Monthly Archives: July 2014

Prompted by the callous statement from OKCupid’s data scientist (“Guess what, everybody: If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”), I started thinking about preemptive personalization, when sites like Facebook and Google customize your results without your input. Obviously, if you are not included in the customization process, it’s hard to view the results of that process as being truly tailored to you. It’s ascribed, but users are supposed to believe they elected it.

But that is part of the ideological mission of Big Data, to get us to accept black-box algorithmic filtering as reflecting what would have chosen to see, had we been given the choice. In other words, the common understanding of “personalization” has been stretched to leave out the will of the actual person involved.

As I started to suggest in those tweets above, I think preemptive personalization is seductive only because of the pressure we experience to make our identities unique — to win the game of having a self by being “more original” than other people. That’s an impossible, nonsensical goal for self-actualization: self-knowledge probably involves coming to terms with how generic our wants and needs and thoughts are, and how dependent they are on the social groups within which we come to know ourselves, as opposed to some procedure of uncovering their pure idiosyncrasy. The idea that self-becoming or self-knowledge is something we’d want to make more “convenient” would seem counterproductive. The effort to be a self is its own end. 

But social media trap us in a tautological loop, in which we express ourselves to be ourselves to express ourselves, trying to claim better attention shares from the people we are ostensibly “connecting” with. Once we are trying to “win” the game of selfhood on the scoreboard of attention, any pretense of expressing an “inner truth” (which probably doesn’t exist anyway) about ourselves becomes lost in the rush to churn out and absorb content. When we start measure the self, concretely, in quantified attention rather than in terms of the nebulous concept of “effort,” it begins to make sense to accept algorithmic personalization, which reports the self to us as something we can consume. The algorithm takes the data and spits out a statistically unique self for us, that lets us consume our uniqueness as as a kind of one-of-a-kind delicacy. It masks from us the way our direct relations with other people shape who are, preserving the fantasy we are sui generis. It protects us from the work of recognizing and respecting the ways our actions have consequences for other people at very fundamental levels of their being. 

The point of “being unique” has broadened; it is a consumer pleasure as well as a productive achievement. So all at once, “uniqueness” (1) motivates content production for social-media platforms, (2) excuses intensified surveillance, and (3) allows filter bubbles to be imposed as a kind of flattery (which ultimately isolates us and prevents self-knowledge, of knowledge of our social relations). Uniqueness serves as a mechanism of control as much as an apparent expression of the freedom one has to be distinct.

Preemptive personalization is an overt example of Althusserian “interpellation”: The sites call out to us with a sense of knowing who we are, and we accept that as genuine recognition, not a method of positing who we are supposed to be. We become the simulacrum.  "That’s how websites work.“

As I approach 10,000 Tweets, I want to start trying to use Twitter’s metrics against the grain; I want to never reach 10,000 Tweets. The total-tweets count will be my guide and my prod to remember to delete tweets as I go. Ideally I would like to push that number down steadily until it’s as close to zero as possible, republishing the Tweets worth saving in another format — as I have been doing with screen shots of them on this Tumblr. (I don’t know how to embed Tweets on Tumblr or WordPress.)

Old Tweets seem useless on Twitter, or rather, useful only to entities I would rather not be available to, like data miners and “data scientists” and marketers and so on. So I want to make sure I make a practice of harvesting my own Twitter feed for essays, mini-essays, etc., making some effort to synthesize them into something more lastingly and coherently accessible to who I’d like to be reading them, even if that is just myself.

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I’ve invoked that opposition between “consumer choice” and “human interaction” in the past, but it’s a false dichotomy that may obscure more than it reveals. Consumerism is a form of human interaction, albeit a highly schematized one. 

Probably, the point in opposing them is to try to gesture toward the way enthusiasm (i.e., an eagerness to interact with friends) gets commercialized, gets turned into marketing buzz and status posturing. Social media often seems to foster this immediate conversion, apparently foreclosing the possibility of conveying enthusiasm without coming across like a word-of-mouth marketing agent or a distinction-seeking dilettante. The metrics and scoreboards of social-media platforms seem to shift the burden of proof to users, as using Twitter or Tumblr seems to betoken assent to quantification, an eagerness to play the attention game at the expense of the integrity of content. (Even using the word content seems to negate the possibility of its having integrity.)

But if you oppose human interaction to consumerism, you run the risk of setting the bar too high for what counts as “real” human interaction, effectively discouraging what interaction exists that overlaps consumerism or operates within it. Is no interaction better than consumerism-mediated interaction? If that is the claim, it needs to be argued explicitly. 

The Believer Logger – On Surveillance Poetics

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What I’ve always loved about the Pop vocabulary is its generosity to the viewer. And I say ‘generosity to the viewer’ because people, everyday, are confronted by images, and confronted by products that are packaged. And it puts the individual under great stress to feel packaged themselves … And so I always desire … to be able to give a viewer a sense of themselves being packaged, to whatever level they’re looking for. Just to instil a sense of self-confidence, self-worth. That’s my interest in Pop.

This credo fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our ‘self-confidence’ and ‘self-worth’ as human capital – that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. 

When self-worth is instrumentalized, it no longer belongs to you. It no longer refers to what you are worth to yourself, if such a thing is even worth imagining. “Self-worth” captures the idea of measuring oneself in an alien metric of value, of taking something that should be infinite (one’s “valuing” of one’s own existence) and making it commensurate with commodities, with abstract labor time, with economic growth rates.

Self-worth becomes sort of worthless when proved or demonstrated. So it makes sense to be suspicious of anyone who wants to boost your self-worth, or who wants to give you ways to assess it — anyone who wants you to believe it is not immeasurable, that it is alienable. Such people (or corporations, etc.) want to make your self-worth into a sort of capital, a productive asset, a form of property. But that means they want you to stake your self-esteem and risk it; entrepreneurial subjectivity means risk-taking, after all. Neoliberalist subjectivity requires the kind of ongoing, variable, volatile insecurity that we can measure and label as a “self-worth.”

LRB · Hal Foster · At the Whitney: Jeff Koons

I think that’s well-put, and that the similarity between the terms is no accident; hipsterism is an especially salient iteration of neoliberal subjectivity, one that gains currency by being slippery and inarticulable. These concepts become normalized by becoming boring and frustrating to talk about. The apparent vagueness in the terms seems to make them unalterable. The struggle to define them reflects the stakes of keeping them amorphous, capable of absorbing more and more behavior, making the way of thinking they describe feel inescapable, natural.

In a post called “We Are All Neoliberals” (just as no one is a hipster/neoliberal; everyone is), Jason Read argues that the inconsistent usage of the term neoliberalism hasblunted its critical usefulness, turned it into a euphemism rather than an analytical tool.

the meaning of the word has been reduced to a few vague inclinations about the truly bad kind of capitalism held together by invocations of competition, markets, and individualism. It has become what Althusser called a descriptive theory at best, and at worse a way to speak about capitalism without speaking about capitalism. In the worse case it became the name for a kind of nostalgia for an earlier kinder and gentler capitalism, one that we could get back to as soon as the full impact of the recession was felt and people started really paying attention to Paul Krugman.

When one looks at economic inequality or injustice or other forms of immiseration, one can drop in a “because neoliberalism” and bring the discussion to a futile close. The discussion can then dissolve into arguments about what that is supposed to mean.

If we use such terms as neoliberal and hipster affectively, as ill-defined pejoratives, we inadvertently strengthen the ideology behind them. This is not only because vague terms help naturalize the phenomena they are in the process of organizing. (Read notes that “this paradox defines much reactionary, or conservative thought, which always declares some hierarchy or principle natural while actively working to produce it.”) It is also because they make identification and description of the problem seem sufficient. That is to say, hipster (or neoliberal) describes an ideology (or a rationality) more than it does a person, and applying it to people can just make them scapegoats.  

So what is that ideology? Read, reviewing Dardot and Laval’s The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society in the aforementioned post, starts to trace their definition of the term, which they are anxious to differentiate from old liberalism, laissez-faire:

Neoliberalism is not the simple matter of leaving the market alone, of deregulation. Competition is not something that just exists, it must be actively produced and cultivated. As Dardot and Laval write, “Competitive capitalism is not a product of nature, it is a machine which requires constant surveillance and regulation." 

Neoliberalism is largely about fostering competition among atomized individuals and suppressing any sense of collectivity within society. Its tool for doing this, by and large, is quantification: surveillance to yield measurements. By combining an expanded Taylorism with entrepreneurial conceptions of the self as an enterprise, these measurements can be used to make efficiency a requirement of more and more of one’s life, effectively turning it all into work. When measured and circulated, all forms of behavior can become "productive” — can be recast as a kind of value that capitalism can capture. By making the self an enterprise, “growth” becomes the only means to make the self continue to seem real.

Of course, that surveillance is increasingly conducted through smartphones and social media, and through the passive collection of data assigned to individuated “users,” who are connected within networks as strictly discrete nodes. Surveillance articulates social networks (in explicit terms, in comprehensive archives) so that individuals are defined and isolated by the connections they make. This way, connectivity never leads to collectivity. The emphasis on efficiency and streamlined, mechanized social relations as a supposed form of convenience also reinforces this.

As Read notes in the review, the ideal of competitiveness is used to inculcate subjects with an “infinite demand for performance”: always be striving, always be trying. Contentment is turned into weakness, lack of imagination, cowardice, failure, the hallmark of an anti-entrepreneurial loser. And the denigration of collectivity in favor of personal responsibility makes risk a purely individual matter, and all failures personal failures. Fail more, strive harder.

Neoliberalist subjectivity, then, is about bringing a mentality of “winning” to every aspect of life — every little thing is a performance, a contest — while being forever discontented with the fruits of such success. The winning and losing is mediated by metrics, which induce one to assent to more invasive surveillance. The surveillance merely assures an audience for one’s performances and makes sure they are evaluated, given meaning. The metrics also overlay a veneer of objectivity to the endless evaluative process — numbers masquerade as a general equivalent. Neoliberal subjects want to “win” by amassing the most “human capital” across all the various dimensions of their lives, and they are invited to participate in the processes that harvest that capital as way of proving to themselves that it ever existed.

Talking about “hipsterism” is one way of evoking that kind of competitive self-production. Complaining about it is a muted way of complaining about neoliberal demands on identity to be productive for capital. Bemoaning “inauthenticity” seems a veiled way of talking about how the value of that self-production feeds the expanding capitalist system rather than the transcendent ego of the individual agent. Read notes that quantified “modes of evaluation are seen to be at odds with the qualitative missions of such institutions”; the spontaneous critique of hipsterism is likely a reflection of that, expressing dismay at the qualitative “mission” of having a self being turned into nothing more than a scoreboard.

The resilience of neoliberalism may have to do with how it allows criticism to be recast as opportunism: e.g., you are complaining about hipsters to score better than them on the same scale of distinction. You mock people for trying too hard, because it inflates the value of your effortful effortlessness. (See Prickett’s critique of this strain of Lana Del Rey’s critics; and Jennifer Pan’s critique of the criticism of marketing.) 

Anyway, I’ve been reading Dardot and Laval as well as William Davies’s The Limits of Neoliberalism and Jamie Peck’s Constructions of Neoliberal Reason, and I hope to synthesize it all into something that might help make the term neoliberalism less obfuscatory for me.