Sad by Design

We live in a time of engineered intimacy, toxic memes and online addiction. Can we ever break free?

Sadness is now a design problem. The highs and lows of melancholy are coded into social media platforms. After all the clicking, browsing, swiping and liking, all we are left with is the flat and empty aftermath of time lost to the app.

Geert Lovink presented fragments of his new book Sad by Design (Pluto Press, 2019) at Kino Regina, Oodi November 27, 2019 in context of the Network Effects exhibition.

Try and dream, if you can, of a mourning app. The mobile has come dangerously close to our psychic bone, to the point where the two can no longer be separated. If only my phone could gently weep. McLuhan’s ‘extensions of man’ has imploded right into the exhausted self. Social media and the psyche have fused, turning daily life into a ‘social reality’ that—much like artificial and virtual reality—is overtaking our perception of the world and its inhabitants. Social reality is a corporate hybrid between handheld media and the psychic structure of the user. It’s a distributed form of social ranking that can no longer be reduced to the interests of state and corporate platforms. As online subjects, we too are implicit, far too deeply involved. Social reality works in a peer-to-peer fashion. It’s all about you and your profile. Likes and followers define your social status. But what happens when nothing can motivate you anymore, when all the self-optimization techniques fail and you begin to carefully avoid these forms of emotional analytics? Compared to others your ranking is low—and this makes you sad.

In his Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier asks, “why do so many famous tweets end with the word ‘sad’?” He associates the word with a lack of real connection. “Why must people accept manipulation by a third party as the price of a connection?” According to Lanier, sadness appears in response to “unreasonable standards for beauty or social status or vulnerability to trolls.” Google and Facebook know how to utilize negative emotions more readily, leading to the new system-wide goal: find personalized ways to make you feel bad. There is no single way to make everyone unhappy. Sadness will be tailored to you.

Even technological sadness is a style, albeit a cold one. The sorrow, no matter how short, is real. This is what happens when we can no longer distinguish between telephone and society. If we can’t freely change our profile and feel too weak to delete the app, we’re condemned to feverishly check for updates during the brief in-between moments of our busy lives. In a split second, the real-time machine has teleported us out of our current situation and onto another playing field filled with mini reports we quickly have to investigate.

Omnipresent social media places a claim on our elapsed time, our fractured lives. We’re all sad in our very own way. As there are no lulls or quiet moments anymore, the result is fatigue, depletion and loss of energy. We’re becoming obsessed with waiting. How long have you been forgotten by your love ones? Time, meticulously measured on every app, tells us right to our face. Chronos hurts. Should I post something to attract attention and show I’m still here? Nobody likes me anymore. As the random messages keep relentlessly piling in, there’s no way to halt them, to take a moment and think it all through.

Delacroix once declared that every day which is not noted is like a day that does not exist. Diary writing used to fulfill that task. Elements of early blog culture tried to update the diary form for the online realm, but that moment has now passed. Unlike the blog entries of the Web 2.0 era, social media have surpassed the summary stage of the diary in a desperate attempt to keep up with real-time regime. Instagram Stories, for example, bring back the nostalgia of an unfolding chain of events—and then disappear at the end of the day, like a revenge act, a satire of ancient sentiments gone by. Storage will make the pain permanent. Better forget about it and move on.

In the online context, sadness appears as a short moment of indecisiveness, a flash that opens up the possibility of a reflection. The frequently used ‘sad’ label is a vehicle, a strange attractor to enter the liquid mess called social media. Sadness is a container. Each and every situation can potentially be qualified as ‘sad’. Through this mild form of suffering we enter the blues of being in the world. When something’s sad, things around it become grey. You trust the machine because you feel you’re in control of it. You want to go from zero to hero. But then your propped-up ego implodes and the failure of self-esteem becomes apparent again. The price of self-control in an age of instant gratification is high.

We long to revolt against the restless zombie inside us, but we don’t know how. Our psychic armour is thin and eroded from within, open to ‘behavioural modifications’. Sadness arises at the point we’re exhausted by the online world. After yet another app session in which we failed to make a date, purchased a ticket and did a quick round of videos, the post-dopamine mood hits us hard. The sheer busyness and self-importance of the world makes you feel joyless. After a dive into the network we’re drained and feel socially awkward. The swiping finger is tired and we have to stop.

We should be careful to distinguish sadness from ‘anomalies’ such as suicide, depression and burn-out. Everything and everyone can be called sad, but not everyone is depressed. Much like boredom, sadness is not a medical condition (though never say never because everything can be turned into one). No matter how brief and mild, sadness is the default mental state of the online billions. Its original intensity gets dissipated, it seeps out, becoming a general atmosphere, a chronic background condition. Occasionally—for a brief moment—we feel the loss. A seething rage emerges. After checking for the tenth time what someone said on Instagram, the pain of the social makes us feel miserable, and we put the phone away. Am I suffering from the phantom vibration syndrome? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were offline? Why’s life so tragic? He blocked me. At night, you read through the thread again. Do we need to quit again, to go cold turkey again? Others are supposed to move us, to arouse us, and yet we don’t feel anything anymore. The heart is frozen.

Let’s compare fleeting sadness in its technical form with the ancient state of melancholy. The melancholic personality seems to suffer from a disease. Unable to act, she withdraws from the world, contemplating death and other transient phenomena. While some read this condition as depression and boredom, others reframe this ‘lazy’ passivity as a creative strategy, waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead of a fascinating dérive into the vast arsenal of literary sources, I propose here a digital hermeneutics that short-circuits philology with the eternal presence of the digital that surrounds us.

Melancholy, often described as ‘sadness without a cause’, has strong existential connotations. While paying tribute to Kierkegaard, who liberated melancholia once and for all of its medical stigma, describing it as the deepest foundation of the human in a Godless society, the problem here is not a vertical one of going deeper, but a horizontal one. The democratization of sadness happens through its thin spread across our plateau - homeopathic doses flatly distributed via technical means.

The metric to measure today’s symptoms would be time - or ‘attention’ as it is called in the industry. While for the archaic melancholic the past never passes, techno-sadness is caught in the perpetual now. Forward focused, we bet on acceleration and never mourn a lost object. The primary identification is there, in our hand. Everything is evident, on the screen, right in your face. While confronted with the rich historical sources that dealt with melancholia, the contrast with our present condition becomes immediately apparent. Whereas melancholy in the past was defined by separation from others, reduced contacts and reflection on oneself, today’s tristesse plays itself out amidst busy social (media) interactions. In Sherry Turkle’s phrase, we are alone together, as part of the crowd - a form of loneliness that is particularly cruel, frantic and tiring.

What we see today are systems that constantly disrupt the timeless aspect of melancholy. There’s no time for contemplation, or Weltschmerz. Social reality does not allow us to retreat. Even in our deepest state of solitude we’re surrounded by (online) others that babble on and on, demanding our attention. But distraction does not just take us away from the world—this is the old, if still prevalent way of framing the fatal attraction of smart phones. No, distraction does not pull us away, but instead draws us back into the social. Social reality is the magic realm where we belong. That’s where the tribes gather, and that’s the place to be—on top of the world. Social relations in ‘real life’ have lost their supremacy. The idea of going back to the village mentality of the place formerly known as ‘real life’ is daunting indeed.

Most of the time your eyes are glued to screen, as if it’s now or never.  As Gloria Estefan wrote: “The sad truth is that opportunity doesn't knock twice.” Then, you stand up and walk away from the intrusions. The fear of missing out backfires, the social battery is empty and you put the phone aside. This is the moment sadness arises. It’s all been too much, the intake has been pulverized and you shut down for a moment, poisoning him with your unanswered messages. According to Greif, “the hallmark of the conversion to anti-experience is a lowered threshold for eventfulness.” A Facebook event is the one you’re interested in, but do not attend. We observe others around us, yet are no longer part of the conversation: “They are nature’s creatures, in the full grace of modernity. The sad truth is that you still want to live in their world. It just somehow seems this world has changed to exile you.” You leave the online arena, you need to rest. This is an inverse movement from the constant quest for experience. That is, until we turn our heads away, grab the phone, swipe and text back. God only knows what I’d be without the app.

We suffer, and there’s no form of absurdism that can offer an escape. Public access to a 21st century version of dadaism has been blocked. The absence of surrealism hurts. What could our social fantasies look like? Are legal constructs such as creative commons and cooperatives all we can come up with? It seems we’re trapped in smoothness, skimming a surface littered with impressions and notifications. The collective imaginary is on hold. What’s worse, this banality itself is seamless, offering no indicators of its dangers and distortions. As a result, we’ve become subdued. Has the possibility of myth become technologically impossible? Instead of creatively externalizing our inner shipwrecks, we project our need for strangeness on humanized robots. The digital is neither new or old, but—to use Culp’s phrase—it will become cataclysmic when smooth services fall apart into tragic ruins. Faced with the limited possibilities of the individual domain, we cannot positively identify with the tragic manifestation of the collective being called social media. We can neither return to mysticism nor to positivism. The naïve act of communication is lost—and this is why we cry.