This is a map of the US I made last year in response to my experiences there when filming my forthcoming Channel 4 series, Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip. I love maps. They have an air of authority, they show us where to go. This map toys with the common delusion that there is a clear and certain route out of our mess of feelings.
Geographically, this map could be of anywhere as it is a map of the culture war that rages mainly online, but the US has a particularly well defined and extreme version. Stylistically, I was thinking of cold war propaganda maps showing the “communist threat” in the 1950s. The Big Brother-like figure at the top is Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook; I chose him because he is the best-known face of social media power.
Social media is mainly financed by advertising, so those in charge want users to stay online as long as possible. The algorithms make this happen by encouraging conflict and outrage. The red arrows represent this feeding of negative emotion that keeps people scrolling. The internet is perfectly designed to inveigle its way into our patterns of thinking and feeling.
When looking at the conflicts that swirl around social media, I find it illuminating to observe the scene like a psychotherapist might listen to a client. Therapists sometimes block out the content of the client’s conversation and just focus on the process, how they are speaking. What emotions are fuelling their talk? Ooh, that person often seems very cross, maybe the issue isn’t what they are cross about but the fact they are always cross.
When we experience a background hum of unfocused emotion, be it anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, we unconsciously look for something to attach it to. Social media is brilliant at supplying us with issues to which attach our free-floating feelings. We often look for nice, preformed boxes into which we can dump our inchoate feelings, we crave certainty. Social media constantly offers up neat solutions for our messy feelings, whether it be God, guns, Greta or gender identity.
In a battle-torn landscape governed by zeroes and ones, nuance, compromise and empathy are the first casualties. If I were to sum up the online culture war in one word it would be “diaphobia”, a term coined by the psychiatrist RD Laing meaning “fear of being influenced by other people”, the opposite of dialogue. Our ever-present underlying historical and enculturated emotions will nudge us to cherrypick and polish the nuggets of information that support a stance that may have been in our bodies from childhood. Once we have taken sides, the algorithms will supply us with a stream of content to entrench and confirm our beliefs.
All the ships, planes and other combatants are labelled with the issues, signifiers and buzzwords that swarm around this algorithmically polarised struggle. Please do not look at my map for clarity. Like the English civil war there is no clear geographical divide between “them” and “us”; as with Brexit, opposing forces may reside in the same family. In the centre of the map is the presidential plane Air Force One colliding with a Russian bomber labelled “Climate Change”. When I made this print I thought that was the headline issue, but now I might have made the “Racism” and “White Privilege” helicopters and the “Black Lives Matter” jet fighter more prominent. Hurricane “Woke” off the east coast still seems very topical.
• Grayson Perry: The MOST Specialest Relationship is at Victoria Miro, London, from 15 September until 31 October 2020. Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip, 10pm, 23 September, Channel 4 and All 4.