The Silence of the Masses

In working my way through Baudrillard’s early 1980s writings about the “masses,” I’m tantalized by the passages where he seems to anticipate the arrival of social media, of mass connectivity and Big Data modeling on the basis of ubiquitous surveillance. They make me think that he has some valuable insight, if only his abstractions and idiosyncratic terminology could be translated into plainer language addressing everyday contemporary examples. Passages like this, from the “…Or the End of the Social” chapter in In the Shadow of Silent Majorities

End of the perspective space of the social. The rational sociality of the contract, dialectical sociality (that of the State and of civil society, of public and private, of the social and the individual) gives way to the sociality of contact, of the circuit and transistorised network of millions of molecules and particles maintained in a random gravitational field, magnetised by the constant circulation and the thousands of tactical combinations which electrify them. But is it still a question of the socius? Where is sociality in Los Angeles? And where will it be later on, in a future generation (for Los Angeles is still that of TV, movies, the telephone and the automobile), that of a total dissemination, of a ventilation of individuals as terminals of information, in an even more measurable — not convergent, but connected — space: a space of connection? The social only exists in a perspective space, it dies in the space of simulation, which is also a space of deterrence.

So frustrating: He identifies the form of sociality beyond mass media — the way social media has made individuals into “terminals of information” in a space of connection where they cannot converge into a collectivity — but then concludes by evoking a bunch of his amorphous pet concepts: simulation, deterrence, etc.

It may be a gross distortion, but I find it useful to think of Big Data and predictive analytics every time Baudrillard starts talking about simulation and deterrence. We are “deterred” or steered into certain ranges of behavior by the way reality is mediated to us (“simulation”) based on predictive analytics, recommendation engines, filter bubbles, and so on.

Rather than existing in some “real,” the media overlay on reality means we exist in statistical models that purport to measure reality but in fact are tautological, capable only of grasping what it is has already predicted and modeled. This makes me think of Facebook’s control of your Newsfeed, which attempts to shape your conception of your social reality, of what your friends are talking about and what sorts of political ideas are “important” to them, all while injecting advertisements determined through data analysis to be the least disruptive and most persuasive. Facebook promises to entertain you, but it turns out that promise is synonymous with manufacturing demand. (Being entertained becomes no different from learning how to desire; pleasure is no longer desire fulfilled, but desire itself, the condition of desiring.)

Within that model is where power is exercised, modulating behavioral outcomes at the level of populations (Foucault writes about this as “governmentality”). For Baudrillard, those deindividuated populations ruled over through monitoring, statistical modelling, and predictive analytics are supposed to be “the social” — the “reality” of what the data measures, the population on which power can be exercised by what he tends to call the “system” — but they instead are becoming “the masses,” an amorphous blob of individuals that eludes certain management by its sheer inertia, which proves uninterpretable even as the “system” throws more resources at trying to understand what it wants or where it is headed. 

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