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...

Games of Truth

Foucault's late lectures shed light on how social media serves as a realm for staging wars of authenticity
Foucault's last two lecture series at the Collège de France, in 1982-83 and 1983-84 — published in English as The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of the Truth — offer a series of interpretations of ancient Greek texts to examine the relation of the "self" to public truth-telling. What did it mean to "know thyself," as the Delphic oracle advised? What procedures guaranteed the truth of such knowledge? And why would telling the truth about the self be a precondition for having a self in the first place? Here's how Foucault describes what he hoped to do in these lectures (poignantly, slipping into the subjective; he knew he wouldn't get the project finished): What I would like to recover is how truth-telling, in this ethical modality which appeared with Socrates right at the start of Western philosophy,… Read More...

The taste of circulation

A series of tweets about self-consciousness about sharing
Back in my blogging heyday, probably circa 2008 or so, I used to run through my RSS until I read something that prompted me to start thinking my way toward some sort of proposition. Then I would start working on a post. First I would write a brief summary of what caught my interest in the article, apropos of nothing (one of the earliest comments I can remember receiving on my blog was along the lines of  "Nice blog. But why don't you try starting a post with some other setup besides 'In BLAH, so-and-so wrote BLAH.' "). And then I would start to try to articulate my response, in paragraphs that I would reorder and revise throughout the day, sometimes augmenting them with links to relevant articles I would happen on as the day progressed. It was easy to… Read More...

Hollow Inside

Social media negate the idea of interiority, the sanctity of opaque motives
As part of my ongoing interest in contemporary pop-sociological takes on the 1960s, I read historian Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). Its patronizing tone ("it is the young who have in their own amateurish, even grotesque way, gotten dissent off the adult drawing">and platitudes about youth's fundamental yearning for spiritual authenticity and not political change makes for tedious and pedantic reading, but it usefully illustrates how the social threats critics saw in technology have shifted. Like many critics of the period, Roszak was chiefly worried about the "technocracy," the emergence of a totally administered society run by hyperrational engineers and bureaucrats, yielding a de facto planned economy that allows no one any genuine autonomy, impetus, or spontaneity. Roszak derives this from Marcuse, but John Kenneth Galbraith's The New Industrial State seems more like what he has in mind: megacorporations working in tandem with… Read More...

Reparative compulsions

How the intermittent rewards of social media blissfully annihilate the self
When it comes to newfangled technology, Alan Jacobs argues that intermittent reinforcement is "the real enemy." Rather than blame gadgets alone for diminishing our attention spans or for making us dumber or lonelier, we should, Jacobs writes, "think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked." That's what I hope to do a bit in this post. Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky — that is, addictive, as Alexis Madrigal details in this post about the "machine zone." He draws on anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll's research in her book about machine gambling, Addiction by Design, to make comparisons between the lost time on gambling machines and the time lost to Facebook and other social-media sites. Like video slots, which incite extended periods of "time-on-machine" to assure "continuous gaming productivity"… Read More...

Experiments in inertia

When the importance of content is trumped by circulation, the interesting collapses into its opposite
In Our Aesthetic Categories, Sianne Ngai argues that cuteness, interestingness, and zaniness are the characteristic aesthetics of our "late capitalist" age. While it seems somewhat arbitrary to limit the possibilites to three, I can easily see how these can be used to taxonomize most people's online presence: There aren't many that can't ultimately be reduced to attempts to be cute, interesting, or zany. Ngai links the promience of these categories to neoliberalism and our ambivalent response to its demands for flexible subjects, immaterial labor, real subsumption, and progressive commodification of experience. They might also be regarded as a consequence of "networked subjectivity" and the idea that we must circulate signifiers of the self to give that self concrete reality. Once, we could convince ourselves we have a self by paying attention to our own interiority — by listening to the… Read More...

Social media and sensibility

Vicarious consumption of feeling as a democratic badge of distinction, a core competency for modern life
The parts of old novels that we find most boring are also the ones that will tell us the most about the ideological needs of past readers. We find these sections boring because they cater to desires or address ideological confusion we no longer experience, or they spell out ideological propositions we have since come to take for granted. Boring passages represent the world in a way we no longer find necessary or thrilling, but in them we can uncover how to reopen the problems that ideology has come to perhaps too tidily solve. Guided by boredom, we can rediscover precisely what ideology guides us to regard as unworthy of careful attention. (No, don't pay attention to the everyday mechanics of male supremacy; its boring!) I was inspired to start re-reading Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction because I remembered it made a claim about… Read More...

“Organic stories”

By filtering what you see, Facebook's News Feed algorithm serves Facebook, not you
Facebook recently changed its News Feed algorithm, which determines which content users see of all the stuff shared by the other users they have elected to follow. Traditionally, Facebook has veiled its algorithm in secrecy, even going so far as to disavow "EdgeRank," an earlier name for this algorithm. But this time (as ReadWrite notes) Facebook has decided to accompany the round of algorithm tweaks with a propaganda post about the company's benevolent intentions. It's as nauseating as you'd expect, full of cheerful insistence about how hard the company is working to try to give users what they want, which is its doublespeak for making users think they want what Facebook wants for them. The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important… Read More...

En passant

Some notes on Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess
  To my shame, I prefer playing chess against a computer than a human opponent. It's less risky. There is no shame in defeat. Cheating is not unethical. Attention to it can be sporadic. You can simply suspend a game or start over if you think you are going to lose. Even when I am beaten soundly by a computer opponent, I don't feel outwitted; instead I take away a feeling that my thinking has not become sufficiently machine-like to compete, which is more reassuring than anything else. I get the gratifying feeling that being lousy at chess is a mark of my indelible humanity. This despite the fact that I am playing computer chess because I can't bear the pressure of human interaction. Some of the same sorts of ideas about emotional vs. artificial intelligence are at play in… Read More...

Contained selves

Social media as democratized dandyism and self-experimentation
The body is an unreliable container for the self. It dies. It allows subjectivity to dissolve in pleasure and pain and other assorted affects. It refuses to conform to the plasticity of thought; it refuses to be controllably expressive. It expresses identities we'd like to reject. It confronts one's sense of the unlimited transcendence of being with some very hard limits. Social media attempt to address this problem of the body. They promise identity that's not contingent on bodies — an identity as a cumulative archive, as an alienated, externalizable ecosphere that can be directly shared with others. We can watch ourselves grow deeper as the information that makes it up gets processsed, in the way its data points intersect with others and lend itself to further processing, further recombinations that expand it algorithmically beyond all bounds of our intent.… Read More...

Get real

What in Jennifer Egan's novel Look at Me read as narcissism in 2001 now seems like routine self-care
When it's not guided by the list of Trollope novels I haven't yet read, my fiction reading is directed by chance, thrift-store serendipity. At the Salvation Army in Binghamton, New York, the other day, I got a copy of Jennifer Egan's 2001 novel Look at Me because I had read A Visit From the Goon Squad and remembered really liking the PowerPoint part of it. I wasn't planning on reading it any time soon, but when I stopped to get something to eat on the way home, it was the only book handy, so I started it. Now I'm sort of engrossed in it. The book's action is mostly set in the late 1990s, which makes it dated without being of particular nostalgic or historical interest; it's more describing a time very similar to our own but getting it wrong,… Read More...

Narrow bridges

About a bridge in Bucks County
A narrow stone bridge has been in my mind for a while now, a humpbacked one-lane bridge with deep grooves carved in the cement from cars bottoming out. If you hit the hump too hard, the car would jump and float; you could feel it in your stomach when the wheels left the ground. It was exhilarating. One bump and you could lose control completely. The traffic had to alternate to cross. At first, there were no signs to instruct people in how to handle this. Natural courtesy dictates a slow approach. Eventually, this broke down. There was an accident. A sign, NARROW BRIDGE, was posted. This had the effect of making drivers approaching the bridge more aggressive about asserting their right of way. Eventually, it became obligatory to stop completely to protect yourself before crossing. The first time I… Read More...

The Primitive Accumulation of Cool

Obligatory identity work is easily mistaken for self-indulgent pleasure
The Birth of Cool The rise of consumerism coincided with a promise about liberation. We could transcend the horizons of the self — traditional roles, limited class mobility, geographic isolation — thanks to free choice in the ever-diversifying marketplace, which would allow us to express our uniqueness through the material culture we assembled for ourselves. Without consumer goods, our true self would rest dormant within us, untouched by the desire that could vivify it. Rather than resting content to remain how we were born — conditions we didn't choose and which can only seem more arbitrary to us as we gather life experience — we can yearn for novel things, surprising things, aspirational things, cool things, and the sort of social relations that revolve around those things. Consumer desire would be the medium of the true self, the self we… Read More...

Facebook Piece

Purpose: To enact algorithmically-driven engagement on Facebook to foster a paradoxically participatory subjectivity.
Purpose: To enact algorithmically-driven engagement on Facebook to foster a paradoxically participatory subjectivity. Test the proposition that social media are conceptual art for the masses; that perhaps they use the aspirations of conceptual art to interpellate user populations as "masses," as compliantly productive audiences. 1. Reactivate dormant account Robert Horning and reset privacy settings to their defaults 2. Remain logged in to Facebook on personal computer and smartphone. Turn on the chat functionality 3. Every day, perform the following 20 actions on Facebook or through Facebook's Open Graph API Submit five friend requests to profiles suggested by Facebook's "People You May Know" algorithm Post one photograph of myself Post one photograph I've taken of anything but myself Share one photograph found elsewhere on the Internet Post one update about something I listened to that day Post one update about something I read or… Read More...

Safe in Our Archives

If the self is an archive, the metadata matters
The idea of the subject as an archive, or subjectivity as documentation (rather than something that is documented after the fact), seems to be cropping up a lot recently. I've been pushing the idea of an archive-based "data self" for a while now, so I'm excited to see this. Though there can be all sorts of theories about it, it seems to me that ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out. There will no sense of self that doesn't take into account how the self has been or will be recorded, how that self will turn up as an artifact of online searches. In other words, we are all life-loggers, whether we want to be or not. Yuk Hui's "Archivist Manifesto" starts from the premise that "we are archivists, since we have to be. We don't… Read More...

Affective privacy and surveillance

When experience has become data, privacy can only ever be a feeling
William Bogard's The Simulation of Surveillance (1996) has the misfortune of being a book about ubiquitous surveillance written a decade before the emergence of social media. So it anticipates some recent developments, like the "internet of things," Big Data, voluntary self-surveillance, and predictive analytics — and how these are more subtle and intrusive forms of social control than a Foucauldian panopticism in which the fear of being watched disciplines individuated bodies — but is mired in the obfuscating terminology of late Baudrillard (everything is always already hyper- this and ecstasies of that) that multiplies paradoxes everywhere. This results in Bogard making claims that seem sort of wrong yet still have a garbled accuracy. For example: Screens don't "watch" people or "invade" their privacy; increasingly, they are their privacy. The mildly pleasurable stupor induced by interacting with screens is the most pure… Read More...