“The Know-It-Alls” is the title American author Noam Cohen chose for his study on those who make the brave new digital world. It is generally recognized that this world has many, dark sides, not to say abysses. Cohen’s book (discussed in this issue) makes clear that the know-it-alls have however set their sights on squeezing every last ounce of profit out of these abysses, and that this process has long been underway. To a large extent entirely ignoring social and political collateral damage, for a good 20 years the major innovators from Silicon Valley have labored to make their vision of “enhanced” humanity a reality—even if that means that pronounced divisive tendencies become ever more apparent across society, with a tiny elite increasingly disengaged from the unfortunate masses.
This development unleashed by Google, Amazon, Facebook and other tech giants is in full swing, and there is no way yet to foresee where exactly it will lead. It is equally uncertain what its long-term impact will be in various social and cultural fields, and indeed what kind of incompatible parallel scenarios it may potentially generate. The social media play an especially distinctive role here, functioning as a communication channel, incubator and amplifier of all the factors that decisively shape other realms of digitalization. However, on this front too, it is currently scarcely possible to do more than soberly register the course new media have taken to date, and engage in a critical evaluation of this trajectory—in order to perhaps find a more effective democratic response to the most blatant excesses in future. Although it must be said that, whichever way you look at it, the auspices do not bode particularly well on that front.
The Asocial Media? takes as its conceptual springboard a central case from the recent past. How could illiberal and authoritarian voices gain the upper hand in increasingly large areas of what is actually a fundamentally liberal-democratic public sphere? What role is played by the social media, which, as has now become apparent, are not only platforms for free, cultivated exchanges of opinion but increasingly also a protected stomping ground for extreme, or even extremist, thinking? When push comes to shove politically, do these social media actually foster isolationist divisions and asocial tendencies? Asocial because these media increasingly offer scope to interact only with likeminded users, entrenching whatever kind of abstruse conviction one may hold, in contrast to traditional media channels, visible to everyone on the same basis. And asocial too because they nurture the notion that society only extends as far as reflections of my individual Ego and/or those like me. The realm outside is hostile, incomprehensible, other.
Numerous contributions in this issue examine these twists and turns of the social in and through social media. Olivier Jutel’s essay focuses on the trauma that the autocratic Trump's electoral victory has left in the liberal camp. Jutel’s sobering conclusion is that the response to the escalating presence of the “post-factual” has not focused on invoking more equitable values, but first and foremost on technological solutions. Such damage repair is highly popular above all in right-wing or extreme right circles, as Marc Ries and Maria L. Felixmüller reiterate in their analysis of the “meme wars” in the wake of the US presidential election. Incomprehensibly, a seemingly infantile game—with fantasy figures prefiguring the coming “leader”—gave rise to a genuinely reactionary, racist movement. S. M. Amadae addresses the more distant underpinnings of contemporary faith in technology in her essay. Amadae traces the widespread creed of the neoliberal, self-determined individual, who ultimately does not balk at his or her own illiberality, back to its roots in game and information theory in the 1940s and 1950s. As Amadae discovers, that was the period that paved the way for the now almost universal imperative of computability of everything and everyone. It is becoming increasingly clear, that the “fall-out” of growing social separation and diminishing solidarity trails in the wake of this phenomenon.
Last but not least, the offshoots of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Twitter have long reached the art world too. Over and above altered modes of reception, they are beginning to exert a more pronounced influence on the making and circulation of art. In his essay, Alessandro Ludovico considers the specific networked reality that is manufactured by these media and processed in artistic practice, sometimes in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. Thomas Raab and Hans-Christian Dany turn literary spotlights on the algorithmic regime concealed in youth cultures, hipness discourses and dating platforms.
All the essays in this edition share a common thread of proposals related to re-establishing sociality, which is now under threat. Do the social media keep their inherent promise of democracy on the broader scale of society? Do these media help to generate a multi-perspective, pluralistic public sphere? Or do they contribute—which would be fatal right now—to ever greater segregation of increasingly incompatible cultural and political spheres?