There’s a wonderful piece in the Atlantic talking about the accumulating scandals through which “the tech industry has gone from bright young star to death star”, with increasing public knowledge leading to a recognition that “Silicon Valley companies turned out to be roughly as dirty in their corporate maneuvering as any old oil company or military contractor”. It raises a crucial question: what happens if the controversies continue to accumulate while people remain inclined to use products upon which they have become profoundly dependent? How will these firms come to be seen if widespread rejection of their business practices co-exists with widespread use of their services? As Alex Madrigal puts it, “what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?” It’s a fascinating question for anyone interested in the politics of Silicon Valley and we could see this collapse of the tech mythology as facilitating a repoliticisation of (big) tech: things which were successfully framed as unalloyed social goods, so obviously beneficial to society as to be outside dispute, come to be contested and debated, as well as (we hope) subject to legal intervention and the construction of regulatory regimes.

Madrigal draws a fascinating parallel with the railroad network, using the work of the historian Richard White. The hyperbole with which the internet was greeted was once matched by a transcontinental rail network which opened up a seemingly infinite vista of possibilities to Americans, expanding the scope of social life and coming to define many people’s sense of the age in which they lived. However as controversies accumulated in the face of their novel practices (particularly the formation of their monopolies and the political lobbying operations used to defend them), they came to be widely recognised as detrimental to social life and this once lauded system was increasingly despised. The collapse of the mythology surrounding them “helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. Much as the railroads generated the richest men of the time while being the object of vast political opposition, big tech increasingly finds itself the object of resistance while its founders enjoy the fruits of the “world-historic empires” they have built. The question this leaves is how we can ensure the collapse of the tech mythology goes hand-in-hand with a reigning in of the apparatus that has been built and the defensive elites who have made their fortunes from it.

There’s a lucid account in Crystal Abidin’s Internet Celebrity of how eyewitness viral stars, briefly famous for their recorded reactions to an event, generate money for a whole range of unconnected actors. From 772-792:

Eyewitness viral stars present an interesting form of internet celebrity in that at every stage of their fame cycle, several actors profit from the value of their unwitting content creation –such as news networks and print media through clickbait and follow-ups that extend public interest in the viral star, the production and hawking of bootleg merchandise whose sales do not directly benefit the viral star, and the circuit of social media content producers’ covers, parodies, remixes, op-eds, and meme performances that enjoys surplus value from the viral star and their image rights without any returns or rewards to them above and beyond a namedrop or hyperlinked URL.

Being picked up by mainstream media reduces their agency over this process even further. While this account concerns a specific subset of viral stars, it highlights the core questions which a political economy of them needs to be sensitive to. Who benefits? How do they benefit? How does this benefit impact upon the viral star? What control can they exercise over the approach? The participatory ideology of social media tends to obscure these questions, reducing a complex sequence of events into the ‘five minutes of fame’ gifted to an individual.

If we see the examples above as external actors capitalising on someone’s unexpected moment of visibility, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that viral stars can also capitalise on their own visibility. The example of Grumpy Cat on loc 883 is instructive:

However, despite such extensive dispersals and the spread of her online fame, Grumpy Cat’s owner also did well to consolidate her celebrity and establish origin outlets and ownership over the images. For instance, recognizing the growth potential of Grumpy Cat’s new fame, owner Bundesen quickly claimed the name of the meme and established digital estates on Instagram as @realgrumpycat where she has over 2.4 million followers, 178 on Facebook as “The Official Grumpy Cat” where she has over 8 million followers, 179 and on YouTube as “Real Grumpy Cat” where she has over 37 million views. 180

However the capacity do this is unevenly distributed. I was particularly interested in Abidin’s discussion of brand managers and digital communications experts who specialise in help viral stars capitalise upon their celebrity.

I was struck when reading this description of Donna Haraway’s work in Razmig Keucheyan’s Left Hemisphere of how useful the notion of détournement could be in navigating the contemporary politics of social media. As he writes on loc 4454:

Like a number of contemporary critical thinkers, Haraway subscribes to the strategic paradigm of détournement. Its origins go back to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially situationism. It consists in diverting an object or discourse from its original function in order to subvert its content and endow it with a politically or artistically new connotation. Thus, although cyborgs initially went hand in glove with capital, it cannot be excluded that they will make it possible to transcend certain aporiae in which advocates of a radical ecology and socialism are currently trapped.

What was once a position of untrammelled utopianism, in which the founding ideology of social media was uncritically reproduced in a fit of enthusiasm, increasingly heads towards its opposite. As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.

To be overly attentive to the media system in and of itself inadvertently reproduces precisely the utopian assumptions which we seek to overturn. I wonder if détournement in the sense of unweaving the participatory promise of social media (what I call the founding ideology above) from its embedding in a particular account of platforms could be a useful strategy for getting beyond this impasse? Rather than see domination as built into the structure of the platform itself, could the platform’s own ideology be usefully leverage in critique of the promised outcomes which its business model suppresses? Does the mood of cultural pessimism inadvertently exclude conversations about democratic governance and collective action orientated towards reform? Can these platforms be diverted from their original function?

There’s a full explanation of this on Russ Kick’s blog. If I understand correctly, there a formal process in which federal agencies coordinate with the national archive to determine the status of public records. These requests are usually green lit by the National Archives & Records Administration, though they theoretically have the power to refuse them. This is how Russ Kick describes what is happening: 

The Department of the Interior has sent NARA a massive Request for Records Disposition Authority.

Interior’s request involves documents about oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, land acquisition, and lots more.

The request covers these categories of documents from every agency within the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others.

The request covers already-existing documents going back more than 50 years. Thousands of cubic feet of paper documents. Gigabytes of digital documents. Besides existing documents, as usual the proposed schedule will also apply to all future documents created in these categories (whether on paper or born digital).

It’s hard not to wonder if this might be the start of requests by other agencies. For all the centrism running through the latest book by Michael Lewis, I still found it a powerful account of the institutional vandalism currently underway. People who don’t understand the federal agencies they have been appointed to are nonetheless committed to eviscerating them from the inside, undertaken with varying degrees of direct self-interest. In the context of these appointments, it would be naive to assume anything other than the worst in response to this request.