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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Preemptive personalization

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Nicholas Carr’s forthcoming The Glass Cage, about the ethical dangers of automation, inspired me to read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which contains a lengthy tirade against the notion of progress as efficiency and convenience. Orwell declares that “the tendency of mechanical progress is to make life safe and soft.” It assumes that a human being is “a kind of walking stomach” that is interested only in passive pleasure rather than work: “whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working — that is, of living.” Convenience is social control, and work, for Orwell at least, is the struggle to experience a singular life. But the human addiction to machine-driven innovation and automation, he predicts, fueled apparently by a fiendish inertia that demands progress for progress’s sake, will inevitably lead to total disempowerment and dematerialization:

There is really no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle.

Basically, he sees the Singularity coming and he despises it as a “frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness.” And there is no opting-out:

In a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned foods, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc., etc.; and on the other hand there would be a constant demand for the things the machine cannot produce. But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it.

This “brain in the bottle” vision of our automated future, Orwell surmises, is why people of the 1930s were wary of socialism, which he regards as being intimately connected ideologically with the theme of inevitable progress. That connection has of course been severed; socialism tends to be linked with nostalgia and tech’s “thought leaders” tend to champion libertarianism and cut-throat competitive practices abetted by technologically induced asymmetries, all in the name of “innovation” and “disruption.”

Oddly, Orwell argues that the profit motive is an impediment to technological development:

Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; some, indeed, which threaten to reduce profits are suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the flexible glass mentioned by Petronius … Establish Socialism—remove the profit principle—and the inventor will have a free hand. The mechanization of the world, already rapid enough, would be or at any rate could be enormously accelerated.

Orwell seems to imagine a world with a fixed amount of needs, which technology will allow to be fulfilled at the expense of less labor; he imagines technology will make useful things more durable rather than making the utility we seek more ephemeral. But technology, as directed by the profit motive, makes obsolescence into a form of innovation; it generates new wants and structures disposability as convenience rather than waste. Why maintain and repair something when you can throw it away and shop for a replacement — especially when shopping is accepted to be a fun leisure activity?

While Orwell is somewhat extreme in his romanticizing of hard work — he sounds downright reactionary in his contempt for “laziness,” and can’t conceive of something as banal as shopping as a rewarding, self-defining effort for anyone — people today seem anything but wary about technological convenience, even though it is always paired with intensified surveillance. (The bathetic coverage of Apple’s marketing events seems to reflect an almost desperate enthusiasm for whatever “magical” new efficiencies the company will offer.) Socialism would be far more popular if people really thought it was about making life easier.

Orwell associated automation with socialism’s utopian dreams, and thought the flabbiness of those dreams would drive people to fascism. Looking back, it seems more plausible to argue that automation has become a kind of gilded fascism that justifies itself and its barbarities with the efficiencies machines enable. Though we sometimes still complain about machines deskilling us, we have nonetheless embraced once unimaginable forms of automation, permitting it to be extended into how we form a conception of ourselves, how we come to want anything at all.

One might make this case for automation’s insidious infiltration into our lives: First, technology deskilled work, making us machine monitors rather than craft workers; then it deskilled consumption, prompting us to prefer “tinned food” to some presumably more organic alternative. Now, with the tools of data collection and algorithmic processing, it deskills self-reflection and the formation of desire. We get preemptive personalization, as when sites like Facebook and Google customize your results without your input. “Personalization” gets stretched to the point where it leaves out the will of the actual person involved. How convenient! So glad that designers and engineers are making it easier for me to want things without having to make the effort of actually thinking to want them. Desire is hard.

Preemptive personalization is seductive only because of the pressure we experience to make our identities unique — to win the game of having a self by being “more original” than other people. That goal stems in part from the social media battlefield, which itself reflects a neoliberal emphasis on entrepreneurializing the self, regarding oneself as leading an enterprise, not living a life. If “becoming yourself” was ever a countercultural goal, it isn’t anymore. (That’s why Gap can build an ad campaign around the proposition “Dress Normal.” Trying to be distinctive has lost its distinction.) It’s mandatory that we have a robust self to express, that we create value by innovating on that front. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming economic leftovers.

Yet becoming “more unique” is an impossible, nonsensical goal for self-actualization: self-knowledge probably involves coming to terms with how generic our wants and needs and thoughts are, and how dependent they are on the social groups within which we come to know ourselves, as opposed to some procedure of uncovering their pure idiosyncrasy. The idea that self-becoming or self-knowledge is something we’d want to make more “convenient” seems counterproductive. The effort to be a self is its own end. That is what Orwell seemed to think: “The tendency of mechanical progress, then, is to frustrate the human need for effort and creation.”

But since Orwell’s time, the mechanization process has increasingly become a mediatization/digitization process that can be rationalized as an expansion of humans’ ability to create and express themselves. Technological development has emphasized customization and personalization, allowing us to use consumer goods as language above and beyond their mere functionality. (I’ll take my iWatch in matte gray please!) Social media are the farthest iteration of this, a personalized infosphere in which our interaction shapes the reality we see and our voice can directly reach potentially vast audiences.

But this seeming expansion of our capacity to express ourselves in in the service of data-capture and surveillance; we embed ourselves in communication platforms that allow our expression to be used to curtail our horizons. Preemptive personalization operates under the presumption we are eager to express ourselves only so that we may be done with the trouble of it once and for all, once what we would or should say can be automated and we can simply reap the social benefits of our automatic speech.

Social media trap us in a tautological loop, in which we express ourselves to be ourselves to express ourselves, trying to claim better attention shares from the people we are ostensibly “connecting” with. Once we are trying to “win” the game of selfhood on the scoreboard of attention, any pretense of expressing an “inner truth” (which probably doesn’t exist anyway) about ourselves becomes lost in the rush to churn out and absorb content. It doesn’t matter what we say, or if we came up with it, when all that matters is the level of response. In this system, we don’t express our true self in search of attention and confirmation; instead attention posits the true self as a node in a dynamic network, and the more connections that run through it, the more complete and “expressed” that self is.

When we start measure the self, concretely, in quantified attention and the density of network connectivity rather than in terms of the nebulous concept of “effort,” it begins to make sense to accept algorithmic personalization, which reports the self to us as something we can consume. The algorithm takes the data and spits out a statistically unique self for us, that lets us consume our uniqueness as as a kind of one-of-a-kind delicacy. It masks from us the way our direct relations with other people shape who are, preserving the fantasy we are sui generis. It protects us not only from the work of being somebody — all that tiring self-generated desire — but more insidiously from the emotion work of acknowledging and respecting the ways our actions have consequences for other people at very fundamental levels of their being. Automated selfhood frees us from recognizing and coping with our interdependency, outsourcing it to an algorithm.

The point of “being unique” has broadened; it is a consumer pleasure as well as a pseudo-accomplishment of self-actualization. So all at once, “uniqueness” (1) motivates content production for social-media platforms, (2) excuses intensified surveillance, and (3) allows filter bubbles to be imposed as a kind of flattery (which ultimately isolates us and prevents self-knowledge, or knowledge of our social relations). Uniqueness is as much a mechanism of control as an apparent expression of our distinctiveness. No wonder it’s been automated.

Liquid authenticity

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Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital helps clarify how two of the fantasies that feed neoliberal ideology — liquidity and authenticity — interrelate. The two concepts represent two opposing faces of the same hyperindividualism around which neoliberalism is organized. (Liquidity: I want to do whatever whenever; authenticity: who I am is inviolate and is all that really matters.) As we become the atomized, entrepreneurially fixated personal-enterprise selves that neoliberalism prompts us to be, we are supposed to be so flexible as to be molded into suiting whatever profitable opportunity comes along, yet we are also expected to be entirely invested in our activity and derive pleasure from the presumed autonomy we have in “choosing” to be molded or to mold ourselves. Under neoliberalism, workers must be authentically liquid; their “real selves” must also be infinitely malleable.

Lordon defines “liquidity” in much the way I typically define “convenience” — a fantasy about “never having to take the other into consideration”:

Keynes had already noted the fundamentally anti-social character of liquidity, as the refusal of any durable commitment and Desire’s desire to keep all options permanently open – namely, to never have to take the other into consideration. Perfect flexibility – the unilateral affirmation of a desire that engages knowing that it can disengage, that invests with the guarantee of being able to disinvest, and that hires in the knowledge that it can fire (at whim) – is the fantasy of an individualism pushed to its ultimate consequences, the imaginative flight of a whole era.

When convenience is trumpeted as a value, it’s really celebrating this kind of antisocial flexibility, the refusal to commit to any project and privileging instead the ability to switch at a moment’s notice to a more profitable alternative. Lordon argues that “liquidity in the narrow sense (financial liquidity) acquires a broad signification: the unconditional right of desire to do as it pleases.” It is a fantasy about money becoming pure potency, pure potential. Convenience reflects this same dream of noncontingent possibility, of being entirely self-reliant when it comes to pleasure, as if pleasure wasn’t intrinsically social. When we demand that life be convenient, it suggests that we have so throughly identified our lives with money that we want to become it.

As personal desire gets moneylike, it becomes noncontingent, unconnected to any embedded circumstances or established social relations; it is “free” to be redeployed and put to use to valorize any activity. Once these  ”joyful affects” are free-floating, they can be attached to any task and also be demanded from employees at any time. Their “authenticity” can no longer be anchored in particular situations but can be requested on demand. Authenticity becomes an effect of power.

Hence, Lordon configures authenticity not as the basis of a kind of resistance to power (or servitude) but as the ultimate mark of obedience to it. The concept of one’s “true self” only appears as a knowable, consciously considered thing in order that it may be remolded to suit capitalism’s demands for the totality of one’s productivity. Authenticity, then, should not be seen as a personal goal but as a employer demand. Or rather: If you are consciously pursuing the goal of authenticity, it’s because a job (or some desperate freelance pursuit of human capital) is forcing you to.

Under neoliberalism, Lordon argues, employers have enough leverage to insist that workers’ desires align completely with that of employers, so that all their life force essentially goes into enterprise. He even provides this somewhat unnecessary Lacan-style chart to illustrate it:



The goal of neoliberalist employers is to make d1, employers’ “master-desire,” and d2, the conatus of the workers, align completely (making the divergence between them, a, equal 0!). This is mainly a matter of getting workers to identify fully with their job, to see work as the forum for self-fulfillment (“meaningful work”) and to accept obedience as a kind of autonomy or volunteerism.

The strength of the neoliberal form of the employment relation lies precisely in the re-internalization of the objects of desire, not merely as desire for money but as desire for other things, for new, intransitive satisfactions, satisfactions inherent in the work activities themselves. Put otherwise, neoliberal employment aims at enchantment and rejoicing: it sets out to enrich the relation with joyful affects.

In other words, neoliberalism hinges on making people work for love rather than money. You don’t work for money, you work to be money, and you love being so useful.

But as with all things neoliberal, the burden for making this motivational shift falls on the employees: To qualify for jobs, workers have to convince prospective employers that they want to work not just for the money but because they yearn to be, or already are, what the job description details. Upper-echelon managers have already bought into this subsumption of self to work: Lordon cites Bourdieu’s remark that “the dominators are dominated by their very domination” — they are constrained to believe their own bullshit. But now all workers need to make job tasks seem like things they spontaneously wanted to do anyway; they have to perform an implausible enthusiasm that seems more and more ludicrous the more employers expect it. After all, once one level of enthusiasm is performed, a more intense level must be reached for the next show to be persuasive. Lordon suggests some of the dilemmas this presents for capital — having its prospects for growth hinged to total affective control: “This enlistee swears that he has no other passion than the manufacture of yogurt, our company’s business, but can we unreservedly believe him?”

Pret à Manger notoriously demands this kind of excitement from its fast-food workers (they are supposed to smile and make small talk with customers and rate other employees in terms of their team spirit and so on) — in Lordon’s words, such employers aim for “the ultimate behavioral performance in which the prescribed emotions are no longer merely outwardly enacted, but ‘authentically’ felt.” They have to smile and “really” mean it. They have to eradicate pretending, eradicate the gap demarcated by the concept of “service” and sell the pretense that customers and servants are equal, only the servant has graciously and eagerly volunteered to kiss the customer’s ass.

This demand for observable total commitment puts employees in a “double bind” in which they have to “manufacture artlessness.” Since no one can actually succeed at this, it means that (1) workers are always having to work hard on their emotional disposition without ever achieving the goal, and (2) they can always be disciplined or terminated for failing to successfully be emotionally “real.” Again, what is “real” is determined not by your inner feelings but by those who have the power — in this case, employers who can withhold the means for survival. The discourse of authenticity involved with this coercive arrangement becomes its alibi: It attaches a veneer of consent to forced labor, offering a framework through which employees can adopt the demands placed on them as their own real desires.

Capital has taken to forcing the obvious contradiction of “acting authentic” on labor because, Lordon argues, it has the leverage to get away with it. But will sustaining that contradiction prove too much of a burden for workers? Will it give shape to a means of resistance beyond “being real” or “being true to yourself”? Neoliberalism teaches subjects to both demand individual autonomy to choose who they want to be and to be flexible enough to be molded by the flux of larger profit-seeking forces. And it expects workers to bear the burden of resolving those demands’ incoherence and find joy within them. Lordon points out that this is a risky, unstable approach to social control: to construct subjects who understand themselves as genuine and unable to be socially constructed. At what point does that kind of construction become too effective?



The Silence of the Masses Could Be Social Media

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In working my way through Baudrillard’s early 1980s writings about the “masses,” I’m tantalized by the passages where he seems to anticipate the arrival of social media, of mass connectivity and Big Data modeling on the basis of ubiquitous surveillance. They make me think that he has some valuable insight, if only his abstractions and idiosyncratic terminology could be translated into plainer language addressing everyday contemporary examples. I’m thinking of passages like this, from the “…Or the End of the Social” chapter in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities:

End of the perspective space of the social. The rational sociality of the contract, dialectical sociality (that of the State and of civil society, of public and private, of the social and the individual) gives way to the sociality of contact, of the circuit and transistorised network of millions of molecules and particles maintained in a random gravitational field, magnetised by the constant circulation and the thousands of tactical combinations which electrify them. But is it still a question of the socius? Where is sociality in Los Angeles? And where will it be later on, in a future generation (for Los Angeles is still that of TV, movies, the telephone and the automobile), that of a total dissemination, of a ventilation of individuals as terminals of information, in an even more measurable — not convergent, but connected — space: a space of connection? The social only exists in a perspective space, it dies in the space of simulation, which is also a space of deterrence.

So frustrating: He identifies the form of sociality beyond mass media — the way social media has made individuals into “terminals of information” in a space of connection where they cannot converge into a collectivity — but then concludes by evoking a bunch of his amorphous pet concepts: simulation, deterrence, etc.

It may be a gross distortion of what Baudrillard actually was trying to say, but I find it useful to think of Big Data and predictive analytics every time Baudrillard starts talking about simulation and deterrence. We are “deterred” or steered into certain ranges of behavior by the way reality is mediated to us (“simulation”) based on predictive analytics, recommendation engines, filter bubbles, and so on. In “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social” Baudrillard describes this with unusual clarity:

This is our destiny, subjected to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, absorbed by this permanent  refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. We are no longer even alienated, because for that it is necessary for the subject to be divided in itself, confronted with the other, contradictory. Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other,  like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself into the undivided coherency of statistics. There is in this a positive absorption into the transparency of computers, which is something worse than alienation.

To me that sounds a lot like the combination of social media and Big Data: Surveillance and quantification produce the self as a set of statistics, a manipulatable data object. Baudrillard says this is “worse than alienation”; in the past, I’ve called this condition “postauthenticity.”  Rather than capturing “our own will,” it circumvents it; it predicts what we want without our willing anything. Even if the prediction is initially wrong, preferential placement in the platform, and the efficacy of the subsequent feedback loops can make it so, as David Auerbach points out in this essay on the recent Facebook and OKCupid experiments. Postauthenticity (social media plus Big Data) makes our will superfluous.

Rather than existing in some “real,” the media overlay on reality means we exist in statistical models that purport to measure reality but in fact are tautological, capable only of grasping what it is has already predicted and modeled. This makes me think of Facebook’s control of your Newsfeed, which attempts to shape your conception of your social reality, of what your friends are talking about and what sorts of political ideas are “important” to them, all while injecting advertisements determined through data analysis to be the least disruptive and most persuasive. Facebook promises to entertain you, but it turns out that promise is synonymous with manufacturing demand. (Being entertained becomes no different from learning how to desire; pleasure is no longer desire fulfilled, but desire itself, the condition of desiring.)

Within that model is where power is exercised, modulating behavioral outcomes at the level of populations. (Foucault writes about this as “governmentality”). For Baudrillard, those deindividuated populations ruled over through monitoring, statistical modeling, and predictive analytics are supposed to be “the social” — i.e. the “reality” of what the data measures, the population on which power can be exercised by what he tends to call the “system” — but they instead are becoming “the masses,” an amorphous blob of individuals that eludes certain management by its sheer inertia, which proves uninterpretable even as the system throws more resources at trying to understand what it wants or where it is headed. In In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, Baudrillard writes,

And it is this which today turns against it [the system, or "power"]: the inertia it has fostered becomes the sign of its own death. That is why it seeks to reverse its strategies: from passivity to participation, from silence to speech. But it is too late. The threshold of the “critical mass,” that of the involution of the social through inertia, is exceeded. Everywhere the masses are encouraged to speak, they are urged to live socially, electorally, organizationally, sexually, in participation, in festival, in free speech, etc. The spectre must be exorcised, it must pronounce its name. Nothing shows more dramatically that the only genuine problem today is the silence of the mass, the silence of the silent majority.

Hence, social media, which masquerades as communication between peers but primarily functions as individuals consuming the social as isolated atoms while compiling and generating data for the system. Social media are a huge effort to prevent the masses from being silent in Baudrillard’s subversive sense — if the masses are silent, they move beyond manipulation, beyond influence, beyond desire, beyond control, beyond comprehension by the forces attempting to exercise sovereignty over them. If the masses seem to speak, as they now do in social media (and through all the other means for surveilling their everyday activities with “smart” devices), they yield the data that appears to make them manageable. They become “social” again, in the sense of being amenable to the mechanisms of social control.

But data collection only raises more questions than it answers about the populations under surveillance; as Kate Crawford explains here, the more data you have, the more crises of interpretation you confront, leading to more data collection and deeper crises. Baudrillard puts it this way:

It is a contradictory process, for information and security, in all their forms, instead of intensifying or creating the “social relation,” are on the contrary entropic processes, modalities of the end of the social. It is thought that the masses may be structured by injecting them with information, their captive social energy is believed to be released by means of information and messages (today it is no longer the institutional grid as such, rather it is the quantity of information and the degree of media exposure which measures socialization). Quite the contrary. Instead of transforming the mass into energy, information produces even more mass.

The more information about the masses we have, the more we uncover that there is to know, which makes the masses recede even further into their massive inscrutability. It turns out that the ways the system can allow us to speak, in social-media platforms and in a stream of cell-phone metadata, amount only to so much more silence.

It’s hard to tell through his multiple layers of irony, but it seems that Baudrillard thought this “implosion” process had the potential to short-circuit the imposition of power as it made the social disappear. It manifests a refusal to participate in the flexible ways control is administered not through repression but through encouraging expression, and letting people build their own jails. The more you say and interact and connect, the better you can be modeled, and the more your reality can be seamlessly shaped around you, so that control is experienced as freedom within the circumscribed matrix. This is basically The Matrix, only now, much more plausibly, the Matrix is a simulation generated by data streams harvested from phones and social media. You get out of the matrix by disappearing into the mass, by going normcore. Baudrillard argues in “The Implosion of Meaning in Media,” that “the system’s current argument is the maximization of the word and the maximal production of meaning. Thus the strategic resistance is that of a refusal of meaning and a refusal of the word — or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of nonreception.”

Maybe then, the way to resist the demand to make one’s subjectivity productive for capital is to use social media in a “hyperconformist” normcore way, emptying “self-expression” of its value for social-media companies and shifting the location of selfhood elsewhere by perpetually deferring its “genuine” expression.

But what would hyperconformist use of social media look like? And how is that any different from how we might use social media naively, without any subversive intent? At times Baudrillard makes this kind of resistance seem a deliberate strategy, requiring conscious intent, but mostly he suggests that intention doesn’t matter, in part because resistance is automatic and futile at the same time. (Power’s operation generates the “masses,” which automatically resist power by absorbing its blows and growing — all efforts to measure it extend its immeasurability.) Worrying about intentionality is like worrying about authenticity in a postauthentic age.

Instead of being “true” to yourself to evade the forces of control, one trusts to the “evil genius” generated perversely by the system itself in its efforts to function smoothly. “This is what one could call the evil genius of the object, the evil genius of the masses, the evil genius of the social itself, constantly producing failure in the truth of the social and in its analysis,” Baudrillard says in “The Masses: Implosion of the Social in Media.” He posits a “radical antimetaphysics whose secret is that the masses are deeply aware that they do not have to make a decision about themselves and the world, that they do not have to wish, that they do not have to know, that they do not have to desire.” They don’t have to do anything; they don’t have even to “be themselves,” which would be a form of production, manifesting a certain consumer demand.

Instead we have desire, subjectivity, selfhood served to us, which threatens to close a feedback loop — the self Big Data is trying to capture ends up just being the one which it has already reported to us. This, Baudrillard hopes, will eventually suffocate the system, while the masses enjoy the spectacle of themselves as a kind of consumer good. Simply liking what we are told or expected to like becomes deeply subversive to a system that depends on our innovating new desires, new demand. “The deepest desire,” he argues, “is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else.” This “expulsion,” as he calls it, can now show up as a surrender to the self that social-media platforms serve us; it shows up in the ways compulsive social media use (“hyperconformity” to the expectations of our sharing things on it) can effect depersonalization. Even self-expression (as I try to argue in this post) can be a way of offloading the burden of self, dismantling identity as much as building it. Self-expression can become inertial, a form of noisy silence.

“Information overload” too, can provoke depersonalization and escape from the responsibility for identity and all the risk management that comes with having a palpable, foregrounded “personal brand.” Having a deep personality merely compounds the risks of having a self exponentially — there’s so many more things one would have to be strategic about presenting and managing. Becoming “the masses” alleviates the stress that neoliberalism’s intensifying emphasis on human capital and individual resilience and flexibility generates.

The effect of a having an automatic identity generated for us as our lives progress is that we can, in theory, be more fully present in the moment, not as “ourselves,” worried about the continuity of our identity, but as a consciousness skating on the surface of sensual experience, liberated from any meaning. Likewise, virality promises a similar liberation. Baudrillard claims that “the present argument of the system is to maximize speech, to maximize the production of meaning, of participation.” Social media testify to the continued vehemence of that argument. “And so the strategic resistance,” Baudrillard continues, “is that of the refusal of meaning and the refusal of speech—or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is another form of refusal by overacceptance.” Virality may be considered in general as a kind of “refusal by overacceptance,” a hyperconformity. It is a way of speaking without saying anything. When something goes viral it can no longer signify anything but its virality; its original content is negated. It becomes silent in its ubiquity.

If communication has emptied itself of meaning through the intensification of the means by which it is circulated, the self is probably next. In “The Ecstasy of Communication” Baudrillard describes the condition of viral selfhood, of identity that consists of circulation, of a subjectivity that finds itself in the way it has been already simulated in advance in data. He notes the “forced extroversion of all interiority, the forced injection of all exteriority that the categorical imperative of communication literally signifies” — the kind of inescapable connectivity that sometimes gets described now as “the end of privacy” — and then points outs the consequences. We are no longer estranged from the real, the misplaced fear of “digital dualists” who worry that, say, the people taking pictures with their phone aren’t allowing themselves to take part in what’s “really” happening. (This Sherry Turkle op-ed is a quintessential example of this discourse, which Nathan Jurgenson critiques here.) Instead, we are characterized by “absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things, the feeling of no defense, no retreat.” The “always on” self is not separated from the real but helplessly immersed in it, beyond the fiction of transcending it with a walk down a Cape Cod beach. The networked self “can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as a mirror. He is now a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence.” At this point the self can only signify the fact of its being connected, of being able to establish network connections. The self is a modem.



Free to Choose A or B


There has already been a lot written about the Facebook mood-manipulation study (here are three I found particularly useful; Tarleton Gillespie has a more extensive link collection here), and hopefully the outrage sparked by it will mark a turning point in users’ attitudes toward social-media platforms. People are angry about lots of different aspects of this study, but the main thing seems to be that Facebook distorts what users see for its own ends, as if users can’t be trusted to have their own emotional responses to what their putative friends post. That Facebook seemed to have been caught by surprise by the anger some have expressed — that people were not pleased to discover that their social lives are being treated as a petri dish by Facebook so that it can make its product more profitable — shows how thoroughly companies like Facebook see their users’ emotional reactions as their work product. How you feel using Facebook is, in the view of the company’s engineers, something they made, something that has little to do with your unique emotional sensitivities or perspective. From Facebook’s point of view, you are susceptible to coding, just like its interface. Getting you to be a more profitable user for the company is only a matter of affective optimization, a matter of tweaking your programming to get you pay more attention, spend more time on site, share more, etc.

But it turns out Facebook’s users don’t see themselves as compliant, passive consumers of Facebook’s emotional servicing, but instead had bought into the rhetoric that Facebook was a tool for communicating with their friends and family and structuring their social lives. When Facebook manipulates what users see — as they have done increasingly since the advent of its Newsfeed —  the tool becomes more and more useless for communication and becomes more of a curated entertainment product, engineered to sap your attention and suck out formatted reactions that Facebook can use to better sell audiences to advertisers. It may be that people like this product, the same way people like the local news or Transformers movies. Consumers expect those products to manipulate them emotionally. But that wasn’t part of the tacit contract in agreeing to use Facebook. If Facebook basically aspires to be as emotionally manipulative as The Fault in Our Stars, its product is much harder to sell as a means of personal expression and social connection. Facebook connects you to a zeitgeist it manufactures, not to the particular, uneven, unpredictable emotional landscape made up by your unique combination of friends. Gillespie explains this well:

social media, and Facebook most of all, truly violates a century-old distinction we know very well, between what were two, distinct kinds of information services. On the one hand, we had “trusted interpersonal information conduits” — the telephone companies, the post office. Users gave them information aimed for others and the service was entrusted to deliver that information. We expected them not to curate or even monitor that content, in fact we made it illegal to do otherwise…

On the other hand, we had “media content producers” — radio, film, magazines, newspapers, television, video games — where the entertainment they made for us felt like the commodity we paid for (sometimes with money, sometimes with our attention to ads), and it was designed to be as gripping as possible. We knew that producers made careful selections based on appealing to us as audiences, and deliberately played on our emotions as part of their design. We were not surprised that a sitcom was designed to be funny, even that the network might conduct focus group research to decide which ending was funnier (A/B testing?). But we would be surprised, outraged, to find out that the post office delivered only some of the letters addressed to us, in order to give us the most emotionally engaging mail experience.

Facebook takes our friends’ efforts to communicate with us and turns them into an entertainment product meant to make Facebook money.

Facebook’s excuse for filtering our feed is that users can’t handle the unfiltered flow of all their friends updates. Essentially, we took social media and massified it, then we needed Facebook to rescue us, restore the order we have always counted on editors, film and TV producers, A&R professionals and the like to provide for us. Our aggregate behavior, from the point of view of a massive network like Facebook’s, suggests we want to consume a distilled average out of our friends’ promiscuous sharing; that’s because from a data-analysis perspective, we have no particularities or specificity — we are just a set of relations, of likely matches and correspondences to some set of the billion other users. The medium massifies our tastes.

Facebook has incentive to make us feel like consumers of its service because that may distract us from the way in which our contributions to the network constitute unwaged labor. Choice is work, though we live in an ideological miasma that represents it as ever and always a form of freedom. In The New Way of the World, Dardot and Laval identify this as the quintessence of neoliberalist subjectivity: “life is exclusively depicted as the result of individual choices,” and the more choices we make, the more control we supposedly have over our lives. But those choices are structured not only by social contexts that exceed individual management but by entities like Facebook that become seen as part of the unchangeable infrastructure of contemporary life. “Neoliberal strategy consisted, and still consists, in constantly and systematically guiding the conduct of individuals as if they were always and everywhere engaged in relations of transaction and competition in a market,” Dardot and Laval write. Facebook has fashioned itself into a compelling implementation of that strategy. Its black-box algorithms induce and naturalize competition among users for each other’s attention, and its atomizing interface nullifies the notion of shared experience, collective subjectivity. The mood-manipulation study is a clear demonstration, as Cameron Tonkinwise noted on Twitter, that “There’s my Internet and then yours. There’s no ‘The Internet.” Everyone using Facebook see a window on reality customized for them, meant for maximal manipulation.

Not only does Facebook impose interpersonal competition under the rubric of sharing, it also imposes choice as continual A/B testing — which could be seen as the opposite of rational choice but, from the point of view of capital, it is its perfection. Without even intending it, you express a preference that has already been translated into useful market data to benefit a company, which is, of course, the true meaning of “rational”: profitable. You assume th erisks involved in the choice without realizing it. Did Facebook’s peppering your feed with too much happiness make you incredibly depressed? Who cares? Facebook got the information it sought from your response within the site.

A/B testing, the method used in the mood-manipulation study, is a matter of slotting consumers into control groups without telling them and varying some key variables to see if it instigates sales or prompts some other profitable behavior. It is a way of harvesting users’ preferences as uncompensated market research. A/B testing enacts an obligation to choose by essentially choosing for you and tracking how you respond to your forced choice. It lays bare the phoniness of the rhetoric of consumer empowerment through customization — in the end companies like Facebook treat choice not as an expression of autonomy but as a product input that can be voluntary or forced, and the meaning of choice is not your pleasure but the company’s profit. If your preferences about Facebook’s interface compromise its profitability, you will be forced to make different choices and reap what “autonomy” you can from those.

That would seem to run against the neoliberal strategy of using subjects’ consciousness of “free” choice to control them. But as Laval and Dardot point out, “the expansion of evaluative technology as a disciplinary mode rests on the fact that the more individual calculators are supposed to be free to choose, the more they must be monitored and evaluated to obviate their fundamental opportunism and compel them to identify their interests with the organizations employing them.” Hopefully the revelation of the mood-manipulation study will remind everyone that Facebook employs its users in the guise of catering to them.

“Sharing” Economy and Self-Exploitation


(These are my opening remarks from Rhizome’s Internet Subjects #1 panel yesterday at the New Museum.)

The sharing economy’s rise is a reflection of capitalism’s need to find new profit opportunities in aspects of social life once shielded from the market, in leisure time once withdrawn from waged labor, in spaces and affective resources once withheld from becoming a kind of capital. What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital and more of our time into casual labor, thereby extending capitalism’s reach and further entrenching the market as the most appropriate, efficient, and beneficial way to mediate interaction between individuals. For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.

Though the sharing economy appropriates a language of progressive change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for their apps and business models, their effect is to more thoroughly atomize individuals, demanding that they regard themselves as a kind of small enterprise while reducing their social usefulness to the spare capacity they can mobilize for the platforms to broker. Users are asked to scour their lives for marketable time and resources, performing labor that the sharing-economy companies organize and expropriate.

Just as factories allowed deskilled workers to “cooperate” and create value that accrued to the factory owner who brought them together, sharing-economy apps coordinate disparate users and extract value from their being brought together in networks. But unlike the workers who meet on the factory floor, the sharing-app users meet only as commercial adversaries, and build not solidarity but merely a mercantile “trust” that facilitates wary exchange.

Sharing economy apps discredit the very concept of gift-giving and impose reciprocal exploitation on users for the companies’ benefit. The apps’ networks masquerade as ersatz “communities,” but such networks actually constitute a medium designed to allow users to uncover advantages and asymmetries and let us seek out precisely the people we can exploit. Nonmonetized social bonds are made to seem like wasted opportunities. The only “real” bonds between people are the ones verified and rationalized by market exchanges, which are explicable in terms of economic incentives and self-interest. Actual sharing is inexplicable, unreal.

The rhetoric around sharing economy companies tends to celebrate their liberatory use of technology, which is held to irresistibly wring inefficiency from legacy social practices while freeing users from the dread burdens of inconvenience and transaction cost. But in fact the sharing economy epitomizes the deployment of technology to intensify inequality, in this case by creating monopolies that aggregate and co-opt the effort and resources of many users, who are pitted against one another within the platforms. The network becomes an anti-community in which empathy and conviviality are tactics and no succor may be extended without a price attached.

The sharing platforms tend to standardize and commoditize the services they broker (a ride is a ride is a ride), and champion amateurs in the name of disruption. This undercuts any advantage to being highly skilled or professional beyond some bare minimum of competence. The optimistic thing to say about this, perhaps, is that by making services generic, sharing apps may help reverse alienating economic specialization, pointing toward the communist ideal Marx described of everyone being able to hunt in the morning, and write criticism in the evening. But without some sort of guaranteed basic income in place, the casualization of labor to the point of worthlessness leaves workers more economically insecure, rendering them even more desperate to “share” — that is, to self-exploit.