Categories
Capitalism and Disease Mental Health Social Media Technology

Capitalism and Pandemics: a reflection on the depressive patterns of an overactive youth

Roland Topor. Titre Inconnu (ca. 1970)

By Carlos Solsona Ribes, BA, MA

In the history of psychiatry, the concept of anhedonia has been always identified as one of the main symptoms of the common clinical depression. This term could be briefly defined as the inability to feel pleasure, the lack of motivation and a meaningful agency in an absolute -physical and mental- sense. It is not just about mutable feelings or easily identifiable -and exploitable- mental states that would make a bunch of coaching gurus rich. A state of anhedonia is a very serious matter and it acts like a black veil covering every aspect of the patient’s life.

The condition that I would like to explore in this post is the opposite: depressive hedonia, the need for instant pleasure that always remains unsatisfactory. This concept is extremely interesting in order to understand our times and, especially, to start making sense of the life-changing mental health consequences of the succesive lockdowns that we suffer since March 2020. I would argue here that this kind of depressive behavior appears mostly in unemployed people and students during these pandemic times and, moreover, can be theorized as a consequence of the capitalist system.

The term depressive hedonia was coined by the philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), inspired by critical theorists of late capitalism like Naomi Klein, Simon Reynolds, Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek but also well aware of the accelerationist theories of his former University of Warwick colleagues (most remarkably Nick Land). Unfortunately, Fisher made his cultural analysis, while he was himself suffering from severe clinical depression, an illness that made him take his life only a few years after the publication of Capitalist Realism. According to Fisher, we are living our everyday lives on the dawn of an era characterized by the constant need of stimuli, a fake dependency of networks – in the sense of the “need of being connected”- as well as a perpetual obsession with pursuing a (almost always immediate) high number of pleasures that would never be fulfilled. We prepare our mind to receive way more inputs, so to say, than our sanity and brain capacity can process. And this phenomena, more typical of the actual globalization than the late 20th century Post-Fordist model (although connected), of course, seems to be generating its own pathologies. With COVID-19, the world took a break and this constant flow of inputs, the need of instant satisfaction, was almost entirely translated to our digital devices and social networks, provoking in many ways a feeling of general tiredness and detachment from the everyday stimuli that were usually fulfilled in our free pre-COVID lives.

Roland Topor. Le voyage (1970)

As an obvious outcome, the actual situation is triggering a high amount of anxiety and discontent, thus threatening the mental health of the individuals, as well as distorting the collective behavior. This state of hedonia, the endless seeking of instant satisfaction that, like depression, is present in almost every our life-experiences and could mutate into a consistent health pathology.

Although there could be some exaggeration when we talk about the catastrophical depictions of bunches of people checking their phones in a restaurant instead of talking or eating, the truth is that something as simple as the unconscious and automatic gesture of prioritizing a smartphone notification for a second in a face-to-face conversation is becoming more usual than ever. In this sense, the depressive hedonia presents itself also as a condition that is characterized by the impossibility to focus on something minimally complex or time demanding -like reading a book or even a long article in a website without feeling anxiety- and, day by day, the vertiginous speed and change that we perceive as a sign of the times, accompanied with the pressure of feeling always short of time, is not only hurting us but also is distracting us from acting in a way that we feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed. According to The Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 changed dramatically the way we spent our time and a clear conclusion was shown: we are more screen-dependants and socially isolated than ever before: the three main leisure habits in 2020 were gaming, streaming videos (series, Youtube, documentaries and movies) and online shopping.[1]

How does this relate to the history of late capitalism and what is different now?

In the BBC documentary The Century of the Self (2002)[2] , which is probably one of the most brilliant audiovisual attempts of showing the direct relation between capitalism and social psychology, the filmmaker and video essayist Adam Curtis shows how the industries and the US government aligned to create the image of the “consumer” as the standard model of a perfect individual in which everybody has to look at, and it was done through technologies – via advertising campaigns and mass “distraction” tools- that he called engineering of consent (based on the book of the same name written by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and inventor of the term propaganda). In this documentary we see how the collective desires were carefully manufactured by the companies in order to appeal the inner feelings of the masses with a promise of distinction and individuality (the subject was clear in that time). We see how the American Way of Life, an ode to the capitalist system, was established with the tools of the system and the aim of defending a one-dimensional paradigm.

But at that time the globalized and voracious capitalism of today was still far away, and with it the conception of a subject as a fixed entity. What is called the postmodern world, in a sense, matches perfectly with the development of the so-called turbo capitalism. The incessant wheels of capitalism are now rolling with a speed that was never imagined, the supply exceeds by far the demand, the products are less perennial than ever and everything related with “regularities” isn’t even considered in the abstract and speculative global market. Everything regarding human relations and our society feels more fluid[3], fragmented and hard to grasp. The limits are blurry, so are our minds. In our capitalism we aren’t like the consumers of the 20th century: they had choices and “idols”(even if they were made of plastic), a wish of a modellic life. If freedom, our freedom to consume, was the main thread that defined our identity, now with the COVID-19 and all the physical limitations that we experience, we feel like in a state of limbo, a subject without essence and attributes. Some theorists, like the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, are nowadays contributing to a heated discussion about the political dimension of our identity in times of restricted freedoms. He admonishes how authoritarian politicians are taking advantage of the situation in order to dispossess ourselves from the essence of our identities.

In any case, we have to admit that living in a post-COVID world is adding even more complexity to the situation: somehow we are ourselves the product and we feel the pressure of defining our place in a world that is changing now, more than ever, in a way than we couldn’t even grasp. In this mutation of the capitalist system, this normalization of the pressure, stress and depression, the acceptance that the dependencies that most hurt us are not only a natural consequence but also an artificial one that can be imposed from above via regulations. In fact, it is true that we still don’t know if this kind of “mental slavery” could be a mental health pathology, in clinical terms, but at least we could reflect on how the capitalist society has changed our way of living, specially in our troubled times, times that probably will challenge our definitions of freedom and time and force to redefine them. At least we have an interesting trend of critical thinkers trying to make sense of the nonsense without falling in the easy playground of the cynical relativist.

Literature

Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism (2009)

Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine (2007) Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self (2002)- video documentary


[1]https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-covid-19-has-transformed-the-amount-of-time-we-spend-online-01596818846, accessed March 20 2021.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnPmg0R1M04&ab_channel=JustAdamCurtis, accessed March 20 2021.

[3] Or liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman popularized.

Categories
COVID-19 Social Media Surveillance Technology

Thinking about Contact Tracing Apps

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

By Charlotte Fleischmann, BA

The following thoughts on contact tracing apps try to give a new perspective on their purpose. They question the trend in society not wanting to share private information with the government while sharing it at the same time publicly through social media.

The majority of people criticising contact tracing apps do not want to share private information, or in concrete words do not want to share their location and by consequence their daily routines or habits.

This is understandable in a way: location or spatial data provides really delicate information and various types of knowledge can be derived from one’s location. From movements, we know where a person works, lives, shops, and visits friends. We are able to learn a lot about a person but also about communities by “just” having knowledge about their location.

If you now think: “Well, I will never gonna get this tracing app on my phone”, I invite you to remember what other sources of information as delicate as spatial data within a tracing app is publicly accessible of you. Maybe you have a Facebook-, Instagram-, Google Mail- or WhatsApp- or LinkedIn-Account. Social Media and so many other sources are publicly providing a mass of spatial-, and other types of data from the majority of people.

If it is not from social media, there are still other ways to find aggregated information such as official statistical data from governments, data from insurance companies, or data from news media.

These channels of data often do not provide personalized information about people. But we should not forget the bigger picture of data analysis. The objective of data analysis is finding meaning and correlation in incredibly huge amounts of data. Findings derived from so called big data are not about that one certain person, it is about finding patterns in an aggregate of “digitalized reality” concerning activities, opinions, circumstances, and habits of people. I am not saying that personalized data is not playing a huge role in data analysis, but this is mostly the case when an analysis has the purpose to explain a company what advertisement best fits for a certain person. To make it more concrete: personalized information is mostly used from companies for the purpose of marketing.

Let us also remember that what is now called data is digitalized information. Information has always been important for societies and will always be. The main difference between then and now is the capacities of storage, the amount of data and the speed in which data can be processed. Of course, these differences bring up new consequences for society, which should be considered, but still the principles of the impact of information and knowledge on society is as important as it has always been. As Francis Bacon once said: knowledge is power.

But back to the criticism of contact tracing Apps: not wanting to share spatial data, even if it is for the purpose of public health, illustrates that it is important for our society that personal data is not used without consent even if it is for a society’s own good.

Why is there a tendency to think that data will be used against us? And why do we fear this on the one hand, but on the other proudly share family photos on various social media platforms? This matter seems irrational for me and brings me to the conclusion that our global society is in need for an open discourse regarding the subject of data collection, analysis, and use. We need to inform ourselves, so that we do not start sticking to irrational fear, when it comes to the matter of data. But I also call upon institutions, NGOs, governments, organizations, and companies to speak openly about this subject and share aims and objectives concerning the matter of data analysis in a transparent and explicable manner.

If this will not soon be the case, stories like failed attempts to introduce a contact tracing app in order to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will repeat over and over. We need to be clear about both sides of the coin: There are negative impacts in every innovation, in every new trend. But there are also good intentions, good reasons, and eventually good outcome from innovations if we are just able and ready to use it right. The good side of the coin cannot be realized, however, if we live in the bewildering situation of on the one hand sharing loads of data on social media and on the other being afraid of sharing data within an app that would help us to tackle the pandemic.

This blog-post does not only want to question the view on data related matters in our society. It also wants to take an effort in informing about the potential of contact tracing apps for the solution of this crisis in line with this recent statement by the WHO:

“COVID-19 has heavily emphasized how contact tracing is crucial for managing outbreaks, and as part of the strategy for adjusting, and eventually lifting, lockdowns and other stringent public health and social measures. As the pandemic develops further, it will be a core measure to manage further waves of infection”

Sources:

The sources below contain further articles about functioning, purpose, objectives, outcome of contact tracing apps and about the on-going debate. I hope this blog post is providing an incentive to read and think further about data analysis in relation to contact tracing apps, but also in terms of other topics.

Budd, J., Miller, B.S., Manning, E.M. et al. Digital technologies in the public-health response to COVID19. Nat Med 26, 1183–1192 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-1011-4

Ienca, M., Vayena, E. On the responsible use of digital data to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Med 26, 463–464 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0832-5

World Health Organization. Public health surveillance for COVID-19 Interim guidance (2020)

World Health Organization. Online global consultation on contact tracing for COVID-19 (2020). COVID-19: Surveilllance, case investigation and epidemiological protocols

Siffels, L.E. Beyond privacy vs. health: a justification analysis of the contact-tracing apps debate in the Netherlands. Ethics Inf Technol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-020-09555-x

Lanzing, M. Contact tracing apps: an ethical roadmap. Ethics and Inf Technol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-020-09548-w