And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Monday, June 24, 2024

Deleuze and the Internet (2007)- The Medium and Its' Message: Machines/Bodies w/o Organs for Ghosts

Excerpt from video above:
...Australia did not opt, however, for complete State control as Britain did, but neither did it leave it all to the market as the US did, although even there the government placed severe restrictions on content. Australia aimed for a kind of Middle Ground that allowed for commercial applications, but kept a close eye on what those applications were. TV was essentially a national technology and the issue of what it could, and should, be was a matter of national debate. The internet has never been being a national technology in this sense, so its' development has not been overseen by a governmental body except in the most ad hoc way VIA Band-Aid legislation, which in the case of child pornography, say, can do no more than ban certain practices and create the Judiciary conditions needed to punish the offenders but cannot actually stop it. And that is how thing should be according to the majority of Internet pundits, whether e-business billionaires or left-wing academics: internet equals Freedom.

This is the internet body without organs, the great and unquestioned presupposition that it is an agent of Freedom. The material problem confronting schizo-analysis is knowing whether the bodies without organs we have are any good or not. Or more to the point, knowing whether we have the means of determining whether they are any good or not. The body without organs is an evaluative concept which, as Guattari instructs in his last book "Chaosmosis", (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/20/primal-scream-chaosmosis-review) should be used dialectically. Which is to say, with a view towards an understanding of how it is produced. In other words, we should ask two basic questions, "how is a particular body without organs produced?" and "what circulates on it once it has been produced." Just how enfeebled a concept of "Freedom" the internet rhetoric implies was exposed by the Press reaction to the story of Google's entry into the Chinese market, which is said to be growing by 20 million users a year and was already worth an estimated $151 million per annum in 2004, a figure that is literally tiny by US standards. But it doesn't take a genius to see that the potential for growth is huge. With everyone predicting that China is going to be the next Superpower, one can understand why Google would want a foothold. To be allowed to set up servers on Mainland China, and create a Google.cn service, which will be faster and better suited to the purpose than the regular US version that Chinese people already have access to, Google had to agree to adhere to the Chinese government's regulation and control of Internet content. This means complying with its T's rule. Tibet, Taiwan, and Tienamen are all off limits, as are such search categories as human rights, Amnesty International, pornography, and of course Fallon Gong. It is believed that there are 30,000 online police officers monitoring chatrooms, blogs, and news portals to ensure that these topics aren't discussed, and these kinds of sites aren't accessed. Although this isn't the first time Google has agreed to cooperate with government, and effectively censor its search results. In Germany, it restricts references to sites that deny the Holocaust, while in France, it restricts access to sites that incite racial violence. The scale of its compliance with the Chinese government's censorship requirements far exceeds anything it has done before.

That Google chose to make these compromises as the necessary price of doing business in the world's fastest growing economy was read by many as a betrayal of the values of freedom for which Google is supposedly an emblem. The fact that these jeremiads were largely confined to the business pages of liberal papers suggests that the notion of "Freedom" they had in mind was largely of the the freedom to do business kind, wrapped up in the rhetoric of "freedom of speech". The obviously self-serving acquiescence to censorship is defended by the company on the grounds that providing no information, or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information, is more inconsistent. What this case demonstrated is that Google isn't really concerned about our access to content at all. All the Bluster about "compromised values" was really just a verbal smoke screen to cover up this one glaring truth. Google's priority is its' access to New Markets, and it will not hesitate to compromise its' putative ethic of "Do no Evil" in order to achieve that goal.

If we regard Google as a gigantic multinational corporation which, with a net worth in excess of $80 billion making it bigger than Coke, General Motors, or McDonald's, it in fact is, and not simply a Search tool, then there should be little to surprise us in its' "about face" in China. It is only if we continue to buy into the fantasy that it, and somehow the internet as a whole, is a "Bastion of Freedom" that we find these events dismaying. If the internet was ever a "Commons", to use the word anti-corporate commentators like Naomi Klein have made fashionable, then there can be no doubt that it is rapidly being enclosed. The implication being that Amazon, Google, and eBay are still only at the "Primitive accumulation stage". Information is, in effect, a natural resource like oil. But Google exploits without regard for the environment, as all companies do when we aren't watching, and sometimes even when we are.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Google led hype surrounding the convergence of Internet and mobile phone technology. In an Op-Ed for the FT, Google CEO Eric Schmidt went on record saying that internet enabled mobile phones would effectively solve the problem of how to gain access to emerging markets in underdeveloped countries, where the absence of landline infrastructure would otherwise have proved an impossible obstacle. He doesn't put it like that, of course, he's never so indelicate as to mention the dirty word "market". His rhetoric is liberatory and egalitarian. The internet has democratized information ,Schmidt claims. Or at least it has, for those who have access to it. And that, he says, is the problem. "Not everyone has access in sub-Saharan Africa," Schmid laments, "Less than 1% of households have a landline."

If that statistic wasn't bad enough for a business that presupposes the existence of such basic utilities as a functioning telephonic network, then there is the worse news that "even if Broadband was available to every household, it wouldn't change things all that much, because very few people in this part of the world can afford computers. Mobile phones will liberate this technologically dark region by overcoming these twin obstacles to online access. On the blessed day when everyone has internet enabled mobile phones, a school child in Africa will be able to find research papers from around the world, or to see ancient manuscripts from a library in Oxford." Schmid. "Until then, however, the digital divide prevents this democratizing magic from having its effect." According to Schmidt, thanks to the internet, we don't have to take what business, the media, or politicians say at face value, and this is empowering. Schmid's view is that what is actually said online isn't as important as the freedom to say whatever one happens to want to say. Thus, he says, governments should stop focusing on how to control the web, and concentrate on how to give internet access to more people in more countries. Government should, in other words, help Google to expand its Market.

By the same token, as Google's negative response to requests from US law enforcement agencies for assistance in tracking down users of child pornography illustrates, Google thinks the government shouldn't be allowed to impinge on its Market. Although Yahoo, MSN, and AOL have been willing to help out, Google has held fast, citing the right to "privacy" as its rationale. But Google patently speaks with a "forked tongue" on this subject. Co-founder of Google, Larry Page, defended the company's refusal to help identify Child pornographers by saying rather tellingly, that the company relies on the trust of its' users, and that giving out data on users would break that trust. His implication is obvious, if Google gave out data on its users, it would effectively turn customers away and eventually lose its preeminent place as market leader. Protecting market share is how we should understand Page's call for legislation that stops government from being able to ask for such data in the first place.

But this doesn't mean Google actually respects the privacy of its users, if by that one means it doesn't keep them under surveillance. It is constantly gathering data on users, individually and collectively, and even publicizes this fact under the innocuous sounding rubric of "Google Trends", by releasing maps of most frequently searched topics, broken down by region. Refuting any pretense to being scientific, these search maps make for titillating reading, as one Ponders what it means in cultural geographical terms, that the most frequent Google searches in the city of St Alban's in Hartfordshire, were for gym's, weight loss, and the Atkins diet. Does this make it the most self-absorbed City in Britain, as claimed by the Sunday Times in a half page piece studded with such titbits of spurious psychosocial information gleaned from Google Trends? Obviously more of a lifestyle puff than a hard news piece, although it was in the news section, what is particularly striking about this article is its' complete lack of sensitivity to the fact that such maps are the product of electronic surveillance. That is precisely the kind of thing the Sunday Times normally rails against. That a liberal paper like this doesn't see Google Trends as surveillance, is evidence of just how little critical attention is paid to this dimension of the internet in the public sphere. I don't however want to give the impression that this is some kind of conspiracy because the fact is, Google is very open about its snooping. One Google executive, Marissa Mayer, has even said we should expect it.

The Rhizome

Is the internet or rhizome? All the straws in the wind say, "yes it is":
"Whereas mechanical machines are inserted into hierarchically organized social systems obeying and enhancing this type of structure, the internet is ruled by no one, and is open to expansion or addition at anyone's whim as long as its' communication Protocols are followed. This contrast was anticipated theoretically by Jacques Delueze and Felix Guattari, especially in "A Thousand Plateaus (1980), in which they distinguish between arboreal and rhizomic cultural forms. The former is stable, centered, hierarchical. The latter is nomadic, multiple, decentered. A fitting depiction of the difference between a hydroelectric plant, and the internet. Mark posted, "what's the matter with the internet?"
There are, of course, excellent grounds for thinking that the internet meets some, if not all of the basic criteria of the rhizome which Deleuze and Guattari list as follows:
...the rhizome connects any point to any other point, connections do not have to be between same and same, or like and like, the rhizome cannot be reduced to either the one, or the multiple, because it is composed of Dimensions, directions in motion, not units. Consequently, no point in the rhizome can be altered without altering the whole. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, and offshoots, not reproduction. The rhizome pertains to an infinitely modifiable map, with multiple entrances and exits that must be "produced". The rhizome is a-centered, non-signifying, and acephelus. The rhizome isn't amenable to any structural or generative model.
So, how well does the internet map against these six principles? At the bare Machine level, it seems to agree with the first principle very closely. The ideal of the internet is that any computer can be connected to any other computer. How well this works in practice, is another matter altogether, as anyone who has experienced the frustration of trying to access big sites using low bandwidth connections, such as dialup, or has had to rely on servers clogged by high volumes of traffic, can readily attest.

But the more interesting philosophical question here, which applies as much to Deleuze and Guattari as to the internet, is the premium we place on intention. Until the Advent of search engines, of the capability of Google, it was extremely difficult to implement one's "intent" in relation to the internet. The phrase "surfing the internet" reflects this. Using the internet used to be, and in some cases still is, like looking for a needle in a Haystack. And basically what one did, in order to find something, was surf from one site, to another, until one found it. Hence, the proliferation in the early 1990s of books listing useful websites, which themselves tended to be indexes or directories enabling you to find other sites. By the same token, little attention was given to domain names at this time, with the result many of them look like nightmare calculus equations rather than the userfriendly pneumonics we're accustomed to now. You move from one web address to another, as though from one fixed point in space to another, which interestingly, is not at all what Surfers do.

This brings us to the second principle. Here the match is a little less straightforward. For a start, the practical reality of the internet is nothing at all like the multi-dimensional sensorium envisaged by William Gibson when he first used the term cyberspace in his groundbreaking novel "Neuromancer". But then again, he famously didn't even own a computer at the time.

However, Gibson's vision of cyberspace has had a lasting influence, and many people do think of the internet as the realization of the Deleuzian ideal of Multiplicity. But the incredible proliferation, and constantly expanding number of websites does not by itself mean that the internet can be classed as a multiplicity in Deleuze's sense, our website's dimension, or unit of the web.

There is a simple way to answer this question. What happens when we add or subtract a site? The answer is that, it isn't clear that the addition or the subtraction of any one site actually affects the whole. If several million sites were to vanish, then that would clearly make a difference. But the loss of a few hundred, or even several thousand, might not.

If sites were dimensions, then according to Deleuze and Guattari's definition of the rhizome, their removal would alter the whole. So we have to conclude that in individual websites are units of the internet, not Dimensions. Empirically we know that the number of websites is important. There is, for example, a vast difference between the internet of today, which has hundreds of millions of specific sites and trillions of pages to go with them, and the internet of 1990, which had fewer than 200 sites and could be contained in its totality on a single PC. But this doesn't mean we have to abandon the idea that the internet is a multiplicity, because there is another way we can come at this problem.

Thus we come to the third principle. That the rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, and offshoots, not reproduction, which is essentially a matter of population. And which in contrast to the numbering, number can be grasped in dimensional terms. Darwin's two great insights, according to the Deleuze and Guattari, were that the population is more significant than the type in determining the genetic properties of a species. And that change occurs not through an increase in complexity, such as the proliferation of individual websites or multiplication of web links entails, but rather the opposite. Through simplification. Internet usage certainly bears this point out, as recent Trends confirm the internet is the standard source of product information, everything from details of the latest designs, to replacement user manuals are lodged there. It is also becoming the preferred point of sale, as more and more businesses conducted online. And it is steadily taking over from its Rivals, TV and radio, the role of content provision, as podcasts and downloads become more the rule than the exception. In the process, the internet is changing how we understand media. On the one hand, it is steadily displacing the variety of media that used to exist, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and Cinema, onto itself. While on the other hand, it is absorbing new interactive functions, such as data searches, and Direct online sales, that the other media can't offer. Paradoxically then, from the perspective of the user, the internet is without doubt the most powerful homogenizing and standardizing machine invented since money. Firstly, all pre-existing forms of media have been compelled to adapt themselves to suit the internet environment. Second, having stripped the traditional media of its' exclusive preserve to make and distribute news, movies, or whatever, the internet has enabled a whole new kind of media production. From the so-called "citizen journalists" we hear so much about today, to bloggers, to home Movie Makers, and amateur photographers. Viewed from the perspective of the media as a whole, that is, from a population perspective, the internet has simplified what media means. And in the process, set off a massive expansion of media operations into virtually every corner of existence. It is having the same effect on retail.

The fourth principle, that the rhizone pertains to an infinitely modifiable map, with multiple entrances and exits that must be produced, is, I would Hazard, the most important. But its' implications are neither obvious, nor fully explained by Deleuze and Guattari. In effect, however, what it means is this: the rhizome is not manifest in things, but rather a latent potential that has to be realized by experimentation.

This can be linked to the sixth principle, namely that the rhizome is intermeanable to any structural or generative model. Because basically, what Deleuze and Guattari are saying is that you can't either prescribe the rhizome into existence, or expect to find it naturally occurring, it has to be invented. The rhizome is the Subterranean pathway connecting all our actions, invisibly determining our decision to do this, rather than that. In so far as we remain unaware of its existence, and indeed its' operation, we do not have full control over our lives. The rhizome is, in this sense, a therapeutic tool.

For both statements, and desires, the issue is never to reduce the unconscious, or to interpret it, or to make it signify according to a tree model. The issue is to produce the unconscious, and with it, new statements, different desires. The rhizome is precisely this production of the unconscious, "A Thousand Plateau." The rhizome of the internet cannot simply be the pre-existing network of connected computers. Rather, we have to conceive it in terms of the set of choices that have been made concerning its' use, and determine the degree to which the resulting grid is open, or closed.

The fifth principle, that the rhizome is a-centered, non-signifying, and acephalous, appears to be one that could be left unchallenged. Yet, if we were to grant that the internet is a-centered, non-signifying, and acephalous in appearance, and indeed in its very construction, the reality of its' day-to-day use still does not live up to this much vaunted Deleuzian ideal. Here, we have to remind ourselves that Deleuze and Guattari regard the rhizome as a tendency, rather than a state of being. It must constantly compete with an equally strong tendency in the opposite direction. Namely towards what they term, the arboreal. The internet exhibits Arboreal Tendencies, as well as rhizomatic Tendencies. And any balanced assessment of it would have to take these into account too, and weigh up their relative strength.
To begin with, one still moves from point to point through the internet. There is no liberated line of flight in cyberspace. Moreover, Google searches are very far, far, from disinterested. As John Bartel's pathbreaking book, "The Search" makes abundantly clear. Now that retailers can pay Google to link certain search items, with what Google calls "AdWords", to their business name, so that a search for a book, for instance, will always lead to Amazon or A-Books, or whoever, the minimal conceptual distinction that used to separate Google from the Yellow Pages has basically vanished. The operating premise of Google searches may not be that, when, whenever we are searching, no matter what we are searching for, we are actually looking for something to buy. But its' results certainly appear to obey this code.

In so far as we rely on Google as our user's guide to the internet, the internet we actually see and use, is thus stable, centered, and hierarchical. That is, the very opposite of rhizomatic. Google searches are conducted on a stable electronic snapshot of the internet, not the living, breathing thing itself, which it indexes very precisely. The search engine is patently a 'centering' system de facto, and a jury. And what could be more hierarchical than page rank? This is not to say that Google isn't an extremely useful tool, because plainly, it is. But it is to insist not only that it has its limitations, some of which are quite serious, but that it isn't the only means of searching for information available.

A new problematic.

If we were to follow Deleuze's watch word, that philosophy has the concept it deserves, according to how well it formulates its problems, then we would not start from the idea that the internet might be a body without organs, or that it looks like a rhizome, or indeed, from any other pre-existing point of view. Instead, we would try to see how the internet works, and develop our Concepts from there.

In its first flush, the internet seemed to be about connectedness. But that idea has since been exposed as a perhaps necessary, but nonetheless impossible ideal, like the Lacanian conception of sexual relations, that we are at once compelled to try to realize, but destined never to succeed in doing so. Now though, Patel's work has made it clear that the internet is much more about "searching" than "connecting". Although Connecting People, strangers with strangers, Friends With Friends, is a major feature of the internet's cultural role, it is predominantly used to search for objects, that is, Commodities. And in the case of pornography, and celebrity gossip, one may well say it is searching for people in their "guise as commodities".

A lot of quite utopian claims have been made on behalf of the internet, the strongest being that it has so changed the way people interact that it has created a new mode of politics. But it now seems clear that it is just another "model of realization", Deleuze and Guattari's term for the institutions capitalism relies on to extract Surplus value from a given economy. That business' couldn't immediately figure out how to make money out of the internet, that is turn it into a "model of realization", meant that in the early years of its' existence, the utopian image of it as an affirmative agent of cultural change was able to flourish, giving the internet a powerful rhetorical Legacy it continues to drawn on, even as it is molded more and more firmly into a purely commercial Enterprise.

Google is effectively the common sense understanding of what using the internet actually means, both practically and theoretically. It is at once our abstract ideal of searching, and our cumulatively acquired empirical understanding of it. But more more importantly, searching is what we think of as the proper practice associated with the internet. One writes with the pen, makes calls with the phone, and searches the internet.

When our searches don't yield the results we're after, we tell ourselves it is because we don't properly understand Google, that we don't have enough practical experience with it or sufficient competence, to use it fully, rather than to dismiss the search engine itself as fundamentally flawed. It is in this precise sense that Google has become, in neurological terms, the image of the search.

Google's significance is clearly more cultural than technical, because it determines our view of internet technology itself, deciding for us in advance and without discussion, what it is actually for. If the problem in the early days of the internet was that no one could foresee the range of its applications, and seemed to stand around waiting for history to decide, instead of putting in place the appropriate legislation and policy to guide its development some now think of as missing, the problem today is that everyone thinks they know what its' application should be. Namely, the facilitation of sales, and any sense that it might have a more Progressive use, as being consigned to the Dustbin of fantasy. If there is something the matter with the internet, it is that its' utopian beginnings block critical thoughts about its future, as though somehow its' starting point was already the fabled "end of history" when the concrete and Abstract became one.

John Battell's books says he wrote "The Search" because it was his sense that Google, and its rival search engine companies, had somehow figured out how to jack into our cultures nervous system. His account of the seemingly inexorable rise of the search engine giant, which is largely a standard corporate biography, is by turns alarmist and infatuated. He is in equal measure amazed by Google's power, and disturbed by it. It is however Batell's attempt to use Google's history to say something about contemporary culture, that makes for the most fascinating reading. And whether we agree with his prognosis, or not, I think we have to take it seriously. There can be no doubt that the internet is going to play an increasingly significant role in shaping cultural attitudes, behaviors, and practices in the future. Batell's decision not to write a book about Google per se, but rather something like a Google effect, is undoubtedly wise. As much of a behemoth as Google is, there's no guarantee that it will be around forever. It may disappear as AOL appears to be doing, as its business model founders in the face of Google's. Or, it may be swallowed up by an even more aggressive Predator, such as Microsoft, presently three times the size of Google measured in terms of market capitalization, which virtually wiped out its' one-time competitor, Netscape Navigator, in the so-called browser Wars of the 1990s. By the same token, none of the other major corporations, not eBay, nor Amazon, nor even the venerable Microsoft, can be considered immune to such forces of change. Indeed, Wall Street is worried that Microsoft won't be able to shake off the competition. It has no answer to Apple's iTunes, and it is losing the battle to control the web. It has also lately been reported that Google, and Yahoo, as well as Microsoft, are cooking up plans to encroach on eBay's Turf, though so far the results are disappointing to investors. But the business sector at least, sees it as both inevitable, and desirable. Commercial users of eBay apparently feel they have maxed out on that service, and to reach new customers they need to access new providers.

The internet seems to engender a kind of restlessness in us, to always want to see what's just over the horizon, one click away. The success of Amazon, Google, and eBay, amidst the blaze of spectacular DotCom failures of the past decade, is intimately related to the way their sites facilitate searching. Google's strength in this regard is obvious. But we shouldn't Overlook just how good Amazon and eBay are, in their own highly localized domains. What these companies have cottoned onto, is something we might call "search engine culture." The internet thrives, not because it can be searched, but because the search engines we use to navigate it, respond to and Foster the desire to search, by constantly rewarding us with the little satisfactions of the unexpected Discovery. A potent search engine makes us feel that the world really is at our fingertips, that we are verily becoming world.

One can find objective evidence of the intensifying influence of search engine culture in the constant consumer demand for increased bandwidth and memory capacity, to facilitate it. Most households in the West possess vastly more computing power than they could hope to use except for such activities as searching the web. It may be that online business is only just now starting to take off and show genuine profits. Because it has only lately developed an appreciation of the architecture of the desire called "searching".

As John Lanchester puts it, Google has a direct line, if not quite to the unconscious dreaming mind of the world, at least to the part of it which voices its' wishes. I believe the same is true of Amazon and eBay, and indeed a range of other internet services such as online dating, and grocery shopping, that are yet to produce corporations of the gigantic proportions as these icons. But I don't accept that Google is the global Id, as Lanchester puts it, because to do so would be to accept that our deepest activistic desire is to buy something, and there could be no more dystopian outlook than that. Neither is it the "global body without organs", though with a bit of work, it could be. And who knows what changes that might bring.
...and Post-Punk/ Brutalism/ Pop Modernism (Ideal; Constant Formal Innovation):

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