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<nettime> Critique of Ranking and Listing; Exchange with Kenneth C. Werb
Geert Lovink on Thu, 24 Aug 2006 17:16:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Critique of Ranking and Listing; Exchange with Kenneth C. Werbin

Critique of Ranking and Listing
Exchange with Kenneth C. Werbin
By Geert Lovink

Since the early nineties I have been engaged in email-based 
mailinglists. In the beginning it was a tool for to communicate and 
exchange texts and arguments with a growing group of people. I hesitate 
to use the word community as I never saw lists as safe areas for 
identity building but as arenas of contestation. To me, email lists 
were primarily discursive machines, essential in the making of a 
networked digital public domain. As it happens things started to get 
complicated. Group psychology kicked in, there was 'symbolic capital' 
created and people's time and emotions had to be rewarded. Five or so 
years ago the study of list cultures emerged. These were not technical, 
even though many complained about the technical limitations of list 
software such as Majordomo, Listserv and Mailman. It was the limited 
complexity of the dialogues, the lack of overview one gets of threaded 
discussions that irritated common users who had no emotional investment 
in the project.

Even though I had a particular interest in contemporary studies of 
German fascism, I never made the link between electronic mailing lists 
and the bureaucratic efforts of Eichmann's assistants to list Jews, 
gypsies and others. The computer aspect of listing deportees had been 
described by Goetz Aly and Karl-Heinz Roth in their brief but excellent 
1984 book Die restlose Erfassung (The Nazi Census), which, at the time, 
made a big impact on me. As Michael Kater writes in his review (1), 
order is the premise of destruction. We all somehow know that Ordnung 
by punchcard prepared the path to Auschwitz. But to read all the 
details, and then remember, and implement its consequences in everyday 
politics is something else. In particular if you've made computing your 
passion and profession, as happened to me. Edwin Black's IBM and the 
Holocaust from 2001 provided us with the complete history. Far more 
detailed, it fails the analytic clarity of Aly and Roth, and political 
engagement, as this booklet was part of a poltical campaign against 
organizing a census in West-Germany. The collective memory of why 
authorities gather data of entire populations, back then, and a broad 
resistance was still alive, back then--and vanished so rapidly, 
particularly after 911. The resistance in 1970 against a census in the 
Netherlands is one of the first campaign that I remember. My parents, 
and in particular my mother refused categorically and explained the 
protest to me. The burning of Amsterdam's population register was one 
of the many heroic acts of the Dutch resistance that I grew up with. 
However, the attack in March 1943 came too late, and the question why 
the deportation of Jews was so systematic, so successful, particularly 
in my birth town, so proud of its Nazi resistance, could only be posed 
in the nineties, and is still a matter of fierce debate.

Hailing from a long-line of Marxist thinkers and activists, as well as 
Shoah descendants, Montreal-based Kenneth C. Werbin works as a PhD 
student in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia 
University. His nearly finished dissertation, The List Serves: Bare 
Life in Cybernetic Order, probes questions of list culture; arguing 
that the Third Reich's engagement of a conjunction of early IBM 
computing technology, listing practices, and discourses of 
surveillance, identification and control, was the first cybernetic 
feedback system for maintaining social order around bare life; and 
investigating how the resonance of this conjunction reverberates today. 
Also a part-time lecturer, Kenneth participates as a moderator/event 
coordinator for the University of the Streets Public Dialogue Series, 
and is a student researcher with the Canadian Research Alliance for 
Community Innovation and Networking. I got into contact with Kenneth 
Werbin in 2005. The context of this exchange was the June 2006 debates 
on the nettime list concerning moderation and the growing limits of 
email lists in an era in which most users hang out on the Web, play 
games on their mobile phones and no longer care about their 
over-spammed email inboxes.

GL: Could you give a short history of the list? I am only familiar with 
the sociology of the cue, a mass practice in Eastern Europe.

KW: When I first began my work on how lists serve, I was very narrowly 
investigating email lists, or listservs. However, in historicizing the 
use of lists in power/knowledge, I ended up going much further back to 
ancient times, discovering that the majority of early writings were 
constituted in lists, and much of early social organization revolved 
around listing practices. While there is little research that 
explicitly treats these questions, I am grateful that I stumbled across 
the work of the anthropologist Jack Goody (2) who studied early 
Sumerian, Mesopotamian and Assyrian documents, and provides a rather 
compelling argument for ancient list culture; arguing how on the one 
hand, lists establish boundaries and encourage hierarchies, but at the 
same time, call into question the very lines in the sand they draw. In 
this way, list culture involves dialectic operations; at once carving 
out knowledge, and at the same time opening up questions about the 
constitution of the knowledge by virtue of placing items together. The 
contradictions that lists bring to the development of knowledge and how 
they help organize experience makes them powerful intellectual 
technologies. But despite this power, our use of lists remains very 
much taken-for-granted, deeply burrowed into our social woodwork, since 
the dawn of literacy.

So where a history of list culture could easily start in ancient times, 
today, I find myself far more interested in and compelled by the 
intersection of list culture and computer-based technologies, which 
sees my historical analysis begin with the moment when the Nazis first 
used early IBM punch card technology to identify, isolate, round up, 
and control threats to social order. Here I am grateful for Edwin 
Black's book 'IBM and the Holocaust', which revealed the ties between 
IBM and the Nazis, and also a book you recommended, Goetz Aly and 
Karl-Heinz Roth's The Nazi Census, which provides an in depth analysis 
and examination of the 1933 and 1939 German censuses, and how such 
practices significantly contributed to identification and control in 
the Third Reich.

Building on such work, I contend that the 'Nazi listing moment', 
constituted in the conjunction of lists and computing_Hollerith 
machines, initially populated with census data, represents the first 
cybernetic feedback system in which discourses of identification, 
security and surveillance of social threats as social order took root. 
Indeed, this conjunction of listing practices and computer 
technologies, coupled with enabling discourses of identification and 
control, efficiently and effectively exposed what Giorgio Agamben (3) 
calls 'bare life'; meaning life that no longer deserves to live, but 
cannot be martyred; life that cannot be sacrificed, yet may be killed; 
the musselmann that violence is wholly permitted against; the body 
exorcised of humanity.

Like Agamben, I believe that bare life is the fundamental political 
unit, it is the foundation of political life, and we are born into this 
bio-political order; meaning our lives are political in their very 
capacity to be isolated and killed from the get_go. For me, this 
conjunction of list technologies, practices and discourses of 
identification and control that expose bare life for the sake of 
security and control, continues to reverberate and expand in today's 
global 'cybernetic order', albeit deeply recessed in our 
socio_technological woodwork. Despite our advancements in computing 
technology, or more appropriately, perhaps because of them, the 
establishment of such boundaries continues to resonate from Nazi times; 
calling into question the nature of social threats through the very 
fact of placing people together in lists. These are very real 
boundaries and questions raised by 'list culture' that we continue to 
negotiate today.

GL: How does the electronic mailinglist fit into this wider history of 
the list? At first sight one would think that the list, so to say, gets 
'dissolved' in the electronic environment of the computer.

KW: I would say the list not so much dissolves in electronic 
environments, but rather further recedes into the socio_technical 
woodwork. Consider nettime in light of the preceding characterization 
of list culture; on the one hand, how lists establish boundaries and 
encourage hierarchies, and on the other, how they lead to questions 
about the nature of the grouping through the very fact of placing items 
together. I wonder if this does not sum up all of the controversy, 
contradiction and struggle that has raged around articulating nettime's 
identity since it's inception? The act of establishing a boundary 
called nettime, gave immediate rise to questions about the nature of 
nettime, through the very fact of placing people together in a list. To 
my mind, this is the culture that is very much alive today on nettime! 
I wonder what your thoughts are about such a characterization of 

GL: So far I never perceived electronic mailinglists as lists, for the 
simple fact that they grow organically. You do not start with a list of 
people, your initiative becomes a list. In the beginning there is only 
a small collection of email addresses of the founders and immediate 
collaborators. Usually one sends out a letter of invitation to join the 
new list to friends and those interested in the topic. Later on, one 
started to send those announcements to other lists, websites and then 
blogs. But often a list starts with five, not more, email addresses. 
This, in my opinion, is one of the main obstacles for the insiders, to 
see lists in the way that you do. In the case of nettime, and many 
other lists, the beginning of the project is lying in the Event, a 
series of meetings in real-life. This also complicates the picture. The 
list, if you wish, echoes the Event, it is a by-product, a memory. Only 
much later it starts to develop a life of its own. Governance issues 
are not dealt with from the start, and this is perhaps the main reason 
why ownership and moderation controversies arise many years later.

KW: Yes, lists echo events; events in the case of lists being the 
decision to form the collection. So don't all lists grow organically in 
this way, mailinglist or other; initially populated by a small set of 
items, or data, or people, or email addresses, wherein subsequent 
additions of items, or data, or people, or email addresses, call into 
question the nature of the list/grouping itself? While it might seem to 
be a big leap from Nazi listing practices to nettime, the underlying 
practice associated with list culture holds; collecting items/people to 
the cause of organizing knowledge/experience/life but to the effect of 
calling into question the nature of the collection itself.

Think of how census statistics were initially leveraged by the Nazis in 
the decision to first list desirable/undesirable, normal/abnormal 
people; and how this relatively small set of data, and the decision to 
create lists from it, called into question and further refined the 
kinds of identification and lists that were needed for social control 
that began with sterilization projects, and eventually led to complete 
identification, isolation and exposure of millions of bare lives to 
death. This conjunction of listing practices, Hollerith machines and 
discourses of identification and security were in fact, an open-ended 
cybernetic feedback system wherein control took increasing root and was 
further refined with every new piece of data that was coded for 
feedback. Now consider, with such resonant legacy, how each and every 
digital trace we leave behind today, including messages and email 
addresses attached to listservs, can equally be leveraged to manifest 
such lists, efficiently and effectively exposing bare life to such 
identification and control. I would say, we have just become very 
accustomed to this way of life, and as such, these practices have 
receded deeply into our taken-for-granted social reality.

We need look no further than today's 'no-fly lists', and/or security 
certificate cases here in Canada, and/or equal measures in the UK and 
US that have spawned practices like rendition, and places like 
Guantanamo. In the last years we have seen infants, priests, the 
infirm, and more innocents than not, denied of or restricted in their 
right to fly, or worse, reprimanded to dire places, as traces and data, 
beginning with names, are increasingly left behind and continually 
mined to shape, refine and expand profiles and lists of threats. In 
this respect, and in terms of identification and control, not much has 
changed since the Nazi's first leveraged this conjunction; if anything 
today's cybernetic order continues to revolve around and expand such 
practices globally. What has changed, is the ability of everyday people 
to engage these same practices for the sake of communication and 
connection in the form of listservs, blogs, etc. And of course this has 
clear and massive benefits to the development of knowledge and 
community, but enough celebratory talk has transpired vis a vis our 
technological prowess, and I will not further fuel such techno-euphoric 

Indeed, to my mind, it is time that such techno-euphoria be placed in 
its proper context. It is but a single component in a triple bind that 
'list culture' situates us in: On the one hand, we want to share our 
stories, insights, ideas and discoveries--this is a necessary and 
fundamental part of human existence and the development of 
knowledge--and lists and networked digital technologies do serve this, 
very efficiently and effectively--but at the same time, each and every 
digital trace we leave behind further exposes our bare lives and bodies 
to control, and equally, contributes to entropy and inertia by way of 
information overload, ultimately leading to increased reliance on 
quantitative reductions, like ranking lists for navigation in the 
blogosphere; all at the expense of critical engagement. What is 
required is more awareness of this triple bind, with the aim of 
fostering increased critical engagement with 'new' technologies, and 
the entropy, identification and control that are a fundamental part of 
their historic and contemporary use.

GL: Making lists is a popular activity that also found it equivalent on 
the Internet like the Listable site, 43things and other todo sites. 
Also, users vote on a variety of topics and occasions, creating lists 
of the most popular band, film, song and so on. Is this urge to list 
something worth studying? Has it got to do with a desire to create a 
picking order?

KW: It seems clear that since the earliest forms of communication, 
people have had the desire to list. People have demonstrated desire 
time immemorial to not only create picking orders, but also I would 
suggest, to reward them. At the same time, since early literacy, we 
have also been engaged in a never-ending battle to manage never-ebbing 
flows of information, or entropy, as von Neumann imagined it. And 
increasingly, these never-ebbing global flows of information make 
quantitative-based intellectual technologies, like ranking lists, a 
necessary part of navigating our ever-increasing information landscape.

But where it has been clear since the emergence of Marxist critique 
that bottom-line quantitative reductions fuel decision-making in 
capital order, this has not been so evident in cybernetic order, nor in 
the development of knowledge, specifically around questions of 
navigating never-ebbing information flows. The emergence of the 
blogosphere's ranking lists are not only another attempt in our 
never-ending quest to wrangle in entropy through efficient and 
effective quantitative means, but also, would seem to further cement 
capital order's hegemonic use of such reductions in decision-making, 
rewarding and further cementing people's desires to neatly package life 
into the materializable. Indeed, a recent problogger.net 'group writing 
project on lists' offered up cash and product rewards to random 
participants willing to post all manner of lists, from short lists, to 
long lists, to funny lists, to rant-like lists, etc. Additionally, CNN 
has recently incorporated 'ranking lists' in their news coverage, 
ranking and covering top stories by who is clicking through to what on 
their website. Tonight's top story: Mel Gibson's guilty plea, followed 
by JonBenet's killer's confession...while Lebanon and Israel barely 
round out the top ten.

And while there is little that is surprising in people's inclination 
and fascination with reducing, measuring and competing in such ways, at 
least in western societies, where our earliest experiences in school 
and sport encourage things like 'ranking' from the get-go; ultimately 
preparing us for life in global capital competitive order, where 
quantitative effects-derived reductions, like 'ranking lists', are 
consistently privileged over qualitative affective 'positions' of 
ascribed human value(s); there is cause for great concern and 
reflection to be given to our increased reliance on quantitative 
reductions for navigating information/entropy, such as ranking lists, 
specifically surrounding the development of knowledge. The tendency I 
see is an increasing emphasis and reliance on connection, specifically, 
quantitative connection over critically engaged reflection.

Identity wars aside, I have noticed in the last years an increasing 
preponderance of forwarded (fwd:) information on nettime. It seems to 
me that as information swells towards infinity, peoples' desire to 
critically reflect, and in turn, take positions, wanes. More and more 
views are forwarded, less and less views are taken. What do you think 
of this idea in terms of nettime?

GL: Forwarding gets more prominent when community involvement goes down 
and moderators no longer take initiatives and instead only see their 
role as administrators. That's the main reason of nettime's decline for 
me. Until 2000 people were invited to post to nettime, debates were 
arranged. There is a lot of work happening behind the scenes to have an 
entertaining conversation happening. Things have now moved to the iDC 
list, run by Trebor Scholz. Why? Because he invites people offlist to 
post material or respond to certain statement. And because he bans 
announcements and forwards. One could say though that iDC can put 
itself into such a luxurious position because other lists are already 
providing these services, such as Spectre, nettime, and Fibreculture. 
But yes, it is interesting to interpret forwarding as a symptom of 
decline, as you suggest: I am active, I forward.

Don't you think it is useful, when it comes to ranking, to 
differentiate between blogs and listservs? In the case of lists 
rankings is informal and subjective. Let's look into the case of Frau 
Mustermann who posts a lot on this or that email list and works on her 
visibility, even though search engine statistics show that this might 
not be the case. Most of her postings are responses to threads. The 
'listing' that happens here is only visible later on. I suppose one can 
measure who is posting on the list most frequently but I have actually 
never seen anyone doing this type of research. I also do not know if 
there are software tools to do that kind of research. The point is that 
inside email-based list culture reputation is not ranked in a 
quantitative matter. One could perhaps only measure 'reputation' if the 
research would interview community members. Now, if we switch to blogs, 
the situation is quite different. RSS feeds and tags are there 
explicitly to get you higher up in the ranking. Everyone on the Web can 
follow this competitions amongst the blog elite members. Technorati is 
all about that, and their statistics also have a financial dimension.

KW: Yes, there is clearly a technical difference and practice (or lack 
thereof) between blogs and listservs that explicitly involves the use 
of RSS feeds and tags to establish ranking lists. And for me, it is 
precisely this practice--the privileging of 'quantitative' statistics 
for ranking 'quality' of information; measures of value and worth 
reduced to number of RSS feeds and tags--rife in the blogosphere, that 
I believe poses dire threats to critical engagement in a society 
increasingly marked by information/entropy. I contend that closures 
established by leveraging RSS statistics to materialize 'ranking lists' 
of ascribed human value not only continue to perpetuate capital order's 
inherent and hegemonic bias towards quantitative reductions of value, 
but also further hinder and limit critical engagement in an 
increasingly entropic social order.

In the case of Frau Mustermann, despite her best attempts to work on 
her visibility on the listserv, the quantity of posts she sends to the 
list will always be measured invisibly, in the minds of her audience, 
based on their own critical engagement with the material. If the 
knowledge is to be ranked, it will be thus; critically and 
individually. Indeed, an abundance of posts on the part of Frau 
Mustermann could very well work to the detriment of her 'invisible 
ranking' on the listserv, and in turn the frequency of her material 
being consumed by its subscribers. If the quality of the information 
she posts is critically and continually judged to be poor in the minds 
of subscribers, no matter how many posts she makes, she will achieve no 
greater 'ranking' in their minds, and certainly no greater audience 
through forwarding. So despite whatever intentions Frau Mustermann has 
on a listserv to be #1; there is no #1, no way to be it, no way to rank 
it, and no way to research it. Who would want to anyway? Frau 
Mustermann, maybe; corporations, for sure.

Let's set Frau Mustermann loose upon the blogosphere, where suddenly, 
the quantity of connections to her blog results in a numerical value 
ascribed as to the quality of information she provides, materialized in 
a 'ranking list'. To what ends might she now strive to increase RSS 
tags and feeds to her blog? Might she set-up dummy blogs, endless ports 
on RSS streams that lead us further into critically-defunct nowhere? 
Might she also cement agreements with corporations who value such 
numbers and ranks and now have a way of leveraging and 'researching' 
them? Have we not seen such nefarious practice the internet over? Do we 
not see how ranking further distracts and limits our critical 
engagement in entropic cybernetic order? As for Frau Mustermann; her 
rise to the top of the blogosphere's ranking lists heralds a troubling 
trend; our waning critical engagement. And if that's what technorati is 
all about--how information and ultimately knowledge quantifiably and 
materially ranks; I want no part of it.

In this way I think of listservs and nettime as productive closures 
that foster and promote critical engagement. If we understand the 
internet as cybernetics would have us--as a social experiment in 
controlled complexity--then we also understand that closings, like 
listservs, are as important as openings, like blogs; and perhaps the 
qualitative nature of the closures associated with listservs, 
specifically, the filtering out of quantitative noise, like ranking 
lists, might very well be a key to re-awakening critical engagement in 
a society increasingly plagued by the inertia of information overload.

GL: Let's extend on this resistance as there is, to my knowledge, 
little critical knowledge about Technorati and its cynical logic. What 
I see around me is an ill-informed reluctance amongst activists, but 
also artists, to start a blog and buy into the PR logic to present 
one's persona within this limited, pre-formatted interface. Yet, we 
also know that this reluctance may as well be a result of ignorance, 
not being able to keep up with the pace of change. How can we raise 
awareness of the logic of blogging and ranking and the politics of 
search engines? How much knowledge should people have about the tools 
they use? To what extent is it justifiable to distract them from what 
they do, dealing with issues, producing art works? And then there is 
the generation question: whereas young people use all these tools 
without any hesitation, the old generations are hesitating, without 
really knowing why.

KW: On the 'generational' question, one thing that has struck me 
profoundly lately is how 'uncritically' willing people have become to 
subject themselves to research, analysis and experimentation. I 
remember very clearly an older generation, in the 1970's, who were 
extremely skeptical and critical of 'scientific' human research and 
experimentation. Yet with the rise of digital technologies in the last 
30 years we have come to accept human 'guinea pig status' almost 
unconditionally in our everyday lives, attested to in 'agreements' 
struck daily by individuals the world over to 'license' all forms of 
online software tools. One of the first releases in Google's privacy 
agreement stipulates: 'We may also use personal information for 
auditing, research and analysis to operate and improve Google 
technologies and services' (4). Indeed, such 'experimental' releases 
are prominent in almost every end-user software licensing agreement I 
have ever perused, which is logical, given the cybernetic imperative to 
mirror, model, and research life in open social order.

So, I believe the hesitancy you are observing in older generations, 
whether conscious or not, is in fact a remnant of more ecumenical 
times, when closures besides those of science, such as religion, were 
privileged far more in everyday life, fostering a skepticism of 
technology and the iterative research and experimentation inherent in 
technological practice. And I believe that a return to 'skepticism' is 
what is required now, more than ever; meaning a reinvigoration of 
people's critical engagement with technology and a heightened awareness 
of the control inherent in its use. People need to think more deeply 
about what aspects of their lives they choose to mirror in the digital 
realm. In this respect, to answer your question, people, specifically 
young ones, need a lot more knowledge about the technological tools 
they are currently and uncritically using, specifically, a critical 
awareness of how they contribute to identification and control in 
cybernetic order, which begins with mass acquiescence to research and 
experimentation. People need to be critically aware that this is 
happening, and the more they willingly and unconditionally choose to 
mirror their lives in cybernetic  order, the more subject they are to 
its control.

GL: How could such a suspicion against technology be revived, and 
wouldn't it be a step back? Asked about MySpace and why millions of 
teenagers put intimate data about their private lives online, social 
networks expert Danah Boyd explained that the surveillance in real life 
of parents is worse and restricts kids to a far more extend compared to 
the Web, which is, still, seen as space of freedom to escape into. How 
would you convince these teenagers? Where to start? How to convince 
youngster that control by the System is something they should object 
to? And don't we have to include in such a debate the traps that Joseph 
Heath and Andrew Potter have listed in their book The Rebel Sell? How 
can a subversive culture be established that is no longer buying into 
rebel lifestyle element in order to promote their critical aims?

KW: What I find particularly interesting in Danah Boyd's explanation 
about surveillance in cyberspace for youth paling in comparison to 
surveillance by parents, is the foregone acceptance by youth that 
identification and surveillance is a fundamental part of everyday life; 
it merely being a matter of choosing between the lesser of evils. I 
believe and hope that ultimately a threshold will be reached, wherein 
youth 'lo-jacked' by cellphones and MySpace will reach a limit in terms 
of their tolerance for and acquiescence to everyday_moment_to_moment 
surveillance. In his book 'The Digital Sublime' from 2004 Vincent Mosco 
argues that 'new' technologies and technological forms, have always 
carried with them liberating myths of freedom and democracy. Whether it 
was the telegraph, radio, television, or cyberspace today, it is only 
when such communication technologies, forms and practices deeply recede 
into the social woodwork, fundamentally becoming a part of our everyday 
lives, that their true power is revealed.

I wonder how youth will feel in the coming years, when updates to 
MySpace are required as a part of school curriculum? I wonder if 
resistance to powerful GPS surveillance technologies afforded to 
parents through family-based cellphone plans has not already begun? Are 
youths tossing these technologies and practices aside, or are they 
already performing the unexpected with these devices and/or in these 
spaces, jerry-rigging them to achieve their own rebellious ends? I have 
little doubt that eventually resistant instincts to technological 
surveillance will begin to prevail amongst youth, at least once we all 
get past the mythic lore of these technologies, when youth, like 
everyone else, come to see and feel how efficiently and effectively 
bio-political technologies and spaces expose our bodies to an other's 

In this respect, and somewhat facetiously, I look forward to the coming 
ubiquity of radio_frequency_identification (RFID) in everything we 
consume; from our shoes, to milk containers, cars and event tickets. 
Indeed, I wonder how adults with on_star equipped vehicles will react 
the first time they are summoned to court, familial or judicial, for a 
seemingly 'unobserved' indiscretion in their auto? Or for that matter, 
how they will begin to resist when they are eventually taxed by the 
kilometer through such surveillance technologies? I believe and hope 
that such movements towards complete social mirroring, monitoring and 
surveillance will ultimately go a long way on their own towards 
heightening critical instincts and engagement around bio-political 
technologies and spaces in us all.

GL: Sound like the world upside down to me, in which youth conforms to 
the norm and the grown ups stand up and rebel. The more wired, the more 
tired. The longer you're wired the more you wake up. Right? What 
interests me in your work is the 'formative' aspect of network 
technologies. Many before you have pointed at the formative in the word 
information. Why is the enlightening critical work exempted from this? 
If all information forms, then why bother? How can we escape such 
generalizing depressing statement that border on techno-determinism?

KW: Despite our ever increasing use and reliance on 
bio-political_network technologies in cybernetic order, I certainly do 
not believe us to be determined by them. But whether life's 
'formations' are understood as criss-crossing rhizomes; or we see the 
world as cybernetic organism; or we understand life as a bio-political 
order: the universe, and information, will always tend towards entropy. 
That is undeniable. Indeed, the 'formative' aspect of network 
technologies is entropy. And despite this too, human beings continue 
to, and will always, embody distinct purpose and autonomy in the world. 
So although I am embedded in an open social order in which 
communication and information flows freely and endlessly towards 
entropy, I am nonetheless in constant feedback with the world around 
me; capable of critiquing, making decisions, imagining other 
possibilities, acting, learning and growing with others. Far from being 
automatons, life is continual interaction with our environment and 
those around us and this is not technologically determined. But nor is 
critical thought a given in such wide open social order; it must be 
fostered and maintained and its demise must be guarded against 

Indeed, I believe, much like Arjun Appadurai (5), that in a world 
marked by global cultural flows and schisms, imagination is the central 
form of agency. And following on such thought, I believe it is crucial 
to work on peoples' imaginations, specifically, spurring critical 
engagement with our increasing everyday reliance on 
bio-political_network technologies, and how such practices not only 
efficiently and effectively expose bare life--further cementing it as 
the fundamental political unit--but also move us towards critical 

In 'The Dream Machine' Michael Waldrop sketches out the history of 
information theory and its direct ties to the physicists understanding 
of entropy, recounting von Neumann's insistence to Shannon that 
information and entropy were one in the same. In fact, von Neumann's 
actually insisted that 'information', in Shannon's 'Information 
Theory', be re-named 'entropy'. Indeed, entropy is understood by 
physicists as an indicator of the randomness of molecules; randomness, 
according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, always increases, never 
decreases; and the more random something is at the molecular level, the 
'less information' we have about the arrangement of the molecules; 
entropy is, in this way, 'missing information'.

And it is this 'missing information' that I think needs to be brought 
to bear on peoples' imaginations; how the molecules that constitute our 
networks are arranged for identification and control; how with every 
digital trace we leave behind, we not only contribute to further 
entropy, but also increasingly expose our bare lives to an other's 
order. With every passing moment, with every information nugget that is 
mined, with every trace individuals, groups and communities leave 
behind that expose bare life to surveillance, identification and 
control, the diversity and variety of stories we tell and access about 
life also continue to open infinitely; forwarded in never-ending emails 
to never-ending lists, hyperlinked ad-infinitum in the blogosphere, 
reported on an infinity of broadcast channels and websites. And the 
more stories and information we are exposed to, the more we tend 
towards critical entropy; meaning, the less we see how the molecules 
are arranged, the less inclined we are to take positions about the 
arrangements, and ultimately who arranges them. How could we? Knowing 
that there is so much more information, and so much more missing 

In this respect, and back to where we started, our increasing emphasis 
on quantitative reductions, like ranking lists, at the expense of 
critically engaged qualitative thought, can be seen as bottom_line 
strategies for efficiently navigating our increasingly entropic (sic 
networked) cybernetic order. Indeed, cybernetic order is marked by such 
fundamental contradictions and ambiguities; the deployment of 
information to ever-expanding global bio_political feedback systems to 
the cause of an open society, but to the effect of a controlled one, 
plagued by information overload and waning critical engagement. Escape 
from here is in our imaginations and I believe that exposing these 
contradictions and ambiguities for imagining, whether depressing or 
not, is certainly worth the bother.


(1) Review of Goetz Aly & Karl-Heinz Roth, Die restlose Erfassung, 
Berlin, 1984. 

(2) Goody, Jack. 1977. The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge 
Eng. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

(3) Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo sacer : sovereign power and bare life. 
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

(4) http://www.google.com/privacy.html

(5) Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global 
Cultural Economy." Pp. 27-47 in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions 
of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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