The Digitized Culture Wars

LM Sacasas

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”

— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

The logic of the analogy is, of course, straightforward. Digital media has dramatically enhanced the speed, scale, and power of the tools by which the culture wars are waged and thus transformed their norms, tactics, strategies, psychology, and consequences.

Culture war skirmishes now unfold at a moments notice. The lines of battle form quickly on social media platforms. Tens of thousands of participants, not all of them human, are mobilized and deployed to the front. They work at scale, often in coordinated actions against certain individuals, working chiefly to discredit and discomfit, but also to confuse, incite, exhaust, demoralize. The older, perhaps always idealistic aims of persuasion and refutation are no longer adequate to the new situation. Moreover, skirmishes that become pitched battles spill out indefinitely, becoming black holes of attention, which become massive drains of resources and energy.

Along these lines we can see that the power of digital media lies in their immediacy and scale, but also in their ability to widen the war. Direct mail may have targeted you, but social media involves you directly in the action. Take up your memes, comrades. We are no longer mere spectators of battles waged for our allegiance by elite warriors of the political and intellectual classes. In the digitized front, we are all armed and urged to join the fray. The elites themselves quickly become the victims of the very cultural warfare they had once stoked to their advantage.

Digitization also yields total culture war. No aspect of our experience goes untouched. This is a consequence of both the wide-scale distribution of the weapons of cultural warfare but also of how these same tools erode the older, always tenuous divide between public and private life. Now, the culture wars are total in the sense that they are all-encompassing and unrelenting. It’s not so much that we’re always on the front lines, it’s that the front lines are always with us. And while it is true that the culture wars have always involved public debate of private matters, the digitized culture wars swallow up even more aspects of private life.