‘L’homme est ne libre et partout il est dans les fers’* says Rousseau in Du Contrat Social. At the time in the mid-eighteenth century the nature of that enslavement was through militaristic education, the tyranny of religion and high nationalism. Now the nature of our chains has changed. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple. Our chains are of our own choosing and exist in the world of entertainment. On the train you look round and see a million reflected screens, people lost in the labyrinth of their smartworld. Algorithms make sure you are locked into your own private purgatory. The world of critical culture is disappearing down the plughole: literary fiction; Classical musical experiences (a space of reflection); opera, ballet and theatre (because in performance they can represent a critical/analtyical view onto experience); complex film. These genres are forever characterised as elitist, even though they are cheaper to consume, much cheaper, than a Beyonce concert, and more significantly, they are marginalised by the hegemony of ‘popular’ culture, which is where real power lives. This popular cultural realm exists in a self-nourishing circle where the unwitting rat in the maze (us) is fed from one business model to another. The algorithms are the new chains that Rousseau was talking about. This cultural circuit is so self-serving that there is no room for oblique or critical views. Choice is the buzz work that keeps us enslaved. When choice is so available you can live in the world of your own algorithm produced ‘tastes’. You can live in the world of cartoon network. You chew the cud of your own taste. The world you live in is the vomit you have yourself produced.
This is a difficult view to have. It looks like all dissent towards this cultural closed circuit is a plea for authoritarian enslavement of another variety (paternalistic, condescending, ‘we know what’s best for you’; the high cultural model of Shakespeare and the Booker Prize). And this is not what we want either.
This is why, perhaps now more than ever, we need to create an education system that instils proper critical faculties in its users, helps them to try to see the world as dystopia. A view of things from altitude. Or we can just candy-crush our way through life.