 82-84). However, there remains a marked difference between arguing that social media platforms are engaging in a systematic strategy of intentional interpellation and arguing that social media platforms have demonstrated that they are nonetheless capable of doing so. Just because they can, does not mean they are. But given the continuous revelations and scandals breaking about the tech giants, so many that by the time you read this, the one that comes to your mind may be different to the one that I would otherwise propose, would it be particularly surprising if Pettman was right all along?
Returning to the psychological implications for the subject, he argues that the disorientation caused by social media produces “emotional dissonance”, because as the user is pulled in different directions that elicit completely incongruous emotional states, “the moral hierarchies of human culture crumble into a caricature of democracy, in which all elements are equal”, in which being “charmed by videos of interspecies friendship” and “(almost) simultaneously disgusted by the latest crime footage” (Pettman 2016, 37) leads to a blurring of events into individual moments that prompt virtual reactions; a like, a love-heart, a share, a retweet.
Social media produces a vision of a world too chaotic to be challenged, where the subject is enticed into fitting into the social machine without friction to “get on” in life, and to move from distraction to distraction. Whilst Pettman envisions a world where social media designers build distraction into the model for nefarious political ends, I here argue there is a more plausible explanation: hypermodulation is not a political conspiracy, but an unintentional consequence of the incentive structure of platform capitalism informed by the social acceleration of the pace of life. In other words, hypermodulation is caused by what may be termed the digital acceleration of the pace of life, and thus digital deceleration, the replacement of the universal platforms with alternatives sensitive to these affective conditions, may provide a corrective." (https://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/1127/1334)