Tuesday, November 24, 2009

techniques of the self

From Foucault, About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth, Political Theory, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 198-227

Foucault talks about the historicity of subjectivity, how it changes and how it is constituted through "techniques of the self."

It seems, according to some suggestions by Habermas, that one can distinguish three major types of techniques in human societies: the techniques which permit one to produce, to transform, to manipulate things; the techniques which permit one to use sign systems; and the techniques which permit one to determine the conduct of individuals, to impose certain wills on them, and to submit them to certain ends or objectives. That is to say, there are techniques of production, techniques of signification, and techniques of domination. Of course, if one wants to study the history of natural sciences, it is useful if not necessary to take into account techniques of production and semiotic techniques. But since my project was concerned with the knowledge of the subject, I thought that the techniques of domination were the most important, without any exclusion of the rest. But, analyzing the experience of sexuality, I became more and more aware that there is in all societies, I think, in all societies whatever they are, another type of techniques: techniques which permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on. Let's call this kind of techniques a techniques or technology of the self.

In order to understand subjectivity we must "take into account the points where the technologies of domination of individuals over one another have recourse to processes by which the individual acts upon himself. And conversely, the points where techniques of the self are integrated into structures of domination." This is his notion of governmentality, closely related to Gramsci's hegemony. The subject has a subjectivity predisposed to obedience, which is not recognized by the self as being obedience.

What is at stake then is the discourses of self-production and how they are shaped and how they are transformed. The self-motivated compulsion to confess emerges as means to produce oneself along the predetermined lines while experiencing that constraint as freedom -- freedom as the pleasure of concretizing the self, of knowing identity rather than feeling it is amorphous, unrecognized.

liberatory postmodernism and consumerism

From Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption by A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh, The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1995)
postmodernism's liberatory potential cannot yet be achieved. The reason for this delay is the growing influence of the market -- which is a modern institution still operating according to the commercial principles and criteria of the "economic" -- during the contemporary dissolution of other modern institutions.
The market, they allege, preserves the universal rational subject with a predictable set of motivations and incentives -- the market logic/capitalist logic of the subject that postmodernist/consumerist logic smashes. The market had been the last thing holding the old conception of the subject together -- why neoclassical economical psychology ( a relic of this) seems so limited and foolish. But the consumerist subject is no more free than the universal-rational one. Its freedom may just as easily be registered by individuals as emptiness.

if we were to view the "consumer" in postmodern terms, the Cartesian subject on which our past images of the consumer have been based must be replaced by a different conception.
That is describing the shift from a capitalist logic of the subject to a consumerist one, in which consumption is heralded as production and consumers are productive with their immaterial labor while building on their limitless identity, attenuated through the code of social symbols for distinction. The active consumer liberates the passive prole, but the labor is still expropriated. Consumers don't realize it because they believe they are working on self-fashioning.

While human beings have always engaged in consumption, the modern concept of consumption as separate from other phenomena seems to be rooted in other separations: the separation of home from workplace; the separation of time for work (job) from time for play (recreation, leisure); the separation of activities into public and private domains. With these separations has come the separation of consumption from production. Increasingly, activities in the private domain-that is, at home, during play-have come to be considered consumptive, and production is relegated to the public domain-the factory, the office, the workplace.
Consumerism begins in the collapse of the public-private, in the ability for social relations to be entirely public, for all exchange to be public and broadly significatory.

For example, artistic works that rebel against economic domination are themselves converted into economic objects and brought into the world of commodification, which the artistic work was created to oppose in the first place. This is an example of commodification of a critique in which the critique is rendered incapable of standing on a footing equal to and opposing its original target of attack. If the critique cannot be reappropriated suc- cessfully by the market economy, then it is marginal- ized. Thus, there are only two possibilities for cultural critique in a modern market: reappropriation or mar- ginalization. There is no way for the critique to mediate between the dominant and dominated, for it is always and already dealt with by the dominant mode.
Baudrillard's point about critiquea lways already co-opted -- no position from which one can critique consumerism, since the medium in which the critique is formulated presumes the critique is itself a consumer product. Hypocrisy is inherent, since all public discourse is tainted with marketing, posturing -- it is assumed it is a self-positioning gesture --a self-branding move -- rather than a "disinterested critique."

A useful definition of marketing: "Marketing is an activity that fragments consumption signs and environmnets and reconfigures them through style and fashion."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ideas about value, ethical capital as misnomer, etc.

Value crisis brought on by peer production, immaterial labor, digital piracy, etc.: value of our work does not equal a wage; value of our goods does not equal what we pay for them. What it means to be "worth" something is up for grabs.

value is always relative, always a relation; never an absolute, static. Competing logics of value coexist and drive social policy in different directions, often simultaneously. Underlies the problem of liquidity crisis vs. solvency crisis. These are different ways of looking at how to define value -- as static and referring back to some absolute fundamental of some tangible thins (solvency) or as being an expression of the control of flows (liquidity) -- the most important of which is the flow of ideological conceptions of what is "worth something to society" -- this is played out at a microlevel in struggles for positional goods, which is a way to give apparent solid meaning to playing the scoreboard game over ultimately intangible, arbitrary values.

As Arvidsson argues, as value gets detached from meeting "real needs" we see an increasing financialization of the economy.
 The flight of capital away from the productive economy and into the financial economy is a manifestation of the inability of the present economic regime to put the wealth it produces to productive use. This is an important point. It is not that there are no more needs to be met in the world. It is simply that the prevailing techno-political paradigm is unable to open up the markets by means of which capital could be productively deployed in meeting such needs. Although there are a number of attempts in this direction, like venture capital investing in alternative energy systems, or companies cultivating the 'bottom of the pyramid', the market of the global poor (Prahalad, 2006), these are the isolated results of mostly private enterprise, and not the coordinated outcome of systemic initiatives. Such a co-existence of unmet needs and excess capital, and the financial expansion that results from this combination is a classic symptom of the immanent transition form one system to another.

There are no productive uses to put capital, so it circulates for its own sake in bubbles and schemes -- as fictitious capital, enriching capitalists nominally (unless positional goods are used to substantiate the gains in physically reality). Arvidsson: "there is a general sensation that a lot of the real values that circulate in our economy cannot be adequately represented."But there are no "real" values -- the basis for value is always in the process of being negotiated socially, or administered by fiat by state power (under guise of property law, e.g.). "Value is essentially a shared convention," Arvidsson notes. (Arvidsson thinks the socialization of value means "ethical" values get embedded -- value = density of ethically binding relations -- but what is deemed ethical is an expression the power dynamics in play.)

Status production is theoretically limitless -- always can function as a "real" need to direct economic resources toward if certain ethical battles and debates are lost in the sociopolitical sphere. This is where competition among firms is moving -- as goods become more easily duplicatable, can't compete on product quality. Must compete on symbolic level of brand and the pretensions of exclusive experiences.

The I drink your milkshake problem -- rival goods vs. nonrival goods -- cultural deflation and piracy -- is enough of our consumption of nonrival goods for immaterial labor to yield a deflationary wave? Arvidsson connects this to the "organic composition of capital" concept from Marx:
The reason behind the declining profitability of investment in the productive economy is the growing productivity of labour across most sectors of the economy (excluding some kinds of personal services). In part, this growing productivity depends on what Marxists call the rising 'organic composition of capital', that is, the rate of machines and other 'stuff' to workers. In particular robots and information technology has rendered workers in factories and offices immensely more productive, drastically reducing the time needed to produce stuff or do things. The result is a supply of 'more stuff' and declining prices, which reduces levels of profits. However, the rising organic composition of capital is per se not the only factor behind the recent profit squeeze (after all this has been going on for a long time). Rather, the rising ‘organic composition of capital' has also caused the emergence of a new mode of production within the capitalist economy itself. This new mode of production has a shadowy presence on the balance sheets of companies, where it figures as what is known as 'intangible assets'.

But wasn't the "law of declining rate of profit" disproven? Productivity doesn't itself decrease the wealth of society -- that makes no sense. It increases the amount of product we get from resources, increasing the total (which could in theory be distributed in such a way as to improve gneral social welfare). But it can change what society values in such away to revalue currencies and instigate a nominal devaluation of existing property and goods.

Not sure profits are being squeezed either. The better way of framing this is in terms of bubbles -- asset values seem completely unmoored from fundamentals, revealing the whole idea of "fundamentals" to be meaningless.

Arvidsson wonders about intangibles -- brand equity mainly -- that aren't accounted for in capitalist ledgers. Or rather, which can show up on balance sheets but nowhere else definitively. Another way to look at this is through lens of Marx's chapter on cooperation in first volume of Capital. Organizational capital (to use Arnold Kling's preferred term for this, not sure where he derives it from) provides the competitive edge. Arvidsson: "Knowledge, innovation and intellectual capital management is about constructing a environment that is particularly conducive to creativity or where tacit knowledge connects and comes out in the open as ‘collective intelligence'. In some cases this environment can become more important than the actual knowledge produced." This process is often outside of the firm's hierarchical control -- it instead harvests immaterial labor of the social factory:
This way the role of the company is changing, from primarily relying on resources that it can command, to attracting value from resources that it cannot command. This means that the company increasingly ‘swims' in a sea of productive externalities, that it tries to translate into measurable value. This allows us to conclude that the growing importance of intangibles in the information economy is a reflection of a growing importance of external resources in the production process. Since present accounting systems are organized to adequately represent value creation that derives from proprietary resources they have no way of dealing with such external resources.

I don't follow this -- the value is captured but not compensated; it registers as an intangible on the balance sheet because the labor needed for its production is plucked from society.

It makes more sense to wonder about the value being produced outside of capitalist relations (freely, for no wages) that is not harvested by corporations but is servicing needs nonetheless. Is this deflating the proprietary content/goods by competing with it? That is the crisis faced by capital -- that they face market competition of a sort from goods produced noncapitalistically via what Benkler calls social production.

Here's a scary formulation about producing brand equity: "Brand management can similarly be seen as a sort of logistics of meaning and affect, the ability to organize and give direction to largely autonomous flows of public opinion and sentiment." A logistics of meaning and affect -- a rationalization of the inherently nonrational, the administered culture that Adorno warned of.

Arvidsson's "ethcical capital" is basically a firms's ability to compel love and encourage immaterial labor without controlling it hierarchically.
alue is primarily produced by the ability to construct affectively significant ties: ties that bind a brand or a company to its consumers, employees or other stake-holders in ways that go beyond contractual obligations. You cannot order an employee to be creative or a consumer to share his or her ideas about product improvements. Such offers need to be voluntary; they need to be motivated by some form of affective affiliation. Such relations are not free, they require time and energy to build. In fact, the fastest growing intangible asset in the figure above, 'ethical capital', stands precisely for investments in such relation building: Essentially this comprises investments in brand equity, in corporate culture and in employee training in teamwork and other social skills.
The term seems misleading to me, though the concept itself is important. Nothing ethical about it; it is more an ideologically oriented abuse of power. Firms can encourage immaterial production for their benefit by working to control the outlets for individuals' "creative expression" -- by seizing the social networks that have become the forum for self-development.

The main problem is that immaterial labor appears to the laborer as self-fashioning, and the self produced by it is the consumerist self required by exisiting social relations -- only such a self can harvest the "benefits" of identity in the social sphere circa 2009. The superficial recognition in social networks; the reified, measurable influence on has; the personal brand's impact, the mastery of cultural trivia as a status marker; "reputational capital"  etc. (Arvidsson thinks if we quanitfy this stuff, somehow it can work to the consumer's benefit -- making us all entrepreneurs of the self. Sounds awful to me.) The production of the self now occurs in a globalized media setting with a much richer set of culture-industry product to serve as resources for it. The use of that product for self-fashioning enhances its value for its owners to the rest of the selves in the process of making themselves. Piracy and intellectual property devaluation hits at capital here; the real problem, though, is the self-fashioning out of that stuff (what Arvidsson unironically equtes to Marx's "General Intellect" -- a debasement, as it limits intellect mostly to the facility to embrace and manipulate popular culture). That reproduces the consumerist self, not a possibly better alternative that I admittedly have not yet theorized very clearly.

To reiterate, immaterial labor seems to promise a new paradigm of value, but it's limited in our current set of relations to self-fashioning, the reproduction of the consumerist self, not the smashing of capitalist relations.

Algorithmic authority and garbage

More Clay Shirky:
But the core of the idea is this: algorithmic authority handles the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem by accepting the garbage as an input, rather than trying to clean the data first; it provides the output to the end user without any human supervisor checking it at the penultimate step; and these processes are eroding the previous institutional monopoly on the kind of authority we are used to in a number of public spheres, including the sphere of news.
Seems like this is tantamount to arguing that to solve the garbage-information problem we must produce more garbage.

Authority is deinstitutionalized and linked to the wisdom of crowds. That this seems democratic enough helps facilitate the transition. But the authority resides with the algorithm, the designer of the filter and the agenda for which it is designed. Ideology can be implemented at this level, in a much more straightforward and explicit way than it could when it was forced to work hegemonically across an array of institutions entrusted with producing knowledge. Now we all produce knowledge and "share" it; and the filter makes sure we only see amid that ocean the ideologically salient pieces.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tagging, secrets, immaterial labor

From this Clay Shirky post, quoting delicious social bookmarking founder:

As Schachter says of del.icio.us, "Each individual categorization scheme is worth less than a professional categorization scheme. But there are many, many more of them." If you find a way to make it valuable to individuals to tag their stuff, you'll generate a lot more data about any given object than if you pay a professional to tag it once and only once. And if you can find any way to create value from combining myriad amateur classifications over time, they will come to be more valuable than professional categorization schemes, particularly with regards to robustness and cost of creation.
Valuable to whom? In other words, Shirky is saying amateur contributions are more valuable than those of paid lackeys when it comes to manufacturing meaning, a process that can't be managed within traditional capitalist factory conditions. Meaning-makign is immaterial labor; Web 2.0 is the infrastructure that can harvest it and subjugate it to existing capitalist relations.

Shirky extols the values of doing away with ex ante taxonomy (which he wants to call ontology for some reason) and replacing it with filtering both passive and active. The presumption is we should always begin with too much information and whittle down to what we deem necessary. But the problems with that are obvious if you consider that producing too much information has become the most successful strategy for hiding secrets in a thicket of data. There is little chance our filters will yield the disguised secrets; but it will satisfy us enough to keep us from looking for secrets, from imagining that they exist.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Immaterial labor as deflationary force


Argues that immaterial labor of peer production, etc., is permanently removing value from economy and thus will serve as deflationary force -- value destruction, permanent loss of asset value and an emerging steady-state economy from the ashes. we all make less money, but we don't need it so much, because everything we want is made cheaply by volunteer labor. It's a worldwide kibbutz.

If only. Seems this immaterial labor betokens a structural shift; a reconstitution of the labor force so that less of it requires compensation. The profit goes to capital, and proletarianization spreads to knowledge workers who were once bourgeois professionals.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reproducing labor power with noncommoditized resources

From Bob Jessop's review of David Harvey's Limits to Capital:

His afterword adds that '[t]he crucial commodity for the production of surplus value, labour power, is itself produced and reproduced under social relations over which capitalists have no direct control. … though labour power is a commodity, the labourer is not' (1982: 447). 

This raises the question whether, in addition to having a use-value and an exchange-value, labour-power has a value that is set by the labour theory of value. The 'value theory of labour' denies this because labour-power is a fictitious commodity, not a real commodity. Seen in this light, the wage, the bundle of commodities that it can buy, and the role of non-commodified goods and services (as provided, for example, through domestic labour and/or collective consumption) are determined in the first instance through a combination of class struggle and the interest of certain capitals in expanding the market for consumption goods (cf. Grundrisse: 409, cited Harvey 1982: 49).
Much of the value extracted by capitalist firms may have its ultimate origin here, in the domestic care and productive kindness of familial human relations. We "reproduce laborers" -- i.e. raise children -- through all sorts of uncompensated labor, and we sustain friendships and meaningful relationships through similar work. We work on friendship-building projects that have the side effect of yielding commoditizable goods and services.

Capitalism finds ways to extract the productivity of sharing, caring and collaboration by alienating it from the relations in which it is situated, and by driving us to live in conditions that either deny opportunities for such caring and sharing or make them more readily exploitable. This seems to be one of the functions of social networks.

Ownership society scam

Brian Holmes, from here.

Under the logic of neoliberalism, much of what used to be welfare state entitlements has been transformed into fungible private assets (health insurance policies, 401k accounts, private suburban homes, etc) and delivered over to the nominal control of individuals or relatively small and localized groups. These individuals and groups then find themselves at the mercy of large, sophisticated, rapacious financial operators who offer them further market schemes encouraging them to speculate on their tiny stake of capital, in order to expropriate some generous percentage of their assets as we have just seen done so blatantly in the course of the recent housing bubble.
Everyone is given a small stake in the state, which is then privatized in their hands to squander. This further establishes the notion that people's misery is their own fault, and that government efforts to aid them are misguided.

Friday, November 06, 2009

database of intentions, doesn't matter whose

from Nicholas Carr, re informavores:

The Web has been called a "database of intentions." The bigger that database grows, and the more deeply it is mined, the more difficult it may become to discern whether those intentions are our own or ones that have been implanted in us.
The horizons of the self are adjusted and ultimately fixed by our interaction with the totalizing system of Web 2.0 -- our subjectivity doesn't begin outside Web 2.0 but is constructed within it, with our capacity for generating desire specifically outsourced to other non-biological parts of the hive mind we are plugged into.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

industrialization of memory, production of insecurity

From "Beyond the 'Networked Public Sphere': Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0" by Dr. Ben Roberts, University of Bradford (link)

Simondon argues that the rise of the machine tool removes the ability of the skilled worker to differentiate their labor from that of other workers: 'a loss of individuation' which Stiegler sees reproduced at the level of consciousness by the new teletechnologies and their industrialization of memory.

The industrialization of memory -- archiving identity on corporate-owned servers, letting that replace or restructure neurological memory -- opens the self to new forms of manipulation by those corporations, or by the state that controls them. Shifting memory to a quasi-public sphere, having us broadcast it, opens us to new exploitable forms of existential insecurity. Discovering new insecurities to exploit is how consumerism survives. It leaves behind impersonal markets when the anonymity they suggest limits the amount of insecurity available to be put to the use of shaping subjectivity.

Predictive search's black box, horizons of identity in social networks

From "Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds: Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis" by
Ganaele Langlois, Fenwick McKelvey, Greg Elmer, and Kenneth Werbin of Infoscape Research Lab, Ryerson University. (link)

How can we understand, map and otherwise critique emergent forms of connectivity and articulation among Web 2.0 sites, users and content, especially when the architecture and technical processes shaping communicational dynamics are black-boxed, opaque and secretive?
This is an important question because of the way Web 2.0 platforms want to tell us what we want before we know we want it, and thereby predict our identity before it has a chance to discover itself. It's one of the ways it impoverishes possible narratives of the self under the guise of activating more of them. By recommending things we wouldn't have discovered on our own, it seems to enlarge us, but it also forecloses on unbounded curiosity. Because these predictive systems aren't openly disclosed, because we can't see the algorithms or all that feeds into them, we can't know if the ways in which they prescribe our identity are benign, in our best interests, or if they are producing subjects (and subjectivities) suitable for a system engineered to exploit them. We can't decide after we've received the recommendations, etc., because that prescribed subjectivity is by that time a fait accompli, meaning our own judgments can no longer be trusted. We need to know what is in the black box before we disappear inside it.

Web 2.0 spaces do not simply transmit content according to specific communicative formats, even though this is still one of their roles. Rather, Web 2.0 spaces serve to establish the conditions within which content can be produced and shared and where the sphere of agency of users can be defined.... While the type of commercializing processes at stake with Web 1.0 were primarily about transforming users and their content into commodities, Web 2.0 dynamics establish the conditions within which such processes of commercialization can occur through the promotion and harnessing of user-generated content.
Web 2.0 imposes a horizon of possibility for identity, aspiring to become the dominant institution in the interpolation of subjects in techno-capitalistic society ("the cyber-capitalist infrastructure" or the "networked economy").

What Zimmer (2008) describes as a Faustian trade-off between augmented personalized exploration and surveillance and commercialization gives way to a dynamic whereby the process of commercialization is part of providing to users augmented cultural knowledge, affect and desire, to borrow from Terranova (2000).... Commercial Web 2.0 is about us -- it is about re-presenting ourselves through the mediation of the platform. This where Web 2.0 platforms echo Lazzarato's point that contemporary forms of capitalism is about the creation of worlds, which means the setting up of a horizon of possibilities. This also means that specific processes of subjectivation can be formulated as the crystallization of psychological, social, economic dynamics and factors that favour the formation of specific subject positions. These processes are present on Web 2.0 platforms and present us with the paradox of narrowing down the field of possibilities while creating, producing and enriching our experience of being on the Web. Commercial Web 2.0 platforms are attractive because they allow us, as users, to explore and build knowledge and social relations in an intimate, personalized way. In this dynamic, the commercialization of users and information is one of the central factors through which this enrichment takes place. As a consequence, alienation disappears, as in the Web 2.0 worlds there is no contradiction anymore between the marketing of user information and the subjective enrichment of users: what used to be two separate processes are now one in the augmentation of social and cultural factors. Third-party advertising is reinscribed as cultural capital produced by the platform for the user through personalized recommendations.
Alienation seems like its opposite -- the process of restricting our identity to its articulation on social networks appears to us as an opening up of possibilities, thanks to automated recommendations, archiving, and the facilitation of immediate feedback on our broadcasted self-fashioning gestures. We cooperate with the shifting of our identity and our social relations online into pens built and controlled by commercial interests. The commercialization comes to seem like authentication, proving our selves have social value. It also seems like an escape from old-economy impersonal market relations because all transactions are deeply personalized and specific, and thus seem identity-validating. It seems more like "community" in relation to a long-outdated sense of what consumerism was supposed to connote -- mass conformity. But consumerism is now the inverse, hyperpersonal identity mongering, with the "unique identity" as the perpetual product being sold and resold to the same individual subject. This fixes subjects with in the matrix that Web 2.0 is building, which will allow for total administering of identity to subjects if and when the project completes itself.

Basically, Web 2.0 is letting us sell out before our authentic self even exists. Selling out becomes the prerequisite for having an authentic seeming self, validated by the predictive systems online and fixed in illusory flux of social networks. "The hybridity of the user points out how processes of subjectivation on Web 2.0 worlds are both highly personalized and standardized. That is, the representation of ourselves takes place through a platform's universal algorithmic logic. As users, we input personal information into the platform, and in turn, the platform represents us on the user-interface as the aggregation of bits and pieces of images, texts, sounds, videos, and links. The user-interface becomes the site where the exploration and extension of ourselves, our knowledge, culture and affect is negotiated through a technocultural mediation"

Monday, November 02, 2009


From the transcript of an Edge.org interview with Frank Schirrmacher:
information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know — this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus — when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations.
Not sure how this works in practice, how information adapts to claim attention. Or is it that information that survives is meant not to describe reality but compel attention, and the strategies it reproduces replicate not a structure of the Real but a structure of desire. The information that will shape how we understand the world will have nothing to do with reality per se but more to do with what can fascinate humans.

now you encounter, at least in Europe, a lot of people who think, what in my life is important, what isn't important, what is the information of my life. And some of them say, well, it's in Facebook. And others say, well, it's on my blog. And, apparently, for many people it's very hard to say it's somewhere in my life, in my lived life.
The deep internal structures of identity are being externalized in computer networks, but why? Is it merely that they become more explicitly instrumental, operational when reified that way? Is it that their significance seems amplified, the self externalized is free to become grandiose? Is it the market rationality that we have absorbed from living under capitalism seeking to find application in the deeper psychological structures, so that it can dictate extra-economic decisions, work with attention and emotion as neoclassical economics worked with resource distribution? The social-networking developments seem to answer this question: How can we apply ideas of productivity and innovation to the production of the self?

when you have a generation — in the next evolutionary stages, the child of today — which are adapted to systems such as the iTunes "Genius", which not only know which book or which music file they like, and which goes farther and farther in predictive certain things, like predicting whether the concert I am watching tonight is good or bad. Google will know it beforehand, because they know how people talk about it. What will this mean for the question of free will?
The field for our idenity production is beginning to be circumscribed by the data we ourselves generate -- we archive past iterations of ourselves and these hem us in for our own supposed good. The original choices that set us on a particular path recede into the domain of original sin. This is a digitization of the cliche about the butterfly effect. If only we hadn't bought that Adam and the Ants song on iTunes so long ago. I wouldn't be this person that I am now.

maybe the future will be that the Twitter information about an uproar in Iran competes with the Twitter information of Ashton Kutcher, or Paris Hilton, and so on. The question is to understand which is important. What is important, what is not important is something very linear, it's something which needs time, at least the structure of time. Now, you have simultaneity, you have everything happening in real time. And this impacts politics in a way which might be considered for the good, but also for the bad.
The time needed to hierarchize the significance of information appears to have collapsed. New information supplants the old as the old settles into networks of relevance. What will be relevant to us must already be given in advance, predicted by the Googles and Amazons, etc., before information is disseminated. The simultaneity of all information means that we need a premade set of rules to create a bounded set at each moment that we can cognitively assimilate. We will see only what is preordained as important to us, but we will be convinced that we designed the filters for our own good.

From Douglas Rushkoff's response:
I would argue we humans are not informavores at all, but rather consumers of meaning. My computer can digest and parse more information than I ever will, but I dare it to contend with the meaning. Meaning is not trivial, even though we have not yet found metrics capable of representing it. This does not mean it does not exist, or shouldn't.
The danger is that we outsource the meaning to these systems that do the thinking outside ourselves. That we trust the meanings supplied by the hive mind, by the search engine, by the wisdom of crowds and so on, because we end up demanding quantified versions of everything, along with a quantified data-driven sense of self, with immediate metrics to tewak and calibrate.

From Nick Bilton's response:
Free will is not a prediction engine, it's not an algorithm on Google or Amazon, it's the ability to share your thoughts and your stories with whomever wants to consume them, and in turn for you to consume theirs. What is import is our ability to discuss and present our views and listen to thoughts of others.
A very strange concpetion of free will as the ability to share thingsand impose one's self on others. But that reciprocity is not free will; free will is a matter of not being circumscribed or determined by preexisting contexts. The cant of sharing is here used to distract us from the real problems posed by prediction engines and the archived self.

Filtering information to suit the self

From Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker review of Cass Sunstein's latest book:
From this, it is often argued that the Internet is a boon to democracy—if information is good, then more information must be better. But, in Sunstein’s view, the Web has a feature that is even more salient: at the same time that it makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable.
“The most striking power provided by emerging technologies,” he has written, is the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.”
Filtering is the prerequisite for consumerdom -- the economic surfeit/surplus is winnowed down in an ongoing process to make for a given Self at a given moment, which is then evaluated in terms of how popular it proves at the proverbial water cooler or in the social networking domain, etc., and then adjusted by consuming more information. (Information can now be a matter of facts, data, opinions, or retail purchases -- anything that could be deployed in signaling.) The goal is not to become informed so much as to signal a tentative, tactical self in the marketplace of identity (arena of identity might be better -- money doesn't necessary change hands, as the currency is attention). This identity, since it is documented online, can serve as a rolling target for marketing, which in turn shapes how it will evolve -- how the subject's self-knowledge will develop. The seemingly autonomous choices will actually be contained by the field of possibilities intrusively presented, by the various filters the subject's prior consumer behavior has shaped.

Choice in informing oneself is now driven by the social-networking self (the self that can be ranked and archived and broadcast to ever-more people), which covertly serves the ends of the corporations that control those networks. Less important to be informed than to know the passwords to admission into chosen hierarchies structured in networks online.

Sunstein’s theory of the (Dis)Information Age is pointedly nonjudgmental. By his account, the problem is basically structural: certain tendencies of the human mind interact badly with certain features of modern technology, much as certain prescription drugs interact badly with alcohol. Young or old, bigoted or tolerant, liberal or conservative -- everyone is equally implicated here, since everyone is predisposed to the same, or at least analogous, mental habits and has access to the same technological tools.
Sunstein points to the polarization effect of like opinions reinforcing each othe rin the absence of facts. Does this extend to the tendency to fixate on a fabricated self-concept in lieu of one grounded in a broader shared reality -- atendency to restrict the reality filtering through to only what suits a particular notion of self, thereby granting inordinate power to the filter-keepers.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

More on "Consumer Emancipation"

I have posts at Generation Bubble and PopMatters about impersonal markets allowing us to escape the tyranny of identity, whereas Web 2.0-type hyper-personalization gestures work against that in the name of regenerating a lost sense of social relations. All this does is create a new form of commercialized social relations, extending consumerist practices (shed of market-based restrictions) into more intimate spheres. And it brings back the hierarchies that originally constituted social capital with renewed force.

Reading an article by Robert Kozinets about Burning Man ("Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man") galvanized a lot of my thinking on this subject. I have a few points to add in response to some ideas he raises in the Discussion section of his article.

1. Kozinets writes:
Burning Man provides a powerful example that blends the often volatile and individualistic self-expressive urge with a communal ethos. The key is in the casting of self-expression as a communal gift. Self-expression thus becomes a means to connect one's most heartfelt thoughts and feelings to other people.
I think that the self-expressive urge and the communal ethos don't blend but remain in tension. One must invent a community, an adoring audience, in order to imagine that self-expression is a gift. and things like Facebook serve to make that fantasy easier to sustain, by making positive feedback thoughtlessly implementable. It costs nothing to seem as though you are taking in someone else's updates, etc., as gifts and not nuisances, because the mediating role of Facebook makes it easy to consume and process those "shared" "gifts." Outside the mediating system of Facebook, the reality of having the gift of our self-expression rejected outright or ridiculed grows much greater. The sharing begins to seem more a violation of social norms of courtesy. Our identity project seems less whimsical and more intrusive, demanding. Outside Facebook, we would seem like we are wheedling for attention. So we take refuge in Facebook, as Kozinets suggests Burning Man serves as a refuge (fantasy space) where one does self-fashioning as a favor to the world. And in Facebook, our "gifts" can be harvested for marketing purposes by taking our proffered information and collating it with our networks and deriving sellable demographic data.

2. Kozinets: "The most important rules of conduct fostering Burning Man's emancipatory potential are actually not its No Vending injunction but its interconnected No Spectators and Radical Self-Expression rules."

I think that all three are interconnected. The ordinary impersonal markets with cash exchanges that we are accustomed to in capitalist society are suspended to force participants to sell their own "radical self-expression" instead as a self-conscious product, for approval and attention and status and a stable position in an emerging social hierarchy. This is allowing identity-driven consumerism to supplant capitalist consumption. In other words, consumerism (in the theory I am trying to elaborate here) is not a product of markets but an independent ethos. It sprang from the need to consumer a mass produced surplus but has since become autonomous and established itself as the primary discourse for generating narratives of the self. The market, on the other hand, is an atavistic structure that works against the sort of self consumerism exalts -- markets prefer anonymous subjects engaging in exchanges ruled entirely by rationality rather than the vagaries of social relations and social/cultural capital.

3. Kozinets: "I suggest the term hypercommunity to distinguish from these other communal phenomena the phenomenon of a well-organized short-lived but caring and sharing community whose explicit attraction to participants is its promise of an intense but temporary community experience."
The intensity and the impermanence are linked (as Kozinets goes on to note); social networks seize upon the mechanisms Burning Man evinces for creating a community built on coercive sharing, but tosses out the impermanence that excuses the coercion. It becomes an unbounded injunction to confess everything in order to be.

4. Kozinets:
Whether in culture-capital-laden appeals to authentic communities that exist outside of the market or to so-called radical self-expression that fits within subcultural and communal norms, the urge to differentiate from other consumers drives participation at Burning Man and does not release them from the grip of the market's sign game and social logics.
Precisely. Only the sign game and social logics are cut free from markets by events like Burning Man, setting the stage for the more complete domination of society by those logics. Kozinets calls it "youtopia" and wants us to believe that it is a positive thing, a way out of the isolation, atomization, and alienation that consumer capitalism has brought on rather than its perfection.