Cultures of the Web Wrap Up

Cyber-utopianism was always bunk. The web was never democratic and it has become more or less what techno-realists like myself always expected it to become: a new playground for capitalism. It didn’t happen without resistance and that resistance certainly hasn’t stopped. But from the first moments that networking moved beyond the military and academic research, the moneygrubbers tried to sink their claws into it. And there was never any real doubt they’d succeed.

Of course, where capitalism is, so must the state be also. Capitalists love to parade their anti-statism. But capitalism needs the state like cars need roads: it’s what makes going fast, smoothly and safely, possible. There’s much wailing right now about Bill C-10, which aims to bring internet content providers under the terms of the Broadcast Act, subjecting them to the ‘regulation’ of the CRTC (as if the CRTC hadn’t succumbed to ‘regulatory capture‘ decades ago). But the main role for the state, as always, is to protect so-called ‘intellectual property rights’ – i.e., to bring violence to bear to ensure merchants can get away with their thefts and frauds.

That said, the extent to which capitalist surveillance has become the basis of contemporary profitability is even worse than anticipated. “Privacy” is a joke, despite privacy being the core of the ideology of capitalism’s ultras, the disciples of Ayn Rand. And the problem of surveillance poses a crucial challenge to our idea of science, with its insatiable need for data from observation. Yes, he’s already had a good run, but still: buy stock in Foucault.

As a practical, day-to-day issue for readers, the predominance of relationship marketing and targeted advertising poses the threat of corporate capture. Yes, offers award-winning original short stories free online and publishes great books. But that doesn’t mean that other classic imprints like DAW or Ace or Del Rey or Orbit have stopped publishing, nor that there aren’t award-winning small presses around like Small Beer or Subterranean. Wikipedia actually maintains a list. You can, of course, establish a ‘relationship’ (i.e., sign up to be marketed to) with all of them. But is that really something you want??

Writers are being pressed to establish themselves a ‘brands’ now (then again, is there anyone who isn’t?), which is rather a distraction from actually writing. Rounds of interviews, signings, and tours are part of new book publishing in the same way they’ve long been part of movie-making and pop music. Celebrity can be profitable to the celebrity, but it’s even more so to the capitalist who’s exploiting their labour.

Ultimately, the model of fandom is what content producers depend on – and increasingly every consumer product producer is a content producer. Fandom is, I suppose, the commercial domestication of what has worked so well for states under the name of ‘nationalism‘. You can’t just live somewhere or read something or use whatever. They want you to identify with it. They want you to join their community. Digital platforms didn’t start that process. But the open quality of the web network makes it all that much more essential.

In terms of what I was hoping to learn from LLCU-607, producing a paper involving the textual analysis of Reddit posts definitely required me to get more familiar with a number of technologies, of which JSON was one, and more familiar with Reddit as a site, which I’d never particularly cared to do before. While we did learn about some point-and-click scraping tools, which were interesting and useful, I didn’t end up picking up more about the relevant Python libraries. Something for another time then.

The parts I found I learned most from were the parts where we discussed the history of the web, the political battles over digital technologies, as well as Bratton’s fascinating take on ‘The Stack‘ as a new mode of sovereignty. I would have been happy to delve much deeper into those. I’m much less interested in the kinds of thing that are being produced as ‘art’, particularly as ‘avant-garde’ art, under digital conditions. So much of that, despite its fetishizing of novelty, seems aesthetically to be just rehashing early 20th-century tropes. As aesthetic objects, the entirely standardized and ubiquitous production of memes strikes me as far more interesting than the high-concept retro-modernism of the Electronic Literature Organization (provocative words, I know). Putting glitches in your artwork does not create glitches in capitalism and the state, sorry.

Indeed, if challenging capitalism and the state is our measure, then Open Access and Free and Open Source Software are the kinds of cultural practices and products that deserve far more attention than anything produced as ‘art’. Whether they succeed in posing a challenge to capitalism remains open to question, but they actually put the capitalist model in question, in a way that no self-professed ‘art’ work does.

One reply on “Cultures of the Web Wrap Up”

Great piece Chris. I have been following SEO posts at Quora and it is all about “relationship marketing”, fandom, establishing an identity, branding as you describe. And SEO is all just about data gathering gone berserk on behalf of the ugly side of capitalism. Do you agree with that and would you expand on it from your study of Reddit?

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