Monthly Archives: January 2014


Twitter / alexlundry: ”Greatest paragraph in an academic paper ever?”

Here is a link to the paper. A depressing indication of the sorts of predictive research we can expect from data mining. If advertising aims to gently prod our insecurity already, imagine how much effective it will be when it can prove with “science” how stupid our tastes show us to be. “I don’t know why I am eating curly fries all of a sudden, but that shows how smart I am!”

This paragraph, from the paper’s conclusion, is possibly more risible:

There is a risk that the growing awareness of digital exposure may negatively affect people’s experience of digital technologies, decrease their trust in online services, or even completely deter them from using digital technology. It is our hope, however, that the trust and goodwill among parties interacting in the digital environment can be maintained by providing users with transparency and control over their information, leading to an individually controlled balance between the promises and perils of the Digital Age.

Yes, good luck with that “individually controlled” management of online risk. Even putting aside the comical idea of the internet as a space “of trust and goodwill among parties,” there is no reason to think that “individual control” will not exacerbate the trust issues, even while it encourages people to rely more thoroughly on technology to insulate them from social risk.

No more life stories

I started reading Mark Andrejevic’s Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. Judging by the introduction, it will assess the consequences of our shifting away from traditional causal, narrative explanations of the everyday world to the various data-management strategies now available.

Because excess information is “pushed” at us rather than something we have to seek out, we are always being reminded that there is more to know than we can assimilate, and that what we know is a partial representation, a construct. It is not “the whole truth.” If this information is about the self, then the resulting construct might be seen as “inauthentic” in its incompleteness. Andrejevic writes:

It is not just that there is more information available, but that this very surfeit has highlighted the incompleteness of any individual account. An era of information overload coincides, in other words, with the reflexive recognition of the constructed and partial nature of representation.

With respect to identity, information overload is another way a describing “context collapse” or the loss of “front stage management” in Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social interaction. Because we now customarily assume that there is more data about everything, which spurs the “reflexive recognition of constructed representation,” we find it harder to accept a person’s story as they are trying to present it, and think it might make more sense or give a “truer” picture to investigate them on Google or Facebook. The ambiance of “big data” makes it hard to escape the “reflexive awareness of its incompleteness” even if we don’t have access to all this data or tools to process it. But we want the tools rather than stories or representations, which have been culturally exposed as outmoded tools.

This has further ramifications for self-knowledge: We default to an assumption that we can’t know everything about ourselves and how we are coming across to people, so developing a personal narrative, a life story, starts to feel like a futile process — ineffective as well as not completable. 

So instead we may turn to data management strategies — algorithms and networked recommendations and predictive analytics — not only to understand the world but to understand ourselves. These are “an attempt to bypass or short-circuit the problem of comprehension and the forms of discursive, narrative representation upon which it relies.” Self-comprehension, coming up with a story that explains why we are who we are and why we’ve done what we’ve done and why we want what we want for the future, has no place in the Big Data weltanschauuung. Instead the desire for that sort of self has become a problem, something we are expected to bypass in favor of something less obviously contrived — something that supposedly can’t be faked, like data. We are in the process of becoming the least trustworthy processors of data about ourselves, even to ourselves. 

If we now avail ourselves of social media’s ability to let us “self-publish,” to ritually expel the contents of self through a public accounting, it may be because we want their big-data tools of self-definition. We don’t want responsibility for our life story; we’d prefer an automatically generated Timeline, and algorithmically generated prompts for what to add to it. We solve the “problem of self” not through self-expression that makes our experience into a coherent narrative, but through an indiscriminate and compulsive data dump of our experience into the available commercial containers, which return to us an “objective” self that is empirically defensible, as well as an exciting and novel object for us to consume as entertainment. We are happily the audience and not the author of our life story.

From Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self”

Great. Another, even more cumbersome ancient Greek word to add to my social-media-analysis arsenal, to go along with parrhesia: exomologesis. Foucault notes how this form of public self-publishing represented “a way for the sinner to express his will to get free from this world, to get rid of his own body, to destroy his own flesh, and get access to a new spiritual life.

This brings to mind self-publishing in social media as a form of penitence that is at once productive and evasive—content is produced in the pursuit of new life unhampered by the limitations of the body. It makes me think of so-called digital self-harm, pro-ana Tumblrs, cutting blogs, and other forms of "self-bullying” through public online forums. 

Digital exomologesis is an effort at staging a spiritually cleansing ritual without the support of an institution or even a group of peers. It’s a form of solipsistic martyrdom, something that was once too oxymoronic to be considered. But now social media provide the illusion of audience and the rituals of self-publishing without the inconvenient, discomfitting presence of others. But this means these rituals fail to be cathartic, they are just momentary releases of pressure and doomed to be repeated on the model of addiction, with ever increasing enmity toward the self in the hopes of “saving” it.

Foucault notes that the public martyrdom of exomologesis “does not therefore have as its function the establishment of the personal identity. Rather, such a demonstration serves to mark this dramatic demonstration of what one is: the refusal of the self, the breaking off from one’s self…. The exomologesis seeks … to superimpose by an act of violent rupture the truth about oneself and the renunciation of oneself. In the ostentatious gestures of maceration, self-revelation in exomologesis is, at the same time, self-destruction.”

This fits with my thesis (developed here, through an analogy of compulsive social media usage to machine-gambling addiction) that sharing and self-fashioning in social media can be a process of self-purging as much as one of self-branding. Social-media use can be a pursuit of self-extinction through visibility.

Verbal confession and self-harm for Foucault become linked as this older form of penitence, exomologesis, merges with confession. As a result, he argues, “we have to sacrifice the self in order to discover the truth about ourself, and we have to discover the truth about ourself in order to sacrifice ourself… You will become the subject of the manifestation of truth when and only when you disappear or you destroy yourself as a real body or as a real existence.”

In other words, we know the self only in the process of dismantling it through expressing it. The goal of self-expression is not know oneself but to lose oneself at the same moment of knowledge.


In a world where everyone is an entrepreneur, it’s hard work getting others excited about funding your project. Money goes to those who know how to attract attention.

Not only that, but everyone’s project becomes about attracting attention. And means and ends get flipped: The projects that you once were trying to get attention for to complete end up becoming advertisements for the central and more directly satisfying project of getting attention.

More generally, the “everyone’s an entrepreneur” ethos injects competition and its associated optimization processes into activities that once had little to do with efficiency and more to do with relaxing efficiency’s demands. I’m thinking mainly of consumption inescapably functioning as media production. Of course, consumption has always “produced” status along the lines that Veblen described, but status was not statistically measured, and it arguably drew some of its force from that indistinctness. The intense and immediate mediation of everyday life has changed that, allowing consumerism to become a more direct game of “winning” the internet, “winning” Facebook, etc. There is less time or space in which one can forget to think of oneself as capital.

But the idea of having autonomous capital in oneself is still an illusion. Morozov’s point about entrepreneurial subjectivity is well-put:

Some would view this new kind of immaterial labor as “virtual craftsmanship”; others as vulgar hustling. The good news is that now you don’t have to worry about getting fired; the bad news is that you have to worry about getting downgraded by Google.

The seemingly unlimited self-expression online doesn’t translate into owning the means of production. The means of producing the “self” as a value-producing entity currently belongs to tech companies.

Evgeny Morozov: Hackers, Makers, and the Next Industrial Revolution

In his 33 1/3 book about 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Drew Daniel uses this XTC album cover (designed by Hipgnosis) to make a good point about why it is insufficient to congratulate oneself for “seeing through” advertising (or capitalist ideology in general). 

The Hipgnosis sleeve epitomizes a hip-capitalist stance, consoling us that the best way to disconnect from a meaningless system of false options is to purchase one more commodity that marks one as enlightened, “in on it” and hip to the inherent falsity of modern life … The cynical sense that “nothing matters,” far from arming the subject to better resist ideology, in fact works to ensure that in continues to run smoothly.

This is similar to a point that Žižek, drawing on early Sloterdijk, makes in The Sublime Object of Ideology (and probably lots of other places), when he talks of how ideology works because people are conscious of what they are being asked to believe, and not because they are somehow brainwashed. “Even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” You become complicit precisely by being smart enough to resist.

Daniel argues Throbbing Gristle offer an alternative to the phony illusion of transcendence that seeing “the trick” of capitalism tempts us with. In their song “Convincing People,” he writes, “words become the raw material for a destructive process of transformation. The song is a factory that processes language into sound, taking aim at the principle means of communication and warping and distorting it in and out of recognition.”

That seems, if anything, even bleaker than cynicism, taking communication itself as the fatal flaw in humanity that makes capitalism and its coercive modes of persuasion inevitable. “Communicative capitalism” — turning social interaction and identity formation/representation into forms of exploitable labor and exchangeable commodities — reinforces the plausibility of this bleak outlook.

But there must be a better way out of the double binds that advertisements like the one above set up for us than the nihilistic “fatal strategy” of silence. There must be a way to not hear the call of such come-ons rather than to accept their multivalent flatteries.