Techno-fixes are big business. Taking a quick look over the Financial Times’ list of the world’s largest companies, it might not surprise us that five of the top spots are occupied by corporations dealing in Information Technology. The looseness of this term connotes the production and dissemination of hardware, software and data, yet increasingly such companies are moving beyond this operational remit and have begun selling a vision of how life in its totality could—and should—be lived. Over the last decade, these so-called ‘Big Tech’ companies—Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook—have sought to fashion bespoke technological ‘fixes’ to particular global crises, with the aim being no less than shaping the future of humanity itself. Facebook’s Aquila solar drone project, for instance, will help four billion people in disparate regions of the globe ‘access all the opportunities of the internet’. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s experimental X subsidiary is developing Project Loon, a competing network infrastructure powered by a fleet of solar balloons .Which connected future do we want: one with networks of balloons or drones? Or, more to the point: one filtered through the prism of Google’s or Facebook’s algorithms? The fictional character of Gavin Belson, the deranged CEO of the quasi-Facebook-Google mashup Hooli in HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, captures the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism when he states with marked frustration:
It is not only the digital divide and the contingent possibilities of market expansion which Big Tech is claiming to ‘solve’ with these ambitious infrastructural projects. Climate change, healthcare, forced migration, democracy, and automation are all staked out in branded promotional media as challenges which have imminent technological solutions—just a few ‘versions’ away. In such media, we are pushed forward into a time where these complex issues have been resolved, becoming conspicuous non-features of everyday life, unrecognized background conditions that allow us to marvel at the much more spectacular and exciting business of glossy technological innovations: the familiar gesture-controlled sheets of glass, the smart-everythings and the augmented-anythings.
In these ‘design fictions’, as the Brazilian theorists Gonzatto et al. call such marketing campaigns, present crises ‘are anticipated and solved by technology’, proffering resolutions that ‘nurture consumers into consumption habits and convince investors of their capacity to fulfil those same demands’. In this way, design fictions are replete with ‘solutionist’ fantasies where digital technology is positioned as a corrective to the challenges and irregularities of living. Solutionism, what Evgeny Morosov describes as an ‘intellectual pathology’ that can only consider problems in the form of their smart technical ‘fix’, nullifies any wider discussion of the problem at hand, abstracting the proposed resolution from the historical, social and political context of its implementation.
Therefore, whilst it is hard not to be seduced by the glossy ingenuity of projects such as Aquila and Loon, we ought to take a moment to question the frictionless future championed in these grand projects. The crises opened up and subsequently ‘solved’ by Big Tech companies scaffold the realm of present and future possibilities for our collective engagement: to determine a set of relations as constituting a crisis is to justify and arrange the ground for its resolution. For this reason, it is important to ask: Whose crisis is it anyway? Who has defined the problem that needs solving? And whose interests are being served by these proposed solutions? With such queries in mind, the benign qualities of design fictions are problematised, and their rootedness in the techno-politics of the present become plainly visible.
The recent publication of Mark Zuckerberg’s Building Global Community manifesto affords such queries a timely focal point. At stake in Zuckerberg’s far-reaching manifesto is, in essence, the role that Big Tech can play in global governance. More specifically, it proposes the positive contribution that can come from Facebook’s direct engagement with the tasks of local and national security, the distribution and moderation of information, governmental politics, and fostering a post-national communalism.
These are indeed lofty ambitions, even for a company that boasts a quarter of the world’s population as monthly active users. However, Facebook purports to relish such a challenge, motivating employees by reminding them that the “journey is 1% finished”. The ‘journey’ in question here is the fixing of what Facebook sees as a crisis of disconnection experienced by those almost exclusively situated in remote regions of the Global South. Facebook asks us to imagine how much better the lives of these ‘disconnected’ people could be if only they had access to the same degree of internet connectivity that those of us in the Global North enjoy on a day-to-day basis. With these sentiments in mind, the remainder of Facebook’s arduous voyage will largely be accomplished through the development of high-profile projects such as Internet.org, where the polished graphics of constituent programmes such as Free Basics and the aforementioned Aquila act as ethical avatars for Facebook’s very own brand of solutionism.
Zuckerberg claims that, ‘in times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us’. Free Basics aims to provide a free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-freedom) curated portal to specific sites on the internet, providing information about healthcare, news, employment, and education to individuals who might otherwise live offline and thus disconnected lives. The humanitarian rhetoric follows that bringing ‘people online’ will ‘help improve their lives’ and additionally offer these societies ‘knowledge’, ‘tools’, and global connections—these are fundamentally good things worthy of our support, right? The predictable catch is revealed in Internet.org’s promotional material, whereby companies prospecting for new markets are offered a head-start on reaching ‘the next wave of people coming to the internet’, albeit through Facebook’s technical infrastructure and curatorial apparatuses. Such philanthropic endeavours, if successful, assist in consolidating the corporation’s present hegemonic position in future scenarios. For governments struggling with establishing network infrastructures, Free Basics proposes an attractively simple solution that, with Facebook’s capital and clout, can be quickly deployed and established. It is however a valuable foothold, one that prescribes a developmental course that entangles the technical apparatuses of the corporation with the task of future regional governance. This is the strategic-thinking which fuels the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism, and which sits as the political kernel of future visions. It is the rhetoric of the real-life Gavin Belsons of Silicon Valley.
By determining that there is a crisis of disconnection, Facebook prepares the ground for its resolution in the form of projects such as Internet.org. The idea that a global community of connected Facebook users can level the systematic inequalities in wages, living standards, and welfare provision inherent to globalized capitalism is a resolution that erases the multiplicity of forces acting upon a complex array of interacting crises. In making this erasure, Facebook’s logic of development draws an uncomplicated line of progression from ‘unconnected’ to ‘connected’ subjects. Such thinking is as obviously reductionist, and contestable, as the pathways that lead from ‘boy’ to ‘man’, ‘young’ to ‘old’, ‘civilised’ to ‘uncivilised’. These binary terms edifying developmental logic are laden with normative significance, implying a way of thinking about the world that presupposes and prescribes a certain way of living within it. The interconnected and complex issues that contribute to global inequality—institutional structural biases, discriminatory trade relations, the experiences of colonialism, the exploitation of resources, to name but a scant few of a vast number—do not even come into the equation. In this schematic, Facebook’s own position in relation to these matters is unacknowledged. Furthermore, the position of humans as ‘Facebook users’ worldwide is not only rendered as neutral, closing off debate around value production and labour processes in digital capitalism, but positively imbued with some sort of higher moral purpose. What does it mean, then, for Facebook to imagine a time beyond crisis? To offer a resolution to the ‘problem’ of global disconnection? As Antoinette Rouvroy would argue, such thinking inoculates the present and ‘forecloses the future’.
This example of Internet.org does not simply aim to expose the economic incentives lurking behind such seemingly benevolent global projects—these motives should be obvious enough already. Rather, we hope to have opened up the conversation surrounding these future visions, and the possibility of techno-fixes in general, as a means to question how we as humans come to know, relate to, and interact with both the technological era we inhabit and the perceived ‘crises’ of our time. We suggest that determining the political qualities of a ‘crisis’ opens an essentially creative and interpretative space—one that leads to a recognition of both vulnerability and empowerment. To situate yourself within the field of imagined problems and potential resolutions is to shape the possibilities of your subsequent action. Being exiled from this process, by virtue of being exterior to the kind of walled-off discussions leading Internet.org’s various initiatives, leaves us neither vulnerable nor empowered. Rather, we find ourselves neutralized in the analytical inertia of solutionist design fictions and the galleries of seductive techno-fixes rendered within.
If solutionism presupposes techno-fixes which close off alternative paths of action, Network Diagnostics intends to provide a space that expands our ability to think beyond these prescriptive future visions of Big Tech. Using ‘troubleshooting’ as a methodological tool, we propose to collaboratively examine not just what such visions include, but, perhaps more significantly, what they leave out. We aim to hold open a space for creative analytical discussion, whilst shirking the call to find a rigorous ‘fix’ to what we discover. In doing so, we hope to invigorate the modes of analysis available to those interested in the relationship between humanity and technology in the era of big data capitalism. Our collective diagnostic of the future ultimately hopes to help people understand, live within, and resist the conditioning forces we currently face in the present. Whilst we are not proposing solutions, and we do not claim to have fixed the crisis of analytical inertia wrought by the pressure of technological advancement, our practice uninhibits critique by recognizing the empowerment of claiming vulnerability, and problematising the relations at work in foreclosed, prescribed crises. Whereas Facebook and other such organisations strive to ‘move fast’, we suggest that we should dwell thoughtfully in the process of diagnosis in an effort to self-reflexively decouple the crisis from its readymade solution.
Niall Docherty is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. His research involves an analysis of Facebook within the neoliberal context of its inception and current use, through the frames of governmentality and software studies.
Dave Young is an artist and a M3C/AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham, and is currently researching bureaucratic media and systems of command and control in the US military since the Second World War.
Featured image: America by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale
“There is no outside anymore.”1 – Olafur Eliasson
On May 16 2007, the Guggenheim issued a press release stating that Felix Gonzalez-Torres would represent the United States at the Venice Biennale2. The Cuban-born artist, whose relationship to his adopted country was critical and complicated, had become a poster child for it. His body of work was edited to exclude explicit homosexual references: “gone are the doubled clocks and almost all the doubled circles, all the pieces with “Loverboy” in the title … and all specific references to Ross”3. The exception to this was a major new work, a doubled marble pool, which was presented not as a “figure of queer coupling”4, but rather described in vague, sublime terms: a “sign of infinity … a beacon of hope”5. This frictionless ideological integration of the artist into the State Department programme was a notable example of cultural co-option, a de-queered oeuvre appropriated for “conservative ends”6. But it also symbolized a sophisticated hegemony in that the artist’s work engendered an ‘interpassivity’, performing a counter or anti-stance for the public and thereby enabling a critical catharsis to unfold in a benign fashion7. While Gonzalez-Torres himself was acutely aware of the potential for his work to be caricatured or co-opted8, this posthumous assimilation is indicative of a cultural terrain which has become increasingly precarious, a kind of critical claustrophobia where free territory is quickly swallowed up and every potential step has already been predicted.
If this is the hazardous space of the outsider, then many contemporary artists can be characterized by their willingness to work from within: employing the logic, language and conventions of their chosen systems in preemptive co-option or collaboration.
Screenshot from the “HyperCurrentLiving” website displaying current stats
In Ryder Ripps “HyperCurrentLiving”, the artist collaborates with Red Bull in a month long ‘performance’ where Ripps generates ideas and consumes the company’s energy drinks, updating these daily totals on a website. A live webcam allows the public to monitor his output: the artist sitting in front of a laptop in a self-designed karate suit emblazoned with both the Ripps and Red Bull graphic identities. The artist exemplifies the artist as cultural worker and in turn, the cultural worker as late capitalism agent par excellence.
A one-man advertising agency, Ripps engages in the type of ‘blue sky thinking’ prevalent across the communication sector, producing dematerialized commodities which are distributed virally via his Twitter feed. One concept (“a single serving site that tells you if you are being exploited at your internship”) cascades quickly after another (“an app that tells you if your gif is derivative or not”)9. Binge energy-drinking fuels this surge of productivity, shrugging off exhaustion and nutrition as inconvenient bodily constraints which drag down the bottom line.
On the face of it, this co-branding exercise between the artist and Red Bull, who spend 30-40% of their earnings on marketing10, seems like a productive synergy, a perfect collaboration. But Ryder is simply too much: by living out the brand (and wider contemporary) ideals to such an extent, an unspoken malaise is also laid bare. Aspirational traits lose their gleam: “connection” slides into technological incarceration, “busy” blurs into workaholic. While Ripps online persona remains vigilant through the night, his tweets static and steady, his disintegrating, hopped-up body quietly problematizes the ideal of the supercharged creative. By literally incarnating brand values, Ripps offers himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of hyper capitalism – a body incessantly creating and indefinitely deferring collapsing.
Julius von Bismarck operates within the logic of a different system: media and image production. People’s “great trust in their photographic reproductions of reality”11 motivated the development of the Image Fulgurator, an optically triggered projector which beams an image the instant it detects a camera flash. Essentially the device “lies in wait”12 for a member of the press to take a photo, infecting their snapshot with a text or image motif at the same moment it’s taken. If media is the “continuation of politics by other means”13, then the gun-like Fulgurator is part of the “new weaponry of information and communication technologies”14.
In one of von Bismarck’s best known works, he attended a speech by Barack Obama, projecting a white cross onto the podium and highlighting the “cult of personality” centred around the presidential candidate. Unlike post-editing techniques such as Photoshop, von Bismarck’s interventions insert themselves into the physical fabric of situations where power is performed and aura is staged: “NO” hovering above the Pope, an “O2” logo momentarily pinned on Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit or a Magritte dove overlaying Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square.
The artist follows PR logic to it’s inevitable conclusion, where the immediate public becomes merely a prop in a mediated reality staged primarily for the press: sight lines and backdrops defined for a camera’s CCD chip. By operating within this temporary media space where the eye is largely superfluous, von Bismarck’s sub-second intervention is able to avoid detection while simultaneously rupturing an otherwise contiguous reality.
In many respects the so-called democratisation of news media has served the established providers – citizen journalists supplementing bare-bones media units and eyewitness smartphone footage winning back viewers for clicks and advertising revenue. Von Bismarck’s media interventions, however, take this phenomenon at face value, his images asserting their equal rights with any others. Decoupled from the copyright assertions of major media networks and distributed via Google spiders or social interactions, this “errant idea”15 becomes itinerant, taking its place alongside other “legitimate” imagery in search results and image banks.
Screenshot from Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze”
Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze” project stages its intervention in the social media sphere. The London-based artist invited his friends to participate in a 3 month “semi-scripted”16 performance on a self-contained network on Facebook. The participants scalped profiles from real American college students and enacted a series of fictional narratives centred around this formative period: a girl cheating on her first crush, a fraternity hazing gone wrong, the suicide of a good friend. The increased sophistication of social networks coupled with fluency in internet tools and tropes allowed the participants to employ a range of methodologies to advance the narrative: maps to establish location, comments on an upcoming event, live chats for personal encounters, or friends tagged in photos.
Like von Bismarck, Fornieles harnesses the goal of a system, extrapolating it to an extreme.
Here the identity tweaking carried out by every Facebook member – snapshots retouched and likes carefully distributed – is transformed into wholesale identity construction, preening becoming performance.
Participation is the currency of social networks, modeled by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, who had no qualms about setting most of his content to open and “didn’t see a need to limit visibility of pics with my friends, family”17. But while Fornieles downplays any subverting potential in the project, stating that it brought “committed users”18, these aren’t the users that the Facebook management, its new investors, or its advertisers are looking for. Fornieles has jettisoned the last shred of “authenticity” from the social media sphere, producing a group of profiles who can’t be monetized or monitored because of the simple fact that they don’t exist. Neither bots nor bodies, these ghost profiles LOLing their way through Facebook mock a billion dollar infrastructure, mining every connectivity tool in a purposeless play with a null result.
While this self contained durational performance was merely a speculative fiction, the feedback loop it initiates in the participant’s everyday existence is more persistent. Fornieles elaborates that the skills learnt “during this hypothetical three month exodus would be reapplied in conventional reality”19. For a generation brought up with avatars and profile pics, this practiced performativity sets the stage for a more permanent and personal “enhanced narrative”20, engendering an intervention IRL (in real life) which further blurs the “real/fictional binary”21.
On the face of it, Ripps, von Bismarck and Fornieles belong to an era of artists that may “no longer dream of an outside”22, their work utilizing the logic of branding and media to stage interventions that appear more collaborative than combative, preemptively disarming attempts at appropriation. But the lock-step engendered by this emulation inevitably fails. Accelerated by technology, betrayed by a body or liberated by the lack of one, this faltering may not disrupt the march of the inevitable so much as expose its inherent untenability.
Richard Stallman the outspoken promoter for the Free Software movement, hates Facebook with a passion. He proposes that we should all leave Facebook and either find or build our own alternatives. The evidence offered by Stallman’s and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF), who have been fighting for Internet freedoms since the 90s  shows how necessary it is that we understand and are more pro-active in managing the personal data that we give away through our online activities.
When we subscribe to Web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook we are at the mercy of the data brokers. These companies trade in people’s personal data; information which is aggregated by monitoring user actions and interactions across social media. This information can include “names, addresses, phone numbers, details of shopping habits, and personal data such as whether someone owns cats or is divorced.” Fast moving developments in social media, make it difficult to keep up with the effects and consequences of these platforms. This is why the work of groups such as Commodify Inc. is so valuable. They bring imaginative and critical attention to the situation, sharing their knowledge of these daily networked complexities and correcting what they see as its negative effects.
Commodify Inc. is an artist-run Internet startup producing projects to help individuals capitalize on their online monetary potential. Their intention is to correct the imbalance of power in markets where users have no control over the transactions made with their personal data. They have completed various artistic projects and interventions on social media like, Fame Game, Give Me My Data, and Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. The co-founders are Birgit Bachler, Walter Langelaar, Owen Mundy, Tim Schwartz, with additional contributors Joelle Dietrick and Steven Alvarado.
Their new project Commodify.Us, was initiated when Owen Mundy and Tim Schwartz were invited by moddr_ to a residency in their lab in the summer of 2012 – when they were still a part of the WORM collective in Rotterdam. They worked on an initial idea that would succeed previous experiences of their already well-known and respected projects.
Commodify.Us is currently in beta phase. It promises to provide a platform for people to regain control over the commercial exploitation of their own personal data.
Intrigued by this project I contacted one of the co-founders, Walter Langelaar via email and asked him a few questions about this new platform.
Marc Garrett: Commodify.Us is for people to have greater control over their data. And it works when users export their data from social media websites and upload it to your platform. How will these users gain more control over their data and why is this important?
Walter Langelaar: Commodify.Us provides a platform for you to regain control over the commercial exploitation of your personal data. After exporting your profile data from social media websites and uploading the data to Commodify.Us, you can directly get in contact with interested buyers. On the importance for users I would say that it’s part raising awareness surrounding the monetization of profile data, and part creating a platform where people might work out and discuss how to do this themselves.
MG: It proposes to re-imagine the potential of relational data, creating a casting agency for virtual personas. I’m wondering what this may look like?
WL: We were too. In an early stage of the project we played with the idea that peoples’ various profiles could function like that within an agency; a client would ask for a specific set of qualities and/or characteristics within a set of profiles, and we could provide for this based on the uploads and their licensing options as set by the user. In the end we abandoned this idea for clarity.
MG: Commodify.Us offers people the opportunity to be part of an economy where interested buyers will pay to use the data supplied, unlike existing social media websites. How does this work?
WL: We are gearing up for a launch where the main goal will be to get a critical mass of around, a 1000 profiles. We anticipate that only with this kind of mass or volume will our initiative take hold with the potential buyers we have in mind, and the same goes for the more creative projects that could use the (open) data. Regarding the open profile data and otherwise licensed profiles that allow for reuse, we are researching the idea of ‘Fair Data’ (as in Fair Trade) and how to implement this as a profitable protocol for the end-user.
“Net activists construct tools whose intervention potential can be initiated by users under net conditions. These tools enable activists to develop new strategies in the data space of the Internet because they offer new means: New means afford new ends.” (Dreher)
In his publication Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Geert Lovink lays down the gauntlet and asks us to “collectively unleash our critical capacities to influence technology design and workspaces, otherwise we will disappear into the cloud.” Anna Munster opens her excellent survey, Data Undermining: The Work of Networked Art in an Age of Imperceptibility, by saying “The more data multiplies both quantitatively and qualitatively, the more it requires something more than just visualisation. It also needs to be managed, regulated and interpreted into patterns that are comprehensible to humans.” Commodify.Us goes one step further by allowing users to manage, regulate, repattern and reappropriate their own data using tools that share an essential functionality (if not purpose) with the power tools of Web 2.0.
Those previously seen as rebellious hacktivists are moving into new territories that deal with concepts of service. There has been a significant rise of artists exploring technology to influence mass Internet activity, against the domination of corporations who are data mining and tracking our on-line activities. Another example is TrackMeNot developed by Daniel Howe and Helen Nissenbaum. This is an extension created for the Firefox browser. “It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.”
Howe and Nissenbaum mention they are aware their venture is not an immediate solution. However, the more we hear of and join these imaginative strategies “whereby individuals resist surveillance by taking advantage of blind spots inherent in large-scale systems” , and the more we adapt our behaviours to adopt these new ‘activist’ services, the more we demonstrate the demand for these new alternatives. And by so doing, we argue for the value of services that we can trust not to steal or manipulate our social contexts for financial and political gain.
A significant value offered by the Commodify.Us platform is the power to manage our own data. The simple act of downloading our own data from Facebook, and then uploading it to Commodify.Us supports us to rethink what all this information is. What once was just abstract data suddenly becomes material that we can manipulate. Alongside this realization arrives the understanding that this material was made by our interactions with all these platforms, and that other people are spying on us and making money out of it all. Once this data material is uploaded onto the Commodify.Us platform, it asks if we want this stuff to be a product under our own terms, or if we wish to make art out of it using their tools.
This is a cultural shift that demonstrates how contemporary Hacktivists are developing software that promises to offer realistic service infrastrucutures. When I interviewed Charlie Gere in 2012 he said that these artists “are not part of the restricted economy of exchange, profit, and return that is at the heart of capitalism, and to which everything else ends up being subordinated and subsumed. Thus they find an enclave away from total subsumption not outside of the market, but at its technical core.” For me, this kind of work is of central importance to the contemporary era, and it only occurs where artists cross over into territories where their knowledge of networks directly contributes to the building of alternative structures of social independence.