You could argue the toss whether the cold, wet winter’s evening in Brisbane on Monday, 22 July, could be legitimately counted as part of the ‘user experience’ for my first lecture in my MA programme – INN533: Information Organization – and if so, whether it improved matters or not. After all, a hot sticky night have had as many pros and cons as its opposite. What I can tell you is that, following in the footsteps of Max Weber, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas, I think there’s a whole range of salient factors in developing a critique, and that nevertheless doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are no right or wrong answers.
The late notification of the lecture’s nature, the ambiguity of the language used in the notification, the mention of a physical lecture hall, and the fact that I was not alone in misreading the instructions, made me realise quite sharply that things were not going to meet my expectations. The lecture was to be virtual, conducted across the ether, and via some dodgy Java application called Blackboard Collaborate.
Looking at media coverage of Edward Snowden’s allegations, what is surprising is not their content, but that we are shocked by the close links between Silicon Valley companies and state intelligence agencies. Our dismay suggests that we have credulously accepted the fairy-tale reporting of firms like Facebook and Google as ‘tech’ or ‘social media’ outfits rather than seeing them for what they really are: intelligence gathering, manipulation and sales corporations.
Using Google as our example here, let’s have a closer look at why we have deluded ourselves about what to expect from it.
Google is no more a technology company than auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations, or food conglomerates. The latter all use and develop technology too, but we name them according to their products and services, not the tools they use to develop and sell them.
In a disciplined process of analysis we might question other assumptions too. The word ‘users’, for example, is far too neutral about the relationship between the corporation and us. We are actually more akin to patrons who frequent a ‘market’ where we purchase third party goods and services either directly or indirectly through the influence of advertising. Goodies like email, office software, and online chatting facilities are not really products so much as the enticement to turn up.
It seems that Google has no end of cretins patrolling Google Plus to jump on an criticism of the platform made there. A bit like having soccer louts to enforce team loyalty.
To counter some of the popular irrationality thrown up like lukewarm vomit by these people, I thought I’d have a bit of fun and experiment with a presentation (in Microsoft PowerPoint, link opens new tab), using an extended Star Trek metaphor because I thought most of the Google thought police would understand my points if they contained Spock, Klingons, and saving the universe.
Every day we abstain from considering and making decisions that are rightly ours to consider and make. We defer that engagement with our world to people considered more ‘expert’ in the apparently germane disciplines, but to the exclusion of all others. And so we build the world around us as it is, with all the grandeur and the despair in it, as a deferred potential and responsibility. Nevertheless, we build it in our own images, because we ourselves become a perpetually stalled potential when we choose this as a reflexive response to all contemplation and decisions about matters more complex than immediate self-gratification.
What is it that we really do when we abdicate our own authority and wisdom? Do we actually comprehend what the consequences are, for ourselves and others, even when we think we don’t care enough to want to have a say?
Putting aside the somewhat ridiculous notion that the weasel-words ‘social media’ have any but oxymoronic meanings, there’s nevertheless ongoing debate on at least Google Plus about ‘building community’.
In their best imitation of earnest and knowledgeable people, concerned with the social, most people who discuss these issues assume that there is an objective position to stake out on a topic that can’t question its own dubious premiss: that there is such a thing as social and community to be had in the mercenary, commercial structures built by social media companies.
What can be talked about are personal experiences with nominal efforts to ‘build’ and ‘manage’ online community.
There is an ageless question about what makes people in a group become tyrants and intolerant savages when you know that, as individuals, they give every appearance of being bright, articulate and rational.
Some of the finest minds in the known universe have struggled with this apparent paradox, but have not come to any stunning insights on the dynamics that turn ap0parently reasonable people into dictatorial thought police.
Just check out the idiocies and intolerances immediately evident on any social network. Not just now, but ever since chat rooms and interest forums have existed.
Doing that appears to offer up powerful evidence that rationality is in full retreat across the Western world. The most imbecilic demands that entirely ludicrous propositions be met not only with respect, but an absence of rational critique, abound everywhere.
A post about the creation and development of this site.
In 1994, when I first dabbled with building my own web pages, I had some small storage area on my ISP’s server with no associated domain name.
My intention then had been to experiment with the code that makes web pages look the way they do in browsers – hypertext markup language (HTML). Over time I built content around my contemporary preoccupations, which have been pretty stable: political economy and philosophy, film, and writing about everything that strikes me as noteworthy.
As time passed and technology improved I maintained an interest in HTML and the emergingly useful cascading style sheets (CSS) which offered an abstracted method for rendering the look and feel of an increasingly sparse HTML base.
In the two decades of messing about with web pages, I have created and abandoned maybe a dozen online collection of essays and other content. This was probably due to the fact that in 1994 blogging was unknown, web hosting was expensive, and I had no profit motive.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make this kind of argument for someone else, particularly since it is an argument coming from a perspective I used to battle against: educated, insightful post-Marxist left critique. The kind of critique that used to be everywhere in the 1970s and even in the 1980s, but now almost completely absent in public debate in the US, in Australia, and from what I can see, even in the UK. This sudden and apparently complete demise of an educated, erudite, literate and vocal left opposition to the grasping voices of plutocracy and robber baron capitalism seems to have left the way clear for a complete dominance of capitalist excesses in Western societies.
The argument is that social media represent an unparalleled potential technology of control, of the deliberate alienation of social consciousness and solidarity by isolating individuals in a sphere of fabricated, fake community that is in fact not community at all, but a narcissistic contest of all against all to achieve an arbitrary personal approval rating, and to do so in preference to and exclusion of seeking social and economic justice or community with others whose material circumstances and interests are the only real basis for the social, and for collective action of any kind.
Before explaining what this all means, let’s turn to Rob Horning’s blog on the New Inquiry site. His thesis is pretty simple. Class conflicts, based on economic inequality, exploitation of the surplus value of labour, and monopolisation of the means for capital formation, have been displaced in social media by an artificial and ultimately futile pursuit of individual popularity, as measured by an arbitrary standing in a contrived scale of popularity, influence, and ‘hipster’ cachet. That scale is revealed to the unknowing public by the ridiculously phoney concept of the ‘social graph’, a kind of Kloutish attempt to ‘rank’ people by algorithm that is not much more sophisticated than Zuckerbergish frat boys voting on what girl on campus they’d like to fuck.
Unquestionably murky Alcatel-Lucent links appear to represent yet another reason for Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to be removed as chief NBN buffoon.
On the scale of Labor ineptitude under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the continuing incompetence or disingenuousness (or both) of Conroy may be dwarfed, but nevertheless continues to astonish.
It is simply not credible for the Minister to claim that he was unaware of the US corruption investigation into French telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent, two former senior executives of which now hold key positions in the National Broadband Network quango, NBN Co Limited.
A report in Today’s Australian newspaper said: ‘Mr [Jean-Pascal] Beaufret, now chief financial officer of NBN Co, had been chief financial officer at Alcatel and then Alcatel-Lucent between 2001 and 2007. Mr [Mike] Quigley, executive chairman of NBN Co, was appointed president and chief operating officer of Alcatel in 2005.’
What follows is the draft of a letter I wrote in preparation for speaking to an Optus representative at management level about my ‘home user’ experiences with the company. The promised call-back never came, but the text accurately represents my experiences.
There are no words to describe the frustration of dealing with the monolithic, unresponsive and arrogantly indifferent bureaucracy Optus has grown into in just ten years. A decade ago I changed all my services from Telstra to Optus for that very reason: abysmal customer focus and service from Telstra. Today I wonder whether I don’t need to do the same thing again, finding a smaller and more customer focused provider actually interested in addressing my needs, supplying good service, and resolving any problems I might have with that service.