Preemptive personalization

Technology aspires to do the work of having a self for us
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… Read More...

Liquid authenticity

The demand to be "real" comes from capital, not from within
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… Read More...

The Silence of the Masses Could Be Social Media

What Baudrillard's concept of the silent masses reveals about obligatory social-media use
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… Read More...

Free to Choose A or B

Facebook's mood-manipulation experiment confirms its commitment to harvesting profitable data from our choices, conscious or not
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… Read More...

“Sharing” Economy and Self-Exploitation

All capital, all the time
(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… Read More...

The “Sharing” Economy

A review of What's Mine Is Yours and other ideas about the sharing economy scam
I am going to be on a panel at the New Museum on Thursday, June 19 about the "sharing" economy, and why that name is highly misleading. Here's the flier for it:   Here are some points about the sharing economy that I listed this afternoon on Twitter: And below is a book review of "sharing" economy "bible" What's Mine Is Yours that I wrote in October 2010. Where money is not itself the community, it must dissolve the community. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse Like capitalism, consumerism has proven adept at assimilating critiques and adapting to them. In so doing, it cuts away the ground underneath the complainers who don’t appreciate its dynamism. When complaints arose that mass markets forced a stultifying conformity on consumers, the market responded with brand campaigns organized around an ethos of individualism, offering superficial options for customization… Read More...

Vinyl re-enchantment

I can't separate buying records from enjoying them
The Economist's website has an article about Record Store Day, a marketing stunt during which a bunch of vinyl-only releases and reissues are choreographed in hopes of driving music buyers to support some brick-and-mortar businesses. Every label wants to piggy-back on the hype of every other release, leading to an overwhelming hodge-podge of material record stores are supposed to carry to be full participants in the event. This creates problems for the stores that the event is supposed to help, saddling them with stock whose appeal to non-hardcore record collectors may already be questionable. I have never understood the point of Record Store Day, in part because I have not traditionally been sentimental about record stores. I tend to associate them with judgmental clerks and aggressive taste peacocking and stereos playing the most confrontational music the workers could get away… Read More...

“Surveillant anxiety” and exceptional conformity

Potential problems with a political strategy of desubjectivation
"What does the lived reality of Big Data feel like?" Kate Crawford asks in "The Anxieties of Big Data." Part of her answer is "surveillant anxiety,"  a double-sided concept meant to capture the mounting fears of both the watchers and the watched, and the way in which they fuel each other. The agencies conducting surveillance collect so much data that "the sheer volume can overwhelm the critical signals in a fog of possible correlations." The more they know, the more they fear they can't understand what it indicates. As a consequence they try to collect more data and refine the correlations their algorithms churn up, attenuate the information with theory and expertise from an increasing range of social science disciplines, and make big data smaller, more granular, even as the volume increases. But this only defines more unknown pieces, undertheorized relations between… Read More...

Me Meme

Virality and the end of self-expression
With social media, the compelling opportunities for self-expression outstrip the supply of things we have to confidently say about ourselves. The demand for self-expression overwhelms what we might dredge up from “inside.” So the “self” being expressed has to be posited elsewhere: We start to borrow from the network, from imagined future selves, from the media in which we can now constitute ourselves. This doesn’t guarantee “personal growth” however. The more we express ourselves for self-definition, the more we limit the self to what we have the means to circulate. The sort of self we can imagine ourselves to be becomes contingent on the available media. Social media offer a wealth of new resources (images, links, likes, screen grabs, image macros, serial selfies, emoji, etc.) to continue to bait us into “becoming ourselves.” These seem to let us express the… Read More...

Artistic autonomy and subsumption

The consolation prize for subsumed subjectivity is that we get to feel like artists.
I'm participating in a seminar at the ACLA conference in New York this weekend, called "Culture and Real Subsumption." Here are some hastily typed thoughts inspired thus far by it. I am always hazy on what constitutes real subsumption as opposed to formal subsumption (I tried to wrangle with it a little bit here; the terms stem from Marx's "Results of the Immediate Production Process"); as I understand it, formal subsumption is when pre- or noncapitalist production processes are modified to accommodate the divide between capital and labor, whereas real subsumption is when the production process depends on capital from the get-go and is inconceivable without it, without its scale, its sort of factory organization and division of labor and staging of expropriated cooperation between workers and so on. I've been interested in this terminology as a way to talk about… Read More...

Beyond Avant-Garde

If we are born artists, we have to learn to be spectators
It's not so strange to compare avant-garde artists to social media users. They both produce a lot of content that few people bother to look at. And some commentators might be inclined to regard early adopters of social-media apps as avant-garde consumers, seizing on new possibilities for gratification, evasion, and status distinction. (Be like André Breton and install Secret on your iPhone 5S!) In The Weak Universalism Boris Groys offers a  somewhat counterintuitive definition of "avant garde" — one that is the opposite of "making it new." Since novelty is the status quo of consumer culture, the avant-garde seeks to advance from that, Groys claims; they must challenge and change the disposition of perpetual change. This is a bit self-defeating. Groys argues that avant-garde artists, to evade this, aspire to make work that is "weak," in the sense of not being contingent,… Read More...

Robots on an Escalator

Ideas inspired by Elisa Gabbert's The Self Unstable
I bought poet Elisa Gabbert's most recent book The Self Unstable because I like her Twitter feed. I mention this not because I want to espouse the efficiency of social media as marketing, but because Twitter is one of the primary forces making my experience of the self, at least, unstable. It also shaped the way I read the book at first, as a series of Tweets only incidentally composed into half-page paragraphs. These lines are like tweets I would like to favorite: "If you find anything other than food or sex interesting, it's signaling." "To have enemies is a coming of age." "Regret is a kind of certainty." "In the moment, we value stability, but we prefer our painful memories." "Schadenfreude complicates utilitarianism." I am conditioned by Twitter to read this book in what is certainly the wrong way, assuming… Read More...

There Are No Accidents

If the structure of the Internet is conspiracy theory, shouldn't net art follow suit?
The Jogging is an art Tumblr that used to predominantly feature clean, punny images like this: But a few months ago, it began to be flooded with content along these lines: And this: At first I took these as an ironic homage to and appropriation of the naive and clumsy design aesthetic and shock tactics of conspiracy-theory propaganda. It seemed too easy a target, in a way, too obvious to conflate Geocities/MSPaint/chain-email-style bad design with offensively racist right-wing paranoia motifs and make fun of them both. It didn't feel deadpan enough; the irony wasn't unstable enough. There was no mistaking the mockery, so it just felt smug to laugh at them. It seemed too obvious what buttons were being pushed. But a chapter on conspiracy theory in media scholar Mark Andrejevic's recent book Infoglut changed my hermeneutic for these images.… Read More...

True Sailing Is Dead

When the still sea conspires an armor.
What’s the difference between artistic ambition and pure pretentiousness? When one listens to the Doors, this question can never be far from one’s mind. Yes, the group often does blow open the namesake doors of perception in many a young child’s fragile eggshell mind, but these same minds also tend to reach a point at which they are ashamed at having been so transfigured. Once they break on through to adulthood, they find themselves embarrassed to realize how little substance there is to the Doors’ parables of transgression. The garage-goth organ and the sinewy guitar figures remain alluring, perhaps, but the overriding silliness of Jim Morrison’s posturing, his portentous, overenunciated delivery and his egregious lyrical overreach, becomes impossible to ignore and all too easy to ridicule. But it’s also hard not to feel somewhat sorry for him. Undermined in his… Read More...

The Viral Self

Ultimately, the only viral content is the self
I keep telling myself I should stop pursuing virality through critiques of virality. But then I'll read something about how virality can be pursued and engineered as an end in itself — like this Wall Street Journal piece by Farhad Manjoo, or this from the Atlantic Wire about the site Viral Nova by Alex Litel — and I will be inspired to write a series of tweets about online circulation and its various measures displacing other forms of content with which to make up the self. And then I will track my Interactions page on the Twitter site to see how they did, and how I am doing. That is to say, talk of viral content almost always makes me think of how it teaches us what it takes to engineer the self to go viral. What viral content reflects is the… Read More...

Ego depleted

Social media drain the self by pressing on us an endless series of decisions about whether to interact
Consumerism is sustained by the ideology that freedom of choice is the only relevant freedom; it implies that society has mastered scarcity and that accumulating things is the primary universal human good, that which allows us to understand and relate to the motives of others. We are bound together by our collective materialism. Choosing among things, in a consumer society, is what allows us to feel autonomous (no one tells us how we must spend our money) and express, or even discover, our unique individuality — which is proposed as the purpose of life. If we can experience ourselves as original, our lives will not have been spent in vain. We will have brought something new to human history; we will have been meaningful. (This is opposed to older notions of being "true" to one's station or to God's plan.)… Read More...