A society that bestows sovereignty of choice on consumers faces two immediate problems. First, there is the business challenge of anticipating and influencing the exercise of that sovereignty. What do consumers want? Surveys and focus groups were among the tools developed in order to help mass producers tailor their products – and advertisements – to the desires of their target market. Opinion polling simply extended this method to the ‘sale’ of politicians and policies. The emergence of huge platforms, such as Facebook and Google, in the 21st century vastly expanded and fine-tuned this science of taste, but didn’t substantially alter its strategic objectives.
Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.
The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet […]
It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?
Offered (rather uncharacteristically) without comment.
Dang, how have I missed out on reading Aaron Z Lewis before now? Please excuse the following long stream of lengthy excerpts, but there’s too much good stuff here to pass by…
Each subculture has an implicit understanding of its “ideological conversion funnel”. This phrase, borrowed from digital marketing, refers to the stages that people go through on the way to becoming a True Believer, from first contact with a mysterious meme to full-on understanding of a grand narrative. The conversion process is known to the in-group, but largely illegible to outsiders. Unlike offline communities, these subcultures aren’t always neatly labeled, and people don’t consciously choose to join them. The “gravity” or “current” of social media algorithms pulls people into orbit around ideological sub-groups. Algorithms are the riverbed, and users are the water.
In the early days of the internet, the Web’s surface was relatively smooth and its “gravitational force” was weak. You could random walk without getting sucked into any black holes. During the 2010s, social media platforms “dug into the Web surface, dragging activities down their slopes … As a result of this magnetic-like attraction, caused by the web slope, Internet users slowly slide down the slope in a digital drift,” writes Louise Druhle. The virus has likely accelerated this process because it’s pushed so much cultural activity online.
I’ve recently been using the gravitational metaphor to discuss momentum in sociotechnical transitions. Lewis is looking here at something pretty far over to the social side of the scale—or so it seems at first. But values and ideological frameworks are part of the constitutive make-up of practices… and what’s particularly interesting about this situation is that the same technological substrate is producing such a fecundity of different divergent value-systems among its user-base; Lewis returns to this point later on. Along the way, we get a fairly succinct description of postmodernity without actually mentioning the p-word, nor invoking any of the demons of Theory:
As the line between “internet culture” and “Culture” gets increasingly blurry, Old Media gets increasingly confused. Online tribes are basically proto-political coalitions, sprouting in the graveyard of America’s zombiefied corporate media. This is, of course, a huge gravitational shift in the landscape of power. In 2004, an anonymous George W. Bush official famously told the New York Times:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Sixteen years later, it’s clear that digital media has made things a little more complicated. The old guard is now left to study the activities and new realities of online tribes. These groups are constantly churning out unsanctioned narratives that attract large followings, and that’s how things have sorted out. As in the media revolution sparked by Gutenberg, the powers that be are not too pleased about losing their monopoly over the technologies of reality creation.
CF this fragment from a much longer piece by James Curcio, guest-posting at Ribbonfarm a while back:
‘In modern political performances’, writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, ‘the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs and tastes – ‘ an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility’. Not only from responsibility, but also from reality. Possibly one of the most quoted poems of the previous century, Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ does a terrific job of anticipating a core anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial worlds, which is maybe not so surprising when we consider modernity coming to self-awareness in the aftermath of the First World War. That is, of course, that ‘the centre cannot hold’.
Many generations separate us now from the outcome of that apocalyptic conflict, and its sequel, yet the existential crisis, even the core political ideologies remain fundamentally the same. We may find no better presentation of the reactions to this crisis than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence, a world with nothing sacred, copies without originals. Postmodernism didn’t generally proclaim a solution, but it does uncover problems that we’ve yet to satisfactorily answer as a society. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with today’s headlines, of the collapse of consensus reality – or the consensus that there is one – into the event horizon of what author-philosopher R. S. Bakker refers to as a ‘semantic apocalypse’. People are right to feel anxious, though this particular crisis is different in quantity but not kind from the sort of unmooring and acceleration which followed the advent of the printing press.
(A quick reminder reminder: postmodernism was not a creed, but a diagnosis, the denial of which is looking more absurd even as it is stated more loudly with each passing week. Curcio is a far more theory-oriented writer, but Lewis is making much the same point throughout this piece I’m snipping from. And now we return you to our regular programming…)
Lewis’s take on temporality is particularly exciting, as I’m thinking a lot about the Marx-via-Harvey-and-others notion that infrastructure folds and warps timespace—but, rather surprisingly for me (as I always seem like such a placeless abstractionist when I discuss things with colleagues who are planners and geographers), I tend to get tied up in the spatial side of that phenomenon, and have yet to really get to grips with the temporal. This whole piece—which draws a fair bit upon the writings of yer man Venkatesh Rao—is full of fuel for a bit of time-travel of my own, such as:
Unlike the clocks of Old Media, the subjective time zones of internet subcultures are a de-centralized creative expression that reflect the idiosyncrasies of many different reality tunnels. Whereas geographic time zones sit next to each other in a very orderly fashion, internet time zones are kaleidoscopic and multi-layered — they allow you to look back at the same time line through many different lenses. There are as many versions of history as there are subcultures.
The conversations of internet subcultures often feel substantive and expansive compared to the shallow discourse of presidential debates, op-ed pages, and cable TV shows. Mainstream news cycles rarely last more than a few hours, and their narratives are constantly shifting. They don’t tend to give a big-picture sense of where we came from or where we’re going. Internet subcultures, by contrast, are building grand narratives and meme worlds that help people feel their way through the chaos that’s currently unfolding. These stories cut deep, down to the most foundational questions of race and religion and destiny. We shouldn’t be too surprised that complex conspiracy theories, intergenerational trauma, and age-old religious fervor are coming to the fore — in a contest of narrative memes, deep history is a serious competitive advantage.
Thanks to the ghosts in the digital graveyard, our selves are strung out across extremely long stretches of time. The internet allows one body to ingest the memories of thousands, creating a new kind of interiority that’s almost superhuman in its scope. I probably come across more perspectives in a single Twitter session than my great grandparents heard in their entire lifetimes.
In a 1970 interview, Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed this situation and described what it might do to our minds: “We live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and all futures that will be are here now. In that sense, we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of the varieties of human expression re-constitutes the mythic type of consciousness, of once-upon-a-time-ness, which means all-time, out of time.”5 The psychological shift that McLuhan saw on the horizon 50 years ago is now being felt all across the Web. The line between present and past is getting increasingly blurry now that we all carry around a miniature Library of Alexandria in our pockets. We can’t agree on where we’re headed because we can’t agree on when we are.
Mmmm, McLuhan. Is it just me, or are a lot of people starting to (re)read and cite McLuhan again? But the interpretation has changed a lot since the the glory days of the Wild Wired West… for which we should probably be thankful; McLuhan was much less the optimist than he was painted by the early webbies and cypherpunks, a much more nuanced thinker than the glosses tend to imply (though this is perhaps true of all philosophers and theorists).
Lewis is a bit of an optimist himself, it turns out:
The algorithmic feeds that grew to prominence in the 2010s are a circus that set up shop in the lobby of the Library of Alexandria. As we spin round and round the carousels, everything seems to dissolve into an atemporal soup at the end of history. “History ends not when the stream of apparently historic events ends,” writes Venkatesh Rao, “but when the world loses a sense of a continuing narrative, and arrives at what psychologists call narrative foreclosure” — a hollowing out of the collective imagination, a sense of the future being cancelled. The ghosts of yesteryear float around the Cloud, hoping we’ll continue to embody their trauma, fight their battles, and live out their dreams and memes.
But maybe our ability to imagine collective futures hasn’t been damaged for good. The old ghosts don’t just haunt us, they also give us inspiration. Last time we saw this much history emerge from hibernation was in 14th century Italy, and the Renaissance was about to begin. Like those who came before us, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of memories and histories that are bubbling up to the surface. We’re still in the early days of the digital age, and I trust we’ll figure out how to adapt to the time machines we’ve built.
I’d rather not trust in that possibility; instead, I’d rather work toward that result in whatever small way I can. (To be fair, given Lewis’s background, I suspect he probably does too… but hope > optimism is becoming one of my obsessional dichotomies, and this site is where I exercise those obsessions, so, yeah.)
Lewis wraps up with—praise whatever deity you prefer!—an appeal to the materiality of the virtual, and a reminder that the infrastructural metasystem not only has a (biiiig) material-extractive-emmissive footprint, but also exhibits characteristics of strength and weakness simultaneously—a brittleness, if you like.
Just as the early viewers of television sometimes forgot that they weren’t seeing an un-mediated stream of Reality, us early users of digital media sometimes forget that social media algorithms are not showing us the world as it is. A recommendation algo is a “frame” that can be hacked, gamed, and messed with. More than anything, it’s a funhouse mirror that reflects back a warped image of whatever you hold up to it. The questions it thinks you’re asking, the answers it thinks you’re seeking, the things it thinks you care about, the narratives it thinks you believe in. “There are as many internet architectures as there are users,” says Louise Druhle. “Each of our clicks serves to sculpt the internet according to our own image.”
We’re transitioning from a world of linear narratives and time lines to a garden of forking memes that we’re free to explore and tend to. The gardening games with the richest soil, the deepest roots, and the most interesting characters will attract the most people.
But if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that all of our virtual toys teeter precariously atop an infrastructural system that is currently under great threat (to say the least). Digital memory is material. The Cloud is made of rare earth. Lamps in video games use real electricity. In cyberspace, we’re constantly surrounded by simulations, abstractions, and pseudo-events that make it all too easy to forget about the geological stack that undergirds our virtual hall of mirrors. We forget that the garden of forking memes is rooted in the earth — in the underwater fiber-optic cables and server farms and electric “nervous systems” that connect us all together. Most designers and technologists try to hide the material complexity that lurks beneath the surface of the internet. They want it to be “indistinguishable from magic.” But if we continue to crop the earth (and the ecological crisis) out of the frame, we’ll soon cut off the very branch we’re sitting on. Without sustainable infrastructure, the digital garden will decay and disappear.
Aware that the regulations concerning feedback to the Central Civic Authority limit my initial complaint to one hundred sentences, I am indulging in sentence structures more complex and digressive than would be my inclination otherwise.
It is my understanding that the daemon constructed to assess and rout complaints to the relevant authorities is equipped to understand any grammatically correct sentence.
If this is not the case, I request notification of this fact immediately.
As a gesture of good faith toward the one-hundred-sentence regulation, and a demonstration of my commitment to the civic goodwill, I will eschew the use of semicolons throughout this document.
An inventive and subtly pointed piece of fiction from Alex Irvine over at Lightspeed Magazine. Recommended.
Scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists bemoan denialism, but have no solutions to offer apart from urging us to fight harder not to get sucked into an ocean of misinformation. This is because they refuse to engage with the roots of the problem, which cannot be addressed by doubling down on the denial that there are any legitimate sources of understanding apart from science. After scientism has hollowed out public discourse of any way to present and disagree about values and ways of living, where else is discontent with policies that claim to only ‘follow the science’ to be directed except at the science itself?
By fostering a political culture, in which placing responsibility for a political decision on ‘the science’ is a viable way of defending it, scientism has made challenging science the only way to challenge political decisions. But, in both cases, a debate that should be about politics is misdirected. Political decisions cannot merely follow science, because political decisions, as any decisions for that matter, are motivated by specific interpretations and values. They are not merely dictated by the facts. As Jana Bacevic recently wrote in an Op-Ed in The Guardian: “What policymakers choose to prioritise at these moments is a matter of political judgment. Is it the lives of the elderly and the ill? Is it the economy? Or is it political approval ratings?” If our ability to discuss and argue over values had not been degraded, we could demand that policy-makers defend their choice to prioritise certain values over others, rather than taking refuge in the claim that scientific facts determine what choices they make, as though they were hardly choices at all.
Back when I used to live in Velcro City’s original namesake, I remember being told many times over, by many different sources, that difficult cases of social exclusion or dysfunction were often tagged by overburdened social workers in the area with the acronym NFP—“normal for Portsmouth”.
Quite how normal (or not) those cases actually were—and quite how true the story was, given that I don’t think I ever heard it first-hand from a social worker—is not the point. (Though I would note that little I have learned since about Po-town or the rest of the UK has given me reason to suspect it of being a complete falsehood; it was always a troubled polis, in a lot of different ways.) The point is that I’m getting a stark lesson in the situated subjectivity of normality right now, and struggling to process it.
To be clear, there are many worse struggles I could be facing; this is not a call for pity, by any means. Furthermore, I suspect everyone’s getting some variant of the same thing, whether on top of other more vital struggles or not: the pandemic is global, but the way we experience it is predominantly local, even as we are plugged in to various sources of news and opinion and experience from elsewhere. Coronavirus is throwing all sorts of new light on the world, and not much of it seems to be flattering in terms of institutional preparedness and honesty.
Things are particularly weird for me right now because I have little precedent for what normal looks like in my current location. I’ve been living in Sweden for a few weeks, and one of those weeks was spent in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in Lund and Malmo before, but not enough to have a feel for what a busy day or a quiet day looks like. As such, how normal things are now is something of an open question for me. It’s definitely quiet here on campus at Lund… but there are people chatting in the corridor outside my office door right now, and there are students in the common areas downstairs, though perhaps fewer than one might expect even this close to the end of the semester. There were people on my train in to work, though again, fewer than I’d expect for the time of day. There were people at the bar I went to last night, but not many, and the vibe was subdued. There was plenty of food in the shops yesterday, and at present I have no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this evening, too.
All of which is to say: when I open up my channels of news and experience from the UK and the US, I’m slapped with a huge wave of cognitive dissonance. Things are looking pretty panicky in the Anglosphere right now, to say the least.
I have various thoughts and feelings about all of this stuff, but I’m largely keeping it to myself—not least because I’m not an expert in epidemiology or disaster management, and furthermore I’m not sure that anyone needs or wants my lukewarm takes on how things are being handled by anyone, anywhere. There’ll be time enough for that after the pandemic—which, for the sake of total clarity, I very much believe to be a real thing.
But I can’t help but be drawn to the differences between the public vibe here in Sweden and elsewhere—particularly that of the UK, where most of my experiential accounts are coming from. The Swedish government has recommended self-isolation to those with symptoms of respiratory infection, and there’s a recommendation also against gatherings of more than 500 people which is not, AFAIK, actually a thing with any legal force so much as a polite suggestion from the powers that be (albeit one delivered with a justified confidence that it will be followed without significant protest or argument). Lund University is carrying on pretty much as normal, modulo the afore-mentioned self-isolation (my PI, bless him, has had a fever for over a week, but is sat at home grinding out impact evaluations for an ongoing project), and the inevitable uptake of the opportunity to work from home by knowledge workers in a country where working from home is a very easy ask, and where sick pay is decent and unlikely to be quibbled over. And as already mentioned, trains are running, shops and bars are open, toilet roll and teabags are still obtainable without recourse to black-marketeering.
But just across the water, the Danes have closed their borders. Well, they’ve closed them to anyone but Danes… or anyone with a really good reason to be there (e.g. caring for a sick relative), or people going between Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport) and Sweden without stopping anywhere in between… or people involved in mantaining supply chains, such as truck drivers. A lockdown with that many exceptions is likely to be fairly unsuccessful… and it’s been suggested to me that this might be reflective of a long-standing anxiety about borders and infection that is endemic to Denmark.
(Though that suggestion has mostly come from Swedes, who do rather pride themselves on not being the Danes, in what I can already tell is one of the most epic nation-state-scale cases of the narcissism of small differences one might wish to encounter. Heck, it may well be that the Swedes are sticking with a calm and open-for-business attitude primarily as a way of differentiating themselves from their Scandi cousins. It’s probably quite handy to be able to point at your more performatively racist neighbours when you’re a polite, tacit type of people who don’t want to talk about your own problems with a rising far-right movement.)
(And again, for the avoidance of doubt: I’m not denying the existence of the virus as a thing, and nor is Diduck, as far as I can tell. But there’s a definite medium-as-message element to the discourse around the virus, and that piece makes a damn good grasp for it.)
None of this is to discredit people’s fears or anxieties, either. I suspect it’s easy for me to be a bit sanguine precisely because I’m in a sanguine environment, with little exposure to the amplificatory feedback loops of the birdsite et al. I dare say that if I were still in the UK, and had no expectations of being anywhere else any time soon, I would be feeling a lot more precarious. But therein lies my point: the virus has become a surface onto which all other social anxieties are being projected. As I remarked to someone last week, it’s as if after what must be a decade of those nauseating and bedamned “keep calm and carry on” snowclone posters, and all the lively but nonetheless very stiff-upper-lipped protesting and pushback about The B-Word, the virus has finally cracked the lid on what passes for the British geist, and released a vast cloud of anxiety, fear and anger. Ditto the US—it’s as if in both cases everyone has spontaneously moved on from bargaining and anger about the situation, and finally started focussing on its concrete implications. Here I’m modifying a Źiźek riff from this morning, which is (it seems to me) uncharacteristically positive: now we’ve all been forced to face the truth that can no longer be denied, bargained with or argued away, we’re going to (have to) start working on the problem instead of just shouting or tweeting about it. Sickness as solidairty, solidarity in sickness… the possibility of the pandemic as a force for a renewed and networked internationalism.
I’m plugged in sufficiently well to know that’s not going to be a fashionable take—and presumably even less so, given who I’ve just cited. But if you won’t take it from ol’ Slavoj, how about Rebecca Solnit? A newsletter in my inbox this morning reminded me of her thinking in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which are summed up in this 2009 NYT review of her book A Paradise Built in Hell:
… this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”
Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.
My feelings and opinions about the situation alluded to above might be lightly summarised by my observing that the most panicked populations at the moment would seem to be those with the most dysfunctional and authoritarian governments. (The functional authoritarians, e.g. China, appear to be weathering it pretty well after a bad start.) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t concerned; nor am I suggesting that a state response is not necessary. What’s interesting here is rather the character of the response, both of (and also between) the dysfunctional state and its public, and the light that the situation is throwing on those governments. If Źiźek and Solnit are right, we may see a new sense of cooperation and solidarity emerging at street level as this thing progresses… and we might also find that a whole cavalcade of emperors are suddenly understood to have been naked all along, by people who will swear blind that they were never duped in the first place.
Gotta find your hope where you can, right? Stay safe, everyone—and try not to give in to the fear. (Especially not the fear of your fellow humans, regardless of where exactly on the planet they may be from, or currently living, or recently returned from.) This handwashing PSA via Damien Williams pretty much nails it, I’d say:
science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology