Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On life without Facebook

Over the past few years I have been diligently collecting public pledges to abandon Facebook, a subset of the equally interesting genre of people saying they will quit the internet altogether. While I seldom agree with the arguments, I look for the sentiments hidden behind these declarations. What these pieces often don’t say but invariably mean is that the swift rise of the networked society has had a profoundly unsettling effect on people’s daily lives. To resent or wish to undo these changes can be a conservative reaction, and Nathan Jurgenson is right to criticise the fashion for disconnectionism. But equally it pays to acknowledge that the social space outside of the networks is getting steadily smaller. Nobody can really quit the internet, while quitting Facebook alone is becoming increasingly difficult for those who aspire to social participation. Few people seem to actually love Facebook, yet (almost) everyone uses it. Therein lies the genius of its creators.

But what if Facebook decided to quit us? Last year it emerged that the company had run a singularly disconcerting experiment, whereby it deliberately crashed its android app among certain users over and over again in order to test whether they would continue using the platform through other means or give up altogether. At the time of the experiment, Facebook was locked in a turf war with Google and was apparently making preparations in case its app should be kicked out of the Google Play store on the Android mobile platform. But the episode highlights to what degree users of social networks are at the mercy of their owners, and in turn how little responsibility is placed upon those owners to act fairly and transparently toward people.

The issue is that search engines and social networks have become key pieces of public infrastructure. In capitalist societies, it is generally accepted that such utilities cannot be run as private monopolies, for this would end up harming consumers and in some cases distort the democratic process. Yet, in a few short years, Google and Facebook have been allowed to grow unchecked into two of the most powerful corporations in the world, and wield the power to both autonomously regulate and control something as fundamental to the global polity as the flow of information.

In the case of Facebook, what is at stake is not just the freedom to share pictures with our friends or stay in touch with family, valuable as those things are. It is not even about our special interest groups or the tools that allow us to organise political meetings or rallies. The network has become one of the principal delivery mechanisms for journalism and a major collector of advertising revenue on behalf – or more frequently in place of – the journalism industry. Its market dominance has allowed it to negotiate relationships with media companies from a position of almost incomprehensible strength. Given that it is Facebook’s proprietary algorithms, much more so than our choice of contacts, that ultimately determines the information that is placed in front of our eyes, the implications for how public opinion is shaped are staggering. Yet while these issues are widely discussed on social media and in the popular press, they are rarely a subject of actual political debate. We are not yet at the stage, for instance, when political parties are expected to go into elections armed with a Facebook policy, or a Google policy.

What might such policies look like? In the most radical instance, they might include calls to nationalise the services, as was suggested in Facebook’s case as early as in 2012. But antitrust interventions consistent with orthodox political and economic thinking are also quite conceivable.

The task of ‘breaking up’ Facebook, should we develop an appetite for it, ought to be relatively simple. The question is not to make it easier for competitors to enter the social network market and compete with the company, seeing as nobody is actually stopping them. We really need to think of Facebook as the actual infrastructure here, as is already literally the cases in the developing countries where the company is offering not just its standard service but access to the internet itself, via its internet.org project and various agreements with ISPs. However, it is its growing directory of the world’s people, which currently stands at an estimated 1.79 billion active users, which has developed into a classic natural monopoly.

What if the company were forced to give up access to its own network, then, and to allow users to choose what client to access it with? Different clients would be able to use their own algorithms, thus not only presenting information differently but actually presenting different information. Some may be free of advertising, while others may be more sensitive to social causes or privilege local news sources. Every one of your status updates would be sent to all of the clients, much like an email, as would the individual replies coming back. Clear rules and a system of checks could be developed in order to deal with abusive behaviour and ban offending users. And if, say, the European Union didn’t like how Facebook goes abound tracking user data, it could restrict use of Facebook’s own Facebook client – the surface layer of the great social network – without shutting European users out of the service altogether.

This is nothing more than a thought experiment, but seeing as Facebook apparently goes around repeatedly shutting out users for little more than its own fun, we should be allowed to engage in it. Besides this is but the dawn of the global networked society, and there is every indication that the power of the likes of Facebook and Google will do nothing but increase in the years to come. The nations and the international institutions that value democracy might do well to develop their own contingency plan, like Facebook did when it feared it might be shut out of Google’s mobile platform.

But the implications of entertaining these questions are broader than that. Our collective political imagination has become starved of the visions for a democratic internet that used to be commonplace as recently as two decades ago. We could reasonably blame Google and Facebook for this, along with every other corporation that has participated in the encircling of the digital commons. We need to reinvigorate those utopian projects, even if it means thinking what has become increasingly unthinkable: a world beyond Facebook.

Originally published at Overland.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red Rosa

Dense, devotional, didactic: Kate Evans’ graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg can be described using words that aren’t necessarily compliments. But there is a tradition, and it is an honourable one, of books aiming to popularise the life and work of great philosophers and revolutionaries. Red Rosa moves within that tradition, and affectionately recycles some of the methods and tropes of those old and sometimes naive illustrated introductions. The result is a fascinating book, as much a personal and political history of Luxemburg as it is an object lesson into how to weave past lives into the fabric of the present, in order to make them feel newly relevant.

Beginning at the end, where a young female protester bearing a striking resemblance to Luxemburg faces up to a riot policeman while brandishing a shield painted with the cover of Die Akkumulation Des Kapitals. This is the last of a series of snapshots from what Evans calls – quoting Luxemburg – ‘the coming spring’. Before these images, showing confrontations and lines of protesters from around the world, the same young woman is shown sitting at Luxemburg’s graveside, her smartphone buzzing with tweets from other activists bearing hashtags such as #uprising and #occupation. It’s a picture that may or may not excite you (it’s certainly one that could age the book prematurely), but I appreciated the attempt to place Luxemburg’s legacy within a new sociotechnical context, one that is contemporary to the time of Red Rosa’s production.

Before that, naturally, are the scenes from Luxemburg’s brutal murder, and the throwing of her body into the Landwehr Canal. Everything is shown, from the cradle to the grave, because everything needs to be seen: Luxemburg’s sexual life (‘How did she learn to control her own fertility? How was this secret women’s wisdom transmitted from prostitutes to university graduates?’) as much as her intellectual life and her militant life; always to highlight the radical nature of her choices, as well as to place the personal not alongside but rather within the political. It’s a fine narrative balance, which Evans navigates also by informing the readers of the reasons for her decisions. For instance, upon resolving to no longer keep track of Luxemburg’s lovers, she explains: ‘To pay her due credit as a woman grown to maturity, we could cease constructing her identity solely through the tired old trope of romance.’

The book is full of these editorial asides, which fit in with the express didactic intent. Red Rosa tells the life story of one of history’s foremost revolutionary socialists, and it is towards the careful illustration of these terms – ‘life’, ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ – that Evans devotes her craft. From the early domestic scene in which the young Rosa explains to her family the basic term of Marxian economic theory using cutlery, to the one in which she summarises her own theory of imperialism to her cat Mimi, Red Rosa looks above all for ways to convey ideas. Here the book towers over the old illustrated introductions because of Evans’ artwork, which is stunning, as well as to her dramatic choices. The events of the Great War playing out on a reel of film; the daydream sequence while writing letters from Luxemburg’s imprisonment at Wronke; the heart-rending and pictorially beautiful sequences from her final days. I doubt that even those who are very familiar with Luxemburg’s life and work will ever find the book static, banal or boring.

The story of Rosa Luxemburg still commands reading and warrants popularising, as was done in 1986 by German director Margarethe von Trotta. And of course all of these popular versions need updating, too, to reflect the latest scholarship (Red Rosa has 33 pages of endnotes that do just that) and to remain aesthetically fresh, but also so that new political connections be made. This accounts for the epilogue described above, but also for the irruption in the story at one point of the author herself, to argue directly for the persistent validity of Luxemburg’s theory of consumption in the late capitalist present.

What shouldn’t need arguing for is why we need books like Red Rosa, and why now, at these crossroads – aren’t we always at a crossroads? – to fortify our defences against the barbarism to come or that is already here. Think of the Great War. Evans depicts a column of soldiers walking up Luxemburg’s naked spine, and the battle raging on her hair – it’s the panel reproduced in colour on the cover of the book. Then comes a long excerpt from the Junius Pamphlet of 1916, in which Luxemburg depicts the conflict as a monstrous profit-making machine. But we could just as easily set the last paragraph against images playing in your head of the ruins of Aleppo, and find that it hits home just as hard.
Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of righteousness, of order, of ethics–but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of chaos, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity–so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.

Kate Evans: Red Rosa. Verso Books, 2016.

If you’re interested in Evans’ work she has put all of her exceptional Calais Cartoon online.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Vale Mark Fisher

I was shocked over the weekend to hear the tragic news of the death of Mark Fisher.

I first came across Mark’s work during my dissertation, without being more than dimly aware that he was one of the minds behind the Cyber Culture Research Unit. I got to know him properly as a blogger some years later, by the time the now legendary K-Punk was already very well-established. I will never forget the excitement of discovering him, along with the likes of Nina Power and Owen Hatherley, and later Evan Calder Williams. Here was a group of young, provocative, oftentimes radical writers, engaging with matters of culture and politics for a geographically disparate audience, sketching the boundaries of what was possible to do in the medium (and seemingly nowhere else). It was genre-defining stuff, although – no doubt because of how late I caught up with all this – it seemed that no sooner had the genre been defined that they all moved on to other things. But not before each of them wrote a book for the British publisher Zero (I reviewed Evan’s on this blog), a fact to which Mark was again instrumental.

(Owen Hatherley, in his wonderful and moving tribute: ‘nobody else was going to publish anything like this’.)

I am grateful to Mark for being one of the very first people to take an interest in my writing. By this time I had already started blogging, but it made me feel like it was something worth doing, that it could be made to matter. I am far from the only person who felt this way. Douglas Murphy: ‘Without him and the other theory bloggers, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to even begin writing’. Evan Calder Williams: ‘Reading k-punk was formative to me, to why I wanted to write online, in hopes that other people who I didn't know would stumble onto something I wrote and feel like there was a shared world that could be understood and fought.’ Owen again: ‘Speaking to Mark made me a writer who took seriously what I did, as he did.’ Comments like these are the constant of the tributes, in long-form or social media, that have followed the news of Mark’s death, and speak not only of his influence but also of an incredibly generous mind. As Juliet Jacques noted in another lovely tribute: ‘He introduced many of us to each other, and gave us the confidence to combine the cultural, personal, and political in ways that felt thrilling and liberating.’ I can certainly say that, while I never met Mark in person, it was through Mark that I met a number of people whose friendship and comradeship I treasure.

There have been many more tributes over the past 48 hours by the people who knew Mark best and were closest to his work. Among those I’ve seen I recommend the ones by Simon Reynolds and Robin McKay. Just as naturally, people have been sharing again some of his best work. Here the choice is much harder. For me, in the post K-Punk era, it would have to be his piece on the privatisation of stress. But damn it, you could do a lot worse than getting your hands on a copy of Capitalist Realism, or just reading all of K-Punk – scroll down to the archives, locate September 2003 and go from there. I can promise you it has more clarity than most things written since.

On a minor note, I’m also very fond of Mark’s football writing. The group blog he and Sam Davies set up for the 2010 World Cup is still the most fun I've had writing on the internet.

Mark’s new book, The Weird and the Eerie has just come out from Repeater and you can find an excerpt here.