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Platform Capitalism and the Government of the Social. Facebook’s ‘Global Community’

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.

largerIn 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.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference on September 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the 2011 Facebook f8 conference with a keynote address (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 22: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference on September 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the 2011 Facebook f8 conference with a keynote address (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


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 thsociogramma-morenoe 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.



Applicational Ecologics

Talk di Stamatia Portanova al convegno Ecologies of Existence. Art and Media Beyond the Anthropocene, Leuphana Universitat Luneburg, 30 Giugno 2016

Premiss: The non-human Revealing the non-human elements and forces that run alongside and inside human beings is a recurrent aim of many theoretical and practical projects, most of which directly aspire to completely demolish the monolithic ontological partition standing between the passivity of raw matter and the agency of ‘vibrant life’ (not only human life). So, Jane Bennett writes, “How to describe without thereby erasing the independence of things?” It is an intention of this paper to accept the neo- materialist suggestion of Bennett and others, and take seriously the vitality of non-human bodies, their capacity not only to intervene on human trajectories but also to develop trajectories of their own. But, the non-human is not some thing, and the humanly limited understanding of experience as an elaboration of things (or ‘objects of perception and knowledge’) will be amplified.

Ecology cannot avoid the discussion of data as information objects. Today, data becomes geolocated via smartphones, which means that the most significant content extracted from it is position. Dating and hook-up apps (…) are for example significant in this context, in that geo-locational information is crucial to user interface design, the software sorting, and the follow-up actions of users. (experience of movement transduced into positionality, data as positions) Yet, as Andrew Murphie reminds us, data itself cannot be thought as a simple record of past events, but like a compressed series of recordings and re-recordings, of always complex and somehow corrupt, and unfaithful, traces; this vision gives to information the role of carrying the intensity (that is a potential, a lure for feeling) of past events. Feeling, in its turn, will not be simply considered as an emotional human content (joy, sadness, etc) but, as Alfred N. Whitehead suggests, as that quantum of energy, that vectorial transfer of energy which physics exemplifies as a material (not human) mediation. It is, in fact, a mediation which ultimately does not mediate between preexisting entities but ‘immediates’ their constitution. An immediation where, to put it in Whitehead’s words (via Murphie), “the world can be conceived as medium.” The non-human: not simply data but energy, data and energy, data and feeling, and the immediation, the constitution of new entities, of subjects and objects.

So what is the relation between this conception, and the hook app?

Grindr, Planetromeo, Gaydar. (I do not know them all, and not well, but I have become interested) What kind of relational ecology do they construct? These apps, Roberto Terracciano argues, “compose a narration of the subject that is prepackaged and parametricized, from the point of view of the visibility of sociality and of the social relations.” In other words, geolocalized hook apps, Terracciano thinks, “encourage one-to-one connection keeping social relations hidden to the user but well visible to the machine managing the apps, and to the developer. Hook apps therefore grant the possibility of selection and disvision (a concept Terracciano extrapolates from China Mieville’s novel The City and The City), based on the desire a certain app engenders. Furthermore, profiling helps selecting dates and mates in apps as Scruff or even Grindr, based on the type or the tribe (as Grindr calls it) one belongs to, and of course the body shape, the age and so on. The parametrization of the self helps us to unsee the unexpected other. In this sense, the hook app has a low level of relationality” and a high level of positionality (of the individual). The movement is therefore always a traceable displacement of already positioned subjects and objects. According to our Whiteheadian premiss, the human subject and its perception/memory (image/object, identity/position) are not given in any experiential situation, and do not preexist. So I am wondering again, how can we, following this assumption, reconsoder what ‘really’ happens within the sharing ecology of the hookup apps?

First of all, let us recall the notion of a presupposed origin, and subsistence, of the sharing culture and economy as an (apparent) solution to the overdetermination of debt. In the end, by using an app, you do not pay for a quick and easy hookup (or so it seems). (Information as common)

And yet the commons, in the end, seem to be still motivated by a Hegelian desire to make the world coincide with human sense (or, which is the same, with human need). On one hand, we have ‘capitalist desire’. But on the other hand, a consequence of ‘common desire’ is that all the main biological and inorganic materials (water, land, air, or ‘matter’ as data and information) are defined as collective human property, something to be well disposed of in order to avoid the current situation of resource shortage and distribution inequality, which are among the biggest problems faced by our species of human proprietors. Looking more closely, we understand that the weakest link in the molecular structure of the commons is the way in which the ‘proprietary relation’ is still conceived according to a human proprietary attitude. By changing this little detail, everything else will also change.

Property as eternal object A reflection on property is at this point required. Intended in the sense of attributes (such as the property of subtractability), properties can also be the properties of a thing (such as information). So let us make a step backwards, and reflect more in general on what the relation between an entity and its properties, either abstract or concrete, either adjective or substantive, really is. Inaugurating a millennial tradition of mental domination over the physical realm, Plato affirmed that a body is the first, and only, natural property of a man. So a man owning a body would also become the owner of its properties. After Plato, it was Aristotle who argued that a possession, or a property, is definable as an instrument, a tool, “a slave by nature” of its possessor. Here we have, clearly exposed, the ontological foundations of the capitalist regime, where the mechanism of appropriation coincides with the attribution of a property as a slave to a proprietor, and with the latter’s acquisition, on the basis of this subordination, of the inalienable absolute right to decide about its possession and its value (before the market). The same comes to correpond with the logical perception of a thing, or an object, or a body, possessing its qualities, or attributes (for example in colour theory). Western logic and capitalism find thus in this notion their ontological foundation. One of the best exemplifications putting together both dimensions is given by the bodily data, the information shared through hookup apps. Undermining this regime is not a question of re-appropriating capacities and things (ie how to give them back to their legitimate proprietors), but even less of dis- propriating (freeing properties from any proprietary relation, putting them in common, or simply claiming their collective nature). It is not a question, in other words, of an abolition of property and its logical ramifications. If the regime of possession is to be considered as inescapable, and even desirable (this is why the definition of ‘property’ is here retained), philosophically, it is not as the scheme of a subject appropriating an object (or a man appropriating a body, or an object appropriating a quality, etc). Properties should only be thought as belonging to occasions and, even more importantly, it is properties themselves that have the last word in deciding where to belong.

An encounter (prehension) between two people happens via an app that tracks and manages information about those people’s sexuality, identity and position, and allows to share it. Being both physical and conceptual, prehension is first of all an encounter, a relation, an intricate embrace, between data and properties, between physical data and conceptual data, between geolocational information as bodily property and sharability (or possibly profitability, or non-measurable value) as a property of that information; the conceptual properties themselves, that Whitehead defines as ‘eternal objects’, give the how, the emerging choreography, guiding this encounter, and the way in which superjects are ‘formed’ from the initial data (in the sense of a subjective form, for example the Bear and the Otter meeting somewhere at some point) and occasions are objectified (in the sense of sharability becomeing eternal, or being sanctioned as repeatable), following the occasion and surviving its perishing. In this sense, Whitehead’s concept of the ‘eternal object’ allows us to think a metaphysics where bodies (objects-things such as data) need to be defined via properties that are abstract. But while common sense tells us that it is a body that has a property, and while for the commons a whole collective body decides about its properties, in our Whiteheadian scenario we should re-state by saying that a property has a body, individual or collective, inorganic or human, and decides about it and its value. In our case, sharability possesses information, and decides and guides the process. In Whitehead’s philosophy, it is the process itself, or the event of an experience, that determines which eternal objects can have their say in that occasion. Being able to follow properties in their decisions and effects, seeing where they attach themselves to, participating in their adventures while respecting their autonomy, means to understand matter: the only way to enter immediation, for a human being, is to become sensible to the events of the material world (as artists often are).

Now, if we look at our applicational ecology through the point of view of theorists like Scholz, Morozov, Bratton, we see that what emerges, the one-to-one relation, the individualities categorized and meeting/coupling, in and through the app, all of this is guided by the corporate eternal object of Profit. An applicational ecology (and a tracking/sharing/meeting process) guided by the eternal object of the Commons, would probably make more information emerge about social relations, together with more possibilities for autonomous management of the information. At the same time, such an app would also reveal where data goes and who profits from it. And yet, this particular applicational objectification would still be coincident with the main character distinguishing the app as a particular technology of late capitalist culture: that is, functionality in relation to positioning. Would it be possible to think of an app working from a nonfunctional, and therefore also a nonhuman point of view, but just, as art does, following sensations across the different levels traversed by them, without capturing them in any position or function? In other words, could we think of an ‘immediating’ app? Or perhaps we should aim at revealing the immediated dimension of all functional apps?

The only way to understand if a capitalistically human piece of technology like an app can be made to work, or can be looked at, beyond its own rules, is by taking the example of verbal language, the human cognitive technique par excellence, and of how Deleuze and Guattari identify the possibility of a ‘minor’ use of it. The main example is, of course, Franz Kafka’s minor literature. Could we think of a minor app, as a way of disrupting and revolving tracking and sharing technologies upon themselves? In the same way in which signification appears as the main entry point for the interpretation of major works of literature, function constitutes the main access point to an app. Our task should be not to do without a function, but to see if this access can be connected to others. First of all, we need to decompose the pragmatic logic at the basis of functionlism. C.S. Peirce can help us with this task. (…) But what do all these elements operate? They certainly take the whole process towards the direction of an impasse, of a rigid categorization, a limited individual visibility and a partial social emergence, but the question is whether they can also be associated to different becomings. In order to find out, we need, in the same way as Deleuze and Guattari did with Kafka’s work, to find the pure matter not logically and pragmatically composed, non-semiotically formed, outside function. The intensity emerging, not yet formed into categories, meetings and regulations.

What is this matter? As Paul Miller wonders, “What happens when you first think of an app? There is an immediate sense of reducing the thoughts at the edge of what you envision as an icon, a logo, a square, a circle, a widget – the basic interpretation of thought into action, of sense into sensation.” Apps are literally data that works as a lure for feeling: attention is only drawn to the screen. This is a main character of interfaciality that is common to all computing, but especially to cloud computing. But this level is not enough, so let us remain at the level of function. Massumi’s idea of bodily movement as moving-thinking-feeling. (…) An ecologics of apps would work by subtraction, rather than proliferation, which does not mean aiming at their elimination, but reimagining the developmental process in a backwards direction: starting from the creation of a new need (how to get a fast and safe hookup by knowing certain data in advance, as a kind of preemption of desire), going through the solution that generates this desire (the actual app), and then checking whether it is really needed, or perhaps living the experience of moving-thinking- feeling without the preemptive data, could already be enough for a hookup. But that is also not conceivable, to suggest that we could reduce, rather than increment, apps development. The final aspect of an applicational ecologics guided by a body’s moving-thinking-feeling would coincide with a philosophisation of the app itself, by transforming a philosophical concept like ‘immediation’ (following not bodily subjects but the properties of bodies and their decisions, by following the energy produced by the intensity of bodily data) into an application. I have not considered the character of these apps of being gay apps, because I am avoiding positioning: not sexuality as a positioning but as an emerging field. The immediation conceptual application would therefore work as a becoming app: besides the hook, it would actualize becoming as that property of the body thanks to which, as Deleuze and Guattari beautifully say, one does not remain man or woman, homosexual, bisexual etc, but is able to extract particles, speeds and slownesses,, flows, the many sexes that constitute a sexuality, a man or a woman, from it. This capacity for proximity and indiscernibility of the sexualized body, arrives to touch many haecceities that are extracted, not only from man and woman in various combinations, but also from the light of a day, the temperature of a place, the smell of a body, the sound of an air, the speed of a movement, and that make of the hook up itself a non human relational act (in the sense of an encounter that is not of human subjects but unfolds in a whole organic, energetic and material ecology). This app exists and is generally called love. It produces the subject as a lover, while also transforming its becoming into an eternally repeatable object (sex). Can we imagine a technological app that can insert itself, and tap onto, this honhuman relational plane, while satisfying the function of the hookup? In other words, can we develop a minor love app? If yes, how would that work?