In the late nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear, social alienation became a significant concern of both social workers (in particular religious pastors and ministers) and policy makers. Durkheim’s anomie was one of the first studies of the phenomenon (The Division of Labour in Society, 1893), though it’s conceivable that such alienation was only made possible by urbanisation and the size of communities permitted through industrialization. Simmel (The Philosophy of Money, 1900) and Tönnies (Community and Civil Society, 1887) each looked at the money system and the built environment respectively as contexts for understanding alienation. Man was alienated from his species essence, in Marxist terms, a fundamentally economic alienation from labour and the product of that labour. The fullest expression of that alienation is ‘in the role of machines in modern life,’ (Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation, 2009) those things that take touch away, that dehumanise. The industrialisation of the machine in the form of the city scaled that effect to community and social dimensions.
Tönnies argues in his introduction to Community and Civil Society that while focusing on human relationships that are based on positive mutual affirmation, ‘[e]very relationship of this kind involves some kind of balance between unity and diversity. This consists of mutual encouragement and the sharing of burdens and achievements, which can be seen as expressions of people’s energies and wills. The social group brought into existence by this positive relationship, envisaged as functioning both inwardly and outwardly as a unified living entity, is known by some collective term as a union, fraternity or association. The relationship itself, and the social bond that stems from it, may be conceived as having real organic life, and the it is the essence of Community [Gemeinschaft]; or else as purely a mechanical construction, existing in the mind, and that is what we think of as Society [GesellSchaft].’ (his emphasis, p. 17) This sets up the discussion around the urban experience and the effects of early modern capitalism.
Fast forward a hundred years or so to Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), and we find this situation compounded. Putman’s comparison of suburban American bowling leagues to Tocqueville’s assessment of civic and church structures in the early nineteenth century demonstrated some weakness in those structures, signaling a warning to post-end-of-history / pre-Internet America that there was trouble brewing. The personal alienation of the industrialised world was now infecting social structures as well as individual psychologies, and there was a risk that it could spread to political structures, heralding institutional and state decline.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, there has been increasing evidence of two other phenomena, which may well be connected. In the first instance, there has been significant research concluding that an epidemic of loneliness has swept western liberal societies, across the age groups, with significant consequences. This is not just as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is something that pre-dates that. Some argued that technology may in fact have been contributing to the social pathology, but it appears more likely that technology was blunting the effects of a more general trend. And that leads me to the second phenomenon, of online radicalisation. Evident for much of the past decade, initially in the form of militant radicalisation (particularly in Islamic theocratic nationalisms) from early on in the so-called war-on-terror. In the second half of the last decade, it has become apparent that online radicalisation has migrated to the domestic western political sphere, and been automated by advances in cloud computing and AI. This has been particularly evident with the rise of the far right, and the development of collective identities through extremist forums. Tom Frissen in an article on the phenomenon titled Internet, the Great Radicalizer? assesses a number of potential factors, including moral disengagement, reminiscent of Durkheim’s anomie (though curiously enough without mentioning Durkheim).
The question that arises for me in all of this is whether the loneliness (as an extension of late modern capitalist / industrial / neoliberal alienation) is being compensated for in the form of less attractive groups seeking alliances, whether the holes one feels in one’s identity are being filled with more extreme elements, rendered suddenly accessible by a combination of mobile devices, social media, and algorithms designed to perpetuate engagement? Furthermore, assuming for the moment that the thesis holds up, and given that an increasing proportion of ‘engagement’ is being reciprocated by bots, does this in essence represent a cyborgification of the human? Bear in mind the distinction that the cyborg is an enhanced human, while the android is an artificial human; so, to what extent is technology becoming a part of who we are?
With this thought in mind, and returning to Tonnies, his argument in Community and Civil Society is that mutualities, relationships and reciprocation are essential for positive (neither good nor bad, merely abstractly ‘constructive’, or ‘progressive’) human development, what he calls ‘positive mutual affirmation’. We have arrived at a position where the reciprocation is automated, where the loneliness that had been driven by individualisation and marketisation and calculation has been compensated for by seemingly virtuous (or at least impartial) machines, and that therefore our civic selves, our reciprocal identity is partially machine. Welcome to the world of the new cyborg!
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
–Richard Brautigan, 1968