Stuck on the Platform, #1 – 2021

“Every time I think I’ve sorted out my life, capitalism collapses.” Juliet

Let’s dive into social media weariness, the cause of our tired eyes. What are the techniques of resignation that we are exposed to? The blissful ignorance after browsing an entire ecosystem of narratives is not surprising. Culture is a pendulum, and the pendulum is swaying. The organized optimism, hardcoded in online advertisements and other forms of algorithmic advice, turned out to be merely producing anxiety. “What can’t be cured, must be endured.” (Caroline Cowles Richards) The suffering, sorrow and misery is getting tagged and filtered by our own self-censorship. We’ve been captured and feel frozen. What we receive is the anger of the Online Other. The growing imbalance of digital enchantment is neither causing a revolution or revolt, nor does it fade out. Welcome to the Great Stagnation. We, the Online Billions, stuck on the platform.

Don’t you wonder how we ever get here? The early promise of the platform was an easy one: everyone benefits, both producers, customers and founders. No winners or losers, everyone will be included and plays along. The robust software platform as Kulturideal has long replaced the homepage, blog and website and the related web design studio as a start-up model. We long to harness value instead of losing ourselves in the messiness of the rhizomatic network. Why a chaotic supply of different apps and websites if we can have one where all friends, family, neighbours, comrades and friends as ‘users’ are gathered? The unified platform dream has further consolidated the ‘venture capital’ mode of operation of hypergrowth in the shortest amount of time, aimed at a ‘unicorn’ market domination and eventually monopoly position. While only very few will become billionaire, the lottery aspect of the ruthless Darwinist strategy still attracts many. It’s hegemonic, as they say. Elon Musk’s appeal has not yet fainted. The celebrity obsession is such that the pop critique of capitalism will not really question the right to become a billionaire. We all want to run our own platform—regardless what we are longing for.

Once we’re locked-in, the path to infinity has been blocked. Instead, we’re caught in a Truman Show-like repetition of the perpetual now, toiling around in the micro-mess of online others that try to do their best, masking their failures and despair—like everyone else. Franco Berardi observes the mental state of today’s students: “I see them from my window, he writes, “lonely, watching the screens of their smartphones, nervously rushing to classes, sadly going back to the expensive rooms that their families are renting for them. I feel their gloom, I feel the aggressiveness latent in their depression.” In the social media era the Oblomov position of being incapable of making important decisions or undertaking significant action is no longer an option—in particular for those that cannot economically afford to get stuck within the abyss. We experience the sadness of online existentialism minus the absurdity. If only ‘interpassivity’ was ever really implemented in code (instead of being yet another Austrian idea), we would indulge in a permanent state of indolent apathy. Instead there’s nothing passive about human-machine interactions. Being on social, the Zen status of detachment is an ontological impossibility. We’re never really lurking—our presence is always noted—and we can therefor never truly enjoy the secretive voyeur status. Interaction is our tragic existence. Instead, we’re constantly asked to upgrade, fill in forms and rank our taxi drivers.

Real existing socialism never seemed to end. It was then, and still is, virtually impossible to even imagine a life beyond the communist platform, in this age to live a life without Amazon, Facebook and Google. How can redesign the ‘social’ in such a way that it will become impossible—even unthinkable—for algorithms, trolls and bots that try to permanent disrupt our thinking and behaviour to occur? We cannot spend all time and energy to reinvent the social without taking freedom into account. Not the ‘liberty’ as defined by right-wing libertarians but freedom as Hannah Ahrendt and Isaac Berlin speak about. This is not just freedom from addictive and manipulative software. Can we rethink AI and algorithms in such a way that they become pets or toys, tools that work for us, instead of large, invisible, oppressive systems that try to deceive and ‘educate’ us? Technological freedom means the ability to master our tools, let them work for us, but also to put them aside, turn them off and forget about it all. In short, we long for tools that assist us, instead of colonizing our inner life behind our backs. We need to re-invent the techno-social in a radical manner, here, right now, in Dresden, in Europe.

Geert Lovink is the founding director of the Institute of network cultures (INC) and, together with Pit Schultz, with whom he initiated the “Hybrid Workspace” project for Documenta X, is considered the founder of network criticism. His current book “Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism” was published in 2019.