January 11, 2019

Take This Stranger From My Boat

Hello. This is the first of what will be a sort of weekly “links roundup” of articles on media and technology. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive, objective, or timely list of what everyone is reading or even should read, but instead to trace trends in tech commentary and explore what seem to me to be the stakes in those discussions. It may end up resembling the blog I used to write for the New Inquiry, or it may just gather up my Twitter threads and try to make them more coherent. The column will certainly reflect my biases and interests, which tend to orbit around consumerism and identity construction, and how that work is extracted and exploited.

I’m especially preoccupied lately by the various work that the word authenticity is put to, particularly with respect to new media platforms. Communications technology is often sold as allowing for more authentic expression (as when Facebook “brings people closer together”) even as it’s criticized for channelling a flood of fakeness, as Max Read describes in this New York magazine piece. The fakeness he is talking about mainly involves ad tech, and the impossible goal of measuring attention without altering it. Every measure marketers devise is an imperfect proxy and inherently vulnerable to being gamed — producing all the phenomena that Read labels as “fake” (fake people, fake businesses, fake articles, fake users, etc.). But calling that stuff fake suggests that only ratings are “real.” To be real would be to use the internet only in the ways advertisers demand, to reduce our attentive and productive capacities to the metrics designed to count them. As always, metrics produce a particular condition in the guise of merely recording it. Ad tech purports to offer a representation of what people have really been doing, but it actually engenders and facilitates the set of behaviors that it can capture.

This is a common theme when authenticity is evoked: Things that are deliberately made are regarded as somehow fake, and things that appear to be passively recorded are heralded as true, real. Productions are taken to be representations of some given static reality and then assessed for their accuracy. With regard to people, authenticity is brought up as though it describes a person’s fidelity to themselves, as though there was something profound in that tautology, but what it almost always refers to is an effective use of media, or a marketing strategy that is working unobtrusively, that has made itself seem to disappear through the charisma or manifest conviction of a particular performer. Authenticity is just an influencing capability that succeeds at disavowing itself; it often hides as “spontaneity” or “immediacy,” which is supposed to assure there is no calculation — no fakeness — in any particular performance.

Because new communications technologies change how we experience “immediacy,” they make for new kinds of authenticity performances — new ways to manipulate what seems off the cuff and thus genuine, since making a recognizable effort to convey a particular idea automatically discredits it. Some commentators have seized upon livestreaming and stories on social media platforms as making for a new politics of realness; accounts of Beto O’Rourke’s livestream of his trip to the dentist seems to bear that out. (Though it turns out that commentators on Twitter misrepresented it as a livestream.)  But hardly anyone regards these as anything but transparent stunts; like ads that foreground how obvious they are, they are effective because they allow us to see through them and feel savvy (and then project that “savvy” onto the performer, who can be blamed for making us draw cynical conclusions).

Still, there is a pretense that this is about authenticity. At Wired, Antonio García Martínez offers this paean to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “In a world awash in irony and preening phoniness,” he writes, “she possesses the unique and valuable currency of authenticity: She is who she ran as, she’ll be that same person in office, and it drives her political opponents crazy.” But then he goes on to describe how that authenticity is a matter of her use of new media, which makes it a matter of tactics and not “who she really is.” That opens the avenue to discrediting her policy positions on the basis of her having spent her “authenticity currency.” By the end of his essay, García Martínez claims that “the preeningly candid self-display of streaming social media will be the route to power in 2020 and beyond.” The pejorative slant here (“preeningly candid”) is already cuing readers to understand her self-presentation as contrived and thus her power as illegitimate. Much like calling something fashionable announces its inevitable and imminent unfashionability, calling someone authentic implicitly calls their authenticity into question and posits their fundamental inauthenticity.

Authenticity talk seems to focus on people being more genuine, but that veils a fantasy of technology’s power to render politics irrelevant. In this New York Times op-ed, for instance, Kara Swisher praises Ocasio-Cortez as “perfectly human online” en route to reducing politics to “who is winning the internet.” What matters is mastering the available channel with attention-grabbing forms of realness; “authentic” politicians are lauded in order to celebrate the irresistible impact of new media forms. Derek Thompson at the Atlantic claims that “politics is downstream from culture, and political culture is downstream from media technology” — a sentiment that García Martínez also cites, attributing it to Andrew Breitbart.  That is another way of saying politicians are essentially produced by media technologies, and the makers of those technologies are the real political actors. Whatever positions a particular politician has are subordinate to the medium they have mastered and which is ultimately responsible for their credibility. There was a radio president, then a TV president, then a cable TV president, then a reality TV president, a Facebook president, and next there will be a Twitch or Instagram president. Why not just elect the technology itself rather than its avatars?

Policy questions vanish into how well representatives use media to perform their belief in them — something other media people are best positioned to judge. The tautology of “authenticity” (and its close cousin, “likability”) in politics invites us to consider politicians as though they were artisanal products, valuable for their usefulness as a sign rather than any other utility they might offer. That is, we should regard their usefulness in terms of their “symbolic efficiency” — how well you can believe that other people believe in them, a quality that is discussed in terms of how true people or things are to themselves.

That efficiency is doomed to fluctuate in tandem with the conventions that convey believability in a medium; authenticity talk is a way to impose norms about those conventions. (Being authentic usually means living out a cliché.) And it varies with the development of new kinds of media. The screen-sharing app Squad, which recently released a beta version, offers an example. Its marketing material typifies how authenticity gets deployed to hype new tech products. The company’s CEO, Esther Crawford, published a meditation on Medium about how the app could be a cure for loneliness in an alienated world. People need “strong, meaningful relationships” grounded in the authenticity of face-to-face conversation. But “loneliness is growing and the apps we use every day are making it worse.” This is apparently because “people change how they present themselves when they’re on a stage” — which in this case means social media feeds.

Squad, in making the user’s screen a shared stage, would seem to make things worse, taking away a place where one could organize their self-presentation, driving “the real self” off the screen and into some more deeply inaccessible interior space. The “real self” ends up being unrepresentable by definition — if you can convincingly translate yourself into a medium, then you have just learned to game it, like any other content algorithm. Every self-representation can be assumed to have a tactic behind it, so the “real self” ends up consisting entirely of anxious offstage calculations about how to come across as natural.

But Crawford suggests that Squad is “connective” precisely because “we can see each other’s reactions and talk to each other in real-time.” In other words, your authenticity is purportedly guaranteed by an intimate and instantaneous surveillance that compels you to be real. “Authenticity” is unproblematically equated with spontaneity, and the “real self” is made into who you are when you can’t control how you appear. You are most authentic when you demonstrate no agency, when you are represented rather than representing yourself.

This is akin to the behaviorist idea that it is better to monitor what people do rather than listen to what they say to uncover what they “really” want. Or that it is reasonable to assess people’s proclivity to commit suicide as Facebook does, with “a pattern recognition system to automatically score certain user posts and comments for likelihood of suicidal thoughts.” The truth of the self emerges from data analysis rather than introspection or will or conscious intention. Algorithms are invested with the power of authenticating us, of revealing the authentic self that our devious calculating minds, thinking always about how other people will see us, interferes with.

The possibility that an algorithm can truly know us and represent us invites the fantasy that it can in some ways be responsible for us. It can be blamed for the self it reveals. This is exemplified by pieces like this one, “The Algorithm Knows Me. So Why Does It Keep Shaming Me?” which invests algorithms with a god-like power of oversight: “The algorithm looks me in the eyes and sees what makes me me, the deep weirdnesses in my soul and my clicks, my lingering late-night scrolls, and the searches too urgent for a private tab.” On the surface, the author is lamenting the way “the algorithm” — all the analytics are amalgamated into a single “hydra-headed beast that stalks you all the way across the internet” — seems to project inescapable but skewed truths about her, but it comes across more as relief at being recognized. Opaque surveillance resolves itself into a form of care. It’s not that predictive analytics are accurate; it’s that they are at least trying. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved the Netflix homescreen.

At minimum, the Algorithm offers a version of yourself that you can reject and play against, a captain against whom you can safely mutiny. But as the omnipotence of The Algorithm becomes an ordinary conversational reference point, the Algorithm becomes a kind of big Other that guarantees us that someone, at least, believes that we have a self that can be known, and that we are not in fact doomed to only even know ourselves obscurely, as always in process and incomplete, doomed to die with a sense of all we didn’t become. The Algorithm says: I know everything you already are and can be. You can’t fail at becoming.

This essay by Justin E. H. Smith is on a similar track, but regards the collective hive mind of public-facing social media itself (and not the processing of it in Big Data form) as the Algorithm that categorizes individuals according to shared associations: Judged online, “The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all.” Basically, we are not as autonomous as we think and society shapes how we know ourselves.

Smith argues that predictive algorithms are overriding the individual subject’s capacity to resist:

human subjects are vanishingly small beneath the tsunami of likes, views, clicks and other metrics that is currently transforming selves into financialized vectors of data. This financialization is complete, one might suppose, when the algorithms make the leap from machines originally meant only to assist human subjects, into the way these human subjects constitute themselves and think about themselves, their tastes and values, and their relations with others.

The algorithmically remade subject appears “not as a subject with thoughts and desires at all, but as a package of averages, a bundle of stats.” That sounds a lot like the self as rendered by ad tech and its metrics. What you say you want doesn’t matter; that will be deduced from your data and you will be treated accordingly. Any desires that can’t be manifested as measurable attention to something will be disregarded; they are strangers in the house.

Smith more or less laments that the totalizing system of mediation and representation means that the things we create can no longer reveal one’s subjectivity; they can only testify to the Algorithm, reveal its overriding agency. I’m susceptible to that feeling too, but I worry that it is a sort of wish fulfillment, a way to excuse myself from trying. (Trying to do what, I’m not sure.)

The Algorithm, in vernacular terms, is becoming more and more like the weather, the given conditions in which we must make our way but over which we have no control. (Or maybe, just as we made global warming, we made the Algorithm, through a collective myopic embrace of short-term convenience and disavowal of the systemic implications of how we have lived.) Or it is like the “System,” a vague way of describing social structure that concedes the impossibility of analyzing it. Complaining about the Algorithm feels like Grand Funk Railroad complaining about the Man and calling for revolution.

And that gives me an excuse to quote an amazing passage from a 1971 Rolling Stone article about Grand Funk, then the most hyped rock band in the U.S., whose apparent incompetence made them seem authentic or phony or both, depending on your outlook. This is from their manager, Terry Knight:

What the audience is hearing and seeing is Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, “You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours, and we’re free and you can be free.” … Donny is saying it also when he holds his sticks up above his head. He’s not doing that consciously, saying “These are my sticks and I’m holding them above my head, see them,” but he holds them up there and I see it. I can see Mel when he throws that bass up like that. I can see him. Christ, his waist is only 22 inches around and he stands in front of that monstrous amp and his body fills, it’s like a battery-charger, and then when he’s full of that, I mean really physically full, his body charged, he blows off away from that amp and throws that bass up in the air and the audience comes right straight up with him. I think what that is, basically, is that symbol of “I am free, a free bird, I can fly. I’m a lion, I can run. I am a human being but I’m doing what I want and nobody can tell me not to.”

These are my sticks and I’m holding them over my head. I’m doing what I want and no algorithm can tell me not to.