Sometimes it is hard to keep up. Is our sense of the present becoming more extreme? More interstitial?
Maybe there is a latency to this present... could this occur when our technologies exceed our ability to conceptualise their conditions, manifestations, and implications?
The blue dot makes it easy to place ourselves empirically within the linear connections of time and space—but we are intrapsychically disembodied and unsettled at our own imperfect corporeal presence. Our fleshy physicality is transcended and rendered increasingly useless. In this cybernetic inefficiency complex relations are upset, then remade to be flush. We now wear a multiform uniform.
The codification of interfacing languages can swiftly turn interaction phantasmagoric. Experience of such exchange is both banal and spectacular. The constructed psychogeography of the network enables/controls its conciliatory consumption. One challenge then is to avoid developing unsolicited narcissism, paranoia, alienation, psychosis, hypnosis, and schizophrenia, by way of the network’s enveloping interface.
As (human) users, we need to regain consciousness in order to have agency in designing our own operational frameworks. We need critical tactics/strategies to recognise and negotiate the facade of the network—one that is highly ideological—so that we are able to expose its politics for common access and engagement.
The network assumes the image/topography of a never ending cloud and an infinite flow of data. It is an impenetrable place, for it appears to disappear... a hidden heterotopia. The user is under the false pretence of their emancipation—this is upheld by a metaphorical desynchronisation with time and an extraterritorial exemption of place. But we should not leave our finite body behind in disregard, nor submit to the boundlessness of cyberspace.
The ways in which software and hardware overlay the non-digital can be crude and discontiguous. Instead, their application is often purported as being detached or frictionless. Only when we are aware of this seamless guise can we escape the smoothly generated sense of inevitability (as peddled by Silicon Valley futurists/corporates).
The cloud’s imagined ubiquity/universalism is predominantly a Western idea, much as its design and regulation (through social norms, market, architectures, and laws) are determined by Western (sometimes imperialist) biases/imperatives.
The internet in its infinite glory is actually thoroughly finite, right down to the last bit. It is determined by the technological limits of its hardware (from devices to fibre-optics), material parameters (from scripts to ore), to the jurisdiction of its regulation (from nation-states to hacktivists). It even pays to remind oneself that its mechanics are ultimately dependant on vast amounts of electricity and water (both are consumed voraciously). This is not the ephemeral image we are sold.
The attempt to separate cyberspace from an offline world is an understandable, yet flawed dream. Technology alone will not liberate us. In part, this idea was born in an attempt to upset the integrity of Westphalian sovereignty and other institutions/hierarchies of power in favour of a new, autonomous zone. However, digital spaces must exist within, and in relation to the analogue world. Analogue actions are also mediated by the digital and by digital imperatives. They are already intricately/inextricably tied (instead of a real world vs. parallel world). Digital processes are not separate from materiality nor reality, as the acronym ‘IRL’ implies through inversion. There is a common (and lingering) misconception where the virtual is seen as inauthentic, and the non-virtual venerated as the singular realm of the authentic. This apparent dichotomy is not helpful. While it should be a valid stance to choose not to circulate/participate in networked procedures/production, the fallacy of digital dualism should be acknowledged. Reality is already augmented.
The network seems so vast and formless that it is difficult to even begin imagining its mechanics. We cannot properly visualise it: we only catch glimpses as it manifests itself and makes itself known (or its operations fail), but its essence remains elsewhere. The internet is not a singular chain, web, or rhizome (nor is there a single cloud); but it conjoins multiple networks. What it fundamentally delivers are the technical tools for interoperability and exchange, and the bases for global-scale computation.
We need to disrupt the appearance of placelessness, endlessness, borderlessness, and omnipresence—an image that the metaphor of the cloud encapsulates. This is an illusory paradox of its nodal megastructure.
The network operates as a black box: we experience its inputs and outputs, but rarely know more of its internal transformations. Innumerable layers of abstraction complicate our comprehension, theorisation, and politicisation of its ontology. We are not able to directly remove its facade to expose/reveal its internal processes—but somehow, we must find ways to unravel its technocratic ruling, and then avoid the dangers of totalitarian power.
The rhetoric of the cloud is self-beneficial in its transcendental perfection. It is an image of wonder, floating softly nearby, always accessible at an instant… yet clouds are seen from a distance. It is a comforting image in its ethereal permanence, as a diffuse but whole/comprehensive entity.
This fantasy is only sustainable from the perspective of the user, and those unaware of the labour conditions which hold it up (or of the privileged who may not understand the realities of precarious and/or alienating work). Hidden workers are displaced in our supposedly unmediated relation with the virtual. We are continually made complicit in exploitative politics, and so need to be more than reactionary to such ills (using methods that somehow transgress recuperative/co-optive neoliberalism and its relational power—through imagining new frameworks).
We look up at the cloud, but we do not dream. We are perpetually lethargic instead of tired.
The compliant user is subject to convenient exploitation. The data-intensive model of internet regulation is built to support the neoliberal absorption of uncompensated user activity (as well as labour, bodies, and identity through human capital). The brutal capitalism depicted by William Gibson has actualised, against time and the will of techno-utopians/anarchists. Collection, retention, and the sharing of data (which was once sacred from the realm of capital), provide the basis of a Faustian bargain: we do not pay for the use of social media, email, or search engines, but money is still changing hands; not between the user and the provider, but between advertisers and intermediaries. We surrender a lot in participation.
The metaphor of the cloud (and the presumptive language of cloud computing) may also suggest transparency/innocence, as many entrepreneurial tech titans assume the beneficence of their philanthropy. This soft image hijacks authentic open disclosure practices (whether they are enacted or not). In understandable confusion, the public can conflate this metaphorical policy to honesty and accountability—however, instead of the state, they then become ultimately responsible to investigate dishonest practice, without the sufficient time or agency to do so.
The metaphor is deceptive in that the cloud is neither light nor intangible. It is maintained by the fact that the network’s backend infrastructure remains unknown to the public: subterranean cables, lithium fields, electromagnetic communication systems, immense server farms, nondescript data centre buildings, etc. Instead the clouds are dark and heavy. Even when we are aware of the network’s material presence, its operations are unreachable (unfamiliar, inaccessible, and alienating).
The mysteries of network architecture (in all senses of the word) have been both oversimplified and ignored. The cloud itself is a metonymic icon that has undergone virtualisation, which allows for the ostensible personal freedom of a private user. The fictional narrative that was employed to resolve cognitive dissonance had some control of non-fictional reality, and in turn perpetuated contradiction. That which was once expository has become fantasy.
The cloud is an apparatus of stultifying spectacle (of data’s empire). If we are to scrutinise the ideology of the network, we need to simultaneously scrutinise the aesthetic/design regimes which narrate, frame, distill, and confine our experience. A fundamental task is therefore to disrupt the internal dynamics of this apparatus. By doing so (through its reification), we can continue to demystify the many misconceptions of cyberspace and make ground for mapping new network typologies.
It is all too easy to get lost in the spectacle. Where, in all of this, can we find the long white cloud, its lands, and most importantly; the people, the people, the people?
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