Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Notes on blogland

I have never been motivated enough to write anything detailed about the political valences of 'the internet', despite plenty of goading, and despite having 'debated' the subject in a slightly off-the-cuff manner on a couple of occasions. To be honest, I found the whole idea incredibly boring. What was there to say that wasn't obvious? I know this is philistinism.

Prior to leaving the SWP, the subject suddenly became much more important, and I co-authored a piece for the 'Internal Bulletin' before the party's 'special conference'. The piece was informed by some of the usual academic readings, but eschewed the scholastic debates (Castells vs Morozov; slacktivism vs creative autonomy; etc) and language in favour of a practical argument intended to explain why political parties - to the extent that they ever could - would no longer be able to maintain a culture of secrecy, even if such was desirable. Of course, there could be a degree of confidentiality in restricted circumstances, all depending on the good will and political discipline of those involved - but secrecy, the idea that one's discussions take place outside of the scrutiny of either members or the public, is over. One practical consequence of this, as far as the IS Network is concerned, is that we make a point of keeping records of our 'internal' discussions and publishing the minutes on the website - something that was unthinkable in the SWP.

Here, as a starting point for discussion, I want to spell out some more general arguments about politics and the internet which have, in their totality, clear practical consequences. I make no claim to originality in any of this.

I. 'The internet', as such, doesn't exist. This is a cultural commonplace. Comical attempts to represent 'the internet' as a 'thing' might involve depicting it as a giant broadband hub device (as in South Park, where a shortage of 'internet' was solved by pulling the giant plug out and putting it in again) or a normal sized one (as in The IT Crowd, in which Jen is gulled into thinking that the small blinking box she holds is 'the internet'), but the joke is very clear: 'the internet' isn't a tangible 'thing'.  But when it comes to analysis, the temptation is always to take the object of analysis for granted, to become entranced by it. A great deal of cyber-idealism derives, in my opinion, from 'forgetting' that what is called 'the internet' is a set of processes and relations; that the tangible effects which appear to confirm its existence are the various results of these processes.  And that cyber-idealism is shared even - especially - by morose critics of cyber-utopianism such as Morozov who maintain a strict online-offline dichotomy.  If  'the internet' doesn't exist as such, neither does a strict demarcation between 'the internet' and 'not the internet'.

II. These processes and relations are all inflected by the specific materiality of Web 2.0 - that is, its specific technological bases and protocols, and its evolving systems of signification, of encoding and decoding. Beyond this simple fact, their base of commonality is quite narrow. For instance, the relation between a sole Twitter user, those whom she follows, and those who follow her, is qualitatively quite different to the relationship between a corporate Twitter user, its follows and followers. The processes, the habits of posting, tagging, re-tweeting and so on, are remarkably different in each case. This is because the technology is articulated on existing social (economic, political, ideological) relations. It modifies these relations, and I will be particularly concerned with its effect on ideological relations, but it cannot substitute for them or resolve their antagonisms or 'contradictions'. To believe otherwise is to succumb to technological fetishism.  

III. One consequence of this is obviously that there are pronounced inequalities in access to and use of the internet, whether in terms of bandwidth, or the languages permitted in the dominant websites, or the political controls operating on it.  The vast majority of Twitter accounts are followed by less than a 100 people, and a relatively tiny proportion of tweeters makes up for the greatest volume of tweets.  Celebrities, companies, governments, PR firms, news and media outfits, and so on, all make up the vast bulk of social media traffic.  James Curran et al have demonstrated this consequence with ample rigour - albeit at times slightly overzealous in their prosecution of internet utopianism - and I feel no need to go into detail here.  It may be said that because the internet favours networked relations, it therefore favours more more horizontal, flexible and decentred types of organisation.  While the business-minded (cf., capitalist scum) would point out that this reinforces similar tendencies in the organisation of industries, some activists have claimed that it echoes the increasingly rhizomatic, non-centralised forms of political action that characterise social movements.  But networks do not necessarily mean 'no hierarchies', particularly when they are articulated on profound political, ideological and economic hierarchies.  What is true is that it is incredibly difficult simply to exclude certain ideas or agents outright.  Whereas a person can go through her whole life without ever being a guest on BBC Newsnight, it's increasingly implausible that she will never have a post re-tweeted or shared by far more people than she knows.  The main benefit of social media for political activists is to help break through the ideological monopoly of the ideological-state apparatuses.

IV. 'Social media' as such is not a novelty; the authentically popular presses of the last century were social media. The types of social media made available by Web 2.0 are not totally sui generis. When theorists such as Castells celebrate the 'creative autonomy' facilitated by social media, they are not completely wrong; but they are mistaken to the extent that they think this is a totally original feature of the internet.  Nor is the novelty in the use of electronic data interchange; before social media, there was texting, and before texting there was telexing and faxing.  What is distinctive about social media in this respect is: i) the scale of user-generated content, allowing for the ideological monopoly of the existing ideological-state apparatuses to be challenged at certain decisive points; b) the scale at which it has accelerated communications, such that the spread of information is unpredictable, and almost impossible to stop; c) and the fact that its celerity is bound up with a networked form wherein obstacles such as censorship (or privacy) can generally be routed around.

V. Technology is not socially neutral. One of the more naive types of social criticism is expressed in the idea that a technology is indifferent to its social uses: you can use a hammer to bash in someone's head, or nail up a picture, it doesn't care which. The reality is that certain technologies do incline toward certain social arrangements more than others. Nuclear power tends to support more hierarchical, secretive structures.  If anything, social media tends to encourage the opposite: a panopticon effect.  It is easier now for state secrets to be exposed, but also easier for surveillance to be implemented.  It's not simply that one can be spied on by the state or by one's employers - think of Azhar Ahmed, the famous #twitterjoketrial, the people locked up for things they said during the riots. It is that there are consequences for political subjectivities.  A bit crudely, Morozov has claimed that people sign petitions or share activist material online simply to impress their friends.  The kernel of truth in that is that whatever you say has to be gauged not just for an intimate audience of friends and family, who know and understand your attitudes and affective dispositions, but for potentially the whole of the internet.  Getting it right, projecting the correct image, and receiving the appropriate feedback, becomes extremely important: why else would you stay up all night because "someone is wrong on the internet"?  Lasch's worries about capitalism engendering a collective retreat to narcissistic fantasy now look sweetly naive.  But aside from that, the tendencies toward ideological conformity at certain crucial moments, the coercive power of ideology, is reinforced by this.  Think about the horrors of social media during the England riots in 2011, think of the 'spontaneous' outpouring of support for the police and the tidal wave of racist authoritarianism, as people outbid each other to come up with the thickest thing to say, drawing on the dominant ideologies that they had imbibed from the ideological-state apparatuses over the years.

VI. The major impact of social media on agents is not the sharpening or modification of existing tendencies toward individualisation, but rather the sharpening and modification of tendencies toward the destruction of the individual. The individual on social media is not the self-sufficient ground of its communicative structure, but rather a contingent assembly of networked nodes, projects, etc. The algorithms of searches, trending topics, and the logic of 'sharing', 'retweeting', 'hashtags', and so on - leaving aside the paid for advertising promotions of certain companies - supports an 'emergent order', wherein the real 'brain' of communication is not the individual with her 'creative autonomy', but rather the medium itself. As Mirowski points out in his new book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, this tends to give it an elective affinity with neoliberalism, which re-defines the human in a similar way.  It is not 'networked individualism', but the fragmentation of individuals into several networked nodes, that is taking place.  

VII. It follows from this that the idea of a dramatic increase in 'creative autonomy', pivoted on the autonomous individual as the ground of communicative activity, is in need of serious qualification.  Because the emergent order of social media, that hive mind, is clearly structured by the materiality of Web 2.0 and the social relations on which it is articulated.  How successfully a node can project its message depends on how well it masters the protocols of these social media, how much resources it is able to dispose of in doing so, and how much access to the traditional ideological-state apparatuses it has.  Further, the process of what Castells calls 'mass self-communication', as opposed to simple one-way 'mass communication', is similarly dependent: the forms of representation, ideological interpellations and subjectivities that form the basis for 'mass self-communication' are produced within the existing ideological-state apparatuses, and whatever counter-hegemonic apparatuses exist.  Not only that but the commodification of the internet and the acceleration of monopoly tendencies within it ensures that the last thing people are is ultimately autonomous: the business model tends to be selling audiences (eyeball attention, personal information) to governments and advertisers, and with user-generated content the users' labour is directly harnessed to the profitability of the providers.  The autonomy and creativity that people enjoy here is only relative to the completely passive position of television viewers.

These points should hopefully underline a few practical consequences: that the internet and social media in particular offers unprecedented opportunities for marginal groups that exploit it effectively (and I would say 'early', but...); that it renders absolute secrecy increasingly obsolete; that it disrupts the monopoly of the dominant ideology, but also reinforces it at critical junctures; that it cannot substitute for a radical infrastructure, for counter-hegemonic apparatuses; that the 'autonomy' it affords is only relative and highly insecure, and therefore one needs a 'back-up' in case it fails or is withdrawn.

As I say, this was intended as some starting points for political discussion, especially among IS Network members, but it's also my late entry into a wider discussion that has been going on for some time.