THE INCUBATOR FOR CHANGE
Original essay adapted for Slanted Magazine #36 – Coexist
15 min. read
Bauman, Zygmunt (1998). Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University
Bauman, Zygmunt (2008). The Art of Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Candy, Stuart. 2010. The Futures of Everyday Life: Politics and the Design of Experiential Scenarios. Carnegie Mellon University (PhD Thesis).
Gielen, Pascal (Ed.) (2015). “Culture: The Substructure for a European Common”. No Culture, No Europe: On the Foundation of Politics. Amsterdam: Valiz – Antennae Series. pp. 19-66
Laranjo, Francisco (2015). Critical Everything – Modes of Criticism.
Mazé, Ramia (2019). “Politics of Designing Visions of the Future”, in Journal of Futures Studies, March 2019, 23(3): 23–38. Taiwan: Tamkang University.
Metahaven (2011). “10 Notes on Speculative Design” in Camuffo, Giorgio e Dalla Mura, Maddalena (eds.) Graphic Design Worlds/Words. Milano: Electa. pp. 257-271
Antonelli, Paola, Ahmed Ansari and Jamer Hunt (2015). Knotty Objects Debate: On Critical Design. MIT Media Lab.
As the lifting of lockdowns and reopening businesses are cautiously implemented the globe, the debate on how
our practice has been affected by the global pandemic and how it may evolve from this experience has been
flourishing in online design forums, finally raising the question if the post-pandemic period will bring a
creative reset. This question seems particularly interesting in a time like this, as it reveals a necessity.
The wording implies that a reset is not only needed but in fact desired by those in the very industry.
The world is about to witness the worst recession ever—possibly the first one in which no one is to blame and no country will be spared. As history shows, countries in economic recession are bound to take measures that deeply affect the cultural sectors. During the break-out of the pandemic, many designers engaged in projects to support the community of autonomous creatives. Under the slogan culture is not cancelled, London-based art director Zak Kyes, set off a movement on instagram amidst lockdowns, ultimately creating a forum for creatives to share projects that have been postponed or cancelled altogether due to the pandemic.
Focusing on the encompassing foundation of culture, this paper intends to analyse the anthropological notion of culture proposed by Gielen and Lijster’s theory (Gielen, 2015), reflecting it back to the design practice as a tool for introducing dismeasure in society, by acknowledging its potential for addressing socio-political and economic issues thus rendering it an incubator for change.
An anthropological notion of culture and its creative industry
Zygmunt Bauman once wrote that “culture only emerges in the face of death” (2008), an argument that strangely resonates in contemporaneity—not in a literal way, but rather a figurative one, interpreting it as the strain the pandemic has imposed on creatives worldwide, worsened by the grim outlook of a recession. Culture thrives in repressive environments, as the Latin American dictatorships in the late 1970s and 1980s have proven with the flourishing of countercultures, music, poetry, theatre and literature. In that case, wouldn't death—meaning the threats that carries the looming recession—be our creative reset?
In No Culture, No Europe (2015), a book edited by professor of cultural sociology at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts Pascal Gielen, political and economic crises in the European scenario are analysed from the viewpoint of a concept of culture that is paramount.
Over the past decade, the European Union has been experiencing a drawn out crisis, politically as well as economically. From the debate about this crisis an important element is missing: culture. Culture as a shared frame of reference and as something that lends meaning to people’s lives is not the superstructure but the foundation of all societies (Gielen, 2015).
Faced with an inevitable economic and potentially consequent governance crises, the relevance of a book is striking. In one of its sections, Culture: The Substructure for a European Common, Pascal Gielen and Thijs Lijster (philosopher and art critic) gradually build on an anthropological notion of culture, distancing itself to the common conception of culture as artefact and production—which was referred to in the opening of this paper. This anthropological notion is based on the processes of socialisation, qualification and subjectification, which in simplistic terms can be understood as the connection to a culture, the holding of the necessary knowledge and skills to partake in it, and authentication of one’s role in it, respectively. In tandem, these concepts comprise the Gielen’s notion of culture, a “stealth laboratory for new forms of life, an omnipresent incubator, hardly noticed precisely because it is everywhere” (2015: 14), deeply ingrained in society.
From this anthropological concept, Gielen and Lijster expand on the cultural sectors by arguing that creatives who work in the industry are able to guide people to the social order that is taken for granted. They defend that the creative industry can establish hierarchies as well as overturn them, empower people and undermine the social order, or parts of it, even if rarely so. The reason for that being is that artists have “the possibility to spontaneously and triumphantly discuss any subject whatsoever” (Sloterdijk, 2011 as cited in Gielen, 2015).
Gielen and Lijster are particularly focused on the case of the arts, however design can well enough be framed into their notion of culture, for the design practice also reflects, challenges and works within the framework of this very anthropological notion. This great responsibility (and potential) is, for example, perfectly illustrated in Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Design Manual for Visual Communication (2016). Design both deals with cultures as well as it is a cultural output in itself, producing artefacts that convey—if well executed—intentional and powerful messages that can “intervene in an existing cultural order and fundamentally transform it” (Gielen, 2015: 32).
Design and dismeasure
Furthermore, Gielen and Lijster put forth the concept of dismeasure, which appears in their notion of culture to question and challenge cultural customs and traditions—a sine qua non of real change, closely tied to the practice of an avant-garde in their theory. In design, this provocative nature is analogous to the critical and experimental tradition of the practice. In terms of dismeasure, it is argued that it is in dissent that culture finds the opportunity to renew itself and reconsider its sources; it is in dissent that a community is shaped, not in consensus (2015: 36). It is important to point out that the community here is not understood in the same manner as you read in the latest design forums, as this harmonious entity central to a more conscious practice, but is rather described by Gielen and Lijster as a space in which discussion and conflict surface in order to bring about a solution. This way, Gielen brings insight into the role and potential of design in navigating a turbulent economic and political landscape.
The coming recession is bound to challenge the very conventions of contemporary society, such as the pace of the global economy—enabled by globalisation—and consumerism—soon shifting towards new sustainable living patterns—, rendering this time optimal for promoting culture (in both senses argued here), contesting traditions and bringing about change. And that is exactly how the practice of design may prove itself relevant and contribute to a debate in the coming period, by assuming a role of an incubator for change.
The economic slowdown first and foremost will hugely affect the acceleration of the creative industry, possibly weakening the spectacle of contemporary corporate design focused on brands and individuals. The design industry is constantly being measured through an exhaustive focus on competitiveness, globalisation, corporate advantage, life-style design, differentiation, design strategy, experience design, smart design etc., all to which undermine the potential of the practice—as well as solidarity, weakening citizenship and community spirit (Gielen, 2015). The current scenario of neoliberalism has created a culture in which people are addressed as consumers instead of producers, workers or citizens (Bauman, 1998) and the great recession ahead will make us question, and hopefully, restructure this dynamic. Neoliberalism revolves around the atomistic individual, the homo economicus, detached from his cultural, ethnic or religious background (Gielen, 2015: 51), as opposed to the centralisation of community and society proposed by the anthropological notion of culture.
By restructuring this centrality, design might be able to partake in the formation of a more sustainable economy in the times to come, based on a “solid community” (Gielen, 2015)—again, not as in the harmonious entity but rather a place where conflict and debate happens in order to generate change. Design might be able to face this challenge by engaging more in questioning the practice itself. In the same manner Gielen and Lijster argue that “art as the domain where a certain dismeasure is still being cultivated, is one of the few places within modern society where just about every measure (be it economic, political, ethical or medical) can be questioned” (2015: 33), design holds the same potential by means of introducing dismeasure in its critical and experimental approaches.
The centrality of Gielen’s anthropological notion of culture—or alternatively, of community—is paramount for understanding the influence of the introduction of dismeasures in the process of pointing out alternate possibilities by challenging current customs and traditions in times of political and economic adversity. “[…] Effects generated by a socio-cultural sector by introducing a migrant’s culture generate a much larger shift within a culture than a dismeasure introduced in art, mainly because art preferably is confined to the world of fiction therefore seen as inconsequential to real life” (2015: 33). However, unlike the realm of the arts, design is not confined to the imaginary, but rather deals with real life, proving that it can be inserted into Gielen’s framework and that it holds great potential in doing so.
Critical and experimental design practices as vehicles for introducing dismeasure
Francisco Laranjo, designer, professor and editor of Modes of Criticism, argued in Critical Everything (2015) that “politics is not optional for designers, but an integral part of their activity. Therefore, they can be fundamental in contributing to the repoliticisation of the designer.” Laranjo uses this argument to distinguish between a critical practice and what he refers to as criticool—which falls short in its criticism, lacking political and ideology insight. This political view is strongly shared by the very designers that coined the term critical design, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Similar to the concept of dismeasure, the central idea behind critical design is to “speculate about the social, political and cultural implications of everyday objects, producing design works that question and challenge the status quo rather than reinforcing it” (Laranjo, 2015).
Whilst the critical practice of design is extremely tied to ethical concerns and prescribing solutions, the experimental approaches to design such as design fiction and speculative design are also valuable vehicles for introducing dismeasure to promote change. This particular reason being that in such practices, ethics is momentarily suspended (Metahaven, 2011)—they do not need to comply to pre-conceived morals and values. Furthermore, they distance themselves from problem-solving by focusing particularly on generating debate, however still through criticality.
Jamer Hunt, designer and founding director of the graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design, argued in Knotty Objects Debate: On Critical Design held by the MIT Media Lab that whilst we have so little sense of a future, designers do well in imagining futures so that people can believe something beyond the present, and thus work on something beyond the present (Antonelli et al, 2015). In more tangible argument, he expands that designers may work with communities in order to surface their views of the future, making it possible to frame it, give it texture and form. These practices of futuring are at the heart of potential social change and action.
Naturally, this argument is not flawless, and a great problem needs to be acknowledged in the experimental practice of design regarding the introduction of dismeasures as a catalyst for change: this process may needs to actively fight against a problem of totality (Candy, 2010: 133) in order to broaden the range of alternate possibilities that aim to challenge current customs and traditions in times of adversity. Candy describes this problem of imagination as the tendency to imagine the future based on what is known and perceived from our own reality—“what is our evidence for entertaining possibilities that are nowhere in evidence today?” (Ibid). Understanding this problem and how to tackle it will help understand real change.
Furthermore, referring back to Gielen and Lijster’s argument on potential shift within a culture by the socio-cultural sector’s introduction to a migrant’s culture, Ahmed Ansari—founding member of the Decolonising Design Collective—alarms us to the responsibility of such critical and experimental practices in avoiding western hegemony (Antonelli et al, 2015), in line with Ramia Mazé’s view, who pointed out the danger of colonisation in futurity through the marginalising of alternative futures by re-inscribing present power politics (Mazé, 2019).
Criticality and commercial design—where do we stand?
Although presenting themselves as opposing sides in the Knotty Objects Debate, Ansari and Hunt shared a common criticism similar to that made by Laranjo about criticool: mainstream design is falls short in engaging in the critical debate. Ansari goes even further by stating that the real enemy of critical design is not problem solving but rather corporate design, which is uncritical to a great extent (Antonelli et al, 2015). He argues that criticality and reflection is key in the practice to deal with real social, economic and cultural systems in their larger wholes.
The lack of criticality of mainstream design speaks directly to the spectacle of the industry, where brands are focused on consumers rather than individuals and citizens, as mentioned beforehand. However, it is possible that this structure will be put to test in the coming recession, as culture—in its anthropological sense—will unavoidably suffer changes on a global scale. It is important to note that this argument is not aimed at discrediting corporate practices altogether, but rather intends address a shortcoming in order to promote criticality in it.
In promoting critical and experimental practices as incubators for change in the period to come, we must ask then how to bring this critical and experimental approach into mainstream design practices?—a question that unavoidably would require a greater analysis of the creative market itself and its driving forces, which will now be challenged globally.
Gielen and Lijster’s concept of dismeasure is central to their anthropological notion of culture. In the context of a turbulent economic and political landscape, the promotion of culture, in both senses argued in this paper, are key for contesting traditions and bringing about change that are imperative for creating the grounds for visibility of new visions of the future by looking at the present (or past). The main argument presented herein is the positioning of design as practice full of potential like that of the arts in the creative industries, and by acknowledging this potential, we must take a step back and dive into the depths of critical and exploratory design practices as vehicles into introducing dismeasure to challenge current cultural customs and traditions.
It goes without saying that creating the grounds for design as an incubator for change, working within the notion of culture and community brought forward by Gielen, may seem rather idealistic. However, at this point in time, a utopian element seems just what the creative industry needs in order to allow a reset.
THE PERFECT STORM
Originally published on Rife Magazine
3 min. read
Burt, Chris. (September 20, 2019). ID2020 and partners launch program to provide digital ID with
vaccines, Biometric Update.
Keshavarz, Mahmoud. (2018). The Design Politics of the Passport: Materiality, Immobility, and Dissent. London – Bloomsbury Visual Arts.
Sommariva, Elena. (March 27, 2020). Nature and quarantine: How Animals Conquer Cities During the Coronavirus. Domus.
The steady rise of globalisation over the past decades has, in a generic sense, successfully broken down
barriers that once kept nations and organisms apart. According to American biologist Peter Del Tredici, «the
spread of the virus is nature’s way of exploiting the opportunity presented by globalisation and urbanisation
of our planet». Covid-19, along with other viruses, have historically migrated from a wild animal into
society, but globalisation has paved the way for the unprecedented spread of diseases at an unimaginable rate.
Highly mobile bodies are now immobilised due to the very phenomenon that once opened the doors for them.
The Perfect Storm—commonly defined as a particularly violent storm arising from a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors—is a cautionary tale that revolves around the conception of a bio-political device of personal technical identification to bring security in a future of intermittent pandemics and geopolitical chaos.
Departing from the work of of Mahmoud Keshavarz—a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Engaging Vulnerability Research Program at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University, Sweden—, author of The Design Politics of the Passport: Materiality, Immobility, and Dissent (2018), this small fiction aims to raise questions on the politics of design and the design of politics, as well as the implications of a such a device for data privacy, mobility and democracy.
As argued by Keshavarz, when the right to move is summarised and materialised through the designing of a device, the lack of such material presence would result in the lack of exactly that right, which has been manufactured through the device: the right to move freely. Depriving one from one’s identity or rendering one’s identity worth ‘nothing’, make their body immobile, or worse, illegal, around specific borders. However, one should remember: «the history of domination over mobility is also a history of the struggle to overthrow it».
THE RETICULAR NETWORK OF PLATFORM CAPITALISM AND ITS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY
15 min. read
Bridle, James (2018). New Dark Age: Technology And The End Of The Future. New York: Verso Books.
Bridle, James. Under the Shadow of the Drone. Booktwo.org. October 11, 2012.
Castells, Manuel (2014). “The Impact of the Internet on Society: A Global Perspective”. In 19 Key Essays on How Internet Is Changing Our Lives. Spain: BBVA OpenMind.
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus (2003). “Constituents of a Theory of the Media”. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & N. Montfort, N. (Eds.). The New Media Reader (pp. 261-275). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Srnicek, Nick (2016). Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.
Stiegler, Bernard (2008). Relational Industry and Relational Economy [Excerpts]. PCA-STREAM.
Thompson, Stuart A. And Warzel, Charlie. How Your Phone Betrays Democracy, The New York Times. December 21, 2019.
Zuboff, Shoshana (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs.
Artist and writer James Bridle once argued that a network is “an invisible, inherently connected technology
allowing sight and action at a distance. Us and the digital, acting together, a medium and an exchange. But
the non-human components of the network are not moral actors, and the same technology that permits civilian
technological wonder, the wide-eyed futurism of the New Aesthetic and the unevenly distributed joy of living
now, also produces obscurantist 'security' culture, ubiquitous and surveillance […]” (Bridle, 2012).
from two works by authors Manuel Castells and Bernard Stiegler, this essay intends look at the power of
reticular networks—briefly working from the social, to economical and political perspectives—in contemporary
By delving into the arguments of different authors throughout the sections herein, such as Nick Srnicek and Shoshana Zuboff, this essay revolves around the immaterial object of imaginary property: personal data, working through its importance, its exploitation and its socio-economic and political implications in the networked society. For the purpose of this research, the flow of personal data is magnified in the case study for the notorious Chinese app WeChat, an exceptional case which brings insight into the concepts of platform capitalism and surveillance capitalism already evidenced in Western social network platforms. Finally, the argument is made, pointing to the dangers of reticular network circuits and how it’s exploitation and opacity undermines democracy and threatens individuals’ autonomy and privacy.
Network society and the transformation of politics
In The Impact of the Internet on Society: A Global Perspective (2014), sociologist Manuel Castells presents key findings on the effects of the internet, pointing to a great chance in social structure, culture and social behaviour: individuation at the heart of social behaviour and the culture of autonomy as the protagonist of a network society (Ibid: 12). He argues that the advent of social network sites, what he calls SNS, have infiltrated every domain of social life, setting off a new socio-technical revolution—“now all human activities are present, from personal interaction to business, to work, to culture, to communication, to social movements, and to politics” (Ibid: 16).
The world Castells refers to however, is not a mere superposition of the digital realm on the real world, but rather a hybrid world, in which the virtual and the real coexist and interact with each other, a space which the sociologist had in his earlier works called the “space of flows” (Ibid:18). In this space, a new form of communication power raises due to the autonomy provided by the social platforms, forever altering the power relations inherent/embedded in society: the phenomena of mass self-communication and self-organisation. Mass self-communication is described by Castells as “a message sent from one to many with little interactivity to a system based on massages from many to many, multimodal, in chosen time, and with interactivity, so that senders are receivers and receivers are senders” (Ibid: 20), composing/forming a horizontal structure of communication. Self-communication, on the other hand, is implicit in the very nature of the networks, in which a person’s input is paramount.
Due to this culture of autonomy, power relations embedded in the new networked society are thus challenged and moulded in the the communication of the space of flows. By consequence, Castells argues that the process of social change of such a society is both heavily influenced by and performed within the SNS (Ibid: 20). However, these networks present a peril to personal freedom. Undermining Castells’ argument that SNS are in the business of selling free expression and freedom, lays the question of whether the shift in socio-political practices enabled by the networked society present a false promise of autonomy and freedom, ultimately threatening democracy as we know it.
Hyper-industrialisation and the reticular network of circuits
Departing from the concepts of information society, or knowledge society, French philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2008) speaks of a new era of hyper-industrialisation, which he deems a natural progression from the former. This new era is framed within the philosopher's theories of Relational Industry and Economy of Contribution, giving rise to the so-called relational and collaborative technologies.
The most striking feature of the technologies presented by Stiegler is the excess of the product-consumer model due to the relational potential of breaking this system, “since they are based on a functional opposition between two instances that form it: the producer and the consumer” (Ibid). Furthermore, in relational technologies, connection time coexists with interaction time thus generating a relational experience (Ibid). The new economic and social relations of the networked society are thus heavily based on contribution, where the vicious cycle of production and consumption is substituted by a fertile spiral (Ibid). There is thus a new form of capitalism, not the end of it, where there is capital investment and massive production, however it goes beyond the barriers of production and consumption—individuals now participate to the evolution of their meilleur (Stiegler, 2010).
This potential for relational and collaborative technologies were appointed in the early 1970s by German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Constituents of a Theory of the Media (2003), due to the advent of the new forms of communication such as radio and television, in which people outside of of the common circuit of production were brought in due to the accessibility to the means of production (microphones, cameras, recorders, etc.). Today, this potential is much larger as the networked society supposedly enjoys even greater autonomy—referring back to Castells’ argument that the internet is “a technology that embodies the culture of freedom” (Castells, 2014: 20).
At the core of the arguments proposed by both Castells and Stiegler is the process of individuation, a direct reflection of this autonomy and freedom, and the pretext for the rise of the “me-centred society” (Ibid: 13). Directly linked to the shift from mass communication—the process described by Enzensberger (2003)—to mass self-communication and self-organisation, individuation arises from the new forms of organising economic activities, and social and political life (Ibid). According to Castells it is “the key process in constituting subjects (individual or collective), networking is the organisational form constructed by these subjects” (Ibid). Meanwhile, in Stiegler’s perception, commerce in the old sense of the word (exchange and relationship) between subjects now is realised through the process of trans-individuation done by co-individuation (a peer-to-peer exchange) in the context of the contributions of the real world in a digital era.
Finally, Bernard Stiegler argues that in the reinvention of the economy and its shift towards the nature of contribution, interaction and co-individuation, the contributor reaffirms the “necessity to construct a long-lasting libidinous economy, […] and who constructs it themselves” (Stiegler, 2008). And in that same impulse and drive for economic prosperity, the philosopher presents the challenge of the invention of a “reticular network of circuits” in order to carry out the transformation of the networked society (Ibid).
The economy of contribution which proceeds the failure of economy of consumerism led to changes induced by the roles of digital networks. Individuation and interaction on the internet blurs the distinction between consumers and producers, who now participate collectively in creation of value, as well as intelligence—its associated meilleur, as argued by Stiegler (2010). So what could this reticular network of circuits be in this day and age?
Nick Srnicek, writer and academic, explores in his book Platform Capitalism (2016) this very system, declaring it the dominant sector in contemporary capitalism. Based on the logic of networks and granting the individuals autonomy through ??, Srnicek argues that the more the more an individual uses a platform, the more valuable the platform becomes for everyone, pointing to the general tendency towards monopoly we see today in the tech giants Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. This is one of the main characteristics of platform capitalism, called network effects, alongside cross-subsidisation and designed core architecture (Ibid)—ultimately revealing that platform intermediation is not neutral, as platforms are designed and thus contain a politics.
Platforms surely seem like a potential candidate for the reticular network of circuits indicated by Stiegler. The philosopher himself pointed to the production of value generated for example in Google, as a “new model of production of open source, new type of capitalism that is more like a cooperative organisation than a capitalist organisation” (Stiegler, 2008). However this argument does seem to reveal a peril that is well refuted/countered in Srnicek’s work: that these companies are purely fuelled by contribution, autonomy and freedom. That is a dangerous and erroneous statement, further supported by Castells (2014), and to that effect, Srnicek (2016) seems to propose a much more levelled and factual vision of this reticular system of a networked society.
Firstly, the argument for freedom and autonomy in SNS are flawed as Srnicek clarifies in the designed core architecture. For example, Facebook only allows certain actions and content on the platform because of the politics of the platform, thus constituting a false promise of freedom and autonomy. Secondly, platforms are positioned to capture and control as much data as possible (Ibid). They draw activity into the online platform and have people interact on it and record every action that goes on in the platform. Whilst the autonomous and self-initiated actions Castells described in the purpose of this essay may as well be reduced to data, the relational technologies of Stiegler highlight the relation producer-consumer, in which our personal and individual digital footprint is extracted, analysed and fed back to us (largely with intent of manipulation, hiding under the cover of “tailored services”). This proves that the culture of autonomy is undermined by data extraction and, by default, surveillance. “If capitalism is premised upon data extraction and data collection, platforms are the ideal way to do it. Data is central to today” (Srnicek, 2016).
This process becomes even more alarming when digital platforms are placed at the core of contemporary socialising, marketing, e-commerce, education, cultural activity, media and entertainment distribution, health applications and sociopolitical activism (Castells, 2014: 16). The internet has become a breeding ground for socio-political organisation of individuals, and our dependence on devices that keep us in permanent connectivity leads us to a bigger question: what are the political implications of the reticular system of platform capitalism?
Case Study: WeChat (China), the surveillance juggernaut
It is no surprise to Western civilisation that SNS are extensively used in contemporary political manipulation tactics, exemplified by the scandals from the 2016 American elections deploying the services of Cambridge Analytica through Facebook, a similar strategy to that of the Brexit campaign, and the spread of misinformation in the 2018 political elections in Brazil enabled by Facebook and WhatsApp. However, in attempts to create a founded argument, this paper’s case study focuses on the notorious Chinese platform WeChat, which is here deemed relevant because: 1) It demonstrates an even clearer alliance between SNS and politics, and 2) We are currently witnessing extreme evidences of authoritarian procedures in modern democracies worldwide, so this example is important in illustrating the dangers of the reticular system of platform capitalism and its unquestionable alliance to surveillance capitalism.
Owned by China-based tech giant Tencent and used by more than 1 billion people worldwide, WeChat is a closed app which enables other apps to work on its platform. Its services range from payments and investments, to taxi, food ordering, heat maps of crowd density and even governmental services. WeChat is particularly interesting because it is taking over traditionally political functions of the public government (Srnicek, 2016). The power of this platform is further evidenced by its revenue plan: as opposed to the an unsustainable advertising-based system of revenue that is common in most Western platforms such as Facebook and Google, WeChat takes most of its revenue for e-commerce, which Srnicek argues to be a more sustainable business plan. However, this wide range of services provided by the Chinese superapp is not due simply to a matter of sustainability, but rather enables the enterprise to reap an expanded data collection on all domains of social life. The monopolistic nature of WeChat of adhering to its platform a myriad of different functions by buying other providers’ services make it possible for app to pick up functions that are usually not associated to these platforms (Ibid).
Through the staggering extraction of personal data, the platform is able to know keep records on what people talk about, who they talk with, what they read, where they go, why they’re going there, who else is there, how you spend money when you’re online and offline (The New York Times, 2016), etc. However, this data is also reported back to the Chinese government—one that is no stranger to human rights violations and surveillance—, threatening the privacy and freedom of individuals. This is particularly alarming, since many Western apps have been trying to copy the impressive features developed by WeChat, putting to test the arguments raised by Castells on network privacy (2014: 17) and undermining democratic procedures of protecting its citizens. This threat posed by WeChat is also amplified in the cases of censorship, where the government imposed a ban on content regarding the outbreak of COVID-19, posing a public-health risk to its civilians.
Castells argued that “ideological apparatuses and the mass media have been key tools in mediating communication and asserting power” (Ibid: 19), however what we are witnessing today in the networked society is the assertion of power through the data extraction and surveillance in these reticular platforms, as evidenced in Western society by a study made by The New York Times on surveillance in the context of protests (Thompson and Warzel, 2019).
Surveillance and democracy
Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), defined surveillance capitalism as the following:
1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioural modification; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty. (Zuboff, 2019)
It seems evident that the ties between the reticular networks of platform capitalism work hand-in-hand with the system disclosed by Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism. Castells had earlier argued in his work that “Internet use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal freedom, and influence, all feelings that have a positive effect on happiness and personal well-being” (Castells, 2014: 14). However, how can this be the case if the very SNS he refers to, along with other platforms stated herein, pose an imminent threat to our autonomy, privacy and contemporary democracy?
The problem of addressing surveillance is rooted in the fact that it is a threat common to all in the networked society, and it doesn’t have a small incidence in our lives. The depth and breadth of mass surveillance is in fact present in most of our digital day-to-day existence—including emails, documents, voice and video chats, and pictures and videos from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Apple and others (Bridle, 2018: 173)—making it more convenient for us to ignore rather than face the fact. However, surveillance relies heavily on political secrecy and technological opacity, feeding on one another. Governments are empowered by the very networks that were meant to bring us the democratisation of knowledge, by the spread of technologies into our own homes and pockets, making it possible for them to spy on us as they have always done to their enemies. As Bridle argues, “technical possibility breeds political necessity, because no politician wants to be accused of not doing enough in the aftermath of some atrocity or expose. Surveillance is done because it can be done, not because it is effective; and, like other implementations of automation, because it shifts the burden of responsibility and blame onto the machine” (Ibid: 180).
The bottom line is that we are not able to fully comprehend the extent to which are autonomy is hindered by networked surveillance, because the system is opaque, quietly working behind the curtains. And without understanding how this system works, we are unable to grasp the dense and complex web of data extraction, surveillance and data mining that continuously make its way to political powers and threaten contemporary democracies.
There is no doubt that the network society announced by Castells (2014) had tremendous effect on the political and social domains of contemporary life. Meanwhile, the type of relational technologies presented by Stiegler (2008) certainly seem relevant for understanding the concept of platform capitalism proposed by Srnicek (2016) on a socio-economic level: platforms are the reticular networks that capitalism have created over time as a libidinous economic evolution from the information era. We expected empowerment and the democratisation of knowledge from the internet, but what we have received is virtually a false promise of autonomy—through processes of individuation, mass self-communication and self-organisation—evident when contemporary platforms of the networked society are constantly extracting their personal data for purposes we can’t even fully foresee or comprehend due to their impenetrable opacity. Furthermore, the use of this network for political reasons is a direct breach of democratic principles, which unfortunately have become recurrent in contemporary democracies for the empowerment of governments.