- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
By Geoff Cox
'Today the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It's called Democracy.'1
By 'anti-social', I do not mean (to be) unfriendly but to highlight that social networking platforms are already anti-social in as much as they display contradictory tendencies - both connecting and disconnecting socialities. In this way, and undoubtedly part of a backlash to the popularity of social networking in general, I am not referring to 'antisocial web' sites such as Hatebook that enable you to create a list of people that you don't want to be friends with (as opposed to Facebook that allows you to collect friends).2 Rather, the application of the term anti-social is meant more in the tradition of'negative dialectics' to highlight the paradoxical nature of positive criticism.3 Despite focusing on issues of ownership and distribution, some criticism is misdirected; for instance, in emphasising the threat of social networking to established hierarchies of expertise and a defense of copyright.4 Better to begin negatively.
With this in mind, the emphasis in these notes is to draw attention to how the production of non-antagonistic social relations has become central to economic production and social control. To take a typical target, the politics of Facebook,5 with its 59 million users, reveals how social exchanges are mediated by the wider culture and political economy. Personal information (ID and consumer preferences) is voluntarily submitted and can then be accessed by agencies reflecting pervasive viral marketing techniques, hegemonic corporate ownership and capitalistic economic principles - all designed to derive profit from friendship.6 Furthermore, the social relation is based on weak ties (as opposed to the relatively strong ties of peer production for instance) and an 'unstable social contract' between users and platform owners.7 That services are provided on the basis of latent profitability indicates the capitalist logic of producing value as cheaply as possible and making sure ownership is kept in the realm of private property.8 A closer look at terms of service agreements reveals more detail here and confirms that ownership is carefully managed. The contradiction is clear: 'The social web facilitates an unprecedented level of social sharing, but it does so mostly through the vehicle of proprietary platforms.'9 In such ways, the social relation is produced in restrictive form.
No less significant is the issue of security in the challenge of managing the networked relations between technologies and biologies - in the management of life itself (referring to Giorgio Agamben's distinction between 'bare life' and the political subject).10 In other words, the network needs to distinguish whether you are a friend or not, and as such is a neat example of biopolitical control. The network has evidently become a manifestation of ideology in itself - and one in which connectivity remains a security threat beyond a purely technical form (in offering a platform for terrorism or counter-terrorism alike).11 Evoking Carl Schmitt's notion of enmity (in The Concept of the Political, of 1927)12, the political differentiation of friend or enemy(facebook or hatebook) lies at the centre of this. Nevertheless the starting point for these notes is antithetical not simply oppositional(or anti-semitic or anti-America like Schmitt), and draws upon an understanding of the 'negation of negation' to understand how dialectics is not simply a method that proposes a reversal of one thing with another but a deeper and more reflexive engagement.13
With this in mind, these notes are arranged as a series of speculations that examine the paradoxical nature of the terms in common use: 'the social' (making particular reference to Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social) and 'networking' (with reference to Ned Rossiter's Organized Networks); moving to the antithetical term of 'notworking' (after Antonio Negri) to shift attention to social relations that are unfriendly in character. The suggestion is that without the identification of antagonisms that underpin sociality, politics simply cannot be engaged. (Do I need to add?) Without politics, our friendships are empty of meaning and our exchanges lead to nothing but the commodification of life itself.
The use of the term 'social' has become commonplace and somewhat emptied of meaning especially where communications technologies are concerned. It is only vaguely defined at best. By returning to the first principles of sociology (the science of living together, and its Latin etymological root 'socius' meaning 'someone following someone else', a 'follower', an 'associate'), Latour proposes to examine what is assembled within social formations (literally Reassembling the Social as the book title confirms).14 As a consequence of expansions in science and technology, he claims that a problem arises, such that the'social seems to be diluted everywhere and yet nowhere in particular'.15 It is not that there is no such thing as society (as Thatcher famously put it) but there is a problem in regarding it as a given homogenous thing. Rather, it is possible to designate it as a tracing of associations of heterogeneous elements, according to Latour. It is not a thing but a type of connection, an assemblage.
In striving for a more 'relativist' definition of the social and drawing upon the 'uncertainty principle' (where the observer cannot be disentangled from the observed), Latour tries to develop 'uncertainties' over key concepts: the nature of group formations, actions by multiple agents, objects demonstrating agency, as well as ongoing disputes over the nature of facts and the truth claims of social science.16 The uncertainties do not represent confusion but an opening up of the performative dimension of the social. This comes close to action in as much as action is understood as a coming together of complex, diverse, and interlinking agencies locked into uncertain relations. This is the 'actor-network' that describes not a source of action but a 'moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it'.17 Indeed, other agencies are participants in action (participant-observers) that produce new fluid (liquid) associations that reflect the socio-technical operations of networks.18 If agency is embedded in subject-objects and object-subjects under dynamic mesh-network conditions, then in the case of social networking platforms, agency is evident in the software, the networks/spaces, users/subjects, and so on - in the production of a social relation and the networking platform through which it is reproduced.
Herein lies part of the problem (of ANT) that in describing such fluid and contingent relations the network is seen as having a determining effect on interactions therein. The assumption that 'society is ontologically flat is an excellent starting point, but a weak ending of the analysis' as Felix Stalder puts it.19 This becomes a question of relative power in that not all connections in any network are equal and certain connections are granted privileges over others. This is a description of network power that follows 'power laws' of variable, uneven and unequal distribution, and that has learned from history to use all varieties of authority and organisation at its disposal. Correspondingly, counter positions need to take advantage of the vulnerabilities in networks by exploiting power differentials that exist in the system.20 What is required is more detail on network topologies and how power is organised.