Monthly Archives: August 2012

Networked individualism and oxymoronic "personalized communities"

From this paper by Barry Wellman, et al.

The technological development of computer networks and the societal flourishing of social networks are affording the rise of networked individualism in a positive feedback loop. Just as the flexibility of less-bounded, spatially dispersed, social networks creates demand for collaborative communication and information sharing, the rapid development of computer-communications networks nourishes societal transitions from group-based societies to network-based societies (Castells, 1996, 2000; Wellman, 2002).

Networked societies are themselves changing in character. Until quite recently, transportation and communication have fostered place-to-place community, with expressways and airplanes speeding people from one location to another (without much regard to what is in between). Telephone and postal communication have been delivered to specific, fixed locations. At present, communication is taking over many of the functions of transportation for the exchange of messages. Communication itself is becoming more mobile, with mobile phones and wireless computers proliferating.

Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks. Even in more localistic Catalonia, people appear to meet their friends as individuals and not in family groups. In effect, the Internet and other new communication technology are helping each individual to personalize his or her own community. This is neither a prima facie loss nor gain in community, but rather a complex, fundamental transformation in the nature of community.

That seems like an accurate description of the transformation that we are in the midst of, but I’m puzzled by the implicit positive spin. My read of this transformation, folllowing people like Jodi Dean and postautonomist types like Virno, is that networked individualism is a boon for the communicative capitalism on which it depends, much in the same way that possessive individualism was a boon for consumerist capitalism. (Consumerism, conspicuous consumption, identity through shopping-based lifestyles, etc. — the sort of stuff in Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self.) Community as defined by volume of communication persists, but community as a kind of collective subjectivity that prioritizes the group over the individual atoms is lost. The network formations emphasize this atomization, breaking the link to the pre-individual basis for subjectivity (a la Gilbert Simondon, described here).

A “personalized community” is an oxymoron; community is that which can’t be personalized. That phrase is just a nice way of describing a network fromthe point of view of an individual node, which may be near or far from the center, rich or poor in connections. Once you’ve taken steps to personalize community, you are making it convenient, editing out or time-shifting the responsibilities it otherwise requires to suit the community of one.

Too much paranoias

Notes on Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiberoptics, chapter one (pdf)

Was excited to read this, given my recent interest in paranoia as a social-media state of mind, but ended up disappointed by this chapter, and may not read the rest of the book. But a few things struck me as worth preserving here for future reference.

The gist of it seems derived from the Deleuze essay on “control societies,” though with a dubious emphasis on sexuality as the chief basis of subjectivity. Social technologies implement the control society, which makes freedom less a matter of open-ended possibility (freedom to) and more a matter of safety (freedom from). The attractiveness of the predominance of “freedom from” hinges on generalized paranoia.

The end of the Cold War has not dispelled paranoia but rather spread it everywhere: invisibility and uncertainty—of the enemy, of technology—has invalidated deterrence and moved paranoia from the pathological to the logical. This twinning of control and freedom subverts the promise of freedom, turning it from a force that simultaneously breaks bonds and makes relation possible to the dream of a gated community writ large. 

The internet medium becomes the field in which these affective shifts can occur.

Is the Internet a tool of freedom or control? Does it enable greater self-control or surveillance?… These questions and their assumptions are not only misguided but also symptomatic of the increasingly normal paranoid response to and of power. This paranoia stems from the reduction of political problems into technological ones—a reduction that blinds us to the ways in which those very technologies operate and fail to operate

I bolded the part that seems key. The kind of paranoia social technologies instigate aren’t political; they are personal. They don’t prompt users to become suspicious of state or corporate power so much as present an illusion of radically decentralized power where all peers are potential enemies, and privacy is the preserve of the elite and the status aspiration of everyone else.

I’m most interested in Chun’s suggestion that “the delusion of constant surveillance” is performing certain ideological work; she doesn’t say this in the chapter, but this delusion is at once the fantasy of becoming a celebrity, of being worthy of being watched, as it is a paranoid fear. This is reminiscent of Althusser’s classic interpellation theory, which holds that we are enjoy being singled out by institutional power (or “ideological state apparatuses”) because it individuates us. When the advertisement, says “Hey, you,” and we are flattered and impressed with our own importance. Individuation feels like a recognition of our autonomy, but it is a manifestation of the way we are controlled. (I suppose you could trace a lot of that back to Foucault as well.)

Every moment we are afraid for our privacy, we are thrilled by our celebrity. We can fantasize about people following our every move captured in social media, but that is not the point. Most shit we put up is ignored or vanishes from people’s consciousnesses. What does matter though is the way the data persists and its context degrades, leaving it available to pop up in search queries and be put to whatever use the social-media companies or the state decide.

Chun argues that “Digital language makes control systems invisible: we no longer experience the visible yet unverifiable gaze but a network of nonvisualizable digital control.” I think that sounds right, but I would modify that to speculate that we imagine control as gossipy neighbors spying (which diminishes its threat to a degree and makes it partly appealing), making us overlook how control is systemic and sustained by digital networks’ ubiquitous data capture (regardless of whether any human ever reads all of it). The point is not that our privacy is invaded by this or that person; it’s that no one is permitted to be private by default. It’s a privilege of power.

Not only are we individuated by receiving attention on social media; we are also individuated by giving it. Chun notes that “Even when ‘lurking,’ you constantly send information. It is impossible to resist subjectivity by doing nothing (as Baudrillard once argued and encouraged) if we jack in or are jacked in.” That seems like something we can easily overlook in an effort to use social media to our ends without having it warp our subjectivity.

Boundary work

From: “Anything But Heavy Metal”: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes” by Bethany Bryson, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 5. (Oct., 1996), pp. 884-899.

I have been thinking a lot lately about social exclusion and online social networks, and the idea of boundary work seems relevant to that. Not that I have any hard evidence for this (if there can be such a thing for ideological matters), but the ideology surrounding social media and the subjectivity we are supposed to experience in using them hinges on the illusion that we are performing boundary work but are not subject to it. This illusion relieves social anxiety and encourages a steady flow of data contributions that the platform owners can monetize. Ideally for social media companies, the exemption from boundary work would be predicated on the user’s continual contribution: the more you post, the less you feel subject to judgment or vulnerable to exclusion.

That sounds paradoxical at best, since the more you say, the more you can be judged for. But the accretion of information has a defensive purpose; posting more can be pre-emptive. It can make users into elusive chameleons, or convey the impression that one is merely playing with identity rather than evincing some essential truth about oneself in social media. The more we say in social media, then, the less pinned-down our identity becomes. Further disclosures are meant to raise more questions, and require further elaborations, which provide more self-protection and actual obfuscation under the guise of clarifying one’s self-presentation.

So while the ability to post at will lets users think they can post their way into inclusion within ever-shifting social environments, the network controls that social media place in users’ hands provide them the means of exclusion and at least the fantasy that these controls can be operated with autonomy and impunity.

The implication of this is that the kind of status policing that once depended on taste can now depend on other network mappings of social space — the social graph. Its tangibility makes taste displays less significant, less determining. The boundary exists without the taste display to draw it; the online social networks can preserve it independent of the repeated demonstration of superior cultural capital. Social networks are like banks of cultural capital that way; the influence accrued can be manifest and stored in them, freeing users to behave otherwise in other contexts. It is not necessary to dislike cultural proxies in order to establish cultural capital and one’s belonging to an elite group. The stakes just aren’t that high with any particular cultural self-presentation or taste display.

Not only does the social hierarchy inhere in online cultural-capital banks and social graphs, but social media record so many self-presentations that they are all diminished in ultimate importance. Social media flatten the sense of occasion (a parallel to Benjamin’s notion of an art work’s aura); all events are equally sharable and capturable. Moments at which we experience a heightened publicity are vanishing; all moments are in theory equally public, equally an occasion; so there is no sense focusing on how one comes across in any given special moment.

I also think there is a useful distinction in the passage above between behavior and attitudes. Social media make a great deal of effort of capturing our attitudes as behavior and collapsing the difference between the two, thereby eliminating (perhaps inadvertently) the work we need and expect to perform to translate one into the other, to make symbolic exclusion have social-exclusion effects. But social-media capture may just make users conscious of a different level of “attitudes” that can elude capture yet express or contain the sentiment necessary to perform the offstage, impolite, antisocial acts of exclusion that ultimately sustain a given social order.

There is probably a more straightforward way of expressing this. Social-media use may elide the step we are accustomed to taking of translating the exclusionary attitude (the cultural capital) we want to show off into the identity performance we think we have to make to show it off. This is, in part, because there are no particular optimal occasions to show off, as everything is theoretically recordable and important. (It takes more collective effort to establish an “occasion.” They are rarer as life becomes more easily digitizable and transmissible.)

So the boundary work, which you would think would become more explicit on social media, actually becomes more obscure, retreating to some as-yet-uncaptured region of everyday life and behavior. The cultural displays online are not boundary work at all, though we might pretend they are; the boundary work is already coded at the level of the network links. Lower status people can try to cultural-work their way to more links and influence, but higher status people are under no obligation to tip their hand about what cultural displays earn status, and can risk silly cultural displays with less fear of losing status.

And to take that further, the network that is hard-coded online may be a distraction from the uncoded networks in which real power circulates; the “secret societies” of the “power elite” that are guarded and kept private and so on. These are not given to Facebook to trace.

In short: social media sell us the idea that we can perform boundary work (develop our tastes so as to improve our status at others’ expense) without being subject to it (we always get another chance to defend our tastes when they seem to lead to our being excluded). This is all very profitable for social-media companies, and it distracts us all from the real arenas of power, the networks that are defined by their ability to escape social-media capture, to transcend it.

Notes from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces

I took these notes when I read the book seven or eight years ago. 
Bataille’s notion that humanity wants to act with no end in mind, to commit free acts of “destruction” not linked to civilized utility. Humans, instinctively wanting to act destructive, are made by a civilized society to feel alone in their destructive impulses, but others share this repressed urge, which expresses itself in society’s dark vices: gambling, incest, prostitution, drug addiction, wasted potential of all kinds. The bourgeoisie have forfeited this kind of open pleasure (which once formed the potlatch, the humiliation that can’t be returned). Marcus sees punk as a kind of potlatch, an eagerness to destroy for no reason, and assert a primal sense of being alive as opposed to dead, rationalized bourgeois culture. (395)
Isou: “Let youth cease to serve as a commodity merely to become the consumer of its own elan.” (271)
Postwar project: “To prove that real life was back, and to restrict the definition of real life to the pleasurable consumption of material goods within a system of male supremacy and corporate hegemony.” (258). This goes hand in hand with the “reality principle” or the quasi-Hegelian notion of accepting the limits of reality, of seeing reality as compromise of one’s ideals. To be realistic is to accept the hegemony and seek circumscribed happiness there (which is always just not quite attained, the unquenchable thirst is what the hegemony instills)
From a leftist book in 1984: “ The sixties is merely the name we give to a disruption of late-capitalist ideological and political hegemony, to a disruption of the bourgeois dream of unproblematic production, of everyday life as the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.” Were the radical movements of the sixties products of capitalism overreaching itself, succeeding too well? “Too many people had too much of everything that was on the market, and so they had the leisure to think about what else they might want.” (133)
Good quote from Arendt: “The transformation of the family man from a respectable member of society, interested in all public affairs to a ‘bourgeois’ concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon… Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of a hangman.” This is the effect of bogus private life and pseudo-individuality divorced from social interaction, and the consequences of man lacking meaningful work.
The 190s perverted 1960s rhetoric about risk, adventure and personal fulfillment and freedom as an individual to underwrite dog-eat-dog capitalism without an ounce of civic decency or common empathy among citizens.
The “popular” must be fashioned, must be produced as a rabble, and are thus made to be constitutively unstable. Popular culture creates this unstable rabble. The rabble doesn’t precede the junk culture made for it, made to make it. (149)
The idea of being “blackmailed by utility,” that one can’t criticize something that functions even if it demeans. Since it works, it must be accepted, must be accepted as “real” as in the “reality principle” of compromise.
Life lived as spontaneous art, as a utopian realization of pure freedom, with no moment continuous from the previous one, a commitment to perpetual reinvention at every instant — who wants this as a permanent state, even as an ideal? Isn’t this better experienced convulsively, in carnivalesque fits that surprise us, or are even planned — it may be that this is all we can tolerate, that to live like that is insane.
Ads conjure a desire for this kind of unknowable spontaneous freedom, this kind of eternal retransformation at every instant in the name of maximum happiness, and diverts it to take solace in goods when we realize that it can’t be fulfilled, that we can’t live up to the daring of our own dreams (planted by the ads, of course, but we don’t recognize it). So we blame ourselves and not the ads for the impossible desires we come to possess, and consume the ads even more eagerly as wish fulfillment dramas for those dreams of metamorphosis.