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Smartphones Aren’t the Problem — Capitalism Is

All of the fretting about social media addiction and smartphones destroying our attention span misses the point. Capitalism and the profit-seeking of big tech is the real problem.

“Nude selfies till I die.” Kim Kardashian’s 2016 Webby Award acceptance speech for “excellence on the internet” was totally #goals. It also speaks to the reconfiguration of the public and private in our smartphone society. Kim and her selfie-obsessed sisters post sultry snaps of themselves online — taken in their bathrooms, bedrooms, and cars — and millions of people devour them.

The formula is robust. Forbes named Kylie Jenner the “world’s youngest self-made billionaire” at twenty-one.

Of course, relatively few of us are cultivating our social media biopics for the Benjamins. Yet if we’re honest, many of us rival the Kardashians in how “extremely online” our lives have become. Three billion people a month spend an average of 135 minutes a day on social media, and 70 percent of our social media time is spent on our phones (total screen time stretches considerably longer). Social media experts say that “to decouple social media from mobile use is impossible.”

Much social media content is thematically similar to Kardashian fare. Instagram and Twitter are bottomless receptacles for our lovingly crafted “squinty” and duck-faced selfies snapped in restaurants, parks, museums, funerals, ambulances, and concentration camps.

Social media is more than smiling faces, however. It’s as if humanity had been waiting its entire existence to pin dream kitchens, to write pedantic reviews and vicious tweets, to share cat hilarity, celebrity memes, and letters telling off bridesmaids who wouldn’t shell out for a destination wedding. The amount of time and energy we spend posting, snapping, creepin’, sharing, trolling, and scouring is mind-boggling. It gives new meaning to the truism that humans are social creatures.

There are many layers to our social media obsession — the desire for experiences, status, and social control. Social media offers a sense of meaning and connection, even if it’s with people rarely or never met. But at what cost? From psychologists to tech experts, a growing chorus of voices calls for a return to “real life.” What seemed like a fun, positive thing is actually terrible, we’re told, turning us into narcissistic weirdoes and possibly destroying society.

We worry that social media is changing our subjectivity — that we’ve become so attuned to “likes,” retweets, and follows that our self-esteem begins to depend on them. Our conception of our self becomes inseparable from the social media story we construct.

In the midst of this intertwining, many of us become addicted to our small screens and the worlds they open up. Experts say we’ve lost control — that we’re fast becoming like those dead-eyed slot-bots with their quarter cups and fanny packs, slumped over the machines at an off-strip casino.

Recently, members of the tech community have stepped up to shoulder some of the blame. Confessing their sins, software engineers describe how the platforms they helped create exploit basic psychological tricks to keep users hooked. Former Googler Tristan Harris, one of a growing chorus of tech refuseniks, channels William Gibson when he says, “All of us are jacked into this system. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

Our failure to control our impulses, we’re told, has made us less human. Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu likens us to B. F. Skinner’s pigeons, while tech pioneer Jaron Lanier proclaims, “We’re all lab animals now.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media scholar and vocal critic of Google, implores us to “rehumanize ourselves.”

The fear of becoming less human and more beastly because we can’t control our impulses is rooted in an old set of ideas commonly associated with René Descartes, a seventeenth-century French philosopher. Descartes viewed the body as a beast that must be constantly reined in and controlled. In this framework, our “true” self — our soul or spirit — is something apart from and more pure than the body.

Losing control, and with it authenticity, has often been linked with technology. Adam Smith feared machines would turn us into monstrosities. Karl Marx spoke of humans becoming appendages to machines. In the late nineteenth century, media historian Neal Gabler argues, popular entertainment was said to generate Pavlovian responses; its consumption was unthinking, addictive. The old cultural order was being overwritten by a new, inferior one; the sublime was being replaced with fun.

These framings are echoed in how we talk about smartphones and our use of social media today: once again, a new machine has turned us into unthinking automatons, driven by desire, impulse, and algorithm rather than reason and thought.

We should be careful about how we frame our fears, however. It is easy to fall into mythmaking. Donna Haraway has long warned about the limitations of imagining a pure human who existed “before” technology. Eva Illouz notes how much of our critique reflects a “longing for purity,” and certainly the way debates about smartphones are framed reflects this obsession with purity and our “true selves.” The pervasive distinction between “real life” and “digital life” reflects this most of all. But there is no pure life apart from our interactions, whether they be digital or analog. As Erving Goffman said, “The world, in truth, is a wedding.”

The point here is not to dismiss our fears and critiques of social media and smartphones. On the contrary, we must take these fears very seriously and not allow them to be pigeonholed into a discussion about dopamine spikes or neural pathways. To understand change in this moment, we must move beyond framing our problem with phones as a body problem, or a brain problem, or a self-control problem. This framing reinforces a dominant way of thinking in neoliberal capitalism: societal issues are collapsed into personal troubles that can be resolved through a series of micro-choices.

Micro-solutions are certainly what tech companies are emphasizing today. Wary of getting the finger pointed at them, the tech titans are beginning to offer tools for self-monitoring designed for “digital well-being.” There’s just one problem. These companies don’t actually want you to put your phone down. Their business model depends on your spending ever more time posting, liking, searching, messaging, tweeting, self-monitoring.

It’s hard to overstate how much tech companies know about us. They are tracking us twenty-four hours a day, every day. The swipes and taps and easy slides into pockets and purses as we move along through our days and years adds up to something huge — a new frontier for global capitalism.

Capitalism and frontiers go together. When we think about how capitalism has spread slowly over the globe over the past five centuries, we imagine the frontiers that have brought new growth and change — the “New World,” the “American West” — and we often associate these frontiers with new resources or new machines: silver mines, forests, railroads, steamships.

But the process by which frontiers are opened up is a bit hazy for most people. This haziness is partly a result of how the history of capitalism is taught — as an inevitable, inexorable process of transforming the world, a “natural” evolution. The haziness is also a result of the language we use. We “open” new frontiers the way we open a door. We imagine rubber trees and silver mines and rich soil just kind of sitting there, waiting to be transformed into a profitable venture.

These dominant frames are not only wrong — they strangle our ability to comprehend the emergence of new frontiers and reinforce a determinism that locates change in technological advances, such as railroads or smartphones.

To comprehend where we are headed in this technological moment we need to stand on firmer ground in our understanding of economic change. Frontiers are made, not opened. Grasping how capitalism evolves and expands — how new frontiers are made — requires putting people, rather than machines or geographical features, in the driver’s seat.

So where are the people in capitalism? Most of the time, we imagine them buying things, or running businesses and inventing things, or working on an assembly line, or toiling in a mine. This isn’t wrong. These people and the work they do are central to capitalist development. Equally important, though not usually theorized as such, is all the unpaid work that has gone into creating new frontiers in the history of our for-profit system — the appropriated work of slaves, of colonial subjects, of women.

We can’t make sense of how capitalism has evolved without taking into account this appropriated unpaid labor. Only a small fraction of the work that goes into creating new frontiers is paid work. This is not a bug, it’s a feature, as the saying goes. Sociologist Jason Moore argues that capitalism depends on “cheap nature” — labor, resources, food, energy — and that the appropriation of unpaid work is (and always has been) as essential to the development of capitalism as paid work.

Today, Silicon Valley has found a new frontier of appropriation, and it’s using your smartphone to “open” it.

Instagram sold for $1 billion in 2012 despite only employing thirteen people at the time. WhatsApp had fifty employees when Facebook bought it for $19 billion in 2014. This is astonishing. Why are these companies worth so much? Business insiders say they are valuable because of their network potential. This is true, but also obfuscatory. Instagram’s or WhatsApp’s value, just like the value of so many other tech companies, is in the unpaid work they command, their ability to appropriate life — your life.

The appropriation of unpaid work isn’t new. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici illuminates how, in the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, women’s unpaid labor became concealed, transforming the process of accumulation, and thus power relations for both men and women.

In the development of the digital frontier, we are once again seeing a redefinition of life activities and the emergence of new power dynamics. In the making of the digital frontier, a new combination of appropriation and exploitation has been formulated, a model that has generated unimaginable wealth for the tech titans.

Once again, we are witnessing the concealment of unpaid, appropriated work. Except today, it’s not just women’s work that is being appropriated, being made to appear as a natural resource, a “labor of love.” It is all of our work — the hours we spend every day on our smartphones creating content and generating data through our constant connection to our hand machines. In these hours, our lives become ever more deeply enmeshed in the circuits of capital. Our appropriated work, and our digital selves more broadly, are the key to the digital frontier.

Right now, we accept big tech’s bargain. We get cool apps and tools to communicate with others and to entertain and educate ourselves. Companies get unlimited access to and control over all the data we generate with our perpetually connected hand machines.

This bargain is tenuous, however. We’re increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship we’ve developed with our smartphones, uneasy with the ways we interact and express ourselves in our phone worlds, and fearful that our increasing dependence on our smartphones will overpower our fragile sense of authenticity and self. Discussions about how we use our phones are laced with loathing and judgment, aimed at ourselves and others. We blame ourselves for being weak and narcissistic.

To a degree, we are weak and narcissistic. But we should be wary of explanations that blame individuals for an issue that an entire society struggles with. As more and more people become suspicious of the technology, institutions, and relationships embodied in their phones, they are taking a closer look at the companies that control them. Our fears express a growing awareness of our vulnerability vis-à-vis the tech giants — a growing sense that life itself is somehow being shaped around the needs of profit-making.