Minutes from June meeting

Discussion of Striphas, and Bridges:

  • Most of the discussion oriented around the Bridges article. One of the first parts of the discussion was the question of what was meant by digital failure? It seemed to be an interesting concept but one which was not made full use of within the article. The term ‘digital failure’ implies there is some sort of ‘digital success’ and so is this a success of the system or of the user? Reading it as a failure of the system would mean the platform fails to operate as it is supposed to. Actors can encourage this failure by acting in ways which subvert the system, as a form of critique. This is user agency beyond what is intended by the developers. However, the question then becomes how this is seen as ‘failure’? Is it just a ‘current failure’ of the system/platform, which will learn to classify and quantify that which it currently does not understand in time? Is it a subversion of the system or showing the system what it has left to classify?
  • The use of the term queer so frequently in the article brings to mind Jack Halberstam’s idea of ‘queer failure’ (which is cited in the article). This is the idea that queer bodies act outside of established classification systems and thus get to define themselves, as well as their own idea of success. The ‘failure’ here is this resistance to established norms, it is almost an ironic failure. This fits within the queer reading concept employed by Bridges as well. Again, however, the question becomes does this make the system more inclusive or is it just allowing the system to subsume currently resistant narratives into the norm? The question of Hall’s encoding/decoding-based preferred and negotiated readings was brought up here. Is the queering of data and platforms an ongoing, ideological process in which the platform is constantly reformed? 
  • One problem with all of this (and it’s the same problem we often encounter, including with the group itself) is the question of ‘so what?’ or ‘what next?’. We often already speak about a problem the audience is already convinced is a problem. There is a stop point where much of the reading gets jammed up and this is generally making (or suggesting how to make) any substantial change. It is very easy to say we disagree with the classifications being made by ImageNet highlighted in the article but the reality is that capitalism is hostile towards non-white people and it is racist. Within the system of capitalism this is not a bug but a feature. 
  • This is also the case for the Striphas article but the kind of work he is doing is more prone to this anyway, etymologies are more difficult to be terribly applicable on the ground. However, one problem with this type of work’s impact is that it can become embedded within the neoliberal idea that the market can facilitate understanding through the proliferation of information. The question was raised of whether or not the Striphas article had outlived its utility? If it now functions as a historical document showing how people were dealing with issues in 2015 and if we’ve now moved past this? However, we still struggle with some very basic and commonly used terms today so perhaps not.
  • Another issue raised with the Striphas article was that it did not feel like the conclusion built on the previous points well enough. The discussion in the body of the text was interesting but it feels disconnected from the conclusion nonetheless. It would perhaps have felt more whole if there were some recommendations around what we can use language for, in relation to black-boxed platforms, for example.
  • There was then a discussion of what it meant to ‘unbecome’ a subject within a platform. Unbecoming implies agency, which is different from the idea of platformised failure. It seemed within the Bridges article user agency and platform failure were often made to be one in the same, which is not really the case. There is a difference in the system being unable to read the user and the system reading the user but rejecting their data.
  • Unbecoming a subject was then connected to the idea of wellness and the work of Canguilhem. Defining what it means to be ‘well’ often depends on an unwell subject. In the same way, we can only define ‘correct’ or ‘successful’ data by the data we deem as ‘incorrect’ or ‘failed’. So the question becomes again if resistance to the system by acting within the system is the right approach? This echoes Nussenbaum’s discussion of obfuscation on platforms, as well as Zuboff’s claims. Essentially what they are saying is that you have to spend a huge amount of time within the system ensuring that you present ‘incorrect’ data in order not to be seen. Is this really agency or resistance? You are acting as a ‘bad’ subject rather than a non-subject here. You are hiding from the system rather than escaping it. 
  • Ultimately the question becomes, what do we want to see instead? How do we reconstruct the new, as Stiegler instructed? It is not as easy as saying that social media is addictive and we need some Leviathan-esque ruler to ‘fix’ us. This implies some form of psychological determinism and assumes people are too weak to act with agency. Public debate (the crowds or masses, even) can be seen to have influence on some policy matters so perhaps by being more explicit and clear, we can be a part of a regulatory process. This requires language which is equally clear so often means labelling and labelling resistances, showing again that we have not really moved beyond the Striphas article in practice.
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