The rise of individualism
One of my favourite documentaries of all time is The Century of the Self (2002) by Adam Curtis (you can view it on YouTube in its glorious four hour entirety here). I’ll concede that Curtis is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe that in this documentary he accurately describes one of the most interesting political shifts in the past decades, and that is the steady decline of collectivist ideas in favour of the almost complete rule of individualism. Since the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of the Reagan and Thatcher era, politics have been dominated by Freudian ideals of individuals as selfish entities who respond mostly to instincts based on self-interest and greed. This explains the rise of consumerism fuelled and directed by corporations intent on commodifying everything, repackaging it, and selling it to us for a profit.
From the end of the Great Depression, and up until the mid 80s, collective ideals still held an important part of the public discourse. Unions, cooperatives and the State still had some form of positive connotations in the West. The change that Reagan and Thatcher brought about pandered to the selfish individual and eventually eroded the concept of shared purpose, and spreading around the world with neo-liberal agendas and globalisation. In the conservative message, all that matters is the individual and his/her pursuit of happiness, and nothing must get in the way of such an ideal, be it taxes, regulation or external impositions (unless they are social impositions, which is in itself an interesting contradiction). The government became the enemy, and we were all left to fend for ourselves. The fall of communism and the growing distrust in corrupt politicians and bloated bureaucracies served to cement the view that the State must be something that should be endured, a necessary evil. The individual reigned supreme.
But this individualism is a sham. One of the most relevant features of The Century of the Self is that it charts the rise of a specific type of individualism, the idea of the individual as a consumer, but not just any consumer, a discerning consumer that wants to be unique, in other words, the individual craves individuality even in its consumer choices. However, true individuality in mass production economies is not possible, so to quote Galadriel “but they were all of them deceived”. Through the application of psychoanalysis, PR firms and advertising agencies started knowing us better than we knew ourselves, they uncovered our deepest desires, packaged them and sold them to us both at the supermarket and at the voting booth. As a result, politicians from the left and the right have been pandering to us through the use of the same techniques used to sell us deodorant.
The biggest coup of advertisers has been to sell this idea to an unsuspecting public, both as a consumer and as a voter. Collective ideals have been on the back-foot for more than a decade, and politicians from the left and the right have become indistinguishable, as they are reading from the same corporate script. While this has meant that voters are becoming disillusioned with politics in general, consumerism is still going strong despite the financial crisis. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, people perceive that there is no alternative to the status quo; secondly, some people don’t even realise that they are trapped by consumerism. Nothing proves this better than the Cult of Mac.
Say what you may about Steve Jobs, but he was a genius, I’m not yet sure whether he was an evil genius, history will tell. Regardless, you only have to look at the downright fetishist attachment that people have with their Apple products to understand that something incredible has happened to us. Apple is the ultimate consumerist religion with its hallowed places, its churches and even with its own patron saint. The level of out-of-hand rhetoric used to describe Steve Jobs after his death can only be compared to the good will reserved to religious figures. A new sort of fallacy is growing in certain business circles, where the name “Steve Jobs” is used to stop any debate, much in the way that lazy thinkers use Einstein in other walks of life. But the real genius was to make products which everyone else has, but that somehow feel tailored for us as individuals, and hence they become the ultimate expression of individuality. This manages to be both tribal and to play to the prevalence of individual satisfaction at the same time, and I cannot think of any other brand that managed something like this. As a person in the awesome Samsung Galaxy commercial says: “If it looks the same, how will people know I’ve upgraded?” It is sad that the best criticism of the Mac Cult has to come from a commercial (the second best criticism is this Oatmeal strip).
But this does not just happen with Apple, if you look around you will see that consumerism has won the debate for a while in all strata of society. We live in a time when we want to be fiercely individualistic and we want to believe that our consumer choices are unique. Look at the ears of the next person you meet who prides themselves on being unique, and you’ll find some Dr. Dres; look into their eyes, and you’ll find some RayBans; look at their feet, and you’ll find some Converse shoes (I say this as the owner of two of those three products). We have been bribed into believing the consumerist narrative through endless choice, and they are all in on the act. Adidas offers us Star Trek hoodies and Star Wars sneakers (granted, the Star Trek one is way cool). Nike releases Back to the Future shoes for $3,500 USD. (ETA: I’ve been informed of these Converse meme shoes). As a dedicated geek, I have to restrain myself from buying those products, and I know precisely what they’re doing to me. What chance does the unsuspecting consumer have? Moreover, I must be in some database somewhere with my specific spending patterns are already labelled, probably something along the lines of the “Doth Protest Too Much” consumer. And the worst part is that they are probably accurate.
You may be wondering what has got Anonymous to do with all the above. Individualism has had such an unopposed run that we do not remember what it was like to feel part of something greater than ourselves outside of the acceptable places where collective expression was approved of, namely sports and organised religion. Kennedy’s “Ask not what the country can do for you” speech belongs to such a different era that we stopped even thinking that it was relevant. Shared visions and ideals gave way to selfishness.
Then the Internet happened.
For years there were very few things that individuals could look for as an example of the collective ideal, but now we have a generation that has grown up with the best collective example of all. We are now part of something greater, grander, and more diverse than anything that we have ever had. As much as I detest the use of certain buzzwords, crowdsourcing works. Ask something on Twitter with the tag #lazyweb and someone will invariably reply. Wikipedia is a magnificent example of society coming together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Is something nagging you? Have you had a baffling error message? Google is your friend. Granted, there is a lot of garbage online, but it is our garbage. Give me amusing cat videos over most TV shows nowadays.
But the Internet’s greatest triumph is to resurrect the ideal of shared spaces and experiences, an ideal that has been adopted wholeheartedly by whatever we are calling the Internet generation this week (it seems like they are calling themselves the Web Kids, ugh). The rise of Anonymous was inevitable, but it might be hard for people to understand just how counter-intuitive and revolutionary is the idea behind it. Anonymous is a nameless, faceless collective where individuals not only do not matter, but do not exist in the traditional sense of the word. What matters is the idea, and the idea is the Free Internet, nothing must get in its way. Cynics may point out that Internet Freedom is nothing but a code word for unlimited and free downloads, and that Anonymous is nothing more than a group of bored youngsters with nothing else to do. There might be something to that, but there seems to be more to it, a flexing of muscles against the establishment in all of its shapes.
Anonymous is mostly apolitical in nature, and it seems to house both the leftist #Occupy movements and the Ron Paul style of libertarian. There is a shared distrust for any sort of authority, and a dismissive and almost cocky disregard for government agencies, particularly law enforcement. The shared value is the Internet and freedom of speech, as evidenced by the Free Internet Act being drafted collectively by Reddit users. But for not being political, it is making waves in the political sphere, as SOPA and ACTA can attest to. Any perceived attack on Internet Freedom will be met with swift protest from a growing demographic that is finding its voice. And the voice is shared through memes and masks. In other words, the individual is not protesting, the Internet as a collective is the one who protests. I’m not defending all of Anonymous actions. Some of the targets are badly chosen. Some of their videos are often naive, some of the pastebin announcements are childish in the extreme, but still this can only be expected when anyone can talk on behalf of Anonymous. If you leave the microphone open, some idiot will grab it and shout abuse.
For a while now I have been following the rise of Anonymous, as I am interested by the way in which has taken Alan Moore’s iconography and turned it into a global movement. It is strange that the ideology of our age originates from an obscure graphic novel and a film that was considered a flop at the time, but we live in the age of the Long Tail, and some ideas are simply too powerful. What I think happened with V for Vendetta is that it talked directly to a generation that did not accept the individualistic dystopia offered to them by their parents. The groups represented by Anonymous are the wired generation fluent in memes, and this language is used to baffle those who lack the shared knowledge of where it comes from. Moreover, the meme is further evidence that we are in front of a collective where individuality is less important than knowing the secret shared code.
It is still too early to know if the global resistance to the status quo will have a lasting effect, but if history teaches us anything, it is that revolutionary movements like these either fizzle out or become mainstream when the young rebels become the new establishment. What seems clear is that at least in the short term, Anonymous is helping to reverse decades of the supremacy of individualistic ideologies.
After all, we are part of something greater. We are the Internet. The Internet is an idea, and everyone knows that you cannot kill an idea.