Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.
The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet. It is not for nothing that, in the age of the digital platform, we use liquid metaphors of ‘feeds’, ‘torrents’ and ‘streams’ to describe the way images, sounds and words surround us. In the midst of an online experience of one sort or another, clicking a button marked ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is about as much critical activity as we are permitted. For services such as Netflix or Amazon, the design challenge is how to satisfy customers’ desires with the minimum of effort or choice, largely on the basis of what they have liked – or not – in the past.
The unceasing pursuit of audience ‘acclaim’, in the form of rapid, real-time feedback, bleeds into the sphere of cultural production. Talent shows are evidence of what happens when the plebiscitary form is extended to entertainment: singing and dancing become contests, tests of vocal and bodily agility, that eventually result in everyone straining for the same sound, look and appearance. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have a similar effect on the presentation of the self, where the goal is to win plaudits for instantly impressive slogans and iconography. Chunks of ‘content’ – images, screengrabs of text, short snatches of video – circulate according to the number of thumbs up or thumbs down they receive.
It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor