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.