Ecopolis : Interview

I’m interviewed by Luca Barbeni in Ecopolis, online magazine about information ecology:

Christophe Bruno is a french artist always reflecting in his works about communication and language. In his last work logo.hallucination, he monitors the web trough a pattern recognition software, that looks for logo copyright infringements. We talk about privatization of the glance, mash up aesthetic and personal profile.


ECO: What do you mean with “privatization of the glance”?
CB: The idea of “privatization of the glance” comes from a general tendancy that can be perceived in the transition from market capitalism to network capitalism. At first, there is a postmodernist “dematerialization” phase, which unveils the emergence of libertarian ideals of sharing and freedom but ends up with commodification of the ultimate “atoms” of human relations ; this is what happenened in the realm of language with The Google Adwords Happening. The post-fordist ideas that are at play in the economic dynamics of global structures like Google show the rise of 2.0 markets for these networked commodities involving “long tails” phenomenons (the Adwords/Adsense system for instance). According to contemporary graph theory (cf Barabasi: Linked), the “long tail” (or web 2.0 or “aristocratic network”) phenomenon is the mode according to which globalization is achieved in a closed unregulated networked ecosystem ; by definition it is an extension of the concept of the fordist object to the globality and variety of the human desires.

The new stake of capitalism is the control of these “global objects” through what I called “colonization of intimacy”: for instance when they bought Blogger, Google took a strong position towards the control of Language as a global 2.0 object, because they took hold of the gold mine of mankind’s intimacy.

Finally, there is an unavoidable rematerialization phase because this 2.0 trend invades all sectors of economy. Here there are some limitations because strictly speaking, 2.0 markets need low storage costs, typical of the dematerialization phase, cf: The Long Tail – but this becomes less and less important as “on demand” production increases.

In the panoptic environment of networked capitalism, the question of the accounting of glance (cf for instance a piece of mine from 2001, Fascinum) is quite similar to the question of the accounting of language introduced by Google; and the question of privatization of the glance arises then quite naturally.

It is also worth to say here that we cannot think of the Web as separated from other media phenomenons. The Web – and specifically Web 2.0 – allowed the final implementation of society of control, but the whole enslavement mechanism (which I called “taylorization of speech”) involves the spectacular society (TV, Web 1.0…) as well. In this approach I tend to consider that the main transition is not the rise of the Web, but the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, contemporary to 911. Web 2.0 is not just the next craze of the Internet. If you digg a little bit you realize that the ideology of Web 2.0 (scale-free networks theory of Barabasi, small worlds, rich get richer, long tail…) is nothing but the updated neoclassical theory of value (Walras, Pareto etc.). The law of diminishing marginal utility or Pareto law, which is just the precursor of the long tail, was an epistemological break with the classical economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) based on the labor theory of value. This epistemological cut is far from being digested…


ECO: Is the mash up the new aesthetic of the interconnected global world?
CB: Let me quote Walter Benjamin in the Epilogue of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, which deals precisely with the question of mash up and aesthetics:

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its *Fuhrer* cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

The decay of the aura of the object has several developments. The first one was the “transfiguration of the commonplace” (cf Danto) and the antidialectic cut performed by Pop Art towards the concept of “absolute merchandise” (cf Baudrillard: “De la marchandise absolue”).

The second one is the postfordist web 2.0 phenomenon – ie the mashup – which consists in a fake return of the aura of the object. According to the “long tail” rule, the object is supposed to match the intimate desire of each individual. In this adaptation of markets to the individuals one may ask if there isn’t a breakdown of the reproductibility of the object, that one could be perceived as a return of the aura of the object. Indeed, in the limit of perfect mashup, each object is now meant to become not-duplicable – not because of a lack of technology, but because it is made to be adapted to one individual only. But in fact, because capitalism has enter this new 2.0 phase, reproductibility is still here but has reached a new stage: what is now reproducible is the experience of the encounter consumer-object, and not only the object alone ; capitalism is now supposedly able to massively produce not only objects, but indefinitely many encounters between subjects and objects (for instance in the Google Adwords Happening, this encounter is defined by the click on the ad, which is precisely the unit – ie the root reproducible element – on which the whole Adword economic system is based). The experience of consumption (and its affects) has also become an act of production that enters the optimization process of capitalism 2.0.

So we have a fake return of the aura of the object, and a decay of the aura of the performative (the encounter which becomes reproducible). The paradox that lies in Benjamin’s text enters new developments: in the same way as the aura was reinjected into the fordist object by Pop Art, the aura of the HIC ET NUNC at the postfordist globalized era is reinjected into global brands (for instance Google as the brand of Language ..) whose aim is to be present EVERYWHERE EVERYTIME in the performative life of individuals and to control global 2.0 markets, a stage which was not totally reached in the fordist era where there was still some large opaque (ie not-yet-colonized) regions in the space of intimacy. This EVERYWHERE EVERYTIME, as opposed to the HIC ET NUNC, is nothing but the definition of the privatization of the glance.


ECO: What do you think about the “informatic profile” of every web citizen? In a way it depends on the pattern recognition algoritm that is used….Does it means my pubblic web image depends on values decided by ….Google?
CB: Sure but behind this question lies another one which is more tricky. It is definitely a problem that a private company may tune their algorithm so that the image of an individual would in a way reflect more the criteria of the company than the identity of the individual… By the way this is a very general and universal property of the concept of “image”, that computer science will not be able to solve; there is no objectivity here but instead an interplay between subjectivities (the subjectivity of those who wrote the program in that case).

What these companies want when they use pattern recognition to decide for instance if they are going to grant you a loan, is to have the most reliable universal method to predict your behaviour and evaluate their risk. Because there is no such universal theory, they have to use modelizations which depend on some arbitrary considerations and parameters and hence they have to make arbitrary choices. Now a problem arises when the method used is falsely claimed to be indeed universal and true. This is what is actually happening nowadays with the current expansion of technologies of control and there is a great danger that we are lead to a totalitarian mechanism.

But there is also a paradox. At some point, companies have in fact no interest in cheating and pretending they have a universal scientific method. This attitude is actually a modernist attitude which has been outdated by postmodernity. Any company that would do that takes the risk of being sooner or later suspected and despised. Moreover by imposing a normativity they lose track of what lies ouside the norm. Since what lies ouside the norm may become the seed of the markets of the future, this may reveal to be a self-contradictory strategy. In a 2.0 globalized world, if they put barriers to freedom, they are just unable to optimize the whole process because they lose data!

This is exactely what a company like Google understood. Google has a VERY long term stategy. They keep promoting freedom of speech and avoid any normative positionning because they know that this attitude is the basis for the optimization of their adwords/adsense system which is a neverending process. This is the paradox: freedom of speech has become a tool of totalitarianism (cf Benjamin text) and instead of modernist totalitarianism we are witnessing the rise of totalitarianism of the hypermodernity. This trend is a large scale trend. As the world-system reaches its EXTERNAL limitations (depletion of natural resources, expected end of low-cost labour, the end of the ideology of liberalism, the fading of desire, etc.), capitalism tries to relaunch its machinery by pushing back its INTERNAL limits. Thus freedom of speech is revealed to be the prerequisite for the scientific colonization of intimacy as well as collective hallucination is the prerequisite for the privatization if the glance.

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