Any speech, dialogue or debate about democracy ultimately hovers around the concepts of life (as in the “value of life”), liberty (“how free are we? / what is the cost of being free?”) and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is more than muddled—it appears to have lost all meaning and significance in the age of surveillance capitalism and absolute state terror. The breakneck speed of AI and machine learning, coupled with the murderous harvest of personal data on the Internet ala Cambridge Analytica, has produced the opposite of utopian dreams of the forties and fifties. That we live in fear of ourselves as we create and consume information is telling of our impending demise.
But what kind of demise? Chaos theory cautions us against running simulations against imperfect models. The prediction of human behavior through the billions of fragments of actions across digital systems has changed the shape and value of ‘human action.’ To act digitally is to act quantifiably. And the quantifiable is turned against mere people as weapons of political control in the present. We live in a digital vacuum where the origins of control are invisible, and therefore, ‘do not exist.’ Some like to compare this to constantly social hallucinations, like ‘public opinion.’
A day ago, two media websites were abruptly taken offline. There is a sense of panic when the URLs constantly redirect to seemingly parked pages. Unseen hands have prevented users in the Philippines from accessing the websites. Another media outfit reported the blackout of the websites, and as of this writing, they continue to be clueless as to what truly took place. VPN-mediated access showed that ABS-CBN was accessible in Singapore and other countries, except Taiwan. Why only Philippine users are blocked from viewing the websites is distinctly self-explanatory. It was a message, and it doesn’t matter who the messenger was—the act was the message: we can bring down anyone.
Public opinion has long been used to defile democracy and human life. If the concerted and well-funded attacks on democracy since 2016 are not indicative enough, we can continue looking upward to other forms of defilement: the buzzards of a dying economy, the militarization of ancestral lands, the continuing conversion of agricultural lands, and what Slavoj Žižek candidly pointed out as “government response fatigue” (questionable, in all cases) and “state crimes caused by the state trying to fight crime” (Žižek, “The Will Not To Know”). Žižek further isolates COVID-19 as the “latent dream text” and poses a familiar question: do we accept the ‘will to ignorance,’ or do we ‘act differently’ in response to the pandemic? To shift lenses, do we accept the physical threat to free speech, or do we reconstruct the value system that we accord to writing and expression as a response to these threats? Both have substantial impact on human life, and it appears that much like the average response to COVID-19, we are all waiting for a magic bullet or vaccine that will systemically ‘fix’ the outright attacks on media and local journalists.
The heady dissonance within ironclad social media chambers reeks of ‘public opinion.’ Public opinion is a ghost index, one that is made to be inconsistent and inaccurate to ensure higher penetration and better spread. Public opinion is comparable to the monastic practice of control, where meaningless cycles of repetition are regulated by a central power (Foucault 149). The degree of defilement of free expression and the democratic invention of ‘public opinion’ has surpassed what Hardt & Negri imagined as merely a ‘field of conflict,’ which must be countered by cultural production and iterations of biopolitical life (263). I propose a reversal of concepts—public opinion, if fabricated by the state, is an abomination, an anti-life invention, and does not deserve such signification at all. There is no possibility of public opinion given the conditions of the Philippines. Nor will there be any possibility of it after the current regime. All that we see that is constructed as public opinion are headless simulations that pertain to nothing but the reproduction of the state as it crowns itself the protector of democratic life. This has long been the case, but it has become more pronounced in the uneven landscape of digital media and the compressed transmission of information across a digital-ideological landscape.
The solution is painfully clear: there has to be a move to reconstitute the public life of the people outside highly controlled environments, where censorship and control can happen in a blink of an eye. Digital panopticism has its limits, and behavioral projections cannot take into account the actions that take place well away from the echo chambers. We have to relearn how to think, speak and act outside the rigid format of social media. That which central control cannot understand, becomes dangerous, because it causes errors and unstable variables that destroy the projection. It is that simple and that hard, given that every known platform is created by the same systems we seek to dismantle.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline And Punish. Vintage Books, 1995, p. 149.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War And Democracy In The Age Of Empire. Penguin, 2004, p. 263.
Žižek, Slavoj, “The Will Not To Know”. The Philosophical Salon, 2020, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-will-not-to-know/.