Why we need to build an alternative online infrastructure

We are living in an age with unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge and power. From the prevalence of drone warfare, the corporate coup d’état of our executive, or the incredible aggregation of personal data held by the wealthiest companies in the world – one of the fundamental struggles of our time will consider what role the superintendents of this vast trove of information and communicative infrastructure will have over our agency and critical capabilities.

Social media is unique. While the radio and television unilaterally spread information throughout a population, social media allows the individual to establish ties and foster relationships with others around the world. This relatively new medium reflects a certain degree of revolutionary potential – providing an opportunity for disenfranchised individuals to organize and challenge a hegemonic apparatus.

As we begin to reckon with the role that these giants have over our privacy and agency, this narrative is increasingly being challenged.

In our world today, personal communication is primarily mediated through platform monopolies. They dictate how information spreads and whose voices reign supreme; they possess our private and intimate behaviors as commodities, sold as data to private companies and political campaigns vying for our attention.

Thus a familiar contradiction exists within these new mediums between liberation and control.

Crisis of Modernity

When considering the inherent contradictions of technology, it is helpful to turn to some theorists on the dialectical nature of modernity.

Adorno and Horkheimer provide a useful analysis concerning the overall crisis of modernity. Written within the context of the Holocaust, their seminal text Dialectic of the Enlightenment questions why ‘mankind, instead of entering to a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’. They ultimately argue that while the enlightenment process liberated the individual from natural forces, it also created the mechanisms for unprecedented forms of repression and ‘self-destruction’ in which the ‘technical apparatus and the social groups which administer it a disproportionate superiority to the rest of the population’.

Modern technical apparatuses, for Adorno and Horkheimer, have generated a widespread system of manipulation. They maintain that the ‘culture industry’ has achieved pervasive ‘standardization and mass production’. Technological developments have allowed for the instantaneous spread of homogenous information, which effectively constrains individuality. Focusing on the development of the radio, Adorno and Horkheimer explain how it authoritatively controls the population: ‘speech penetrates everywhere . . . [making] the speaker’s word, the false commandment, absolute’.

Evoking a similar diagnosis of modern communicative mediums, Guy Debord, one of the founding members of the Situationist International, concentrates his analysis on the role that the modern image, ‘the spectacle’, has in alienating the population from genuine lived experience. For Debord, modern society consists of repetitive spectacles. He begins The Society of the Spectacle by demonstrating that ‘the whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation’.

Perhaps most detrimental to society, Debord maintains that the spectacle ‘erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances’.

Within the contemporary development of social media, the discussion of the spectacle becomes even more prescient. As Zeynep Tufekci notes, ‘with the advent of social media platforms in the mid-2000’s . . . the burgeoning civic space online that had been developed mostly through blogs – expanded greatly, but with a simultaneous shift to commercial spaces’.  The majority of our time online has developed into an experience mediated by several private companies under a logic of surveillance capitalism. Tufekci ultimately describes this phenomenon as ‘the growth of privately owned spaces that…[function] as public commons’.

Privately owned ‘public’ spaces

The algorithms that dictate one’s movement and experience online can be referred to as architectures. As Tufecki explains, ‘platforms can also nudge behavior, quietly and imperceptibly, and sometimes in ways that are not directly visible even to the people who run the platforms’.

It is helpful to think of these online architectures as our phenomenological experience, mediated through algorithms that determine what you see and how you interact within the confines of the particular system. For example, a recent Twitter algorithm modification dictates that ‘the most popular tweets are far more widely seen than they used to be, enabling them to go viral on an unprecedented scale’.

While social media was initially associated with liberalization and thus greater degrees of interaction and potential democratization, the current economic logic dictating the platforms is designed in such a way which establishes what Adorno and Horkheimer refer to as form of authoritarianism in which the groups that administer the apparatuses hold a disproportionate power advantage.

This power advantage manifests in the altering of our behaviors and sense of agency. These platforms play with our psychological compositions and take advantage of our emotional malleability. All of our senses are triggered to keep us addicted to these privately administered platforms. Visual cues such as vibrant red and blue notifications stimulate our endorphins – as do vibrations and sound bits that we seemingly both crave and detest. We tend to react automatically and at times preemptively – manipulated in the form of aesthetically stimulating signifiers.

Furthermore, these spectacular platforms thrive off a volatile population. Policies of war and peace are announced in 280 characters or less to the tune of hundreds of thousands of likes, retweets, and comments. They are then unilaterally spread throughout the population on television, as a form of mass entertainment. Killing rampages, broadcast on Facebook live, garner even more affirmative signifiers. The content slips into distinct echo chambers, received with simultaneous elation and fear.

Alternatives

So where does this model leave us in terms of developing a radical politics?

We need to rectify the contradictions inherent within these social media platforms. If we want to establish a society beyond the confines of neoliberalism, and construct a human and eco-centric based economy, we will need a truly democratic online commons to communicate and organize.

Likewise, if we want to escape the extractivist and surveillance-based logic, then new antagonistic frontiers need to be clearly established between us and the controllers of these mediums. As long as these platforms remain the dominant vehicles for disseminating this information, the power to censor remains starkly in the hands of its patrons.

One of the ways to defeat this logic is simply to log off and to delete your account. A foundational threat to social media is a concept known as network effects. As Tufekci explains, network effects are the ‘tendency of the value of some products or services to increase as more people use them, and to become less worthwhile when they are not used by others’. Our presence on these platforms is dependent on the expectation that others we care for or admire are likewise present. Thus, if people in your network begin to leave, the entire infrastructure rapidly loses its legitimacy.

To help conceive of viable alternatives, we can think about the ways we treat public spaces in our physical life. For example, urban public spaces demonstrate sites where, as the philosopher Henri Lefebvre notes in Urban Revolution, ‘virtually anything can happen anywhere. A crowd can gather, objects can pile up, a festival unfold…this is why urban space is so fascinating: centrality is always possible’. How can we create an online commons, where such centralization is also possible, especially one that critiques the power dynamics of our age?

The fundamental task of such a project will necessitate that the superintendents are not confined to a select few billionaires, but rather to the majority of the participants. The public needs to have control. In the short term, it is possible to conceive of an online commons that follows a similar economic logic to cooperatives – in which everyone contributes a small sum to be the equal owners and controllers of the online infrastructure. This is a model that could later potentially spread to the nationalization of a digital commons. Some interesting proposals have been recently laid out along this line by Matthew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton in developing a ‘digital commonwealth‘.

The process starts with demonstrating that an alternative form of online interaction is possible. One that does not treat its users as disposable commodities but as dignified individuals with the right to privacy and autonomy.

Conclusion

Challenging the most powerful corporations in the world requires disciplined organizing tactics and free communication channels. Thus we need to detach from the systems that currently mediate our communications, and establish new infrastructures to effectively rebalance the incredible inequalities within our world.

We are living in a moment where movements are critiquing and reevaluating the rationalities that dictate our everyday existence. At this juncture, the freedom of communication is vital, and we need to rethink whether the platforms that are integral to our modern experience will ultimately hinder or support our ability to establish a more just and equitable paradigm.

Image courtesy of Hernán PiñeraCC BY-SA 2.0


Key Sources:

Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1972) Dialectic of the Enlightenment. New York: Continuum

Debord, G. (1994) The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books. 3rd edn

Lefebvre, H. (2003) The Urban Revolution. Trans. Robert Bononno, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Tufekci, Z. (2016) ‘As the Pirates become CEOs: The Closing of the Open Internet’ Daedalus, vol. 145 (1) pp. 65-78

 

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