Early critical theorist Walter Benjamin, using the idea of the spoils of war to reflect upon history, memorably commented:
[Cultural treasures] owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Benjamin’s point is simple: The things we admire in culture are often built on the back of exploitation. And one does not need to be a Marxist to see that there is much truth in this claim.
Take, for example, companies currently involved with China—companies whose products we all use and that make our hi-tech lives, including those of the tweeting class, possible. In 2020 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute produced a report on the forced labour of Uighurs under the Chinese government and identified 82 companies that potentially benefit, directly or indirectly, from this. That list included Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. Apple was among the companies that did not respond to the report. Last year, the New York Times reported on the efforts of American companies, including Apple and Nike, to weaken the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban imported goods made with forced labour from the Xinjiang region of China. In May of this year, Business Insider reported that seven Apple suppliers had links to forced labour programmes in China, including those that abused Uighur Muslims. In short, if you walk to work in Nike trainers or use a smartphone or computer, you can probably only do so because somebody in China has been enslaved and exploited. And that is before any consideration of how buying Chinese products in general supports a nation engaged in genocide and racially profiled forced sterilization, all enabled via a system of government concentration camps.
Given this, today’s online pundits would do well to meditate upon Benjamin’s comment about barbarism. Indeed, we might even recast it for the internet age:
Tweets owe their existence not only to the efforts of those who post them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries who produce the computer hardware. There is no tweet of civilization which is not at the same time a tweet of barbarism.