While Big Tech’s reception in the early noughties was split between the critical activism of an invisible network of media artists, and blissful ignorance from the commercial fine arts, today’s art world as a whole seems to have formed a peculiar liaison with Big Tech’s current commodity, social media. How do we keep opposing Big Tech and how can we escape our own complicity in affirming its power?
AN EXERCISE IN THE HERESY OF DATA:
ART’S CO-DEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
This presentation contributed to the symposium DigiDic – System Change August 28. – 29.2020 that will lead to the development of resistant strategies in a series of exhibitions in 2021. It reflects my position as a user and critic of consumerist society, particularly broaching the issue of my own active complicity while holding incongruent ideologies.
As a philosopher, writer and curator in Media and Fine Arts, in recent years I have felt more and more pressured into bouncing between several worlds:
Frequently working with media artists who are very critical of Big Tech but still run an array of social media accounts, I observe not only the voracious data leech of Big Tech, but also the growing dependency on it, on several levels.
I myself have come partly to terms with digital tools such as social media and commercial platforms, and perceive my user behaviour to be ‘episodes of action’ where the pros—for example, the dissemination of certain information—temporarily outweigh the cons. Generally, though, my relationship with Facebook and co. is rather complicated because I just do not enjoy immersing myself in the flow of information on the screen and occasionally feel a sense of agoraphobia when it comes to posting things. Personally, I don’t feel much euphoria getting 10 likes from my closest network, of which two—I strongly suspect—use bots. I would much rather meet with them in person.
As a member of an artist collective that critically reflects upon today’s digital and prosumer cultures in didactic media workshops, I not only work on, but also with art. Here, we refer to methodologies from cultural anthropology that put consumerist belief systems to the test. In some respects, this activity parallels the discussion on digital dictatorship in Big Tech, which I will comment on later.
My roots, however, lie in the world of fine arts. Here I’m confronted with a professional network that has very much embraced the commodity of social media, especially the cheap services offered by platform capitalism. It happily absorbed the neoliberal service economy.
I’m noting this to give an impression of how conflicting today’s acts, thoughts and communities are. All the people in the network I just mentioned are good at rationalizing the evil in the combination of capital and code. Yet, only a few tend to have an on-off—or even a completely cut off—relationship with these services.
From a philosophical perspective, I find this is extremely interesting, as it presents to us a truth that we usually only reluctantly accept:
ALL OF US ARE ASTOUNDINGLY PRONE TO SELF-DECEPTION.
We tend to uphold our worldview in favor of myths and superstitions.
To me, it seems that this is precisely what feeds the ideological, political and economic dilemma we live in. However, I claim that both—critics and facilitators of the system—are trapped in this game of illusion.
As critics, I think we should ask ourselves: How useful it is to be split between believing that capitalism has supposedly outlived itself—that its classical structure has run dry and was updated with Platform Capitalism (Nick Srnicek 2016), which now mines data and rationalizes time in a service-oriented gig-economy—, and the presence of a god-like Cybernetic Mono-Technologism (Yuk Hui 2020) that is able to direct our movements and even thoughts? Where does it lead to, if we conclude that the most innovative business model today processes social values into financial values (Tiziana Terranova, forthcoming) by designing our notion of community as something that is connected through the Internet and personal devices from the very start, thereby—somewhat in the fashion of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—turning what we already have into a marketable commodity?
The products delivered by the suppliers Facebook, Alphabet or PayPal, and their respective Chinese or EU counterparts, are designed to involve us in a co-dependent relationship by fusing the human need for togetherness with a longing for symbolic capital. Sadly, its profit cashes in mainly on the corporation’s side.
Meanwhile, power in the 20th century had famously been conceptualized as a state-directed panopticon.
Today, in the age of ‘transparency’, we find ourselves trapped in a mirror maze riddled with genuine individuals (real humans are already quite complicated to understand and are always eager to take an envious side glance), but also fakes and phoneys whose desire it is to engage us in order to validate their messages and gain attention. In addition to all that, they—knowingly and unknowingly—work for an invisible greater purpose:
THEY WILL MAKE US PRODUCE ANALYZABLE INTERACTIONS.
This prison is far from being tangible, as it blends in so well with the “real” of our relationships and our habitual behavior.
But we also tend to forget that all the data derived from this is empirical and quite disputable, if not continuously subordinated to some kind of qualitative (let alone scientific) review. Data mining produces more messy data than actual airtight correlations. Yes, tech’s power lies in collecting information, but what makes it “Big” is us also believing in the market potential of quantification and algorithmic analysis, thereby feeding its myth. The truth is possibly more boring than we expect, if we remember that the algorithm’s main objective is finding correlations for purchasing purposes, and linking people who like <fruit> to <fruit>.
The beauty in us humans is that we are genuinely unpredictable and—being the natural philosopher I am at heart—I feel that here even lies a key for natural resistance, as Big Tech’s power to “read” and “predict” behavior is quite inflated by its marketing departments.
Awareness of our very entanglement is therefore crucial in order to understand how to release ourselves from the illusiveness of the “Big” in Tech and its twinkling chains.
One method of RECOVERING TECHNO-UTOPIAN ARTISTS, popular amongst my peers, uses AFFIRMATIVE CRITIQUE to tackle the issue of being an accomplice of the subject one wishes to transgress. It derives from an ideological crisis that has its root in aesthetics’ truism that negating an object will contribute as much to its persistence as to its affirmation.
The tools here are irony, subversion and the absurd. The idea is to detect core aspects of the subject one wishes to critique and maximize their affirmation with an excessively performed endorsement. This pushes the subject’s meaning to a point where it reaches absolute ridicule and even shifts to negation. What comes out, however, is not always laughter, but rather, in both artists and beholders, the painful insight of how deeply we are involved in confirmation bias and unconsciously supportive of the system(s) we want to destroy. This method seeks to break up the dialectic of critique and expose its game in order to reveal the hidden and controversial patterns of human behavior. It is also a method of dispersing the predictability of our actions and movements online.
Although I’ve found AFFIRMATIVE CRITIQUE to be particularly helpful in introducing playful instructions to target our deeply internalized consumerist behaviors, I do feel uneasy with its blatant post-ironic feel. Yet, this sentiment comes from realizing that the main task in the age of commodified networks has shifted from flashy attempts of ‘HOW TO UNDO THE SYSTEM’ to a rather humble ‘HOW TO PREVAIL IN AN AGE OF POST-UTOPIANISM?’ and ‘HOW TO ENVISION A WORLD BEYOND TECHNO-CAPITALISM’S REACH?’.
The beautiful pun in UTOPIA’s double entendre—as the aspired good place (Greek eu-topos) and the unattainable no place (Greek ou-topos)—has become a farce in the web of capital and code. This is what many critical millennials—myself included—are currently coping with. But it also suggests that the kind of revolution we have to launch might not be the same disruptive and loud one of the past millennia.
I think it will take a united and very determined European politics (Floridi 2020) to adjust laws and regulations, but also a nuanced activism—perhaps even not from within the arts—to prevent us from succumbing to the promises of automation and revenue, and let us stay ahead in the game of deception.
Lona Gaikis. 28. August 2020. LAMES, St. Pölten (AT)
LITERATURE / GOOD READS
Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. New York / London: Verso Books, 2018.
Floridi, Luciano. “The Fight for Digital Sovereignty: What It Is, and Why It Matters, Especially for the EU.” Philosophy & Technology 33, no. 3 (September 1, 2020): 369–78. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-020-00423-6.
Hui, Yuk. “One Hundred Years of Crisis.” E-Flux Journal #108, April 2020. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/108/326411/one-hundred-years-of-crisis/.
Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.
Terranova, Tiziana. Hypersocial. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, forthcoming.
Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. Pluto Press, 2004.