Retracting the Concept of the Individual

by Rob Horning

17 May 2011


There seems to be an object lesson in this O’Reilly article by Jen Webb about Openmargin, an iPad application in development that will force users to share their marginalia in one giant shared space. Webb asks the company co-founder, “Is there an option to notate only for personal use (i.e. notes for a class)?” And his response strikes me as deeply troubling:

Joep Kuijper: There are no personal groups. All the readers of one book are the group. Or even more specific: the readers around one sentence are a group. This also means you’re not in a dialogue with friends, but with peers you’ve probably never met before. We think this is the interesting thing about Openmargin. It’s an implicit network where the relationships are based on the specifics in a text. And your relationships develop and grow along with your reading habits.

It seems like he deliberate misses the point, or his response has been edited to make him miss the point. Instead the ideology of compulsive sharing is reinscribed. What possible reason could you have for not sharing all your thoughts so random strangers (and Openmargin) can profit from them? That would be unthinkable selfishness, and he won’t even entertain that possibility. And that specificity of the context of a particular book (or even sentence, as he notes) makes the sharing, the mandatory dialogue, all the more necessary. Would a note function be useful for one’s impromptu half-formed reactions to a text? Maybe, but every note you write on Openmargin must be ready for the world; those are the terms by which they are willing to provide the server space and the facilitating programming. They have learned from Facebook: “Community” is their product, apparently, more than the service itself, since it was so thoroughly eviscerated by capitalism. Now capitalism has come to rehabilitate it on its terms. This is just one example. Capitalism is solving the problem of alienated isolation it created by supplying more capitalism. Which makes one wonder if the contradictions capitalism generates will ever be enough to undermine it.


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