Cultural Hacking the Social Media Machine

500_0By Javier de Rivera

This is post is dedicated to a presentation on Data Commodification made on February 13th at MediaLab-Prado (Madrid) by Walter Langelaar, a media artist from the Netherlands based in New Zealand. Walter has taken part and is responsible for projects like Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, and more recently Commodify.us.

It was particularly interesting to hear from him about the motivations and the reflections that are really behind this media-art projects. He also shared projects by other media-artists, like Erica Scourti or Tim Schwartz , with the same passion that he talked about his own stuff. It felt like media-artists conform some kind of group bounded by the shared passion of contesting the media establishment and the things it represents.

I am using here the term “Cultural Hacking” as a modification of Cultural Jamming, meaning that they use code to criticize, parody or subvert the cultural order imposed by the media establishment. It is (usually) not direct activism against these corporations, but a tinkering around them, like small fishes biting the robotic killer whale. They use coding to do cool new things with the data.

I asked if Web 2.0 Suicide Machine was anti-Facebook activism, Walter said it wasn’t. The real motivation behind it was to point out the impossibility of easily deleting your social media accounts, a functionality that according to the leit motiv of this sites (usability, to make things easy for the user) should be available. On drawing attention to this kind of inconsistencies or contradictions, the real nature of the venture – to capture users information and attention – becomes more evident.

However, it also seems that sometimes, these projects imitate so well the logic of the system or culture they are making a parody of, that people don’t get it. After the talk I understood it is part of the modus operandi of the artists (at least of these ones), they have to depart from the hegemonic logic they are criticizing so that critique emerge from it, from its inconsistencies and not from an alternative view of the world.

A more frontal attack on these systems and logic would require to rescue an alternative discourse or logic – an “essential” view of technology, life and society – which could be considered better and confronted with the hegemonic culture. It is like the real withdraw of Facebook is more effective and deep if you have to take your time to manually deleting everything, reviewing friends, posts, likes, messages, etc. If you do that slowly then you are out for real, and you did it in a different logic, one that privileges consciousness and personal effort, against the unconscious and compulsive style communication that social media culture lives on. In some way, a one-click delete option is adding to this culture of the easy and quick. But that is exactly the paradoxical nature of this kind of media-art: it has to subvert the logic from within, taking it to the extreme.

In the presentation of Commodify.us, he mentioned that it is built as a “parody of the startup culture”, and not only that, but the project is also developed as a startup itself, using the resources available for technological business innovation  (such as incubators, etc). The difference is that this one is not aimed at making money (startups usually make money by selling out to bigger players), but at breaking the logic of the social media capitalist system.

In Commodify.us, they play with the idea of the economic value of users’ data, offering a way to make them available for the final users. So, people has to upload his Facebook profile information, and the system anonymizes and analyses it, making a representation of the data and showing a measure of its potential value. Probably it won’t turn into a profitable business, but it puts the attention on the commodification of users’ data. Even if it is not a radical critique of the logic, because it is formally built on the same logic, if enough people use their system to sell or share their personal data, a part of the social media business would be in danger.

Tech-companies are usually making profit by eliminating the analogical intermediators of a transaction, therefore accumulating capital and economic resources. So, these art projects are aimed at eliminating the digital intermediator, producing the opposite effect: a higher redistribution of money and power. It is like in the project Data Factory, by André Castro, that consists in recording of him calling to a data center and offering to sell his own data to them. They didn’t know how to respond, because their logic is to operate at the margin of public accountability, it is not clear how these companies make their databases.

However, these actions can also make the platform or system they are criticizing to change for good, incorporating their propositions. That is the case of “Give Me my Data” (2011) a project developed by Owen Mudy to download your own data from your account, also advocating for the legitimacy of this functionality on social media sites. A year later, Facebook enabled this feature, responding to the claims made by these artists and other FB users. We can say they won the battle, like a union reclaiming worker’s rights. Paradoxically, in doing so the company becomes stronger, but also recognizes some rights to users/workers, rights that can be used for further actions.

In this sense, some companies could begin to pay users of their maintaining their accounts (that was kind of the idea proposed by Jaron Lanier, from Microsoft), earning with that more legitimacy and support from these users. However, in an alternative trend (or future), owning your data, not only makes you able to sell them at projects like Commodify.us, but it can make possible to clone Facebook using user’s data files. It will need a great amount of work and money, but these projects shows us how it could be possible.

Unfortunately, in this race game against the hegemonic logics, the bigger players will always win because they have “the pan by the handle”, and any advantage alternative projects can get will be overcome by them. Unless we resource to alternative principles, and challenge their logic at the core of it, every critique will make them stronger on the long run. For example, as Walter Langelaar pointed out, even if you can download you data, the company changes the format they use from time to time, so it turns out difficult for alternative projects to make a consistent use of it: they have to adapt to any formating change.

These projects are great because of the consciousness they rise, and it is admiring to see how they follow an artistic ethos that is necessary to be on the edge, and to avoid following under the illusions of having found the solution; that is, on ideological alternatives to our systemic-technological problems. Also, without them, nobody would be looking with a critical eye – and reverse engineering – the technicalities on how social media platforms work. However, I would like to call for a higher integration between critical scholars who criticize the logics of the social media capitalist system, and the artist who develop these critical projects.

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