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We crossed our paths at the huge demonstration against male violence on women in Rome: he had bushy eyebrows shadowing a secant gaze, his beard was short and whirled softly upon his cheeks, his canvas shopper swinging rhythmically and his t-shirt fell down his shoulders like from a hanger. I had seen him elsewhere, his profile-pic showing up on my ‘people-you-might-know’ frame on Facebook. One evening, a few days days later, just before parking my head upon my pillow, I was tired of my Grindrography and started playing with the “tribes” filter, one the few available in the free version. Then I toggled otters.
In my understanding, otters are like bears but skinnier; it is all that I know, I don’t know if there is a subculture sustaining that kind of body, if we are talking about bodies. The first one is at 180 km. I have learnt to guess locations by numbers: 200 meters is the Holiday Inn I see from my balcony, 3 km is downtown, 400 km is Florence, 700 Turin, 1600 London, 2000 Lisbon. 180 km is Rome. There he smirked and frowned in a sort of fake embarrassment in the very first cell next to mine. “Hi there, I think I saw you at the rally but I didn’t stop you because I’m not really good at this, do you fancy chatting a bit?”
A different geography exists on hook up apps, and it is designed by the coordinates of each device – connecting to the desires (and boredom) of a body caught in parameters such as height, weight, age, tribe and a reason to stay online. Right now? Sex? Friendship? Chat? Date? Relationship? Nope. Boredom is not encoded in this kind of geography. It is a viscous geography, thicker in big cities, wherein the free version doesn’t let you see beyond a couple of blocks, and more rarefied in peripheries and countryside where the first person online is within one hour ride. It is a layered geography wherein people walking in the same square meter cannot see each other because they plane on different strata, vertically bordered by the properties defining their identity and desires.
Despite being as old as a 2-grader, not only Grindr has revolutionized gay sociality but it is already a solid technocultural reference in novels, movies, series and artistic installations. Launched in 2009 by its current CEO, Joel Simkhai, the grid designed app has somehow passed the coolness test for online chats. In fact, they are no longer perceived as risky or designed for people who cannot handle offline sociality. Apps opened new spaces for interaction between the digital and physical worlds, each app installed on a user’s phone being a subjectivity module in a spatiality which is neither completely public, neither completely private. After being cited by Stephen Fry on BBC’s Top Gear, Grindr’s download-count rose exponentially as did concerns about privacy, triangulation and trackability.
Art in the times of Grindr
In 2014, Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven caused a scandal over the relationship between Grindr, the art market and the kind of spatiality produced by the app with his installation Wanna Play? Liebe in Zeiter von Grindr – Love (sic) at the time of Grindr. The residency, commissioned by Berlin artistic space Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) and by the Dutch government, consisted in a container reproducing and mixing up Berlin’s physical space with the digital one: the fourth wall was made of glass allowing passers-by to look inside. The grids, the profiles and the chats from Verhoeven’s app were projected onto the back wall in negative, in a goofy attempt to protect privacy. Instead, the installation was perceived as an open attack to the communities in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood historically inhabited by migrant (and) LGBTQI people. One user, Parker Tilghman, after having figured out that his chat session was publicly shown, punched Verhoeven and called him “a digital rapist” on Facebook. In an angry yet lucid post, published one week later in Mute Magazine, Jacob Rosemberg dismantled Verhoeven’s conceptual container (and the attempt on HAU’s behalf to extract value from the accident, mending the wounds produced in Kreuzberg with the thread of relational art). The post disassembled Verhoeven’s belief that he was really contributing to a debate on public and private spaces, by noting that public and private spheres – and the the difference between the two – are deeply embedded in a context governed by private interests.
A different note is struck by Andrés Jaques’s installation Intimate Strangers, produced by his studio of critical architecture Office for Political Innovation, and part of the exhibition “Fear and Love” showcased at the Design Museum in London until April 2017. Exposed on several screens of different sizes and shapes and divided in 4 episodes, Intimate Strangers opens up to contradictions in the design of Grindr and of other proximity-based people discovery apps, by analyzing the way in which they capture the users’ subjectivity and by looking closely at the lines of flight that it emits. In the four episodes, the Spanish American architect describes hook up apps as a technology for a transmedia urbanism, spreading in big cities and reflecting the burgeoning gentrification process of former queer neighborhoods, that were turned in “a new mainstream”. But it also explores the way in which the technology upon which Grindr is based is a backdoor for control (in states with institutionalized homophobia) and a technological tool for resistance allowing for the formation of solidary networks. The show was also advertised on Grindr’s social accounts. But whereas Simkhai blog on Grindr’s corporate site and Grindr’s Instagram narrates an open app, sensitive to trans rights and non-indentitary politics, the User experience design (UX Design) of the application tells a completely different story.
Digital public space and subjectivation
In his autoethnography on bareback (both as a practice and as a subculture), Tim Dean draws a genealogy of the logic behind the privatization and the securitization of spaces otherwise open. The cruising space where bodies me(e)t emerged in anonymous forms of encounters and expressed the excess of legitimized familiar intimacy, soldering forms of solidarity between sexual partners. Quite ironically, Dean’s Unlimited Intimacies was published in the same year Simkhai launched his app. But in 2009, dating online was anything but a new story. Among other things, Dean documents how the darkness of an open space at night or the dim-light of a darkroom, became misty in saunas and started to shine through the sleek and clean design of computers. This illumination marks a securitization of the risk of encounters, but that does not mean that it creates a safe space for encounters.
Hook up apps dragged the cruising space out of its dark limits and redistributed it onto the urban space, in the private perimeters of houses, gyms, clubs – fragmenting a sociality of data-subjects who un-see each other on the basis of the desire captured by the app. As in the dystopian novel by China Miéville, The City and The City, apps produce multilayered spatialities in which citizenship (in the case of the novel) and identification with a tribe (in Grindr) directs sociality on rails nailed to the same ground but never touching. The selective vision is a very peculiar bordering device in the interfaces of this kind of apps and it governs the sociality between its users.
According to the visual culture scholar Benjamin Bratton, software is a form of sovereignty distributed on a vertical but not hierarchical geography. That is, it is not delimited by geographical borders but it is designed by “accidental megastructures” made of users, cities, interfaces the cloud and, of course, platforms. The interfaces of platforms, returning a new vision of the world, respond to a problematic software architecture as they put to work the bodies transiting on the app, producing a narration that strips those bodies of their own data: the platforms and their interfaces design a society in their own likeness.
The narration of the quantified self accompanies the recodifications of disruptive cultures into secured identities. For instance, bears’ counterculture initially broke down the dominant gay male aesthetics, and later reaffirmed the model of a hegemonic masculinity, often a white one (m4m, no fat, no fems, no Asians, no blacks). In a space where geographic positions define an aspect of a user, that is a property, the quantified self interpels us from a political and from an ontological point of view.
From a queer transfeminist perspective, Nina Ferrante observes how the legacy of postmodernism in the 80s and the 90s, that of liquid and temporary identities, surrendered to the crystallization of practices, like glasses scattered in a kaleidoscope of given identities. Following an online protest of trans and drag-queens reclaiming the right to name their bodies, Facebook multiplied the choice in the drop-down menu under the gender box. But Facebook’s opening on issues such as gender binarism does not disrupt the identity paradigm. Instead, this new identity-based-design, starting from the data commons produced by Facebook users (the protest posts online) implemented a +1 logic which does not seriously question such a paradigm, neither from a political point of view nor from the point of view of data ecology. On the contrary, it becomes its proprietor and governs it.
On the basis of this kind of governance of practices crystallizing in identities, Tim Dean highlights the excess produced by occasions in their becoming properties. According to Dean, many people practicing sex without condom (like many monogamous gay couples) do not see themselves as being part of a bareback subculture, nor early porn from the ’70s were marketed as bareback porn. The subculture started its codification out of the massive campaign for prophylaxis in the wake of AIDS epidemics in the ’80s through the ’90s. In the same fashion, the biopolitical dispositif at the core of Grindr’s design (the cells and the tribes) individuates a set of physical, aesthetic, ethnic, cultural and medical data reducing them to bounded, properties and identities that cannot overlap (at least in its free version).
Properties and User Experience Design
To whom those properties belong, if by property we mean both attributes and possessions? Drawing on British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, Stamatia Portanova points out that a body’s properties are individuated through initial data, or occasions (that is the encounters or the practices); the work of individuations results in the production of data-commons that are readily made measurable and valued online. The capitalistic eco-logics of the app for sexual encounters catches the emerging properties of the bodies and harnesses them in the work of interaction with the app itself. Since a body’s attributes are also its possessions, the grid of Grindr’s interface transfers those assets into the sharing economy as information or data objects.
Not only are some data retained by the app as a privatized digital space but social relations themselves are fragmented and reduced to a one-to-one communication. Then they are made invisible to other users. An app for the commons, Portanova argues, would return the wealth of data to its “legitimate owners” but does not disrupt the functionalism embedded in the applicational ecologics, according to which the only point of access to an app is functionality (a capitalistic byproduct). In the case of Grindr, the function is the satisfaction of a sexual desire. Translated into the start-up lingo “there’s an app for that!”. And yet, the “dysfunctionalism” of hookup apps is what make them so irresistibly popular.
Talking to a friend about my research, we launched ourselves in an exercise of design fiction à la Black Mirror, by imagining apps allowing, as Uber and Airbnb do, the rating of the sexual performance of a partner/lover met online. This dystopian exercise made me reflect upon the necessity of imagining the app-to-come and upon the need to imagine it starting from a political view of the UX/UI Design. We do not know the scenarios opened by future technologies yet, but for the time being, the digital world is part of our experience of reality. What we can already do is to imagine the functions of the app-to-come – before the coming quantum phones scatter our categories of thought about binaries and amplitudes. And we can do it, by thinking about the occasion we want the app to produce: no longer single encounters but an ecology of relations, data of common properties designing a geography that can be safe and not secured, solidary and non-identitary.
It was late and I fell asleep with my phone on. While sleeping my quantified self was available for chatting, dating, getting bored together. The following morning I read the otter’s response to my message “I was in the mood for chatting but I fell asleep”. End of communications. A lost occasion?
Rising from the South, spreading throughout Latin America, a feminist wave of (cisgender and trans) women has questioned violence and murder under the battlecry of “Ni una menos”. The wave then propagated to Poland, where women stopped the whole country for days in order to defend their right to abortion and self-determination. Then, the wave became the tide that flooded the streets of Rome and brought, everywhere in Italy, a political mobilization of women and queer subjectivities against gender violence. In the United States, women flooded the capital and major cities against Trump‘s election, protesting against the racism and the sexism overtaking the country. Only when the tide overwhelmed and blocked major airports in the United States did the international media understand the extent of these protests, but always neglecting to mention the transnational character of a revolt of women from distant countries united in the struggle against patriarchy and capitalism.
The 8th March 2017 will be a day of transnational struggle and mobilization, the day when women from 22 countries call for a strike to block productive and reproductive labor for capitalism, a mode of production which values our lives differently, makes our labor of care invisible, creates inequalities in salaries, and profits from the capitalization of differences. The gender system, reproduced through obligatory heterosexuality, imposes roles and assigns expectations (a violence in itself), generating and feeding violence against the most vulnerable bodies. In this context, frontiers represent a bleeding wound on the bodies of migrants, whom are made profitable at the same time as they are cast as unworthy to live.
The University has forever pushed us to produce twice as much in order to have only half of our efforts recognized. So many students crowd the classrooms and keep research going, challenging the crystal ceiling that keeps them away from prestigious tenured jobs or even from the more mundane hope of a temporary contract. The legacy of divergent ways of thinking is considered as a minor one, as useless and even harmful knowledges within a paradigm of knowledge production geared towards profit. This has meant a real and proper death-sentence to Gender, Queer and Postcolonial Studies, for example, such as the merging (that is actual closure) of of the PhD in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at the ‘L’Orientale’ University in Naples, where many of us studied, thriving within a horizontal community of growth and exchange. We learned from feminism to start from ourselves to produce a thought that can change the world. Postcolonial feminist thinkers and writers taught us to listen and think ‘nearby’, not “in place of’’. Queer thinking showed us how to practice the art of failure and the betrayal of monumental epistemologies. Today more than ever we believe that knowledge is about taking a stance, questioning our privileges, and expressing a divergent thought against the violence of the gender system, against the austerity measures and the cuts which have sentenced the University and knowledges to death, against institutionalized racism and security policies, which, in the name of the defense of women and LGBTI people, are persecuting and deporting migrant people, but especially against every kind of – material or immaterial– border between nations and genders.
For these reasons, we will join the strike of the 8th March. Some will regularly go on strike, but most of us, without contracts, recognition and security within the university, will invent new forms of siege of cognitive capitalism. In the classes where we teach, often unpaid, we will cross our arms from unrecognized and unpaid work. We will desert the self-imposed obligation of having always to be visible and productive, a principle that pushes us continuously towards self-exploitation. We will refuse to practice any form of kindness towards those who consider our precarity as the legitimation of our total and perpetual ‘availability’. We will find new and unpredictable ways of taking the floor and manifesting our rage against this system, expressing our solidarity with the ones fighting for a world without inequalities, violence and borders.
Some days ago, Facebook’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, published on his page a letter where he makes some very interesting statements about the ongoing direction of the platform, its current priorities and the general vision underlyng its strategy of development. The document has been mostly and inevitably read against the larger debate on how the largest of the global social media platforms has changed political communication.
Actually, Zuckerberg does address in the letter two of the most frequent charges which have been moved to the gigantic social networking site by its critics. The first allegation claims that Facebook creates ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’, that is that it exposes its users only to similar opinions (what Zuckerberg names the problem of ‘diversity of viewpoints’, and the ensuing polarization of the political climate). The second accusation concerns the ways in which the medium allegedely does not make a difference between false and true information (as in the virality of ‘fake news’), defined by the American billionaire as the risk of ‘sensationalism’. Defining these issues as basically a question of ‘risks’ and ‘errors’, Facebook promises to invest more into its Artificial Intelligence program, announces great progresses in its capacities to increasingly distinguish ‘true’ and ‘false’ news while also promising to tweak its algorithms to increase the diversity of its users’ feeds – thus addressing the problem of misinformation and political polarization. In addressing these criticisms, what seems to me most significant, however, is the way Facebook seems to admit to be in the unprecedented position to govern the global social life of information, thus becoming the new infrastructure of a transnational, (post)civil society.
It has been quite a change lately from the days when Facebook, following Google in this regard, rejected the idea of being a media company, defining itself first of all as a high tech company. By acknowledging its responsability in creating the social environment or medium where political communication unfolds, Facebook is starting to look more like a medium, hence facing the kind of issues that the news media such as TV or the press have to deal with, such as bias or misinformation. The letter reads as Facebook’s admission that it is willing to take on the political responsability to govern its platform. Technology companies are not new of course to governance – an issue which is keenly felt by businesses operating in the areas of the Internet of Things, Smart City, the Sharing Economy, the Gig economy and so on. Facebook, however, sees itself in the position to regulate what the letter defines as the ‘social fabric’ woven by processes of association and dissociation and the ‘collective values’ that emerge from such processes.
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, with the possible exception of Uber, mostly Silicon Valley companies have positioned themselves with the opposition, presenting themselves as the stalwart representatives of both American liberal values and globalization (the letter closes with a quote from Abraham Lincoln). If Facebook’s mission is ‘to make the world more open and connected’, then it is a mission which does not agree well with the nationalist closures indicated by events such as Brexit or Trump’s election. The letter presents Facebook as engaged in weaving of a global social fabric which is not homogeneous, but composed of overlapping and yet culturally specific parts. The heterogeneous transnational cultures which make for Facebook’s social fabric produce variable cultural norms, which cannot be determined or governed starting from a single norm. A normative, variable and differentiated curve, such as that described by Foucault in his discussion of mechanisms of security, displaces ‘normality’, while openness and connectedness realize the continuity of economic valorization. (Almost) the whole world, or at least those parts that are ‘open and connected’ is now the ‘inside’ of Facebook – literally lying side by side in its servers.
A few years ago, authors such as Celia Lury and Maurizio Lazzarato among others, described the change by which post-Fordist businesses do not primarily produce goods, but are engaged in the production of worlds to live in. Here Zuckerberg presents the mission of his company as emtailing a ‘journey’, which involves the creation of a world, obviously open and connected, which realizes the long journey of humanity towards wider and wider forms of social aggregation: from tribes, to cities, to nations, and now, thanks also to Facebook, to a ‘global community’. There is of course more than a a Eurocentric hint of linear progress at work, an arrow of time pointing to the destiny of a global society. Facebook thus presents itself, implicitly like the Silicon Valley as a whole, the historical representative of the forces of globalization which oppose the nationalist closure of Brexit and Trump. Facebook’s mission then becomes implicated in facilitating and expanding globalization as a process which presents ‘challenges’, ‘risks’ and ‘opportunities’ which no single nation or people can take on but that need the mobilization of a ‘global community’.
The overall focus of the letter is thus on the challenge of building new ‘social infrastructures’ which enable the global community to get organized and to strengthen the ‘social fabric’ paradoxically compromised by globalization. It’s interesting to notice how this intention to build a global political community is given by data on the growth of ‘groups’ in Facebook. The focus on groups triggers a shift of attention from interpersonal networks (friends and family) and pages (which are the engines of economic valorization with their ‘likes’) towards ‘groups’ as priority for future investment. This shift to groups returns Facebook to questions asked by the inventor of sociometry and of the ‘social graph’, the psychiatrist Jacob Moreno who in the mid-twentieth century posed the problem of mapping ‘the mathematical properties of the psychological life of populations’ – that is of the psychosocial regulation of social life starting from groups.
The question of groups allow for the formulation of the vision and model of society which Facebook proposes as the solution to the global crisis of governance (but significantly not the economic crisis). I am convinced that it is not by chance that the question of the ‘social infrastructure’ has risen around the popularity of groups, and in particular what Zuckerberg defines as ‘very meaningful groups’ which quickly become an essential source of support and identification for those who join them. Unlike interpersonal or egotistic networks (friends, family and acquaintances), groups take us back to the old image of the caring ‘virtual community’ which Howard Rheingold described in the early 1990s. The old virtual community is here integrated into a ‘global social fabric’ which is also an infrastructure which is the platform as a whole. Facebook’s communities or groups are by far the only ways by which communities form on the Internet, but what the company seems to claim is they are in a privileged position to enable such processes within a single, private network with a centralized, cloud computing architecture which hosts a population of a couple of billions of accounts modeled according to the diagrams and methos of graph theory and social network analysis. Such social is not significantly conceived as essentially made of isolated and connected individuals (alone together as Sherry Turkle put it), but as composed of groups and sub-groups. I would argue that in social networks, the individual is always somehow defined by the groups it can be seen to belong too in as much as there is no individual in a social network who exists if not as part of a group – even the smallest group of two. The model of society evoked by Zuckerberg under the name ‘community’ is a set of connected sub-sets, topologically discrete and yet continous which returns the image of an heterogeneous and entangled planet. Implicitly evoking the fist social network analysts, Zuckerberg describes society as a granular fabric of unevenly sized communities, which merge and differentiate, but within a single plateau provided by the platform’s body. One has the impression that it is this specific composition which allows for the social network to become in Zuckerberg’s vision the problem-solving infrastructure of global crises, significantly and mainly identified with terrorism and climate change.
Some years ago, anthropologist and activist Joan Donovan told me how the Occupy movement managed to use and orient politically the logistical capacities of social networks, that is their capacity to change from networks where opinions are shared to networks able to coordinate action at a large scale. When the Sandy hurricane hit New York City, she told me, Occupy managed to collect and distribute resources, thus proving the capacity to produce an autonomous government of emergencies, which national and local government are increasingly inadequate to do because of the budget cuts. In the letter, Zuckerberg keeps quoting examples of such uses of the platform autonomously organized by users, by the intelligence of the general sociality captured by such media. As the number of individuals and groups engaged in thinking and experimenting with p2p and/or -social production grows, Donovan has started to define ‘hypercommon’ the potential of the technosocial to cooperate and govern in ways which differ both from the market and the State’s modalities of government.
Significantly, Zuckerberg does not include in the list of political priorities for the global community the debt crisis, precarity, exploitation or forced migration, but stops at pandemics, terrorism and climate change. The platform thus becomes the was in which an emerging global society defends itself against ‘harms’ and prevents them. If the platform is positioning itself as an alternative to the extreme nationalism of Brexit and Ttump, it does so remaining firmly within the boundaries of what Nick Srnicek has called ‘platform capitalism’ – which will be discussed early in March in an event organized by the free university network of postworkerist inspiration, Euronomade, in Milan’s ‘liberated’ space Macao.
To sum it up, for me this letter makes it even more clear how Silicon Valley is formulating what Foucault would describe as a new ‘political rationality’ which takes on the legacy of liberalism and neoliberalism in identifying as the main problem the government of populations (billions of users), the maximisation of their social, political and cultural life, and the protection from ‘’risks’, ‘harms’ and ‘errors’ inherent in the circulation of information (false news, sensationalism, polarization, divisiveness, terrorism, climate change and pandemics). This is accomplished within a market economy that never questions ownership or accumulation. Together with the smart city movement, platform capitalism intensifies its vocation to become a new form of social government.