The technological siege on life in the age of social media
A series of debates on biopolitics at Transmediale festival 2011
Prison of the Year 2010 — in an imaginary piece of ‘philosophical journalism’ Michel Foucault could have so named Facebook as a present incarnation of his notion of biopower. Whilst its founder Mark Zuckerberg is declared Person of the Year by Time Magazine, Facebook is contested by a growing movement of internet users as a new type of global surveillance and pervasive colonization of our daily life. Together with Google and other monopolies, Facebook is perceived by many commentators as a ‘state within the state’ that is undermining the very neutrality of the net. Arguably all social networks embody the Zeitgeist so well, as they show how today’s economic value massively relies on the production of social relations and social capital by a multitude of users.
Transmediale festival 2011 directed by Stephen Kovats and co-curated by Markus Huber focuses upon this ambivalent nature of the internet: on one side, new media still offer an enormous potentiality of social, cultural and artistic autonomy; on the other side, new techno-monopolies suck nourishment and value from anything we do online. So, what is to be done? Under the title Response/AbilityTransmediale intends to ‘respond’ constructively to both the terms of this dilemma. The nominations for the Transmediale Award, for instance, feature the project Seppukoo (www.seppukoo.com) whose mission is to assist any Facebook user willing to commit ‘virtual suicide’. In few steps Seppukoo makes your online identity disappear from your social network without leaving any trace behind. Privacy concerns aside, projects like Seppukoo unveil a widespread desire for an exodus from the digital saturation of our lives. In sympathy with the need of such exit strategies (specific theme of a panel curated by Daphne Dragona), Transmediale stresses also the need of an affirmative politics of the digital liveness. Indeed as Paolo Virno, one of the philosophers who applied the idea of exodus to the post-Fordist age, has always repeated: ‘there is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing…’
In two keynote lectures with the philosophers Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato, Transmediale investigates the new dimension of bioeconomy, that is the economy of life in the realm of digital networks. Already in the 90s Bifo interestingly defined the mobile phone as the new assembly line: “The cell phone is the tool that best defines the relationship between the fractal worker and recombinant capital. Cognitive labour is an ocean of microscopic fragments of time, and cellularisation is the ability to recombine fragments of time in the framework of a single semi-product. The cell phone can be seen as the assembly line of cognitive labour”. Today we could apply this image to Skype, Twitter, Facebook and the likes. His last book Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotexte, 2010) shows how it is not just our brain becoming economically productive but also our desires and the whole sphere of affective relations. However this evolution of capitalism is not linear, symmetrical and virtuous as it appears. When the ‘soul’ is put to work on the assembly line of the digital, new forms of exploitation, alienation and a new whole range of psychopathologies rise. Immaterial labour comes with its dark sides.
What is then a definition of labour up-to-date with the internet age? In quoting Godard on cinema, Deleuze asked why watchers are not paid for watching television, since they are performing a public service. Quoting Deleuze today, we should ask why we are not paid to watch Youtube or sacrifice the whole of our private life on Facebook. “Internet as playground and factory” — as the title of a conference recently organized in New York tried to grasp this paradox (www.digitallabor.org). In political economy this shift was introduced in the 70s as the transition from the material space of the factory to the extended ‘social factory’ of the metropolis as the new place of value production. Lazzarato discovered that vitalist philosophers of the early 20th century like Gabriel Tarde and Henri Bergson already considered the ‘cooperation between brains’ and the role of the public opinion as productive forces. Differently from other media festivals that explored the theme of ‘life’ just from the point of view of biotechnologies, at Transmediale digital liveness is regained as a productive and conflictive ground against the abstraction of Code.
After introducing bioeconomy, a second event at Transmediale discusses about resistance andaffirmative biopolitics with philosophers Beatriz Preciado, Roberto Esposito and Judith Revel. The problem of which form resistance should take in a biopolitical regime was clear also to Michel Foucault who introduced this notion in the late 70s. Since then the philosophical debate on biopolitics have been articulated in opposite ways by authors like Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri. In his book Person und menschliches Leben (Diaphanes, 2010) Esposito proposes his own way: the ‘third person’. Esposito investigates how the modern construction of the figure of person and the invention of human rights themselves are instrumental to a specific power. As a political solution he suggests to think new forms of im-personality or trans-personality than may break and flee the field of forces sealed by this dominant normativity. Similar to Esposito but in a more materialistic way, the queer activist Beatriz Preciado in Kontrasexuelles Manifest (Bbooks, 2003) has proposed a counter-biopolitics for sexual identities. Lucidly Preciado has analyzed also pharmacology as a technology of the body that has shaped contemporary gender distinctions. Take for instance the introduction of the contraceptive pill and how it changed hormonal metabolism, female identity and sexual behaviors of the last decades. In fact, biopower is not a force imposed from above but a set of very material practices organized from below: in this case, as Preciado notices, it is something that you literally ingest.
On the other hand, for Judith Revel biopower is not something to challenge along new strategies of subtraction, dispersion or impersonality but on the very positive ground of the project of a new ‘common’. In his books on Foucault (the very last one is Foucault, une pensée du discontinu, Fayard, 2010) Revel underlines how resistance to biopower is never defined by negation: the common is not what is left after scratching all the differences but what is made of all the differences. Indeed, Revel notices, the European political philosophy is still caught up in the dilemma of how to fight power without rebuilding forms of counter-power specular to it. However, the current debate around the notion of life is not replicating the vitalism of the early 20th century and its nefarious reactionary drifts. Here there is no original ‘pure life’ to defend. The ‘commons of life’ and the resistance to the biopower of technology are considered something to be imagined and organized anew.