A review of Jonathan Crary’s ‘Scorched Earth’

For the past decade, it seems that tech innovations have come up every few months, promising to transform society. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his tech company from Facebook to Meta to signal the company’s new focus on the Metaverse, an interactable digital world that utilises virtual reality technology. Zuckerberg must have been certain that this new direction was the right move if he was willing to discard the widely-known Facebook name. The company’s commercials would reflect this optimistic attitude as their commercials, one of which says that education will be transported to an online space once the Metaverse is fully developed. As these internet technologies promise to revolutionise our lives, they naturally attract much discussion, but not all interlocutors are always so enthusiastic.

Crary stresses that we must start thinking about how to approach a post-capitalist world

Jonathan Crary is one such critic. In the book Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, he establishes a fervent polemic against the ‘internet complex’, his neologism to describe the social, digital technology and the institutions that serve it. He argues that the only path to achieve a safe and habitable world is in a future that is “offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism”. Crary contrasts Mark Fisher, a cultural critic and Warwick alumni, as he puts forward that the end of capitalism is close at hand, but he stresses that we must start thinking about how to approach a post-capitalist world.

The first chapter of his book demonstrates how the ‘internet complex’ has ideologically devastated our social lives. Rather than the common idea that the internet promotes an egalitarian and impartial world, Crary argues that the internet has been financialised ever since its creation, making global capitalism ingrained into all digital platforms. Hence, Crary believes the internet should not be preserved even in alternative economic systems. This chapter also explains the book’s title; scorched earth refers to the destruction of a self-rejuvenating nature and world system. Crary connects his internet critiques to a non-sustainable planet by emphasising that contemporary digital platforms have imposed capitalist logic on all corners of life.

The second chapter moves the discussion to technocapitalism. He explains that our conformity to science and technology is misplaced since they are not “aligned with human purposiveness or needs”. Instead, development and innovation in these fields are to raise corporate power and serve the needs of capital. Techno elites want us to become lost in the ‘internet complex’ since the digital platform disallows solidarity to emerge.

In the final chapter, Crary utilises his expertise as an art critic to create perhaps the most fascinating section of the book. By referring to visual history, he can evoke the importance of our ability to connect to others in face-to-face interaction. However, this ability of emotional reciprocation is threatened by our multitudes of digital communication technologies. Indeed, few would argue that a zoom meeting is as authentic as a physical gathering.

Though the author seems well-read, the book is not without faults

Though the author seems well-read, the book is not without faults. The overwhelmingly critical tone is not always accompanied by substantiated reasoning and explanations. The statement that I found the most problematic was his claim that “there are no revolutionary subjects on social media”. Though Crary may have meant to suggest that protests held online are futile, his supporting statement that “the internet overwhelmingly produces self-interested subjectivities incapable of imagining goals or outcomes other than private, individual ones” is an egregious insult to contemporary demonstrations that were organised on digital platforms. For instance, Crary neglects and discredits those informed of the recent industrial disputes and strikes from the internet. Personally, as a Thai citizen who joined the pro-democracy protests in 2020, my only platform to connect with others and stay informed was through a messaging application.

However, though the book has many questionable claims, it is still worth going through, if only for its excellent final chapter. Especially relevant after leaving the zoom lectures era, Crary’s unique line of thought can help us rethink our approach to online media. Zuckerberg may benefit from reading if he intends to develop the lifeless metaverse.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who finds this final section of the book interesting. If technology’s disruption to our social relations with one another is a topic of interest, then Crary’s work provides a powerful starting point to think about the subject. Besides that, those that are sceptical of the sustainability of modern technological development may enjoy the book as well.

Comments (1)

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    I Served In Viet-nam Era Military. And Write Everyday. On Broken Blogs. Because Publisher Is Collecting And Making Money Off Of My Name.

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