[This is an excerpt from a longer essay, forthcoming in the Westminster Papers on Communication and Culture special issue, “The Internet and the Material Turn” — Volume 10, Issue 1, April 2015.]
For millions of people around the world, social media systems now represent a central, material-semiotic mode of relation. Choosing to befriend someone and not someone else, to mark one’s location in the world, to linger over one product instead of another, or to select some search result over those above or below it, are all moments that help to differentiate a daily collective significance through these platforms. At the level of algorithmic technique, their vision of the social is primarily achieved through the capture of, and interactive feedback upon choice and decision—itself a defining feature of computation. How might new materialist thinking understand, or intervene into this mode of relation? Excerpted below, I wonder whether the current technical schemas for social media, which understand choice as an epistemic relation, might be fruitfully reconceived in terms of a prior ontological relation. Borrowing conceptual vocabulary from new materialism, and especially the philosopher Gilbert Simondon, how might we understand information today as a differential effect of the distributed potential for becoming?
Set back into the texture of everyday life, we tend think of computers in very pragmatic terms, as means to a communicative end. But at the level of software design, currents in philosophy and social theory have long shaped their form and function. When it comes to social media, profound insights from phenomenology and phenomenological sociology have steered their conceptualization in a variety of ways, for example (Dourish, 2001; Suchman 2007). Acknowledging this paradigm as the default way to think about social computing today, in what follows I adopt a more new materialist approach, to see how it may offer a different philosophical vocabulary for describing these tools, and defining the social role of users. Consistent with its commitments to distributed agency, the materiality of perception, and most importantly, a bracketing of methodological anthropocentrism, new materialism can especially help us to understand the protocols and algorithms of social media in the altered terms of a non-, or a-humanistic, material-semiotic relationality.
The materialist approach has substantial roots in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987). In an influential reading of the sign-relation, which ran against the grain of more traditional, idealized accounts of its nature, these eclectic anti-philosophers argued that signs always involve more than just the performance of shared meaning in a sociolinguistic context. Further, signs involve more than just a logical or formal relation, secured in the terms of semantics and correct reference—a relation to the sign still very much with us today, as it structures the databases that support the modern world. For them, signs had a still-deeper dimension, best understood in the terms of an impersonal event, from which individuals receive an ordered orientation, and a sense of before and after. From their ‘mixed’ semiotic perspective, things in the world combine with language and events through signs according to a prior modality of power.
From this peculiar but profound position, signs arrive with a kind of ‘fourth-person’ perspective: an effective function exterior to human beings that emerges from impersonal repetitions and redundancies in life, structured into what they called collective assemblages of enunciation. It’s in these broad terms that I see social media connecting up to new materialist thinking; as an opportunity to better see how electronic media work as an impersonal ‘ubiquitous force’, as Connolly (2010, 189) puts it, that ‘flows into the circuits of discipline, perception, self-awareness, and conduct.’ Following others like Rosi Braidotti (2013) in taking up a ‘post-anthropocentric’ position towards the technology, we might look beyond intersubjective, consensus-based choice as the dominant paradigm for understanding sociality through information systems. An important first step involves putting social media’s epistemic understanding of identity and difference into relief against other theorizations of difference, especially those not conceptually beholden to decision or choice in quite the same way; it’s here that I turn to the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon.
Influential upon Deleuze, but also working alongside (and critical of) both the cybernetic tradition as it unfolded, and the phenomenological tradition of his mentor Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simondon did not define identity in primarily epistemic terms. For him, difference was not based in an objective knowledge principle that resolved identity mechanistically, as a relation of probable choice between objective entities—the paradigm for social media today. Rather, difference was ontogenetic and non-identitary, manifesting in a process that he called disparation, a term describing a tensile difference between an individual’s world and its own process of becoming. Can disparation serve as a useful frame of reference for critiquing social media at the level of technique? Connected to his account of choice, for Simondon information was not just defined as exchanged messages between sender and receiver; it was also an internal resonance to being, individuating on the basis of its own dephasing (2005, 328). Simondon’s thought carefully spanned dimensions of the psychic, the collective and the technical, and in light of his work the goal is to consider social media not as we normally might—by gesturing to already-substantialized, knowledge-seeking social subjects who communicate in networks, as a ground for explaining the social—but rather by considering the technical and algorithmic theories that constitute networks of relations between people and things in the first place as themselves in need of justification and critique.
Today’s social media systems build these networks using models of information retrieval that are predicated on rational-individual choice, with prior selection outputs feeding back into current needs, which get interactively resolved through a platform’s self-organizing features. More simply, we’re steered towards the resolution of need (and the experience of novelty) by how our own choices compare with those of others like us. Especially with the profusion of mobile devices, a major goal of social media has been to offer up this rational, self-organizing relation whenever something happens to disturb a user’s ‘operational autonomy’, providing information to address the disparities of one’s environment across a wide variety of situations. But at the level of technique, these moments of knowledge disparity and resolution are defined by a Kantian conception of what a knowledge-relation is, and how it is to be resolved: in the terms of probabilistic choice between already-constituted, mutually-exclusive entities that fit a pre-established code. The user is a discrete subject, and things, people and events are conceived as objective information-signs, formally disembedded from their manifestation in the world. Given the freedom and convenience afforded by social media—to access so much knowledge about the world around us, and manage the organizational complexity of everyday life—we clearly attain significant autonomy through its technical relations.
In a more speculative and new materialist register, we can ask whether users still lack autonomy with respect to the prior ontological terms of that knowledge-relation; where in its establishment, each user’s shifting differentials of becoming get projected into the systems in a particular way, coming to matter mostly in the terms of an abstract intentional choice. In other words, by fitting into pre-existing coded structures that interlace private choice with the essential diagram of information theory—e.g. the probabilistic selection of one entity from an overall set, conceived as exchanged signals that secure a semantic redundancy, which we tend to read as intersubjective consensus—users may be forfeiting a deeper, prior relation of the knowledge relation.
As suggested in the introduction, elaborating this issue means shifting discussion from epistemology to ontology, to ask: are there other ways to comprehend the ‘productive disparity’ of the individual, coupled to the social in an autopoietic relation that current services conceive as a relation of choice among informational resources? A starting response is that each approach tacitly relies on, but ultimately leaves out prior conditions of heteronomous relation among individuals, conceived as singularities in life. Toscano (2006, 3) starts to get at these conditions in his description of anomalous individuation, which appeals to ‘the unequal or differential ground of production that lies beneath the actual, constituted, individuals which provide the objects of the philosophies of representation’. These we might call the affective, perceptual and psychic polarities, or bifurcations of becoming that constitute individuals, which form a deeper, yet obscured ground for our usual understanding of intentional choice. They are elements that social media platforms have tended to envelop through constant redefinition into the epistemic terms of retrieval, as a paradigm for self-organization.
In a corporate video describing the evolution of search, for example, Google Fellow Ben Gomes states that, ‘Our goal is actually to make improvements to search that just answer the user’s informational needs, get them to their answer faster and faster, so that there’s almost a seamless connection between their thoughts and informational needs and the search results they find’ (Googleblog 2011). Contemporary academic discourse in the information sciences sees retrieval as deeply penetrating the psyche in similar ways. Cole (2011, 1227) writes for example that, ‘Information need is at its deepest level primarily a human adaptive mechanism—at the level of human perception, at the level of society and the world in which the individual operates, and at the level of survival as a species’. It was due to similar, positivistic accounts of information as a phenomenon that Simondon sometimes criticized cybernetic models of the individual, rejecting their representationalist assumptions for misconstruing what he saw information’s real role to be: in individuation (Toscano, 2006, 147).
Knowledge as an ontological dephasing relation
Characteristic of new materialist thinking, in justifying his definition of individuals Simondon inverts the relationship typically established between being and becoming. Where the various schemes for retrieval in social media define the sign-relation as a cognitive or epistemic lack, whose need is fulfilled by selecting one’s way to the correct object, Simondon conceives of the sign-relation as an ontological excess: a being ‘more-than-individual’ (Combes, 2013, 35), upon whose surplus individuation takes place. His concept of disparation is fundamental here, in designating
a tension, an incompatibility between two elements of a situation, which only a new individuation can resolve by giving birth to a new level of reality. Vision, for instance, is described by Simondon as the resolution of a disparation between the image perceived by the left eye and the image perceived by the right eye. These two disparate two-dimensional images call forth a three-dimensional dimension as the only way to unify them’ (Ibid, 111).
For Simondon, metaphysically substantialist accounts of the individual (upon which social media’s technicity is currently premised) mistakenly define becoming in the terms of being: the unity of an individual is sustained, and its singularity (or haecceity) defined, by some prior principle of difference. On this understanding, the issue for him is that ‘Anything that can serve as the basis for a relation is already of the same mode of being as the individual, whether it be an atom, an external and indivisible particle, prima material or form’ (Simondon, 2009, 4). In the case of social media, choice as a principle of psychic and collective individuation comes to fit hand-in-glove with a techno-logical principle of the excluded middle—where a proposition is either true, or its negation is true, as a basic mediating feature of computing—thereby producing a prior basis for relation, and a mode of being. In giving substance to being through social media systems, rational choice becomes the general social principle of co-becoming and adaptability for both people and the media systems, impressing the conceptual form of ‘rational being’ onto users and things conceived as unformed matter, establishing them as discrete subject and object.
How is Simondon’s approach distinctive here? From a certain perspective it can be hard to see much difference between his account of individuation, and one given for a reflexive subject that is integrated into self-organizing knowledge structures. Following the ocular analogy of disparation, are we not in some sense now one another’s ‘opposing eye’ on social media systems, achieving collective disparation through the algorithmic, or statistical pairwise superimposition of our differing private choices? Guided by someone like Anthony Giddens’ (1984) theory of individualization, for example, social media systems would here simply be the latest assemblage to predicate social order upon a ‘gap’ at the heart of a self-reflexive subject. We negotiate subject-object relations via a disequilibriating encounter with our structuring environment, and these encounters resolve for the individual through the acquisition and use of knowledge, as we receive its ‘structurated’, consensual norms for behavior. For Simondon however, there is a crucial difference between individualization and individuation: in his account of the latter, neither the structure nor the operating individual ever has unity as a concrete, self-identical being.
Where self-organizing systems theory typically understands incompatibility from the perspective of an agentic organism’s demands on the environment, Simondon sees incompatibility with an environment in a more Spinozist way, as the default condition of collective individuation—of life, psyches, sociality and technology together, in a global situation. In other words, the environment has its own individuating conditions, which relate to the conditions of the organism through what Simondon calls the preindividual, modulating a ‘double-becoming’. Agent and container are effectively a constant flux, never achieving some state of self-similarity, and it’s in this light that he asks: how does the organism differ from itself, how does the environment differ from itself, and under what circumstances do they nonetheless come to relate in a disjunctive (non-)relation? As Hansen (2009, 134) writes, ‘if the global situation is a global perspective, it is not a perspective of the organism but a perspective on the entire process of individuation of which the organism is only one part—a perspective, in short, that situates the organism within the broader context of the preindividual’.
In other words, preindividual being simply is this milieu: the given conditions under which a tension between potentials belonging to previously separated orders of magnitude can be resolved via their communication (Combes, 2013, 4). Bearing Simondon’s ‘flipped’ understanding of being and becoming in mind, in their current incarnation social media stage preindividual being as a decisionistic milieu, individuating people as choice-makers with preferential attachments, and platforms as real-time decision-capture machines that space us out into probabilistic fields of ‘having chosen something’. It’s in this fuller sense that the systems can be charitably read as structuring a disparation, but individuating in a fashion more accurately described as individualization: they resolve magnitudes algorithmically between people and signs by relying on choice conceived as executed by discrete, intentional individuals, which in turn forms the basis for preindividuated potential.
Simondon’s way of thinking suggests that at its core, individuating relation is only secondarily epistemic; it is primarily ontogenetic, though the two remain importantly intertwined through what he goes on to specify as ‘allagmatic’ operations. Massumi (2012, 43) writes that ontogenesis involves a ‘self-inventive passing to a new level of existence’, meaning that being and thinking are the same as they occur in an individual’s milieu. But we alienate ourselves in allowing a representationalist approach towards thinking to stand in for, and then ‘cast back’ upon being. The limitations of our current operational understanding of sociality online stem from a similarly a posteriori, epistemic characterization of relation itself. Relation ought not take place according to a principle that appeals to some higher rank of being—in this case an extraction of “associative thought” read as utilitarian rational choice, as we forge endless connections between disparate entities under the philosophical auspices of intentional categorization. Rather, being itself becomes by linking together differentially, spacing itself out in an internal milieu, through a difference particular to living and not adequately known through the taxonomic sorting of concepts. As Combes (2013, 18) describes in a helpful refrain: ‘knowledge exists in the same mode as the beings that it links together, considered from the point of view of that which constitutes their reality’.
Acknowledging that we are moving here into a more speculative discussion that may not fit with the extant capacities of information systems, the user-as-individual in this case might no longer be understood as a discrete agent making intersubjective choices with autonomous intentionality. Rather, they would be taken more impersonally as an ‘it’: an individuating process-organism involved in the ‘local resolution of disparation, as the invention of a compatibility between heterogeneous domains and demands’ (Ibid, 149). Perpetually ‘becoming-individual’, the relation would not be based in some pre-conceived notion of ‘bringing like together with like’ through choice as an abstract mechanism; it would rather emerge between-itself in the vital and semiotic resolution of a milieu, with choice conceived as a problem resolved by way of the user’s inventive analogical capacity, to make comparisons in order to see novel differences. Individuation would still be a knowledge relation, but one defined by an individual entirely in light of its particular individuating dynamic—or ‘preindividual share’, as Simondon understands it—and thus not admitting of some single, generalized epistemic principle.
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