Sisyphus and the American Dream

The Cyber-utopia is dead – long live the Cyber-heterotopia! The digital era didn’t deliver on its promises of emancipating humanity and the optimistic visions attributed to online technology turned predominantly into capitalistic and totalitarian nightmares. Here is why we should have a breather before we start to smash our devices and bury them somewhere far, far away.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy“, Albert Camus concludes in regards to his analogy of the modern citizen and the absurdity of a live without hope. A difficult task, imagining happiness whereby all means none should exist. But nevertheless we, as people (and especially as ethnographers), stumble upon these strange constellations of simultaneous and contradicting situations.

Anarchy in the UK US
Brendan is one of these cases. Life has not always been kind to him. Born in Southern California and adopted into a middle-class family, Brandon had everything at his disposal to live the American Dream. Regardless, his story deviated from this ideal path. He dropped out of school without graduating, the relationship with his family was complicated and later he joined the US army to serve in Iraq. After his overseas deployment he was diagnosed with PTSD, which was never really recognized by the authorities, and found himself in a peculiar situation. When I visited him while carrying out field work for my dissertation, he was living in a city close to the Sierra Nevada in the backyard of a small family. His humble abode, consisting of a windowless one-bedroom apartment, that used to be a shack and the family’s garage, contained all of his material wealth: an air mattress, a set of broken chairs, a table, but most importantly, a high-quality computer. Having no job or any other assets, this piece of technology provided Brandon with a small income in the form of online poker and ad revenue for his YouTube channel focused on police brutality. But something more crucial, it also offered something that might be even more important than money, which Brendan with his anarchistic lifestyle oftentimes didn’t even seem to need: meaning.

Activism and the WWW
Brendan does not belong in the normative winners of society. He rather finds himself more often on the losing side of societal struggles and could be considered an outsider, a pariah. But instead of accepting this role, lying down and playing dead, Brendan chose to fight. He seems to be oozing resistance with every pore and when he talks – something he is capable of doing pretty fast and with great endurance – his thoughts are never far from the essential topics in life. Justice. Equality. Humanity. As a video activist he traverses the dichotomy of the world of street demonstrations and everyday life situations versus the sphere of online discourse and culture wars and by doing so he proves how interwoven the digital and the analogue have become, forming two interdependent aspects of a bigger social reality.

The Rise of the Pariahs
And in this Brendan is not alone. He might be a bit of an oddity in his neighborhood. A trouble and mischief maker, who dresses weirdly (“Long hair, ripped jeans and worn-down sneakers!!!”) and openly consumes cannabis. But there are many more out in the world, who think in similar ways, and with whom Brendan finds a new sense of belonging, a family in their own right. This band of brothers and sisters is made up of people with very heterogenous backgrounds, reaching from former gang-members and ex-convicts over your average white, middle-aged housewife to successful academics, but they all share amongst themselves the experience of exclusion, marginalization and stigmatization. Knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end of things, they are united in their wish for an alternative vision, and by banding together and joining their forces, they not only empower themselves in terms of politics. By employing digital technology activists breach the gaps of geographical distances and create these pocket galaxies of resistance, where they can freely be themselves and redefine societal norms to shape their own heterotopias – lived utopias, that mirror their original counterpart, but transform its ups and downs into a version, where they are no longer the outsiders. They turn their lives as pariahs in between worlds into a live of meaning and self-worth as respected contributors towards a common goal that is deemed morally good. And even if their political voice oftentimes falls on deaf ears outside of the heterotopia and all their struggles towards the heights seemingly prove to be fruitless in the face of an ever-growing neoliberal hegemony, the creation of sense is something, that cannot be taken away from them and that always retains a spark of hope, a shimmer of a different reality.


[Photo by Chris Carbonaro]


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