Algorithmic Deification

[…] ideology reifies. Ideology turns what is always a process of becoming — which is open-ended and therefore changeable — into something that is fixed and permanent. That’s what reification is. And, of course, that’s crucial. That’s the very purpose of ideology. The very purpose of ideology is to close off the possibility that anything could be different. That’s the A–Z of ideology, in fact. But, of course, the second step of ideology is to make itself disappear. Ideology doesn’t arrive and say, “I am ideology”. Ideology says: “I am nature, and this is how things are”. It probably doesn’t speak, but even in my metaphor it doesn’t really have to say anything. It’s we who must think in response to it. This is how things are. They can’t be any different.​​​​​​​

– Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desires

Within the common linguistics of the virtual there is an often cited entity; The Algorithm. The Algorithm does not necessarily refer to any one algorithmic function within the virtual but rather to the amalgamated idea of the social media algorithm, pushing news, posts, and advertising into your various feeds based on the data it has harvested from you. The Algorithm then is made up of the many complex lines of code across the virtual that are devoted to surveillance and to continuous and constant engagement (a prison of choice). But what functions has The Algorithm the idea begun to perform that are external to the real algorithmic functions of data collection? The Algorithm is treated not as an adversary to be scorned and derided (although aspects of it are certainly unwelcome to even its devotees) but rather as a god-like entity, with “content creators” and regular inhabitants of the virtual alike forced to either ally themselves with it or be consigned to obscurity. Instead of being treated as an object then, The Algorithm is one of the few virtual inhabitants with agency in any real sense. 

This agency is not, however, the only thing produced by the deification of The Algorithm. A god demands followers after all. These Algorithmic devotees are made up largely of virtual inhabitants who seek to make money presenting content through the virtual (youtubers for example). These inhabitants are, at least partially, robbed of their agency. This theft is twofold; devotees are stripped of their agency to produce whatever they want (The Algorithm demands they adhere to trends and opaque standards to continue seeing money come in) and those who are subject to The Algorithm are stripped of their agency to both see things they will like and remain unsurveilled (let us not forget the primary function of The Algorithm is intense and invasive information harvesting in order to sell what it has gathered). This dual stripping of agency (from both audience and performer alike) is one which serves real purpose in the virtual; the reification of ideology, neoliberal ideology specifically. 

As neoliberal ideology seeks to make itself invisible in the virtual it simultaneously (and somewhat ironically) becomes more pronounced. The shroud neoliberal ideology has chosen in the virtual is the “marketplace of ideas”, a phrase so comically neoliberal it hardly needs explanation. This cementing of neoliberal ideology (and attempt to hide the cement) is performed in part via The Algorithm, its conceptual framework of implicit competition for algorithmic attention (and through this the means to maintain a stable income) reinforcing and reifying neoliberal ideology in every corner of the virtual. This infusion of neoliberal ideology into even purportedly far left virtual projects is of course, an incredibly alarming idea for those who have been attempting to use the virtual as a plane to build political momentum, and an incredibly damning view of these attempts. To further examine the neoliberal god of The Algorithm, we must also examine the (loosely defined) left movements that have centered themselves in the virtual, subservient to The Algorithm. 

These left movements are fairly new, most emerging in the past ten years, and have ballooned in the wake of national and global lockdowns during the covid-19 pandemic. They are heavily steeped in the virtual as a community builder (a problematic conception to say the least for a would-be militant political movement), and are by and large centered around one of two things. The first (and more prevalent) centers either a single “content creator” or a poorly defined loose group of them. The second (much less common) is centered around an online “community”, frequently meaning a chat room or group of social media friends. In both cases there becomes a problem quickly apparent; incapability to mobilize the militants that have been collected into the virtual in the real. Fisher’s “vampire castle” as well becomes an issue, with abstracted moral outrages being the main driver for group cohesion (as opposed to class struggle or struggle along the myriad other axes of oppression). This inability for the left to actually mobilize cannot be understated. 

The ineffectiveness of virtual community to real mobilization is a topic of much concern as these virtual groups grow in membership. This inability is in part a consequence of the extent to which these movements must subject themselves to The Algorithm. Trending topics and opaque and seemingly arbitrary standards of content issued by major platforms the left has, erroneously, deemed positive potentials for organizing, increasingly restrict the ability of thought leaders to speak transparently about things which should be of utmost concern for a nascent left movement (local organizing, coalition building, and how to build class power, to name just a few). The Algorithm is a demanding god though, requiring a constant and consistent stream of content to be fed into it if any one creator seeks to maintain popularity and a wage, since the two are fully joined together under The Algorithm.

This joining together, too, is one which has concerning implications in the building of a militant struggle. Devotees of The Algorithm are bound to it fully, requiring it to sustain their production for it. This perverse connection forces an unwieldy dynamic into the virtualized left, a dynamic by which alleged militant thought leaders must produce a stream of entertainment in order to keep their audiences within the virtual consuming videos or posts. In this sense (and to circle back a bit) these leftist thought leaders are actually colluding with The Algorithm in order to reify and obscure the ideology dominating the virtual, keeping the audience plugged into a complex Algorithmic system of simulacra. And truly we can call these left movements simulacra, a gesture to the idea of a leftist movement, to left thought, to political activism. Many draw upon the idea of “online activism”, a phenomena largely consisting of “raising awareness” for minority issues on the internet or launching campaigns to “hold accountable” figureheads via the internet.

This form of activism is more than simply unproductive though, rather it serves as shock therapy to keep engagement and political attention firmly constrained to the virtual and to atomized groups of leftists within it. This function of The Algorithm within the left virtual milieu is one which must be rejected if real political change is to be effected. We cannot simply ignore that the virtualized left is a tool for the maintenance of capital, falling well in line with the tenets of the capitalist realist paradigm. 

This is manifest capitalist realism, the ultimate ideological infiltration, capitalism has convinced the anti-capitalists on its own merits that it is both irreconcilable with continued human life on earth and the only imaginable future. It has at once become the only enemy and no enemy at all

– L.E. Haywood, Anti-Capitalism as Capitalist Realism

As with capitalist realism, so too now with The Algorithm; it has become both feared and vengeful god and an ally, its requests to be adhered to fully and without hesitation. If we wish to strip The Algorithm of its agency we must break out of its control and out of the ever-expanding virtual plane it occupies, certainly we must break free from adhering to thought leaders and movements who insist over and over upon subjecting themselves to the whims of The Algorithm and the ideological prison of the virtual.

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