The age of the platforms

Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism
Forfatter: Geert Lovink
Forlag: Pluto Press (Storbritannia)
MEDIA / Author Geert Lovink analyzes contemporary use of social media and looks at a possible end to "platform nihilism".


The title says it most. And it's a bitter book, this. Written in an essayistic style, with self-narration, we discuss the things we all recognize from everyday life since social media became our entire world. Behavioral analyzes and fake news are hot topics, but there are also other, less visible changes that make themselves known: unclear
boundaries between work and private life, uncertainty created by constant accessibility, the paradoxical gap between the hyperindividualized subject and the social mentality of the media, the pressure to live a predictable life, constant social ranking, expanded – but invisible – hierarchies, indifference, hatred.

Despite the bitter tone, it is a pleasure to read the book. For it is not only observational; it gives the themes a wider context and places them in a historical context. Take, for example, the hype around big data and artificial intelligence: We are impressed by the knowledge we can gain by analyzing vast amounts of information, while at the same time knowing that this means gathering information about us, which in turn worries us. Author Geert Lovink puts these concerns in the context of the opposition to the census of the Netherlands in the 1970s and the German protest movement in 1983. «These opponents simply did not accept this big data collection of personal identity, which included the religion, political position and ethnic background of the identified »(P. 88). He explains in depth and detail how today's focus on the computer's user interface gets in the way of its original purpose and thus the fact that statistics and computers have a common origin in the extensive use of IBM's stamping card technology, created by the Nazis to coordinate forced labor, and utilized to carry out the Holocaust when they systematically spoke and picked out Jews (p. 84).

The age of the platforms

The computer was used for population control and genocide (p. 79) long before we enthusiastically hailed it as a liberation tool for the individual and society (p. 80). The first time I heard about Geert Lovink, a theorist, activist and online critic who "has made an effort to shape the development of the Internet", was in the mid-90s. That was when he founded the international Nettime (e-mail list), and I wrote an essay for the booklet that was published in connection with the Nettime May Conference – Beauty and the East, organized by Nettime and Ljudmila (Ljubljana Digital Media Lab) in Ljubljana in 1997. This was the time of the new media, Lovink writes, "where we – activists, artists, designers and local grassroots movements – thought we could play a role". But "this short summer of online criticism" came and went, and the venture capitalist monoculture of hyped e-commerce survived until the dotcom bubble burst and the Twin Towers in New York fell in 2001. What followed was Web 2.0, "a quiet period of reconstruction." with blogs, RSS feeds, user-generated content and Google's entry. "The knowledge the networks had acquired in the earlier phases was transformed into […] profit for the few."

The computer was used for population control long before we paid tribute to it
as a release tool.

"The Fourth Stage of the Internet" began after the global financial crisis in 2008, and is "characterized by the boom of extractiveism" (p. 63). The 1980s were the golden age of the media and the networks dominated the 90s, and now we are well into the platform age.

Sad city design

When we still hear the term «new media» today, Lovink writes, it is because we have not been able to develop good theory around the topic during the decades new media have emerged. Despite overwhelming global statistics showing that "the majority of the world's population (55 percent in June 2018) is online, hooked on platforms" (p. 62), no one has seriously set about establishing serious internet studies, and at least not platform studies. "Art-oriented programs for new media have either been shut down in silence, turned into harmless […] collaborations as 'digital humanities' or have been sucked into the media and the communication industry's logic of communication." Access to knowledge and information about new media is very limited, which undermines our ability to fully understand the consequences of the contemporary platform era for people and society. "The white male nerds in engineering and business schools became venture capitalists and have achieved cultural dominance – the Silicon Valley model is repeated, and those with a background in social sciences, art, humanities and design are pushed to the sidelines."

The materiality of the media

Our lack of a theoretical framework makes Lovink's work – and also this book – even more important. The author's academic «role models» are the German media theorists Klaus Theweleit and Friedrich Kittler. They examined the traumatic roots of the media in World War II and found that "the media could not be separated from the military." This was an approach that was "radically different from IT's […] endless hype and their obsession with the future". Another academic source for Lovink is the anthology Texts for Media Theory, published by Reclam in 2004. This emphasizes the materiality of the media (p. 63), which explains the author's bold claim that the platforms we communicate through are designed to make us sad.

"The knowledge the networks had acquired in the early phases was turned into profit for the few." Gert Lovink

This is not a deterministic perspective akin to McLuhan's "the medium is the message," in the sense that the media creates society. Sadness has long existed for social media, but this specific form of sadness is a sadness that manifests itself when we “can no longer distinguish between telephone and society. If we cannot freely change our profile and feel too weak to delete the app, we are doomed to frantically check for updates at all free hours ”(page 47). It is far from a natural reaction; this form of boredom is integrated into the design of the user interface and the design of the apps (page 51).

This is a daunting approach, but Lovink presents it with personal conviction and academic thoroughness, through a dialogue with other academics, and as a result of a distinct distinction between the individual and social in today's social media. Like the internet researcher Sherry Turkle says: We are alone together. Lovink links his research and academic work with historical information and contemporary critical theories. But the book's greatest advantage is its suggestions for solutions.

The book is admittedly bitter, but not pessimistic at all. If you want to read a book this fall, make sure it is Sad by Design.

Translated by Vibeke Harper

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