This past weekend, two prominent socio-technical critics have given us radically different versions of the future of capitalism in the age of social media. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues in an op-ed for FT for a dystopia of toothbrush analytics, trash bin surveillance, and our personal lives being turned into marketing data and sold back to us as irresistible products and services. Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times sees similar trends leading to “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” These big-picture visions are important for steering us towards futures we’d rather live in. However, studying companies and consumers at the forefront of the transformative interaction of social media and financial services gives us a different picture entirely: one where old and new, privacy and sociality, onrushing corporatism and peer to peer pushback are producing a tangled, complicated, often contradictory mess – and along with it, the future we’ll probably see.
As kids growing up in Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” 80s we endured a lot of propaganda regarding drugs. One was the myth of the “gateway drug.” We were told that drugs like marijuana with few medically provable harms were highly dangerous because they were gateways to harder more evil drugs. Gateway drugs are like linkbait, hooks that bring unwitting subjects from a one innocuous practice to one more pernicious.
Morozov claims that social media is a gateway drug for the financial sector to hook us on a new range of products and services, while increasing its control over our lives. We hear that the dark insides of our mouths, fridges, rubbish bins, and cars will be scrutinized by networked and image-recognizing surveillance cameras. Videos will be algorithmically analyzed producing “data portfolios” which will be automatically used (for a fee) by third parties to adjudicate our credit worthiness, employability, and romantic fitness. As longtime admirers of Morozov’s guts and wit we’ve been pleased to see him begin (finally) to use the name and identify the problem head-on–neoliberal capitalism galvanized by ubiquitously networked humans.
In making this argument, Morozov brings together two academic terms and says that they are co-constituting: mediatization and financialization. Mediatization claims that social practices are increasingly linked to media performance. We do it for the camera. Presidential elections, of course, are a key example of mediatization, in which every utterance, campaign stop, handshake, and tweet is delicately engineered towards manipulating the 24-hour news cycle. Mediatization assumes a new level of embeddedness in encounters with persistent, searchable, archivable, user-generated social media, a process we call social mediatization. The “social” qualifies the “mediatization” by identifying a new phase in which information is not broadcast from corporations or politicians to a passive audience, but generated and shared constantly among people, businesses, and governments.
Financialization works much like social mediatization: both identify the ways that foreign logics (financial or mediated) find their way into once-private and domestic spheres. Classic examples of financialization include online banking at home, stock investing as a hobby, and other forms of money management which were once “work” but are now billed as necessary and mature forms of personal responsibility and risk management for the middle classes.
We agree with Morozov that new possibilities of financialization have been opened up by the widespread adoption of social media. Brokerage firms and new types of peer-to-peer lending organizations are adapting their computer interfaces to look and feel more like Facebook. Insurance and investment companies are increasingly reliant upon search-generated analysis of freely-shared and often unknowingly-shared data gathered from people to determine whether to offer services and at what price.
People are becoming more and more comfortable interfacing with online money markets and insurance systems because of the increasing social media competencies they’ve developed Skyping home and Facebook-friending family. In this way, social media is like pot, a gateway drug from something we thought was just for kicks (chatting with friends and family), to something that necessitates a very real gamble: opening every facet of our lives up for corporate scrutiny.
While Morozov’s examples of evil toothbrushes, surveillance bins, and Facebook and Amazon’s fleets of delivery drones are graphic reminders of the material means of financialization, these examples are also far from the digital materiality, as Manovich called it, of social media. Firstly, attention to the affordances of actual interfaces of financial product retailers –rather than peering back into the Skype camera of a garbage can— will help us develop a more robust theory of social financialization. Secondly, while we applaud Morozov’s multi-sited or survey approach to identifying the myriad ways technocapitalist logics recede into the ordinary infrastuctures of daily life, we advance the idea that a more direct focus on financial products, economic interfaces, and their social mediatization will provide the type of explicit evidence needed now to understand the real evolution – not just potential parade-of-horribles outcomes – at this early moment in the development of social financialization.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin sees Morozov’s “Internet of Things” not as a horror of surveillance and ever-sharper financial practices, but as the birth of a maker movement. When the net cost of production not just of digitized information like music and movies but of physical objects approaches zero, he claims, capitalism faces a fundamental challenge, one in which the winners will be found in the nonprofit sector. All those networked fridges and 3D printers, he says, are enabling a second economy to grow up alongside capitalist production, an economy based on sharing of goods and information, where we live “partly beyond markets,” in “an increasingly interdependent global commons.”
Well, which will it be, dental espionage or ride-sharing our way into a global village? We’ve gone out into the field to try to find out, by examining new companies who’re trying to combine big data and the sharing economy, and asking hard questions of their managers and of the people who’re turning to them as alternatives to old-school consumerist products and services.
In our project, “Third Party Dematerialization and Rematerialization of Capital,” funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s “Digital Economy Research In The Wild” initiative, we are researching Zopa Limited, the sort of financial innovator Morozov has in mind when he speaks of Silicon Valley’s ability to “disrupt” Wall Street with “better data and better engineers.” Zopa is a “non-bank” – as regulation designed to discourage upstarts and protect the market share of slow-to-innovate and too-big-to-fail firms limits the use of the value-laden term “bank” – a “peer-to-peer lender.” Zopa uses a proprietary algorithm to evaluate credit risk, and then matches individual borrowers of relatively small sums with potential investors of a bit of spare cash. Zopa claims that their highly stringent credit-evaluating algorithm, their lack of legacy infrastructure, both buildings and IT, and their individual evaluation of potential borrowers – rather than trusting entirely to automated processes – enable them to offer better rates to borrowers and lenders than high street banks can bother with.
Zopa is a successful financial firm with only one top executive from the financial industry – their risk analyst. With Big Data experts and social marketing managers, Zopa explicitly applies Silicon Valley logics to a segment of what once was a UK high street banking monopoly – short to medium-term unsecured consumer lending and borrowing.
Yet Zopa neither deploys fleets of drones or the latest gimmicks of “gamification” – the techniques developed from the realization that we’ll do nearly anything for the quick hit of an endorphin rush from “rewards” as ephemeral as points or levels in a colorful game interface. While gamification is often claimed as the missing link between financialization and social mediatization – we’ll do anything for rewards, and we want all our friends to see our status, so we’ll click to create the data for others to profit from – today’s reality is remarkably more old-fashioned.
The twin challenges of social financialization are managing and marketing trust and risk. Once solely the province of banks, who used neoclassical architecture, three-piece suits, and free toasters to convey social messages of high trust and low risk, the largely dematerialized companies of social financialization necessarily use social media and internet user interfaces to do the same job.
The trend-surfers and hipsters of the world aren’t Zopa’s clients: rather Zopa works to appeal to the newly financialized: older people with a bit of extra money who are neither wealthy nor connected enough to be worth the time of innovation-challenged, blue-blooded UK banks, and young families yet to see the “recovery” talked up on the newly-ubiquitous financial media.
Zopa designers see their job as creating an online presence that looks enough like a bank to convey messages of trustworthiness and low risk, while simultaneously appealing to a demographic that feels abandoned by banks in their oscillations between high risk/high return algorithm-driven trading and “credit crunch” unwillingness to lend to anyone who might actually have a need for funds.
It is in these everyday, slightly dowdy design choices that social financialization is being built, in a process of connecting the dots between a lost age of bricks-and-mortar rhetorics of trustworthiness – a trustworthiness coupled with incentives against too much financial literacy, too much desire to look behind the neoclassical facades to interrogate actual banking practices – and Morozov’s all too likely future of trying to level up our gamified toothbrushes to lower our dental insurance premiums.
We need the cautionary tales of the dystopias we’re building and the utopian visions of data power to the people, but more, we need to know if our gateway drugs of social financialization really are harmless hits and performance enhancements, or whether they will lead inevitably to refrigerator madness. One thing we suspect is true: we can’t “Just Say No.”
Fixation: The fixing process is important to me theoretically because it’s a cross cutting term. Fixing suggests that capture is not just a matter of direct representation but of representation in a particular way. So, in so much as platforms, or networks of platforms, capture and fix, they do so with a certain plan. In as much as they afford users the ability to do a number of things and they capture a host of content, fixing processes frame the content in particular ways. Formats, character limits, filters, etc. are the most evident elements of fixing but so are things such as the arrangements of content on a platform’s interface, the exclusion of content and the platform’s triangulation of its fixing processes with laws, norms and business goals. I like the work that’s being done to interrogate fixation by our colleagues around the globe. The work on interrogating normativity, neoliberal ideologies in digital architectures, big data, social practice and the politics of algorithms is an empirically diverse and theoretically rich sortie into the messy world of fixation.
For me there are some things that remain to be explored of the fixation process. Estrangement from ourselves for one thing is not often discussed. We, sometimes rightly, celebrate the opportunities social media afford us to represent ourselves, the selves we want to be, or to connect but often forget about the odd moments when we see that captured self, fixed in platform and then turning toward the screen, should say: “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.” Maybe we’ve all had that feeling when, for example, Facebook implemented the timeline feature. It presented our history as a matter of data, a composite if tags (by us or of us), images, blurbs, etc. Captured into the platform or surrendered there by us our history, so mediated, was therefore not necessarily authored by us, a species of unauthorized biography. Of you history shall be written, but remember “history is always written by the winners.”
Despite the dynamism of social media: of streams of text, constant updates, ever changing videos and images, fixation ensures a certain suspension of action. Related to what danah boyd calls “permanence,” but permanence may belie a certain kind of political economy and intent that wants to make capture a practice, not merely a consequence of a technical structure thrust upon us ex nihilo. “Networked publics,” yes, but also network products and networked markets. Fixation, in biology requires the use of chemical agents to create chemical bonds between amino acids across the proteins that are the composite of biological systems and thus stops in its tracks denaturation (decay and entropy) but also life. Fixation is the literal pinning-down of dynamic organic life so that it may be examined. Fixation through algorithm renders the social, the person or the group as object and process, harnessable for markets, for governments, for corporations. As T.S. Elliot once asked, “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin. To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”
There is a tension in fixation: Fixed slices of time and life matter as reducible data sets but on the other hand, the system must be plastic enough to accommodate new data sets like status updates on the status update on you. System plasticity (a term used in neurobiology to describe dynamic neuronal architecture) in this case represents a conversation between the dynamic nature of human and the more bounded nature of data. A conversation between the evolving, the living, the dying and what we are as data in the network: a fixed point. Ultimately, decisions made based on bounded data endure beyond the instant and impact already changed circumstances. A data isomorph Lewis Mumford would be frightened by I imagine. Herein then we may find room for resistance, in the lag between the fixed and the living where the cacophany of human noise, randomness and messiness will hopefully confound the platform’s algorithm. And it will be left, at last, only with impressions.
Conversion: Fixation sets up the context for conversion, the transformation of all the is known, all that is fixed into elements of exchange economies. It creates the political-economy of participation; of creativity; and of the self as cultural product. For designers of capture platforms, conversion is a technological problem as much as it is a social question. My point here is that at the user level social processes fixed in social media afford an understanding of “what is going on.” They translate for users a reality of place, time, outcomes and possibilities. Capture platforms make concrete and argue for their version of meaning and value through design. For platform designers, the trick is conveying value in a way that is both socially perceived and procedurally acceptable by a user base. For users, technical solutions provided by platforms take the shape of feedback systems. Communication features that allow users to respond to one another’s participation. Not simply to say something back, mind you, but to perform a narrative by deploying a literacy in images, texts and sound creatively assembled on spaces laid out by architecture. Extant research has taught us a lot about the social dynamics afforded within these systems. Economies of popularity, of tribe, of identity, are all there at play like the flying parts of a mad Corliss engine. But feedback systems do more then ensure social process, they reify it.
To reify: To make real or concrete that which was abstract. In their reification function, feedback systems make visible and record the social. They literally allow users to see strife, reciprocity, attention economies, popularity, etc. Not only that but, the reification function creates the architecture by which value can be derived from those processes. It becomes the material proof of what may be the case outside the platform, thus adding to already existing social capital, status, meaning or popularity. Conversely, they may create a platform-based referent that validates perceptions of value external to the platform. To make this point more concrete think of something as everyday as popularity and the person who has it, at school or at work. If he or she is able to import it into the platform, reifying it through a feedback system, then it’s possible that it may increase within the platform but also outside it. For someone without much popularity, who then is able to build it within platform, creating what Alice Marwick and others might call “micro celebrity,” it may well translated to external consequences. The platform in that case, serves as a form of social proof. But it can also serve as an amplifier of already existing conditions.
Conversion through feedback also creates an architecture for reciprocity, trust, performance, participation, alliances, etc. Conversion and its methods are technological solutions to the accounting of social dynamics and their performance. By creating ways in which users can see, read, hear and feel the social and by creating architectures by which those inputs can be responded to, they convert participation into value, situated value for the user and ad revenue for the platform owners.
What you see in the image above is YouTube justice, an example of reification from my research that illustrates a social, community driven and understood value. The user [12awinstinct] was accused of stealing content from another user [iFlyILLINI]. The community through a review of evidence (videos and supporting commentary from other users) found him guilty and punished him with a loss of subscribers, a potentially costly tax on social and monetary capital if ad revenue was involved. Conversely the community rewarded the offended user with an explosion of subscribers. Perhaps most importantly, the process was logged in real time by systems inside the platform but also by 3rd party aggregators like one which tracks channel popularity on YouTube. The vested elements of the YouTube community saw justice done, YouTube justice.
By now it should come as no surprise that value “lives” on multiple levels in a platform. So in my example the platform allowed YouTube users to derive situated value from the conversion of subscriber numbers into justice or retribution. On another level, platform owners will need to do some conversion of their own, albeit primarily in terms of revenue. For social network businesses bent on the “social” or “the socially created” as their central value driver, inventory (you, me and our interactions and creations) must be parsed by mechanisms that allow us and ours to be sold. These mechanisms usually take the shape of systems that analyze and repackage. Typically these are back-end structures, hidden from user view. Ultimately however, the market value of a social media web business hinges on the algorithms that analyze and repackage both content and creators in ways that can be traded. Facebook’s less than stellar IPO, for example, was not only the result of glitches in the NASDAQ’s trading system but also perhaps due to a general uncertainty about how exactly Facebook was going to convert all those users and their participation (i.g. their likes, links, comments, pictures, personal information, and who knows what else) into profit.
Generating value for a social media business is both a technical and social problem. Technically the “right” algorithms must be designed to execute analysis and aggregation that will suit costumers. As a social problem markets must be created and sustained, labor forces kept working and incentivized, people must see the situated value of their products through conversion so that they keep doing it, so that the platform can do its other forms of conversion. Yes, as Tarleton Gillespie would say, algorithms have a socially contingent nature that impacts the way in which they “speak” about what is valuable. If thinking about the values embedded in algorithms allows us to see their politics, it may also benefit us to think of their economics not only as a value but as a logic for understanding what is the case.
What an algorithm says about a group, individual, or any bit of information on a platform is concerned with value (both in the long and short term). The algorithm may suggest a “trend” as Twitter does but as it constructs a trend it also builds value. Trending, as a measurable process, is an exercise in some form of measurement (public opinion, popularity, rate of increasing or decreasing interest) but it’s also a stab at creating value. It’s an attempt to convert all that “chatter” into something that can be sold, to investors, to other media businesses, and to users. The interesting thing is that the more one considers what an algorithm is telling us, the more one realizes that, for some platforms, “trending” of any sort (on twitter or YouTube) is a sure bet.
This is not to suggest that outputs are necessarily biased toward what amounts to the most profitable analysis or aggregation but rather that the process of analysis and aggregation and its claims to truthfulness about whatever information was processed is done in the first place because it is perceived to be valuable. No one would have asked is it trending? Unless some one else had first asked, “can we sell trending?” The value placed on the outcome of an algorithm is as much based on its “accuracy” as it is on 1) having users see it as accurate and 2) when users are inventory in that platform, having them handed over as seers of information of a particular stripe.
Because economic value is part of the equation, our social processes, our identities and our membership in family, work, etc. become functional artifacts, means to ends for the platform and their owners. As such we become mass culture and the platform the production apparatus. Our profiles are made by us but with tools not of our making. Our Google search results may be crowd-made but made in the image reflected in platform and its triangulations of what counts as valuable, useful and interesting. The skepticism of science and technology studies that questions, at its core, any socially situated technical or scientific system that claims to know the case, should be brought to bear on such artifice. Power lurks in epistemology. I have to say algorithm and platform are more than political or, as they like to tells us, stewards of public discourse. They are epistemology.
To the extent that social media capture (recruit, fix and convert) they do so in a manner that reproduces and reinforces a type of cultural production, a particular type of self (networked as Julie Cohen would say), configured by fixation for conversion. The broader point is that once in place, that system continues to reinforce those arrangements, begging them of their users and leaking those practices to life worlds outside the realm of media. At such points social processes removed from social media are confronted with arrangements born in the ether. We assume connectivity and feel displaced without it. We are habitually never alone, we are the “searching for network” function and have become accustomed to being reified and captured. Say what you may, the structure of how we are socially has changed in many respects since we started liking, status updating, taking selfies and tweeting. We may have made some facets of social media our own, through adaptation and appropriation of features and alternative uses, but capture/conversion systems care little of that. It’s all part of the bet, that, in the processes of digital cultural production, through capture everyone and anyone can be pinned and sold to somebody.
Acknowledgements: This series of posts is based on a lecture given at the Colloquium for MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program in the fall of 2012. My thanks to MIT’s CMS for inviting me and for asking me to think on this topic. Of course thank you TS Elliot and the Wachowskis I would also like to thank all of the contributors and participants in Culture Digitally. Friends, all. Without their writing, conversations and joking around over beer or a nice cup of coffee at a conference or workshop my thinking on these matters would not be possible. If you are not listed on the blog but we have spoken and shared a laugh and an idea, you are in here too.
-Contributed by Hector Postigo, Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-
For businesses building digital platforms capture is both a technical and social problem and invitation is one way of addressing it. How do you build technologies that efficiently allow any user (young, older, in North America or in Africa) to capture various facets of social life? The technological answer to the problem is not necessarily one that a single designer or corporation might provide but rather it’s achieved through the deployment of a number of technological solutions that in aggregate create a generally persistent, present and pervasive capture system. This is invitation.
In conjunction with social practices, the capture platform has an affective outcome, users come to “see” it as an alternative, as a means for engaging in communicative practice. A capture system’s presence invites, first through its relative every-whereness, then through its quiet whispers: a “like” button at the end of an article or a product sold online, a vibration in our pocket, a soft bell somewhere in the room that beckons us to find it. We are through those simple cues, reminded that not only is the platform open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but that our friends are using it.
But pervasiveness is not enough for an architecture to invite, it must also have meaning through the types of communication practices that are invited and that are discovered by users. Invitation relays on technology to afford those practices but also opens itself to them, creating a level of plasticity that is playful. Invitation is bounded by rules and openness so that social practices and experimentation can squeeze into capture. Openness, then, is the social portion of invitation, but like any open invitation, boundaries exist (sometimes subtle, other times overt) which then configure how we RSVP. The way the platform is mirror, mirror on the wall, the way it communicates to us our potential to participate and then configures rewards, turns us toward it. As my good friend and collaborator here on Culture Digitally, Tarleton Gillespie, would say, we orient ourselves to the algorithm. Thus we are more than invited, we are seduced.
Let us not forget the power of cool, of design. I always think of the first time I held an iPhone. Its sleekness, its subsequent rapid penetration, widespread adoption and its touchability all extending an invitation. We could not help but want to reach out to it. Its connection to networking infrastructures and web platforms and other inviting technologies make arguments for capture. Now that we’ve snapped that image, why not share it online? Now that you’ve heard your friend make that funny comment, why not Tweet it?
Henry David Thoreau optimistically wrote “All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.” I’d argue that inviting technologies might show us something different; that through design some technologies make what we do with integral to who we are. If what we do is what we are, if we are our practices, then we must recognize that capture platforms and their networks are not only designed to functionally record but also to be rhetorical devices, making subtle but powerful arguments for being the best means for both performing and representing “self.” The best way of being you.
Invitation also implies the creation of practice. In other words, while technology companies may strive to make capture convenient and efficient, social practices performing capture must themselves be “captured.” Any given user may be a compulsive picture taker, for example, but if that user never distributes that picture as part of a platform, then that practice is, for businesses that trade in the social, a lost treasure. To meet this demand pervasiveness, design, identity, playfulness are all deployed together, positioning social media as an attractive and likely place to carry on sociability in traditional ways and in ways framed by technology. My point here is that capture practices are framed by capture systems as they provide the means for communication. In this case the medium is the practice.
While invitation is the slight break in personal space, the soft brush of the elbow and a smile, coercion is not as subtle and strongest when the platform is widely adopted. Anyone who has attempted to permanently delete his or her Facebook page will note this. Here I’m not talking about quitting Facebook but rather effectively deleting one’s profile. Facebook gives you what amounts to a cooling off period after which a profile’s data cannot be recovered. The process for me involved a parade of images of my friend’s children and the question was posed, “Do you really want to leave them?” The quandary of leaving a community that had come to depend on me, or at least the assurance of my continued presence on our spec of dust as part of a spectrum of friends, was framed as abandonment. Coercion in capture is a sort of social force, a momentum that manifests in aggregate, in capture’s inescapability, its personal utility, even its morality.
Conscription, the involuntary induction of selves into the service of the platform is a function of capture as its logic becomes social practice. Upload upload upload. But to where? And why, and what? The technological problem of capture becomes a bio-ware operation, a habit, most banal and potentially pernicious. A practice that is situated and valuable within a social framework of friends, families, fans and possible employers is in the broader sense of political economy a case of function creep. What starts off as friending, tweeting, and network building becomes the collection of inventory by hook or by crook, for Google, for Google.
The notion of agents in capture plays a particularly important part in conscription. First because as a metaphor, agents illustrate adoption of a posture or an affect that sees the social as if perched atop a hill, possessing potential energy that a mere click might transform into social capital that spans the digital and the flesh. The agent is a bridge or conduit between the online practice and the offline practice. The platform asks us “is it Tweetable?” Often the answer is, “yes! yes it is!”and off it goes. But it isn’t really that simple. If all the research on social network platforms should amount to any one general conclusion it is this: That through social media we perform a host of actions which are always in conversation with mores, norms, laws, rules computational and social. If the agent is a bridge, an agent cannot escape accountability outside platform, on the side with oxygen and norms. The trick in designing agents is not to have them ask themselves a question like, “is it Tweetable,” but to design practices in platform that bleed into the practice of lifeworlds making Tweetability or Facebooking (yes, my students use it as a verb) a given in all or most of social life.
It’s no wonder then that we are asking about privacy and what it means online, nagged by the feeling that whatever it is, it must be something new. Maybe a set of practices intimating multiple privacies or a commodity intimating an exchange relationship with our fellows and with social web platform owners. Ultimately we practice a new privacy, a new element of a shifting social order, which we must adopt or else the technological system and our mediated social network will fail. But privacy is not the only thing caught in the calculus of digital cultural production’s political economy. Identity, community, citizenship, participation; what is organic about us as human beings are all ready to be or already are: data, big data.
Conscription endangers agency and the place of our will in the interchange of information from us, about us. We feel it most when we discover that we’ve been aggregated by our cell phone carrier or when our images, emails or tags were collated and deeper knowledge about our selves is known. When collection of our incidental data, our mutterings and stuttering, are made big data through the algorithms that call into big data’s gaping cavernousness and draw from it echoes of selves we may not have otherwise known.
-Contributed by Hector Postigo, Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-
When I was in graduate school in STS we read Langdon Winner’s Do Artifacts Have Politics, an excerpt from his book, The Whale and The Reactor. If you’re not familiar with it, the piece is often remembered for its analysis of bridges, or more accurately overpasses along the way to Jones Beach NY. Langdon’s telling of it, notes that the bridges were built too low for public transportation (buses) to pass and, in so being, fixed in material artifice the divides and inequalities of class and race. It turns out that Prof. Winner was wrong about the height of those overpasses, buses could indeed get through but I believe not wrong about the implications of architecture, of technology, which the example was meant to illustrate.
The often not remembered portion of that excerpt deals with nuclear power or other technological systems and their adoption by society. In reflecting on nuclear power, Winner suggested that some technologies not only represent or reproduce power relations (as in the example of the overpasses) but also necessitate a particular political arrangement. That their “externalities” require a re-configuration of social order without which such a technological system could not effectively be sustained. So the bridges pointed to the power of technology to fix and reproduce a particular social order and nuclear power the capacity for a technological system to cause a reconfiguration of social order or social practice. For arguments sake, I’d like to advance these 2 somewhat deterministic positions balancing them off with an examination of the interplay between technology and social practice. I bring to you reflections on social web architectures that are, on the one hand rooted in the determinism of bridges (which were ultimately tall enough, but social architecture nonetheless) and on the other, rooted in a limited social constructivist perspective that while acknowledging agency recognizes the limits upon it. Ultimately I want to advocate here critical engagement with social media platforms. A questioning of technology that transcends the exuberance to upload first and ask questions later. I’m not calling for revolution but rather evolution in our approach to social media. An approach that recognizes its multiple purposes, that judiciously engages them and that advocates for mindful grappling with their affordances and their ideology. All at the same time.
Before diving in, I’d like to state the obvious: Facebook does not exist to make us all better friends. Twitter doesn’t buzz our cell phones so that social movements may find a ready media outlet in repressive regimes. Google isn’t doing evil because it’s a nice thing to do. YouTube isn’t really about “you.” These platforms, through their technological features, may allow many practices for users, but market logic has shown one constant since the internet became a driver in modern economies: That once investors transcend their exuberance, they will look for profit. And if any for-profit venture wishes to survive past its IPO, it eventually better provide it through an effective business model. As I see it that model is rooted in capture and conversation.
I propose that social media (things like FB, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and their attendant features, surrogates, and agents fix social practice in medium and thus serve as capture platforms. Capture involves 1) recruitment through invitation, coercion or conscription of cultural production, 2) fixation of that production (as processes or object) and 3) conversion of that which is fixed into value of some sort or another. Features can include things like status update boxes, “like” buttons, comment boxes, storage systems, and connections to other capture systems. Things like cell phones, cell phone towers, cameras, wi-fi networks are features by extension of the capture platform. They act as surrogates when they capture passively (location based services, for example) but take the form of agents when people function as the key operatives in the capture system.
Much like Morpheus said to Neo in the movie The Matrix, I say to you: any one can be an agent. The fact is that we move through spheres of capture (surveillance nets, yes) but also frames. Like a painting in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, what is captured is not still or static but action and process. And what the captured means is open to the machinations of algorithm. Admittedly this might be read as a dystopic perspective. Capture serves a host of purposes, but here I focus on those elements of capture that tilt toward political economy and so remain skeptical and critical.
By capturing the sociocultural, social media platforms create a political economy of self, of community and of social processes. Cultural production here is not only seen as the rendering of pop culture or high culture but also of our selves as cultural artifacts. Social web platforms use capture as the central means for building inventory. They invite us to contribute and then collect our tweets, pictures, random thoughts, location, names, birthdays, videos, queries, etc. We are their inventory. Like no other facet of the web experience, they make evident what has always been functionally present on the internet, a sort of celestial capture card, recording everything and storing it on a system of networked technologies with near infinite capacity. The implications are widespread. Capture platforms have the capacity to engulf in their calculus the willing and unwilling, our privacy, our creativity and our friends and communities. I want to make clear that my view of social web platforms is not monolithic. We do not live life in the web; we live not in but through it. Capture is more a feature of some platforms than others and a function of networks of platforms and technological systems not only the function of one.
Not too long ago, I sat with friends at a conference catching up and joking around. I made a joke and my friend, thinking it funny tweeted it. It was the first time something I had said in the context of face to face oral communication was ever tweeted. It was a quip made offhandedly at a conference I love and have attended every year since 2001. I was mortified not only because it had been broadcast to the conference hash tag but because in a twist of irony, I would be asked to be the conference chair the very next day. My tweeting friend has over 1200 followers. “Great!”, I thought, “the matrix has me.” Then looking at my friend thought, “and you are its agent.” Don’t worry we’re still friends. Reflecting on that moment I wondered “was I invited to participate or recruited through the pervasiveness of networked social practice?” How was she an agent of this system and where was my agency in it?
-Contributed by Hector Postigo, Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-
This post offers an introduction to a new comparative research project being conducted by Aphra Kerr and Tamara Shepherd, which started with discussions at Culture Digitally workshops and continued through a Dobbin Scholarship funded research visit by Tamara to Dublin in February 2014. Aphra and Tamara are investigating how policy measures and incubators have impacted the independent game development scenes in Dublin and Montreal and what the term ‘indie’ means to people working in the industry.
In many ways, Dublin and Montreal serve as ideal sites of comparison: they share a similar population size, proximity to a more dominant country in terms of cultural production (i.e., the UK and the US), and dynamic clusters of technology companies.
Both Dublin and Montreal have benefitted from state policies seeking to encourage new tech startups in particular. For example, Dublin’s Digital Hub and the National Digital Research Centre are specialist spaces for digital media companies. These organizations have supplemented funding schemes more generally for high potential startups and have offered lower corporate tax rates. In Canada, both federal and provincial branches of government run programs for supporting startups and smaller ‘innovation’ businesses.
Video game development in Canada has also taken advantage of support for indigenous cultural production through the Canada Media Fund’s Experimental Stream. An interesting contrast here is that Irish game development companies cannot benefit from funding that supports more traditional cultural industries. The Irish Film Board funding is restricted to animation and feature film projects, while the public service broadcaster (RTE) and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland funds television and radio production. Games must instead compete with all other companies to secure funding on the basis of economic, rather than cultural, criteria.
While both Dublin and Montreal offer resources for indies, Montreal-based outfits have the added advantage of proximity to larger game companies, particularly the AAA publisher Ubisoft, which anchors the city’s game sector. With about 8750 people (more than half of all Canadian game employees) working in the games industry in Quebec – over 25% of them at Ubisoft Montreal but nearly 60% at “micro studios” of 1-4 people – game development in Quebec and Montreal in particular has been shaped by aggressive, and perhaps unsustainable, policy incentives such as payroll tax credits of up to 37.5% per employee.
Despite similar concerted attempts to lure larger developers/publishers to the area, the number of game developers in Dublin is still small. Game employment grew from about 400 people in 2003 to 1500 in 2009, but less than a third of these were in development with the majority in localization, community support, quality assurance and middleware. While major publishers like Microsoft, Activision Blizzard, EA, Riot and Zynga now have a presence in Ireland (most in Dublin), they have offshored non-development jobs mostly aimed at supporting their game services in the European market.
A more recent survey indicates that this trend in games sector employment has continued. In 2012 it was estimated that there were 3,344 jobs in the games industry in Ireland but only 280 in development across 40 companies. Most of the smaller developers were working on iOS, browser and PC games, while the multinationals tended not to operate in the same functions or focus on the same platforms. It is therefore not surprising that there are few links between startup ‘indie’ developers, the multinationals and the spinoffs or spinouts. Further, employment is far from stable. During 2012 almost 600 jobs were lost in the industry, mostly in multinational companies, as they struggled to adjust to competitive forces, platform lifecycles and acquisition.
In this sense, Dublin resembles Montreal before Ubisoft headquartered its North American operations there in 1997 (see Della Rocca, 2013). While this means that developers in Dublin are not necessarily subject to the same mass production model that AAA firms instill, where development labour becomes routinized and the intellectual property of devs gets subsumed under non-compete clauses, it also means that Dublin’s games industry is marked, in the main, by micro studios who are undercapitalized and lack business or design experience. Initial interviews would suggest that startup indie developers in Dublin have very different characteristics when compared to their multinational and spinoff/spinout colleagues.
The precariousness of these startup companies has been recognized and there has been some attempt by both public and private actors in Dublin to provide support. One attempt to encourage a more dynamic and vibrant indie game development landscape has been the creation of a games specific version of a government-backed, structured business mentorship and acceleration program for game companies by the National Digital Research Centre. The NDRC GamePad aims to accelerate the startup process by providing three months of business mentorship, funding and office space to a small number of qualifying game companies. The Bridge is another initiative which has brought together companies, a local public college and a business innovation centre to work collaboratively on six month projects in order to ‘upskill’ games, animation and VFX graduates.
Finally, the local games industry association Games Ireland has partnered with a private college, Pulse, to provide co-located office space known as the Gamespace since 2013. The college and company space are temporarily housed on one floor of a building in the financial services district, an area which was particularly badly hit in the recent economic crisis (note the ‘to let’ signs in the image below). This scheme is less structured and relies more on informal knowledge sharing and co-location. It is also in a temporary location and receives no resources other than the space and goodwill. The aim has been to provide a venue for talks and presentations, as well as workspace and the opportunity for Pulse College students to obtain internships. Some companies have emerged from Gamepad and moved into Gamespace.
All of these initiatives are relatively new (since 2012), and in our research we will investigate what impact they have had so far on the emergence and sustainability of indie startup companies. The goal behind Gamespace is to create something like the Dutch Game Garden or Montreal’s Execution Labs, underpinned by a firm belief in the value of clusters and incubators in supporting product and service innovation.
Execution Labs, which uses venture capital and Canada Media Fund support to help indie game developers create titles and launch their companies, has also recently invigorated Montreal’s indie scene. Opened in January 2013 and headed by Jason Della Rocca, the incubator hosts teams of indie game producers while they simultaneously develop their games and work to bring them to market. As Jennifer Whitson, Execution Labs’ embedded ethnographer has pointed out, the mix of creative independence and entrepreneurship touted by the incubator is not always an easy marriage of art and commerce in the contested terrain of what counts as ‘indie.’
But an alternate model for game incubators is also operating in Montreal through academic as opposed to industry or cultural funding schemes. The Critical Hit incubator at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Lab positions itself in opposition to the mainstream games industry by supporting people who make unconventional games “that might not get made in a commercial ecosystem.” While Critical Hit thus makes an intervention into the type of games being made in Montreal, another incubator, Pixelles, uses academic funding to intervene in the industry’s gender disparity by holding game-making and mentorship workshops for women.
The incubator model seems to dominate current attempts to encourage independent games production in both Dublin and Montreal. For our research project, we want to ask, “why incubators?” Is this Silicon-Alley approach useful for game developers, especially in micro startups? How do these incubators channel funds from different kinds of policy instruments designed to support technology startups, indigenous content creation, and games scholarship in Ireland and Canada? What role do incubators play in shaping or intervening in local indie game development scenes? How do developers themselves experience the incubator setting? How might incubators set up new kinds of labour politics, or further entrench existing inequalities? What can a comparative study of Ireland and Canada illuminate about the necessary ingredients for incubators to make an impact?
These questions are guiding the design of this research project, and we welcome any comments or suggestions from the wider CD community on further issues that we should explore as the study takes shape.
-Contributed by Tamara Shepherd, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University; and Aphra Kerr, Lecturer and researcher at the Department of Sociology, National University of Ireland Maynooth, Ireland.-
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off← Older posts |