Like other tools before it, the Internet reflects the ideological conditions it has developed within. The strategies of the corporately owned social web 2.01, which have come to dominate the contemporary Internet, promote a very particular understanding of the Individual, one that heavily promotes the ideals of Western Individualism and Neoliberal Consumerism.
This ideological Individualism is embedded deeply within these systems and technologies, designed into their format and function through User-Centered Design methodologies, rigid standardised presences, and adopted market-practices applied to relational interactions that commodify the individual. These are strategies, as described by de Certeau (1984), used by institutions and power structures to "produce, tabulate, and impose" this ideological understanding of the individual.2
I believe that Design can encourage and enable a kind of individuality beyond possessive Western Individualism. My work explores tactical approaches that “use, manipulate, and divert” the particular Individualism imposed on us strategically in these networked social spaces. Using tactics that I will refer to as diffusion and multiplexing, I endeavour to move towards a more collective understanding of the social web. As networked life expands beyond the screen into objects and places, I believe that it is crucial to explore tactical design that counteracts, disrupts, and offers alternatives to this technologically-embedded individualism.
Individualism is "a mode of life in which the individual pursues his own ends or follows out his own ideas." (Oxford English Dictionary) This ethical egoism (that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest) is a key element in the Western capitalist cultural systems.
Modern philosophy, emerging during the Enlightenment, sought to distinguish the individual from society, particularly in the work of key thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. The freedom to understand one's own reality, determine one's own future and decide about one's own beliefs, brought a liberation from existing religious, class, and other social categories. Individualism was central to the emerging dominant economic system of capitalism—a key reason why it has become so fundamental.
Political scientist, C. B. Macpherson (1962) identified this as "possessive" individualism, defined as "those deeply internalized habits of thinking and feeling" whereby we view "everything around [us] primarily as actual or potential commercial property." (Coleman, 2012) Macpherson's individual understands themselves, their skills, and those of others as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. At the core of possessive individualism lies an insatiable thirst for selfish consumption, which is considered central to human nature.
This possessive individualism emerged in an aggressive form with the rise of neoliberal economic policies, following the abandonment of Keynesian policies in the 1970s and 80s (those which advocated more government intervention in the markets). Neoliberal policies seek to increase the role of the private-sector in society through opening markets, deregulating trade, and privatising public service. Neoliberalism understands individual economic freedom as central; reducing government interference in the economy paves the way for the individual to sustain themselves, and ultimately prosper, in the marketplace. Essentially, the belief is that if each person is given the 'freedom' to take control of their lives and prosper, they will do so.
"Neoliberalism… proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade." (Harvey, 2007, p 2)
At both economic and ideological levels, neoliberalism has profoundly impacted capitalist Western culture. Beyond simply a set of economic policies, it is particularly evident as a broader worldview in attitudes towards the individual and society. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was, "no such thing as society, only individual men and women". (Harvey, p 23) Individualism, private property and personal responsibility for oneself take precedence over social solidarity. We see a subtle shift from the role of the individual as citizen (contributing to and responsible for a society around them) to the role of the individual as consumer (free to earn and buy the life that they desire). Accompanying this, is the subtle logic that individual rights take precedence over individual responsibilities.
This rise in individualism contrasts sharply with the reality of our increasing reliance on the global community. Independent living, at least at a material level, is nearly impossible in today's world, and yet the facade of personal material independence is perhaps more prevalent than ever before. In response to this curious contrast, between the modern trend towards individualism and our increasing reliance on the global community, there is a neoliberal conception of this global connectedness: one which understands and encourages interconnection and interdependence in respect to the market.
"Increasingly, neoliberalism affirms technology’s fantasy of wholeness to tell us who “we” are in a global sense. We are those connected to each other through exchange, the exchange of commodities as well as of contributions. On the Internet, we are free to buy anything from anywhere at any time." (Dean, 2009, p 56)
As a cultural phenomenon, neoliberalism creates a tendency for the individual to apply the values of the marketplace to all spheres of life, including the social and cultural.
"In personal ethics, the general neoliberal vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such." (Treanor, 2005)
In this everything-entrepreneurship, pursuing and expressing individuality is encouraged, insofar as it can be expressed through purchasing power. I am my own person, and I can do whatever I want; I express this through capitalising whenever and however possible, thus providing myself with the liberty to purchase whatever I want in life. In this way, an individualistic understanding of one's identity, and the importance of the financial conditions to obtain and consume the building blocks of this desired identity, becomes central to sustaining the neoliberal economic system.
"Neoliberal ideology does not produce its subjects by interpolating them into symbolically anchored identities (structured according to conventions of gender, race, work, and national citizenship). Instead, it enjoins subjects to develop our creative potential and cultivate our individuality. Communicative capitalism’s circuits of entertainment and consumption supply the ever new experiences and accessories we use to perform this self-fashioning — I must be fit! I must be stylish! I must realize my dreams. I must because I can— everyone wins. If I don’t, not only am I a loser but I am not a person at all. I am not part of everyone." (Dean, 2009, p 66)
It is this individualism that is not only encouraged, but I believe embedded, within the social networking systems of the contemporary Internet.
The Strategies of Individualism Inherent in the Social Web
"The design of software builds the ideology into those actions that are the easiest to perform on the software designs that are becoming ubiquitous." (Lanier, 2010, p 47)
The contemporary Internet has become dominated by the presence of social networks. These networks, also referred to as social media, exist as online services or sites that facilitate social interrelations among individuals in networks of varying scales. Predominantly, they feature discrete nodes which represent each individual (e.g. a profile) accompanied by various services which join these nodes as social connections, most often around the 'sharing' of text, links and other media. They are predominantly web-based tools, but increasingly exist as mobile applications as well. The social networking landscape is dominated by corporate giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.
The presence of these social networks could be understood as an attempt to fill the gap between "a seductive but alienating possessive individualism on the one hand and the desire for a meaningful collective life on the other." (Harvey, 2007, p 69) Fundamentally however, these social networking services are individual-centred; they place the individual user at the centre of their own bespoke reality. Why the individual and not the collective? Surely the collective is of primary importance in any understanding of the social. Should the social be limited to a world that revolves around the self?
The faux social of these networks serves to shape the individual into a more ideal candidate for serving and fuelling the market. At the same time, the network is profiting from their presence. This explicit redefining of the social into that which is consumed by the individual lies at the heart of the strategies of the social networks.
Strategies, as theorised by de Certeau, manipulate power relationships through their creation of "a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets… (customers… [etc.]) can be managed." (de Certeau, 1984, p 37) These new social spaces are literal abstractions that schematise relationships, implementing strategic network architectures in code that translate these organic structures to the strict, defined, and imposed schemas of the web, which can then be leveraged, controlled, and directed by those in power.
The strategies at play include commodification of the individual, User-Centred Design, and creating a myth of freedom whilst enforcing standardised presences.
Commodification of the Individual
How is the value of the individual emphasised and interpreted through social networking sites? The individual point of view, although it would seem to lie at the centre of this new social space, is not a priority of the inherent ideology; it is a means to an end. The true value of the individual lies not in their contribution, but in their market value. Although the apparent purpose of these tools may be expressed as social connection, empowering the individual through the ability to communicate, these institutions are first answerable to their shareholders and investors. The line connecting each node in the social network is the (financial) bottom line.
"Since the companies that create social media platforms make money from having as many users as possible visit them (they do so by serving ads, by selling data about usage to other companies, by selling add-on services, and so on), they have a direct interest in having users pour as much of their lives into these platforms as possible." (Manovich, 2009, p 325)
As Manovich describes, these networks are funded commercially, primarily through advertising and selling collated user information. The individual is commodified, literally, as their data is analysed and packaged for advertisers. Earlier in Web history, bloggers began to use advertising to make money from their self-generated content; in the social media model, the network makes money from user-generated content.
The free-market self who inhabits the social network, constructing and expressing themselves there, is constantly offered, through advertising, the opportunity to purchase a better self, upgrade their identity, and accessorise their lifestyle with select, relevant consumer products:
"The consumer figures the possibility of enjoyment promised by neoliberalism. Consumption provides the terrain within which my identity, my lifestyle, can be constructed, purchased, and made over. Yet consumption is more than a terrain—the consumer is commanded to enjoy, compelled by the impossible demand to do more, be more, have more, change more." (Dean, 2009, 67)
I consume, therefore I am.
But there is a further commodification of the individual being promoted in these social spaces: these networks enable and encourage a form of possessive individualism which sees the individual literally adopting marketing strategies for themselves. The consumption and commodification of the individual that Macpherson describes is evident in the kind of 'self-expression' that social networks perpetuate. The social network self strives to be seen as concurrently unique and conforming; they self-market themselves in a supply-and-demand fashion. They see more value in themselves as they are increasingly consumed. Within the social network, everything becomes a marketing tool for the self, exemplifying the demands of neoliberalism for "flexible, self-starting subjects willing to convert all of life into capital." (Horning, 2012) The social network strategically fosters an understanding of the individual rooted in consumption. It redefines—and redesigns—the social around an individualistic economy which understands the self as the ultimate commodity:
"In using social media, we become fatally aware of how we can sell ourselves and thus intensify self-marketing practices. We put ourselves forward as a brand in order to register in these commercially oriented, quantification-driven systems." (Horning, 2012)
Moreover, this understanding of the individual is cleverly designed to perpetuate itself. In the attention economy of the social network, if you are not garnering enough attention, then you need to invest more of yourself to earn the attention you deserve. Literal financial investment is even possible, in the case of Facebook's sponsored posts which allow the user to pay to have their content more prominently featured.
I am consumed, therefore I am.
A Critique of User-Centred Design
The individuals of the web, no matter what the context, are predominantly referred to as 'users': implying they are putting the web to use. In these social networks, the term users persists, pointing towards this expectation for the functional and productive. Users are present to produce and consume. The further, and more fundamental, reason behind the use of the term user, and not audience as in old media, is the strategic dominance of individualism.
User-Centred Design, the design approach behind many of these services, places the needs and desires of end-users at the centre of the design process. Initially popularised by Donald Norman, this design approach has become central to much contemporary design thinking, particularly interaction design for technology and the web. User-Centred Design centers the design around the user, creating a bespoke world that positions them at its core.3 Here we can see this ideological individualism designed into the very fabric of the systems, technologies and interfaces of social networking.
By centring me in my own customised reality, these user-centred services encourage me to select the friend or network that will give the response desired at any given moment. Again, we see the entrepreneurial neoliberal approach: strategic investments in the relational 'market' to get the best possible returns. Furthermore, it implies that the user is always right, and, as Woods suggests, "assumes that what individual consumers want will benefit the whole system" (2012).
In fact, one can curate the community around oneself to be sheltered entirely from anyone with a differing hobby, world-view, or perspective. Such curated communities can reinforce particular expressions of self, forming groups that embody the demographic divisions that define them. Varnelis describes such curated communities as "telecocoons":
"Given the vast number of possible clusters one can associate with, it becomes easy to find a comfortable niche with people just like oneself, among other individuals whose views merely reinforce one’s own. If the Internet is hardly responsible for this condition, it still can exacerbate it, giving us the illusion that we are connecting with others." (Varnelis, 2008, p157)
Social networking provides an experience of the collective, of the social, that gives the individual ultimate curatorial control. This technological narcissism might be better described as solipsistic rather than social.
"Narcissism is a symptomatic trait of self-identity in the phase of modernity. Consumer capitalism perpetuates the flawed project of self-love which encourages individualism and discourages ‘giving to others’." (Giddens, 1991, p 173)
The Freedom Myth of Standardised Presences
"Web 2.0 designs actively demand that people define themselves downward." (Lanier 2010)
The results of User-Centred Design can mask the conforming nature of social networks. The user is given the illusion of being in control, being at the centre, choosing how they use the service; this all serves to mask the ways in which these tools are using us, the user.
There is a false freedom in these networks, that doesn't allow a free individuality, but uses the strategy of consumeristic individualism to enforce conformity. Lanier (2010) describes social networks, such as Facebook, as "standardized presences." Individuals have control over how they present themselves, but only to the extent that the structures of the system itself allows. The social network's design to create a fixed format for self-expression reduces people to abstractions. In a literal sense, people become objects; a computer term referring to a particular instance of data in a common format, but referenced by a unique identifier. In these networks, we are represented by such code objects. On this machine level, the ideologically-controlled individualism is inherent in the formats, data structures and system architectures of these networks.
Facebook's multiple—choice identities, demographic database fields and ubiquitous 'Status Update' textboxes can be interpreted as equivalent to Foucault's enclosures that mould and—even more so—Deleuze's controls that modulate people into data ‘dividuals’.
"The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become 'dividuals,' and masses, samples, data, markets, or 'banks…' The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network." (Deleuze, 1992, p 5)
Galloway (2004), discussing Deleuze's societies of control, explicitly describes computer protocols as "mechanisms of contemporary control" in so far as they "encode appropriate behaviour in advance" (Dean, 2009, p 185). These computational "codes, techniques, and arrangements… distribute and manage" the individual within the social network.
Particularly with the ideological focus I previously outlined, we can understand the system from a Deleuzian perspective as transforming us into dividuals by breaking us down to our base component data elements, before recompiling us into 'useful' demographic groups for economic purposes.
"The 'dividual' —a physically embodied human subject that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control, like computer-based systems." (Williams, 2005)
The particular ideological individualism that is promoted and encouraged, enables this dissolution of the self to constituent elements, to be reformed not as individuals but as demographics, ones in which we are powerless. In this way, the ideological individualism of these networks has a normalising effect. The standardised presences of social networks transform individuality into a mode of conformity. The social becomes not a medium for individual expression, but an engine for assimilation; an ironic assimilation which is fuelled by emphasising the individual. This entire process has not been forced upon us; we have consented entirely throughout.
"For Deleuze, the data gathered on us through the new technologies did not necessarily manifest our irreducible uniqueness. Rather, the very way that the data can be gathered about us and then used for and against us marks us as dividuals… For Deleuze, such technologies indicate that we as discrete selves are not in-divisible entities; on the contrary, we can be divided and subdivided endlessly." (Williams, 2005)
In this way, through being provided with tools designed to enable expressions of our individual uniqueness, we are conformed: stripped of individuality and agency.
I am unique and in control, therefore I am… not.
Tactics: Beyond an Individualistic Social Web
"In a world where we post the majority of our personal data online, and states and corporations wield invasive tools to collect and market the rest, there is something profoundly hopeful in… effacement of the self… [It] enables participants to practice a kind of individuality beyond… possessive individualism." (Coleman, 2012)
In the context of the dominant individualistic ideology of the social web, I am primarily interested in exploring tactics for the "effacement of the self", designing technologically-mediated social experiences and spaces that offer alternatives to these self-centric interactions. My work seeks to disrupt the user from their role as such, defamiliarising the individualism of User-Centered Design and offering alternatives for contemporary connected social spaces. In response to the faux social of such social networks, how might other technological expressions or experiences of the collective provide an alternative to the possessive individualism of neoliberalism?
De Certeau (1984, p 37) defines "tactics" as ways to artfully "use, manipulate, and divert" the cultural products and spaces imposed by an external power. He describes tactics that trace "indeterminate trajectories that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written, and prefabricated space through which they move." (1984, p35) The city, which cannot be tactically reshaped through physical reorganisation, can be adapted to one's needs by choosing how to move through it. In contrast, network architecture and the format of web-connected client devices allows for a certain amount of adapting and restructuring of its constituent elements. In the context of the web, these social spaces can be broken down into multiple elements to be rebuilt and reshaped, through both endorsed methods—APIs (application programming interfaces), metadata, web feeds and similar protocols—and non-endorsed approaches—hacks, browser overrides, and html scraping.
What are the collective tactics that might be deployed within these individual-focussed strategies? I will outline two tactical approaches, which can be understood as alternative models for design, that leverage the structure and protocols of these social spaces to subvert, adapt and offer alternative ways to inhabit them. They are built on two conceptions of the Self: diffusion and multiplexing. In interactions that obscure the Individual, either amidst their own data fragments, or amidst the collective, there lies the potential to encourage and enable an alternative approach.
Diffusion: Embracing the Fragmented Dividual
Diffusion sees the fragmented individual dispersed across the network: embracing the Deleuzian, subdivided dividual as a means to render the individual "unmappable." Staying within the defined boundaries of the social network, this approach designs tools and techniques that aim to hide or obscure the individual, or liberate the user from market-oriented consumerism. By welcoming this dissolution of the individual into multiple data elements, we subvert the strategic data-gathering systems that mark us as dividuals.
Ben Grosser's Demetricator explicitly seeks to remove one important element in the market ideology of Facebook through removing the metrics constantly displayed to the user that "measure and present our social value and activity, enumerating friends, likes, comments, and more." It is a web browser add-on that hides these metrics: '36 people like this' becomes 'people like this' and 'having 105 friends' becomes simply 'having friends.'
"Demetricator invites Facebook’s users to try the system without the numbers, to see how their experience is changed by their absence. With this work I aim to disrupt the prescribed sociality these metrics produce, enabling a network society that isn’t dependent on quantification." (Grosser, 2012)
Multiplexing the Individual in the Collective
Multiplexing is a technical term used in telecommunications and computer networks that "enable[s] (a line) to carry several signals simultaneously" (Oxford English Dictionary) by combining multiple signals into one over a shared medium. I see multiplexing as a useful metaphor for collective experience that transcends the individual. Collective rituals have a rich history spanning many cultures—musical gatherings, protest crowds, religious congregations, collective storytelling—and can provide alternative models for this multiplexing of the self in the social. Such rituals offer communal, egalitarian, and immersive models for designing collective experiences.
I see an opportunity for an experience of the networked individual that is completely engulfed within the collective. In my work, I seek to create technologically-mediated social spaces that interface with the collective; multiplexing the individual in collective experiences and entities which see the collective node take precedence over the individual.
A pertinent example lies in the nomadic resistant model of hacker culture, which Galloway (2004) describes. These tactical collective entities, such as Anonymous exist inside the strategic, standardised presences of the web's protocols, social networks and communication channels. Individuals coalesce around a specific action or problem under the Anonymous banner creating a resistance that originates from many different places. Once complete, the collective dissolves.
Numerous designers and artists have also engaged with ways of representing and interacting with the Internet in a more collectivising way. Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, is one such example. It is an installation that pulls text fragments containing the phrase "I am…" from thousands of chat rooms in real time. These extracts are then displayed on a suspended grid of over 200 small liquid-crystal displays, while at the same time being read by a computer-generated voice. It offers an interesting contrast between the literal individualism of these "I am" conversational extracts and the collective experience of engaging with them all simultaneously. Its format offers both a dissolution of the text from its author and original context, along with multiplexing it into a coherent collective whole.
"At a stroke Listening Post fulfils the promise of most Internet-based art, affecting a simultaneous collapse and expansion of time and space with implications ranging from notions of private and public space to individual thought and its role in group dynamics." (Eleey, 2003)
What Listening Post doesn't offer is any interaction that enables the viewer themselves to contribute to or participate in the collective. PRIZM was a project I undertook to create a multiplexed self in a way that was built directly on user input.
PRIZM's interface takes a selection of personal information through a custom interface which includes a magnetic card swipe (for Driver’s License and other card information), a camera with facial recognition, a custom fingerprint scanner (webcam and threshold image-processing) and a keyboard for text data entry. Over the course of the project’s exhibition, data was collected from visitors. A second screen alongside the input interface displayed continually generated collective identities from the submitted data.
The project fell short in the ‘language’ of identity systems that I chose to use. The ID cards, fingerprints and other identity systems in this project, are obviously more associated with strategic systems of power and control rather than a more tactical experience of collective identity. Moving forward, my current work endeavours to link the experience of the collective in Listening Post with the more interactive participation for the user that I was aiming for in PRIZM.
The Experience of Losing Oneself in the Crowd
One might ask, with this sacrificing of capability to perceive or represent oneself directly, why would anyone want to participate in such a system? Would an individual limit themselves to experience the collective? I think there is evidence in current systems for this limiting of self to partake in something. On Facebook, for example, you actively choose to sacrifice particular liberties (i.e. privacy, control) to be part of a larger collective experience. The user also, as previously discussed, limits how they are represented to the format and structures of Facebook.
In trying to achieve a dissolution into a group that is not negative, I am primarily interested in the experience of the self in this collective setting. How can you interface as an individual through an interaction with the collective in which you lose yourself? Removing the individualistic self, what is it like to experience the shared or collective self? What freedom or escape might be possible from the agendas I've previously outlined? I'm interested in what the experience of connectedness might feel like, mediated through these technological interfaces.
Freud uses the term "oceanic feeling" in an attempt to define the psychological feeling of religion. A person experiences this emotion when they have a sense of being continuous with the rest of the universe. He describes it as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” (1930) He theorises that this experience of being connected beyond the self, is "a vestige of infantile consciousness prior to the time when the infant begins to distinguish himself from his human and non-human environment" (Roberts); a time before the self has formed for the infant. Might it be possible to experience something similar when interacting in a subversive, augmented reality that inhibits you from perceiving yourself—perhaps enabling moments of bypassing the limits of the self?
In designing tactical interactions that enable diffusion or multiplexing of the individual, I am interested in creating such experiences that might enable individuals to feel this "oceanic" connectedness with the collective.
I believe that designing tactical responses to the strategic individualism of the contemporary web is of particular importance as the dominant networks expand beyond the screen into the objects surrounding us and the spaces we inhabit.
"Objects and places are the next targets for aggregation into the digital network. As networks increasingly pervade the nooks and crannies of physical space through portable objects and place-based infrastructure, we now have opportunities for an always-on sense of networked connectivity, and a layering of presence in various physical and online places." (Ito, 2008, p 12)
As the Internet moves beyond Web 2.0, towards the Internet of Things—which sees objects and places embedded with networked computing technology—there lies the opportunity to either more deeply embed this technological individualism1, or to offer alternatives. As the social moves into shared objects and spaces, there is exciting potential in interactions that are not limited to my device and your device, my screen and your screen; the possibility of an alternative social of truly collective, collaborative networked objects and spaces.
- Web 2.0 is a term that has been in use since approximately 2000 to describe web sites and technologies that go beyond the 'static' pages of the earlier web. It implies more user-generated content and social relations, which enable interactions beyond passive viewing. ↩
- It is interesting to note how, in the history of the Web, a shift can be perceived from the tactical to the strategic. The presence and communication of a minority of early-adopters in weblogs, chat rooms and IRC networks—means of communicating and forming community that were initially run and owned by the individuals using them (primarily hackers, technologists and academics)—was predominantly tactical. What once was tactical is now strategic; this social and collective use of the web, which has now become mainstream in Web 2.0, takes place almost entirely within the standardised presences of corporately-owned social networks. ↩
- Woods (2012) describes Joseph Weizenbaum's computer program, ELIZA, which conversed with patients to diagnose medical conditions. It did so via screen-based questions in everyday language that were so convincing participants assumed they were talking to a human being. "Weizenbaum's experiment is that educated people become very susceptible to suggestion, once they are placed at the centre of their emotional universe." Could perhaps this centring of the user in the interactions of the social network be interpreted as a strategy to make them more susceptible to suggestions, coercion, and control? ↩
- The current trends amongst the initial wave of such Internet of Things devices have indeed inherited this individualism. Wearable computing in particular, with products such as Google Glass, the Nike Fuel Band, and Biostamps (flexible circuitry stuck to the skin like temporary tattoos), take the User-Centred consumer-electronic device a step further. Providing self-tracking and self-quantification, the neoliberal entrepreneur's dream of realtime market-analysis is now available, not just for their social lives, but now also for their body's own inputs, outputs and performance. ↩