Mary Harrington: The techno-capitalist complex is hell bent on hacking your dopamine systems for money (Part I).
JS: The first thing I wanted to talk about was that, in a recent article of yours called “For me, self-identification was a con”, you explored the digitization of identity and how this is leading people to think of their physical bodies as equally editable as their online presences. I was just wondering if you could talk a bit more about this idea and what it was that led you to write that piece.
MH: I suppose, the first thing I should say is that the Internet has always been a love affair for me – that’s sort of love-hate affair, I suppose I should say – and ever since I discovered it existed. I’m one of that weird micro-generation that grew up without the Internet, I got all the way to, I think, 18 before I met it for the first time, and so I had a childhood and adolescence, where you arranged to meet people via telephone or in person, and then you turned up. But then I met the Internet, in my early adulthood, and have been very online ever since pretty much. So, that’s the best part of more than 20 years, I’ve been very online. And I love the Internet; I also absolutely hate it, I think there are things which are incredibly toxic about it, as well as incredibly bewitching, but one of the most, for me, as a with many fairly unhappy young adults, entrancing things about the Internet was the sense that you could break free of your “IRL” constraints. As they say, these days, you could be someone, you could be anyone you liked on the Internet that you were just a disembodied voice.
And so, it didn’t matter what you look like. I was dumpy and frumpy and grumpy and just generally not especially happy in myself as an 18-year-old and those two together, there’s something so entrancing about the sense that, on the Internet, you could just be whoever. Whoever you said you were, people were obliged to take you at face value, because what else is this goal? You know on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. I think that’s a Gary Larson cartoon; on the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog or not, but if you say you’re a dog, people are sort of obliged to treat you as a dog because there isn’t really any way of validating whether that is or isn’t true. Although, I suppose that’s become less the case as times gone on, and you know people’s Internet histories accumulate but that’s sort of a separate discussion I guess anyway. This article I wrote about was a bit of a trip down memory lane, for me, because not super long after that, I suppose I would have been in my early 20s when social media was really just getting into gear as a mass phenomenon and it must be a scant few years after Facebook was launched.
I think before even Twitter appeared on the horizon, it was very much the kind of wild west of the Internet at that point, emails were only just a thing and people sending sharing images via email or… strange websites. And everyone, everyone thought this was incredible but didn’t really quite know what it was. And, I was very involved at the time, in what was a tiny and very vibrant little micro scene in London, which I suppose was the nascent time of queer/trans end of the lesbian scene which started with gay bars and lesbian bars but nobody really imagined that biological sex and gender were separate things at the time, because, why would you think that if you don’t spend all your time online?
But you know what I was trying to draw out in that article was the sense that playing with your gender and playing with your self-presentation emerged as something which was thinkable for that subculture in tandem with its development as in an online message board. You know people very consciously cultivated and curated online-selves: there was one person whose online persona was a sort of dandy flop, who was in reality… well, not quite that, shall we say, but this was the online persona they cultivated, and it was plausible until you met them in person.
I want to sort of measure my words a little bit here because you know, these people are my friends and I really don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking contemptuously about what’s happening there, because looking back it felt incredibly liberating and it felt incredibly empowering for groups of people who felt their sense of who they really wished, or who they really wanted to be, which was radically, irreducibly at odds with the bands of physical reality and social norms, and what convention compelled them to be. If you were a masculine-presenting female-body person in early noughties normie culture, then it’s just not a very comfortable place to be; being a masculine-presenting woman has never been a very comfortable place to be.
As critical of, and questioning of the whole sort of matrix of social norms around sex and gender, in an incredibly creative way, I just thought “wow this is amazing”. Now there’s this really intoxicating inter-penetration of the online fantasy life that we created collectively. When I started work, I was hopeless; I never did any work and what was supposed to be my actual jokes, I just wanted to spend all my time on the Internet in this entrancing new world and so we talked to each other, online all the time.
On this message board we had these incredibly elaborate, long-running jokes and kind of fantasy role play games that just kind of emerged organically and spontaneously amongst this group of people, and then we also met up in real life once a week at a at a club night, which had been set up by one of the one of this little scene’s members. And there was this incredibly rich kind of interweaving of online and offline fantasy and reality. People talk contemptuously about LARPing as though it’s something which is separate from real life, but my feeling has always been that now that we have the Internet, there isn’t really a meaningful distinction between role playing and real life because they are looped in and out of one another, all of the time.
So, really, my background for thinking about what’s going on with gender self-identification is really my argument that it’s inseparable from the Internet, and the way that invites us to reconceptualize ourselves as beings of imagination and free from the constraints of the body.
JS: Well, we’re on two different sides of this Internet generation relationship because you didn’t come across it until you were an adult but I grew up with it, I’m two years older than Google, but that really means that my conscious life has been very bound up with the Internet, and I was in one of the first classes in my primary school to be given computer lessons. But there’s so much that’s changed in the last 25 years, especially the idea that when you first go on the Internet, you should not share anything about yourself; now there’s the idea that if you don’t share anything about yourself there’s something suspect. Do you think that there’s any way that you can extricate yourself from such an online life?
MH: I think it’s almost certainly possible, the question is… Well I’ll come at this from a slightly different way. I haven’t been able to prove this with data, yet, but I have a very strong hunch that the reason smoking suddenly collapsed in popularity coincided with the rise of addictive smartphone behaviour. People checking their smartphones is a direct substitute for people taking a fag break, and you know those who are genuinely addicted to nicotine just switched over to vaping and everybody else who actually just enjoyed smoking because it allowed them to unplug from social interaction for a couple of minutes moved seamlessly over to addictive smartphone checking instead. Based on my hunch, the timelines are close enough for it to be plausible. That was a thesis anyway based on that pet theory of mine, and the question for me is less whether or not it’s possible as whether or not people have the mental strength to kick the habit, and I think increasingly it’s becoming something that people are thinking about very seriously.
There’s a company called Techless based in the US, which creates a very swish, very smart, very elegant “dumb phone”. So, dumb phones, you may you may be aware, are something that Internet-anxious parents often impose on their children; now, I have a four year old, and I will be ensuring she has a dumb phone for as long as I can, but, of course, using a classic Nokia and Ericsson is a colossal pain in the backside because t-nine typing just takes forever and is really tedious.
So that’s the sort of cutting-edge thing is a super-swish tablet like smartphones but just with minimal features, so no app store, no Internet, just text, maps and clock, and the super basic features in an incredibly elegant phone that makes it absolutely clear that you’re not just skint or a tightwad. It becomes a kind of super pared-down, super-streamlined minimalist fashion statement that just says, I have consciously unplugged myself from the Internet and screen addiction.
Another trend which I’m interested in is something which the American tech gurus do which they call dopamine fasting, which is to say, a conscious discipline of unplugging yourself from the online, or any kind of dopamine reward system, which is hooked into a principle that means in engagement with the online dopamine machine. It increasingly and intentionally hacks the dopamine reward centres in our brains, such that you get a tiny dopamine hit every time somebody likes your posts. I freely confess to being wildly addicted to the to the domain machine, you know. I’m a sort of willing sacrifice to the hungry gods of the Internet because i’m kind of enjoying the voyage at the moment but it’s something which I do occasionally worry about in myself. I worry about what it’s doing to my neural pathways and particularly to my capacity to read long form.
Which is something I have to work on quite consciously now, if I want to get through a book and I have to, I have to find a way of unplugging myself from the dopamine machine for long enough to be able to hold any sort of long form thoughts in my head. I have an increasingly deliberate practice of long distance running where I will not stop to photograph or post, I will not talk about my long distance running goals or achievements online. I very deliberately abstract and ring-fence parts of myself any sort of engagement with the dopamine machine and certainly when my child becomes old enough to start hankering to plug herself into the dopamine machine I’ll be doing my level best to resist that, for as long as I decently can. And I don’t think I’m the only parent. who thinks about it like this, and I daresay when you have kids you’ll probably be wrestling with how you ethically balance your child’s engagement with the Internet and the social pressures to do that, against the likely impact and some of the risks and the downsides of that.
This is something which everybody’s trying to get to grips with. It should be noted that the Silicon Valley oligarchs who sell us these web machines and then monetize our desires for pleasure and profit, almost to a man and to a woman forbid their own children from having smartphones. It’s a good rule of thumb with the new oligarchy to look not at what they say, but what they do you know: they all stay married; they raise their children in stable two parent families; they banned their kids from having smartphones.
JS: This the class problem; one issue that I think is comparable is fast food, you have a lot of people who are very poor but simultaneously very overweight, because fast food is cheap and easily accessible. Similarly what you’re saying is there’s this company in Silicon Valley that’s producing very elegant dumb phones and the dopamine denial classes that are sort of marketed to people. At the same time in the wedding industry, it is become extraordinarily expensive to even get married. Is it not the case that if you’re rich, great, you can extricate yourself from all of this, but if you’re poor you’re kind of stuck with this world that the rich have created?
MH: Again, I guess, my answer is almost always yes and no I’m afraid. The cards are stacked against you, there’s no question about that, and they become increasingly so. The more committed the upper crust becomes to telling everybody that they can just do and be whatever they want the more the cards are stacked against people who don’t have the resources to make that work for them, for whatever reason, and absolutely I think that’s true. However, I also think you know in as much as there’s any hope, I see it, I see it in sort of movements resistance movements and the one that always springs to mind, for me here on this is “no-fap”, which gets a lot of stick because it’s a bunch of adolescents. Everyone likes to laugh at adolescent males because they’re kind of gawpy and their arms and legs are the wrong length and they mumble. Especially in a feminist age where everybody likes to agree that boys suck. So, there’s not much done for these teenage guys, especially when industrial and manual work seems to be seems to be on the wane.
In spite of this, and in spite of this incredibly bleak outlook, you know there’s something like 750,000 “No Fap” message board members; that’s a staggering number. And they’re self-organized and they’re self-motivated and they’re trying to support each other to kick the dopamine habit. And there is no more direct, immediate and compelling dopamine habit than masturbation to online pornography, the stimulus is there. I can’t speak to being an adolescent male because they obviously I’m obviously not, but I hear from friends of mine who have that lived experience that the urges are very present and very compelling. So it’s an astonishingly heroic things to try and do you know, in the teeth of the techno-capitalist complex, which is hell bent on hacking your dopamine systems for money.
It can be done guys; yes, the cards are absolutely stacked against people, but you know, there are acts of resistance in the margins and I think those are beautiful and heroic and should be encouraged.
Photo provided by Mary Harrington.