Drones in the Cloud: Attending to Snapchat

I don’t know enough about you
To be kind, to be kind to you
Don’t you even think about me
Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The Cymbals’ electro-pop lament of unrequited attention (‘love’) has the same furtively repetitive energetics of yearning through ‘refresh’. Refresh the inbox, refresh the stream, refresh the wall. Repeat. Has the person responded? “Here is my attention; take it.” The “I” of the song is a single contact in a series of contacts presented as the natural world (or ‘milieu’) belong to the song’s second-person “you”.[1. As this reviewer on Pitchfork described the track, it is a “witty, sweat-salty pop song about the peculiarities of media-drenched modern life”.]

The expectation of being attended to is held by the “you” but it is also shared by the “I”. Obviously, the expectation is not held in the same way. Two perspectives on the same expectation indicates a certain kind of power relation. Teachers and students are meant to share expectations of what will happen in a classroom, but they will have radically different perspectives. The flip-side to the alleged passivity of narcissism consists of the capacity to excite or agitate the world. ‘Agitate’ not in the sense of arguing — there is that too, however — but more in the sense of an ‘agitator’ sometimes used as part of the viticulture process in great wine baths to ensure that the elements in solution continue mixing (and fermenting and so on). What does this mean?

There is a labour of sharing that requires an intensive strategic infrastructure to distribute collective expectations in asymmetric relations of attending and being attended to. The technology is part of this; ‘living with notifications’ in the same way you’d say living with some potentially painful but treatable condition. Snapchat operates purely in this realm. It is not what is shared so much as the anticipation of sharing. The just-in-time sociality of online relations often encourages a temporality not unlike the rhythm of waves, in the silent way the tide draws out the body of water — gathering in the potentiality of repetitive anticipation. Like the way a comedian waits for the audience to ‘get it’ (hoping beyond hope that their gag is, indeed, gettable).[2. I often feel very awkward around people when it is apparent they are not ‘getting it’, but that is something else…]

You decide what you want from me
We can hear the passing of time
And the sound that is in your mind
— Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The second-person “you” has a spectral composition, distributed across her agitations. (Obviously I am using ‘her’ when it very well might be a ‘him’; I know I present such a persona online sometimes.[4. EDIT a few hours later: For ironic emphasis I posted this image to Instagram and to Snapchat today with different text components. Not sure if anyone got the irony in the context of this blog post. A few people got extra annoyed at me thinking I was sexting them. I guess an ironic sext (not that it is a sext as such), is still a sext.]) Being attended to can therefore be experienced as endured, where the causal relation begins elsewhere; essentially, a passive relation to the actions of others. This is an abdication of responsibility, however. Participation in the anticipatory economy of sharing attentions is at the same time an impersonal cultivation of personal relations. This is a kind of existential wriggle. Impersonal because “you” engage with the cloud, which is nevertheless populated by (im)personal intentionalities.

Does the cloud have a face? What is the faciality of the cloud? I am tempted to suggest it is the drone: a being of pure intentionality — always a mission, always a target, its cybernetic perspective is pure HUD, baby — but one that is remote-controlled. Control is displaced across space for drone pilots; for the Cymbals’ “you” it is displaced across time in the anticipatory economy of sharing. The moral crisis of drone warfare is repeated online in the ethics of being attended to. The question of agency is therefore very tricky in such a scenario as it implies a degree of responsibility. What happens when the drones come home to roost? Can you be seduced by a drone?


A further, more pressing question presents itself: What if, instead of two people, the Cymbals’ track describes a process belonging to a single person?

That is, the agitations in question do not belong to some other (online) realm or ‘world’, but constitute that through which one’s subjectivity is individuated. I don’t know enough about myself to know if my own remote-controlled agitations are returning, repeating their anticipations. This would be the McLuhanist point (the way media technology “massages” the “human”): am I drone of my own affectations, a being of pure HUD intentionality, perpetually remote-controlled by a future version of myself (assembled by expectation and gathered through anticipation)?[4. Is this a mechanism to produce the absence of immediacy, most acutely experienced as the immediacy of personal responsibility?]


Nihilist Pop Culture: Consumed by the Insignificant

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed. […] The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying. This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant. (Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘Seinfeld’.)

We need more nihilist popular culture

Writing in Havard’s undergraduate student newspaper about the film Se7en, David H. Goldbrenner, argues that nihilistic popular culture is damaging:

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental.  They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold:  that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment.  The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

This is born of common (and often religious) interpretation of nihilism; that it is a state of social being without transcendental values; transcendental values include ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’ and various political manifestations. I suggest everyone reads Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in particular the first sections on nihilism, for two reasons. Firstly, for critics of nihilism, Nietzsche is clearly the primary enemy. Secondly, ‘nihilism’ is not some fantastical apprehension of existential meaninglessness; or it is, but this observation has become banal. We cannot escape from nihilism. Therefore, it is necessary to go to war or fall in love, at least in an existential sense.

To help contemporary audiences when reading Neitzsche, I suggest that you imagine you are reading a blog of someone who you suspect to be mildly insane.

For Nietzsche, as he writes in the preface, nihilism is a historical passage of development through which future societies shall necessarily pass. This is not like Marx’s historical determinism; Nietzsche is instead suggesting it shall be born of its own advent. That is, there shall be an intuitive or qualitative leap whereby the European Nihilist (aka Nietzsche) “has already outlived the Nihilism in his own soul — who has outgrown, overcome, and dismissed it.” Neitzsche’s Will to Power should therefore be read as a guide: How To Survive Nihilism.

The species of nihilism that Neitzsche wrote about in the late-nineteenth now has siblings. To think nihilism as an event (of society, of social relations, of the mind and in bodies) is to appreciate how it can be repeated in different ways. I want to explore the contemporary nihilism evident in popular culture and the culture of the popular. I want to think through both meanings of the phrase “society consumed by the insignificant”: a preoccupation with the trivial and the consumption of society itself.

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The Birth of Expectation

To appreciate the repetition of nihilism means to aske the question, from where does nihilism emerge? Before nihilism, there are only transcendental values. Transcendental values serve as an antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism. In Nietzsche’s era these were primarily Christian values of morality (WtP, pages 8-9). I don’t think this is the case anymore.

Now it is a more complex question, worthy of our developments in the sciences and arts, of predictive extrapolations from the present (algorithmic or otherwise)[1. Witness the 2012 US Presidential election and the battle of data-driven expectations between the two major parties. One was governed by providing the correct answers and the other by asking the correct answers. In both cases the future was furnished with a certain kind of expectation that governed the present.] and governed by expectation:

  1. Transcendental values bestow an intrinsic value upon the world, including the values of humans and anything else. Liberal humanism is a derivation of this.[2. It is what Helen Razer is writing against, in part, in her piece about feminism.] It means you only have to believe and not do any work in appreciating structures of valorisation that everday life enters into as a kind of ritualised gladitorial combat. Everyday our values slay the meaninglessness of its own battle first and then every other violence posed by the question.
  2. There is an unthinking simplicity to the perfection produced by transcendental values. The perfection here is of a particular order. It is not the perfection of neoplatonic forms.[3. For example, there is no such thing as ’roundness’ or a ‘curve’. A circle is a series of points equidistant from another point. There is no ‘circle’ to represent the perfection of ’roundness’.] The purest expression of this in the contemporary state of affairs is the utter stupidity of justification via expectation: “What else do you expect?” This is ironically lampooning of the use of ‘shock’ in journalistic headlines: “Politician in Lying Shock” or “Celebrity in Sex Scandal Shock”. None of these are actual shocks. I’d be shocked to find someone shocked by them. The superposition of expectation introduces the same teleological inevitability once granted solely to Good and Evil. Beyond the Expected and Unexpected!
  3. The persecution of reality by transcendental values approaches its apogee through knowledge that ‘everyone’ knows. Everyone does not know it, but ‘everyone’ does. Here, expectation of something expectedly shared annihilates difference; that is, the differentials of culture that actually produce meaning. Entire fields of knowledge are organised around bestowing an adequate perception of these most important things, whatever they are, to the everyday innovators of expectation (through Ideas Worth Spreading). Everyone has the ‘right’ to participate in the glorious pursuit over expectation, where we truly value your ‘voice’ because it ‘matters’.[4. An excellent test to carry out before you say or write anything is what difference is being made (if any) or what difference are you attempting to reproduce by governing the future.]
  4. Neitzsche argued that the transcendental values of Morality were a measure of self-preservation, to prevent ‘man’ from despising ‘himself’ as ‘man’. Knowledge, he argued, could drive a ‘man’ to despair. Indeed. After the death of God, what possible hope is there? Well, hope itself; hope in hope. Hope is the handmaiden of expectation. Hope bestows expectation with a robustness that only a nihilist would seek to liquidate. Hope prepares humanity to attend the future; both to be present and to worry over it. A future governed by expectation. If the transcendental values of Christian Morality confected the righteous in Nietzsche’s era, then it is now hope itself that fills ‘man’ up when self-awareness empties ‘him’. The awesome power of contemporary predictive algorithms to ‘recommend’ a given passage of action (this book/food/elected official is an appropriate choice) is built over the heads of ‘men’ as though they were the will of ‘himself’ and, at best, a hope of a world to come. Hence, the future itself has become the operative outside of expectation.[5. It is the future that serves as the ‘authority’ of expectation, to use Nietzsche’s terms, this authority “would know how to speak unconditionally, and could point to goals and missions” (WtP, pages 19-20). For Nietzsche these goals and missions are simulacrum populated by Christian Morality, I am suggesting the constellation of relations represented by ‘expectation’ is captured by the ‘point’ action itself.]

In the contemporary era, expectation is a mobile constellation of relations, unburdened by the tradition of tradition.[6. Except, of course, when tradition is inverted, like a demonic cruxifiction, to project a field of possible futures. Witness the way all people enduring a healthy sense of the ethical grind their teeth when having to live in countries with inhospitable policies of migration. The ‘nation’ is hoisted like wet laundry upon a clothes line in the backyard of banal expectations: not in my backyard. ‘My’ and ‘mine’ is an ‘adequate perception’ of ‘ours’ backformed from a possible future governed by the ‘nation’.] Like Nietzsche’s Christian Morality (WtP, page 9), this mobile constellation of relations are fuelled by the despair of ever freeing ourselves from them. Hence, we crawl out of the slums of our expectedly shared telos, grappling with the zombie bodies and minds of the otherwise disaffected who can’t go on, but nevertheless go on. This is the stage of the transvaluation of all values.

Neitzsche only had to contend with the differential repetition of one set of transcendental values, but now the constellation of relations between elements in the present, but also through relations to the past and future, that manifest this teleology of expectation broken from its traditional transcendental mooring; it has become Mad Max surveying the wasteland of tomorrow — an immanent mobile force forever pursuing the fuel that will propel it on, on, on. Hope. Are you a student of opportunity?

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Anchors of Affect

There is an aesthetics of nihilism. (Are you excited? What are you excited about? I am very excited… but I don’t know why.) The comically stupid interpretations of nihilistic culture appreciate a nihilistic aesthetic to be one of violence, sex, depravity and so on; essentially, anything resonant with a moral wasteland that expresses the loss of transcendental values (such as Christian Morality).


An aesthetics of nihilism is one that appreciates the “long waste of strength, the pain of ‘futility’, uncertainty, the lack of opportunity to recover in some way, or to attain to a state of peace concerning anything — shame in one’s own presence, as if one had cheated oneself too long…” (WtP, page 12). The goal of all expectation is that something be attained: what is the return on investment? Are you excited? What are you excited about? The nihilistic appreciates that even with a return, nothing is attained. Pure waste, but of degrees.

Like a future threat governing the present through technics and an apparatus of ‘risk’ [7. See Brian Massumi’s Future Birth of the Affective Fact], the relations of the present to the future pass through various systems of expectation. The future is anchored in the present through affect. How we feel about the future. ‘Hype’ does not simply bestow meaning upon some expected innovation, but on the innovators of expectations, and an entire apparatus of valorisation (‘optics’, targeting entire populations targeting ‘achievements’; now crowdsourced ‘likes’) through the felt-tendency expectedly shared through expectation with others. Are you excited? What are you excited about? You are already targeting the present under remote control from the future: celebrate the autoaffection of drones!

Measuring the “worth of the world according to categories that can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (WtP, 15) produces an inevitable revulsion. Life itself is vulgarised (WtP, page 23). Coke does not sell us a drink, but a world within which the drink exists. [8. See Maurizio Lazzarato’s Struggle, Event, Media: The corporation does not generate the object (the commodity), but rather the world in which the object exists. Nor does it generate the subject (worker and consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.] We consume entire worlds. Quench your thirst and your appetite heralds entire worlds. You command this power to connect with entire systems of existential midwifery. Are you excited? What are you excited about? Was Nietzsche wrong to suggest that nihilism is premised on recognising there is no truth? Satisfaction terminates in the purpose of your appetite; this is the belief and truth of expectation.

Appetite here is of the body, but it is animated with the banal majesty of the future-present of meeting expectations. “Does what it says on the box.” “As advertised.” The consumer is entirely disenfranchised of dignity when following this trivial proscriptions. Hence, the manifest disgust when you begin wallowing in the consumption of this world projected by the futurity of “desiderata” (WtP, page 17). Alone with your excitement and the promise of world to come. I am very excited …but I don’t know why. “Give me a target!” demands the drone of futurity.

Is your excitement active or passive? Or, to ask this question another way, did you inherit your excitement? What were the conditions by which this excitement circulated? What are the vectors of its propagation? If you didn’t inherit this excitement, then how was it manifest? Is it part of a burning fury? Did your excitement bubble up through you? Nietzsche proposes two kinds of nihilism (WtP, page 21):

1. Nihilism as a sign of enhanced spiritual strength: active nihilism.

2. Nihilism as a sign of the collapse and decline of siritual strength: passive nihilism.

The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges. If you go on even when you cannot go on and subsume you own challenges according to the proscriptions of expectation, then your randomised playlist soundtrack will always and forever play cynicism. This is a passive nihilism, and the cynic’s capacity to act is diminished, like a fast food patron holding up the drive-thru line paralysed by indecision when choosing from the menu. Exhaustion should be welcomed as the inability to possibilise a future and transient zero-degree of nihilism.

If there is no truth, then first there cannot be appetite. The nihilist does not believe his or her own appetite[9. This is what Nietzsche calls the philosophical nihilist, one who “supposes theat the sight of such a desolate, useless Being is unsatisfying (…) and fills ‘him’ with desolation and despair” (WtP, page 30).]; hence, truth as the satisfaction in the termination of appetite fails to manifest. You feel it in your body; you reject entire worlds. Rather than grappling with the existential dimension of the abject, this is the abject on an existential level.

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Cultures of Nihilism

There are varieties of self-stupefaction manifest as attempts to escape nihilism. I think this is where most critics of nihilist popular culture fall short. They think they are critiquing nihilism, when they are actually critiquing the attempts to escape nihilism (not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the intrepid humans wonder at the grace of the stampeding herd and, just before they are almost wiped-out by the excited herd mentality, enters a species of monstrous hunter: ‘Nihilism’). Nietzsche isolates a few examples of such stupefaction:

  1. Rising above the malaise through emotional intoxification: this includes popular culture (‘music’), in scandal (‘cruelty of tragic joy of ruin of the noblest’), in blind enthusiasms (‘hatreds’).
  2. Escape by falling into an oppressive regime of documenting small joys. This includes attempts “to work blindly, like a scientific instrument” (WtP, page 24) or, as I suggest, a drone.
  3. Another form of stupefaction has developed in the ‘so-called’ networked society (the use of ‘so-called’ should signal that I am using a derivative of an ‘expectation’ that governs a certain discourse; the sheer fact that every who reads this knows to that which I am referring is proof). This is the stupefaction of belonging.

Imagine there is a global media culture. There isn’t a global media culture.

There is a global logistical network for the distribution of a limited number of cultural products that audiences imagine belong to a ‘global culture’. There is no outside point of reference for these audiences to gauge whether the cultural products are global or merely appear as global. This is not unlike the way a larger neighbour will dominate the everyday media culture of its smaller neighbour, but this presence is not reciprocated (US to Australia, Australia to New Zealand, and so on). The presumption of participatory relevance is premised on the material conditions for the distribution of culture and the speed with which audiences access these cultural products (such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’ or ‘release’ that seduce audiences into believing they share the text, which they do not; they simply belong without possibly knowing what it is they belong to).

Of course, irrelevant participation does not preclude localised audience-based interpretations that produce the meaning of the cultural products — that is, the ‘text’ of the cultural product — that blossoms into a deep existential meaning for the audience. It is just such deep existential meaning is utterly irrelevant beyond a limited cloister of like-minded aficionados. The feeling of belonging to a mass cultural event, such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’, is more of an expression of global culture than any normatively-considered, audience-produced meaning of the ‘text’. [10. There is a paradox here of rendering the audience irrelevant just as media companies mistakenly attempt to resuscitate their businesses by focusing on the audience; not unlike a lifeguard rescuing a drowning victim, while they are actually still drowning on barely remembered past success milked as they fellate their own decaying corporate bodies.]

Besides shared irrelevance, all that is left is a shared disdain. To produce belonging therefore requires a constant involution of immanent modes of belonging.  Shared disdain is another modality of the pessimism that heralds nihilism. Nihilism as the autoaffection of pessimism.


Heidegger versus Deleuze: On Events and Being

Although Richard Grusin voiced some concerns about the effect of ‘live’ Twitter use at conferences and whether or not the increased intensity is positive, Troy Rhoades very kindly asked a question I had posted to Twitter during the question time of Erin Manning’s plenary of the Nonhuman Turn conference currently underway. Video of Erin’s plenary and the rest are are available online. Jordan Peacock captured my question in his blogging of the plenary papers on his Google+ blog. My question was:

ok, q: Alexander Galloway suggests, ‘Heidegger’s claim that “being is mine”, while Deleuze’s claim is that “the event is mine”‘ 1/3
what sort of ontological claims can be made by your use of the concept of the ‘event’? Without returning to 2/3
neoplatonic truth (Badiou) is there a being of the event? 3/3 #c21nonhuman

In three parts of course because it was posed through Twitter. Erin misheard Troy and thought he said ‘mind’ instead of ‘mine’, and rightly directed the concerns about ‘mind’ to Steven Shaviro’s plenary about ‘Panpsychism/experientialism’ that was happening the next day of the conference and which can also be found online.

The reference to Galloway is from his French Theory Today edited book of pamphlets (which also includes responses from participants in the seminars for which the pamphlets were written) about five French thinkers today is available as a PDF (via Sam Kinsley on Twitter). Galloway has an interesting observation that appears in the Steigler chapter regarding the relation between Deleuze and Badiou’s respective conceptions of the event and their similar relation to Heidegger’s claim regarding being. Galloway’s claim is striking as it clarifies something for me about OOO or OOO-derived philosophies. Galloway’s observation is crossed out, which means that it was not spoken by Galloway as part of the seminar/lecture version of the document, but was originally included in the written prepared version. I have retained the previous section of the paragraph, with the point of interest in bold:

Recall that in Deleuze the event is often posed in relationship to the accident. Essentially, there are two kinds of phenomena: the mere level of things that occur, which Deleuze calls accidents, and the pure event selected from out of all those accidental occurrences. So while it might not seem so at first glance, Deleuze’s theory of the event is in fact quite similar to Badiou’s theory of the event, and certainly had an influence on the younger philosopher. “My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it,” is Deleuze’s intonation of the event. For Badiou the refrain is something similar: I am a subject of truth by virtue of my fidelity to an event. In other words, my wound existed before me; I have a fidelity to my wound.(Compare this Deleuzian-Badiousian claim that “the event is mine” to Martin Heidegger’s claim that “being is mine” and one will see the outline of Heideggerian phenomenology framed in stark contrast against the work of the two Frenchmen.)

Alhough the framing of the relation in terms of ownership or mastery (“is mine”) is problematic, and I am sure Galloway would expand on this if that was the focus of his lecture/pamphlet with a more nuanced exploration, the comparison brings into stark relief something I read in Harman’s book on Latour. I described Harman’s take on the event as Harman’s “quaint neo-Heideggerianism” to the ire of OOO eco-philosopher Tim Morton. In different ways he and Levi Bryant got stuck into me about my professional standing as a scholar, my capacity as a thinker and the quality of my writing. All the while they were avoiding engaging with the clear differend between Heideggerian understandings of the event, as an ontological subsidiary of ‘objects’, and Deleuze’s understanding of events, as virtual singular multiplicities. It was entertaining to see Jane Bennett frame her plenary clearly in terms of these competing understandings as they articulated through different conceptions of materiality.

Steve Jobs RIP: Can Design Make the World a Better Place?

My tweet questioning the outpouring of grief regarding the passing of Steve Jobs has generated a range of responses. My original tweet:

Deliberately provocative, it certainly provoked. Perhaps too much, so I am writing this post.

My first response to hearing about the news was ‘whoa’ and then I began thinking about Deleuze’s discussion of death as a perfect example of an event. Death is necessarily impersonal; ‘your’ death is never experienced as such, only by others. The greater the proximity to death (as one is dying, for example) the more the living can appreciate you for your ‘life’; a life. Life itself. Deleuze draws on Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (28).

I recognised that in Steve Jobs’s passing. A life had passed. I am not a psychopath; I also felt sad at Jobs’s death, particularly because his illness was rendered public due to the market-based connection between his health and the relative share value of Apple.

Yet, Jobs is no hero to me. There has long been a nascent hostility amongst the digital elites between those that saw Jobs as a hero and those that did not. By ‘digital elites’ I mean those whose professional lives and perhaps existence is in part defined by the competent, if not masterful use of information technology devices. The hostility is played out in rather fascile ways in a discourse of fanboiism. Every member of the digital elite is familiar with it, and participation in it, at whatever level, probably marks you as one of the digital elite. I certainly recognised Jobs as a skillful innovator in the consumer technology markets. He is on par with Alfred Sloan the GM President from 1920s-1950s in terms of the scale of transformations he helped introduce and guide through development. Sloan was behind the introduction of the annual model change, brand architecture, industrial design, automotive design (styling), and planned obsolescence. If Sloan herald the creation of the proper mass market, then Jobs herald their innovation. That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, no. Think of how much waste has been created in the world because of these initiatives. Having done a little research in car culture, I used to boggle at just how much was wasted creating new model lines every year. So? This is typical leftist propaganda, surely?

Coming out of the Sydney inner-west crowd, I was very aware of a progressive political ethos by a number of people who work in the information technology, design and marketing industries. I would talk with them at various social media shindigs, chat on twitter and the like. I could see a pattern in my twitter stream that those announcing their grief largely belonged to this group. These are people that I mostly personally know, so I am not describing tweeted links to other stories or similar. There is a contradiction here. Between a cohort strongly emphathetic with those who suffer because of the injustices in the world and the various mechanisms by which suffering and injustice is reproduced.

Steve Jobs seemed to embody the belief that well designed devices could somehow make the world a better place. This belief is materially realised whenever one typed or swiped the screen of a phone. Maybe I am misunderstanding some of the assumptions here. By increasing the degrees of freedom — experienced at the level of design/interaction — for relatively privileged elites how is the world made better, except for those privileged elites? I certainly agree with design philosophies that valorise creative innovation but what did Jobs lead Apple into innovating?

Discussing this with Barry Saunders I pointed out that Apple was not One Laptop per Child, he pointed out that computing freedom is more complex than basic access. I certainly agree, and I was glad that we could come up with a spectrum upon which it would make sense to locate the work of Apple and in particular the role of Jobs. Some of the more enthusiastic comments on Twitter have correlated Jobs’s role within a global society of somehow increasing access to personal computers for the unprivileged and non-elite. Apple’s business is not giving away computers or devices, it is selling them…

Perhaps the closest the empathising Left can come to making a convincing argument is when they point out the market segments created or innovated by Apple under Jobs’s leadership comes to define a given discourse. This discursive category then becomes the locus for democratisation. Here is an example from Gavin Costello:

The rolling out of “iPad-like tablet to university students” can be interpreted as the democratisation of access to personal computing technologies that is in part attributable to a Jobs-lead Apple.

The suturing of effective technological design and the discursive production of markets is what is troubling me here. The best research I have seen on this is by Kamal A. Munir and Nelson Phillips “The Birth of the ‘Kodak Moment’: Institutional Entrepreneurship and the Adoption of New Technologies” (2005). They describe in their abstract:

[We] examine how Kodak managed to transform photography from a highly specialized activity to one that became an integral part of everyday life. Based on this case, we develop an initial typology of the strategies available to institutional entrepreneurs who wish to affect the processes of social construction that lead to change in institutional fields.

They analyse the introduction of the roll-film camera by Kodak in 1882, and its role in producing change to the consumer markets. They “stress how a transformation in the ‘meaning’ embodied by particular technologies — the roll-film camera in our case — is critical to the evolution of a new field. Accordingly, we focus on how discursive processes reconstructed the field surrounding photography, and led to the development of this new field. Furthermore, we focus on how Kodak managed strategically to embody its interests in the evolving institutional framework through carefully planned and executed discursive practices” (1666).

Kodak produced a number of innovations with the goal of influencing the popular imagination so as to ‘democratise’ the roll film camera so it became ‘institutional’. The problem for Kodak was that photography was a specialist and expert practice. Munir and Phillips draw on Latour (1987) to pithily note that “while the solution was at hand, the problem remained to be created”. They continue, “Cameras and other implements of photography were still considered tools of the experts, and ‘Kodak moments’ did not yet exist in the popular imagination” (1671).

There is a parallel here to the way Jobs has been mythologised. Firstly, Jobs has come to personify the work of an entire company. This is evident in the way those on twitter slip from discussing Jobs to discussing what ‘they’ did. Jobs is not a ‘they’. The mythology imagines something like the above with ‘Kodak’ replaced by ‘Jobs’. Secondly, Jobs was certainly gifted at being able to create solutions for which there did not seem to yet be a problem. The first problem created by Jobs for which an Apple product was the solution, was the artefact of the ‘personal computer’. Then there were many others.

These innovations do not last forever. The socio-technological assemblages that occupy special social functions are often replaced. The practice of photography with a Kodak roll-film camera capturing ‘Kodak moments’ for the purposes of storing in a ‘photo album’ (the ‘photo album’ was another Kodak innovation, Munir and Phillips 2005, 1678) is a socio-technological assemblage. I discuss in one of my lectures how the ‘Kodak moment’ has now been replaced by the ‘Facebook moment’. People do not necessarily take photos with film cameras for their photo albums, they take photos with their smartphones so as to be shared through social media.

Hopefully, you can see I am not diminishing the effect Steve Jobs has had on the world or on my life. Has Steve jobs made my life better? Yes, I am part of the privileged elite. Yet, I am very hesitant to celebrate design work, however innovative, that contributes to the production of new markets for the purposes of commercial profit. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone I know. The point is this is what Steve Jobs was very good at. Imagine what could have been achieved if Jobs took questions of sustainablity more seriously? And I don’t mean only environmental sustainability.

I am struggling with the students I teach in our Online News journalism units to formulate a way of imagining sustainable opportunities. I don’t only mean ‘triple-bottom-line’ initiatives that take into account environmental and labour issues, as they are still oriented towards generating a profit. I mean a model of sustainable opportunity for appreciating a mode of entrepreneurship for industries like journalism, which have a social function that is often at odds with the commercial function of the media. What if iTunes had returned more its profit to artists? What if iTunes wasn’t a closed ecosystem? These questions are obviously foolish if you do not believe in working for sustainability…

Hayekian Economics: I don’t get it

On one of my recent trips up to Sydney from Canberra I listened to the debate hosted at the London School of Economics and produced as a program for the BBC with the theme of Keynes vs. Hayek. I listened to the ‘complete’ version availble on iTunesU, posted by the LSE. Keynes is traditionally understood to belong to ‘the left’ and Hayek to ‘the right’. I listened with an accute curiousity that developed into a sense of disbelief. The most sensible voice in the debate was Lord Robert Skidelsky who suggested that a targeted investment program would get most western economies out of the slump they find themselves in. On the other hand, from a systems theory perspective the Hayekian approach seems the most sensible — let the market-based systems sought themselves out, booms and busts equalise over the long term. But, for Hayekians, how does this happen? Representing the Hayekian side is Professor Georg Selgin. In the written version of his prepared speech (Skidelsky’s presentation is also there), Selgin says:

Liquidate, in short, the whole sub-prime bubble-blowing apparatus that was nurtured by easy monetary policy.

That would have meant letting insolvent banks that lent or invested unwisely go bust.

But instead our governments chose to keep bad banks going and that is why quantitative easing has proven a failure.

Quantitative easing failed because almost all the new money the government created has gone to shore up the balance sheets of irresponsible bankers.

‘Irresponsible bankers’? Ok. This sounds great! In fact, both sides of the debate seemed to agree that at a certain point economics becomes a discussion of morals. For the Keynesians it is a question of recognising the humanity of those suffering because of irresponsible decisions mostly by others (i.e. Selgin’s “irresponsible bankers”). On the other hand, the Hayekians argue that governments should not support ‘markets’ (or the legacy organisation of commercial entities that function “irresponsibly”) through spending because that will just encourage further irresponsibility, so the only appropriate response is to weather the downturn and work on making sure it doesn’t happen again when a ‘bust’ rips through a society.

What I do not understand from the Hayekian position, based on what Selgin was saying, is that the unfettered “market” is both the source of freedom and the ‘fairest’ way to distribute responsibilities while at the same time also the mechanism by which agents that constitute the market (i.e. “irresponsible bankers”) are morally censured/reprimanded (or something) so they will not participate in or contribute to unsustainable ‘booms’ again. I was actually shocked by this suggestion. Firstly, that most “irresponsible bankers” couldn’t care less what damage they do to ‘markets’ through their unfettered pursuit of profit, and, secondly, that the ‘market’ is the same mechanism that enables this unfettered pursuit of profit (discussed by Hayekians in terms of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’) will also somehow distribute punitive measures to those deservingly responsible. Is there not an inherent contradiction here, where the ‘market’ is asked to do two things at once? I know there are some allegedly intellectual Hayekians so I’d welcome any response that attempted to resolve this contradiction.

Let me frame it another way. Below is a clip of one of the “irresponsible banker”-types that Selgin is discussing. Real capitalists (who are the real problem) do not care where their profit comes from; they game the markets to exploit any opportunity possible. This is a pathological position based on an active disavowal of humanity and the suffering that accompanies the collapse of a market (or for that matter the unethical production of surplus value). (Found via here and here.)

The ‘market’ as discussed by the trader above is not the Hayekian market of Selgin — one that is both the source of ‘freedom’ and moral disciplinarity — it is the market constituted by thousands of capitalists who attempt to embody the most pathological dimensions of capital itself. There is no discussion of the creation of real value and no discussion of how to correct the immorality of previous consitutent participants of an obviously failed composition of the ‘market’. How would a Hayekian respond to the above trader? How would a Hayekian concerned with booms as well as busts respond to the current mining boom in Australia? What mechanisms would be put into place to restrict the irresponsible boom that is currently being created through the commodities market?

Do Hayekians have a concept of a sustainable opportunity? This is my interest in all this. I am thinking about the current state of the journalism industry that can no longer rely on legacy business models from the print-era or broadcast-era media industry. Is there a Hayekian concept of opportunity that is not framed in terms of the entrepreneurial recognition of a capitalist profit that only has to be actualised through a commercial enterprise, but is rather turned towards a sustainable commercial model? I have been researching this and I have not come across anything like the concept of a “sustainable opportunity” in any of the economics/business literature.

This is why Skidelsky’s response seems to be the most appropriate to me. A targeted investment plan does not mean investing money into capitalist enterprises solely designed to realise profit and hence game an inherently pathological market (i.e. the stupidity of the bank bailout), it means investing in projects that will produce real value.