Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Imagine that you are at a party. As parties go, it is nothing particularly out of the ordinary – there is music, there are beverages of various kinds, some of the attendees are known to you, others not, the usual processes of clustering  and semi-spontaneous interaction are in place. For most intents and purposes, this is a party, with all accompanying prospects and pitfalls.

Thing is. You have to write a paper, due tomorrow, with a respectable attention to detail and a healthy number of references. And you have to write it whilst also attending the party, chatting, interacting, possibly imbibing a non-trivial amount of the aforementioned beverages. It would not do to let your social responsibilities slip; it also would not do to turn in that paper any later than it already is.

Truly, this is quite a predicament.

Taken metaphorically, this predicament is akin to how Byung-Chul Han would describe contemporary society. We are all having to write a paper, but we also have to attend to our social duties. Only, writ large: we are always connected to the swarm chattering of social media, and always have to respond to it in this way or that. Something happens – we have to know what it is and how to relate to it. Someone says something to us – we have to respond, lest we are rude. Someone says something problematic – we are called upon to join in the chorus of those denouncing it. Albeit with varying degrees of intensity, there is always something going on, some aspect of the party requiring that we attend, paying our attention and social dues.

Of course, Byung-Chul Han would object to this specific metaphor, on the grounds that real life physical parties no longer happen in the way implied by the description given. Rather than being discrete, isolated events unto themselves, parties are increasingly mediated through the swarm connectivity. You are at a party, and you are at the same time live-reporting from said party, uploading images and sharing whatever impressions might be relevant to your peers. Something happens, and rather than being an event in the physical, it is an event mediated by the swarm; the vent becomes an opportunity for a great Instagram photo, our followers are going to love it. The metaphor of the party breaks down – parties themselves have been deconstructed by the very swarm propensity I endeavored to exemplify. The process has always-already taken place.

You still have to write that paper, though. And you are no less distracted for it.

Leaving the party metaphor aside, we are left with the constant distractions. There is indeed always something going on, some new story, some new controversy, something – and the constant attention we pay to these things amount to a whole lot of attention, with little to show for it in terms of tangible insights. The most brutal example would be those tuned into the constant news item that is Trump: there is always something going on (ever with an unreciprocated level of emotional intensity), yet the constant constancy gives scant reward in terms of received or accumulated wisdom. Despite the many names, facts and intricate turns of events to keep track of, the end result of being constantly attuned is a constant state of being tired and emotionally drained.

And that paper is no closer to being written.

The paper is also a metaphor. It might be a literal paper, but it might also be any project that demands a non-trivial amount of time sitting down paying close, undivided attention. Long-form writing is a prime example of this – nothing about writing happens by itself, and the only way to get it done is to power through it, alone, undisturbed. It is a common enough trope that authors engage in isolation to eventually emerge with a social artifact – paper, book, article, poem – but it is also a fact of writing as a practical activity. All tomorrow’s parties might already be here, but that does not make them a productive writing environment.

For Byung-Chul Han the concept of isolation is a very real. Isolation is, paradoxically, a side-effect of the swarm: by being in constant communication with the swarm, something is lost when it comes to communicating with those not in it. They are not in the loop, they do not know the news or the memes; the lack of shared frames of reference makes it hard to strike up a conversation. Yet, at the same time, the conversations with the swarm are not conversations at all – they consist almost exclusively of references to news and memes, a performance of being in the loop and knowing the current words. The connection is also an isolation. The others in the swarm only know you through your performance, just as you only know them through their. Should you meet them in an everyday random encounter, you would not know their faces or their stories.

Towards the end of the short book, a question is raised: who is the political subject in a situation where everyone is a personal brand? Who, in the age of constant representation of individuals, are we? To be sure, the performance of reacting to the latest news story or presidential mishap might feel like a communal effort. But what kind of community is that? What political capital can be leveraged from a mass of hyperconnected individuals whose attention constantly flitters from one disconnected story to the next? Would they stop for a moment to read your blog posts or poems about something as untimely as watching the clouds?

In the swarm, readers are discursive anomalies.

Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

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