[-empyre-] Introduction

Ben Grosser grosser at bengrosser.com
Mon May 11 15:16:45 AEST 2020

On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 10:10 AM Byron Rich <brich at allegheny.edu> wrote:

> As we start to wind down week one, I’m really interested in your
> perspective on the future. As noted in the opening thoughts earlier this
> week, Margaret Atwood doesn’t like it when the word “dystopia” is thrown
> around without a level of criticality. As someone really invested, aware,
> and working in the discourse of social media and its proliferation of
> policy and culture, are you hopeful at all? Do you see potential in any
> emerging platforms to be less invasive like Vero or even Discord?

I suppose it depends on the time scale you're asking about. In the near
term, I don't have much hope. The big five for-profit tech corporations
(Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) have a profound level of power
over our future, with the ability to influence who we listen to, what we
say, and what information we can find (or never see). Even if you presume
the best of intentions on the part of these corporations, their leaders
have proven time and again that they are incapable of anticipating—or
heeding predictive warnings about—ways their technologies can be weaponized
to support/extend/embolden existing power structures. This is further
complicated by the current moment, where COVID-19 has not only pushed more
of the world online than ever before, it's made us more dependent on the
network than we ever expected.

One result of this pandemic-era shift to online everything has been an
uptick of public perception for companies like Facebook, as we need more
than ever the remote connection it and other dominant platforms enable.
Companies like the ones making Vero or Discord, despite improved
intentions, are still for-profits, funded by VC firms and/or billionaire
founders. One of the many lessons from the last four years is that putting
mass amounts of personal data into the hands of for-profit corporations not
threatens individual privacy, but puts democracy itself at risk. I
appreciate any attempt by any organization to build something outside of
the dominant "free" for the user ad-funded systems we have now. But because
of near monopoly effect of scale that Facebook, Google, and others enjoy,
it will take more than small alternatives to compete (to see evidence of
this, consider the negligible negative effect on Facebook of the various
#deletefacebook campaigns over the last few years). Instead we need to
start advocating for *public, non-profit *and/or *federally-supported*
infrastructure for social interaction that is decentralized,
advertising-free, and cost-free for users (because it's supported by tax
dollars or some other progressive public funding model). Until society
collectively assembles something like this, I don't see any realistic
competition taking on Facebook/Google/etc in a way that could encourage
sufficient migration to make it a viable alternative. Social networks—just
like internet access, web search, and a handful of other areas—are now just
as important for global progress as roads, libraries, etc were when they

As Geert Lovink said recently, artists have a "special responsibility" to
take on the tech corporations. Government isn't going to jump start this in
any meaningful way. Private corps won't do it either. But artists can
leverage their ability to build/create/amplify in ways that challenge the
trillion dollar corporations and their billionaire leaders, to make works
that help everyday users see that the designs of monopoly platforms
*prescribe* culture. Put another way, we can't just build a great
alternative, we have to also facilitate individual development of a
critical reflex towards software and platforms so that when an alternative
arrives people know and feel why it's important to shift.

Oh, and as for your question about whether we can still use the term
"tactical media"—yes please, let's keep using it.

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