Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

17 Jan 2012

At All Things Digital, WSJ’s tech blog, Peter Kafka notes that Facebook really doesn’t want its users to think of it as an echo chamber. It is promoting this post by Eytan Bakshy to support its claim that users have their horizons broadened rather than narrowed by using Facebook as their portal for news and information. Bakshy draws on Mark Granovetter’s idea of the “strength of weak ties” and argues that Facebook facilitates their formation and their usefulness. Perhaps it’s more clarifying to say that Facebook has succeeded in commodifying the production of weak ties and extracting their tithe from our taking advantage of them.

This is how Kafka summarizes the post:

The big takeaway here is that while most people on Facebook spend most of their time sharing stuff with a small group of like-minded friends, Facebook is so big — 800 million users! — that Facebook users end up learning lots of stuff from people they barely know: “The information we consume and share on Facebook is actually much more diverse in nature than conventional wisdom might suggest.”

That claim is extremely important to Facebook’s business strategy of being able to index its users’ online activity and make it available to advertisers so that they can target their ads. (The ACLU has some chilling information about that here.) So naturally Facebook wants to stifle any arguments that using Facebook to do everything would be anything less than enlightening. Kafka urges us to keep in mind that “Facebook thinks you’re getting a whole lot of signal out of that noise” of proliferating updates and “frictionless sharing,” but that’s almost too generous. Facebook almost certainly knows that information overload is a danger to its prospects and seems desperate here to spin that problem away. The Bakshy post acknowledges that strong ties drive sharing on Facebook, but argues that content from weak ties has the most novelty value, and is more sharable within the cluster of strong ties. “In short, weak ties have the greatest potential to expose their friends to information that they would not have otherwise discovered.” This is the basis of Facebook’s usefulness as a marketing tool. As Bakshy concludes, in considerably more anodyne language, “online social networks can serve as an important medium for sharing new perspectives, products and world events.”

Facebook would thus like to change what we recognize as “signal” and what we experience as “noise” to suit its purposes: getting us to stay logged on and using its apps, and prompting us to authorize more data provision and collection. Signal equals novelty, which equals an opportunity to improve status in the quantitative realm of online social networks. It hopes that we will make more of the random information that comes at us through frictionless sharing and the like go viral within our smaller networks. It would like us to think of sociality and friendship as the potlatch-like exchange of whimsical novelties in a public contest of who can spread more information the furthest. In other words, it hopes to become a more data-rich form of Twitter. Facebook would like us to feel obliged to perform for our close friends on its stage as a way of staying salient to them. It wants our response to information overload to be a fear that we will be forgotten, and that we will respond by distributing more information, worsening the problem for us while improving the metrics for Facebook. Facebook is not an echo chamber but a negative feedback loop.


by Rob Horning

11 Jan 2012

It sort of veers in a different direction by the end, but Žižek’s new LRB essay is actually a pretty lucid explanation of the terminology from autonomist Marxism, sewing the jargon together in a cohesive whole. Here’s his quick summary of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude argument:

Only with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (production of ideas, texts, programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is ‘hegemonic’ in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘commons’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.

Žižek argues that profit in contemporary capitalism comes not from commodity production and circulation but from being able to privatize the commons by force and extract rents through regimes of intellectual property enforcement and that sort of thing. He offers Microsoft as an example, but for me the paradigmatic example is Facebook, which collects rents (indirectly, from advertisers and data collectors) for hosting our “social graph” and tries to embed itself into our everyday social practices.

Later in the article Žižek sounds less like Negri and more like Wright Mills when he starts describing the disappearance of the 19th century entrepreneurs and the emergence of the white collar classes, the salarymen, the managerial demiurge. Since immaterial production is a collective thing, different salaries for different people can’t be justified by their differing levels of productivity or the relative rarity of their skills, as neoclassical economists would have it. Instead, wage levels are determined by preexisting status, which tends to be arbitrary.

The evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.

So much for meritocracy. The middle class, then, consists not of a bunch of hard-working burghers but of people who inherited their political privilege (winners of the family lottery) and learned how to leverage it or learned how to adapt themselves so they could serve as ideologically useful token success stories. They pull in “surplus wage”—a term that doesn’t seem very useful to me, but which is supposed to mean the amount over the sustenance wage that capitalism presumably would drive everyone’s wages to, ceteris paribus. The “surplus” idea seems to muddy the water; the point is that pre-existing class status determines pay in corporate structures, which try to calibrate the size of the middle class relative to the potential for mass unrest. Make as few middle managers as necessary to forestall revolt, and pay them enough to feel special and indebted to the status quo system.

What’s more, Žižek, drawing on Jean-Pierre Dupuy, claims that success has to seem arbitrary to us, basically to make us to depressed to rebel. If success could be deserved, earned, we would have reason to be outraged when hard work doesn’t beat status. As it is, we can always mistake privilege for luck. Žižek interprets the rise in protests recently as partly attributable to would-be meritocrats discovering there is no meritocracy and their modicum of inherited privilege no longer makes the grade. They won’t get their “surplus wage” but will be precarious like everyone else.

by Rob Horning

10 Jan 2012

In what is ostensibly a news article on the Wall Street Journal front page today (“Revitalized Detroit Makes Bold Bets on New Models”) this sentence jumped out at me as being a clear example of ideology in action:

Instead of having to spend a lot on labor costs and retiree benefits, they are pouring money into engineering and designing cars that can go head-to-head with the best in the industry.

This proposition is not so much a fact as a story about how auto companies compete and innovate; it represents as factual the either-or choice that management supposedly faces: either the companies pay these (obviously extortionate) labor costs—never mind that they are the result of contract negotiations—or they contribute to technological progress that benefits us all. When money is capital—allegedly reinvested in the company rather than distributed to shareholders—it works magic; when money is wages, it forces society to stagnate. It doesn’t say, feed families or obviate want or improve lives and opportunities for wage earners. The idea that fair wages should be a normal part of the calculation for capitalist enterprise is written out of the equation, instead represented as an anomaly, an ingratitude, a covert economic crime being perpetrated by labor in their covetousness and greed. The companies aren’t greedy, nor are their shareholders; they just want to make new, cool cars. But labor, as ever, wants to spoil the party. Of course the idea that investment in labor could also lead to innovation is out of the question. It’s a zero-sum situation.

The degree to which that sentence is true—and I think you can find many like it even if you limited yourself to the rest of the WSJ—is also the degree to which capitalism is riven with contradiction. Labor is fundamental to transforming capital into profit, wages for the efficient circulation of commodities. You can’t do without labor, yet capitalist ideology also relies on an unremitting rhetoric of labor’s parasitism on capital, hampering entrepreneurs and the imagination and creation of new and better products. It seems unsustainable to drive for the elimination of labor costs and the expansion of markets for commodities. It seems impossible to produce value without workers. But articles like these work to make it equally impossible to imagine an alternative way to organize production so that honoring labor’s right to bargain and receive higher wages is not seen as fundamentally incompatible with the possibility of innovation and competitiveness. Creative destruction may wreak havoc on some firms but it relegates all workers to a kind of economic afterthought, an obstacle on the playing field of entrepreneurs.




by Rob Horning

3 Jan 2012

In response to Nick Bilton’s resolution to schedule some “unplugged” time and program some “daydreaming” into his daily life, Nicholas Carr has coined the phrase “the industrialization of the ineffable.” I’m pretty sympathetic to Carr’s complaint here (and in his previous post) and to the idea that the technological capture of larger and larger swaths of everyday life is eradicating the space in which our experience can feel genuine to ourselves. What we process as “genuine” seems to depend on what is socially structured as “spontaneous,” which may be the currently most salient version of what defines the authentic.

by Rob Horning

20 Dec 2011

I’ve been bothered lately by this. Why do I know this song “Use Somebody” so well when I never ever have chosen to hear it and have never heard it straight through in its entirety? It has been out there in my everyday life, ambiently, and I have somehow absorbed enough of it from a myriad of sources to reconstruct the entire thing, like a cognitive Bit Torrent. For me it is part of a pop-culture background that I think I ignore but which actually forms an important backdrop, the ground against which the things I choose to care about can stand out. If I notice this backdrop at all, I usually find myself thinking, Who’s this for? Who wants this? Not me. Sometimes I sit through entire movies—most recently, Drive—with this feeling, as if the whole point of the experience is to make me believe that I am uniquely superior to the implied audience of the thing.

What that induced sense of superiority hides from me is how this background made of “Use Somebody"s is imposed upon me and affects what I actually choose to hear, choose to value. That dumb song and others like it are shaping my reactionary aesthetics and defining the sort of self-definitional moves I can make to try to retain a sense of myself (albeit a degraged self, a subject limited to cultural consumption) as apart from that background, as someone special who has not yet been washed into the gutter of the mainstream. So “Use Somebody” has shaped me against my will; in its small way, it’s an integral part of what it means for me to be a part of this time and place. The inescapable is what defines the cultural moment and to an extent, it defines us. But what I think my relationship to “Use Somebody” suggests is that we don’t know what is inescapable directly. It’s not what is obvious. It’s not what springs immediately to our consciousness when we think of what we are into, or even what others are into. Instead it seeps in, bearing untold ideological poisons.

In an obscure way I haven’t yet entirely clarified for myself, Simon Reynolds’s recent book Retromania seems to be about this. On its face, the book is an open-ended examination of how digitization of pop’s past is affecting its contemporary development. (Kurt Andersen adopted a similar theme in this Vanity Fair piece about the dearth of cultural innovation and how nothing becomes dated anymore. He also admits to mistaking Josh Ritter for Bob Dylan in the piece, which sort of invalidates his credentials for writing about culture.) But it’s also about nostalgia as a mode of control, a way of trying to more thoroughly reject the backdrop of “Use Somebody” and exempt oneself from the zeitgeist. Of course, Reynolds’s point is that collective rejection is the current zeitgeist. And what’s more, I think, it makes repressed or disavowed material like “Use Somebody” even more insidious and potent.

Reynolds, who wrote the postpunk history Rip It Up, focuses mainly on music, detailing the various ramifications of consuming music as information rather than sound. The broad outlines of the argument are fairly familiar: digitization floods the world with MP3s and destroys the music market which once ordered and limited the pop sphere. Faced with the surfeit of music goods to experience and conditioned to appreciate novelty over immersive experience, consumers develop shortcuts for consuming it: collecting rather than listening being one of the main ones.

So many of the consumer-friendly advances of the digital era relate to time management: the freedom to be inattentive or interrupted during a television programme (pause, rewind ), to reschedule the viewing of programmes to when it’s more convenient and to stockpile televisual time for a rainy day ( recordable DVDs, TiVo ).... The CD remote, essentially the same device as a TV remote, brought music under the sway of channel-surfing logic. This was the dawn of a new digital-era way of experiencing time, something we’ve since become totally familiar with. And every gain in consumer-empowering convenience has come at the cost of disempowering the power of art to dominate our attention, to induce a state of aesthetic surrender.

This is music to my ears, as it fits with my longstanding jihad against convenience as a value.

But the key issue is to think about why we choose novelty over immersion. Why do choose convenience—the speed of consumption—over the sensory qualities of a consumption experience? Occasionally I see arguments that claim we have some evolutionarily conditioned bias toward novelty, but these seem less convincing to me than analyses that link it to capitalism’s need, in order to reproduce itself as a system, to secure steadily growing consumer demand. People must feel the impulse to always need more and to see shopping as fulfillment in its own right, as entirely natural. The prerogatives embedded in consumer capitalism have assured that technological innovation will focus chiefly on convenience, on increasing how much a consumer can consume given unalterable time constraints. Ideology has followed suit, and we end up thinking quantity is a better kind of quality rather than its antithesis.

What Reynolds dubs retromania seems a paradoxical way for capital to proceed to secure ideological dominance, but it makes a diabolical sort of sense: get novelty and innovation on the cheap by recycling the ready-at-hand past. This has the added bonus of fusing the new with the familiar, so consumers can appease two contradictory longings simultaneously. Nostalgia and novelty fuse in a new kind of cultural artifact, which Reynolds spends a lot of time cataloging: stuff like I Love the ___’s, reunion tours, bands playing their old albums in sequence, Web 2.0 music like Flying Lotus, Girt Talk, etc. This new artifact flatters us for previous cultural knowledge, which abets the need to approach culture as a kind of archivist and to view cultural consumption as a kind of inner encyclopedia-making process. And it also makes our compendium of sheer trivia about pop culture into genuine cultural capital, giving us incentive to protect the system that lends value to our memory hoard. And as a result, I end up reading things like this exhaustive post about Falco. (You don’t know Falco? Well, I am glad you asked…)

Consequently, we start to feel cluttered in her heads with information that feels both useless and useful at the same time. It seems like a waste of brain space for me, for example, to be maintaining a list of black-metal bands in my head; I don’t even like that music. But I’ve actually drawn on that list dozens of times in random conversations to make jokes or to surprise people with an incongruous reference or to unsettle their assumptions about my cultural range, etc.

How do we resist this? Should we bother? For me, that question has provoked another seemingly unrelated question: Why do Danny Kirwan solo albums exist?

Not to pick on Kirwan, one of the several guitarists who had a stint fronting Fleetwood Mac in the pre–Buckingham Nicks era—Bare Trees was released during his watch and is a pretty great album—but the fact he was given the opportunity to issue solo albums in the 1970s on a major label after getting himself kicked out of Fleetwood Mac seems indicative of how Big Culture once had an insatiable appetite for new cultural product from sources that they had come to trust as “professional.” Before digitization and the internet upended models of cultural distribution, the flow of cultural product and the instigation of cultural demand could be much more carefully managed from the commanding heights. Consumers had some amount of money they were willing to spend to experience the novel, and the culture industry manufactured enough new product to fill the shelves accordingly, usually in a weekly rhythm.

Some or even most of that stuff went the way of Danny Kirwan solo albums, but the logic of the business was still such that it was more lucrative to tolerate the flops of the Kirwans of the industry than to open the floodgates to unvetted or less polished talent. Because the product being sold was not the records themselves so much as novelty qua novelty, the rate of new material entering the pipeline was far more important than the quality of any particular album. So there was no special incentive to discover new geniuses. Danny Kirwan was fine. He had a foothold in the business, proved himself to be someone who could deliver a product on time, so he got hired to do more records. (In other media, it works the same way; professionalization trumps raw talent. The same magazine writers get assignments because they have proved to be serviceable and reliable; the same actors show up over and over again because they establish their bland acceptability; and so on.)

As Reynolds points out, digitization changed the equation for record companies. It offered them the temptation to reissue old product in new form rather than continue to cultivate new product from its stable of acceptable performers. The selling point was the convenience of CDs—they were easier to care for, easier to store, and easier to play in a customized way. This marketing emphasis moves the process of music listening ahead of the music itself and ahead of managed novelty. The problem for the music business is that this same convenience became a weapon against them—it allowed consumers to circumvent the system of managed novelty and expect more. It allowed to redistribute music themselves. And it it sanctified the idea that what was old wan’t just old but classic, and broadened that view beyond the hard-core collectors and music nerds.

The internet completes the destruction of the old system by democratizing distribution and the A&R functions. You don’t have to go to the record store and contemplate Danny Kirwan’s album because it is one of the few new things on the new releases wall. Instead a blend of new and old things get circulated within a dynamic online ecosystem that is tailored to each individual user on the basis of their social networks and so on. So the music business can no longer extort value through their ability to control the flow of professionally produced novelty; the flow is now a surfeit coming at consumers from all sorts of directions. And anyone (including me) can pass themselves off as a culture producer and inject content into the internet, leveraging their networks to get it exposure.

Value now is captured by harnessing the filtering that consumers perform for one another, monitoring the lateral cultural chatter and trying to time the implied markets. This is another aspect of the retromania phenomenon. Amateur bricoleurs sort through the digitized detritus of the past (Danny Kirwan solo albums, Falco, etc.), trying to make cultural capital out of it.

How one feels about the question of resistance probably depends on how successful one is at that task.

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