Go With the Flow

How to break out of the tracks laid for us online

In recent years, key texts by members of the Situationist International, a mid-20th century collective of avant-garde Marxists, have been resurrected as prescient catalogs of our growth-oriented, image-saturated, web-based media ecology. In particular, Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle as “a social relation among people, mediated by images,” has seen renewed popularity as a tool for understanding how social media bring people together at a global scale, but only as an abstract interrelation of siloed individuals. A pervasive presence that supplants active experience with passive identification, the spectacle subsumes the experience of being into one of appearing-to-be. As our conceptions of self, society, and the material world are increasingly tethered to simulacra, they are more easily manipulated by public relations firms and those at the levers of capital.

Mid-century Paris’s dominant visual culture was far less sophisticated than that of the internet’s global information hierarchy, but Situationist prescriptions spoke to problems that resonate today. They sought to undermine the infinite reproduction of identical pathways; puncture monotony with spontaneous “situations”; and ultimately build awareness of how power constrains imagination and possibility in everyday life. One central Situationist practice is psychogeography, described in the 1950s journal Les Lèvres Nues as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Psychogeography, the conceptual mapping of spatial emotional effects, finds practice in dérive, a process of interrogating space by moving through it with a conscious relationship to desires and psychogeographic features.

Paying special attention to how attention is guided is what distinguishes dérive from flânerie, a practice of detached wandering

The Situationists applied these ideas to physical (and especially urban) geography, but they are easily redeployed in online environments, where they help illuminate how digital architecture conditions thought and action — as well as locate points of potential disruption. Rather than using the internet to access a specific node, accomplish a predetermined task, or scroll passively, someone on a digital dérive navigates consciously, paying special attention to interlinkages, design, and how attention is guided. The practice not only uncovers operations of power in digital space, but focuses attention on overlooked virtual infrastructure, helping practitioners experience themselves as active participants in a vast system of networks rather than atomized individuals on bubbled islands. Temporarily subverting the spectacle, digital dérive opens avenues for genuine social engagement, rather than bare consumption and regurgitation of visual abstractions.

Importantly, it’s also just fun to “play” on the internet in this way — and very easy! You can dérive for hours, or a few minutes. Personally, I find it a welcome break from the repetition of passive scrolling through the narrow corridors of coercive platforms.

I enter the net by double-clicking the technicolor whirlpool that loads my default browser, Google Chrome, which in turn loads a deceptively plain homepage. I glide my fingers across the trackpad to scroll, but my view bounces back to the center, reminding me that I face a gateway and not a destination. A rounded search bar sits in the middle of a vacant backdrop, crowned by a blocky logo that has iteratively simplified even as the entity it represents has expanded — utterly beyond comprehension — in complexity, scope, and power over my habits. I never use this search bar, of course, because its function is perfectly replicated by the nearly identical, omnipresent URL field at the top of my window. Streamlined design has eroded the need to understand the difference between a Google search and an HTTP request, or to fully type a request for either. It’s one of many deliberate obfuscations of the parlor tricks loading pixels on my screen — but then again, that’s exactly why I prefer to Chrome to other browsers. It is the best at thinking for me.

It strikes me how effortlessly Google has integrated their search monopoly into a browser that dwarfs its largest competitor by a factor of seven, consolidating layers of transmission while concealing their distinctions from end-users. It seems quaint that the FTC once went after Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with an operating system.

A connoisseur of my anxieties, Google suggests a menu of shortcuts to frequent destinations across a depressingly small range: websites related to work, personal finance, and social media — all mills for economically productive behavior and commodified time. Feeling lucky, I indulge the top suggestion: a hyperlink to twitter.com. I routinely spend hours here, “reading,” eyes glazed over, retaining almost nothing.

For an instantaneous communications network that wires global end-users into the largest catalog of media, entertainment, and information in human history, it’s shocking how limited, repetitive, and boring the internet can feel. It’s not that digital space inherently prohibits whimsy, spontaneity, or dynamism — it’s that so much of it is effectively controlled by platforms that would rather flatten temporal experience into a droll succession of measurable quantities and interchangeable exchange values.

Upworthy founder Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” has become a ubiquitous shorthand for the mimetic, personalized media ecospheres that tint our views of algorithmically-curated space and keep us bolted to attention-time conveyor belts. Its simultaneously universal and individuating features not only echo the spectacle, but find neat summary in a quote that Debord dubiously attributes to Marx: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves.”

A connoisseur of my anxieties, Google suggests a menu of shortcuts to frequent destinations across a depressingly small range: work, personal finance, and social media

Most of today’s dominant digital environments would likely be more enriching, and more positively integrated in the lives of their inhabitants, if their architectures were genuinely participatory and directly accountable to human desires. But in order to reshape an environment, you first need to imagine beyond its existing boundaries — which requires a detached perspective, unfiltered by the prism of the spectacle. Subverting that presence in digital space means fostering an awareness of the rails that quantify, guide, package, and sell desires, curiosities, and attention. It looks something like bursting a bubble.

The idea of “escaping your filter bubble” has itself become a cliché, but in the popular imagination it is generally constrained by a narrow, liberal imagination that conflates the task with peering across a divide between fixed and oppositional poles — the uncritical binarism of “both sides” political journalism, for example. The profound limitation of this understanding owes to its categorical deference to established traditions and fixed, pre-existing structures — in short, its reification of the spectacle. Popping your filter bubble goes beyond asking Google to arrange search results according to the preferences of a different human-rendered-text: It requires intentional, active engagement with the affective forces at play in digital environments. This is digital dérive distilled, and why the practice opens up more expansive possibilities than an app to curate media “from the other side” could ever achieve.

Dérive can take many forms, but it traditionally looks something like making observations while going on a walk, preferably with a small group or conversation partner, routed through a process of grappling with the act of navigation rather than arriving at a predetermined destination or strolling aimlessly. This last point is worth impressing: To quote Debord, “cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” In contrast with dérive, passive strolls often fail to critically interrogate space because of their “insufficient awareness of the limitations of chance, and of its inevitably reactionary effects.” (This heightened skepticism of subconscious forces is what distinguishes dérive from flânerie, a practice of detached wandering.)

As the Situationists imagined it, a few examples of traditional dérive could include: drawing an animal on a map and following the resulting route to the best of your ability; executing a list of directions with unpredictable outcomes, like chasing a red car and then taking a cab north for 20 minutes; or simply heading out, talking about how local geography compels you, and indulging or subverting desires as they are observed. Throughout this, practitioners remain aware of their surroundings and the people inhabiting them, studying networked space while making themselves available for the spontaneous interconnections that the spectacle subverts. As with the Situationists’ urban investigations, digital dérive does not find its subversive potential in the hands of expert analysts, but as a practice easily incorporated into the daily habits of ordinary people.

Twitter.com loads almost immediately, adding another layer to my tower of platforms stacked atop platforms. Before heading in the obvious direction — down the feed — I take stock of the page. On the right-hand side, #LadyAndTheTramp appears on a “Trends” tab — “Promoted by Disney+,” of course. Beneath that, Twitter suggests I follow a few lefty writers and editors, who almost certainly hold the platform’s logic in critical regard. If they’ve ever tweeted about Twitter, I could find out very easily.

Taken together, these elements show how the platform absorbs opposition by juxtaposing contradiction and repackaging personalized, even antagonistic media as just another way to convert users’ time into an exchange value.

I scroll for a bit, quickly reaching a promoted post from McDonald’s. The restaurant strikes a conversational tone to tell me about “McCafe Donut Sticks,” which have apparently returned with a new chocolate sauce. I realize that this and the promoted Disney+ “trend” are the only content blocks I’ve loaded so far that do not conform to Twitter’s profile of what I “want.” They are targeted, I’m sure, but I’m seeing them because companies have paid for my attention, not because a machine thinks they’re the best lures to keep me on the feed.

As I consider my options, I try to visualize every hyperlink as a divergent path in a fractal system of networks. At first brush, I could: 

A) Check who McDonald’s follows, then navigate a chain of personal accounts until I wash up on a stranger’s blog
B) Disable JavaScript to reload my timeline as a simplified, chronological shadow of itself
C) Click to Twitter’s privacy policy, then through the labyrinth of pages within
D) Navigate to analytics and make a move based on what the platform says it sees in me

The total number of options are unmappable beyond comprehension, a vast arrangement of passages with each decision producing thousands more. However, there is an organizing logic: The network is an interlinkage of commodity transactions, with me at its center and my time as its ultimate object. Just as capital colonizes spontaneity and overwrites chance in a passive stroll, it does so with equal vigor in digital space. 

The McDonald’s post is at least honest about what it wants. I decide to indulge the invitation to visit their website, but also to deny its insistence on abstract and quantified exchange as the primary mode of social organization. Instead I want to unwind the spectacle, just for a moment, and follow this path to a human being on the other end.

I click the link and descend into mcdonalds.com.

Many of the internet’s commodified social spaces weaponize a basic need to connect with others, mechanizing a fundamentally human desire in closely surveilled corridors. Rather than facilitating connections between people, privately-held platforms redesign the internet in capital’s image, boxing time and attention into commodified forms and compelling us to produce them even in leisure.

These days even hacky cable pundits and hollow cellophane suits will occasionally acknowledge the psychic woes running downstream from platform monopoly and commodified but unwaged attention-time. It’s one thing, though, to sound existential alarms about Russian election meddling and the erosion of democracy by unpoliced “fake news.” It’s entirely another to concede that these seemingly civilizational effects exist on a spectrum with countless small- and medium-sized boredoms, distractions, and inconveniences — many of which are routinized to the point of invisibility. As Ivan Chtcheglov wrote in a 1953 essay in the inaugural Situationist journal, “a mental disease has swept the planet: banalization.” If we only measure structural problems by their most visible and grotesque symptoms, efforts to solve them risk plucking at weeds when we ought to change the soil.

Many of the internet’s commodified social spaces weaponize a need to connect with others

The Situationist manifesto optimistically asserts that “the existing framework cannot subdue the new human force that is increasing day by day alongside the irresistible development of technology and the dissatisfaction of its possible uses in our senseless social life.” The challenge of reorienting private communications technologies around collective desires poses hurdles that are difficult to even conceive. Structural solutions are needed, but long-term implementation will necessarily require a widespread, radical consciousness — something like the “new human force” identified by the Situationists.

This consciousness is still nascent, but its beginnings are perceptible in the widespread dissatisfaction and malaise draped around the popular experience of today’s for-profit digital information superstructure. A popular praxis of digital dérive — of bursting microtargeted filter bubbles in everyday life — is one humble suggestion for starting to imagine possible forms of life beyond the spectacle. Injecting play into monolithic structures makes it possible to comprehend and ultimately confront the power that organizes them.

Mcdonalds.com unfurls before me as a charcuterie board of stock photos and floating, disembodied husks of copy. I sink to the bottom of the page, searching for a contact form or email address buried in an about page. I quickly find a generic press contact, but I can do better. I click onto the company’s corporate website, and through to their LinkedIn.

 The pressed look of linkedin.com hits like a wall. Clean-cut content blocks rise from below like skyscrapers in beige and navy blue — or cuffed sleeves jutting from the wrists of a tailored suit. My burner account feels underdressed.

308,129 LinkedIn accounts apparently claim McDonald’s as an employer, but only “premium” members (who pay between $30 and $120 per month) can see the details of users beyond their networks — unless those users happen to be “premium” members themselves. That means I can still see the personal information of top McDonald’s brass, and by page 11 I know I’ve found my man: Jesse Lewin, senior director of corporate communications. He apparently jumped from Kenyon College to Obama’s 2008 campaign and then a series of White House jobs before taking a gig at Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm that runs astroturf advocacy campaigns and has worked for tobacco barons, chemical manufacturers, and the military junta that seized control of Argentina in a 1976 coup. Naturally, the next step was McDonald’s.

Some creative Googling turns up Jesse’s email address. I write a message discussing the tangled succession of relationships that led me to him — or, rather, that pushed his employer’s brand into my visual field. Interested in flattening these abstractions into a direct connection, but not knowing what to expect, I hit send and await a reply.

Evan Malmgren is a writer who covers power and infrastructure for outlets including the BafflerDissentLogic, and the Nation. He is currently working on a book about people trying to live “off the grid” in modern America.