The title says it all. This is a bitter book. Written in essayistic, first-person narrative, it talks about things we all know from our daily experience ever since social media became our whole world. Behaviour modification and fake news are the topics of the day, but there are other less outspoken transformations also occurring: blurred boundaries between work and private life, the precarious conditions of permanent availability, the paradox between the hyper-individualised subject and the herd mentality of the social, the pressure to lead a predictable life, permanent social ranking, amplified but less visible hierarchies, indifference, hatred.
In spite of its bitterness, it is a pleasure reading as it not only observes but also gives these things a broader meaning and places them in a historical context. Take, for example, the hype around big data and artificial intelligence. We are impressed by the knowledge that can be obtained through analysing huge quantities of information, but knowing data is also collected about us raises a multitude of concerns. Author Geert Lovink connects this discontent to the 1970 resistance against the census in the Netherlands and the German protests of 1983. «For these protestors, the big data collection of personal IDs, matched with identifiers such as religion, political beliefs, and ethnic background was unacceptable», (p 88). He meticulously explains how recent focus on the computer as interface obscured its initial, computational purpose, and thus the fact that statistics and computers have a joint origin in the widespread use of IBM’s punch card technology by the Nazis to coordinate forced labor, and its broader role within the Holocaust in terms of counting and selecting Jews (p 84).
The platform age
The computer has been associated with population control and genocide (p 79) long before we enthusiastically praised it as a liberation tool for individuals and communities (p 80). I first heard about Geert Lovink, a theorist, activist and net critic, who «has made an effort in helping to shape the development of the web», in the mid-1990s. At that time he founded the international Nettime circle/mailing list and I wrote an essay for the publication accompanying the Nettime May Conference – Beauty and the East, organised by Nettime and Ljudmila (Ljubljana digital media lab) in Ljubljana in 1997. This was, writes Lovink, the new media period, «in which we, as activists, artists, designers, and community organisers believed we could play a role». But this «short summer of net criticism» was soon over and venture capital monoculture with the hype of e-commerce prevailed until the dotcom crash and 9/11 in 2001. What followed was Web 2.0, «a low-key period of recovery» with blogs, RSS feeds, user-generated content and the rise of Google. The «knowledge of networks acquired in the previous periods was transformed into (…) profit for the few» (p 62). The «fourth internet phase», which began after the 2008 global financial crisis, «is defined by the rise of the extractivist model» and «social media platforms that subordinate networks as mere tools for hypergrowth» (p 63). While the 1980s was the golden era of media, and networks dominated the 90s, we are now well into the platform age.
While the 1980s were the golden era of media, and networks dominated the nineties, we’re now well into the platform age.
If we still hear about «new media» today, says Lovink, is because in all these decades we failed to develop an adequate theory. Despite overwhelming global statistics that illustrate a majority of mankind (55% in June 2018) are online, hooked on platforms» (p 62), no one seriously took on the challenge to establish Internet studies, let alone platform studies. «Artistic new media programs have silently been closed down, have been merged into harmless (…) enterprises such as «digital humanities», or have been subsumed into the broadcast logic of media and communications.» This has seriously limited the available knowledge and undermined the capacity to fully grasp the implications of the contemporary platform age for people and societies. «The white male geeks from engineering and would-be venture capitalists from business schools have achieved cultural dominance – endlessly replicating Silicon Valley schemas and leaving those with social science, arts, and humanities or design background on the sidelines» (p 9).
Materiality of media
Lack of appropriate theory makes Lovink’s work, and this book, that much more important. His academic «role models» are German media theorists Klaus Theweleit and Friedrich Kittler. They investigated the traumatic roots of media in the Second World War and for them, «media could not be separated from the military». An approach which «was radically different from IT’s (…) cycles of hype and their obsession with the future.» Another academic influence is an anthology, Texte zur Medientheorie published by Reclam in 2004. Its main point of difference is the emphasis on the materiality of the media (p 63). This well explains his bold claim that the platforms we use to communicate have been designed to make us sad. This is not a determinist view, akin to McLuhan’s «media is the message», in the sense that media determine society. Of course, sadness already existed before social media but this is a particular kind of sadness, a sorrow that happens «when we can no longer distinguish between telephone and society. If we can’t freely change our profile and feel too weak to delete the app, we’re condemned to feverishly check for updates during the brief in-between» (p 47). Far from being a natural response, such sadness is integrated into the design of interfaces and the architectures of apps (p 51).
Lack of theory makes Lovink’s work, and this book, that more important.
This is a scary view but Lovink presents it with personal conviction and academic rigour, in a dialog with other scholars, as a result of a particular configuration of individual and social in contemporary social media. In the words of Sherry Turkle, another internet scholar: we are alone together. Throughout the book, Lovink intertwines his own research and scholarly work with historical information and contemporary critical theories. But its greatest advantage is its various proposals for solutions. Thus it is bitter, but not a little bit pessimistic. If you will read one book this summer, make sure it is Sad By Design.
Featured Image: Mediamodifier from Pixabay