Data Transgression

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 16, 2012

Data Transgression

The relentless enthusiasm that cyber-utopians have for the potential of new technologies to transform the world often borders on religious fervor. In the case of Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, it is literally true. After experiencing a religious awakening at the age of 27, Kelly now professes a unique form of Christianity that sees profound spiritual implications in technological progress. He believes that as our networks become more interconnected and our software becomes more intelligent and our technological artifacts more pervasive, a vast planetary consciousness will emerge, knitting together our infrastructure into a sublime artificial mind that will inspire religious devotion.

The Internet will become a religion, in part because everything will happen on it, including all other religions, but mostly because it will be the first platform for true otherness to appear on the planet. Not other as in other variety of human or other variety of animal, but other as in Other, an agent not like us yet bigger than us. A true alien being. Of which we are part.

Although this sounds far-fetched, current discourse about the Internet confirms the general prediction. We may not discuss the Internet as a planetary consciousness from on high, but we increasingly reify it as if it were a singular, invisible agency like God. This discourse heralds not the return to explicit belief that Kelly hoped for; instead, belief in Web divinity appears more subtly, slipping into everyday language in enthusiastic, worshipful comments like “This is why I love the Internet!”

The recent defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) produced many examples of this phenomenon: Lawrence Lessig summarized the success of anticopyright activists in stopping SOPA by claiming that “the Internet had taken on Hollywood extremists and won.” A political campaign to unseat Lamar Smith, one of SOPA’s sponsors, raised money to place an ad on a billboard in his district that read, “Don’t mess with the Internet.” And Nicholas Mendoza, an Internet activist and P2P Foundation member, wrote an essay for Al-Jazeera claiming that the Internet is a living organism with rights that are under threat by the movie industry’s lobbying.

The logic at work here is an obvious extension of the longstanding slogan of Internet activists, “Information wants to be free,” which assigns agency to information in a way that a more humanistic phrasing, like “Information ought to be free,” would not. The title of Kelly’s most recent book, *What Technology Wants, *makes this same move. The way he conflates technological progress with spiritual renewal explains his eagerness to personify technology. But it’s less clear why secular and often proudly atheistic hackers would choose to view information as capable of wanting things beyond what people want from it.

Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s influential 1969 essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” might offer an explanation. In arguing how religious institutions prepare individuals for their role in the capitalist edifice, Althusser makes this observation:

We should note that all this “procedure” to set up Christian religious subjects is dominated by a strange phenomenon: the fact that there can only be such a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God … It emerges then that the interpellation of individuals as subjects presupposes the “existence” of a Unique and central Other Subject, in whose Name the religious ideology interpellates all individuals as subjects.

In other words, the virtual presence of a unitary Other Subject in our social imaginary is the inevitable result of the identities constituted by society’s “ideological apparatuses.” We conjure a God to anchor subjectivity. For Althusser, writing about France in 1969, the apparatuses were the official institutions of society: the Church, the family, the legal system, the media, the educational system, political parties, and so on. But today, the pervasive skepticism toward such formal “top down” institutions suggests their function in interpellating individuals as subjects – that is, constituting our identities so we can become known and knowable to ourselves and others – is being taken over by social networks.

The very names of the most popular websites on the Internet – Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, etc. – attest to their role in subjectivation. Their profitability gives substance to our identities, and we are flattered by the attention of corporate marketing departments that covet our ability to command the attention of target demographics. This can make criticism of these corporations difficult to accept, because such criticism points toward a catastrophic loss of identity similar to losing one’s faith. Criticism becomes a kind of blasphemy, with critics as enemies who must be undermined or discredited.

Althusser’s idea that multiple subjects sustain a single Absolute Subject is paradoxical: a heterogeneity generated by homogeneity. But isn’t this logic part of the basic structure of a network? A decentralized network is flat; no single node on the network is able to control and dominate all the others, and every node is independent and can publish whatever information it likes. But this apparent diversity is sustained at another level by centralization: invisible protocols that govern the transmission of data within the network and which every node is required to implement in an identical way. The network is our unified God that lets us all believe that we are different.

Just as we might understand what religious people aspire to by studying what traits they attribute to their deity, we can understand Web worshippers by what they attribute to the Internet. These include such things as boundless creativity, innovation, unlimited potential for novelty, entrepreneurism, multifaceted, a shape-shifting network that rejects stable identities and embraces change. Following Ludwig Feuerbach’s hypothesis that man created God in his own image, one might say that the deified Internet embodies all the attributes of the perfect neoliberal subject that economic conditions require, offering a point of identification for the precarious worker and dignifying their situation.

Perhaps this is why curation more so than creation has emerged as the fundamental mode of interaction on the Internet. Curators (or remixers or bricoleurs) model themselves as media for information transformation and transmission, performing a small-scale imitation of what the personified Internet does on a massive scale, rendering their identities legible.

If social networks are our new churches, indoctrinating us and delimiting our subjectivity, this would seem to bely the liberatory rhetoric about bottom-up democracy. But the Internet’s most crucial ideological role in constructing neoliberal subjects relates to the West’s transition from a society that demands sacrifice, duty, conformity and prohibits enjoyment – the society of the Protestant work ethic – to one that commands enjoyment from its subjects: the YOLO society.

Film theorist Todd McGowan, in his book The End of Dissatisfaction?, offers a useful comparison for understanding this shift: The society of prohibition is represented by John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Whereas in the society of enjoyment, President Bush implored Americans to go to DisneyWorld after 9/11 to keep the economy going, and Governor Jeb Bush encouraged people to think of shopping as their patriotic duty.

One sign of this hegemony of enjoyment among conservatives is how they are more likely to complain about “PC” restrictions and criticize liberals’ unwillingness to violate Geneva conventions in the name of prosecuting the “war on terror.” Mike Konczal, writing in the most recent issue of Jacobin magazine, charts a transformation in neoconservative thinking about crime. The role of policing shifted from detectives’ solving crimes following a system of rules – i.e. a series of prohibitions – to the ideal of enforcing the law through the enjoyment of violence, intimidation, and displays of raw power. For those who believe neoliberalism stands exclusively for a reduction of everything to cold calculation and rationality, one need only look as far as the prison-industrial complex to find its irrational, sadistic jouissance.

We should not automatically accept the premise that in the YOLO society, individuals really do enjoy. Faced with the constant suffocating demand to transgress and enjoy, we are simply unable to do it. Instead we worry about whether we are enjoying ourselves fully. According to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the society of prohibition depended on a neurotic subjectivity, characterized by “normal” subjects repressing socially unacceptable desires, furtively indulging in guilty transgressive pleasures while fantasizing about the full, unconflicted enjoyment that some Other is assumed to have.

But the full access of enjoyment has become the unquestionable ideology of contemporary society. Social demands may still exist, but they are more often felt as external impositions that hamper the expression of the supposed inner truth of personal pleasure. Enjoyment is not represented as the true ideal in contrast to the false ideals of hard work and sacrifice; instead, the pursuit of enjoyment is a supposedly obvious fact that remains after all other ideals have been exposed as vain and meaningless. Hence the increasing usage of the phrases like “You only live once, so you might as well have fun.”

By imagining that the Internet (or technology or information) wants things, we turn it into the Other whose desire we can fantasize about satisfying, making ourselves the already liberated and uninhibited citizen of the YOLO society – what Lacan calls a “pervert.” Rather than referring to non-normative sexual practices, pervert, in Lacan’s argot, refers to one who stages the fantasy of being the “phallus” for the Other, to fulfill the Other’s desire, a lack that Lacan figures as castration. Kevin Kelly confirms Lacan’s theory with embarrassing directness: “Human beings are the reproductive organs of technology.” We can also detect this in anthropologist Michael Wesch’s hugely popular video “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” which celebrates user-generated content for teaching “the Machine,” filling it in with our contributions.

Thus, the Internet “wants” freedom, transparency, user-generated content and openness, and through our participation online, we stage a fantasy of realizing its yearnings. When copyright pirates explain why they are pirating movies, they say that they are merely serving information’s desire to be free.

It is notable that the most committed pirates have libraries of movies so vast, no one could watch it all in one lifetime. Pirates collect files and compete to be first to own a movie that will in many cases never be watched. They may even feel contemptuous toward popular culture. At the height of the SOPA protests, hacker forums exploded with denunciations of Hollywood as producers of aesthetic and cultural trash, all the while insisting that there should be no restrictions on pirates’ ability to freely transmit this trash. (This evokes the old joke about a bad restaurant: “The food is awful – and such small portions!”) For pirates, the pleasure is found not in consumption but in the transmission of files to others, who are presumed to enjoy them. The pirate thereby becomes the instrument of pleasure for the Other. Internet advocates look forward to the new and potentially radical forms of subjectivity who will revolutionize everything, but instead we find subjects who conform to the requirements of the YOLO society that normalizes transgression. The pirate’s pleasure in circulation is similar to the satisfaction that some liberals take in learning that conservative states are among the highest consumers of online pornography. The liberal’s hedonistic lifestyle is pleasurable insofar as it stages the fulfillment of taboo fantasies that repressed conservatives secretly get off on – the hedonist functions as the instrument of the conservative’s transgressive fantasies. For the pervert, the Other’s desire is the law. This was once a radical position, but today it appears as the fundamental tenet of the service economy: “Total customer satisfaction is our number-one priority.”

Today’s workaholics no longer toil in the hope of an eventual reward years down the line. Instead, they embrace the ethos of following your passion, working endlessly under the banner of doing what they love so that they never work a day in their lives. Unlike the neurotic consumer of the society of prohibition, who is split between work and play, the perverse subject of the society of enjoyment shuns the empty passivity of consumerism in favor of prosumption: consumption that is imagined to generate pleasure for someone else.

This idea is obviously crucial for Internet sites that depend on user-generated content, including Google, whose mission is to organize all the world’s knowledge and make it universally accessible. For this to happen, nothing should be out of reach to Google, so naturally we cannot have secrets.

Secrecy prevents change, argues Jeff Jarvis, publicness accelerates it. The problem is that the kind of social norms that Jarvis promotes where everything is immediately accessible and what is missing is lack itself. The society of enjoyment fills in the void that is necessary to sustain desire as such, and we arrive at the end of history where it is impossible to imagine a better world, a world which necessarily appears as inaccessible to us.

Google’s mystique lies in the appearance that everything is just a search and a click away – everything is free, nothing is prohibited. Whatever the object of your desire, Google has it, even if it has to transgress conventional norms of privacy, morality, good taste, or copyright prohibitions to get it. Some speculate that Google will soon know what we want before we know we want it, filling in the gap of our desire before we ever experience it.

The problem with a YOLO society is that it promotes exactly that experience of the world where every desire is immediately filled in, a world immune to fantasy. Fantasy opens up a gap for desire which perverts are desperate to fill because they cannot tolerate the unbearable Real of desire. No wonder that the dominant cynical mode of intellectual critique is puncturing fantasies, exposing myths and showing how all nostalgia is a longing for a past that never existed. These are ideological maneuvers that collapse the space for dreaming of alternatives and condemn us to capitalist realism.

Frederic Jameson famously remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. This impossibility is a feature of the society of enjoyment because it militates against lack. It commands everyone to seize immediate enjoyment by filling the Other’s lack. Desire and dreaming is attributed to the Other, and we experience enjoyment in the moment of realizing and foreclosing the Other’s fantasy. We’re left bored, apathetic and unable to sustain desire for the inaccessible, impossible object.

N.B. This article first appeared in The New Inquiry.