t byfield on Mon, 17 Sep 2007 11:01:50 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Control Society

In general, arguments like Wendy Chun's (as David summarized it,
since I haven't read her book) are a useful ~antidote to the
understandable tendency to totalize technics whose complexity
makes them impossible to understand. At the same time, that kind
of argument also carries a whiff of self-importance: not her own,
of course, but rather the philosophical tautology of older models
of subjectivity in which conscious ideas about a conscious "will"
are thought to have much impact. It's hard to see how individual
or even collective choices to "ascrib[e] a power...that may be
potential but are not yet actual" will hinder or advance the
developments that Brian talks about. For now, these technics are
focused on the most obvious 'sites' of uncertainty: politics,
stores, and wars. But, really, the only thing preventing them
from being directed at less potent areas of human activity --
arts and letters -- is cost: eventually, derivatives of these
technics will be made available to consumers. I'd argue that the
rise to prominence over the last several decades of ratings,
polls, and all their baroque micromanifestations (Firefly, Alexa,
Google, the casual profilings that pervade "social networking,"
etc) have been doing just that: slowly transforming sociability
into a smorgasbord of predefined options, toppings, and
accessories, and delegating to the individual the task of
assembling a peculiar constellation which passes for an identity.
So maybe the danger lies less in giving too much credit to
technical systems of surveillance and control than in mistaking
the coordinates these technics rely on for the substance of
subjectivity. Of course, that argument (which may in fact be what
Chun argues in her book -- again, I haven't read it) is equally
susceptible to my skepticism: to assume that *freedom* lies in an
overly totalizing dismissal of how these technics grasp or
represent subjectivity.

The rub is obvious enough: do you (or we?) want to interpret
these boggling transformations under the sign of oppression or of
freedom? On a list like this, which from the beginning defined
itself against the "dominant euphoria" and (less often, IMO) the
"cynical pessimism" surrounding networked communications, it's
easy to see how the continued euphoria these technics inspire
among joyless would-be masters of the world might invite
pessimism. But in announcing that nettime's project was first and
foremost to develop an alternative to the "dominant euphoria"
that gave rise to dotcommery, we may have screwed up -- by
accepting the then-dominant *commercial* euphoria as the *only*
euphoria. Surely, there were -- and are -- others legitimate

Freedom is a very mutable idea because it describes very mutable
phenomena. From my (generational) perspective, what I understood
to be freedom is waning: it seems and feels as though there's
less, and that its grounds have been redeveloped. But, Brian, let
me ask a simple -- and maybe stupid -- question. You wrote:

     Our society's obsession with controlling the future --
     and with insuring accumulation -- has at least two major
     consequences. The first is the organization of a
     consumer environment for the immediate satisfaction of
     anticipated desires, with the effect of eliminating
     desire as such, and creating an atmosphere of suspended
     disbelief where entire populations move zombie-like and
     intellectually silent beneath exaggerated images of
     their unconscious drives. The second consequence, as we
     have seen with such violence in recent years, is the
     simple removal of those who might trouble this forcibly
     tranquilized landscape with any kind of disturbing
     presence or political speech. What results in both
     cases is a dampening of voice, a muffling of desire, an
     insignificance of critique...

I wouldn't say you're wrong; but is this an adequate description
of everything that's happened? And that the past seven years are
the prologue for the next seventy? Obviously, if you thought so
utterly, absolutely, and irrevocably, there'd be little point in
tapping out a requiem for no one to read; but it seems to me that
you could equally pick out four other "Cardinal Points" that
point toward very different models of freedom we're only
beginning to glimpse.


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