Media Futurist Jonathan Beller Believes the Matrix Is Social Realism and Scrolling Social Media is Exploitation

Jonathan Beller views screen time as abstract image creation, and a form of exploitation. Graphic by Beeple, with edits by Bullfrog for Paradox.

To predict the future is to analyze the patterns of the present.

When media theorist Jonathan Beller published his breakout book The Cinematic Mode of Production in 2006, the thesis that human attention functions as a substitute for labor (with screens replacing factories in developing societies) seemed like science fiction. Although the Matrix had been out for several years (the cover of Beller’s book featured an image of Morpheus offering Neo the blue and red pills), individuals hadn’t yet had their sensory perceptions hyper-fragmented by social media; the notion of no longer owning one’s cognitive state, and hence oneself, seemed like a radical proposition.

Fast forward to today: Media, symbols, and aesthetics have gone from colonizing our imaginations to governing them. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated transformation into a digitalized society, wherein behaviors in the “real world” become performance-based virtual theatre feeding algorithms. Beller’s understanding of attention through a Marxist framework, and symbolic exchange via French philosophers like Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, can provide guidance on how media informs the basis of our reality. The theorist’s newest book, The World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism, argues humanity has been living in the “Information Age” since the ascent of capitalism, pointing to data sets used during the slave trade.

Paradox spoke with Beller about the COVID-19 pandemic, what it means that Bill Gates has acquired 242,000 acres of farmland, and why NFT should stand for “Non-Fascist Token.”

You wrote about the “attention economy” in The Cinematic Mode of Production, and how our basic behaviors on social media have transformed into a form of “labor.” How do you think this theory has played out during the pandemic? 

Part of the idea behind The Cinematic Mode of Production and the rise of attention economies was that the productive role of factories was supplemented and, to a certain extent, overtaken by the screen. People instead of putting together objects only, now put together images. That became a new form of value production which was both created by capital enterprises and also by new kinds of workers, because we are modifying ourselves at various points in the process. The production process was taking place on two different levels: new forms of work and new types of workers, spectators. 

That theory was believed by no one when I wrote that. 10 years later the Internet explosion took place and it became a fundamental business model; advertisers sold eyeballs, Internet companies became media companies effectively that extracted human attention and put it on the market. That recent history is part of the long history of the colonization of consciousness and perception by logics of capital, a colonization that destroyed prior social forms, modified the workforce and effectively atomized us by formatting us as self-interested self-optimizers (the subjects of game theory) and shattering society by putting us all on our screens. The pandemic is an extension of the logic of separation; we’re all on social media now if we can afford to be, we have even less contact with one another than before and certainly when compared to traditional societies. This separation is producing value for capital more and more by preventing us from benefitting from our own capacities for collective action and collectivization.

It’s this fundamental separation that we see becoming more intensified by the pandemic; meanwhile, the pandemic is also a failure of capitalism and the governance implied by its economic logic to care for the social. COVID-19 is more than a virus: it’s actually a product of the global failure of care. If environments weren’t being crushed upon by agribusiness and urbanization, we probably wouldn’t have had this kind of pandemic. 

You could also argue that there’s a lot of collaboration that comes out of it. Simultaneously, there is the failure of medical systems, but there is coordination between medical companies and vaccination efforts. 

You could, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There are certainly new forms of collaboration. It’s what I’m trying to think about. “Every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism”—so sayeth Walter Benjamin. From that standpoint, which if reversed suggests that at least some documents of barbarism are simultaneously documents of civilization, I suppose I recognize the civilizational aspect of innovation and I think that’s maybe not fine but historically unavoidable, but it’s also important to see who’s paying the price for that. Even though yes, we do have new forms of collaboration organization and possibility, there’s also a huge price for that. And that price is paid by people who are not necessarily representative of nor represented by that network; the 2 billion people who make $2 a day, the countries which don’t have vaccines. I’m thinking basic corruption, backroom deals for vaccine supplies in Latin America, global North hoarding of vaccine. There are many other aspects that go beyond the rosy picture of collaboration. However, I fully accept that part of the collaborative aspect is a fundamental driver of technological change, because people are seeking community. 

What do you think we’ve lost for ourselves within the attention economy? 

Our attention. Our care. The continuity of space and time. That’s the thing about this strip mining of our attention. It’s a replay, a higher level of abstraction and embodiment of what happened in factory work, where people’s creativity and basic capacity was traded for a wage which was simply a means to come back the next day and submit yourself to exploitation because the expansion of ownership in societies and private property was also the dispossession of people from the traditional forms of security. We went through another phase of this in the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st with the colonization of the senses, cognition and the imagination. 

You mentioned ownership and property. There’s this messaging from Silicon Valley on the sharing economy and the lack of ownership in favor of nomadic lifestyles. But then you have figures like Bill Gates buy up hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Do you have any thoughts on the juxtaposition between what is being preached and what is being executed by those running the global economy? 

It’s interesting that these big tech innovators are now acquiring land in unbelievable amounts. I read an article that Gates owns more land than an entire native American tribe; the entire Sioux nation if I’m not mistaken. Why is it that these people who gave us computing and now cloud computing and all these abstract forms are now acquiring land? I think it tells us something about the value of the land. It tells us something about the fact that settler colonialism is not over but ongoing. And it tells us something about the substrates that underlays all these forms of abstraction; which is embodiment, which is the land, which is “the environment,” which is the Earth itself. No matter how abstract we get, the Earth underpins absolutely everything. We just don’t know how to care about it anymore. Some people do, and that’s what some of the decolonization movements are about; that’s what some of the movements in ecological transformation are about. But for the most part, the way to value the things that really matter has disappeared from capital because it’s externalized. Indeed, I place the notion of “the environment” in quotation marks because this concept is itself the result of a colonial process of separation that allows us to think of the lands we live in as separate from who and what we are.

We interviewed artist Agnieszka Pilat. She had this interesting observation that the world would be divided by the 1 percent who actually own physical assets, whether its land or artwork, and the 99% of everyone else lives in the virtual world and has avatars of what they want to be. Could you see something like that happening or are we already there? 

The cover of my book, The Cinematic Mode of Production, was an image from The Matrix. I do view The Matrix as a kind of social realism for that period, where effectively dispossession was where people didn’t have, not only, access to land but to their own sensory perception, and thus to their real conditions of existence. And I do think there is something very, very real and also very disturbing about that dissociation of sensibility. The systematic capture and organization of the structures that organize our lives and imaginations and possibilities is part of the way in which capital can continue to operate the way it does—by dispossession.  

Photo courtesy of Shuttershock.

The pandemic has accelerated the diminishment of print money, which you say as a physical object creates a barrier between the holder and the abstract role that value plays within capitalism. What is our relationship to money as everything is increasingly digitalized and further turned into symbols? 

It’s not the same. Our paper money is not what it used to be either. It’s a difficult question because the history of money, of merchant or mercantile capital, of banks, financial instruments and now financial innovation, synthetic finance and crypto, is for the last 700 years at least also the history of the expansion of the networks of capitalism and their capacity for extraction and liquidity preservation. When most people think about money, they know they can use it to pay for something; it has value. Why does it have value? Because everyone else thinks it has value. But why does everyone else think that is a deeper question, and the deeper question has to do with the history of exchange, the rise of commodification, the power of states and institutional exploitations, inertia, questions about issuance, and control of money supply, credit, central banks as lenders of last resort. Centralized issuance allows states to issue bonds and spend. They become the most creditworthy and everybody down the line in the credit system charges more interest to people who have less credit, so that the poorest people pay the most for their money. All these institutions and institutionalized structures are part of what money is, but we don’t really see that. We just understand it as something to transact with, when we have liquidity. And we understand it as the thing we must have if we want to live.

You write in your new book about the fifth estate as “computation,” and that data has always existed in capitalist structures, including the slave trade. You also note that it is pointless to look for any other origin to the information age. But where could this origin be pinpointed to? Is there even an origin point, or have we always lived in the information age since the ascent of capitalism?  

Information emerges in the footprint of price. Effectively, information becomes a way of managing risk because you have to make an investment and monitor the progress of that investment and to do that well, things must be quantified and rendered predictable. Information can occupy almost any form — it ramifies organic life with a fabric of calculation. In order to convert the world into information, in order to gather information or store it, one has to build some kind of interface which can sense inputs and translate it to numbers. It’s been around for a while. There’s been the word “information” since the early eighteenth century, if not before. But it really took hold during the beginning of the 20th century, and in a much stronger form, in the 1940s with cybernetics. My point here however is that information is not an ontological reality but an historical emergence.

You write in a recent Coin Desk article that fascism is inherently built into blockchain, because of these recently manifested celebrity frenzies and cults of personalities around NFTs 

For the record, I didn’t say that fascism was baked into blockchain. 

The human prejudice that can act through it, then. 

What I was trying to get at in that article was that the financial imagination is organized by these fascist structures of accumulation and agency, where effectively collecting the power of other people (the masses) becomes the way of becoming an agent (an individual, and in elevated form a “charismatic personality”) in the social, whether that individual is a boss of a small firm, or the major boss of a large firm like Bill Gates was with Microsoft, or a celebrity, or a great artist genius whose signature commands millions; what you’ve done is accumulated people’s labor time, or attention. That model of dissymmetrical accumulation I’m seeing played out through this new technology, which was designed (or was and is claimed to be designed) to change our economic structure. The analogy I develop in this essay is with cinema, which can reveal social relations and create distributed agency, but was, as Walter Benjamin saw, being destroyed by effectively fascist and capitalist cultures because it was bent to produce not community but celebrity. I wrote that “NFT doesn’t stand for non-fascist token, but it should,” because it should be possible to make other kinds of models of production and distribution, new forms of economy, that don’t traffic on the dissymmetric accumulation of other people’s labor and attention. It should be possible to create a form of socialism in which all may be honored and no one may be erased.

It’s the same as accumulation of capital, just with other people’s attention.

Exactly. And I understand cryptocurrencies as new medium in the strong sense of that term. I see them as monetary versions of social media that function through attention aggregation and which will have increasing expressivity as time goes by. So the question is: What are they going to express? Are they going to express along the lines of the imagination we have right now, which actually have some people believing that they are better than most others and have more right to live, and that it is natural to selfishly pursue your own interests and that we cannot really afford to care about most others or the planet, or can cryptomedia actually, by being non-national (and thus non-nationalist) money forms, express a far more democratic set of values and sensibilities? How do we get people’s real aspirations onto the blockchain, and make those desires economic agents, rather than having them be expressed as tokens that can subsumed as capitalized collectibles. 

Blockchain developers are working with a different worldview than founders like Mark Zuckerberg, which is that we have a lot of these problems in our society caused by the role of these centralized companies with data mining and the advertiser model. There does seem to be a worldview predicated on improving those models that people find unsavory.  

You can see the contradiction between centralization and decentralization in social media. Social media was sold and taken up because it promised to horizontalize communication. We wanted to overcome all sorts of barriers to publication, which were endemic to prior publishing architectures or network television architectures. We didn’t need gate keepers, editorial boards, the high-priced barriers to entry of cinema and television. The promise was communitarian communication along horizontal lines. But that decentralization of person-to-person channels, still was organized by central authorities and by privately owned fixed capital and in-fact become an engine for accumulation. People actually used this democratic surge to create very, very large individualized pockets of wealth. Democracy became an engine for hierarchy, the wealth that we created in taking and sending images to one another ended up in the pockets of billionaires. The decentralized promise was to make central banks and institutions of money obsolete and make money forms available for everyone. I think that possibility of “disintermediation” is still there; I think that’s a part of what crypto is. But the danger with NFTs is how they become a collectable through a fascist imaginary of mass-supported individual agency; it’s antithetical to democratization, even while it’s claiming democratization. Really, it’s about who creates the value (and values) and how that value is distributed. Think about the role of art. I get into this in my first book because its insights into the reorganization of society by screens stemmed from the role of revolutionary cinema where people were using aesthetic forms to transmit sensibility for a more just world against oppressive regimes. Art has a fundamental role to play in creating that aesthetic and affect as a tissue of relation and possibility. But when all that is put on the market for sale is subsumed by the same structure that captures all other forms of wealth, you have the effective liquidation of all of the effectiveness and knowledge that makes art what it is. And art comes to express only its price.

Do you see cryptocurrency continuing to go in a direction that’s antithetical to what it claims to be? 

That’s why I’m talking to you, that’s why I’m writing. We need to look at the current historical opportunities for transforming the direction of the world. Cryptocurrencies are an expression of and occasion for that possibility. They do open design space (which is a political space) of reorganizing the economy and remaking financial structures—actually democratizing financial tools so that we might achieve something far more beautiful than what “decmocracy” can offer. People might value things like care and the environment, family, kin, one another, and all of the other ‘intangibles’ that somehow escape evaluation and whose meanings are either collapsed or eliminated under current capitalism. There’s a historical opportunity there which is very, very important. I think literacy and understanding of what that is, is one of the ways in which we’re active about the possible outcomes of crypto. Because if we don’t recognize the opportunity that is also an expression of the radical discontent with the world financial system and its media, we’ll fail not just the calls for social justice and emancipation that we can hear quite clearly if we listen, but also ourselves and this place called Earth. 

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