grazing in the cloud

Slavoj Zizek’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed made me wonder whether my research should focus more on how corporate platforms affect social media users’ sense of their own capacities, and – by extension – identities. It also made me wonder if I’m not really a digital ungulate: a docile hoofed animal waiting to be herded.

That isn’t what the article’s about, exactly.

It’s about the cloud, or the preponderance of web-based tools and applications that make resources available to us via the internet and computing networks. The scope of power and access that the cloud makes available is enormous, far greater than most individuals would ever be able to afford, manage, or comprehend if we needed to coordinate or store stuff individually on our own machines. The cloud is a distributed delivery system on a grand scale.

And as many before Zizek have pointed out, it’s also a veil of abstraction that falls between the user and the technology; both cause and symptom of the increasing privatization of cyberspace. Because the gadgets we use are ever-more powerful and ever-more personalized, but they are also ever-more monopolized by a few corporations with particular commercial and ideological interests.

Now, I am a happy citizen of the cloud, most of the time. I don’t want to jail-break my iPhone; hell, I don’t even HAVE an iPhone. Even if I did, and someone was kind enough to jailbreak it for me, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I don’t have the literacies. Sure, I spend perhaps eighty hours a week on my computer, and I possess a decent amount of meta-knowledge about social media and digital technologies and their implications for society. But I’m one of those people who came to the study of technologies through the door of cultural curiosity and theory. I started researching social technologies in 1997. It was only with the rise of social media and the cloud that I began to develop a practice – a deep practice, certainly, and deeply valuable to me – with social technologies.

That practice and its infiltration of my daily life and identity has made me profoundly dependent on platforms I don’t claim to understand. I am a social media animal, grazing in the cloud.

What I am not, no matter how extensive my interest in and usage of social technologies, is a geek. I use the term with props: my instinct is that I’d probably be better off a geek. Because geeks have a skillset and an agency with technologies that I do not. And part of what separates me and my ilk from the generation of digital enthusiasts before me – the generation who had to be, to some extent, geeks in order to invest as much of their lives and identities in digital technologies in a time when platforms did not make it all transparent for them – is captured in the distinction between geek and user.

I am a user and a thinker of digital technologies: I call myself a cyborg. But I do not have the agency a geek might have to control her own experience of the augmented reality of cyberspace. Twitter and Apple and Facebook and Google and Flickr pre-decide a great deal of that experience for me. And mostly I am happy with that, because I do not have the knowledge to make other decisions with, anyway.

Admittedly, I also don’t know how my car works, at any intimate level. But my social identity is not constructed in the interaction between my spark plugs and my engine. And so I wonder, as a social media animal, how corporate decisions about efficiency and profit and ease-of-use impact these seemingly endless capacities the cloud brings me? It appears to bring me new kinds of agency, and those are in, in effect, the subject of my doctoral research. But how is that agency constructed? What forms of control come with it?

Control, says Zizek, is one of the key hallmarks of this cloud culture. Vertical integration means that a single corporation is increasingly invested across multiple levels of the very huge business that is the cloud. As Zizek puts it, “Apple doesn’t only sell iPhones and iPads, it also owns iTunes. It also recently made a deal with Rupert Murdoch allowing the news on the Apple cloud to be supplied by Murdoch’s media empire.” (2011).

The cloud makes almost infinite access and choice available on one hand, while limiting other choices within the very narrow lines of corporate alliances. Most of us can’t and don’t want to make anything approaching an infinite number of choices. But when corporate alignments preclude even the rather reasonable and familiar choice of news providers, which most of us are more than capable of making, and then makes that choice appear natural to a digital citizenry conditioned to accepting what our platforms dictate…that seems like a problem.

It’s not a problem Slavoj Zizek has a solution for, unfortunately.

You can usually count on Zizek for a nice incisive polemic on contemporary culture, and for tearing sacred cows a new one as he goes. Sometimes he rises to the level of actually framing new perspectives on society’s comfortable habits. I studied with him for a summer back in 2004, and he was a magnetic, bear-like force who occasionally spat out tidbits that still churn in the pool of my thought-processes. At other times, I just got a lot of spit on me.

This piece on the cloud, though, left me almost spit-free. Sure, there’s a comparison between the cloud’s operations and those of the Chinese state, but otherwise, the article is almost…utterly rational. And observational in tone. It raises very few spectres, Chinese communism aside, and doesn’t mention Lacan once.

In the comments, there are tongue-in-cheek cries of “what have you done with Zizek?”

Shortly after a flurry of us tweeted the article out yesterday morning, Jim Groom noted similar concerns, asking, isn’t this rather tame for a cultural critic of his stature? Where, said Jim, are the alternatives to the problems Zizek identifies with cloud computing? And when, he said, will the poets of our moment emerge?

I wrote back a line from Ginsberg’s America: When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

It’s true, Zizek’s article largely failed to offer any sort of critical, mythical re-framing of possibility. And it’s true we could use a poet, or seven.

But maybe we’d do better with seven thousand. Maybe the problem isn’t solely the cloud, but the fact that our critical thinking skills are still set to a pre-cloud scale. Wrapping our minds around how the cloud changes things, and coming to any understanding of what the insidious corporatization of platforms means for identities and agency may take the kind of distributed, networked, crowdsourced effort the cloud makes possible. Maybe we need all the knowledges we can find.

Whether I look at social media from the perspective of individual subjectivities or the grand scale of the cloud, the issue of corporate symbiosis always crops up. How we understand who we are and what we do in contemporary culture – digital and otherwise – needs to account for the ways in which our social and learning environments and our ensuing identities are shaped by corporate decisions and practices and discourse. The scope and scale of this accounting is nearly as vast as that of the cloud itself.

Slavoj Zizek is a cultural critic of some stature, yes. But on cloud computing, he can only draw on what he knows, just as Jim Groom draws on what he knows, and I draw on what I know.  If Zizek had an answer, the chorus of blog posts that amplified his answer would each change it just a little, add something, create a composite narrative that might be better for the input of geeks, of poets, even of us ungulates.

How does the cloud impact you and what you can and can’t do? What control do you give over to the corporate wizards behind the curtain? What agency do you gain and/or lose? If you identify as a geek rather than an ungulate, would you recommend I stop merely grazing in the cloud, and start learning? What should I learn?

Tell me, all you poets and users and geeks. As Ginsberg said, queer shoulder to the wheel.





8 Comments grazing in the cloud

  1. Sandi

    This makes me think of an blog I read recently, I can’t remember which on, maybe the Make blog? Anyway the gist was that when I was a kid you sat at a keyboard and had full easy access to the back end of the computer you were using. You could modify and tweak, break and fix, create or improve. As I sit here typing on my iPhone I have no easy access to the guts of the device and even if I did, I couldn’t use the device and modify it at the same time.

    I know I’m straying from your discussion about the cloud but I wonder if societies fascination and growing dependence of iDevices and smartphones isn’t driving the way we use the cloud?

    1. bon

      Sandi, that’s not straying at all. i think that’s one of the main differences i’m waving at here (i started to say pointing to, but that was too direct…it’s more like i’m gesturing) – i’m curious about what access to the back end means and what it means that most of us now neither have it nor mourn it. the decisions still get made, but they are mostly market decisions.

      i wonder how we find ways of influencing that decision-making on alternate terms, or if that is even possible?

  2. Sandi

    The most immediate option that comes to mind is the act of jailbreaking your phone; something most users will never do and reserved to those that love technology and resent having every aspect of the usage predecided for them. I think if a particular hack is popular enough it will eventually be used by the vendor to further product development.

    I think it is people on the fringe that drive creative use of a technology or product; either early adopters or those that may be late-comers but use the technology or service in a way that it wasn’t intended. Look to the fringe and you will see such creativity. Most of it will never develop to “the next big thing” but experimentation is essential to the development of the next big thing.

    1. Bon

      …and there you get to the heart of this post. on that fringe of intended uses, there is subversion of the powerful interests that shape those very intended uses.

      to me, that’s what the cyborg metaphor is about, and that’s why it’s important for me to explore digital sociality through that lens.

      i do think those of us who can’t jailbreak our phones may still be using social technologies for creative, fringe purposes: certainly in narrative blogging i see forms of subjectivity expressed and received in community in ways that simply do not tend to happen in embodied sociality, and i think this matters. but i wonder…because there is no technological experimentation to it, no changed artifact, does it get seen? does it feed into development in the way hacks do?

  3. Lisa b

    I am thinking about your comment regarding cars and how we don’t know how they work. Like digital technologies, I used to know more about how my car worked how to change the oil etc, and this has become more complex w new digital parts in the cars. In fact, the huz relies on our car’s electronic warning system to tell him when to fill the tires. I was furious to realize he was doing this as the warning came on one day and the tires were far too low. This is always my concern with technology – that we lose our ability to perform simple functions by relying on machines. The machines that go ‘beep’ in the nicu being another example – the nurses used to have to look at the babies, what a concept.
    That said, i’ve given up caring that the digital face I present is controlled by the corporate wizards you describe. of course what we are able to do is controlled by the tools we are given, just like in language. I don’t have the time or more importantly ,the inclination, to catch up to what I need to know to be able to exert control over the cloud. It just is not that important to me.

    I follow ‘geeks’ like jason nolan who I have worked with for over ten years now.
    Do you know steve mann at U of T? He is physically a cyborg.

    FWIW I would argue that your car actually does play a large role in your social identity ;)


  4. Granitize

    Hi Bon,

    I think happiness in the cloud is highly dependent on the environment you find yourself in – or choose to be in.

    Having just moved from an employment environment that approved of … no encouraged… the use of social tools as a way to communicate, research, play, organize, store and retrieve all kinds of “data” into a more restrictive, hierarchical structure where the “fear factor” of personal and corporate privacy seems to outweigh the benefits of open communication and transparency I find myself wanting to be an evangelist.

    If you are studying this, I’d love hear some discussion and analysis of the corporate “enterprise” and their adoption of Internal(Intranet) social communication and collaboration tools vs “cloud tools”.

    – Are they as effective when restricted to an Intranet?
    – Why the knee jerk reaction with a “We could easily use …?” statement.
    – How to build security into “cloud tools” that satisfy the silo builders while encouraging good modern communication and research skills.

    I try to encourage and teach my kids to be aware of, and understand, the benefits, risks and rewards of being a “cloud consumer”… Teaching them “how to” also means teaching them “how not to”… end of rant.

    1. bon

      Grant…i wondered about the change of environment, for you. i myself like and cherish my digital sociality, for all i’m curious/suspicious of what underpins and shapes it. when i come up against the institutional fears that you speak of, i too find myself wanting to be an evangelist. and i’m wary of that, b/c i don’t like the narrative trajectories that cast social technologies (or any technologies) as utopian or dystopian…but when people have a totally dystopian view it’s hard not to want to counter that.

      i wish i knew more about intranet. there are reasons for silos occasionally, i think…but you’re right, they still need to encourage communication and research. you don’t need everybody present to communicate. but you need to be able to interact in particular ways.


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