Horizonal De/-Ilusions Or Interfaces of Exposure?

April 10th, 2008

The World Wide Web, as the ‘honesty’ of the term denotes, presents both a space of global, sprawling interconnectivity between ‘nodes’, yet as a ‘web’, is spun and spins under the architectural doctrines of ‘meta’ nodes. As Manuel DeLanda aptly notes in his essay ‘Meshworks, Hierarchies And Interfaces’ (http://netbase.org/delanda/meshwork.htm) it is only in rare cases that we could describe a structure as being either purely hierarchical or purely as a meshwork, but rather that there is a continual flux between the two forms of organization where ‘hierarchies give rise to meshworks and meshworks to hierarchies’. The WWW is often heralded as a type of horizontal, ‘user’ Utopia, a space of unabridged freedom of expression – yet it is precisely against the backdrop of DeLanda’s observation – the flux between the meshwork and the hierarchy – that the WWW can be most ‘honestly’ examined and such ‘interfaces’ of expression revealed.

Sprawling Centralization
The double forces at play in the proliferation and architecture of the WWW, represented by both the sprawling of ‘nodes’ (increase in internet users, web pages, blogs, etc) and the increased centralization of ‘meta-nodes’ (the consolidation of search, media giants, blog hosts, etc). This inversely complimentary relationship between ‘sprawl’ and ‘centralization’ starts to resemble a virtual panopticon***, whose ability to ‘see all’ is not confined to institutional boundaries, but rather expands cloud-like, one easy click at a time. Such a virtualization of panopticism, upholds ‘vertical’ power through a veil of convenience and ‘public expression’, masking its ‘territorial’ stronghold through an ergonomics of ‘free’ service. What is of import here is two-fold: the ‘service’ architecture of the WWW panopticon, and the re-articulation (legal/ideological) of ‘being public’ and cultural ‘freedom’.

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

[…] the design was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and its pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, the school, the hospital and the factory have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s famous analysis of it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon

Panopticon as Service Infrastructure
What is perhaps most troubling, with the rise of our information-sharing age, are the participatory modes by which ‘corporate verticality’ flourishes on the WWW. The promise of communities, self-expression (self-exposure?), instantaneity, convenience and intercommunication prove a highly seductive force for users eager to sculpt their virtual selves and often, simply to make life more ‘efficient’. I state this in full admission to my complicity in the ‘service panopticon’, between Facebook, Amazon client profiles and precious documents on a Google server, I do not pretend to be ‘above’ this phenomenon, and that is precisely what makes this form of panopticism particularly perverse – we all know better but… (the Fetishist disavowal)

The friendly nature of the ‘service panopticon’ provides us not the frightening sort of ‘institutional’ structure embodied in prisons and hospitals, but rather an unthreatening, easy, ‘client’ interface or utility that offers us the platform to share, expose and consume unabashedly, all the while comfortably, in physical privacy. The exchange for such services comes at no financial charge to the User, but by way of the ‘profile economy’ – valuable information about our ‘habitual’ selves, sold at premium as targets – precisely outlined maps to targets of opportunity; all the while processed invisibly and silently at a distance.

Algorithms of preference are the commodity of the day on the WWW, as can recently be seen by the attempt to dethrone the Google Targeted Advertising monopoly (AdSense) by way of a Microsoft takeover of Yahoo. The failed Microsoft bid (***summer 2008), raising even higher the dominance of Google’s authority as ‘targeting experts’, where Yang himself (CEO of Yahoo) will be forced to employ their competitors AdSense technology – raising the firms’ stakes and appeasing the shareholders.

Being Public
The public ‘performance of self-identity’ is eloquently elaborated upon in Zizek’s article “A Cup of Decaf Reality”. In the article he goes on to note the “playing of oneself”, as opposed to being oneself, and that such a fictional self is in fact closer to the true self.

“From the 1950s, social psychology varies endlessly the motif of how, in public life, we are all »wearing masks,« adopting identities which obfuscate our true selves. However, wearing a mask can be a strange thing: sometimes, more often than we tend to believe, there is more truth in the mask that in what we assume to be our »real self.«”

When such mask-wearing in the ‘performance of self’ reveals our truer, ‘fictional’ selves, we are also leaving ourselves much more vulnerable as a target – for targeting can be precisely directed to our ‘desired’ self rather than the actual self. It is here that some ideals of ‘being’ public are obfuscated – namely the blurring of self-expression and self-exposure. The degrees of public-ness that we may present on the WWW are vast and varied. With the Zapatista effect, we can trace out the making public of localized issues that would have largely passed outside the scrutiny of global media, had it not been for an elaborated organized and articulated ‘presentation of self’.

On the other hand, the increase of the “My” on the WWW, often used as a prefix nowadays, suggests the building of illusory, personalized territory on net, fully in line with the ‘preference’ economy outlined above (see sueddeutsche zeitung “Meins, meins, meins”). You can have “My-“ anything, an ‘intelligent’ service designed to give you what you want, how you want, carved out of personal data willingly sent to a given host. The self-exposure necessary to participate in a ‘My-WWW’, comes by way of illusory self-expression – the ‘gift’ of a ‘stage’ from which to articulate yourself. If the Panopticon’s tour de force is to normalize sociality, the (false) participation in centralized platforms operates to gentrify the fabrication of self. The plurality of scope the WWW promises (and delivers to some degree), is undergoing increased (rather urban-like) gentrification, due to popularized ‘settlement’ of specific territories (neighbourhoods). In this particular rendering of ‘being public’ as ‘being exposed’, we may have access to a ‘stage’, but we have absolutely no directorial control over the mise-en-scene of our own ‘play’, the scripts and aesthetics pre-configured in advance.

Cultural ‘Freedom’
Just as the notion of ‘being public’ has largely (not in all cases) shifted from a sphere of self-expression to a sphere of self-exposure, so too has the conceptual/legal framework of the ‘free’. As Lessig so acutely maps out in his book Free Culture (http://www.free-culture.cc/), the production of culture itself has always employed degrees of piracy/appropriation in order to disseminate and innovate new ‘memes’ of expression. Such modes of cultural innovating are now directly under threat due to specific legal precedents (US law), that in effect function to privatize culture itself. New definitions and limits on cultural freedom have been judiciously forged largely under the weight of big media and their private interests in profitability.

“At the beginning of our history, and for just about the whole of our tradition, noncommercial culture was essentially unregulated […]the law was never directly concerned with the creation or spread of this form of culture, and it left this culture “free.” The ordinary ways in which ordinary individuals shared and transformed their culture—telling stories, reenacting scenes from plays or TV, participating in fan clubs, sharing music, making tapes—were left alone by the law.” (p.8)

The ‘Free’ in freedom, has thus been relegated to the most banal economic rendition, where we may attain “My-real-estate” on the WWW at no financial cost, all the while the most basic common property, culture itself, slips out of the common ‘economy’. Lessig so aptly denotes this shift as one from a Culture of Freedom to a Culture of Permission, where only the few may lawfully participate in the borrowing (and paying huge fees) for rights to designs, images, sound clips, etc, from which to elaborate. The noun form of this culture does not adequately describe the contextual conditions under which such legal precedents may occur – it rests within culture itself, which denotes the adjective form of the root – a Culture of Permissiveness. As described above, the ‘Service Panopticon’ can only garner its ‘verticality’ from willing participation in its scheme. What are our personal responsibilities in the perpetuation of such designs of self-gentrification and cultural privatization? Clearly a notion of ‘Free’ must be renegotiated, not forgetting the ‘complimentary expense’ paid by individuals and the commons that strip away capacities to innovate creative memes.

WeSpace
Drawing some very preliminary conclusions, it seems that much of this ‘verticalization’ of the WWW is rooted in our very understanding and acting out of a ‘free individual’, coupled with territorial conceptions of propriety and ownership (The My). What would a WWW look like and operate if the idea of subjectivity/authorship itself were radicalized? On this train of thought, I’m particularly inspired by Jean Luc Nancy’s re-configuration of the “I” towards a “We”, that the idea of the “I” itself is a false understanding and that sociality is inherent to being itself – it is also a “Being With” that transforms the “I” into a being singular plural…the “We”. If sociality and ‘being with’ is a pre-condition of identity, than the ontology of the subject must also shift to the realm of the “Co-“ – a ‘co-ontology’ of being with. Please forgive this rather surface interpretation of Nancy’s extremely complex and elaborate description of the “We”, but it does seem a fruitful direction from which to innovate new legal/aesthetic forms/paradigms from which to experiment with the shared conception of space that is the “Co-“. In a particularly network-driven culture, verticalized through consensual user participation, it seems of critical import resist such ‘Net-Gentrification’ productively, through an ergonomics of the “We”, and an authorship not “by” but rather “with”.