Medialab Katowice interview

The following is a short but rather chewy interview with me, conducted by Karol Piekarski for Medialab Katowice. I hope you enjoy it.

KP: It seems you’ve become quite pessimistic about the prospects of the public in the networked society (your weekly Dispatch, number 27), pointing out to the fact that for some reason we are not so willing to use creatively available data processing technologies. What if we look at this problem from a broader perspective? It took hundreds years for the basic literacy (writing and reading) to spread around the society. Although we may feel that invention of the World Wide Web was ages ago, in fact it’s just a beginning of the “new medium.” Maybe we “simply” need time to learn how to use, as a society, digital technologies?

AG: Well, I think we need to consider how rapidly we as consumers and users of technical systems can develop the critical literacy you’re talking about, versus the headway that those who are not concerned with such matters can make in the meantime.

I don’t even mean necessarily that the designers of emerging interactive products and services are consciously acting out of any set of values I might disagree with. I simply mean that portable, modular code can be recombined by some third party into really pernicious systems, readily and rapidly, either out of ignorance or what I would regard as malicious intent. By the time we figure out how to use these systems wisely, or come to a collective determination that we reject their use, the damage will have been done.

And even that’s assuming that we are more or less static, as subjects and users. The truth is that we are acted on by these technologies, as individuals and as societies both.

So the relative power of a particular kind of personality type or learning style may come into the ascendance, and reinforce the conditions of its own vitality, while making it very difficult for anyone else to even sustain themselves. For example, introverts have never had it easy, but now, in our world of continuous mandatory self-performance, they run the risk of being more marginalized and overlooked than ever. We know that success under the new dispensation requires more than the occasional schmoozing that might have seen you through in the past. It requires not merely that you make yourself continuously available, not merely that you have the energy — the psychic and the financial wherewithal — to socialize and network, but that you are seen to socialize and network and to be the kind of person who enjoys doing so. And that’s in large part a consequence of the way we’ve chosen to integrate always-on social networking technologies into our everyday lives.

Consider that I recently read an admiring description of “what a great 21st century mathematician looks like”: someone who is “part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.” And, you know, that’s great. But let’s be clear that success in such a world selects for a certain kind of highly social, highly outgoing personality type.

You could argue, with some justice, that the world has always selected for some personality types over others — that there’s nothing fundamentally new here, it’s just that the place where our culture has decided the grandeur ought to live is shifting. But I’ve always thought that the point of our work was to imagine futures that were more just and equitable, not merely a new and different unequal distribution of power.

KP: Smart cities vs. smart citizens, government or corporation vs. people – we still tend to build these clear oppositions. Do you think that juxtaposing “centralized” against “distributed” can really help explain the mechanisms of power in the networked society? Or maybe we need a bit more sophisticated approach to understand what is actually going on (thinking here about the “society of control” or the work of Alexander Galloway)?

AG: It strikes me that there are a few different concerns bundled up in this question, and that we might benefit from unpacking them and considering them separately.

First, there’s the question of what we mean when we refer to something as a network. The dominant political tenor of the early mass Internet was a kind of structural determinism we associate with folks like John Perry Barlow. The idea was that the network principle of structuration itself, as supposedly immanent in the distributed topology of the World Wide Web, wasn’t merely inherently morally superior to organizational schemes based on hierarchy and coercion, but was practically superior, too. It would therefore “naturally” underwrite a spontaneous mass restructuring of society along horizontal or rhizomatic lines.

We know now, of course, that that didn’t happen, and it’s reasonable to ask why that is. Alex’s great contribution, in Protocol, was to remind us that the Internet as we know it has never been anything but a monstrous hybrid. Its functioning depends on the interaction of two very different ways of organizing the transmission and reception of information: a highly centralized and hierarchical addressing scheme called the Domain Name System, and a radically distributed messaging protocol we call TCP/IP. Only one of these “routes around failure” in the rhizomatic way so beloved of the early net theorists, while the other remains radically vulnerable to (say) State efforts to interdict the free flow of information. So, far from spontaneously giving rise to some antiauthoritarian, horizontalist utopia, while it’s fair to say that the Internet does tend to destabilize certain existing power relations, just as often it reproduces the selfsame dynamics of power that existed beforehand.

And that leads to our closely-related second question, which is how we should consider the relationship between structure and agency. The fundamental mistake that network determinists very often make is to treat people like Internet switches, or the consensing bees Thomas Seeley depicts so beautifully in his book Honeybee Democracy. They assume that, given a certain topology of organization and the logics of informational flow that attend it, certain macro-scale political outcomes will necessarily follow.

I think there is a broadly observable trend toward networked structures showing up in places we might not historically have expected them to — in the large-scale capitalist commercial enterprise, for example. But just because an organization’s practical, day-to-day decision-making is nominally organized horizontally doesn’t mean the workers who use it on the job carry that logic into the other spheres of their life. And it certainly doesn’t mean that those workers can’t be fired just like people who work for more consciously and avowedly hierarchical organizations. Ask all the liberated, Holocratic non-managers Tony Hsieh just let go from Zappos where they think power lies.

So we’re forced to conclude one of two things: either the apparent structure of power in organizations like this isn’t the actual structure of power — which is certainly possible — or people have much more latitude to bend nominally flat network topologies toward all the usual, all-too-human ends of power than the determinists would have us believe. You can’t have it both ways.

Finally, there’s the question of how we model the relationship between openness and power. We know by now that it’s a terrible error to assume that there’s a necessary connection between radical openness and a liberatory or emancipatory politics. If anything, you could be forgiven for concluding just the opposite: that there’s been a fair amount of what Marcuse would call repressive desublimation, Gamergate being the preeminent case in point.

In fact, we have to ask if openness and mobility and the apparent freedom to act aren’t qualities that can easily be leveraged by parties acting in ways that are contrary to our own understanding of our interests. This is what I take Deleuze to be arguing in the “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” and it’s at the heart of governmentality theory.

So if neither distributed organizational topologies nor horizontal decision-making nor radical transparency and openness necessarily buy you equity and justice, it’s appropriate to ask: what would? And the only answer I have is that you have to fight directly for equity and for justice. You have to believe in and want those things first, and the tools that support them will follow, will be discovered or invented. But you can’t first build the tool and suppose that progressive values and organizing logics will flow outward from it — certainly not in any straightforward or uncomplicated way.

I should point out that this is something I’ve had to learn the hard way my ownself.

KP: Living in a globalised world, we tend to universalise the discourse around digital technologies, especially their relationship to society. It’s visible in your work that you try to put more attention to those less privileged in order to figure out whether any of our networked/digital solutions could actually make their life better. Poland is an interesting example: behind the western world, but way ahead the most economically deprived countries. You’ve spent some time in Poland recently, if you were to advise Polish government, universities or companies, what you would suggest to spend the money on in terms of innovation and development?

AG: I guess I would start by asking what ends and goals you’re trying to work toward. You know I completely reject the point of view that says Poland or anyone else necessarily needs to do what everyone else is doing, needs to accept anyone else’s definitions of “advanced” or “innovative” or “highly developed.”

It’s a phrase which has sadly taken on a fairly bourgeois coloration, but I still think there’s something to be said for “quality of life.” And I don’t think there’s any inherent correlation — and I should be very clear: neither a direct nor an inverse correlation — between economic development in the abstract and quality of life. Tokyo is certainly one of the safest, most “advanced,” most efficient and highly-developed cities on the planet, but the regnant xenophobia and gender politics you find there make it a place I can’t imagine wanting to return to, except as a visitor. The “quality of life” there mostly resolves to a continually refined, absolutely state-of-the-art consumerism. By contrast, most everyone can think of places that are maybe a little run-down, maybe even a little sketchy at times, but where more of your time is your own, you aren’t quite as hemmed in by the pressures of conforming to some model of appearance and self-presentation, and in general life is more spacious. So the first part of my advice to Poles would be to weigh with the most exceeding care what already works about the way you live, and not be in any particular hurry to overwrite it with modes of being someone living a million miles away who’s never once set foot in your culture assures you is the new hotness.

The flipside of this, of course, is not clinging to things that clearly aren’t working, just because they’re the ways in which things have always been done. Racism, sexism and homophobia — like ageism and ableism and hierarchical orderings in general — sure are traditional, just about everywhere. But that doesn’t for one hot second mean I think they’re worth respecting and holding onto. And this goes for organizational and technical matters as well. The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep your eye firmly fixed on what kind of frame for living you’re trying to bring into being, and absolutely refuse to let yourself get distracted, whether by notional hipness and the fetishism of emergent technology, or by appeals to stability and tradition for their own sake.

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