Category Archives: technology

Morozov on selling personal data

In a piece over on New Republic, Evgeny Morozov (author of To Save Everything Click Here) outlines a version of ‘the attention economy’, in which, because it is mediated through digital media, everything that we do, every way we interact with people, places, services and things becomes an ‘asset class’, and traded in bulk. Ultimately, Morozov’s argument is not dissimilar to Bernard Stiegler’s critique of a ‘generalised proleterianisation‘ insofar as the grammatisation (capturing, storing and sorting as data) of ever-increasing parts of our lives we become subjectivised through systems of calculation at an industrial scale that results in a kind of ‘incapacitation’. As Morozov suggests:

[T]o sell our intimate data in bulk is to fully surrender our quest for autonomy, accepting a life where the most existential choices are shaped either by the forces of the market or by whatever warbe it on climate change or obesitythe government has enlisted us (rather than corporations) to fight. In this world, whether we become vegetarians, and even whether we end up thinking about it, might ultimately hinge on which player (the steakhouses, the supermarkets, the bureaucrats) has the most to gain from this switch. Our data constitutes our very humanity. To voluntarily treat it as an “asset class” is to agree to the fate of an interactive billboard. We shouldn’t unquestionably accept the argument that personal data is just like any other commodity and that most of our digital problems would disappear if only, instead of gigantic data monopolists like Google and Facebook, we had an army of smaller data entrepreneurs. We don’t let people practice their right to autonomy in order to surrender that very right by selling themselves into slavery. Why make an exception for those who want to sell a slice of their intellect and privacy rather than their bodies?

Worth a read anyway, in spite of being a bit dystopian…

Contextualising ‘virtual’ geographies

Following on from the publication of my article in Progress in Human Geography, I wanted to post here some thoughts that didn’t quite fit into that paper but nevertheless feel like a worthwhile contextualisation of the long-running engagement with digital mediation and ideas of a ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber-‘ spaces in geography.

Discussions of alternative or transformed forms of spatiality constituted by computation have spawned a range of names and phrases for those spatial formations. As Pile argued, the descriptions of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the virtual’ are ‘a plurality of clashing, resonating and shocking metaphors’ (Pile, 1994, page 1817). In this post I want to begin to discuss the malleable nature of our descriptions of computation, data and software. In particular it seems pertinent to examine the role of metaphors and how some geographers have addressed that role. Sawhney (1996) describes metaphors as ‘midwives’ that ease new conceptualisations of spatial experience into understanding. However, metaphors that constitute discourses are not politically neutral. If metaphors ‘do things’ as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) assert, what they ‘do’ needs to be explicitly examined.

Paul Adams, Stephen Graham and Ken Hillis all offer examinations of the role of metaphors in understanding the spatial experience of ICTs that are worth revisiting (see also: Graham, 2013):

First, Adams’ (1997) useful review of metaphors in literary treatments of computer mediation identifies three, overlapping, ‘fields’ of metaphors: ‘virtual architecture’, ‘the electronic frontier’ and ‘cyberspace’. Adams argues that, despite fears concerning ‘a metaphor’s power to corrupt’ (1997, page 167), such ‘mythical geographies’ fill in the spaces between established knowledge to form what Tuan calls the ‘fuzzy area of defective knowledge’ (Tuan, 1977, page 86).

Second, Hillis (1999) highlights a background of mysticism to metaphors utilised to describe and explore virtual reality as a ‘cyberspace’. For Hillis, many of the metaphors draw upon understandings of light. Hillis (1999) offers three types of metaphor: virtual reality as a privileged position affording ‘vision’; virtual environments as facsimiles or simulations represented through light, akin to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, and the virtual as an ability to inhabit images as such. Both Adams (1997) and Hillis (1999) postulate a link between the types of metaphors used and the desire to affirm an elevated or omniscient perspective, drawing upon the remote gaze as a tool of imperialism (akin to Virilio, 1984) or the near-omnipotent reach of light to illustrate that desire.

Third, Graham describes the ‘powerful role of spatial and territorial metaphors’ that anchors discourses of ICTs (Graham, 1998, page 165). Graham (1998) identifies a typology of spatial metaphors through which space and place are conceptualised in relation to ICTs: ‘substitution and transcendence’, ‘co-evolution’, and ‘recombination’. Metaphors of substitution and transcendence, echoing Hillis’ (1999) critique, denote replacing physical territory with a ‘virtual’ using new technologies. A co-evolutionary perspective argues that, while remaining separate, both physical and electronic ‘spaces’ are necessarily produced together.

Finally Graham (1998) posits a re-combinative, topological, understanding of socially constructed forms of spatiality that are ‘sociotechnical’ (i.e. linkages between ‘heterogeneous’ actors, including humans, technology and others, formulate spatial experience). Graham (1998), along with Adams and Hillis, identifies the problematic form of Cartesian dualism (a mind/body split) implied by his first category, which also somewhat underlies the second, and the uncritical technological determinism that often accompanies this somewhat fanciful race away from our embodied existence.

Regardless of the apparently ephemeral or amorphous nature of the metaphorical ‘virtual’ or ‘cyberspace’, such evocations are still grounded in a resolutely material register. As Hillis (1999, pages 160-162) notes, language itself is profoundly spatial, and material, in its expression. Writing is the spatialisation of knowledge, what philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls the externalization of thought recorded as ‘tertiary retentions’ (Stiegler, 2007), most frequently orthographic writing (see: Stiegler, 1998), with different technologies of retention using space differently. The expression of ‘virtual’ spaces is, then, always already material in character. Hillis, in an argument similar to Stiegler (1998), presses further, highlighting the reciprocal, yet fragmented, relation between word and world:

language is not only a discrete, concrete thing… Neither is it ephemeral, language can be thought of as an “embodied prototechnology”, both confirming us to ourselves existentially at the level of embodied voice and extending us to engage with the lived world through its symbolic affect (Hillis, 1999, page 161).

Metaphors and neologisms are, of course, not the sole preserve of geographers or, indeed, academics. Of course, much of this work speaks to broader popular (Western), late 20th century interests in ‘telematic culture’ (Ascott, 1990), the creation of ‘artificial experience’ and ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold, 1989, 1998), and the convergence of subaltern cultures experimenting with drugs and computing (Rushkoff, 1994). Alternative, less dyadic, conceptualisations of a ‘virtual’ are also offered by geographers considering the growth of digital mediation. Although perhaps now considered somewhat dated, we might note that ‘cyberspace’ or ‘virtual space’ has not been solely evoked as an abstract alternative realm, as Kitchin (1998) has argued:

Cyberspaces are dependent upon spatial fixity, they are embodied spaces and access is unevenly distributed… cyberspaces do not replace geographic spaces, nor do they destroy space and time (page 403).

Following Adams (1997, 2011), Graham (1998, 2005), Hillis (1999) and Kitchin (1998, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011) we can see how, and perhaps why, metaphors and neologisms are used to describe computer-mediated spatial experience and also how geographers have situated the agency of those terms. Earlier engagements with computation were necessarily speculative and concerned with formulating understandings of nascent or imagined technologies. However, in the last decade the growth in ownership of digital technologies has created case studies of widespread everyday use. Some of these case studies are explored in my recently published article ‘The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies’.

Some references

Adams, Paul C., 1997, “Cyberspace and virtual places” Geographical Review 87 (2), pp. 155-171.

Adams, Paul C., 2011, “A taxonomy for communication geography” Progress in Human Geography 35 (1), pp. 37-57.

Ascott, Roy, 1990, “Is there love in the telematic embrace?” Art Journal 49 (3), pp. 241-247.

Graham, Mark, 2013, “Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities?” The Geographical Journal forthcoming.

Graham, Stephen, 1998, “The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualising space, place and information technology” Progress in Human Geography 22 (2), pp. 165-185.

Graham, Stephen, 2005, “Software-sorted geographies” Progress in Human Geography 29 (5), pp. 562-580.

Hillis, Ken, 1999 Digital sensations: space, identity and embodiment and virtual reality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Kitchin, Rob, 1998, “Towards geographies of cyberspace” Progress in Human Geography 22 (3), pp. 385-406.

Kitchin, Rob, 2011, “The programmable city” environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38 (6), pp. 945-951.

Kitchin, Rob, Dodge, Martin, 2011 Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Lakoff, George, Johnson, Mark, 2003 Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Pile, Steve, 1994, “CyberGeography: 50 years of Environment and Planning A” Environment and Planning A 26 (12), pp. 1815-1823.

Rheingold, Howard, 1989 Virtual Reality: Exploring the Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds – From Cyberspace to Teledildonics. Mandarin, London.

Rheingold, Howard, 1998 The Virtual Community. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Rushkoff, Douglas, 1994 Cyberia: Life in the trenches of hyperspace Flamingo, London.

Sawhney, H, 1996, “Information superhighway: metaphors as midwives” Media, Culture and Society 18 pp. 135-155.

Stiegler, Bernard, 1998 Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Beardsworth, R., Collins, G., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2007, “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis: The Memories of Desire”.) Technicity. Charles University Press, Prague, pp. 15-41.

Tuan, Yi-Fu, 1977 Space and Place: The prespective of experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Virilio, Paul, 1984 War and Cinema: The logistics of perception. trans. Camiller, P., Verso, London and New York.

The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies

Last year I wrote about two articles concerning digital geographies that I had coming out, the second of which was an article for Progress in Human Geography concerning the matter (both the issue and the materiality) of what have been called ‘virtual’ geographies. I am pleased to be able to say that this article is now available published in issue 3 of volume 38. Unfortunately this requires a subscription for access. However,  I am happy to share pre-print copies of this paper, please contact me if you’re interested.

The Matter of ‘Virtual’ Geographies” revisits the articulation of ‘virtual’ geographies and reviews recent discussion within geography of digitally mediated activity. The aim of the article is to argue for a greater attention to the material conditions of ‘the digital’. This is achieved by articulating a theory of ‘technics’–the co-constitutive relation between the human and the technical,–and ‘transduction’–the iterative modulating and translation of a sociotechnical milieu from one state to another–through the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler. This article expands on existing work in geography, such as Kitchin & Dodge’s excellent ‘Code/space’, that is pushing for more sophisticated understandings of software, code, and the plethora of increasingly sophisticated systems and devices with which we mediate ourselves and our (spatial) experience of everyday life.

Some interesting blog posts on capitalism & Marxism by Ken Wark

I stumbled across the Public Seminarcommons‘ blog today, after seeing syndicated versions of Mackenzie Wark’s ‘thanaticism‘ essay (linked, for example, by Stuart Elden) and was interested to see further pieces concerning (shifting) contemporary understandings of capitalism and Marxism.

In particular, I enjoyed reading two pieces:

In “Is this still capitalism?” Wark looks at the common assumptions upon which understandings of the definition of ‘capitalism’ are based and thinks through how these might be challenged or at least re-worked through contemporary global business practices. In particular, Wark discusses how we may need to rethink understandings of capitalism as the dominance of one class over others through ownership of the means of production because, in many, cases the ‘dominant class’ do not own the means of production but, rather, they own the intellectual property, like Apple (for whom others, like Foxxcon, actually make their products), or the distribution chain, like Walmart and perhaps Google:

Perhaps what is going on is a kind of power that has less to do with owning the means of production thereby controlling the value cycle, as in capitalism. Perhaps it is more about owning the means of mediation, thereby controlling the means of production and hence the value cycle. The actual production can be outsourced, and manufacturing firms will have to compete for the privilege of making products with someone else’s intellectual property embedded in it, and sold under some else’s brand.

Wark poses the question, ‘is this something other than capitalism’, in particular, in relation to Google because there is perhaps no longer a capturing of surplus value by exploiting labour but rather—in an argument that resonates with that of both Stiegler and Lyotard—a capturing of value by exploiting data. In concluding, Wark argues that its not enough to merely label this a form of ‘immaterial’ labour (again resonances with Stiegler’s critique of ‘immateriality’ here):

None of this, one should hasten to add, is ‘immaterial’. Can we just admit that this was a terrible (non)concept? Just as it took an incredible amount of infrastructure to seize power from the old landlord class, so too seizing power from a capitalist class to vest it with something else takes a powerful infrastructure, one no longer about making and distributing things but about controlling that making and distributing.

In short, considered in a really vulgar way, in terms of the forces of production, maybe there’s something new going on. Some of the relations of production look familiar. This is still an economy that appears to have markets and prices, firms and profits and so on. But perhaps power is shifting away from owning the means of production, which merely extract surplus value from labor, toward owning the means of mediation, by which a surplus can be extracted from any activity at all.

In the other essay I enjoyed, “Four cheers for vulgarity“, Wark explores the ways in which the labelling of ‘vulgar’ Marxism has been used as a means of Othering:

There are then four general actions of othering involved in calling something vulgar. The first is political. The vulgarians think in terms of a gradual, evolutionary process of historical change. They lack a taste for the political leap. The second is theoretical. The vulgarians pay too much attention to specialized knowledge such as the sciences. They lack a sense of the central role of philosophy as guarantor of the correct method. The third is cultural. The vulgarians are too close to the self-identity of the working class. They lack a sophistication about the struggle within bourgeois culture. The fourth is more strictly academic. The vulgarian ranges too freely across disciplinary knowledge.

Wark goes on to both critically reflecting upon the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’—in particular citing Bogdanov and Platonov as ‘losers’ (‘who?’ you ask – exactly!)—and of those processes as well turning the possible meaning of ‘vulgar’ by offering alternative models of vulgarity that might be seen as worthwhile and/or desirable. In particular, Wark discusses the work of Donna Harraway and Kim Stanley Robinson as alternative (‘positive’) models of ‘vulgarity’.

In concluding, Wark suggests that many of the preoccupations of contemporary social science (especially geography) can be seen as ‘vulgar’ concerns in the guise of ‘nature, labour, techne and utopia’, particularly in relation to anthropogenic climate change:

So here are four kinds of vulgarity: about nature and labor, techne and utopia, that are not quite those usually covered by the “vulgar Marxist!” insult. They are surely useful kinds of vulgarity with which and about which to think, given that the era of climate change is upon us. There are surely other senses of the vulgar that one might add, and other writers who make them thinkable. That might be part of a larger project of rethinking the paths through the archive that open these traditions up again in news ways to confront the present.

And so: four cheers for vulgar Marxism!!!! Four rather than three, as the vulgar is always a little excessive. Four cheers for these four vulgar Marxist writers, although they are also much more than that. Bogdanov and Platonov offer unique perspectives on what Jodi dean calls the ‘communist horizon’; Haraway and Robinson on what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism.’ I have been thinking for a while now about why I chose to write about them together, in my book Molecular Red, for which these might be some provisional notes. Perhaps it is because if we are to have a low theory for the times, it will be vulgar, or not at all. Opening up the vulgar wing of the archive again might open some more plural pathways through which to think from past to present, to inhabitable futures.

Tweets about Ernesto Laclau

[Amended: 15/04/2014 22:24 to reflect better stats on the links being shared]

As a number of other bloggers have highlighted, and as I noted on Twitter, the political philosopher Ernesto Laclau sadly passed away on the 13th of April. There is an excellent obituary on the publisher Verso’s blog, which is worth reading.

Like, I think, a lot of others I discovered this news on Twitter and, as is the modus operandi of the tweeter, I re-tweeted the tweets through which I discovered the news. I certainly do not intend to trivialise this news, but what is quite interesting about the spread of this sad news is that while the English spread of the news on twitter was largely driven by retweets, a lot of which linked to a story in the English language Buenos Aires Herald, the Spanish spike in tweets was not wholly driven by retweets.

There was, therefore, a muted version of a @BBCBreaking sort of effect in English tweets, in the way that there was for example with the news about the death of Peaches Geldof (again, I’m not seeking to trivialise that news or intervene in the discussions about whether or not there was genuine grief being expressed). So, for a ‘concerned public’ (in this case those who are at least partly familiar with Laclau, his work and the topics it addresses) social media became a conduit and key actor in the movement of the information in different ways.

I ran a quick search on ScraperWiki, from yesterday, that encompasses the relevant dates and used some of the tools we have been developing for the Contagion project to look at the time series of tweets and in particular the movement of the news between Spanish and English. We can see how the initial spike of tweets in Spanish leads the spike in English by approximately an hour (please bare in mind that the Spanish tweets are more numerous by an approximate multiple of ten).

Now, the spike in tweets in English can be mostly, but not quite wholly, attributed to retweets of the link to an English language article posted on the Buenos Aires Herald. Yet, there remains a majority of the tweets in the Spanish spike that are a case of other forms of ‘passing it on‘. Tweets featuring a direct link (some as shortened URLs) to the Buenos Aires Herald article account for over a half (at various moments in the spike) of all English tweets between 8pm and midnight on 13th April, and a few more of these tweets link to Stuart Elden’s blog post that links on to the Buenos Aires Herald.

So, its interesting to see how the combination of an emergent ‘public’ convened around that news and the somewhat phatic interaction of re-tweeting once the movement of easily shared links begins (this is related to what Martin Thayne discussed in a paper about Facebook in the issue of Culture Machine I co-edited with Patrick Crogan). This speaks to what Steve Hinchliffe and I have been trying to get at with the definition of ‘contagion’, inspired by Tony Sampson’s Thrift-ian reading of Tarde, as the ‘movement of movement’ – the sense in which the various intersecting constituents of a public / a network, propagate and in some senses ‘accelerate’ the iteration and mutation, hence difference, in repetition.

Obviously, there’s more to what we do, and, indeed, more to do, in this kind of critical theory-inflected analysis of virality in social media and that’s what I’m busy working out with both Steve and our diligent research fellow Rebecca Sandover, who has recently presented some initial ideas from the project at the AAG (the abstract linked here isn’t quite what was presented but it gives you a flavour!).

Reblog > Anne Galloway at Mobilities & Design Workshop, Lancaster

The Mobilities and Design workshop (later this month) looks interesting, not least cos Anne will be joining from afar to talk about her excellent Counting Sheep project, as she says on her blog:

I’m really pleased to be participating (via video & Skype) in the Mobilities and Design Workshop at Lancaster University, 29-30 April, 2014.

The event is being live-streamed so you’ll be able to follow along, and this is what I’ll be talking about:

Why Count Sheep, and Other Tricky Questions About Speculative Design Ethnography

Governments around the world require livestock farmers to tag their animals and track their movements from birth to death. Mandated for the purposes of local biosecurity and global market access, electronic identification is also used to keep track of breeding information and health treatments. Combined with location technologies like GPS, and sensor technologies that can monitor individual animal health and external environmental conditions, livestock are now capable of generating and transmitting enormous amounts of data.

At the same time, farmers in the developed world respond to increased public concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability by developing new online forms of agricultural advocacy, or what they call “agvocacy”. The US-based AgChat Foundation, and its equivalents in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, use social media to promote greater public awareness of agricultural practices and connect producers and consumers through weekly online chats. A “farm to fork” traceability ethos underpins agvocacy efforts, and aligns well with technosocial imperatives related to the “Internet of Things” – or the ability to connect data-rich objects (including animals) to the Internet.

For the past three years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sheep, talking about sheep, and hanging out with sheep or other people who care about sheep. I’ve done this because I’m interested in what the emergent technologies and politics I describe above might mean for our longest domesticated livestock animal, and for the people who continue to produce and consume them. In most ways, this has been standard STS-based ethnographic research: participant observation, interviews, etc. But the systems that I describe aren’t fully formed–and may not ever fully form as imagined–so I needed to come up with complementary research methods that could help me apprehend the future, or more correctly possible futures, and for that I turned to design.

This presentation will first outline the speculative design ethnography (SDE) methods developed, and outputs created, for the “Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things” research project. (I encourage people to check out the design scenarios for themselves.) Then I will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this kind of hybrid research practice, paying particular attention to how future visions act in the present to construct multiple publics and co-produce knowledge. Finally, using preliminary responses to our work, I will consider the potential of SDE as a public engagement strategy, and the role of disinterested or disagreeable publics.

Related reading

Galloway, A. 2013. “Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/Nonhuman Relations.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 57(1): 53-65.

Galloway, A. 2013. “Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design.” Ethnography Matters, 17 September, 2013.

Fred Turner talks about his “Democratic Surround”

Fred Turner (STS Assoc. Prof. at Stanford), author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, has written another book examining the development of theories of what Turner calls ‘the democratic personality’ by Margaret MeadGregory Bateson and others into an alternative form of propaganda to encourage opposition to fascism, described as the Democractic Surround, which serves as the title of the book. Turner describes some of the important themes of the book in conversation with Howard Rheingold (who is, incidentally, one of the people that appears in From Counterculture to Cyberculture). Charting movements between American anthropology (through Mead et al.), European avant grade arts (the Bauhaus refugees) and their subsequent absorption into the American cultural milieu in the form of the Black Mountain College (and so John Cage), Turner skilfully weaves an interesting narrative.

For those interested, there is a review essay by Fred Turner of Peter Mandler’s Return From the Natives, on Public Books, which examines the influence of Boas’ ‘school’ of anthropology on war-time (WWII) propaganda.

You can also see Stanford’s form of ‘propaganda’ in the shape of the promotional video they created for Turner’s book…

Reblog > Nigel Thrift and Steven Koonin discuss urban science and big data

Stuart Elden points to an interesting video of a conversation with Nigel Thrift, discussing urban informatics, ‘big data’ and so on. Slight hint of Thrift buying into the rhetoric around ‘big data’ but still an interesting discussion…

Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of University of Warwick, and Steven Koonin, Director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, partners in this endeavour, discussed the emerging field of applied urban science and informatics, the opportunities it presents, and how it is challenging the way we think about information. The discussion was moderated by Sallie Keller, Director, Social Decision and Analytics Laboratory, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech.

Stiegler – We are coming to the end of the Fordist model, we must move to a mode of contribution

In January (2014), a website concerned with proposing and advancing novel and alternative businesses and economic models called Without Model published an interview with Bernard Stiegler concerning his conceptualisation of the economy of contribution. Without Model describes itself as a community of ‘forwarders’, a kind of community of Tardean imitative amplifiers – which is interesting…

In the interview Stiegler reiterates some aspects of his argument for an economy of contribution made elsewhere but also reaffirms the links with an understanding of a libidinal economy. He also,  fairly explicitly highlights the constitution of an economy of contribution is no easy task – it requires some fairly hefty (macro-economic) structural challenges. In other words, Stiegler is not simply outlining an alternative business model for trendy ‘right-on’ companies or co-ops but arguing for something like a structural change to the economy, built from the ground-up. Elsewhere he has argued that this requires a rethinking of education, is contingent upon particular modes of infrastructure such as open data and requires a more holistic understanding of value. Quite an ambition then – but, as outlined in his Disbelief and Discredit series of books, Stiegler sees an immediate and urgent impetus to incite such change.

This is, of course, not without risk — in Stiegler’s terms these new capacities for becoming (or in his terminology – transindividuation) are pharmacological, the particular ways in which they play out in the world can be both a ‘poison’ and a ‘cure’ (following Plato’s argument that writing is a pharmakon). Elsewhere, Stiegler argues that such an economy of ‘pharmaka’ is a therapeutic — it is possible to resolve the poison/cure relation either way — that is not dialectical (i.e. an opposition) but rather a composition of tendencies that emerge in the relations of a milieu.

I suppose the one criticism that might be immediately levelled at this version of Stiegler’s argument is that it sort of implicitly assumes that we must create alternative institutions to invoke such change, which of course needs to be ordered and civil, and so the very basis of change is potentially compromised by the inherent contradiction of needing to create another bureaucracy to get rid of the current, corrupt one.

As usual, I have added queries, clarifications etc. in square brackets and with a couple of footnotes. Also, all of the links within the text have been added by be for clarification of particular terms or concepts. I welcome comments and suggestions.

We are at the end of the Fordist model, we must move to mode of contribution

Bernard Stiegler is a philosopher and theoritician of the evolution of technical systems. He discovered free/open [source] models almost by accident while serving as the Director of the INA.

As the founder and president for the philosophical organisation Ars Industrialis, created in 2005, since April 2006 he has also directed the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou centre.

[interview begins]

Q. Open, contributory and collaborative models are becoming more numerous and these forms of contribution extend into new territories – how do you interpret this evolution?

B.S. Before responding, it is a necessary precondition [of this conversation] to recognise that all of these models are not equivalent. Facebook is contributory, but in certain ways, it is a worse model [of operation] than its not contributory equivalents, I almost prefer the model of TF1. These mechanisms of the capture and distortion of data lead to a strong depersonalisation, a phenomenon that is exacerbated by ‘big data’. This is both exciting, because the data open up new possibilities, and dangerous.

It is for this reason that I discuss the pharmakon. In all technologies or systems, there are two simultaneous and opposing tendencies – one is good, positive and emancipatory, and the other is negative and predatory. We need to analyse the toxicity of these phenomena, for as they become better they also become more toxic. A pharmakon today necessitates a therapeutic: It must be a an organ of care [organe de soin 1] which like any medicine, if it fails, can kill the patient. It is thus necessary to conduct these analyses honestly and sincerely, in the same ways an accountant does with company accounts. The problem is that we do not have the perspective of hindsight, the training or the capacities [savoir-faire] for doing so calmly with contributory models.

Today, we need a typology of contributory models.

I work a lot with communities of hackers: until the ‘Snowdon crisis’ they did not see the pharmacological character of the net. In the last year things have changed, there is a kind of ‘net blues‘.

Q. How can one define the economy of contribution, for example how can one differentiate the market?

B.S. The economy of contribution is based on a re-capacitation: it augments the capacities of people more than it diminishes them. The term ‘recapacitation’ draws on Amartya Sen’s understanding of capabilities — a capability is a form of knowledge, life skills [savoir vivre], know how [savoir faire] or formal knowledge [savoir formel] – shared with other and which constitutes a knowledge community. Sen has shown that consumerism diminishes capabilities.

An economy of contribution is based in the development of the knowledge of individuals, and the sharing of these knowledges is facilitated by a shared ownership which does not prevent its circulation.

I am not against the notion of ownership [propriété], but it does not have to be proprietorial, at the expense of the collective value of knowledge. Rather than capacitation, the consumerist society is based on proletarianisation, even design is proletarianised.

The economy of contribution is an economy based on parity [parité] – peer-to-peer. In this economy, we often speak of emergent initiatives or the bottom-up, but the bottom-up does not exist alone, there is always an aspect of the top-down – which is to say that there is always an organisation that unites and valorises the bottom-up dynamics. Even when we believe that there is only the bottom-up, there is a hidden top-down that regulates emergence. The real peer is one who can explain the top-down to the bottom-up.

Q. Why is it more important today than it was 20 years ago or will be in 20 years time?

B.S. We are entering a new stage of automisation, of a different nature to that which has taken place thusfar. It is the continuation of what began 200 years ago, but automisation has shifted register. In many sectors, manual labour is no longer necessary, or will be superfluous very soon. Amazon has recently announced it is working towards this, the elimination of all of its jobs and their replacement by machines.

Currently, the elements are in place for automisation to move into a new stage, only the cost of robots limit its progress. One could suppose that when actors such as Amazon announce that they are tackling such a problem that the industrial ecosystem would produce economies of scale that make robots less costly than humans. When that happens, the Fordist model is dead. For without jobs, or purchasing power there will be nobody to buy what the robots produce. It will be a major, violent and systemic crisis. If we do not change regulations now we will have great difficulty coping.

Q. It can be noted that these models are being developed and that there are many initiatives but one often has the impression that they are struggling to sustain or develop themselves – what might be the reasons?

B.S. It is true that the precariousness of contributory models and the high failure rate of these initiatives raise questions.

There is an explanation, it lies in the ecosystem, the macro economy. At the level of the micro (individuals and organisations) these initiatives emerge and spread. We can see that without a macro politics they cannot prosper. When I speak of the macro economy I refer to the labour laws, taxation, social security, and territorial infrastructures. All of these elements do not favour an economy of contribution. Unless they [the macro economic elements] can be changed there is no chance of it [an economy of contribution] developing. Or, perhaps, it is a certain kind of contributory model that can succeed, such as Facebook.

This is the economic project and contemporary politics that we must change. The debates about the minimum subsistance income are interesting in this regard. I prefer to speak of a contributory wage. For me, the contributory wage should be based on the minimum subsistance income but it should not stop there. The contributory wage should be designed to promote the involvement of individuals in contributory projects. It should encourage contributions in order to create social enterprises, they can be monetised businesses but they do not have to be.

Q. Beyond the [structural] systems and the macro-economy, what sort of levers are available to develop contributory logics?

B.S. It is necessary to develop a contributory culture and and education, such that individuals engage in one way or another with contributory projects, making it more and more likely for them to do so. In developing such a culture we would develop the capacity of individuals to detect the toxic aspects of the pharmakon that is the economy of contribution.

On another plane, designers have a major role to play. They are called to become the visionaries and forerunners of contributory systems. A fablab cannot function only with the building and the machines, it functions because there is a social architecture of contribution, this is the work of the designer.

Research will also enable progress, if it becomes more contributory. The pace is so fast, the level of complexity is so pronounced that it is necessary to cooperate in order to understand and analyse [anything]. To open research to those beyond its immediate originators today would allow us all to keep abreast of the latest advances.

Q. You often talk about the libidinal economy when you talk about the economy of contribution, how does Freud come into models for contribution?

B.S. I have a Freudian vision of the economy. The libido is a social link, it is the capacity to channel the [base] drives [pulsions] into what Freud describes as a social investment of desire. Drives function positively when we are able to defer their satisfaction. To defer reaction is to make an action. The libidinal economy is the idealisation (in Freud’s sense) and the sublimation of drives. We can say that free and open source software [logiciel libre] is nurtured by this [kind of] sublimation, in other words by this striving beyond ourselves [ce dépassement 2].


You can find the interview in the original French on the Without Model website here.

1. I have translated organe de soin rather literally because it speaks to Stiegler’s conceptualisation of organs in the mode of technics and the ‘organon’ (in Greek – tool, instrument, prosthesis, organ) – a supplement to the body, through which it (the organ) and the individual are co-constituted. In his philosophical project, Stiegler has proposed a ‘general organology’ that articulates bodily organs (the viscera), artificial organs (instruments, tools and so on), and social organs (groupings ~ organisations).

2. There isn’t really a direct translation of what is written in the final sentence – dépassement means ‘overtaking’, which I have taken as a metaphor for a moving forward beyond ourselves and our present by channeling desires through positive processes of sublimation.