We can start with some basic questions inspired by my reading of Robertson and Travaglia. Who wants to know? Who owns the data? Who is being cataloged? To what end? Looking back at the practice of social ordering in Robertson and Travaglia’s piece, we realize that the power and control endemic to this earlier “first information age” is familiar to today. Data is a raw material collected by corporate and government entities at alarming rates. If you follow the main stream news, it seems like intelligence agencies are collecting data in such bulk that it remains unexamined and unorganized. If this is even true, it can’t be true for long.
The authors write, “…much of the data collected about human beings by bureaucratic systems has a history not simply of description or even understanding but one of control”. This applies to the mass data collection exposed in recent years by US whistle blowers, but I would add also a means of profit to the discussion. Data is a primary raw material collected and traded by top corporations, funneled as fuel into the refining mechanisms of a mature advertising industry. The old adage about the free lunch is true- our social media activity isn’t actually free, in that our habits, purchases, love lives, and friendships are being mined in order to more expertly sell them back to us. Political and technology theorist Jodi Dean calls this “communicative capitalism”, and understands it to be a qualitatively new phase of capitalism. In this phase, capitalism has adapted in new ways to control workers and the surplus army of nonworkers through communications technology. Furthermore, in a Lacanian twist, our interactions on social media satisfy drive while always thwarting a deeper desire for equality and justice, keeping us in front of the screens instead of in streets.
This leads into further questions about culture, in Manovich and Striphas’s texts. Is it time to just admit that 21st century culture is all online and cataloged? Probably. What does culture even mean outside of technology today? Given that, what does it mean when culture is mediated through corporations and listed according to algorithms to which we have zero access? Is culture a hood that has been welded shut? Both authors do their part to define the word “culture” and its content. Twitter and Instagram are our cultural mediators, but they are also owned by seemingly unstoppable and unknowable corporations.
A part of me still feels resistant to calling this “culture”. I watched an interview recently with filmmaker Abel Ferrara, and, when asked why he’d abandoned his home country to live and work in Italy, he said “There’s no culture where I come from. A bunch of fuck’n lunatics show up 300 years ago, shoot everybody that’s there. Kill every motherfucker that’s there…I’ve never met an Indian in my life… that’s my country. So where’s the culture?” On some days, I agree with him.