In William Gibson’s recent futurist novel The Peripheral, the planet has been devastated by a massive eco-techno-political catastrophe (‘the jackpot’) but remaining inhabitants are still able to enjoy the luxury of activating digital devices simply by tapping their tongues on the roof of their mouths. This touch is sufficient to set into play systems that communicate across space and time – enabling the establishment of connections back in time, for example, to people closer to our own present-day, for whom mobiles are still (somewhat) separate from the body. Thirty years ago, in his first novel Neuromancer, Gibson immortalised cyberspace with the account of what now sounds like an amazingly clunky process whereby the hero ‘jacks-in’ to virtual reality. But in The Peripheral the process of translation and transition into networks is streamlined – occluded, internal, intimate and implanted – right at the tip of the tongue.
This issue of the Fibreculture Journal explores a moment along this hypothetical trajectory by investigating the contemporary intersection of ‘Apps and Affect’, publishing papers from a conference of that name organised in October 2013 by faculty and students at Western University (specifically from its Faculty of Information and Media Studies and Center for the Study of Theory and Criticism). By recognising apps as objects that are related to the constitution of subjects, as a component of biopolitical assemblages, and as a means of digital production and consumption, our conference aimed to make an intervention in what had – since the announcements of the App-Store and the iPhone3 in 2008 – been a largely technical and rather technophiliac public discussion of apps.
Isn’t it paradoxical, we asked, that instead of becoming ‘transparent’ and ‘invisible’ – as envisioned by the thinkers of ubiquitous computing decades ago – the app-ecosystem manifests itself as permanent excess: excessive downloads, excessive connections, excessive proximity, excessive ‘friends’-qua-‘contacts’, excessive speeds and excessive amounts of information? How does the app as ‘technique’ (Tenner), indeed as ‘cultural technique’ (Siegert) and as ‘technics’ (Stiegler), channel our ways of maintaining relations with/in the media environment? Do the specific and circumscribed operations of individual applications foster or foreclose what media theorists call the transformative and transductive potential of collective technological individuation (Simondon)? How might we think about the social, political and technical implications of this movement away from open-ended networks like the internet towards specific, focused, and individualised modes of computing? Do apps represent ‘a new reticular condition of trans-individuation grammatising new forms of social relations’ (Stiegler) or do they signal instead the triumph of ‘regulatory’ networks over ‘generative’ ones (Zittrain)? If apps are micro-programs residing by the hundreds and thousands on cell-phones, mobile-devices and tablets, and affects are corporeal excitements (and depressions) running beneath and beyond cognition, what is the relation of apps to affects?
One of the unanticipated aspects of the conference – a surprise, but of the sort we hoped for – was the intensity of discussions during several Q&A sessions on the then-current question of ‘object oriented ontology’. As readers of The Fibreculture Journal will be well aware, the rapid digital developments in which the app operates as representative relation and/or object have been accompanied by new trends in and on the margins of media theory, such as speculative realism/new-materialism/’ooo’ – trends that have sometimes (dare we say often?) provoked strong criticism. Apps, it seems, are particularly potent activators of such discussions, perhaps because these tiny mobile programs appear to exemplify the process in which things become more life-like and humans more thing-infested – a development to which Donna Haraway (1985) pointed over twenty years ago.
In a keynote talk ‘Life’s an App for Geo-cosmic Processes’, Edward Keller provocatively claimed that the app is not a representational or interpretive tool, but rather the instantiation of an abstract model that predates the existence of ‘apps’ per se. Suggesting that ‘the human platform’ can be conceptualised as one layer in a geo-cosmic network – within which consciousness might be merely an evolutionary aberration – he proposed that every ‘thing’ (including every human) is, in this system, an ‘app’ for something else. If we approach the app in this manner, Keller argued, we might discover a range of agencies that our current mainstream idea of apps – and indeed, of bodies and subjectivities – does not acknowledge properly.
The issues raised by such perspectives were further highlighted in an exchange between two more of the conference’s keynote speakers, Patricia Ticineto Clough and Alexander R. Galloway, which we subsequently formalised into the conversation moderated by Svitlana Matviyenko and published here as ‘On Governance, Blackboxing, Measure, Body, Affect and Apps’. For Clough, the world of information is a world of all mediation all of the time: its non-stop solicitation, generation, algorithmic parsing, and unpredictable ‘networked and distributed relations’ – of which apps are paradigmatic – obviate notions of ‘closed systems’, distinct objects or organisms. The myth of autopoiesis has been shattered; in its wake, she proposes the emergence of new forms of (non-conscious) subjectivity. The ‘speculative’ subject of big data is focused, not on an holistic form of self-representation or self-knowledge, or even self-interest, but rather on the maintenance of malleable sets of anticipatory and liquid capacities, which can change and adapt to new (presumably algorithmically computed) forms of appreciation and depreciation generated from elsewhere.
But no matter how radical its claims, speculative philosophies (such as object-oriented ontology) do not a politics make – although they most certainly can have sets of unforeseen political consequences. As Galloway argues, despite the claim of ‘political potential’ made by object oriented ontologists, their position ‘removes the point of decision from people (the demos) to the object world at large’ (2012). Since it has no way of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects, because it de-privileges consciousness and people, and because there is no way of generating a dynamics of contestation and argument in a flat ontology, this theory has no room for judgment – a crucial element of any political project. If, indeed, we are no longer ruled by ‘the Father or the Prince’ but instead ‘by the packet, the data point, the unit of legible meaning’ as Galloway claims here, we do ourselves no good by simply echoing or mirroring those operations in our critical models and forms.
Given the conference agenda, it is hardly surprising that many of the contributions to the conference and to this issue of The Fibreculture Journal occupy – both internally and in their inter-relations – a productively multi-disciplinary ground located between ‘software studies’,’cultural and media studies’ and psychoanalytic perspectives.
In ‘Spotify has Added an Event to your Past: (Re)writing the Self through Facebook’s Autoposting Apps’ (a title strangely reminiscent of Gibson’s time-travel fiction) Tanya Kant argues that if Facebook apps are considered to be ‘tools’ for self-writing, self-expression and identity performance, then the capacity of apps to write in the user’s stead – at times without the user’s knowledge or explicit consent – works to intervene in and, on occasion, disrupt users’ staged self-performances. Jeremy Wade Morris and Evan Elkins trace the lineage of the app and contextualise it within the history of the software commodity in ‘There’s a History for That: Apps and Mundane Software as Commodity’; they argue that apps represent an affective and contextual experience of software that expands its potential range of uses but also increases its influence over everyday practices.
Frédérik Lesage proposes in his essay that we rethink the ways in which software design posits, configures, and arguably entrenches ‘pre-existing classificatory distinctions between elite and popular or mainstream and exceptional’. He goes on to develop the concept of ‘middlebrowware’ as a way to assess the processes of symbolic ordering that take place in and through the design and use of certain kinds of media software, using Photoshop as a case study. In ‘iHootenanny: A Folk Archeology of Social Media’, Henry Svec excavates models of communication in the histories of American folk revivalism and digital culture, linking the populist Hootenanny to the utopian vision of a community joined in song taken up by ‘social music’ iPhone apps. And Svitlana Matviyenko’s ‘Interpassive User: Complicity and the Returns of Cybernetics’ activates Lacanian themes in and through an examination of cybernetic thought, specifically the notions of ‘extension’ and ‘prosthesis’, proposing that these concepts map onto the logics of metaphor and metonymy as well as surplus and lack. Through this analysis, she raises questions about the complicity of users in their compulsive use of apps, reconfiguring Slavoj Žižek’s notion of ‘interpassivity’, initially used by him to address the dynamics of the relation between owners and the digital toy tamagotchi, in order to suggest that this new app logic involves a similar ‘double deception’. Here, ‘the subject pretends to pretend: the user pretends to be passive by engaging in rather meaningless activity, avoiding acting or refusing agency, which would require the condition of another, less comfortable, passivity by stepping off the grid’.
These issues bear on one aspect of the conference perhaps underrepresented in this collection: analysis of the political economy of apps and their insertion within digital capitalism. This issue is certainly alluded to in several papers here, and is a central concern of others. A number of the conference-paper contributions in this area have, however, been published elsewhere (for instance those of Jodi Dean, Renyi Hong, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Nandita Biswas Mellamphy and Dan Mellamphy, Vincent Manzerolle and Atle Mikkola Kjøsen, as well as Enda Brophy and Greig de Peuter): contributions which we would like to mention as readings complementary to this issue of the Fibreculture Journal.
The political economy of the app, as a topic, was broached by Dean in her opening plenary on ‘Apps and Drive’, published in Theories of the Mobile Internet: Materialities and Imaginaries (Routledge, 2014). This established a broad politico-psychoanalytic analysis of the way in which apps operate as devices of attraction and captivation that tie us affectively to exploitative networks of production and circulation. Papers delivered later in the conference explored parts of this process in greater detail. For example, two papers delivered by Manzerolle and Kjøsen on apps’ role in the digitally-accelerated circulation of capital via targeted advertisement, the culling of consumer data, and mobile finance, have been effectively combined into a single co-authored piece appearing in The Imaginary App (MIT Press, 2014), where Mellamphy and Biswas Mellamphy’s original conference-paper – a different essay from the one they contribute to this volume – also appears: this anthology being, in many respects, a companion-volume to the conference and this issue of the Fibreculture Journal.
Other conference-participants journeyed into the “hidden abode” of app-production, where the promise of app-entrepreneurialism has attracted thousands of young (predominantly male) free labourers to the creation of apps, whose sale in the app store, in turn, provides them with little (often zero) remuneration and eliminates the need for platform providers to conduct extensive research and development. Hong’s study of this dynamic within the virtual game industry, presented at the conference, has appeared as ‘Game Modding, Prosumerism and Neoliberal Labor Practices‘ in the International Journal of Communication (2013). Dyer-Witheford’s ‘App Worker’, which looks at the empirical evidence about the app economy and the polarised patterns of splendour and misery followed by independent app developers appears in The Imaginary App. Brophy and de Peuter’s ‘Labours of Mobility: Communicative Capitalism and the Smartphone Cybertariat’ (which appears in Theories of the Mobile Internet) makes a crucial enlargement of the scope of app labour analysis by placing it within the broader circuit of mobile phone production – one that also includes extraction in the mining of coltan and other minerals, assembly in the factories of Foxconn, the sales and servicing of smart phones from call centres, and disassembly in toxic waste dumps scavenged for metallic resides.
Even though a number of political-economic papers have found a destination elsewhere, this aspect of the app is by no means absent from this issue of Fibreculture. Mellamphy and Biswas Mellamphy’s essay for this volume, ‘An Algorithmic Agartha: Post-App Approaches to Synarchic Regulation’, explores the political and socio-cultural implications of apps – especially via algorithmic regulation – in the context of contemporary planetary regimes of information governance. They argue that we can no longer naïvely hold onto the view espoused by techno-optimists that new technologies reduce regulation and increase oversight in addition to the production of desirable outcomes, but, rather, should expect increases in the politico-military, market-economic, and techno-scientific regulation of behaviours and activities by way of increasingly intelligent complex information-processes.
Keynote speaker Melissa Gregg’s ‘Hack for Good: Speculative Labor, App Development and the Burden of Austerity’ speaks to the production side of the app economy and provides a fascinating overview of civic “hackathons”, examining their promotion as a ‘new form of community service’ and their relationship to austerity, unpaid labor, and creative industries. Her description of an ‘indentured cognitariat of our time’ paints an extremely bleak picture in which the radical potential of the hacker is now tethered to US patriotism and entrepreneurial forms of citizenship.
Finally, Mark Andrejevic’s ‘The Droning of Experience’ paints an extraordinarily disturbing picture of both work and consumption in the app era. Andrejevic, another of our conference keynotes, deploys the figure of the drone to describe the ways human experience and interpretive capacity is not only undermined but bypassed entirely as the result of the ’emerging logic of portable, always-on, distributed, ubiquitous, and automated information capture’. The drone encapsulates the practices of automating sense making and response, registering economically productive patterns and anomalies at a preconscious level, displacing human judgment and focusing solely on humans’ autonomic reflexes in practices such as sentiment analysis and mood monitoring. This situation, Andrejevic argues, ‘transform[s] humans into networked, sensing devices’. While Marx in his famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ saw capitalist technology culminating in a machinic system where humans figured only residually as ‘conscious linkages’, in Andrejevic’s account this supplementary role has been downgraded even further to that of ‘pre-conscious linkage’, so that the human has truly become the ‘appendage of the machine.’
In Mellamphy and Biswas Mellamphy’s account of globally-reticulated synarchic regulation, Gregg’s description of the corporate and state-sponsored recuperation of free hacker-labour, and Andrejevic’s account of a de-skilling process that strips out consciousness itself as an unneeded attribute of laboring and consuming meat-puppets, we see the app as a technology whose excitements usher-in a new level of capitalist subsumption. One of the central questions that this Special Issue of the Fibreculture Journal poses but leaves unanswered is that of the oppositional forms adequate to counter the blizzard of capitalist techno-power, whose inhuman force is disguised by the cheerful multi-colored app-dots that compose it. It is our hope that the articles included here will inspire others to take up this question and to continue the critically important debates about apps and affects.
Nandita Biswas Mellamphy is Associate Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at Western. She is the author of The Three Stigmata of Friedrich Nietzsche: Political Physiology in the Age of Nihilism (Palgrave, 2010).
Nick Dyer-Witheford is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at University of Western Ontario. He is author of Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism (University of Illinois, 1999), and co-author, with Stephen Kline and Greig de Peuter of Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing (McGill-Queen’s, 2003), and with Greig de Peuter of Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). His forthcoming book is Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour In The Digital Vortex (Pluto Press, 2015).
Alison Hearn is an Associate Professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario. She has taught at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, the Humanities Program at the University of Toronto, Cultural Studies at Trent University and Communication Studies at Northeastern University. Her work combines cultural theory with critical political economy and focuses primarily on the intersections of visual culture, consumer culture, reality television, new media, and self-production. She also writes on the history of the university as a cultural site. She has published in such journals as Topia, Continuum, History of Intellectual Culture, and The International Journal of Media and Culture, and in edited volumes including The Celebrity Culture Reader, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, 2nd edition, and The Media and Social Theory. She is co-author of Outside the Lines: Issues in Interdisciplinary Research (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997). Currently, Professor Hearn is working on a book about reality television entitled Real Incorporated: Explorations in reality television and contemporary visual culture.
Svitlana Matviyenko is a Lecturer at the University of Western Ontario. She has a PhD in Critical Theory, Media Theory and Psychoanalysis from the University of Missouri and she is now pursuing her second doctorate at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario. She writes on psychoanalysis, topology, posthumanism, mobile apps, and networking drive. Her work has been published and forthcoming in Digital Creativity, (Re)-Turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies, Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Krytyka and others. Svitlana curated several experimental dance performances and several art exhibitions at the Ukrainian Institute of America in NYC, Museum | London (Ontario) and other venues. She is a co-editor (with Paul D. Miller) of The Imaginary App (MIT, 2014).
issue doi: 10.15307/fcj.25