Programmable dividuals: On social networks and programmability

On: October 3, 2011
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About Eelke Hermens
Hacker and cultural critic, passionate about information theory and semantics. Fed up with cyber utopians.

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Descartes Passions of the Soul set the humanistic notion of a separation between the body and the nonmaterial independent mind, emphasizing the conscious individuality and the controlling potential that the mind has over the body. Gille Deleuze departs from Descarthe’s dualism, by noting that these self-controlled individuals are in crisis. Individuals have become, according to Deleuze, a fluid format, open to variation, which meaning is in constant flux. He dubs these identities “dividuals”, they are not self-controlled but “controlled in advance”.

Dividuals are database constructions, derived from rich, highly textured information on ranges of individuals that can be recombined in endless ways for whatever purpose

The dividual is the product of a continuous obligatory interacting with networks, which produce by themselves fractal, virtual identities. This constant converting of “aspects of life” into proprietary information, is at the the heart of Deleuze’s control society

The notion of the postmodern dividual seems like an appropriate analogy when we take a look at the current social network sphere. Whereas the networks Deleuze talks about are considered facts of life, they are from a consumers point of view a by-product of the actual commodity. Take for example a medical dossier or your bank account, these dividual practices culminate in databases that operate invisibly from the subject when it’s actually querying these medical of financial institutions. They are implicit and in this sense there is a remarkable difference between these fact of life institutions and  current social network platforms. Regarding the social network as a database or archive, the “storing” of codified dividual identities is by no means a new practice of power.
Remarkably though, in the social networks explicit nature, the social archive becomes a celebration of dividuality, the database is hidden in plain sight and its interface calls for direct manipulation (or it seems). This is especially apparent in regards to the moral paranoia that follows any change in privacy settings on Facebook, for example. The concerns regard, almost without exceptions, the visibility of “personal” data in the public sphere, not the sharing this data in itself.
Although the techno-commercial structures that social networks are today do not, by far, constitute the public sphere that Habermas theorized, these web based platforms fall short of the criteria that he insists on. One should be careful with the adaptation of this term, argues Jose van Dijck in a recent essay on Facebook, as the sphere social network users operate in is a far more complex ordeal. Instead, she argues, these platforms are “manifestations of a culture wherein networked publicity strategies mediates the norms for sociality and connectivity”. Using Facebook as an example, these pre existing social norms are (retro) actively transformed and capitalized. The various forms of informal sociality are carefully channelled, codified and immortalized in the archive. The social network database is eerily close to the space that Berners Lee envisioned as the Semantic Web, which he aptly characterized as “a space in which information could permanently exist and be reffered to”. It is important to note here that social behavior is not merely (or not at all, one could argue) mediated, but it is rather normalized. As van Dijck points out:

While many people consider social media to be technical translations of human sociality, sociality is rather an engineered construct than a result of human social interaction.

Sociality becomes a matter of programmability in the social network sphere. To illustrate: Facebooks inter-user relationships are wrapped in code and by definition a binary affair. It is not enough to just regard the socio-cultural interactions on social networks as simple remediations of existing behavioral patterns. We should take note of Lev Manovich‘ emphasis on the importance of programmability in studying new media. This programmability is not merely embedded in the software that drives these networks. There is an interplay of programmable empowerment between user and archive through software, that is at the heart of these social networks.In Programmed Visions, Wendy Chun argues that programming can be an empowering practice.

Programming can be addictive, it rewards and it challenges, and indeed can become a fetish.

She further notices that the attraction of programmability is its promise of “causal pleasure”. This has notable consequences, paraphrasing former MIT professor Weizenbaum, Chun warns: programming offers a power that corrupts as any power does. While the distinction between user and programmer, at least historically, is degrading, this fetishisation is what drives commercial techno-social structures.

The user is constantly generating, deriving from its explicit movements and interactions, normalized data for the database. What drives this user, is the fetishisation of the programmable self. The post-human self expressed in normalized and expected behavior, as a causal and logical being. As “a fetish allows one to visualize what is unknown”, it secures the visible self in the social graph. This is, of course, the exact self, or dividual that the network dictates, allows and finally stores. In the lingo of programming, a social network like Facebook can’t be regarded as just an interface on the user end. It is, I would argue, rather a higher-level scripted language which constitutes of functions that normalize informal social interactions.

Studying social networks from a programmability perspective is an urgent and important endeavor. It is just simply too naive to regard a social network like Facebook, as a a-political, a-commercial public sphere, which simply mediates social interactions. This completely neglects the way the software dictates the social norms. More importantly, we should regard the user as a self programmable object, as a conscious dividual in a slight twist on the Deleuzean subject. What I’ve not touched on here, is the way the social databases deduces the subject in an anonymous object, in a reversal of the fetishisation. These constant conversions between user and database deserves further study.

Notes:

Language of New Media. Lev Manovich
Facebook as a Tool for Producing Sociality and Connectivity. Jose van Dijck
Deleuze and Machines: A Politics of Technology? William Bogard
Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. Wendy Chun.
Protocol vs. Institutionalization. Alexander R Galloway.

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