my_publications

Book Out: Digital Condition (Polity Press)

I'm very happy my new book (a translation of Kultur der Digitalität) has just been published by Polity Press.

In the book I argue that referentiality, communality, and algorithmicity have become the characteristic cultural forms of the digital condition because more and more people – in more and more segments of life and by means of increasingly complex technologies – are actively (voluntarily and/or compulsorily) participating in the negotiation of social meaning. They are thus reacting to the demands of a chaotic, overwhelming sphere of information and thereby contributing to its greater expansion. It is the ubiquity of these cultural forms that makes it possible to speak of the digital condition in the singular.

The goals pursued in these cultural forms, however, are as diverse, contradictory, and conflicted as society itself. It would, therefore, be equally false to assume uniformity or an absence of alternatives in the unfolding of social and political developments. On the contrary, the idea of a lack of alternatives is an ideological assertion that is itself part of a specific political agenda. Indeed, advanced democracies are faced with a profound choice, to continue their long slide towards post-democratic authoritarianism or reinvent democracy for the digital condition.

You can get it from the publisher (UK, US), from Amazon (UK, US), or you local bookseller (UK, US).

The great cover image is by the Dutch artist Bernaut Smilde, from the series Nimbus, Probe #6, 2010.

Updates

The Pandemic as Smart City Laboratory

I really think anyone who makes predictions now is a fool.
It's a little bit like trying to predict the future of foreign policy in October 2001.
Evgeny Morozov, interviewed by Holly Herndon & Matt Dryhurst, May 11, 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic is both an urban and technological phenomenon. 95% of all diseases have so far been registered in cities. From the starting point in Wuhan, via the metropolitan region of Lombardy, Paris, Madrid, New York, Rio de Janeiro to Moscow, the virus spreads mainly within large cities. This is hardly surprising, since not only does the higher density favor the local spread of the virus from person to person, but the virus also arrives first in the large cities. They are the central nodes of the hypermobility of people and goods that characterizes the neoliberal phase of globalization. From this perspective, tourist hotspots like Ischgl are temporary cities in the mountains. Whether the hypermobility, which has been largely brought to a standstill at the moment, will be fully revived is not yet clear. That the global trend towards urbanization will be broken is very unlikely. So much can be confidently predicted.


Map of all the 5384 people whose Covid-19 infection could be traced back to the ski resort of Ischgl, Austria. (Source)

Tracking People and Modelling Society. COVID-19 and the politics of big data

At the moment, many people are sensing how the tectonic plates under their feet are moving. It is hard to get one’s bearing on such shifting grounds. Beginning with the virus itself, which is assumed to have jumped from animals to humans (“zoonotic spillover”) sometime last fall, there are simply too many actors in the complex dynamic system of a planetary civilization whose paths have been altered in hard-to-understand ways. This makes it impossible to plot the cumulative effects of their interaction.

While a lot of things are fairly chaotic and improvised reactions to fast-changing events, there is a certain structure to it, simply because people and institutions draw on that material, political and cultural resources which they have available. But which resources to draw on, how to mobilize them, and how to create new ones in the process is the key question. While there is path-dependency and continuity, even in the way actors can change paths, there is also a moment of extraordinary openness. It is therefore important not only to be vigilant against the authoritarian forces that are exploiting this crisis, i.e. to defend democracy as it exists, but also to think about ways of strengthening and expanding it right now.

Überwachen und Anstecken (LMD)

Die Welt verändert sich vor unseren Augen in rasendem Tempo. Keine drei Monate nachdem die Behörden von Wuhan erstmals die Weltgesundheitsorganisation (WHO) über ein neuartiges Coronavirus informiert haben, sind mehr als 3 Milliarden Menschen mit schweren Einschränkungen ihrer Bewegungsfreiheit konfrontiert, die mindestens mehrere Wochen dauern sollen.Dieses Regime der erzwungenen Immobilität ist nur der sichtbarste Teil einer tektonischen Verschiebung der politischen Landschaft, in der Maßnahmen durchgesetzt werden, die bis vor Kurzem noch undenkbar waren. Gleichzeitig radikalisieren sich bestehende Entwicklungen.

Bei der Nutzung digitaler Daten im Kampf gegen die Ausbreitung des Virus kommt beides in problematischer Weise zusammen. Es ist naheliegend, auf „die Daten“ der großen Firmen der Mobilfunk- und Social-Media-Branche zurückzugreifen, um die Ausbreitung des Virus zu bekämpfen. Seit Jahren betonen diese Firmen gern, wie genau sie uns kennen, wie detailliert sie über unsere Handlungen, Sorgen und Wünsche Bescheid wüssten und dass sie unser künftiges Verhalten aus unserem bisherigen ableiten könnten.Mehr noch, die digitale Netzwerktheorie, etwa Facebooks „social graph“, der die Beziehungen zwischen allen Nutzern der Plattform darstellt, und die Netzwerktheorie der Epidemiologie sind in ihren Grundlagen sehr ähnlich.

Von der repräsentativen zur vernetzten Demokratie

Die alten Formen der Demokratie, die etablierten Wege, wie die Öffentlichkeit aufgebaut wurde, befinden sich in einer tiefen Krise, und Appelle an eine idealisierte Vergangenheit werden sie nicht retten. Sie sind eindeutig nicht mehr der Aufgabe gewachsen, eine immer komplexere Gesellschaft zu organisieren. Gegen die Wende des erneuerten Autoritarismus sollten wir darüber nachdenken, wie wir uns mit der Kapazität des Digitalen verbinden können, mit der Fähigkeit, neue Wege des Wissens und des Zusammenseins mit der Erfahrung des physischen Raums zu bieten, um der gegenwärtigen Tendenz zur Fragmentierung in immer kleinere Gemeinschaften und der daraus resultierenden Unverständlichkeit der Welt zu begegnen.

Die parlamentarische, repräsentative Demokratie mit ihrem System der Gewaltenteilung, die noch in den 1990er Jahren den Siegeszug um die Welt anzutreten schien, ist unübersehbar in der Krise. In den vereinigten Staaten mit Trump, in Ungarn mit Orban, in den Philippinen mit Duderte, in der Türkei mit Erdogan und an vielen weiteren Orten hat ein neuer Typus von Politikern (aktuell nur Männer) die Macht erobert, der sich ganz offen gegen demokratische Regeln stellt und neue autokratische Strukturen implementiert. Von ehemaligen Volksparteien, die die Nachkriegsordnung geprägt und deren Verankerung in der Bevölkerung Demokratie legitimiert haben, ist, etwa in Frankreich, kaum mehr etwas übrig, und wo sie noch stärker sind, sind sie zum Verwalter des Status Quo geworden, die außer ein müdes “Weiter so!” programmatisch wenig zu bieten scheinen. Die Demokratie wird von außen angegriffen und ist von innen her ausgehöhlt.

Die Gründe dafür sind sicherlich vielfältig. Im Folgenden möchte ich auf einen, aber meines Erachtens sehr wesentlichen, Grund fokussieren: die Veränderungen in der Struktur der Öffentlichkeit, in der demokratische Fragen verhandelt und Entscheide legitimiert werden.

Die enttäuschten Hoffnungen des Internets

The Deepest of Black. AI as Social Power

This is my contribution to the catalogue for the exhibition "Entangled Realities – Living with Artificial Intelligence" showing at HEK, Basel 09.05.2019 - 11.08.2019.

In day-to-day life, most technologies are black boxes to me.1 I don’t really know how they work, yet I have a reliable sense of the relationship between the input, say pressing a button, and the output, the elevator arriving. What happens in between, whether simple local circuitry or a far-away data centre is involved, I don’t know and I don’t care. Treating complex systems as black boxes is a way of reducing complexity and this is often a very sensible thing to do. However, not all black boxes are equally black, and the depth of the blackness matters quite significantly, not the least in terms of the power relations produced through the technology. The application of artificial intelligence has a tendency to produce particularly dark shades of black. In order to find ways to deal with these applications so that they do not undermine democracy, it is important to differentiate between technical and social shades to avoid that these applications contribute further to an already high concentration of power in the hands of a few technology firms. Art, with unique ability to create new aesthetics, languages and imaginations, can play an important role in this battle.

Jenna Sutela, nimiia cétiï, 2018Jenna Sutela, nimiia cétiï, 2018

From inter-subjectivity to multi-subjectivity: knowledge claims and the digital condition

Beautiful and open accessAbstract: One of the consequences of digitization is a deepening crisis of epistemology, caused by the proliferation of social, biological and machinic actors that overwhelm established methods of generating and organizing knowledge. Machine-driven analysis of large data sets is introducing a new way of doing science. In this, it is answering to this crisis while, at the same time, deepening it. Continuing to claim ‘scientific objectivity’ is becoming ever more impossible and in practice is likely to serve as a way to abdicate responsibility for the actual research and its consequences. Rather, we should seek to highlight the positionality and partiality of any claim, also and in particular in data science, thus rendering more obvious the need to combine competing claims into an understanding of the world that is not so much inter- but rather multi-subjective.

Keywords: epistemology, digitality, data science, reproducibility crisis, multi-subjectivity

One of the consequences of digitization is a deepening crisis of epistemology, caused by the proliferation of social, biological and machinic actors that overwhelm established methods of generating and organizing knowledge (Stalder 2018). And, since there is a close relationship between epistemology and politics, between ways of knowing and ways of managing the world, we are also in a deep political crisis. This manifest itself not the least in a populist rejection of ‘science’ and ‘facts’ (Manjoo 2008). This crisis of the established – let’s call it modern-liberal – epistemic-political order has created a space for the establishment of a new one, which doesn’t yet have a name, even if its outlines are already visible.

Anti-communication and fictious commodities

15 years ago, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, then still called thefacebook, as a network for students at Harvard University. Today, almost 2.7 billion people use its services. And for 15 years he has been stressing like a prayer wheel that "connecting" and "sharing" make the world a better place and that Facebook stands for the epochal transition from oppressive hierarchical bureaucracies to liberating horizontal networks.

Today, he's pretty much on his own with that statement. On the one hand, Facebook Inc. has grown into an overpowering, opaque company that has incorporated 72 companies to date, including Instagram (2012), WhatsApp (2014), and virtual reality developer Oculus VR (2014). Moreover, the ownership structure is such that Zuckerberg can exercise almost unlimited power. On the other hand, Facebook is accused of facilitating the dissemination of false or manipulative information and thus contributing to the division of societies and the intensification of conflicts, for example in Great Britain, Sri Lanka, the USA, and Myanmar.

How could a harmless idea - people should be able to communicate easily and quickly with their friends and acquaintances - unfold such a destructive force? The answer is less to be found in the idea of horizontal communication itself or in digital media in general, but in the specific way Facebook implements this idea.

Anti-Kommunikation und Wertschöpfung

Vor 15 Jahren lancierte Mark Zuckerberg Facebook, damals noch thefacebook, als Netzwerk für Studierende der Universität Harvard. Heute nutzen knapp 2.7 Milliarden Menschen seine Services. Und seit 15 Jahren betont er gebetsmühlenartig, dass «connecting» und «sharing» die Welt besser mache und dass Facebook für den epochalen Übergang von unterdrückenden hierarchischen Bürokratien hin zu befreienden horizontalen Netzwerken stehe.

Mit dieser Behauptung steht er heute ziemlich alleine da. Zum einen ist Facebook Inc. heute selbst zu einem übermächtigen, intransparenten Konzern gewachsen, der sich bis heute 72 Firmen einverleibte, darunter Instagram (2012), WhatsApp (2014) und und den Virtual Reality Entwickler Oculus VR (2014). Zudem sind die Besitzverhältnisse sind so strukturiert, dass Zuckerberg fast unbeschränkte Macht ausüben kann. Zum anderen wird Facebook beschuldigt, der Verbreitung von falschen oder manipulativen Informationen Vorschub zu Leisten und so zur Spaltung der Gesellschaften und zur Intensivierung von Konflikten, etwa in Grossbritannien, in Sri Lanka, in den USA und in Myanmar beizutragen.

Wie konnte eine eine harmlose Idee – Menschen sollen einfach und schnell mit ihren Freunden und Bekannten kommunizieren können – eine solch destruktive Kraft entfalten? Die Antwort darauf ist weniger in der Idee der horizontalen Kommunikation selbst oder in den digitalen Medien im allgemeinen zu finden, sondern in der spezifischen Art und Weise, wie Facebook diese Idee umsetzt.

Rethinking the Public Sphere under the Digital Condition

This text was written as a contribution to the workshop Public in the Making, 18-20 October 2018 İstanbul, part of the project Trans making: art, culture and economy to democratize society. A well layouted PDF is also available. Thanks to Fatih Aydogdu for the invitation.

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Democracy, even in its most rudimentary definition, contains two elements.1 The first is that of public deliberation and contestation of the issues affecting the “demos” (the people) as a collectivity. The precondition here is the availability of an easily accessible, shared space in which different opinions and attitudes can be expressed, compared and peacefully fought over, as a way for the members of the collectivity (the “citizens”) to form their opinions and plot out diverging futures. The second element allows to express those opinions and interests in a way that leads to a decision regarding the future that is binding for, and accepted by, all. Usually, this is done by voting either “yes” or “no” to a specified proposal for action, or by selecting representatives from a group of pre-selected candidates, often, but not necessarily, organized as political parties that stand for competing visions of the future. If the first element is weakened, voting is transformed to a ritual of submission and propaganda in the machinery of dictatorship, if the latter is reduced, democracy turns into post-democracy where issues are debated but decision making is outsourced to “experts” or “the market” (Crouch 2004).

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