Your Phone Is a Prison

'Psychopolitics' discusses how social media has replaced freedom with the church of the internet.
January 22, 2018, 3:25pm
Image via 'Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,' DreamWorks Pictures

This article originally appeared on VICE UK. In June 2017, Facebook announced it had passed the 2 billion users mark. It is, by far, the biggest social network, although Twitter, with 300 million users and Instagram, with 800 million, still have a considerable slice of the world's population.

We may not like giving away our private details to social media sites, yet clearly, we do it anyway. We agree to terms and conditions blindly in order access what we desire. To Byung-Chul Han, the author of a newly translated book about digital communication, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, this is voluntarily relinquishing our freedom. Han considers the privacy and the private world to be vital to our freedom. He sees us “of our own free will, [putting] any and all conceivable information about ourselves on the internet, without having the slightest idea who knows what, when, or on what occasion… the very idea of protecting privacy is becoming obsolete.”


I share photos of books I buy. I announce some of my political opinions and talk about work on Twitter. I give out more information on social media than I would dream of in a government census or corporate survey. Freedom is the ability to exercise free will. However, if I want a Facebook account, so I can keep up with friends, events, and family who live overseas, I must give up my privacy to Facebook’s Big Data capture. To what extent am I then exercising free will?

Han argues that this is the genius of the digital realm: to make us dependent on it and render us unable to choose not to use it. “Free choice,” he says, “is eliminated to make way for a free selection of the items on offer.”

Han conceives of the digital world as a prison (a “digital panopticon”) in which you are an isolated inmate, sitting there staring at your phone, but can be monitored by a whole host of prison guards, such as Google, Facebook, and Acxiom. Unlike solitary confinement in normal prisons, the digital prison allows you to communicate with other inmates. Communication is positively encouraged. In fact, you must communicate, voice your opinion, like, share, retweet, join in. We willingly expose our private thoughts—our private data—to the guards, and “Digital Big Brother, outsources operations to inmates.”

For Han, the internet is an all-seeing God, able to record and recall our sins. Facebook is the modern church, a space to come together under one watchful eye. He claims that smartphones are “devotional” objects. “The smartphone works like a rosary”: You scroll the screen like you would thumb through beads, and you confess, share, and worship via the smartphone interface. “Like,” Han says later, “is the digital Amen.” Certainly, since Twitter changed the “favorite” emblem (a star) to the “like” (a heart), its function changed. The “favorite” was initially used to bookmark tweets (often links to articles or videos). Now, “like” is used to show agreement, or approval of a post, operating exactly as an “amen.”


When the governments take a census, they ask for demographic data, meaning data related to the physical realm—where you live, your age, race, gender, job, etc. (the only exception is to ask your religion). The information Big Data collects goes far beyond this. We hand over our personal desires, consumer habits, fears, and relationships voluntarily. Han says a regular prison “has no access to inner thoughts or needs… no access to the psychic realm,” and that, “ demography is not the same thing as psychography [i.e the data of thoughts].” This means old-school statistics and Big Data are miles apart. Traditional opinion polling can only get you so far, but Big Data is unlimited. Han claims that “Big Data provides the means for establishing not just an individual, but a collective psychogram.” That is a map of our collective desires and fears. You’ve got to have a lot of faith in democracy, capitalism, and benevolent corporations to not worry about this.


Consumer society in the West operates almost entirely through emotion. Brands and advertising exploit emotion to sell products. Television utilizes emotion to keep you watching. The social media sphere is no different. There is an immediate dopamine release when you use digital media. You post something, and it takes off—shares rack up, and replies fly in. Sometimes good things come from this, but it can also be destructive.

Han claims we are heading toward a “dictatorship of emotion.” Han says that “accelerated communication promotes emotionalization. Rationality is slower than emotion, it has no speed.” I don’t think “rationality” is the greatest thing necessarily; prejudice and psychopathy can hide behind supposedly “rational” thinking.

In this Guardian interview, meme factory “Social Chain” employee Hannah Anderson says, “Low-arousal emotions such as contentment and relaxation are useless in the viral economy.” She says to get real engagement, you need to make people feel frustrated, angry, or awestruck. Facebook is leading to arms war of emotion, where only the most intense and instantaneous human response will do.

I’m not about to give up Twitter. I’ve learned good things from the people I follow that I might not have picked up on in real life—particularly to do with identity, gender, literature, and music. However, Han is out there, with no digital profile whatsoever, sharply assessing how we live our digital life, and forcing me to look a little deeper. There are things going on to help promote online privacy such as the “right to be forgotten” in the Data Protection Bill, and Me2B movement to get us to own our own data. But these things aren’t immediate solutions. Reading Pscyhopolitics has made me more aware of my social media output and the philosophical problems my online habits induce. It may well do that for you, too.

Follow Kit Caless on Twitter.

Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power is published by Verso.