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<nettime> Ippolita Collective: In the Facebook Aquarium (part One, #2.2)
Patrice Riemens on Fri, 7 Feb 2014 17:15:18 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective: In the Facebook Aquarium (part One, #2.2)

Despite the fact that the (physical) body and language define the limits
of human experience, an important part of the adult population still
refuses to learn how to use of digital technologies in a responsible way.
Scared to death by the prospect of not being able to keep up in a society
that has fallen victim to a rampant 'cult of the youth' while continuing
to be ruled by face-lifted gerontocrats, many adults simply don't want to
burn their fingers on digital technologies. This is very often the case
with people who are active socially [in 'real life' - transl.]: they hide
behind a kind of demotivation and take a 'whatever I do, I don't seem to
get it' attitude, which comes close to a new form of Luddism. "We don't
want any truck with that whole Internet thing!" appears to be the new
motto. This perception to have to do with something totally new is further
aggravated by the uncanny enthusiasm of technophiles, whom we can blame
for the (re)current Internet-centrism, a belief that everybody and
everything is destined to pass through the Web, whether it's about
inter-personal relationships, buying and selling, local and international
politics, health or education. Internet 2.0, in their eyes, is the coming
true, on-line, of an absolutely perfect world, in which every /netizen/ ,
or citizen of the net, will contribute to the general well-being - and
then mostly as a consumer.

Cyber-utopists of that ilk come in many denomination. The most rabid
conservatives are the cold war nostalgics, who are still convinced that
the Soviet block came down crumbling during the Autumn of 1989, as by
magic, thanks  to the pressure exercised by CIA-sponsored free radio
stations, and also as result of the dissemination of clandestine
pro-Western publications, made possible by the new technologies of the day
(photocopiers and fax machines). With other words, those regimes were
defeated by free information. One is apparently happier with an
explanation of events whereby it was the unearthly Western freedom of
information that vanquished the Soviet ogre, than to reflect on matters
such as the economic and political dead-ends of that system, to discuss
the mistakes made by its rulers, or to take a dive into the pre-glasnost
archives. Thus, one skips solid historical knowledge in favor of the
anecdote where one day, just like that, people on the other side of the
Iron Curtain  discovered that the Emperor had no clothes, that the
pro-regime guns would never be aimed at them, and that, even more
importantly, Western supermarkets were bursting with wondrous merchandises
so as to completely turn the head of anyone who had to put up for years on
end with the shoddy wares on sale in communist dictatorships. And so, the
masses who were heretofore subjected to the diktats of the Warsaw Pact got
enlightened by the subversive Western media, and staged a rebellion to
gain access to the free market.

But having pronounced capitalism as the one and only way, the
conservatives seemingly found themselves all at once without enemies to
fight against. One sad realization dawned inescapably amidst the alluring
landscape of global consumerism that came up in the 1990s: History had
come to its end - as was preached by ultra-liberals like Francis Fukuyama.
But then, China did not come unwinded after the Tienanmen Square  events,
but launched on the contrary a dynamic race into capitalism, while keeping
its despotic regime fully in place. Real-time Western media hence didn't
bring democracy, but they did enable Westerners to feel part and parcel of
a global spectacle, all this while remaining comfortably ensconced in
their living room couches: the Gulf War was instantly broadcasted courtesy
CNN while the 'Arab Spring' could be (re)lived thanks to Facebook and
Twitter. With a few exceptions, the old guard of dictators is still ruling
the roost, while a few new ones have made their appearance on all
continents. Which is good news for cyberwar-mongers, because digital
warfare looks like to be ever more essential to the triumph of the 'free

Conservative cyber-utopists are easy to mark out. They will tell you that
the Web 2.0 communication tools are as many liberty missiles aimed at the
heart of totalitarian regimes. They eulogize Iranian, Egyptian, Tunisian,
Syrian, Cuban, etc.  bloggers, portraying these as pro-Western secret
agents, and guerilla-fighters for the free market, endangering them far
more than they would be otherwise. They financially sponsor foundations
and info-war programs, so as to defeat modern dictatorships through the
power of freedom of expression, and in order to distribute
counter-repressive systems bypassing the walls of censorship and so to
provoke the uprising of the oppressed masses.

Progressive cyber-utopists are less at ease with military metaphors, yet
they still talk about Internet freedom in terms of a key concept that
needs to be underwritten by governments pretending to aim for a more free
and fair society. They are convinced that the free flow of information is
a major instrument of and for democracy. They are Web 2.0's democratic
evangelists. In so far as users themselves generate most of the content,
they will contend that democracy will obtain all by itself, as a kind of
collateral benefit of the Internet. In their view the rhizomatic
penetration of information technology in society shall automatically lead
to global democracy.

Whether they are progressives or conservatives, the 'Internet gurus' are
spreading the perverse logic of social cybernetics, in the form (of the
belief in) a never proved feedback mechanism whereby  participation to the
Web 2.0 automatically triggers a passage to a higher level of democracy.
Just as all progressivist beliefs, this one is based on the assumption of
a linear history, of an ever benevolent progress, and that the latter is
quantifiable. On-line participation is, in this simple utopic vision, the
equivalent to democracy of what the GDP is to the well-being of a society.
Hail to the Era of Liberty, as authoritarian regimes, battered by Tweets,
are tottering on the brink! And at the same time, Western societies are
becoming more democratic by the day, as citizens are ever better informed,
and can access the Truth 24/7, thanks to digital networks privately
managed for the common good. These connected citizens are totally
protected against the abusive behaviour of corrupt government agencies,
the manipulation by marketing bodies, the propaganda unleashed by
religious, nationalist or xenophobic extremists, the sharp practices of
ill-intentioned miscreants, the hidden violence  of certain types of
social relations (as, for instance, /stalking/), and finally, blackmail
and organized crime. The cybercitizen always chooses responsibly. To sum
up: ignorance is a residual problem and wars are simply caused by a dearth
of information. Even hunger and poverty will be 'solved' thanks to
information abundance and free connections that are made possible in this
great space of freedom: the Internet.

Today, more than ever, we are immersed in the knowledge society: we are
being told that networks make it possible for information to circulate
freely, and the same for money, and we are being promised that these
fluxes will bring us well-being, wealth, and happiness for all. We have
moved from the wealth of nations to the wealth of networks: democracy at
the global scale, connected at the local scale. But even a quick look at
the reality surrounding us should suffice to see that cyber-utopism is a
dud - never mind the ongoing financial and economic crisis savaging
through the world capitalist system. Democracy 2.0 has nothing to do with
an open, liberal society and even less so with a revolutionary society
made up of autonomous individuals, able to manage together a shared world
with the help of non-authoritarian dynamics. Rather on the contrary, one
already can state that Society 2.0 looks in many respects disturbingly
like the 'closed society' Karl Popper was describing as the opposite of
Western democracy.

The enthusiasm aroused nowadays by networks, and more specifically, by
networked sociality, is a classic phenomenon which can be witnessed every
time a new media technology makes its appearance. Indeed, every fresh wave
of technological innovation sees myriads of  experts and futurologists
swarming around, eulogizing humanity's new advance while profusely
spelling out this or that technology's innate logic.  So first you had the
press which was believed to be the absolute bulwark of democracy in
Europe: as the telegraph system emerged, war became to be seen as an
absurdity belonging to a dark age when people could not communicate. Then
one was made to believe that radio, a promising technology which, in
theory at least, should enable everybody not only to receive broadcasts
but also to broadcast, would be the prime tool for a new era of peace.
Television in its turn held the promise of showing to all what was
happening at the other end of the world: the horrors of war, now to be
witnessed live, would henceforth be prevented. Yet religious wars have
erupted, and this specifically thanks to a press bringing modern
nationalists and state bureaucrats all the support they were lacking. The
telegraph was one of the major instruments which brought North American
Indians to their near-extinction in the 'Far West'. The radio (broadcast)
was the most powerful propaganda weapon in the hands of fascist and Nazi
regime, and then the same applied for the genocides in former Yugoslavia
and in Rwanda. The television functions both as the anaesthesia of the
consumer masses as a pulpit for the most aggressive kind of

'Mediatic euphoria' is never a good thing, because it is based on the
implicit idea of technological determinism, a belief that is itself
solidly grounded in the Enlightenment tradition. This is why we are
repeatedly told that information is empowering, that knowledge and ideas
are revolutionary per se and that Progress looms large at the end of the
horizon. So why longer worry when communication means are ipso facto
democratic, the long awaited-for revolution has taken place through the
social media which enable every individual to personally participate in
the build-up of society? Technological determinism finds its origin in a
presumed 'historical necessity' in which individual choices count for
nothing. In this respect it is akin to Marxist dialectics: liberty will
impose itself by necessity, since technology is free in itself, and
heralds universal human rights, independently of the people involved -
just as the dictatorship of the proletariat is inescapable. This occults
the fact that the firms which are steering the booming of social media are
not working unconsciously to bring about an unavoidable historical
process, but are, on the contrary, actively pursuing their own particular
interests. It is not the case that privacy is an outdated idea simply
because society is moving towards the total transparency its technology
prescripts. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc. are the actors needing
to get rid of privacy so as to be able to usher the reign of customized

Next time: Morozov says ....

(to be continued)

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:
The Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
The Antenna Foundation, Nijmegen
(http://www.antenna.nl - Dutch site)
(http://www.antenna.nl/indexeng.html - english site under construction)
Casa Nostra, Vogogna-Ossola, Italy

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