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?

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?]

 

Economies of Competence

I was forwarded the below email. I am posting it here with comment below for anyone who was also sent the email and who finds it as abhorrent as I do. I make a simple argument below to indicate its fallacies:

An economics teacher at a local school made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Gillard/Brown socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.
The teacher then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on the Gillard/Brown plan”. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).
After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.
The second test average was a D! No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.
As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.
To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the teacher told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. It could not be any simpler than that. (Please pass this on)
Remember, there IS a test coming up. The next election.
These are possibly the 5 best sentences you’ll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:
1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

The high school economics teacher who carried out this little experiment should go on some kind of sabbatical to give the teacher time to head back to university and learn some basic political economy. What is wrong with the logic of the email? It equates marks received during education with money. Such an obvious error leads me to believe an actual teacher would never actually carry out such an experiment.
Money is a quantitative measure. The difference between $74 and $75 is only a difference of $1. The difference between a mark of 74 and a mark of 75 is also a difference of one mark, but it is also the difference (at my university, at least) between a distinction grade and a high distinction. Marks are a quantitative measure of a qualitative difference.
Why is this an important distinction to make? You do not take part in education to get marks. You take part in education to get an education. When employed, you work to exchange whatever work you carry out for money; money then allows you to go do things. You do not exchange anything while being educated; the point of education is to be transformed at a basic level from someone without skills or knowledge to someone who has achieved a certain level of competence. Competence is qualitative. There are good and bad students just as there are good and bad teachers.
The worst possible conclusion to draw from the email’s example is that students take part in education so as to ‘accumulate’ marks and not for the explicit purpose of becoming competent. This is actually a common phenomena. Students will try to minimise the amount of effort and work required to learn and expect to achieve the same marks. They follow the exceptionally poor advice and embody the ideology contained in the email. They try to ‘game’ the marking criteria and assessment details so as to ‘accumulate’ marks rather than acquiring competencies. If you have children or friends who are studying at whatever level encourage them to study so as to learn.
People who embody the faulty logic of the email may find it hard to adapt or even imagine some other way of ‘working’ that is not premised on a market model (you work to accumulate some ‘number’ of something, be it marks, money or whatever). Clearly, they have not thought too hard about the various other non-market based economies that operate in most developed countries. Here are a few:
1. Children. How do you measure the ‘success’ of your offspring? In terms of how many you have? Maybe that is good in non-industrial or non-developed agrarian or nomadic societies. In developed countries we invest a huge amount of resources into our children. What sort of return do we get? We hope children will have a high quality of life. One’s quality of life can be represented in quantitative ways, but like educational assessments, the number represents a quality.
2. Education. I don’t mean for students, I mean for the teachers. People don’t become teachers because of some quantitative measure of success. They believe that they can make a difference in the lives of their students, help their students (and others) live better lives. If the local high school teacher did believe what was contained in the above email, then why are they working as a teacher? Surely they would work where they would maximise the economic return for their work?
This leads me to my overall point. Most of our activity as human beings is not carried out to get a quantitative reward. The love of parents or the care and consideration of teachers is more important to the future of Australia. That is why I find the email so offensive. It was written by someone with an axe to grind, but has clearly never thought about the purpose of education.
I won’t even bother engaging with the explicit political point of the email regarding the redistribution of ‘marks’ as if they were a form of money. The abject stupidity of the analogy makes me sad.

Farrelly, Gorz and Stupidity

Elizabeth Farrelly’s latest piece in the Sydney Morning Herald has already fired up a number of my friends and colleagues mostly through Twitter. I am broadly supportive of her argument and points, while most are not. The danger the article presents is a knee-jerk reading that defends the democratic mass against accusations of mob stupidity. I think the article deserves a more nuanced reading.

It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80.

Here she is writing about an assumption, not an actuality. Advertising assumes that 80 percent of Australians have an IQ of 80. She is no describing a reality, but the suggestion is nonsense (IQ is a statistical measure of intelligence, if 80 percent of the population had lowered IQ’s relative to a previous average then 80 would no longer be ’80’. ’80’ is roughly two standard deviations away from the actual average of 100). Rather, she is describing the way advertising functions to interpellate and produce subjects that act as if the general average IQ dropped 20 points. Advertising produces stupidity. I agree with this point.

For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.

Her next point is about scale. It repeats an argument originally developed by the ecological socialist Andre Gorz. Gorz is one of the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century. He was a realist and not an idealist. He recognised that what we now call sustainability would eventually have to be the goal of modern societies. In Gorz’s example (if memory serves, in Ecology as Politics) he discusses the example of everyone desiring a chateau by the beach, which, clearly, is not possible. People recognise the limits of the beach and real estate, etc. as a luxury. Yet, everyone desires an automobile and so on, but does not recognise it as a luxury.

But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.

Farrelly introduces the notion of ‘happiness’ as something we pursue of our own interest. The great libertarian liberal myth of a society of individuals operating according to their own rational self interest sounds great until you realise that most people do not act rationally or necessarily even in their own self interest (ie stupidity as an infection). A variation of this is developed by Gorz who talks about “autonomous” (self-directed) and “heteronomous” (other-directed) activities.

Autonomous activities are truly self-managed. These are freely chosen tasks, performed by individuals or in cooperation with a like-minded group. Heteronomous tasks are constrained by social demands. Such tasks are imposed by the nature of the tools used, their organization, the division of labor and its global dispersal. The history of capitalism has involved the increase of heteronomous tasks at the expense of autonomous ones. The size of corporations and of the factories they have built, even the technologies used, have been designed expressly to thwart direct workers’ control. Heteronomy limits self-management.

Now, lets go out on a limb here. Lets imagine that ‘stupidity’ in our democratic societies is the misrecognition of heteronomy for autonomy. This is facilitated through the work of advertising and the media that asks us to assume certain goals as our own (in my PhD research I looked at the way enthusiast media propositioned certain challenges as worthy for enthusiast mobilisation, these challenges were congruent with commercial outcomes). Most people are familiar with the list of life goals that require great mobilisation to be achieved, but which serve as a resource for others to commodify and make money from: owning one’s own home, the esculator of consumerism, etc. Farrelly summarises all this under the term ‘happiness’:

It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.

She then offers two ‘proofs’. The first is that true happiness is attained when it is not pursued. In other words, false ‘happiness’ as the ideal of ‘stupidity’ or misrecognised heteronomous action is set up in opposition to autonomous activity that is the outcome of activity when ‘happiness’ is not the singular goal:

Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).

Her second proof attacks the weakness of our contemporary political leadership who are too afraid to lead against ‘stupidity’ (or misrecognised autonomous activity that infects a population through the stupidity of advertising and the media) as indicative of a weak democracy:

En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.
Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.

The last point is about the way Western liberal democracies are hamstrung by the need to pamper to the ‘stupidities’ of the public. Even though leaders, and others, may recognise the need for decisive action about issues and increase the capacity for action to respond to various crises, our leaders must play the game of ‘politics’ for re-election and lead in a continually reactionary mode.

Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.
This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.
Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.

The job of the Left is to help produce subjects capable of heteronomous action, and from my appreciation of the current state of affairs the job of intellectuals broadly following the Enlightenment tradition is to critique ‘stupidity’.

There is a meeting

New thoughts are rare to me now. Thoughts that are worth dancing with in my mind. Thoughts I want to buy a drink, that I want to ask home, that I want to seduce and be seduced by me. That I want to be brave for. Thoughts that scare me.

There is a meeting. Between someone with power and someone who has power exerted over them. I read somewhere once that power is the capacity to get someone to carry out one’s will. It isn’t. Power is the capacity to get someone to share your expectations. The transference of action, the extension of one’s capacity to act, is a dumb force. It is muted. You can’t have a conversation with it. You can manipulate it like a lever. This has to happen, therefore I can make this happen. It can be reversed. It is a weak power.

For someone to share you expectations means there is a temporal feedback loop. It is inescapable. A future event guides your actions. You have an expectation of what should happen and it isn’t your own. It is inevitable. This is far more profound that getting someone to act. One is a question of ideology, a question that can be answered with action. The other serves as the basis for reality itself. There is no question, because all questions assume it.

Within this meeting the person with power acts with a ruthlessness. They are ruthless which means they don’t care about the other person’s expectations. There is no ethical dialogue of a common goal, of shared equitable expectations. To be ruthless means imposing one’s expectations on another.

It also means acting without shame. You need to be shameless to be ruthless. Most decent human beings feel shame when they impose their will by forcing someone to share their expectations.

The profit motive of capital is how we describe its ruthlessness. Capital has no shame.

In the meeting the person without power is in a room full of his bosses, his managers. They all share expectations. They want him to share their expectations. For that he shall be rewarded. He needs to learn how to become shameless.

Or figure out how to make them feel ashamed.

The Conservatism of Mumbrella?

A recent series of posts on the self-proclaimed PR and social marketing blog Mumbrella on the relation between Twitterer’s personal beliefs and their respective professional PR and social marketing personae indicates an interesting way that anxieties around mixing of public and private lives online are still manifest.

The first post was by (whom I assume to be) Tim Burrowes posting on his ‘personal’ section, called Mumbo, of his Mumbrella site on an exchange between a Twitterer, Natalie Swainston, and the SMH trollumnist, Miranda Devine. Burrowes apparently believes the exchange between Swainston and Devine was noteworthy, if not newsworthy, because he perceived that it was an “intriguing insight” into the tensions between “journo-PR relations”.

The second post was in the actual ‘news’ section of Mumbrella, perhaps because the second post was actually about a Twitterer tweeting something of professional consequence (unlike Swainston’s effort): a Twitter employed by a company that has commercial relation with a second company was critical of the environmental impact of the practices of the second company. Again, at stake was Burrowes view that “intemperate tweeting has caused issues for PRs”.

Burrowes makes it even clearer what is at stake in these online exchanges that he perceives trouble public-private lives in a comment to another blog post on the topic:

The problem with that suggested policy [of separate personal and professional online personae] is that it’s naive about how journalists would interpret someone’s personal vs professional persona.

“I’m tweeting in a personal capacity” may be a disclaimer, but it’s not a cloak of invisibility.

If what you say is relevant to your day job and you are identifiable, then you need to treat Twitter as you would any other broadcast medium.

If you don’t want your tweets public, then either protect them, don’t do it in your own name, or don’t tweet stuff that could get you into trouble.

The contradiction of course is that Burrowes is discounting the possibility of separate professional and personal personae for normal Twitterers, but when it comes to Miranda Devine’s trollumnist practice he assumes such a separation, i.e. as suggested by his aside in his first post “(although Dr Mumbo has always considered her to be a satirical creation)”.

So what is going on here? Why is this politically and socially conservative self-disciplined muzzling of one’s online persona being advocated and valorised?

An overly critical perspective would see Burrowes and like-minded PR and marketing types to be prostituting their self-image for the benefit of their clients and their professional interests. The expectations of the ‘self’ are literally collapsed into the expectations of the client. Of course, critical perspectives of marketing and associated industries have long banged-on about how soulless the industry is. This, I think, you could describe as the worst case interpretation.

Support for this interpretation comes from Burrowes treating the two examples above as the same. In the first case the Twitterer had no professional connection whatsoever to Devine. In the second case the Twitterer was actually being critical of a client of his employer. Burrowes has collapsed the two different events into being examples of a general relation between personal and professional Tweet personae. One’s ‘public’ persona must to be disciplined so as to conform to any and all possible expectations of an imaginary client that could potentially be anyone. Therefore, ‘personal’ views – such as those on ‘public’ issues regarding politics or the state of the environment – must be kept under wraps and secret so as not to offend the sensibilities of this potentially-anyone client.

Although there may be some substance to view that marketing professionals are soulless prostitutes, especially when relatively minor skirmishes in the culture wars played out on Twitter are ‘reported’ as noteworthy, if not newsworthy, I prefer to read Burrowes’s anxiety around the public-private distinction as a way to grapple with the pressure of this tendency towards becoming an example of the worse case scenario. Burrowes is actually trying to find a way to maintain a sense of ‘self’ while under pressure to become a mere functionary expression of the imaginary client’s expectation.

It is a very good example of the way that people working within a given profession attempt to grapple with the ethical quandaries of having to satisfy a client’s expectations while maintaining one’s personal political passions. Of course I am not in marketing (the only thing I could market would be the revolution!) but I do know a thing or two about enthusiasm and what it means to mobilise people’s passions. Perhaps a more effective approach rather than a conservative and reactionary separation of personal and professional, to the explicit detriment of the personal, one should seek a better integration of the personal and the professional. Rather than PR and social marketers being disciplined to be worthy of clients, maybe PR and social marketing types should pick and choose clients that are worthy of their talents?