The Facebook Aquarium: Freedom in a Profile

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Ippolita and Tiziana Mancinelli

Just as Facebook shares were being launched on the stock market, Ippolita published an e-book on the 16th of May 2012 titled The Facebook Aquarium: The Resistible Rise of Anarcho-capitalism. Through the lens of Facebook, this work offers a crushing analysis of how Foucauldian biopower is embodied in posthuman society, asking what political forms and possibilities are opened up in a world where human life, subjectivity, and social experience, are ever more intertwined with technology.

Ippolita is a heteronomous identity: a research group born from the hacker community and the Italian squatting movement, whose investigations address media, and media technologies, as a terrain of struggles for power and control. Ippolita is also an autonomous server for editorial projects, created to facilitate tools and knowledge sharing in order to increase the awareness of the multi-layered impacts of technology and to create alternatives for communities of mutual aid. All books are under copyleft licenses.

The first Ippolita publication, Open is Not Free,1 underlined the difference between free software and open source. The text discusses how the idea of freedom (of free software) became more open (in terms of open source), moving it towards the market. The second, The Dark Side of Google,2 dealt with the organization of knowledge on the web. A strong criticism was forged about the epistemology of knowledge and the criteria of classification molded by Google’s search algorithm (PageRank). The Facebook Aquarium3 is a continuation of the reflections of these earlier works. These three publications point out three crucial turning points in the history of our computing world and its interactions with economy, politics and our daily life.

An Aquarium?

The business model of Google, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter consists of exploiting users’ personal data for profit. Private lives become commodities, and personal identities are put into circulation on global markets. The data gathered from concrete bodies – people’s lives, movements, relationships, and interactions – can be fed to the market. The state or some sub-contracted state security apparatuses, can ask for this information for policing and surveillance purposes.

But the profit generated by profiling and ad tracking, and the surveillance extension, are just the start of the story. Facebook & Co. offer more subtle, and perhaps more profound, threats. These new media are changing our identities, and shaping new lifestyles. Social networks are developing new anthropotechnics to tame and rule the human park.4 The primary aim of Ippolita’s book is to draw attention to, and deconstruct, these processes of identity constitution. It shows how Facebook & Co. create rules for the management of our everyday life, rules which transform our personal relationships and our political engagements, and are bound up with fear, the specter of terrorism, securitization and surveillance. Moreover, social networks are strictly tied to the performance society: as users, we compulsively remodel our walls. We are on stage; we are a part of the Global Show. The application of social control is fully internalized in the oscillation of users amongst self-congratulation, self-denunciation and self-censorship, until reaching the paroxysm in which we connect to the network to check our existence. Facebook embodies the Zeitgeist.

Identity Troubles

The Facebook Aquarium responds to the threats – now greater than ever – against freedom and accessibility on the internet that enterprises like Facebook represent. The book has three parts; each introduces one dimension of the informatics of domination.5 The first, ‘I have a thousand friends but I don’t know anyone’, develops a thematic thread that runs through the book: the way you use technology, the way you approach it, including our everyday unconscious behaviors, a simple click of a mouse, without any thought of the consequences of an action, can have social and political effects.

To understand this, we need to be confronted by the first step the user takes upon entering Facebook, and social networks services in general. A private service claiming, as Facebook does, ‘It’s free and always will be’ hides the sour truth that if you cannot see the price, you are the commodity. Looking at the code layers that compose the platform gives us some first warnings of the dangers of interaction with these free services. Data are not simply collected, they are the result of multiple sociotechnical arrangements of technological and human actors that configure agency and action. The machine is a mediator, not in the sense of transporting information from one place to another but rather as a device that shapes relationships and is itself shaped by them. In this sense, the social networks are continuing the development of new hybrid forms of autopoiesis,6 framing individuals in worlds managed by technocracies. The technology records the person’s activities (‘liking’, ‘befriending’, ‘posting’, etc.) in a database which also registers place and time and that can be mined by a wide range of social actors. The police as well as market agencies are interested in connecting transactional patterns to particular virtual bodies through the use of algorithms.

The vast majority of users don’t think about the power of default settings on social network platforms. And when these settings change, as it happened several times for Facebook’s privacy settings, they keep the new default settings and don’t worry. Changes are introduced as service improvements. This is the default power: the power to change the lives of millions of users by changing a few parameters. All this can be done with little effort. At next login, your profile could be very different from what you got used to, as if you came back to your place and discovered that the furniture has changed, that things were no longer in place. People should always keep this assumption in mind when they talk about crowds and social networking: none of us wants to be part of a crowd, but when we use these networks, we are the crowd.7 And crowds are subject to default power.

Social networking technologies have dramatically transformed the meaning and the nature of both private and public life. By accepting radical transparency, users make declarations on every aspect of their lives in a virtual public space (managed by a private company): trivial events, opinions on current affairs, moods, bereavements, relationship ‘status’, and so on. This succession of details, changes and repetitions, doesn’t just display but also creates and defines an identity: this is me, I am who my profile exhibits. The creation and maintenance of a Facebook profile involves the performative construction of identity through a process of regulated repetition as, to quote Judith Butler, a ‘reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains’.8 And so the consistency of virtual profiles offers to rescue us from the 20th century’s fragmentation of subjectivity – Facebook posits itself as a global response to our identity troubles.

Freedoms and Threats

But Facebook is just a part of a more general phenomenon. It participates in a right libertarian project that has family resemblance with social networking, hackers and activism. How does the micropolitics of everyday techno-interaction feed into macropolitical strategies? In the so-called anarcho-capitalist conception, freedom means the possibility of doing whatever you want – as long as what you want is a commodity that can be bought, consumed, and that generates profit for someone.

The main point made by Ippolita is the relation between the idea of freedom championed by anti-authoritarian projects such as Wikileaks, some Anonymous actions, or some Pirate Parties around Europe, and the anarcho-capitalist rhetoric. To illustrate these affinities, the case study provided in the book is represented by the personal history of Peter Thiel. Founder of PayPal and Facebook’s first angel investor in 2004, Thiel embodies an extreme laissez-faire ideology, which leads to social Darwinism, capitalist meritocracy and individualist right libertarianism.

Facebook is a further twist in the emotional commodification of the internet that started with Google. On Facebook, we can find anything we want: news from any corner of the globe, long-lost friends, partners for (almost) any sexual act, and the latest outbreak of insurrection. Our profiles are continuously bombarded and inundated with information, stimulations, and potential satisfactions of every desire, or better, every desire identified by the algorithm or by my virtual friends as fitting my declared and molded identity profile. Whilst believing I’m being active, as a radical transparency follower, I am a passive receiver of information, connections, virtual pleasures, and recognition. We are rapidly moving from a world with a sense constructed by us toward a world that captures a sense due to correlations unearthed by algorithms.

In the second part of the book, Ippolita underlines how Facebook embodies the westernization of a neocolonialist heteronormative society. What is the price of the kind of freedom guaranteed by algorithms? To put it in the words of Bertold Brecht: is it possible to avoid the ‘resistible rise’ of anarcho-capitalism?9

The inclusion of the anomaly is crucial to fulfill virtual control. You can be whoever you want on Facebook. You can be leftist, revolutionary, queer, outrageous. But, for all its illusions of radical democratic participation, the aquarium offers no escape from the usual constraints of liberal media. You must remain an upright (net) citizen of a democratic and homonationalist society, a subject of a worldwide empire whose borders are marked by terror narratives. After all, your account will still be suspended if you overstep the (often undefined) lines – expressed in the never read but always agreed upon Terms Of Service. In Cairo or in London, in Rome or in New York, the police will still come knocking at your door if, for example, you post indiscreetly about a riot of concrete bodies.

The last part of The Facebook Aquarium is dedicated to the ‘Freedoms of the web’. The authors find the keys for understanding this virtual ‘freedom’ between Orwell10 and Huxley11 – between the negation of privacy fostered by the Big Brother dystopia and the technological maximization of (passive) pleasure described in Brave New World. Control on the web is justified by the fear of terror, the need to defend society from threats to stability: terrorists, subversives, pornographers, and so on.

Back to the Real World

Virtual bodies are intertwined with human (concrete) bodies in multiple ways. What is the relationship between me and my Facebook life? Am I participating in a social action when I ‘like’ or ‘share’ a radical group page? What kind of responsibility do I take when my profile leaves a message on another virtual ‘wall’? It becomes difficult to untangle the relationships between concrete and virtual bodies. Is the virtual a mirror of the concrete, or vice versa? The dream of chasing freedom and democracy via the internet becomes the urgency to click first, an illusion of acting and presence and witnessing.

If we question the belief that technology deals with neutral data (numbers, frequencies, statistical operations, and so on), then we need to ask about the stories behind the data points. These narratives are created by human beings. Bare data per se will not give us freedom (nor will it take our freedom away). It is the narratives that are and can be created with data – what can be called the mythopoesis – that are the site of struggle. Big data has taken the place of nature. Indeed, it is obvious that we find more and more religious expressions that refer to data: informational deluge is the best-known contemporary mantra. The promise of automated freedom issued from big data leads to forms of technolatry.

The book finishes with a short story: how to make ice cream without using electricity. There is a way to do it by hand, using salt, known to desert dwellers and certain grandmothers. We can create radical social networks, involving concrete and virtual bodies, exchanging and sharing knowledge without being passively dependent on the tools or algorithms of power: technologies cannot save you. We need to build, putting our hands on, technologies shaped by our own needs and desires, to improve and enlarge our autonomy. We cannot enjoy thousands of friends; we deserve better friends (and also enemies). Junk relationships act like junk food, polluting our ecosphere with both physical and cultural effects.

How To: This Text as an Example

Ippolita, including the website http://ippolita.net, does not want to just produce critical theory. The texts are produced in accordance with the way of doing that they advocate. They aim to provide a better understanding of complex phenomena, such as pirate assemblages in social politics, thanks to an interdisciplinary approach. The members work as anthropologists involved in exploring-describing-changing our technological worlds. They practice collaborative writing. It is, of course, easier to write alone, but their way of working tries to be a convivial experimentation in itself. Ippolita wants to produce texts as crossroads among different expertise. The text that you are reading, for example, is the result of the encounter between Tiziana Mancinelli and the crew, a product of an unseen agencement.12

Co-authoring this text meant translating not just words and ideas but skills and knowledge. Translating (in Italian trans-ducere, ‘to lead beyond’), making understandable, involves a process of differentiation and dissemination in which nothing could maintain a so-called essence.13 Thereby betraying, in a sense, the ‘purity’ of specialist disciplines in order to pursue a better understanding of the relation between human agency and technology. Moreover, co-authoring is a way of building tools for convivial communities,14 undermining individualism to work jointly on the creation of shared resources. Convivial writings are intended to draw a cartography of present time. The discourse becomes a platform, a common space, a transindividual reservoir for new and unattended individualization.15

Ippolita puts the critiques of processes of assimilation into practice, using a copyleft license. Copyleft is both an existing practice of free public access to knowledge, and a move against the publishing industry, which depends on copyright. Avoiding the restrictions imposed by the publishing market is one strategy, amongst many, of resistance to the laws of the market. Some Italian publishers would agree to print the book under a copyleft license with non-commercial creative commons attribution. But none with a major distribution has agreed to leave both the translation and digital rights to the authors. Thus Ippolita released the text as an e-book – one way in which the market rules, as well as the intermediary of a publishing company, can be avoided.

According to Ippolita, this copyleft license protects the text from misappropriation, for example by editors, whilst readers know that the book can be shared. At the same time it is important to keep the copyright on translations. Copyleft means retaining some control over the use of the text. Our knowledge is not serving the system but being used to create an alternative way to live in this society. Above all, copyleft means that copying and diffusing texts is not a criminal offence in opposition to the affirmation of copyright advocates such as DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act, USA, 1998) and EUCD (European Union Copyright Directive, UE, 2001).

References

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge, 1993.

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart, London: Penguin, 1992 (1960).

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure, Paris: Minuit, 1975.

Derrida, Jacques. La dissemination, Paris: Le Seuil, 1972.

Haraway, Donna. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 149–181.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World, London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Ippolita. Open non è free: Comunità digitali tra etica hacker e mercato globale, Milano: Elèuthera, 2005, http://www.ippolita.net/it/open-non-%C3%A8-free.

______. Le côté obscur de Google, Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2007.

______. Luci e ombre di Google: Futuro e passato dell’industria dei metadata, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2007, http://www.ippolita.net/it/luci-e-ombre-di-google.

______. El lado oscuro de Google, Barcelona: Virus Editorial, 2010.

______. En el acuario de facebook: El resistible ascenso del anarco-capitalismo, Madrid: Enclave de Libros, 2012.

______. J’aime pas Facebook, Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2012.

______. Nell’acquario di Facebook: La resistibile ascesa dell’anarco capitalismo, Milano: Ledizioni.it, 2012, http://www.ippolita.net/it/nellacquario-di-facebook-ippolita.

Maturana, Humberto and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht: D. Reidle Publishing Company, 1980.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, London: Secker & Warburg, 1949.

Simondon, Gilbert. L’individuation psychique et collective, Paris: Aubier, 1989.

Sloterdijk, Peter. ‘Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 12–28.

Notes

1. Ippolita, Open non è free: Comunità digitali tra etica hacker e mercato globale, Milano: Elèuthera, 2005, http://www.ippolita.net/it/open-non-%C3%A8-free.

2. Ippolita, Luci e ombre di Google: Futuro e passato dell’industria dei metadata, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2007, http://www.ippolita.net/it/luci-e-ombre-di-google.

3. Ippolita, Nell’acquario di Facebook: La resistibile ascesa dell’anarco capitalismo, Milano: Ledizioni.it, 2012, http://www.ippolita.net/it/nellacquario-di-facebook-ippolita.

4. See, Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 12–28.

5. ‘The informatics of domination’ is an expression from Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 149–181.

6. See, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht: D. Reidle Publishing Company, 1980.

7. Ippolita’s analysis of crowd phenomena is partly based on Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart, London: Penguin, 1992 (1960).

8. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 2.

9. Words used are based on the title of Bertold Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

10. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, London: Secker & Warburg, 1949.

11. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

12. See, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure, Paris: Minuit, 1975.

13. See, Jacques Derrida, La dissemination, Paris: Le Seuil, 1972.

14. See, Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

15. See, Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective, Paris: Aubier, 1989.