The more we control, the more we are alienated from that which we control. This is the thesis of sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s oeuvre – namely his weighty Resonance (2019) and the more pithy The Uncontrollability of the World (2020). Along with his other works, they provide compelling accounts of why there is an inverse relationship between our control of the world and our ability to connect to the world.
Rosa argues that our social, legal, cultural and technological apparatus are tendrils outstretched, tasked with controlling space and time. The very human fear of falling behind is the reason for their existence:
‘If we fail to be better, faster, more creative, more efficient, and so on we will lose our jobs, businesses will close, tax revenues will decline while expenditures increase, there will be budget crises, we won’t be able to maintain our healthcare system, our pension levels, and our cultural institutions, the scope of potential political action will grow ever narrower, and in the end the entire political system will appear to have lost its legitimacy’ (Rosa, 2019, 9).
But a motivation based on fear is unsustainable, hence society’s counterbalancing force – the belief that this fear can be overcome if we expand our share of the world.
Rosa provides four dimensions on which we nominally accomplish this expansion. We make the world visible, reachable, manageable and useful. Each horizon we encounter, from the geographical to the temporal, is subject to these controlling dimensions. Whatever is controlled in this manner is subject to our dispositions.
Rosa cites Max Weber who argues that this controlling thrust is an appendage of rational thought, and has generated a progressive alienation – ‘disenchantment’. But Rosa is at pains not to define alienation as a loss of control over one’s circumstances. Alienation here is ‘a specific form of relationship to the world in which subject and world confront each other with indifference or hostility (repulsion) and thus without any inner connection’ (2019, 44).
Alienation comes about through the instrumentalisation of the world, which reifies our relationships to all else into what Rosa calls ‘points of aggression’.
Modernity’s error, Rosa argues, is in increasing capacity for domination and control rather than for bilaterally influencing, resonant processes.
And it is ‘resonance’ which forms the keystone of his thesis. Resonance is the sublime state of being that we long for, but it has been subsumed beneath our drive toward mastering the world. Rosa does us the favour of peeling back this drive to draw attention to how resonance operates.
Primarily, resonance is about affecting and being affected. Again, there are four dimensions at play. The subject (usually a human, but not necessarily) must be open to being affected by something, and be able to connect – that is, ‘reach toward’ that which affects it via its own self-efficacy. Subsequently the subject must be transformed, changed, by the connection. Importantly, how the subject may be affected and transformed by such a connection is uncontrollable – it cannot be predicted with any certainty.
Rosa calls spaces that allow for this process ‘resonant’ spaces. He gives the simple example of new love. Nascent romantic partners are ostensibly highly sensitive to one another, connected via their own self-efficacy, and are deeply affected and transformed by their bilateral relationship.
Resonant relationships aren’t just person-to-person however. I have a resonant relationship with the psychedelic film A Field in England because it stirs psycho-spiritual elements within me, transforming my consciousness, though I can never fully comprehend or predict how I will be affected or transformed. We cannot be finished with something for it to have resonance. Rosa writes:
‘It is precisely our sense that we are not yet finished with something, that there is still something there that tempts us into trying to take hold of it in order to bring it under our control, to be able to access and engage with it at will’ (2020, 50).
Were we to think we have exhausted the meaning of a film or a poem, we would find ourselves unmoved by it. It must hide something – be uncontrollable – to have an allure.
A dog is open to being affected when their human interacts with them – the dog reacts, and subsequently changes their mode of being in both the short and long-term. But the way the dog is affected, and their subsequent action and transformation, cannot be predicted or controlled in any guaranteed way. A robot dog, however, is responding to algorithms, which may emulate being affected and self-efficacy. The human involved in the relationship senses a call-and-response, mechanistic relationship that invites predictability. And predictability engenders a controlling disposition within us, which in turn invites alienation. This is true as well for an over-trained dog whose personality is squeezed out, and who is alienated from their self-efficacy. This dog’s nature is visible, reachable, manageable, and more often than not, treated as useful.
Our desire to reify and control resonance kills it in the womb. The photographer’s picture reifies qualities of resonance, paralysing them in the process. The photographer then tries ever harder to capture resonance with more images, frozen and deterritorialised. It’s this feedback loop that progressively shrinks the future possibility of resonance. Commodification depletes resonant potentialities, which makes consumers try to acquire further commodities in the hopes they will provide resonance, but this only further hardens consumers against resonance.
Tourism agencies will promise resonant experiences by tightly controlling them. The carefully managed tour of the walled town, the Instagram-perfect dinner with the sea view. This lack of openness toward an uncontrolled, vibrant environment is precisely what mutes the world and hardens the human subject against resonance. Certainly stimulation is still possible – but being reached in an unexpected way is not possible as, when a subject makes demands for resonance, their own openness to unpredictability and unexpected transformation is muted. Self-transformation is guaranteed in bright, bubbly copy on the tourism brochure, this is precisely why it cannot occur.
Rosa covers many aspects of the material conditions through which resonance occurs, yet he halts before exploring too deeply into how digital technology mediates resonance. He only gestures in its general direction:
‘Without question, within a very short time, digitalization has radically revolutionized the relation between controllability and uncontrollability’ (2020, 75).
It’s not overly surprising why he limits his engagement with digital technology. Digital technology is layered in and between ‘stacks’, in what technology theorists Johan Redström and Heather Wiltse call fluid assemblages, which ‘make use of mimicry: to appear as things, they camouflage themselves as totalities’ (2018, 39). A digital thing that is never really made can be seen as too diffuse, lacking the stable materiality on which the connective tissue needed for resonance can be created.
Examining the affordance structure of digital products can help us understand the manner in which resonance and digital technologies interweave. As described by ecological psychologist James J. Gibson (1966), affordances are the co-relational interaction potential between subject and object. Importantly, they are emergent, contextually dependent and pre-cognitive. Stairs, for example, afford stepping without an intentional cognitive ascription – ‘This is a stair that I can step on,’ says no one. Stairs also afford sitting, or even more abstract relations, such as a delineation between parts of a household, depending on contextual factors involving the subject and object.
Importantly, affordances can result in emergent or unexpected potentialities. A hole in the ground can be used as a hiding spot, but can also be fallen into. Affordances are unpredictable, but design mandates that they are tightly controlled insofar as it is possible.
Contemporary digital products afford continuous consumption as a pattern for controlling and engendering resonant experiences. They are designed for mastery of vicarious experience across time and space via digital channels. They facilitate the hunting and gathering of resonance through consumption of these experiences.
TikTok and LinkedIn, for example, are both designed to afford endlessly scrolling feeds from which resonant, moving experiences are both expected and demanded. Alienated, bored subjects are the primary audiences of digital feeds – they are merely looking to be ‘moved’, not for any specific content. Therefore, content creators are encouraged to create predictable, easily consumable experiences hinting at immediate resonance.
The feed structure of these platforms affords an endless supply of content, which must offer – or guarantee – resonance immediately, lest the user scroll on.
But, as noted, guaranteeing resonance is impossible; however, this doesn’t stop incessant emulation of any content that has, in the past, affected consumers. Slight variations of largely the same dance videos on TikTok, or the same emotionally manipulative LinkedIn posts are invited, produced and consumed.
Manufacturing and sharing content itself is afforded through highly simplified interfaces, fast connection speeds and recommendation algorithms. This only increases the mechanistic qualities of the creator-platform-consumer relationship – a quality Rosa finds antithetical to resonance:
‘Resonance is to be strictly distinguished from causal or instrumentalist “linear” forms of interaction (in the sense of mechanical coupling) that necessarily produce fixed, precisely predictable effects’ (2019, 12).
From the side of the content consumer, affordance structures inhibit resonance as well. Certainly we may be affected by digital content, but when we ingest from treadmills of content expecting to be moved, we treat these treadmills as points of aggression – we believe further control and management is needed to extract resonance from them. Rather than opening ourselves to being affected and transformed, we exert demands for more resonant content – the system should do the work.
Designers are encouraged to create ‘frictionless’ experiences – that is, design affordances that allow for consumption of content without reflection. This is generally known as ‘engagement’ – though ironically engagement here is positioned as the mere clicking of an interactive element. The user does not ‘engage’ in any participatory, cognitively effortful way. Creating affordances that facilitate openness to resonance is not a priority; in fact, engagement is often the opposite, an alienation from oneself and one’s digital surroundings.
There is a multifaceted contradiction at play here. Users are (implicitly) aware of their own alienation, so demand resonance, but they exist in a space where they have lower openness to engagement and participation due to the mechanistic affordance structure of digital technology, and users further exacerbate this deficit by demanding more visibility, reachability, manageability and utility – the dimensions of alienation. When they attempt to control the digital world they dampen the requisite resonant dimensions within themselves – controllability negates resonance, but resonance requires uncontrollability.
Even if meaningful, resonant experiences could occur, reciprocal affordances are not structured to facilitate methods of reaching out to connect, other than through empty gestures – the ‘like’ or a superficial comment. Yet resonance requires a subject to reach out when affected via their self-efficacy. While the ability to react is functionally present, narrow, controlled digital affordances afford only limited connection and engagement. Thus the dimension of self-efficacy is limited as well – our ability to react and respond based on being transformed via relating to the other is not afforded by the digital structures present.
Digital spaces are therefore materially antithetical to resonance, at least as they stand. Their affordance structure limits both our possibilities for resonance and normalises and hardens resistance to resonance. Instead of opening our capacity for dimensions of resonance, we are afforded an alienated disposition.
Ultimately, this is unlikely to change. The fluidity of digital assemblages mean that structuring a resonant space is incredibly difficult. In our pandemic-stricken world, we are more often that not remote from one another, but any number of digital applications – such as Orbital or Gather – are intended to offer the potential for in-person resonant relationships, though existing digital affordance patterns have so hardened our attitudes toward such resonance that these newer affordances are unlikely to make an impact (even if they were able to offer the potential for resonant relationships).
Embarrassing successes such as Clubhouse, which host ‘huddle’ type gatherings of drop-in audio chat, act as soapboxes for tech bros rather than a channel for meaningful connections. If anything, these drive alienation, with utility being the main purpose: who is the next unicorn I should invest in?
Digital affordances seem to often constitute what Marshall McLuhan would call ‘hot media’ (1967), which require little active participation on the part of the audience, and are of highly predictable nature. Rosa would insist that to achieve resonance, we would want to cool media down to encourage active participation – a prerequisite for resonant experiences.
Then again, if we must sacrifice the control that digital structure affords to achieve resonance, it seems likely that we are destined for alienation. A desire to expand control is baked into our institutions, our psychologies.
It’s worth hoping that McLuhan, the media theorist whose shadow looms large over a digital world he never saw, had it right:
‘There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening’ (1967, 25).
Vikram Singh is a designer / researcher / writer living in London. He writes regularly about the philosophy of technology at DisAssemble.
Fiore, Q., & McLuhan, M. (1967). The medium is the massage. New York: Random House.
Gibson, J. J., & Carmichael, L. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 44-73). Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Redström, J., & Wiltse, H. (2018). Changing things: The future of objects in a digital world. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Rosa, H. (2019). Resonance: A sociology of our relationship to the world. John Wiley & Sons.
Rosa, H. (2020). The uncontrollability of the world. John Wiley & Sons.