Evil Media

News Item #1: Google Glass–a smartphone in the form of eyewear–is now available to any wealthy early adapter in the U.S. who doesn’t mind a still substandard product at almost 10 times the price of manufacture.

News Item #2: The European Court of Justice ruled that Google must, upon an EU citizen’s reasonable request, take down links to information about him or her that is “inadequate, irrelevant…or excessive.” Newspapers have dubbed this “the right to be forgotten,” but making that argument unhelpfully anthropomorphizes the search engine. The right here is to obscurity, to a user’s control over his or her selective accessibility via data trail.

In order to truly grasp the legal, ethical, and social problems involved in Google’s bid to become a 21st century holistic lifestyle management interface, we must relate these news items to one another as two smaller skirmishes within a larger battle over virtual agency. We need to posit Google as an extensive operating system more so than just a purveyor of internet services, and it must be not only regulated as one, but subverted as one, as well.

Easier said than done! Earlier this year, I published a review in the journal Parallax of a book that conceptualizes media as “humans-plus-technology” operating systems and encourages us to improve at subverting these operating systems. That book was Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey’s Evil Media (MIT Press, 2012).

Here is an excerpt from my review. I start by considering the meaninglessness of Google’s by now long-repressed corporate maxim, “don’t be evil.”

With no verifiable referent, ‘don’t be evil’ is a prime example of proferential language, ‘the language of verbal entities and vague, fuzzy realities’ (p.143). Google’s middle management maintains and propagates that vagueness in language to the company’s market advantage, and this action is one of a panoply of worst practices in media that Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey highlight in their new book.

 

Their text builds on the cognitive science model of the expanded mind, which posits cognition as something far beyond synapses: rather, an entire system of biological and non-biological processes connecting brains, people, things and information. For Fuller and Goffey, the phenomenon of mass mediation must likewise be understood as more than just the hardware and software of communications technologies. Media connote an ecology of things, technologies, social debates and theory, an argument that Fuller has made more comprehensively in his excellent Media Ecologies.

 

In Evil Media, the focus is not on ecologies of news media or social media but rather the ‘grey media’ (p.12) that form
crucial but overlooked ‘sociotechnical habitats’ (p.13) in the recesses of these and other networks. Systems administration, data mining and project-planning software are prime examples of grey media. The proferential language middle managers use in meetings, written directives and public policies is continuous with grey media that distribute these convoluted messages.

 

When grey media devices, methods and techniques are instrumentalized as stratagems, Fuller and Goffey propose we term them ‘evil media’. Evil media are a set of ‘troubling, ambiguous social processes, fragile networks of susceptible activity, [and] opaque zones of nonknowledge’ (p.3). The book aspires to be a ‘compendium of evil media stratagems’ (p.140), a baleful manual detailing the non-transparent, anxiety-inducing, paranoia-sustaining, team-controlling, error-encouraging, work-abstracting, privacy-destroying, nasty, harmful and/or illegal moves that media and its human extensions accomplish together.

 

This approach represents a compelling alternative to the study of media from the spectatorial point of view. It replaces that perspective with a vue d’ensemble of media’s content, function and context (p.2), emphasizing the activation and deactivation of media assemblages instead of the acts of looking that take place inside of them. Most importantly, this compendium is also a user’s guide: Fuller and Goffey want readers to learn the value of the stratagematic use of media from their best enemies.

 

Inspired by Google’s ‘don’t be evil’, Fuller and Goffey perform an ingenious three-way declension in their text. They criticize the priggishness of this imperative, reveal its hypocrisy and turn its empty platitude inside out. Doing so is fighting fire with fire, contesting a transformation of the social into a dataset, and the transformation of that dataset into ‘an agency that no longer merely molds citizens but rather spins not their words but their activities continuously by changing the shape of the environment in which they act, innocuously, felicitously, abruptly’ (p.95). Mould, spin, subvert, sabotage, deviate – be evil in turn, the book exhorts.

 

As a coda to this post: earlier this spring, CEO of German publishing company Axel Springer wrote a public letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt about his company’s predicament as client of Google’s and a participant in the European antitrust case against Google. “Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google…We are afraid of Google,” he bluntly stated. Coming as it did after the antitrust investigation settled with Google (largely in Google’s favor), Mathias Döpfner’s letter is more of a pious ruefulness than a call to arms. However, it did offer one insight that marks the spot to start hitting at Google’s worst practices from below:

Google is the world’s most powerful bank – but dealing only in behavioral currency. Nobody capitalizes on their knowledge about us as effectively as Google.

How, then, without antitrust legislation against Google and other such multinationals, can capitalize on our self-knowledge in such a way that our behaviors aren’t media’s currency?

Sight and Site II: Home

This is the second in a series of reflections that evolve from the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Home (2009) is a film that didn’t get anywhere near the attention and critical acclaim it deserved when it was in theaters several years ago. It is a film that ingeniously explores an environment as allegory. My students and I were in awe (admittedly, sometimes agonized awe) of the radical associative openness that director Ursula Meier constructs and sustains for the entire hour and a half of her fictional story.

Set nowhere in particular in France (but actually filmed in Bulgaria), Home takes place within a family that dwells at the edge of an abandoned highway. Abruptly, the highway is reopened. The reasons for its reopening remain as mysterious as its closure– and the family’s move to the house beside it ten years earlier, for that matter.

Is the highway a metaphor for the “information highway” of images and data that saturates 21st century life? Is it rather a psychoanalytical symptom of the traumatic passage to adulthood, the transformations that this nuclear family is on the verge of experiencing in their interrelationships? Can we interpret it as the repressed past of the family’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), surging back to threaten the present? Is the highway just a highway, a wound cut through the paradisiacal landscape surrounding the family?

Home nurtures all of these associations, and more. It is a fascinating, funny and discomforting mediation on the seductive Gezelligheid but also the sure stagnation encompassed in the notion of home, hearth and belonging.

To catalyze our discussion of the film, our seminar read three diverse texts.

We began with selections from Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space. We weighed Bachelard’s thesis that we create in our lived spaces physical extensions of our various psychologies.

We then contrasted spatial poetics to the spatial dystopia inherent in Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992). We had a great debate on the continuing merits of Augé’s paradigm in a quotidian so throughly pockmarked with experiences of non-place.

In every seminar session, I include a reading that represents a clear counterpoint to the meanings evoked in the film we have studied. This represents a challenge to students to argue dialectically between two diverse narratives of place and the practices of looking that they do or do not solicit.

In contrast to Home, we discussed the phenomenon of smart homes. Smart homes represent a domestic application of technological advances in entertainment, building automation, controlled sensory environments and data analytics. We read Lynn Spigel’s “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” which wisely examines the gender implications of technological homes as threat and promise. We discussed Google’s corporate interests in diversifying their stronghold over informational products to include smart home technologies, and what the implications of that prospective market lockdown might be.

Our session ended with Home‘s ambivalent ending, scored sublimely to Nina Simone’s cover of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington, 1957). I’ll leave you with that wonderful song and the encouragement to view this film sometime soon.