Viral Oppression

Oppressive regimes don't impose a reality; they fracture it
It used to be difficult to build an alternate consensus reality. It required massive investment in the means of media production and circulation, and even then you were constrained by the looming advantage that legacy purveyors of truth had — all those established institutions colluding in the manufacture of the status quo. It was a daunting project, and nation-states seemed to have the monopoly on it, working in conjunction with reputable or licensed media outlets to establish the parameters of what explanations and predictions could be considered plausible. These were the only entities that could reach enough people to build a consensus reality, and they also controlled the means by which those people reached one another at scale, to confirm that reality and its implications. Obviously that has been changing, and the tools for building efficacious alternatives to the once… Read More...

Speaking to No One

Broadcasting on social media is less about communication than making you the audience to yourself
  I've taken to reading old media criticism about television, the earlier and more hysterical the better. It helps me in gauging how much hysteria is in my assessment of social media. Any new medium seems to prompt similar fears, similar predictions of widespread dehumanization and authoritarian control, and who is to say they have been wrong? Much of what I mistake to be novel about social media is just an extension of aspects that critics had perceived about TV: the greater sense of intimacy and of participation that blurs and erodes traditional borders between work and leisure, public and private; the sense that "real" things are being rendered indistinguishable from their images or representations; the elitist fear that people are being widely stupified and rendered into witless automatons. No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet. In that spirit, I recently read German critic Günther… Read More...

“Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports”

The idea that we can spend attention is a form of control
In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu makes this claim about channel surfing: When you think of it, channel surfing, or grazing, is a bizarre way to spend your time and attention. It is hard to imagine someone saying to himself, “i think I’ll watch TV for three hours, divided into five-to-ten-minute segments of various shows, never really getting to the end of anything.” It hardly seems the kind of control Zenith could have had in mind when it first introduced the remote, to say nothing of the sovereign choice that cable’s more optimistic backers had dreamed of. However fragmented, attention was still being harvested to be sure, but the captivity was not a pleasant experience. It seems strange to me that Wu assumes that people automatically experience fragmentation as unpleasant. Dividing up one’s attention into smaller and smaller bits is a mode of… Read More...

Mass Authentic

The desire for authenticity is a desire to disappear
(This is the text from a talk I gave at the Impakt Festival in Utrecht in October; it synthesizes some earlier posts from this blog and elsewhere.)   The authentic dream Why can’t we get rid of the idea of authenticity? It seems as if it settles like a fog, blanketing everything with an amorphous sense of inadequacy. It can feel like it refers to everything and nothing. I want to start with this passage from the introduction of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s 2012 book Authentic™. I think it gets at some of why "the quest for authenticity" is so effective as an ideology, even while being a bit of a conceptual contradiction: “Even if we discard as false a simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic, we still must reckon with the power of authenticity—of the self, of experience, of… Read More...

Mass authentic

Authenticity is internal to consumer culture, not the remnants of what preceded it.
The tenacity of "authenticity" as an ideological talisman — as a motive force and a post hoc explanation for actions, as an all-purpose aspiration and excuse — stems from how it posits what it purports to merely describe. It seems to denote "genuineness," like it were simply a rhetorical equals sign, but in practice it does the opposite; it is always used to call the inherent fact of what is into question, to cast doubt over what people are doing and posit "truer" alternatives. But these alternatives are fictions, not revealed inner truths; they are speculations seeking substantiation at the expense of what is. Authenticity articulates something that never was as something supposed to be always already lost, in order to promise you are on the cusp of reclaiming it, as if naming it was the first step toward embodying it again, and doing away with your need for the word. Like… Read More...

Consistency through adulteration

Choosing brands helps us forget how we are addicted to fantasy
An article in a recent issue of the Economist details the tobacco industry’s troubles around the world with maintaining the value of its “intellectual property”: brand names, logos, package designs, and advertising aura. Governments have apparently recognized that tobacco companies have “the best pricing power of any industry,” as a consultant cited in the article somewhat euphemistically put it — that is, their customers are literally addicted to their product and will probably buy it if it came packaged in dog vomit. Given that the companies have that sort of leverage, states are acting to take away their brand power, mandating plain packaging and banning various forms of advertising. “The design of the box is where they must convey not only the name of the brand but abstract qualities, such as masculinity or the idea that a product is ‘premium,’ and worth an extra outlay,”… Read More...

Social media as masochism

Using social media can be a masochistic means of escaping the self
When I read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll's book on gambling, Addiction by Design, it started me thinking of how machine gambling works as an analogue for social media: Both facilitate an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises. (A lot more about that in this post.) Both also seem like masochistic practices that one adopts to escape or offload the burden of self. You do these things to forget about who you are and how you are responsible for how you are seen. That maybe makes more obvious sense about gambling machines, which narrow subjective experience to immediate and arbitrary reward seeking, but perhaps seems like a paradoxical thing to claim about social media, given that they ostensibly serve to build up, circulate, and store the self (or at least the carefully curated tokens of identity). It might… Read More...

The overload

Information overload is how social media becomes TV
This New York article by Casey Johnston about the death of the chronological feed colors within the lines of these sorts of pieces: It takes for granted that people suffer from information overload as if it is some sort of act of god, and that algorithmic curation is therefore an inevitable and necessary attempt to fix the problem. Users are treated as incapable of curating their own feeds, because they are either too lazy, too passive, or too indiscriminate — presumably users follow or friend people whose posts they have no interest in seeing out of politeness or an intent to curry favor with them, and then they end up inundated. As Johnston writes, “It’s difficult for users to adequately curate their own feeds. Most people just follow their friends.“ That claim concedes too much, I think, to social-media-company ideology about how platforms are… Read More...

Contortions of self-consciousness

Getting around to the impossible demand to act natural
In his book Sour Grapes, Jon Elster has a chapter about “willing what cannot be willed,” or what he also calls “states that are essentially by-products.” He offers the example of spontaneity: you cannot try to be spontaneous; you can only recognize that you had been acting spontaneously after the fact. “When we observe that some such state is in fact present,” Elster notes, “it is tempting to explain it as the result of action designed to bring it about — even though it is rather a sign that no such action was undertaken.” This Elster calls the “intellectual fallacy of by-products,” which presumably leads to a belief that we can reverse-engineer the pleasure we take in certain conditions that can’t otherwise be pursued directly. It suggests, too, that we mistake observation of an emotional state as the ability to also identify its… Read More...

Reacting to Reactions

Facebook Reactions saves users the trouble of having feelings
  For this talk, I am going to use Facebook’s recent design change to its like button — we used to “like” things on Facebook; now we are permitted one of six “reactions”— as a way of getting at some larger points about identity construction on social media as a form of labor, and the role the idea of “authenticity” plays in extracting that labor. From Likes to Reactions A week or so ago, Facebook rolled out a much-anticipated update to its interface that expands the ways users can respond to other content within Facebook. Before, you could comment on something, or if that was too much trouble, you could simply like it with a click. Or, of course, you could scroll past it with no response, a passive choice that Facebook nonetheless tracks. Now, however, users have an intermediate… Read More...

Surveillance notes

It's not monolithic
It is increasingly common for surveillance to be represented as a total threat — an all-encompassing condition that is more like a climate than an particular apparatus made of people, institutions, technologies. Much like the impeding doom evoked by climate change, this representation of surveillance can inspire a helpless anxiety, if not outright disavowal. The sheer scale of the threat makes it easier to ignore as something unstoppable. Surveillance suffuses everyday life to the point where it becomes too banal to confront. Despite the massive power ascribed to the surveillance apparatus, that threat it represents is often limited to a matter of personal privacy, which seems to frame a self-protective response as the first, best line of resistance — hide yourself to be safe. Obfuscate or withhold your data. Try to disappear. Those sorts of evasive countermeasures tend to reinscribe… Read More...

Ambient awareness

Other-directedness and self-absorption can be the same
When Twitter first started, its boosters tried to sell it as supplying “ambient awareness” and fostering “social peripheral vision.” It would round out your sense of what was happening in social reality and get you out of your own head. But of course, Twitter works that way only when a critical mass of users continually supplies information about what they are doing or thinking about. Twitter’s ideologists tried to reconfigure the process of constantly updating the world about yourself as a kind of selfless act — as autoaltruism. Posting about yourself was to become a method for thinking of others, of paying attention to them, helping them out, making them aware. The more you posted about yourself, the more you considerately added to the zeitgeist. Solipsism would actually be an expression of how connected you wished to be. Early Twitter… Read More...

My David Bowie

Never let me down
1. I remember playing this game with a neighbor boy when I was nine or ten. We would take gas from the can my family used to fill the lawnmower and pour it all over the yard and set it on fire. Then we would run around and try to stomp it out before it got out of control. I'm not sure why that memory returned to me when I heard that David Bowie was dead. Partly it was because of his song "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," but at the time I was starting fires out back that song hadn't yet been released. It's more that I remember this neighbor on some pyromanic afternoon telling me that the song "Changes" was about having a sex change, and that listening to it made you gay. I ended up giving that assertion a lot more thought than it… Read More...

Wizards of Like

The News Feed algorithm is made to serve ads, not please users
A year ago, when the emotional manipulation paper became a scandal, it became clear that many Facebook users hadn’t before considered how their News Feeds were manipulated; they were inclined to instinctively accept the feed as a natural flow. That seems to reflect consumers’ attitude toward television, where content simply flows from channels and we don’t generally stop to think about the decisions that led to that content being there and how it might have been different. We just immerse in it or change the channel; we don’t try to commander the broadcasting tower. Social media’s advent was supposed to do away with central broadcast towers, but it hasn’t really turned out that way. Instead mass media companies distribute their products through the platforms and consumers’ role is to boost the signal for them. The fact that consumers create content… Read More...

Notes on sexting scandals

Metrics are more shameful than nudity
1. A few weeks ago, the New York Times, among many other media outlets, reported the uncovering of a “sexting ring” in a rural Colorado high school involving more than a hundred students circulating nude photos on cell phones and secreting them away on “vault apps” that hide image troves behind a calculator interface. Administrators responded by forcing the school’s football team to forfeit a game and convening emergency community meetings to deal with the “scandal.” According to the Times article, students “described a competitive point system that classmates used to accrue photographs. Different point values were assigned to different students. Students who collected naked photographs gained points by adding these desirable children to their collections.” The student with the largest collection was described by a peer as “the pimp of pictures.” 2. It’s not yet clear whether the images… Read More...

Finer Things

The American Psycho of 1980s pop albums
I have long had a lot of respect for the music criticism of Patrick Bateman. In his three oft-praised (and deservedly so) essays in American Psycho on poptimism and the rise of 1980s adult-contemporary, he scrutinizes the inescapable radio sound of the time, examining albums and artists so iconic, so popular, that they could have seemed too ubiquitous to bother to assess, to omnipresent to secure any critical distance from. Analyzing monoliths like Genesis's Invisible Touch or Huey Lewis and the News's Sports could easily have seemed as beside the point as evaluating the sunshine, or water (which Bateman also takes on, in a tour de force, back-of-a-cab lecture on the differences between mineral, spring, distilled, and purified waters and brands). But Bateman finds a way in by resolutely remaining on the surface, generating an implicit, searching critique through what his intentionally… Read More...