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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Know Your Product

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It’s common to critique social media by pointing out that users believe they are consumers but are in fact are the product, a packaged and labelled audience being sold to marketers, the real “users” of ad-supported social media. Or worse, users are both the product and the labor making the product, all for the benefit of the social-media companies that own it. This means we are not merely deluded but also exploited when we think of ourselves as “consuming” social media.

The assumption in this critique is that we don’t want to be a product and instead want the agency and autonomous expression that social media seem to promise. From that point of view, users sign up on Facebook with the goal of expressing themselves and hearing what their friends have to say, but are eventually warped into becoming a kind of reified personal brand through exposure to the product’s toxic affordances of self-quantification. Naive users think they are signing up for a personalized public sphere and then, undeterred by the evident oxymoron, find themselves in a hall of mirrors in which all they can see — and all they end up wanting to see — is themselves.

I’ve made that argument in the past, but it seems to presume a sort of haplessness in social media users, who don’t know well enough to stop using services that are exploiting and stupidifying them. It doesn’t seem adequate to explaining the pleasure users derive from social media, even as they become reifying and exploitive. I don’t think users’ continued use is strictly a matter of network effects and sunk costs, or even a matter of a cost-benefit analysis permitted them to make a rational decision that surrendering their personal data constitutes a fair exchange for the services social media offer. Instead, I want to consider the possibility that users enjoy becoming the product.

The services that social media supply (holding a “graph” of one’s social connections; amassing and archiving personal data; making the promise of an on-demand audience for oneself plausible; permitting a variety of pre-formatted modes of self-expression; offering algorithmically constituted recommendations of what you should read, who you should know, how you should spend your time; and so on) help constitute the self as something a user can consume. We get to be a commodity and consume it at the same time. We are like the hot dog putting ketchup on itself.

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This self-commodification does not diminish the user’s self-conception but rather makes the self conceivable, legible. The self as product is inherently not guilty of some of the deauthenticating aspects of agency which threaten the integrity of other versions of the self: being calculating, unspontaneous, manipulative, phony, etc. The self as product can be seen as something that simply is, a given thing articulated in a definite form. It enters the realm of the socially conspicuous.

Only as a product can we recognize ourselves as “genuinely” real, given the amount of attention and effort collectively directed at enchanting and foregrounding products within a consumer-capitalist culture. We are ideologically trained, repeatedly, every day, to love consumer goods; naturally we would want to become a consumer good ourselves, to appear deserving of love — from ourselves as well as from other people (who, on social media, offer quantifiable tokens of that deserved love in the likes and so on).

Products in consumer-capitalist culture quickly lose their lovability, however, as they lose their novelty. They become moribund. They become trash. Consumerism relies on disposability and the perpetual renewal of consumer desire, of discontented people constantly demanding more for themselves. This allows for the limitless expansion of demand in the economy. Consumer ideology fuses self-growth, also conceived as potentially limitless, to the ability to want more things. This converts an economic imperative into a moral one: I must embrace my limitless potential and find ways to express it, or else fail as a human being.

Growth itself, as a personal goal, is adapted from the capitalist necessity of pursuing limitless accumulation in an economic environment of growth or death. Personal growth is a matter of continual dissatisfaction, of refusing to be content, even as we make ourselves into content. Anything that I start to think I know about myself seems not merely familiar but fake. What is real about me is what I discover about myself (usually in the form of fresh desire), not what I already know, which I have consumed already.

So the self, as a product, loses its enchantment for us and needs to be revitalized to the extent that it becomes familiar, known, understood. We love ourselves only as a novelty, a mystery, not as a staple product. We want to be able to apprehend ourselves as a new, desirable thing that we can consume and enjoy. This makes us feel relevant, marketable. We can imagine someone buying into the idea of us, and that helps us buy into ourselves. But inevitably our desire for ourselves needs to be renewed, and we will need to be repackaged.

It seems untenable to feel authentic only when you’re surprising yourself. Social media try to make this contradiction seem to cohere. They offer ways in which to always consume ourselves anew as new. Algorithmic recommendations in particular cater to this hope of seeing a stranger in the personal data we’ve generated, an alien person we can claim as a real self. They can enlarge our ability to desire (making us grow) while seeming to draw on true information about us that we have somehow provided. Everything you have consumed and expelled online gets purifed and re-presented as new desires, a new you.

By processing our personal data into things like Facebook’s Newsfeed, algorithms can present us with a carefully repackaged self. We then get the thrill of unboxing ourselves as if we were a coveted new product and seeing what surprise awaits within. That this box we are continually rewrapped in is also a cage can be more readily excused. In that cage, we will only see what reinforces the central importance of novelty, but it won’t matter as long as we feel new ourselves.

Signs of ephemerality

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What happens when what is archived no longer seems to qualify as part of what is authentic about you? The allure of ephemerality intensifies.

1. Ephemerality as a strategy for generating authenticity. The untenability of old notions of authenticity becomes more apparent the more one is entrenched in mediated social networks that archive data about a user. Because social media turn so much experience into representations, social media eradicate the possibility of spontaneity (another legacy notion of what is authentic), as we plan for the mediation of what we are doing even as we are doing it. (See Nathan Jurgenson on the idea of the “Facebook eye” here.) As the data accumulates, it begins to make identity appear incremental instead of given all at once, born into us like a soul, dictating our personality from some permanent, essential inner core. Instead identity is an open construction site that other people are invited to tour, a work in progress that will never be completed, as the archive can house more and more data.

Identity is understood less as a concrete thing and more as a process. But whereas things simply seem to be, processes are understood to have goals. If we are thought to just have a self, its purpose is not questioned; when the self is a process, the question arises of what the purpose of that process is. Drawing on how Wendy Brown defines neoliberalism in this interview, as reducing people to market actors and inciting them to turn every aspect of one’s life into something marketable, we can see this process of self-making as self-neoliberalization: making an account of one’s life to try to turn as much of it as possible into various forms of “human capital.”

By housing so much personal data, networks not only foreground the contingency of identity (how we act differently in different contexts; how we seem different when our data is filtered in different ways, or when it is compared with other users exhibiting similar behavior patterns) but also make it plain that all the archived information about us feed directly into our efforts to capitalize on our sociality—to turn our social connections and everyday personal behavior into marketable assets. This makes any behavior that gets archived get perceived as self-interested and thus contrived and inauthentic — we are only doing it to gain advantage, not because it is “who we really are.”

Ephemerality emerges as an alternative to neoliberal human-capital building, to the construction of identity as something that is wholly marketized. Once, ephemerality was unremarkable, as virtually everything about our everyday lives was ephemeral: unmonitored, unrecorded, not saved, not processed into usable and potentially valuable information. Our everyday life was not mediated and commoditized to anything like the same degree it is now, with the advent of cheap digital recording devices and cheap, massive data storage.

But now ubiquitous surveillance and archiving makes ephemerality seem scarce; it’s no longer assured by technological limitations. (In fact, technology seems to guarantee the opposite: That everything is recorded and nothing is ultimately deleted; nothing is beyond the accessibility of a CCTV camera or a clever hack.) We look for signs that something will actually be ephemeral — not intended to be part of our cultural-capital stock. Ephemerality now needs to signified, in the face of its threatened disappearance. Thus, what is taken as ephemeral may have nothing to do with actual ephemerality, actual disappearance. Ephemerality, like authenticity, becomes a feeling and not an empirical attribute of a thing or moment.

2. Signs of ephemerality are repurposed indicators of phoniness. The sign of ephemerality alone may be sufficient to trigger a feeling of authenticity; it can purchase a moment of relief from the burden of self-consciousness (authenticity’s nemesis). If something about your self-representation in a situation conveys the spirit of ephemerality — of obsolescence, of a future going-out-of-fashion, of disposability, of irreverence or unseriousness, etc, it . It may allow the person signifying the ephemerality to feel “in the moment” and others to attribute “disinterestedness” to what they are doing, making the person seem as though they are “being real.” In general, the sign of ephemerality permits the affect of “realness” — what it marks is admissible as genuine, not calculated or designed to manipulate, and that atmosphere of authenticity may be permitted to permeate the entire social encounter.

The markers of disposability are precisely those things that indicated something’s trendiness, its trying-too-hard-ness, its fashion-victimhood. They emboss a thing with a sell-by date. It’s the pattern on a piece of fast-fashion apparel that dooms it to imminent irrelevance. It’s the lyric “the best soy latte that you’ve ever had, and me” in that Train song, something that both catches your attention and makes you cringe. That lyric is awful and contrived in a way that makes it qualify, paradoxically enough, as sincerity. Or rather, “sincerity.” It’s mis-calculatedness is foregrounded, impossible to miss, and therefore it pushes aside the need to question its intent, or the integrity of it. You need no paranoid hermeneutic for Train.

3. Absence of paranoia is the affect of ephemerality. With something marked as ephemeral, you don’t have to interpret anything; its meaning consists of its meaninglessness, its refusal to last, to monumentalize or memorialize. That feeling is secured by the phoniness identified and processed. It ushers both interpreter and interpreted to a space beyond interpretation, beyond strategy and defense. It takes an experience off the record; it gives a sense of having that power. A tight tautological loop is conveyed: This isn’t being recorded/archived, so I’m not trying too hard, so no one is recording or archiving this, and around again. This reinforces the sense of permission that comes from ephemerality. The signs of ephemerality build in the idea that you can’t be judged for a specific appeal for attention.

This principle of getting interpretation out of the way from the get-go is behind those that highlight their nature as ads, that ask to be distrusted. This lowers the viewers’ guard, while flattering their intelligence. Self-debunking phoniness can put us at ease so that some deeper phoniness can skate by. It’s like getting yourself caught for some small infraction so that you can deflect suspicion about an even larger one. With signified ephemerality, one intentionally gets caught being overtly inauthentic or obvious or clumsy in an effort to be something, so as to posit a deeper authenticity that has been violated but nonetheless really exists.

This makes “ephemerality” a potentially effective medium for ideology, or for propaganda. Things marked as ephemeral insist on their harmlessness, which makes them deviously potent. (“Did you fall for a shooting star?”)

3. Ephemerality is not virality. On the surface, the cycle of virality — a sudden flare of massive attention followed by a loss of interest — can seem to mirror the fashion cycle, the hype cycle, the promise of eventual disappearance, of assured ephemerality. But virality sometimes is a matter of oversaturation and overfamiliarity to the point the thing is not noticed anymore — it’s not ephemeral; it just becomes taken for granted. And the viral thing insists on the importance of its spread; it consists in infection by contact. Its affect is an itchiness to tell more people.

Ephemerality signals something different; it doesn’t rely on circulation for its being. The viral and the ephemeral both are matters of form rather than specific content: the content of a viral video is always its virality rather than what it specifically depicts; the content of something ephemeral is first and foremost its immanent disappearance. But the ephemeral doesn’t depend on having its trace through time tracked and measured; it’s virality without metrics.

A sign of ephemerality can spread virally with the benefit of not seeming to want to. In this way, ephemerality augments virality, intensifying the sense that a thing must be shared while it still can be.

4. Paradoxical ephemerality. Once the ephemeral is a matter of signs, distinctive legible marks rather than actual decay or disappearance over an actual period of time, the notion of ephemerality becomes subject to an array of paradoxes.

Ephemeral signs need to signify and negate their status as signs simultaneously; a sign of ephemerality has to itself be ephemeral to be credible, yet it must be durable enough to remain legible. Deploying ephemerality as a sign is a way of signaling a lack of investment in one’s signaling choices; it attempts to convey you’re more important than any such superficial indicators, that something essential but unsignified about the self is pointed to (or even defined) by the foregrounded ephemera. But the very use of signs of ephemerality suggests an investment in the procedures of signaling the self, even as the signal is “I’m not so deeply invested in what I am signaling right now.”

When ephemerality becomes a proxy for authenticity, it also becomes reified and fakeable; it becomes something that people try to signal in its absence. (This is the central paradox of self-conscious authenticity. Once authenticity becomes signifiable, it becomes inherently inauthentic, as long as authenticity is defined as something intrinsically bound up in the thing being deemed authentic. You can get lonely looking for yourself out there.)

We signal authenticity by signaling our disavowal of any attempts to signal it. Ephemerality as authenticity adds another degree of paradox to this; suggesting that our efforts to signal this nonsignaling will soon disappear — but that suggestion is only at the level of the sign, conveyed by a sign of ephemerality. Whether or not it ever disappears no longer matters, as long as the idea the sign of ephemerality is supposed to convey is conveyed.

This interlocking set of contradictions leads to such possibilities as indulging in fashion in order to signal one’s indifference to it, or wearing obviously outdated or soon-to-be-unfashionable clothes to signify one’s own timelessness. Ephemerality then serves as way to signal that you are not really signaling anything. It is a reworking of the fantasy that you can “be in a band with no image” or “be normcore” or “be above trends” or “just be natural.” When I foregrounding the ephemerality of what I do, I am trying to convey the idea that my identity is sacrosanct, untouchable by what is ephemeral, i.e. everything. I am essence; existence is just ephemera.

The sign of ephemerality becomes the opposite of its practice. So these signs will become ineffective, fall out of fashion, prove their ephemerality after all.

Fun Will Find a Way

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In 1969, in the midst of unprecedented civic unrest in the United States fueled by an imperialistic war abroad and rampant institutionally supported racism at home, the Stooges — a band from Detroit that experienced the riots of 1967 at close proximity — released the song “No Fun.” Maybe it wasn’t meant as a manifesto, but it is hard to imagine a more stark rejection of the “fun morality” of consumer capitalism that was reaching ascendency in the advertising imagery of the era. In this period, lifestyle and luxury magazines championed and illustrated a hedonistic lifestyle that was meant to be both the respite and reward for eschewing political engagement. Corporations were in the process of appropriating youth trends and choreographing them to the program of enforced leisure spending and addiction to ephemeral novelty, labeling shifting fashion winds and permissive personal mores as the real “revolution” that emerging spenders should engage with. Forget civil rights, forget Vietnam, forget feminism: check out this new hi-fi! Smoke this cigarette!

“No Fun” says no to that mentality, endorsing through negation a spirit of genuine resistance. The singer of “No Fun” opts to remain “freaked out for another day,” rather than be coerced by the pseudo-pleasures of consumerist conformity, accepting that this condemns him to ostracism and exclusion. Because he recognizes that the “fun” on offer is anything but, he himself will be stamped as unfun, as an apparent narcissist who prefers aloneness and is in “love with nobody else” but himself. But he is willing to wager that the true narcissist is not the refusnik but the one who goes along to get along, who colludes with capital’s demand to find enjoyment in disposability, of products as well as people.

As Jean Baudrilard would concurrently note in his study The Consumer Society, “Modern man spends less and less of his life in production within work and more and more of it in the production and continual innovation of his own needs and well-being. He must constantly see to it that all his potentialities, all his consumer capacities are mobilized. If he forgets to do so, he will be gently and insistently reminded that he has no right not to be happy.” The singer of “No Fun,” singing from a rust belt city that saw the birth of assembly-line production and its incipient decay, says no to such mobilization, and chooses three-chord, fuzzed-out monolithic boredom over the smooth seductive sounds of the fun ideology.

Moving forward a few years, past the end of the 1960s optimism about social change and deep into the economically troubled “Me Decade,” we can get a good sense of what the inverse of “No Fun” sounds like, listening for the apotheosis of the fun ideology in action in popular music of the 1970s. Over that decade, the singer-songwriter introspection that had marked the disillusionment of the Baby Boomer generation as it aged and settled into compromised complacency had begun to curdle into chart-dominating “soft rock.” These generally faceless acts from a pre-music-video era turned out slick singles about the ups and downs of the leisured life, which was represented by the culture industry as a matter of transgressing normative boundaries. Daniel Bell, complaining about the breakdown of traditional associations of class and behavior in a 1972 article, provides a representative list of the sorts of activities the public believed constituted the avant-garde of leisure in a post-scarcity society: It was a matter of “who will use drugs, engage in orgies and wife-swapping, become an open homosexual, use obscenity as a political style, enjoy ‘happenings’ and underground movies.” In a later revision of his ideas about the “cultural contradictions of capitalism,” Bell declared that the affluent society that consumer capitalism had bequeathed us also generated a “fun morality” of personal gratification that triumphed over a “goodness morality” of abnegation; this fun morality, he writes, “centers, in most instances, on sex.”

Given that popular view — that sexual liberation was a sign of material success and cultural cool — popular music sought to provide vicarious access to the swinging life. Hence the emergence of the hot tub genre of pop, sometimes alternately dubbed California Rock or mistakenly conflated with yacht rock (which I have analyzed previously here). Hot tub music typically consists of mellow, often bearded white guys singing about sexual adventurism or its heartbroken aftermath over gently orchestrated, sonically pristine backdrops. Examples include “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” by Mac Davis, “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch, “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band, “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan, and so on.  But I would like to focus on one particular exemplar of this genre: Pablo Cruise.

Formed in 1973 from members of two second-string San Francisco acts — It’s A Beautiful Day (a sort of watered-down Jefferson Airplane) and Stoneground (an Electric Flag knockoff), the band chose its name by invoking a derogatory stereotype of the “laid-back Mexican” and fusing it to a slang term for seeking casual sex partners; according to the band’s now defunct website, ”Pablo represents an honest, real, down to earth individual; and Cruise depicts his fun loving and easy going attitude towards life.” The band would take a few years to smooth out their musical approach, breaking through in 1977 with A Place in the Sun. By this time, they had settled on a gone-troppo sunset-and-palm-trees logo and refined its late-Doobies-meets-Buffett sound, crafting paeans to the ideal epitomized by the all-inclusive Caribbean vacation at a singles resort: Life is just tan and available babes on the beach, and a never-ending coconut-based cocktail obsequiously served by an economic unfortunate from the Global South. Sounds like “fun.”

This is explicit in the song “A Place in the Sun,” whose lyrics endorse the idea that “everybody’s heart needs a holiday” and that “everyday invites you to find your place in the sun.” That place in the sun is styled as a refuge from the arduousness and frequent disappointment of committed relationships: “Love always promises to last forever, but sometimes it just don’t work out,” the song explains, hence one needs a place where love is supplanted by indulgence (provided you can afford it). This is the essence of “fun,” as it was constructed in the period: a purchased escape from a sense of responsibility to others, with the pleasure emblemized by sexual libertinism serving as justification for any perceived moral lapses. Since other people will no doubt disappoint you with their faithlessness, you may as well please yourself pre-emptively. Moreover, the selfishness of the act will be the index by which you can measure the pleasure it is providing.

In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch was noting how “the cult of intimacy conceals a growing despair of finding it,” with marital relations becoming difficult to create, let alone sustain, given the self-centeredness of those who might venture into such bonds. “Personal relations have become increasingly risky,” he noted, “most obviously because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence. Men and women make extravagant demands on each other and experience irrational rage and hatred when their demands are not met.” Pablo Cruise had seized upon that “irrational rage” alleged to be in the zeitgeist and turned it into its affective opposite, slick grooves that sought to equate stepping out with chilling out.

Pablo Cruise’s first big hit, ”Watcha Gonna Do,” a veritable clone of Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown,” refines this theme, fully capturing both Lasch’s sense of relationship “riskiness” and Daniel Bell’s grasp of the “fun morality.” Ostensibly a warning offered to a man in a relationship on the rocks to be thankful and appreciative of his partner (“all your friends they’re calling you a fool / ’Cause you don’t know a good thing when you got it in your hands”), it plays more like a teasing question, an invitation to consider all the things he would do once his partner was no longer in his way. ”What you gonna do when she says goodbye? What you gonna do when she’s gone?” Well, you can indulge all the guilt-free promiscuity you want. The song instantiates the cultural contradiction that Bell had pointed to, referencing the “goodness morality” while strongly implying its futility, its outdatedness. The incantation of the title phrase, “Watcha gonna do?” makes it plain that the song takes it as given that she will inevitably go, no matter what. So why not indulge?

A similarly cynical blend of sentiments is on display in “Never Had a Love Like This,” which details the ephemerality and uselessness of relationships (“There’s been a hundred if there’s been one, and they have all been nice for a while”) only to claim that the current relationship the singer is in is an exception. Again the message for the listener in this self-negating stew is that love is fickle and uncertain, but self-satisfaction is solid rock beneath your feet, an island in the sun.

Worlds Away, Pablo Cruise’s 1978 follow-up to A Place in the Sun, reiterates these same escapist themes, as the title might lead you to expect. The album’s hit, “Love Will Find a Way” (not to be confused with the later Yes single from 1987), picks up where the earlier singles left off, once again offering a parable of love’s inevitable disappointment in the guise of a celebration of its resilience. The first verse recaps the familiar scenario, the threat that Lasch saw looming over all the era’s rampant narcissists:

Someone, someone’s done you wrong
You thought that
Your love was strong
Now you’re feeling like
Such such a fool, poor you

And the chorus provides the customary reversal, asserting that “once you get past the pain, you’ll learn to find love again,” thus one should “keep your heart open because love will find a way.” Once again, what it means to have an “open” heart is double-sided, inviting the imagination of any number of couplings as love finds its various ways to transpire. Love finds the way, the recipient just maintains a posture of receptive openness to whatever occurs. This basic passivity is crucial to the escapism promised by Pablo Cruise and its hot-tub-rock cohort. What is fun is in part the flight from responsibility, but also, and more important, the assuredness that pleasure will find you without your having to make any effort. Translated into the reality of capitalist life, that means emotional effort can be supplanted by the ease of purchase making. Novel goods that satiate novel desires will find a way, and you can escape the depressing way in which love dims by allowing those new desires into your open heart.

Fun, as Baudrillard argued, is always code for a consumer society’s requirement of what he called “universal curiosity,” a hunger “driven by a vague sense of unease” — what today tends to be called “FOMO” or the “fear of missing out.” Fun allows those subject to its tyranny to believe that what is obligatory — fulfilling capitalism’s need for ever increasing consumer demand — is actually an expression of their existential freedom, their liberation: Marcuse’s repressive tolerance under a sunnier mantle, complete with palm trees and an ocean breeze.

But the reign of fun, in its Pablo Cruisian guise, was to be short-lived. New trends in pop music, triggered by the punk rejection of hot-tub-rock’s flaccid smoothness, would put an end to the genre’s commercial viability, and the spirit of repressive tolerance would take on new disguises. Not coincidentally, the last song that the Sex Pistols, the widely heralded harbinger of the emerging punk spirit, would perform onstage in 1978 was the Stooges’ “No Fun.”

 

Feedbags

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You don’t control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better.

Facebook is updating the way it implements its News Feed algorithm, which controls what users see when they open up Facebook and just begin scrolling. In apparent response to criticism that the algorithm is an opaque black box that displays content to users that suits Facebook more than the users’ interests, Facebook will now allow users to supply information to directly tweak the algorithm on their end, instead of having to try to blindly guide the algorithm through behavior (from within and outside Facebook) that Facebook may or may not capture and process. Rather than like a bunch of posts by a person in hopes of seeing that person’s posts more regularly, you can now tell Facebook whose posts you always want to see, as if you were following them on Twitter and had them on a list. You can also bounce people from your feed without unfriending them, a move akin to “muting” in TweetDeck.

In the company’s announcement of these changes, Facebook product manager Jacob Frantz explains the company’s motivation: “We know that ultimately you’re the only one who truly knows what is most meaningful to you and that is why we want to give you more ways to control what you see.” I love the use of the word “ultimately” in that statement. We’ll try to implement a bunch of technological mediations to shape what meaning even means to you, but ultimately we accept that that final decision rests with you. It took us a while to get there, but we ultimately recognize, with some reluctance, that we unfortunately can’t tell you what to think.

But I think that Frantz wants to make Facebook ultimately sound considerate. The company is letting users have more agency. It is deferring to them. The changes seem like a reasonable response to criticism of the algorithm’s opacity: Look, here are some more levers to adjust that algorithm.

But this is not really a new development; there were already innumerable levers at our disposal to alter Facebook’s algorithm and its interpretation of us. Like this post, view that profile, visit this third-party site while logged into Facebook, etc. We didn’t know what the exact effects of these would be, and we still don’t know what the exact effects of the new “controls” will have on our News Feeds. You don’t control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better.

Facebook has always deferred to users because that deference allows it to gain more information that can be presumed more accurate than what it can merely infer. And it has never wanted to tell us what to find meaningful; it wants only to inscribe Facebook as the best place in which to discover our sense of meaning. The control Facebook’s algorithms impose is not what to think but where to think it.

At best, these new options allow users to enjoy more of a feeling a responsibility for what the News Feed serves them, but the apparatus still functions in the same way. Users generate data for Facebook’s algorithm, which the company uses to categorize them.  This categorization then not only determines what Facebook users see but it also constitutes a profile that allows the user’s attention to be sold to advertisers and other third parties.

The only difference is that you are feeding data directly into an algorithm whose inner workings remain obscure. The algorithm still serves as an intermediary alibi that permits Facebook to present whatever information it wants to present to users under the auspices that somehow the user has obliquely insisted on it. The News Feed takes control away from users while conveying a sense of the users’ ultimate responsibility: The users get to see themselves as discriminating (in the positive sense of the term, though the pejorative sense is also at play) while making none of the effort.

Behind this is a presumption about what Facebook users want: an automatic stream of content that keeps them looking at and engaging within Facebook rather than doing something else that takes them outside of Facebook. Much like cable television narrows our exercise of choice amid the field of possible information to flipping channels, Facebook narrows it to the single action of “scrolling down” through the programming it has seen fit to algorithmically supply.

The underlying assumption is that people don’t want to have to choose among different ways of choosing to be informed — that is, of different ways to seek, evaluate, and assimilate information. They don’t want to have to be; they just want to scroll. Scrolling is perfect in that it satisfies a users’ need for action and their need for boredom, as a spur for further action. It sustains desire in an ideological cultural climate that tells us over and over again that “desiring” (particularly in the form of the money or attention we have to spend) is what makes us desirable, interesting; that our desire is what makes us powerful, not the choices we ultimately end up making on account of it.

So the problem is not that Facebook users have insufficient control over the algorithm that displays content; it’s that users are willing to use Facebook as their primary gateway to the world, a kind of television with the minor improvement that the local news always includes reports on people you know. This leads to seeing the world only as so much content that Facebook can sort and prioritize and reify and sell. Facebook becomes (much like television had been before it) the medium that confers reality on experience. Until the News Feed algorithm has processed something, revealing its overall significance in our social graph, it really doesn’t properly exist. The moment the algorithm assimilates it is the moment when something actually happens.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg said that he’d “bet there is” “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about.” Of course, this is precisely what Facebook’s News Feed algorithm aspires to articulate. And naturally Facebook will represent this “law” as a discovery, a rendering of a pre-existing truth, a fact of nature. But that will only conceal the real accomplishment: having imposed a model that reshapes what is perceived as real about social relations in its image, in terms of what it can manage. The “fundamental law” depends on everyone using Facebook, and thus all that law will be able to express is how people persist in using it. For Facebook, the ultimate meaning of your life is that you want to use Facebook while you’re living it. Let your profile be your epitaph.

Media and Consumer Desire

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 5Historian Neil Harris’s 1978 essay “The Drama of Consumer Desire” (included in this collection) is an attempt to historicize the transformation of consumption into consumerism, tracking how the connections between consumer products and personal identity began to be forged by the beginning of the 20th century. He is mainly concerned with the “works of fiction which placed the buying process within the social experience”: how characters in novels modeled for readers what it meant to be a consumer, and how to derive pleasure from consumption beyond the use value of any particular good.

Novels were part of the larger ideological matrix encompassing all media that performed this function, operating in the face of what was initially a conservative critique that recognized how “mass society” threatened traditional class hierarchies and religious-based notions of what was proper behavior, particularly for those in dominated social positions. (Incidentally, this conservative critique currently lives on in the artisanal fetish, the idea that restricted choice in the market and compulsory manufacture for personal use constitute due penance to be paid for longings for sensual satisfaction and yield experiences that are held to somehow be “more real.” For such critics “reality” is pegged to the traditional limitations placed on experience by one’s social station; the “maker ethos” often disguises a set of sumptuary laws.)

Harris quotes Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to show the elaboration of the emerging “consumer sensibility.”

There is nothing in this world more delightful than that middle state in which we mentally balance at times, possessed of the means, lured by desire, and yet deterred by conscience or want of decision.

This posits the pleasures of consumerism in shopping, not ownership or use. Ownership and use only demystify the goods in question, whereas shopping activates them, brings them to life in the imagination. Moralists have long condemned this enjoyment of the cultural attributes of goods rather than their functionality, but it is a recognition that consumption is social rather than purely private, that shopping, when it expresses identity, plugs people into more fluid, fashion-driven means for having a social presence. It allows consumers to trade traditional circumscriptions on identity for new-fangled ones bound up with the incentives of retailers.

According to Harris’s analysis, this imaginative pleasure in shopping emerges directly from capitalist competition, which prompts retailers to devise new ways to create rather than satisfy demand. As retailers tried to compete on the level of the brand, appeals were made to consumers on the level of how they feel about buying something, urging them to experience shopping itself as more pleasurable, more convenient, more fulfilling, more distinctive.

Driven by keener competition, shop owners now realized how crucial was eye appeal to retailing success … In place of merely showing goods, stores were displaying tableaus and pictures suggesting locale, mood, or historic incident. Captivated by such pictures, customers stopped, to purchase their ideals of fantasy as well as the specific commodity.

This move detaches “consumer demand” from any kind of organic basis and makes it wholly malleable, manipulatable. This not only prompts retailers to try to manufacture desire; it also liberates consumers from the belief that their traditional place in society has totally conditioned their desire and set certain “natural” limits on it. Instead anyone can and should want whatever can be made to seem desirable. The nature of desire changes, from a desire to epitomize one’s station to a desire for novelty and self-elaboration, in terms of the traits that can be read out of goods.

Such self-elaboration means constant testing of one’s self-image against society’s reactions, since the traditional criteria have been discarded. Hence, part of consumption becomes display of that consumption, as its purpose is not to sate some eternal, intrinsic material need but to express something new about the person you want to be. Consumption as consumerism produces an image of the self, stages a performance and an audience evaluation.

In other words, media becomes central to consumption: One is only consuming in consumer society if it is conspicuous. There is no such thing as inconspicuous consumption.

Harris notes the importance of cinema’s advent to “enhancing the social role of consumer goods,” not merely by glamorizing them but simply by demonstrating how they could be deployed to signify qualities about characters and situations.

The image on the movie screen inevitably focused attention on the objects which formed part of its decor. The lingering closeups, the use of music to emphasize mood, the employment of objects and sets as significant aspects of plot and character development, all emphasized the sensuous properties of what might have been seen, more casually, as mundane artifacts, hardly deserving of sustained attention.

As a result, movies (like novels had before them, but with more immediacy) habituated viewers to “examining the surfaces, shapes, and dimensions of objects with new interest.” Movies made people “read” consumer goods, which taught them how to write with them as well.

Through such representations, mediated consumption becomes the standard form of consumerism, and the desire for objects becomes melded with the desire for attention. Thus, consumption generally stimulates a demand for more and more media with which to broadcast it. This has culminated for now in the proliferation of social media, which function as means to broadcast consumerist desire, whether or not the consumption takes place in material terms. As Harris’s analysis suggests, all media serve to make consumption productive; social media extend that productivity to the furthest point yet.

What emerges from this process of mediating consumption is the association of goods with a variety of inferable attributes, affective states, spiritual overtones, and the like. Mediating consumption makes it have signifying capabilities; once that is established it only remains for audiences to negotiate the specific meanings in various contexts. Mediation establishes what Baudrillard called “the code” and mediating the self, linking it to goods as signs, assimilates our identity to the code, making it another sign among signs. As Harris puts it, goods move from “expressions of status to guarantors of identity” as the act of consumption becomes more intensively mediated.

As the mediation of consumption has intensified, it has become increasingly immaterial. Once, consumerism as a system hinged on the idea that you had to buy the physical goods to try to stabilize those goods’ particular meanings for yourself. (Jean-Christophe Agnew’s essay about the “acquisitive gaze” makes that case; I discussed that here.) But social media allow for such stabs at stabilization through appropriation rather than purchasing. You can mediate your shopping without consuming anything more than images, available for free. As the pleasures of shopping are mainly found in access to the social, indications that you belong to the network can replace the implied social pleasures that ownership of goods once provided. We want to consume the signs of our social relevance, our belonging, more than we want to consume or own stuff. Images of stuff can be valorized by circulating them; they need no original use cases as real stuff to establish their potential value. (This may mean that what Pop Art anticipated has come to pass, that all consumable stuff becomes art when mediated and subjectified, at least if you take art to mean something that is desirably useless.)

For the novelists Harris examines, the transformation of shopping into performance was lamentable, an indication that “consuming is one of the few art forms left to individuals; their expression of purpose and self must be in terms of what they can buy, for there is no other standard of value.” But that view seems less pernicious, less tragic, when you change “what they can buy” to “what they can appropriate.” Mediated consumption makes explicit the latent creativity in trying to wrestle pleasure out of the things of this world and out of the potential connections we might form with others through those things. That we must mediate our relations with others though these networks, these performances, these things, is perhaps a different problem, not to be blamed on the supposedly intrinsic inadequacies of the art of appropriation itself.