Category Archives: collaboration and technology

Conversations Below Sea Level: Marc Worrell


Who owns your social network profile? — An Interview with Marc Worrell

(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Marc Worrell (social network profile, personal website) is software architect and partner at Mediamatic, a hybrid enterprise/cultural organization in Amsterdam engaged in developing software applications for clients as well as exploring new media, art, and society through exhibitions, presentations, workshops, manifestations and all sort of onsite/online cultural events. Marc is the architect behind Mediamatic’s content management system (CMS) anyMeta, which you can see at work on their website. I interviewed Marc in the high-traffic kitchen area of Mediamatic on May 30th.

Ulises Mejias: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the history of Mediamatic?

Marc Worrell: The Mediamatic Foundation was started in the mid 1980’s by Willem Velthoven and Jans Possel. I think they were still students in Groningen, in northern Netherlands. And they started a magazine about new media. At the time, new media meant interactive CDs and such, so they started incorporating that into their work. As Willem himself says, because he started writing about new media, people assumed that he knew a lot about producing it, which is not necessarily the same! So the Foundation grew a more commercial branch next to it, Mediamatic IP. This company did web sites, print design, more commercial stuff. It also made it possible to fund the Foundation a little bit, at least with office space, etc. There was another branch that focused on education: people learning how to make websites, editing, how to write for the web, project management around Internet projects, etc. The philosophy at Mediamatic was always that once you learn how to do something, you immediately make it possible for other people to learn how to do it, redistributing the knowledge. Then of course we had the dot com crash. Money just ran out for Mediamatic IP. It was decided to continue with some projects, like the Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands, but Medimatic IP itself declared bankruptcy. At that time Mediamatic Lab was started, as a partner to the Foundation, and that’s where we do our work today on social networks, websites, etc. for our clients, and where we do the implementation of the “strange” ideas that come out of the Foundation. Continue reading

Conversations Below Sea Level: Rik Maes

rik maes

Making Sense of Information: An Interview with Rik Maes

(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Rik Maes (bio, personal website) is currently Dean of the Executive Master in Information Management Program and Program Director of PrimaVera at the University of Amsterdam Business School (full disclosure: my research fellowship is sponsored by this program). We sat down to talk on May 28.

Ulises Mejias: What is PrimaVera?

Rik Maes: PrimaVera is the Program for Research in Information Management. It is part of the Department of Information Management, which is located in the UvA Business School. We started the program about 10 years ago, as a way to bring together a number of perspectives on the way we deal with information management. From the very beginning, a basic point was the issue of structuration, of the architecture of information systems. But another very important issue was the area of ‘making sense,’ of transforming information into something more: knowledge, wisdom… Over the years, our focus has evolved. One of the main subjects we are now dealing with is what we call ‘information governance’: producing and making good use of information in your organization. It is a positive concept, not so much a technical or operational concept. Continue reading

Conversations Below Sea Level: Geert Lovink

Geert Lovink

The networked society and its outsides: Interview with Geert Lovink

(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Geert Lovink is a media theorist, net critic and activist (bio, blog, publications). He is the founding director of the Amsterdam-based Institute of Network Cultures, where I sat with him to chat on May 22.


Ulises Mejias: Have you heard about It’s a search engine for the Black community. It’s in English, and I guess the idea is that it functions as a Google for Black people. Whatever search they perform, it’s going to organize and bring up results that the search engine thinks are of more interest or relevance to the user. And obviously the next step is that we have a search engine for Muslims, and a search engine for Gays, and a search engine for every minority. So I guess my question is basically: Will there still be margins within the information society when everybody has their own custom-designed search algorithm?

Geert Lovink: Well, one of the margins is the relative drop of the importance of English on the Web because of the growing presence of other languages. It’s a relatively small group of people who speak English and so its influence is shrinking very rapidly. That’s a fact. If we look at the search engine market, there are very serious competitors to Google, and they are not where we might look. The biggest one is Baidu, which is in Mandarin only. Google has no entrance to the Chinese market to speak of, and it’s the fastest growing market of internet users. Is that a margin? No. Is Baidu going to focus on a certain type of identity? No…

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Conversations Below Sea Level

de zee

(photo: CC by sandydr)

Considering that Amsterdam is situated two meters below sea level, the Dutch have really done a magnificent job not at “fighting” nature but rather incorporating it into the function and aesthetics of the city. While doing a research fellowship in this beautiful city, I decided to conduct a series of informal interviews with theorists, educators, artists and activists to learn how they are applying some of the same ingenuity at figuring out how new information and communication technologies are transforming the fabric of society.

The interviews:

Politics and the Web

royalholloway.JPGEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to London to attend Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, hosted by the New Political Communication Unit (NPCU), Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The theme of the conference was summarized as follows:

Has there been a shift in political use of the internet and digital new media – a new web 2.0 politics based on participatory values? How do broader social, cultural, and economic shifts towards web 2.0 impact, if at all, on the contexts, the organizational structures, and the communication of politics and policy? Does web 2.0 hinder or help democratic citizenship? This conference provides an opportunity for researchers to share and debate perspectives.

The conference was in large part the brainchild of Andrew Chadwick, Founding Director of the NPCU. There were 120 papers organised into 41 panels, and over 180 participants from over 30 countries. Some of the conference topics included: Parties, Elections and Campaigning; e-Governance; Constituency, Mobilisation and Engagement; The Politics of Blogging; Platforms, Power, and Politics; Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation; New Perspectives on e-Democracy; and Theorising Web 2.0.

What follows is a review of some of the presentations I found relevant to my interests (a summary of my paper is provided towards the end).

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Rebellion by Numbers


Apparently there was a revolution, and I almost missed it.

This is what happened: Somebody cracked and published the encryption key that unlocks HD DVDs, allowing for the copying of the discs. The code started appearing on various websites. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) began issuing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation notices. Some websites attempted to censor the publication of the code. There was a massive reaction from users towards this apparent act of censorship: the more the code was being “suppressed,” the more it appeared on web sites, blogs, t-shirts, songs, etc. [For a detailed account of the controversy, see the Wikipedia article.]

I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.

The first is the way in which Web 2.0 companies have had to negotiate a balance between their corporate interest and the interests of their users. As you probably know already, after its initial attempt to censor the posts containing the code (and the subsequent ‘revolt’ by users), Digg reversed its decision and said that it would rather “go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company.” As Andrew Lih writes:

This is quite unprecedented — you basically have a multi-million dollar enterprise intimidated by its mob community into taking a stance that is rather clearly against the law.

But what you have, actually, is a Web 2.0 company (reportedly worth around $200 million USD) doing a cost-benefit analysis and realizing that losing its user base would pose a higher and more immediate risk than facing the possibility of lawsuits from “a bigger company” (I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the cost-benefit analysis does not favor the users…).

The second aspect that I find fascinating about this whole thing is the way in which the dissemination of the encryption code has been constructed as a revolutionary, subversive act —as an example of what cyber revolt looks like (establishment, beware!). I was surprised to see many of the people I read online immediately jump on the bandwagon, and gleefully proclaim our revolutionary duty to publish the numbers (one actual quote: “Hahahaha! I am breaking federal law! Hahahaha!”).

Now, I’m no friend of the DMCA. Also, I believe that breaking the law can be a powerful statement if the right social cause is invoked… But a DVD encryption key? Why not refuse to pay taxes to protest the war, or something like that? Perhaps the nature of the revolt can be explained by the demographics of the “revolutionaries”: according to Businessweek, 94% of Digg’s army of free labor are male, over 50% are IT workers in their 20s and 30s, and they earn $75,000 a year or more. Ryan Shaw calls ’em as he sees ’em:

While most of the blogosphere was atwitter over the tantrums being thrown at Digg, real injustice in Los Angeles was being ignored. After watching this video [of Police oppression during the May 1st immigration reform march] I was ashamed to be part of a community (the designers and evangelists of “Web 2.0?) which sanctimoniously promotes “people power” among the spoiled and entitled while disregarding the tightening grip of authority on the poor and disenfranchised. [see his post for links to video and newspaper articles]

We keep hearing that social media tools will help to bring about social change. So are we being overly critical of the tools just because of the communities that presently wield them? This whole affair might have at its core something rather trivial (a code to hack DVDs), but can we extrapolate some of the lessons and techniques learned to a social justice context? Or as Ethan Zuckerman asks:

What would it take to harness this sort of viral spread to harness the net in spreading human rights information? Can activists learn from the story of The Number and find ways to spread information that otherwise is suppressed or ignored in mainstream media?

I wonder what activists would compromise in this transition to cyber revolt. To begin, I doubt that experienced activists believe that all it takes is for suppressed information to reach the public. Brecht suggested that “He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.” Today, however, he who laughs has indeed heard the bad news, but from The Daily Show.

But the thing I believe anyone interested in social change should explore more carefully are the kinds of action that information can be transformed into as it is communicated. Perhaps, as Tiziana Terranova explains in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004, Pluto Press), what we call “information” already embodies a certain containment of openness:

The first condition of a successful communication becomes that of reducing all meaning to information —that is to a signal that can be successfully replicated across a varied communication milieu with minimum alterations. (Terranova, 2004, p. 16)

When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.

The tyranny of nodes: Towards a critique of social network theories

NetworksNetworks have become a powerful metaphor to explain the social realities of our times. Everywhere we look there are attempts to explain all kinds of social formations in terms of networks: citizen networks, corporate networks, gamer networks, terrorist networks, learning networks… and so on. Information and communication technologies—in particular the internet—and the structures they enable have greatly influenced how we imagine the social. It’s similar to what happened in cognitive science when the computer was taken as the favored metaphor for explaining how the brain works, except that now we are attempting to explain how the social works.

But is there something anti-social about imagining and organizing our social realities in terms of networks?

Most critiques of the rise of the network as a model for organizing social realities focus on what it has replaced: tightly-woven, location-specific communities (a community itself can be defined as a particular kind of network, but for the moment let’s stick to these conventional terms). Wellman (2002) traces how social formations have developed from densely-knit traditional communities to sparsely-knit but still location-specific “Glocalized” networks (think cities connected to other cities), to networks unbound to any specific physical space, or what he calls Networked Individualism, where “people remain connected, but as individuals rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household.” (p. 5)

Thus, an important characteristic of Networked Individualism is the overcoming of physical space. Today’s networks connect individuals regardless of the distance between them. This has led various authors to announce—some with glee and some with regret —the Death of Distance. But more than its elimination, Networked Individualism promotes the reconfiguration of distance: it is not only our relatonship to the far that is changed, but also our relationship to the near. Of course, early on critics sensed a threat to the near in this reconfiguration, and saw in Networked Individualism the destruction of communal location-specific forms of sociality (i.e., the irrelevancy of the near). However, this has not proven to be necessarily the case, as Network Individualism can play a part in (re)connecting people to the local. The network then also becomes a model for “reapproaching nearness” (Mejias, 2005), with the added benefit that nearness now encompasses new forms of global awareness.

But this is where it starts to get tricky. Reapproaching the local thorough the network is not simply a case of arriving right back where we started after a process of dislocation and re-location. It’s not simply reaching our nose through the back of our head. The near that the network delivers is a slightly different near, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

It’s true that our relation to the near has always been regulated by some thing or other. Mediation between the individual and the world is not an invention of the network. But the point is to try to understand how the network mediates our understanding of the world, and how the network’s particular kind of mediation competes or participates with other forms of sociality.

My thesis is that the network undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node. It might be difficult to see this because nodes are not anti-social (they thrive by forming links to other nodes), nor are they anti-local (they link to nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they link to other nodes). But what I am trying to say is that to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot. In other words, networks promote nodocentrism. In this reconfiguration of distance, new ‘nears’ become available, but the ‘far’ becomes the space between nodes. To ignore this dark matter is to ignore the very stuff on which the network is suspended, much like the fish ignoring the water around it.

How is internodal space collapsed? If roads and highways connect any two nodes, they also allow for the commuter to quickly bypass the space between the nodes. Those locations may be nodes in other networks, but from the perspective of the two nodes being connected, they do not matter. Of course, for networks unbound by physicality, the nature of what is black boxed is different. Wellman (2002) writes:

The Internet both provides a ramp onto the global information highway and strengthens local links within neighborhoods and households. For all its global access, the Internet reinforces stay-at-homes. Glocalization occurs, both because the Internet makes it easy to contact many neighbors, and because fixed, wired Internet connections tether users to home and office desks. (p. 4)

The point here is not so much that the Internet forces people to stay at home, and that it black boxes one’s surroundings. After all, the promise of pervasive computing and ‘the internet of things’ (incorporating objects outside the network into it) is that nodes becomes physically unbound, mobile, “ubiquitous.” The point is that instead of stay-at-home, the Internet reinforces stay-in-network. One can have all the interlinking of nodes one wants both at a local and global level, but one must remain in the network; one must adopt the network’s ontology of what constitutes a node, how links between nodes are to be established, and how to collapse the space between nodes (and I’m not even going to go, for a change, into issues of who controls and regulates the network). The network is an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.

We are told not to fuss about the space between nodes, because everything is a potential node and can be added to the network. Actor-network theory tells us to ‘follow the actors’ to uncover what kind of links they form with other nodes, thus giving us the framework to consider everything a node. But a network is the opposite of continuous space, so no matter how many nodes we add there will always be, necessarily, space between nodes. Without that space, there would simply be no network.

So what are the consequences of interpreting the social as a network? According to Vandenberghe (2002), scientific explanations of social realities as networks flatten the richness of symbolism and replace it with causality, reducing interaction to economic exchange governed purely by interest. In other words, social network theories fail to account for the ontological differences between humans and non humans, explaining human agency in dehumanized terms:

Being-in-the-world among humans and non humans is systematically displaced by a formal, atomistic, intellectualistic and pseudo-economic analysis of the vulgar interests of humans who link up with other humans and non humans, translating their interests in a reciprocal exploitation of each other’s activity for the satisfaction of the personal interests of each of the parties involved. Humans are thus no longer seen as co-operative ants, but as egoistic ‘r.a.t.s’ – i.e. as rational action theorists who behave like ‘centres of calculation’, strategically associating and dissociating humans and non humans alike, pursuing their own political ends by economic means. Conclusion: when science enters in action, meaningful action disappears and all we are left with is a pasteurized and desymbolized world of strategically acting dehumanized humans, or humants. (p. 55, my emphasis)

Not only are such explanations bound to yield limited understandings of the world, but when actualized as models for organizing the social, they institutionalize an individualistic form of interest as the only viable motive for cooperation. It might not seem like networked individualism is anti-social at first, because networks thrive on forming social links. But in the long term, the effect of reducing the social to transactions of capital (even if it is non-monetary ‘social’ capital) is detrimental, since it subordinates the social to the rules of exchange. At that point, as Vandenberghe argues, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy” (p. 58).

The tyranny imposed by social network theories is that a node acknowledges only other nodes, and can relate to those nodes only in terms of commodified exchange. If something is not a node, it cannot be engaged in exchange, and therefore it has no value. Nodes take for granted the internodal space that supports the network (and it is often a question of literally “supporting” the network through the labor and decisions that happen in those dark internodal spaces). ‘So what?’ some might ask. Surely, we cannot pay attention to everything, and as a result we have developed self-interested strategies (predating networks) for making some things more relevant than others. My point is that although self-interest might be a functional principle to organize networks, even at a local level, it might not be sustainable as the basis for a social ethics, which requires a degree of selfless engagement. If we are going to go with the network metaphor, we need a praxis and an ethics, for engaging with the world beyond our interests, which means accounting for the space between nodes, becoming invested in the non-nodal.


Mejias, U. 2005, Re-approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis. First Monday, vol. 10, no. 3. Retrieved April 28, 2005 from

Vandenberghe, F. (2002). Reconstructing Humants: A Humanist Critique of Actant- Network Theory. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 19(5/6): 51–67. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE.

Wellman, B. (2002). Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Besselaar & T. Ishida (Eds.), Digital cities II: Computational and sociological approaches (pp. 10-25). Berlin: Springer. Accessed on October 3, 2006 from
Picture credit:


The thing about the internet of things

While I am not very familiar with the whole ‘internet of things’ discourse, I recognize plenty of recurring themes to be troubled about. We encounter, once again (but with new buzz words), the argument that new technologies can rehabilitate our relationship to the real and to the social. This time, however, instead of investing our sense of self entirely in the virtual (soooo 1990’s), we can invest it in ‘things’ (human-object assemblages) which populate reality, but which are still interconnected and organized in the virtual. The return of the object or ‘thing’ would seem to suggest that we are moving away from the idea of the virtual as an alternate realm of reality and towards a more complex understanding of reality as encompassing both the virtual and the actual (thank you, Monsieur Deleuze). However, I fear that our technophilia is obscuring the politics of these virtual-actual assemblages, obstructing the need to critically assess how agency is distributed amongst things connected through the internet.

One possible direction this critique can take is to analyze new (and old) modes of production and consumption in the internet of things. The corporate call to action (there are non-commercial alternatives, thankfully) is that we must break free of the shackles of passive consumption to enter a new era of active consumption organized around networked objects scattered in the ‘real’ world. To be called an audience is an insult in this age when "the demand side supplies itself," when —given the sanctioned source materials— we can all be producers or re-mixers of the objects we shall consume (what I call ‘ultimate consumerism’). The difference is that now we need not be stationed in front of our computers to do so; our regained mobility and wirelessness signals a return to the real. Hurray! The freedom to move around while being invisibly tethered to the market, digitizing things or information about things outside the market and putting them in circulation within it. Needless to say, I share Anne’s concerns about the fetishizing of ‘things’ and about the ‘return to the object’ as the privileging of objectivity.

What I find most troubling is that the discourse of the ‘internet of things’ suggests a certain inevitability: the true potential of the internet of things can only be achieved to the extent that it encompasses everything (it is not accidental that the internet of things is an extension of the discourse of ubiquitous or pervasive computing). Shouldn’t we question this inevitability? After all, the act of ‘outsourcing’ (to use Trebor’s term) our memory and social functions to internet things is not without political and social consequences: The mobility of us cyber nomads —our ability to detach and re-attach ourselves to reality at will— is usually acquired thanks to the drudgery and exploitation endured by someone else (the call center worker in India, the Cassiterite miner in Congo, the factory worker in Mexico or Taiwan, etc.).

At the same time, our response should not be a blind rejection or phobia of things. There are no more ‘things’ today than before, nor do we rely more on ‘things’ now than in the past. I was reading an old essay by Ivan Illich ("Silence is a Commons") in which he basically laments the pollution of silence by new electronic things. While I share some of his concerns, I wonder if an average day is less filled with things for someone living on the fringes of consumerism than for someone living within it. Of course, the differences should be accounted for (from natural things, to things produced by us, to things produced by somebody else), but assemblages of humans and things are not abnormal or evil, a priori. The questions is: If we have always delegated (or in the worst case, surrendered) social agency to things in order to control, manipulate, facilitate, condition, interpret, etc., what functions are the ‘things’ in the internet of things fulfilling?

I don’t think Illich was arguing against new things per se, but against the loss of opportunities to reflect on what is being substituted by or forgotten with the new things, to be critical of new things, and to reject things we find unsustainable.

Creative Commons photo: joi

Spectacular Feast: Social Media and Ultimate Consumerism

Cannibal_gummiesI was reading Anti-Oedipus, minding my own business, when I came across this marvelous anthropological observation describing what the chief of a tribe does with surplus food:

“The chief converts this perishable wealth into imperishable prestige through the medium of spectacular feasting. The ultimate consumers are in this way the original producers.” (Leach, 1966, p. 89; quoted in Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 150, my emphasis)

The quote struck me because of the degree to which it can serve to describe the current relationship between social media as a means of production and what we produce with it. In essence, this single quote has given me a nearly-perfect metaphor to articulate what I have been struggling to say since I suggested that production is the new consumption: Hi-tech capitalism (aka, the chief) transforms (commodifies) perishable wealth (social capital) into imperishable goods (money and market prestige) in a spectacular feast in which we (the original producers of the wealth) become its ultimate consumers. And consider the appropriateness of the word ultimate here, signifying both the end of the process —when something that was outside of the market is finally put in the market— as well as the most consummate form of consumerism —paying for things we ourselves produce, and that need not be commodified in the first place… Ultimate consumerism. Since Marx, we have understood that the ‘beauty’ of capitalism is that those whose labor is alienated end up financing capital’s ventures as well: I work at a car factory so I can buy a car. Social media, then, is merely the latest course in this never-ending spectacular feast in which, as Doc Searles pointed out: “the demand side supplies itself.” And who are we technophiliacs to resist the spectacle?

Suddenly, the actions of the brave new cultural producer/consumer appear a bit less daring and revolutionary: reducing difference to a set of pre-defined variables that are data-mined for similarities thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialProfiling Inc. (that “trojan horse of internet censorship“), remixing and distributing media (text, audio, video, multi) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialPublishing Inc., classifying and distributing the products (packaging them for consumption, essentially) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialTagging Inc. —all the while believing we are operating outside of capital. Ha!

At whose service is this new literacy? To what purpose is this democracy oriented? What mass have we supposedly left behind?

By this time, you should rightly have lots of objections to my argument, most likely including the words open, commons, or collective somewhere in them. After all, aren’t you reading this blog for “free”? Haven’t I made this post available so that you can quote, reproduce, re-mix or appropriate it “outside” of the realm of profit (or as “outside” as you can get in our context, anyway)? Aren’t I speaking out of both corners of my mouth, then? The answer is: Yes. Now that I have defined the problem, I shall allow myself to go back and discuss certain exceptions. I will continue to handle these exceptions carefully, though, because most of what is out there claiming to be an exception is really not, and because this discourse of ultimate consumerism is still too new. Above all, we must continue to resist uncritical social media-philia, resist the spectacle of the cannibalistic feeding frenzy that is ultimate consumerism.

Actually, I’m less interested right now in identifying specific exceptions than in identifying where the possibilities for exceptions lie. My claim is that they are to be found less in open source, open content, open learning, or open anything, and more in the openness of social reality itself:

…history is a dynamic and open social reality, in a state of functional disequilibrium, or an oscillating equilibrium, unstable and always compensated, comprising not only institutionalized conflicts but conflicts that generate changes, revolts, ruptures, and scissions… (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, pp.150-151)

And it is precisely because these ruptures exist that exceptions are also part of the rule, that anarchy is allowed at the fringes of order. Every crisis is an opportunity, but every opportunity is a crisis. In fact, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, capitalism depends completely and absolutely on waging war with itself, on testing and pushing its own limits. It is the opportunities that social media affords for moving beyond its own limits that must be seized. If new technologies provide capitalism with new opportunities for control and discipline, and for new opportunities for commodifing the social (that which need not be commodified), they also invite insurrection, as Dyer-Witheford (1999) argues:

It is in cyberspace that capital is now attempting to acquiree the comprehensive command, control, and communications capacity that will finally allow it to, as Marx put it, “along with labour. . . also appropriate its network of social relations.” And yet at the same time it is also in this virtual realm that some of the most remarkable experiments in communicational counterpower are being conducted. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 122)

But are we simply being ‘allowed’ some controlled revolution? How real are the possibilities for change?

If machinery is a “weapon” then it can, as Cleaver says, be stolen or captured, “used against us or by us.” Or—to use Panzieri’s perhaps richer and less instrumental metaphor —if capital “interweaves” technology and power, then this weaving can be undone, and the threads used to make a different pattern.

This need not imply a crude “use and abuse” concept of technology of the sort neo-Luddites have rightly criticized. We can accept that machines are stamped with social purposes without accepting the idea that all of them are so deeply implanted with the dominative logic of capital as to be rejected…

This is not to say that technologies are neutral, but rather that they are often constituted by contending pressures that implant in them contradictory potentialities: which of these are realized is something that will be determined only in further struggle and conflict. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, pp. 71-72)

So why, then, haven’t we moved beyond capitalism? Is capitalism really the best social machine, to use a Deleuzian-Guattarian term? Has there not been enough struggle and conflict? I’m not sure those questions can be answered. But one thing is certain: mere technological innovation (of the “new technology X will completely revolutionize Y” kind) will not bring down the machine, but help feed it:

The social machine’s limit is not attrition, but rather its misfirings; it can operate only by fits and starts, by grinding and breaking down, in spasms of minor explosions. The dysfunctions are an essential element of its very ability to function, which is not the least important aspect of the system of cruelty. The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxiety they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 151)

In other words, we will not bring the machine down by rage alone, by the contradictions this rage might engender. Maybe we should start by recognizing, like the Borg, that we are already part of the machine, participants in the spectacular cannibalistic feast it has placed before us. Only then can we begin to desire alternatives, and draw plans for different “machines of struggle”:

Deleuze and Guattari speak of revolutionary organization as the creation of “machines of struggle.” This has to be understood carefully. For Deleuze and Guattari, any assemblage of desire —at a subjective or social level— is a “machine.” The term is aimed to break with humanist concepts of natural identities, to emphasize (as Haraway does with her concept of “cyborgs”) the constructed, produced, and collectively fabricated nature of psyche and society. Thus when they speak of radical political organization as the creation of nomadic “war machines,” while they certainly do not preclude armed struggle, the phrase has a far wider dimension. They are thinking in terms of aggressive, mobile, decentered organizations, capable of being built or dismantled as needed, that can harry and erode the structures of established order—”state machines.” (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 182)

Doesn’t the conflict between “mobile, decentered” machines and “state” machines sound familiar? I can only hope that we are capable of assembling machines of struggle different from those of terrorism and state repression. Or will we be too distracted by the spectacle of cannibalism, of ultimate consumerism? We are, after all, a culture that fetishizes new technology, and the self-indulgent satisfaction it momentarily affords while it pushes the limits of the system.

Offline References:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-marx: Cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Leach, E. R. (1966). Rethinking anthropology. London: University of London Athlone Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: Mister Wind-Up Bird

Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere

PolicemassCan social media increase and improve civic participation? If so, in what ways? There’s a lot being said and written about the subject these days, but it is difficult to get a clear overview of the opinions. I attempt here to collect viewpoints both for and against the premise that social media is creating a better public sphere, and analyze them in the context of what constitutes a public and its antithesis, a mass. In presenting what are sometimes extreme positions within this debate (too idealistic v. too critical), my hope is to begin to understand the reality that lies in the middle, and come closer to understanding social media’s potential (and limitations) as a tool to bring about social change.

At a general level, we could say that on one side of the debate are those who believe that social media can increase civic participation and shift the balance of power away from the institutions that currently stand in the way of change. On the other side are those who warn that social media can only offer a reduced form of participation, that it diminishes the value of individual contributions, and that it leaves social systems more prone to manipulation by lowering their intelligence to the minimum common denominator (i.e., stupidity or mediocrity).

Thus, the debate can be framed in terms of whether social media can engender democratic publics that embody an intelligence and capacity for action greater than the sum of its members, or whether it will merely continue to support the production of anti-democratic masses of disenfranchised and alienated consumers. Of course, social media is a big label encompassing many different technologies, and even the same technologies can be applied differently in various contexts. But while features and applications might differ, the people contributing to this debate are obviously focused on the aggregated impact that social media is having on our societies rather than on specific examples of applications.

The effects of social media are probably most visible in emerging forms of public discourse and collaboration. Given that our notions of democracy are closely tied to the ability to voice one’s opinion and to the ability to organize collective action, this is not surprising. The more opportunities for discussion and collaboration (such as those allegedly generated by blogs and wikis), the healthier the public sphere and the healthier the democracy, goes the argument.

In his book The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) C. Wright Mills summarized, with a touch of dry humor, this model of democratic “authority by discussion:”

The people are presented with problems. They discuss them. They decide on them. They formulate viewpoints. These viewpoints are organized, and they compete. One viewpoint ‘wins out.’ Then the people act out this view, or their representatives are instructed to act it out, and this they promptly do. (pp. 299-300)

Idealists believe that social media improves the processes described above by giving us more efficient tools for discussion and for ‘acting out’ what comes out of these discussions. But the problem is that, in practice, democracy does not unfold so neatly. Mills argued that an unequal distribution of power and knowledge allows a small elite to impose its viewpoint on the population (through the media, for instance) while convincing them that it is the people’s will that the elite is carrying out on its behalf. Authentic democracies require an informed public to operate. Conversely, oligarchies require the consensual passivity and ignorance of a mass. But what role exactly do publics and masses play in each situation?

Below, I extract from Mills’ argument three features of a democratic public sphere and present his analysis of how a public reflects those characteristics, while a mass doesn’t. I then summarize some arguments from the social media debate which suggest how social media realizes, or fails to realize, that particular feature of a public sphere. I would like to point out that although there are many people contributing to this debate, I am only citing some of the authors I am most familiar with.


1) Balance between the ability to produce and consume ideas

In a public, according to Mills, “as many people express opinions as receive them.” In a mass, “far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

Advocates of social media argue that it represents an opportunity to reverse a process of massification and returns people to the status of a public. This is because social media, they argue, allows individuals to become producers, not mere consumers, thus making it possible for as many people to express as to receive opinions. This position is captured in Jay Rosen’s manifesto The People Formerly Known as The Audience. According to Rosen, users of social media are saying to the old media: “You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.” I also have suggested that the alternative models of participation, collaboration and ownership that social media makes possible can have a significant social transformative power. If you change the ways of producing and consuming culture, you change society.

Alternatively, critics of social media are not convinced that it fundamentally changes the balance between production and consumption. As I have argued (yes, I tend to argue both sides!), when looking beyond exceptional examples, the new forms of production that social media affords amount to nothing more than new forms of consumerism for the majority of users. Production is the new consumption. Indeed, social media generates more opportunities for people to express themselves. But the majority of people remain equally susceptible to impressions from the mass media because they fail to evolve into anything more than an “abstract collection of individuals,” as Mills puts it (this recent Pew study seems to support the claim that most bloggers, for example, prefer to talk about themselves and avoid political topics). In other words, giving means of expression to each individual in a mass is not enough to transform the mass into a community of publics . The other features of a democratic public sphere will further clarify why this is the case.

2) Affordable and effective means of producing ideas

In a public, Mills argues, “communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.” In a mass, “the communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

Again, supporters of social media claim that we are entering an age when it is indeed possible for individuals to respond to any public opinion. The cost of becoming part of the networked public sphere has become negligible, and new models of participation are being developed and tested. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, recently launched an initiative that seeks to redefine the political process: “If broadcast media brought us broadcast politics, then participatory media will bring us participatory politics. One hallmark of the blog and wiki world is that we do not wait for permission before making things happen. If something needs to be done, we do it.” While not everyone will use this opportunity to become a full-fledged activist, Ross Mayfield argues that social media can provide different levels of participation to accommodate even the most apathetic: “few of us have time or interest in politics, but there is a way for us all to have civic engagement within our means. That way is though social software.” He goes on to describe how social software is changing the public sphere:

The cost for personal publishing has fallen to zero. Its common for citizens to express a facet of their identity online. The cost for group forming has fallen to zero. Networked appeal has proven itself as a fundraising mechanism. A broad conversational network and common sense repository supports collective sense making. Today social software has gained use broad enough to support civic engagement.

While individual opinions can be dismissed, argue enthusiasts, social media represents a more effective public sphere because it aggregates the voices of thousands and is able to respond to issues immediately (the ‘collective common sense’ Ross is talking about). Using James Surowiecki’s thesis about the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ advocates propose that social media engenders an intelligence of its own, an intelligence aggregated from individual contributions but greater than the sum of them, and which allows for a more effective process of generating and selecting the best ideas and responses.

Immediate and low-cost response? Yes. Effective? Not so much, say the critics of social media. In an article that has generated a fair amount of debate, Jaron Lanier warned of the danger of endowing social media with a more effective intelligence than our own: “The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.” In a follow-up interview, Lanier elaborated:

“Let me be specific: I don’t like people pretending something better than themselves exists in the computer. This is a great danger… You get a bunch of people together on a project, and they quickly become anonymous. They contribute to some sort of computer-mediated phenomenon, and treat the results as an oracle.”

Supporters of social media have contested Lanier’s claims that it undermines individual contributions and suggested that it is effective precisely because of them. Wales, for example, says that “authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.” Clay Shirky adds that “individual motivations in Wikipedia are not only alive and well, it would collapse without them.”

It is because we believe (rightly or wrongly) that social media aggregates the best of individual contributions that we trust the results. But what is at stake here is precisely the way the computational processes of social media get to define what constitutes sociality. Trebor Scholz, for example, describes how individual contributions are not simply channeled by social media, but fundamentally transformed in the process (in this case, he is talking about social bookmarking):

Individual goals of participants are not always shared by the “group,” which gives the project a decisively non-collaborative character. What does collaboration mean? Collaboration is generally a risky, intensive form of working together with a common goal. The gain or loss is shared among all. Cooperation, on the other hand, is a less intensive form of working together in which participants account for gain or loss individually. Contributors have individual goals.

According to these definitions, while social media users may cooperate, they might not necessarily be collaborating. Could this be enough to distinguish a public from a mass? I had made a related argument previously (again, talking about social bookmarking): “tags have to make sense first and foremost to the individual who assigns and uses them. And yet, the whole point of distributed classification systems (DCSs) such as and flickr is that the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value…” However, if the code aggregates contributions by disaggregating goals (individualizing motives), what exactly is the public value of social media?

In other words, we should ask whether in processing individual contributions, social media’s code engenders affordances more along the lines of a public or a mass. The answer to that question is directly related to Mills’ last feature of a democratic public sphere.

3) Ideas are translated into action

According to Mills, in a public, “opinion formed by such discussion readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against—if necessary—the prevailing system of authority.” In a mass, “the realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

This is where the virtual rubber must meet the actual road, so to speak. Advocates of social media believe in its power to unleash new forms of action extending beyond the boundaries of cyberspace into the ‘real’ world. The Open Planning Project’s (or TOPP) mission statement, for instance, states that:

Instead of harassing our overworked public officials, TOPP believes in building tools that will ultimately aid them directly, increasing efficiency in true democratic decision making through projects that streamline citizen involvement and enable the accessibility and effective use of public information… TOPP wants to bring people out of the virtual and in to the real, where the network can have a huge effect, by motivating for change in a community, and bringing people together for action instead of just talking.

Not only are critics skeptical of social media’s ability to ignite action in the ‘real’ world at a large scale but some, like Nicholas Carr, argue that new social media initiatives will end up merely replicating the same forms of authority and governance that are currently the source of the problem. This is because it is we who shape social media by encoding our forms of sociality into it, not the other way around. Thus, according to him, social media experiments are bound to result in un-innovative forms of social action. Citing an interview with some of its most active members, Carr quips that Wikipedia has “become more interesting as an experiment in emergent bureaucracy than in emergent content.” He illustrates by pointing out that “the rules governing the deletion of an entry now take up ’37 pages plus 20 subcategories.’ For anyone who still thinks of Wikipedia as a decentralized populist collective, the interview will be particularly enlightening.”

The nature of the role that the individual plays in social media is what limits its potential to transform society, according to the critics. Previously, the concern was that social spaces like the blogosphere reinforced people’s narrow group identities. For instance, Trebor Scholz (borrowing the concept of plural monocultures from Amartya Sen) wrote:

The Internet becomes a fabulous host for this type of multiculturalism. Often, no two opinions have to confront each other. In their own inner chamber people can forget about racial, ethnic or economical differences and just talk about the very narrow interest set that connects them.

Now, asserts the critical camp, social media takes the next step by altogether removing any trace of the individual’s identity in the name of a higher collective intelligence. Social media is built on individual contributions, yes, but the code must remove any present biases before aggregating them into a meaningful data set. Otherwise, the output would be too noisy. Social media’s collective intelligence, its perceived ‘wisdom of crowds,’ is directly related to the degree that its code can accomplish this cleansing of personal opinion.

While valorizing this new form of computationally-derived intelligence might not necessarily lead to a devaluation of individual intelligence (as Lanier, Carr, et. al would seem to suggest), it’s true that it might lead to a scenario where individuals must compromise their individuality in order to get through the filters of social media.

For example, Howard Rheingold, in his reaction to Jimmy Wales’ new project, wrote that

One important contribution to political discourse that we could all adopt from Wikipedia is the “neutral point of view” process: Because anyone who disagrees with you can change your wiki entry with the click of a mouse, it is necessary to clearly articulate the different points of view on a subject — and to state them well enough that someone who disagrees with your own point of view won’t be motivated to edit your statement.

In other words: express your point of view in such a way that your opponent won’t find anything to fault in it. If before communication was defined as the sharing of meaning, now social media provides a space where meaning can be assembled without being shared, and provides the mechanisms to enforce this kind of neutrality [for a response from Rheingold, see the comments at the end, as well as this post]. The problem is that meaning then becomes atomistic, a reflection of what the code has aggregated from detached individuals, not what has emerged through debate and cooperation. Paradoxically, social media provides less incentive for people to be social.

If the end goal is a neutral point of view, the danger lies not in erasing the individual’s contributions, but in inadequately supporting the mechanisms that allow individuals to share meaning. Nicholas Carr’s ‘law of the wiki‘ —which asserts that the more people involved, the lower the quality of the wiki— seeks to name this phenomenon: unlimited aggregation does not result in order, but in randomness. Wikipedia contributors themselves recognize that good articles are the result of small communities of experts working without interference from the larger public.

What can we conclude from the various perspectives I’ve summarized above?

Advocates of social media will point out that while there are applications such as wikis and social bookmarking that embody this ‘unlimited aggregation’ approach, the ecology of social media is balanced by the presence of other applications such as blogs and social networking where individuality and cooperation are alive and well. They might be right to an extent. By using a mix of social media, communities can benefit both from the wisdom of crowds and the wisdom of individuals.

Social media —which makes visible the connections between the online and the onsite— is helping us understand that reality doesn’t just serve as a metaphor for computer-facilitated interaction; rather, it is its very medium. For the most part, critics are no longer using the ‘virtuality’ of the networked public sphere as an excuse to declare it unreal or less than real. Actions still speak louder than words, regardless of whether the words originate online or onsite. The question we are now interested in is whether these new forms of action can emerge even against the prevailing systems of authority, or whether they are still organized and controlled within the framework of the dominant sphere of debate. Will the old concepts of public and mass be enough to capture the possibilities?

Offline Reference

Mills, C. W. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flickr Photo Credit

beaunose, licensed under Creative Commons.