Communicative Capitalism, Status Update Psychology, and Filter Bubbles

Have you ever taken photos at an event — with the thought that you would later post them to Facebook? Maybe you even loaded them from your smartphone while the event was still in progress? Have you ever Tweeted from a protest? Have you ever found yourself thinking about how you would translate something you were experiencing into a status update?

I’ll cop to all of the above.

In my post last week (Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?) I discussed Jodi Dean’s Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. As the title of her article suggests, Dean argues that the virtual world—with its incredibly abundant circulation of information—is foreclosing on real-world political action. Sharing, “liking”, or commenting on a political article can create the illusion of taking action, as can blogging, signing an online petition, and countless other virtual political expressions. These forms give us a feeling of participation, but our virtual “contributions” are drowned in “a massive stream of content” that nobody—let alone anybody in power—actually has to respond to.

Today I want to suggest that this illusion does not only impact people whose political activity is limited to the virtual world. I think it also negatively affects the thinking of many people who are very active “on the ground” and in the streets. During real-world actions—protests, marches, occupations, etc.—we’re already thinking about their virtual representations. We’re Tweeting, live-streaming, posting photos, and updating our statuses in real time. It’s not that we shouldn’t be thinking about the strategic projections and representations of our actions and our movements. We should definitely be doing so. How movements are perceived is critically important. The problem is that the cluster structure of the virtual world shifts who our audience is. Our audience doesn’t just shift; it shrinks. And it doesn’t just shrink; it becomes just us. We ourselves become our only audience. Continue reading

Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?

One of the hats I wear in grassroots organizing work is that of a facilitator. I’ve facilitated a lot of long strategy and planning meetings for different organizations and movement groups. Facilitators have a lot of little tools and tricks to help structure groups’ time together. One such tool/trick is the “parking lot”. Basically, if someone says something that may be worthy of further conversation but is off-topic (i.e. not related to the current agenda item), you write it up on a big sheet of paper that says “PARKING LOT” at the top. The idea is that the group will get to it later, just as a driver eventually comes back to retrieve the car she parked in the lot. However, more often than not, “later” never comes, and the “parked” contribution gets stuffed into a filing cabinet or sent out in an email that no one ever gets around to reading. This is why some of my friends and collaborators with Iraq Veterans Against the War jokingly renamed the parking lot. They call it the “ideas cemetery” — “where ideas go to die.” This snarky name denotes how savvy facilitators can use the “parking lot” to derail contributions that they disagree with or dislike.

The reason this trick often works is because the derailed contributor feels heard. They can even see the idea they contributed written up at the front of the room, on display before everyone. They may not know exactly how, but it seems like there’s a chance that their idea could eventually be considered; that it may have an impact. If the facilitator were instead to openly oppose the idea, they may find themselves in an outright battle. It’s much more effective to create a visible space where the idea can “live” — without using up any oxygen in the real living world. As such, the “parking lot” can function as a virtual space that makes some sucker feel heard.

Perhaps the same is true of the Internet. The above story is my attempt to illustrate what I see as Jodi Dean’s main point in her must-read article Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. Dean takes technology enthusiasts to task — particularly those who claim that the Internet is furthering meaningful democratic participation in society. She argues that the Internet de-politicizes more than it politicizes.

According to Dean, it behooves us to recognize the “significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics.” Continue reading

TONIGHT in NYC: “Occupy Their Desire” discussion with Jodi Dean, Not An Alternative, and yours truly

Hey New York City-area friends, tonight I’ll be part of a discussion called Occupy Their Desire at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The panel will include Jodi Dean, the art/activism collective Not An Alternative, and yours truly — followed by a discussion. Here’s the info:

Tuesday, August 21
6:30pm – 8:30pm
Austrian Cultural Forum
11 East 52nd Street
New York, NY

It’s free, but you can make reservations. I hope to see you there.

Here’s the description from Not An Alternative:

Occupy Wall Street occupied mainstream media headlines via a question: what do they want, what are their demands? Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, pushed the question further when he enjoined occupiers not to be afraid to want what they desire — suggesting a gap between conscious want and unconscious desire. In effect, his injunction was for occupiers to occupy their desire; for us to occupy our desire.

Inspired by this, Not An Alternative will host a research discussion that investigates and inquires into the desires expressed by and repressed in Occupy Wall Street. The discussion explores questions such as:

  • How is the expression of desire a necessary element in building a movement?
  • Where has Occupy succeeded and failed in this task?
  • How might we contrast the movement’s expression of desire with that of the 2008 Obama campaign (Hope!), or traditional Left / progressive politics?
  • What role does representation play in the expression of desire — and relatedly, how do the disciplines of art, advertising and psychoanalysis inform this inquiry?

Continue reading