[-empyre-] Intro, launching some initial questions

Ben Grosser grosser at bengrosser.com
Thu Feb 4 10:05:53 AEDT 2021


Geert,

As always I appreciate your ability to see beyond the horizon. I think the
pandemic era has, for many (including myself), amplified some myopias. That
said, I've been working towards at least a one- or two-year plan, so am
happy to talk about collective efforts to expand this frame. A few
reactions are below, plus some additional thoughts...

> My theses would be that we have left behind the first
> stage (about raising awareness)...maybe not in the USA
> yet...

The situation here in the US is that we have awareness without change. It
reminds me of the 2013-2020 disconnect between awareness of surveillance
post-Snowden and the broad lack of individual initiative to change behavior
in response. One factor then was acceptance of the government's argument
that security required surveillance. Perhaps the new version of this with
the now-acknowledged-to-be-harmful Silicon Valley monopolies is that
convenience requires platforms? That no matter the harm, scale--and the
convenience that scale is perceived to be productive of--is the necessary
condition required to make possible the connected and internet-activated
landscape of today? Such an attitude certainly reflects the ideologies of
Zuckerberg et al, unsurprisingly given that their ways of thinking are
embedded in the platforms they build (and we all use).

There's some new awareness here post January 6th, and at least some in
Congress recognize the relationship between the rise of authoritarianism
and the rise of algorithmic platforms (though many also seem to embrace
it). I fear that Silicon Valley's lobby actions will soon defuse new
regulation and anti-trust rumblings, but we'll see.

> Do we need more documentaries like The Social Dilemma?

No. I used to think it had done more good than harm, but on balance I'm not
so sure anymore. It's served as a whitewashing vehicle for Silicon Valley
execs, helping them gain absolution for having built the monopolistic
platforms in the first place. Those execs/techs now see, after amassing
their fortunes from it, that social media is problematic? Scholars,
artists, and others have been yelling about this for fifteen years, so I'm
not impressed they finally figured it out post Trump. But more damaging is
that the movie advances the argument that Silicon Valley might regulate
itself, that some of its founders and premiere techs will turn on the
platforms and force them to change. This has the SV-desired effect of
defusing government arguments towards regulation and antitrust.

> 1. Develop a culture of refusal ... [that aims to produce]
> collective exodus but there need to be alternatives first
> ... this has been a stagnating strategy ... we’ve not been
> able to resolve

Breaking the stagnation may require stronger, more confrontational works
that pollute the platform ecosystem in ways that turn their advantage of
scale against them. Just thinking on the fly here, but one example would be
an AI users could install to take their place on the platforms when they
leave, a system that slowly trends that user's (now artificial)
contributions towards nonsense. This would not only pollute their
individual profile but could also negatively influence the feeds of many
others.

> 2. Political pressure to break up the monopolies.

Agree that it's a necessary component for change, but have also watched
special interests drive the US Congress for decades. What can break this
cycle? From my side of the ocean I think the EU holds some potential here,
as it sometimes seems willing to risk loss of platform access in order to
compel change. As for future pressure actions, we need more dialog between
artists/theorists and political activists.

> 3. Preparations for the building ... internet as a public
> infrastructure ... we’re not very far into this at all

> 5. A federated, decentralized web is not happening inside
> AWS. ... Is it realistic to bring back server to the people?
> This debate is urgent ... If we want social networks to be
> local again, where do we actually situate them?

I'm reminded of Mark Fisher here, that we've been so conditioned to see
platforms as inevitable that capitalist realism now lives alongside (and is
co-productive of/with) platform realism. People can't envision any viable
alternative to the platforms.

> 6. ... how to subvert the new enclosures, organize exchanges
> and debates, and facilitate encounters with others with
> royal gestures.

Much of your plan leads me to think about shared values as a way forward.
Values I'm thinking about right now that might be a place to organize
conversation around include:

SLOW -- we need media that actively and intentionally works against the
platform capitalist idea that speed is desireable and productive.

LESS -- we need new alternatives that advance an anti-scale, anti-more
agenda. Facebook's answer to the negative effects of platform scale post
2016 was to foreground Groups to "give people the power to build
community." Four years later that platform-produced power has propelled
racism and authoritarianism to new heights.

PUBLIC -- social media infrastructure for 3B+ users should not be driven by
profit or controlled by single individuals. Ditto goods distribution
(Amazon), information access (Google), etc.

DECENTRALIZED -- going back to your thoughts in #5, I see this is as a
daunting challenge. The internet's physical infrastructure is built to
encourage centralization and to discourage anything local. In the US, home
connections dramatically preference consumption (download) over production
(upload). In fact, for many here their user agreements prohibit any kind of
home-based server without expensive "business" plans, and even then the
infrastructure usually won't support it anyway. Perhaps a middle space
along this path is to focus on (or build) some kind of alternative (co-op?)
cloud provider?

DECOY -- to help produce a culture of refusal we need new projects/works
that get into the platforms and help users turn themselves away from them.
To make this possible, my instinct is we need projects that can distract
the platforms (e.g., by being overtly confrontational) in order to slowly
and consistently turn the volume up on those projects that evade their
attention. Projects that only produce cease and desist letters from
corporate attorneys produce nothing. But if they are made and released in
order to create cover for other projects, then they become of use.

ben
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