Online Sociality in the Age of Technocapitalism and Consumerist Cyborg Identity

Posthumanismissa esiintyminen on esittämistä, sosiaalisuus on mainontaa ja molempia pohjustaa omasta identiteetistään unelmoiva itseilmaisu. Näin muodostuu moderni kyborgi-identiteetti, jonka ajattelusta ja omakuvasta paljon tapahtuu digitaalisissa ympäristöissä.

Essee käsittelee internetin välittämän kanssakäymisen sosiaalisuuden ominaisuuksia ja arvoja. Esitän, että sen sijaan että esiinnymme itse, olemme irtaannuttaneet itsestämme sosiaalisia tekijöitä toimimaan puolestamme. Rakentuessaan teknokapitalistisille alustoille nämä tekijät pohjautuvat juuri niihin arvoihin, toki sosio-kulttuuristen kehysten ohjauksessa.

Kehittelemiemme identiteettien kuluttajina ovat tuttavat ja tuntemattomat mutta ensisijaisesti me itse.

There seems to be a complex interrelation between social actors, self-advertising and capitalism in context of the modern cybernetic spaces.

Arguing through sociality as a commodity, I explore the online ”social” as a medium to one’s identity. The values of this cybernetic circuit are capitalist. The modern Cyborg Identity may be constructed through consumption of the virtualised self; the ’real self’ formation of which virtual environments welcomes.

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.20240.00008

Online Sociality
in Age of Technocapitalism
and the
Consumerist Cyborg Identity

Ville Niemi
2016

Terminology
Introduction

I
Online Sociality in the Age of Technocapitalism
Minds as Actors in Cyberspace
Online Sociality as a Manifestation of Technocapitalism
New Sociality: Criticism on Motives of ”Social” Media

II
The Consumerist Cyborg Identity
Social Actors as Advertisements and Self-Branding
Curation of Social Actors as Means for Self-affirmation through Fantasies


Conclusion
Bibliography


Introduction

 

In part one, I will first discuss the origin of ”social actors”, the condition of virtuality, and present the basic cybernetic condition of computer-mediated communication online. As social actors work on behalf of us in the cyberspace, I will discuss whether mediated sociality is truly social as it was earlier considered. Approving Couldry and Van Dijcke’s proposition the newly established ”social” media as of a techno-economic materiality, where perceived social interaction (social actors) is commodified. I will identify the new digital social as consumerist, creating false ”social” needs for sake of economical welfare.

Part two begins with analysis of the new social as sole advertising, moving onto shifting our idea of ourselves, leading us to self-brand ourselves in attempts of creating a better commodity in model of market relations. I will discuss cyberspace in relation to self-exploration and experimenting, making the point that the liberation of the mind into social actors allows for manipulation firstly of the media form, and secondly of our own conception of ourselves. This I identify as a cyborg identity, ultimately curated, commodified, and consumed. Arguing that the ”real self” is a virtual construction, I will elaborate that the availability of cybernetic spaces within which to construct these concepts, carries core relation to our own ontology, and that within the cyberspace ”social” interactions are in fact subsidiary to the act of self-creation and consumption of our fantasies: self-affirmation through self-commodification.


Terminology

 

I prefer to use the – admittedly outdated term – from 1980’s science-fiction of ”cyberspace” instead of solely talking about ”online”, for the word carries significant connotations as to cybernetics and to space as an environment, a room1 even, elaborating much better the ideas that I try to express. The mundane alternative ”online” emphasises too much connectivity rather than disembodiment, although ”being online” expresses quite well the idea of being somewhere.

Nusselder (2009) describes cyberspace as a ”realm of immaterial data that exists independently of the computers and networks, of the hardware, the software, and the human wetware”, and in my understanding too, cyberspace is a cybernetic space, a virtual dimension in which our ”bodies become liberated” in cyborgian sense, emphasising mind over matter.

As to social interactions online, I will be following the footsteps of Couldry and Van Dijcke by criticising the online sociality as ”social”. They well elaborate how the platforms we see as purely social, are in fact ”an effect of a techno-economic materiality”.

The ”real self” is a person’s understanding of themselves, the self that they feel they are. Turner (1976) and Davis (2003) present this term as a self-conception constructed through sensations and feelings rather than by the old-fashioned idea of institutions or social relations.

”Social actors” within the cyberspace are our mediations, parts of our ”real self”, which act independently and allow for post-humanistic distribution of our being. Any act of creating virtual data is a virtualisation of one’s mind, creating digitally interactable data objects, which in terms of social interaction act as our social representatives.

“Social-sharing sites” are websites, nature of which is well described by the chief revenue officer of Thought Catalog, Alex Magnin, in an interview with Marikar (2014): ”a lot of it is clicky headlines and shareable headlines, and shareable headlines that play with certain identities or badges that people want to share with their friends to self-represent”. Emotion-based media with social aspects and topics, leading onto immediate and transitory desires, fulfilling the contemporary need for ”sociality”.


I

Online Sociality in the Age of Technocapitalism

 

Minds as Actors in Cyberspace

 

“’The body is obsolete’, proclaims Stelarc (2013) with his performance art, and this ideology is the transhumanists’ fundamental approach regarding the future. When the role of the physical entity is lessened, surely something is highlighted – what is to replace the body’s importance in human contact/communication?” (Niemi, 2013).

In computer systems the user is assigned a role of a participant. When we interact with the system, we translate ourselves into the array, becoming part of the feedback loop rather than solely taking control. In words of Haraway (1991, p.178), in such a cybernetic system ”there is no fundamental, ontological separation” between the technical and organic in this knowledge. In a similar manner in the act of designing a system in which our minds become a part of the cybernetic space, the ”primacy of human elements in a socio-technical scenario is rejected” (Mackay, 1995, p.44), leading to a construction and understanding of an each participant as a mere actor within the system. This is regarded as the ’actor network’ theory, and when re-constructing social interactions in the cyberspace in this manner, “communication is reduced to the word as body-free representation of the Self” (Simanowski, 2003). These representations of ourselves become the social actors in our virtual networks, creating a ”second, parallel world” (Nusselder, 2009, p.26). His idea of cyberspace as ”an information space in which the data are already present” allows for our mediations to exist independently without our presence, waiting for us to just every now and then harvest them. When “we” “are” in the cyberspace always accessible for interaction, the constitution of us and our social ontology becomes vague.

Online Sociality as a Manifestation of Technocapitalism

When offering a ”formal and abstract” framework of a ”social establishment”, Goffman (1956, p.152) states that it is ”any place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception in which a particular kind of activity regularly takes place”. With this text alone we could agree that true sociality also applies to digitalised social interactions. Considering Goffman’s 1950’s knowledge of cybernetic social spaces, however – and to exaggerate, the digital – in a modern context of technocapitalism Coudlry and Van Dijke’s (2015, p.3) analysis seems more relevant, as they state that:

“The “social” as newly defined becomes an effect of online sociality rather than the other way around: flows of data are triggered to produce systems of economic gain—systems that revolve around the accumulation of attention and a sustained, if implied, claim that accumulated attention (as measured) is social value.”

In this perspective the sociality of the cyberspace is not real but rather a mere capitalistic hoax, to be extreme. “Social” actions are those of alertness and availability about something seemingly social. They convict the motives of a corporation to conduct “social” interactions as means for “datafication, manipulation and commoditisation” of the reality. Considering that our social actors are formatted as data, stored digitally somewhere out of our reach2 open for interception or analysis as big data and targeted advertising, this seems true.

Goffman’s (1956) ”abstract” framework could be applied to validate cyberspaces as social establishments, even featuring what he defines as ”social front” and ”backstage”. He defines it as “any place” and one could interpret the technical limitations of interaction as “particular kind”, and the mundaneness of social media use as “regular activity”. However, according to contemporary writing by Terranova, Couldry and Van Dijcke and Suarez-Villa, even Baudrillard, the values of modern “social” do not respond to the real human needs. Thus the modern ”social” will have to be, due to our adaptation of technology as well as the technological condition of ourselves, interpret as something different than in the time and context of Goffman. Today, the ”social” is as a manifestation of “techno-economic materiality”, as Couldry and Van Dijcke would put it. Terranova (2000, p.47) argues that in the modern cyberspace ”hyperreality confirms the humanist nightmare of a society without humanity, the culmination of a progressive taking over of the realm of representation.” Our concept or real sociality is blurred as the cyberspace is characterised by relation to the limits of, and even superseding, the real social. According to Suarez-Villa (2009, p.152) democratic accountability is required to make technocapitalism more ”responsive to human needs”, suggesting too that the pursue towards digitally connected sociality pays no respect to real social interaction, but rather has ”fallen in the register of supply and demand” (Baudrillard 1999, p.91)


New Sociality: Criticism on Motives of ”Social” Media

Marikar (2014) describes in her New York Times article, that social-sharing sites are is a movement towards ”an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down”. In her article, she also interviews a founder3 of a similar website, who states that he wants “to post stuff most people will enjoy”, and that if emotional reaction arises, it is ”their natural psychological reaction to pass that on so their friends can feel it too.” Newton (2012) writes that Thought Catalog’s appeal for its readers lies in the ”notion of shared experiences and culture-based sentamentality. [sic]” Perhaps this could be seen as the new sociality: shared experiences and mediated relationships seasoned with empathetic, pseudo-social nature. An article by Serra (2014) on Thought Catalog criticises social interaction online: ”constantly having access to anything we think we need or want at that moment, especially social interaction, becomes too much to handle and is technically not even real – it is cyber interaction.”

In her (populistic) article Serra argues through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that only meaningful relationships are necessary as to survival. Her view is that social media allows ”us to access too much information and is handicapping us as a functioning society.” Ironically, her writing is indeed published on a website described as a social-sharing site, focal function of which is to specifically create desirable content, which does not really help out on the issue of ”too much information” that she finds frustrating.

Considering the type of these cyberspaces, in a Forbes article and an interview by Newton (2012), the founder of Thought Catalog, Chris Lavergne, clearly states that they constantly strive for finding a ”balance between commercial success and quality work” – with no regards to sociality. Although Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has stated that their company’s mission is one of a more humanistic nature, ”to make everything social”, Coudlry and Van Dijcke (2015, p.3) critisise that his definition of the ”social” is one that I have above elaborated on, and that Zuckerberg ”really meant: to move social traffic onto a networked infrastructure where it becomes traceable, calculable, and so manipulable for profit.” These examples illustrate that the new construction of ”social” lacks real sociality and is primarily based on and formulated by capitalist motives. Considering Couldry and Van Dijke’s suggestion that the ”social” is manipulated, very much in the same way as the smoking industry introduced additives4 which could increase the addictiveness of cigarettes (Rabinoff et.al, 2008), social media might contain algorithms of similar nature. Not much research into the addictive nature of the actual technicalities has been conducted, but Brookes (2015, p.1) writes that ”practitioner articles and news stories have commented on the addicting and distracting nature of social media.” In relation to social-sharing sites, chief revenue officer of Thought Catalog, Alex Magnin, actually admits (Marikar, 2014) that their ”clicky headlines and shareable headlines — play with certain identities or badges that people want to share with their friends to self-represent”, further verifying the idea that although the interaction is about sharing with friends, it is not based purely social motives.

Bridging the gap between real and mediated social interactions, modern technologies give rise to new ”social” needs, in which the media ”obfuscates itself as a medium” and ”claims a real presence” (Nusselder, 2009, p.28). Ultimately changing our perception of what ”social” means, technocapitalists’ business models, motivations of which Suarez-Villa is sceptical about, are prominent in the shaping of our human needs in the early age of information-mediated communication.


II

Social Actors as Advertisements and Self-Branding

Goffman (1956, p.13) refers to social ”performance” as ”all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers.” In the cyberspace, presence and influence can be manipulated by the participant, as they come in form of media, highly editable and constructable. In regards to Baudrillard (1999, p.40):

“A subsequent stage is crossed once the very language of the social — becomes confused with this fascinating solicitation of an agitated language, once the social turns itself into advertising, turns itself over to the popular vote by trying to impose its trademark image.”

In these terms, within the capitalist cyberspace our social actors’ ”sociality” has become synonymous with advertising. To exemplify this in terms of popularity of a social actor, in Marikar’s (2014) interview Alex Magnin5 states that “every writer wants to do well, and ‘do well’ means get more Twitter followers.” In our personalised experiences of networking, this is also valid on an individual level. Being capable to yell out to the digital world to an audience of potentially millions has changed our concept of social groups and status. Along with having grown the need to be ”social” and always available to give a ”rapid response” (Turkle, 2007), Baudrillard (1999, p.91) claims that there is also a demand to advertise one’s message (which the medium has become). He continues by claiming that ”advertising is completely in unison with the social”. Thus a need to advertise the social self also means a need for self-branding, every act of social becoming marketing. Davis (2003, p.41) elaborates on the two possible meanings of self-commodification:

”A first is that self-understanding is mediated by the consumption of goods and images. In this sense, self-definition depends on the appropriation of the traits of commodities. — A second meaning of self-commodification involves the reorganization of our personal lives and relationships on the model of market relations This adaptation is well illustrated by the recent practice of “personal branding,” — Both of these meanings of self-commodification concern the terms in which we define ourselves and our well-being…”

Gomez Cruz and Thornham (2015:2) state:

The selfie has been understood in relation to rapid ”documenting” of the self as a ”socio-cultural revolution” about ”identity affirmation” a ”condition” of social media, a political convergence of the object and subject of photographic practice, and as a neoliberal, even narcissistic but increasingly normative mode of ”self-branding.”

Curation of Social Actors as Means for Self-affirmation through Fantasies

As a digitally formatted being one might brand or curate themselves as – not just something that they are not – but something that they want to become. This goes along with the lines of Nusselder (2009, p.11), who mentions Sherry Turkle’s writing on the potential of cyberspace offering a possibility for self-exploring and a ”playground” for experimenting with one’s identity. According to Nusselder, this mental environment can in ”Freudo-Lacanian terminology” be understood as a ”window for gaining insight into what actually is the object of desire.” In these terms, the creation of a selfie is in fact a creation of an interface, a media through which to identify one’s desires and explore personal identity. Additionally, considering the modern self-centred understanding of the ”real self”, I argue that the most important audience of selfies is actually the very self. One’s relation to their social actors within a Lacanian context are fantasies, as expressed by Nusselder (2009, p.29):

”this dynamic can be translated as the erotic desire that has as its goal a realization of fantasy. Then fantasy, which normally is a vital support of desire, becomes an opaque screen turning the reality of the desiring subject into a lure.”

The lure in the contexts of selfies is our ideal conceptualisation of our image objects, most desired by their creators. Our personal conversation with our social actors is the most vital part of the cybernetic function: producing, designing, distributing, and finally harvesting feedback of the social actor. During these phases of a media artefact, ultimately happens the construction of identity in its three areas of “how we see ourselves”, ”how we would hope others see us” and ”how others really see us” (Wood and Smith, 2001:47 in Puranen, 2016:27). In other words, each social actor uploaded to the cyberspace becomes a part of identity, nudging towards the post-humanistic viewpoint of a distributed mind and a multi-existential identity.

Davis (2003, p.42) emphasises individualism as he presents concepts of ”real self” by Ralph Turner and ”antinomian personality” by Nathan Adler, discussing scholars’ findings in what constitutes the self as shifts from ”institutional” to ”impulse”. He explains that the ”older institutions of identity formation” became destabilised and that the social identities formed in those contexts became less important. This gave room for the new ”real self” to be all about ”unsocialised, inner impulses”, emotions. In practice, this means that the ”socially-derived identity criteria and the social recognition of others is in principle denied.” (Davis, 2003, p.44), setting aside the notion that identity in the cyberspace would be constructed through social interactions, but rather the practice of the ”social”.

As to the notion of the cyborg identity, the role of social media and online sociality is curious. The notion of self-affirmation through self-commodification should be further explored. There seems to be a complex interrelation between social actors, self-advertising and capitalism in context of the modern cybernetic spaces.


Conclusion

 

The affordance of a technology to ”project”, be it in visual sense or as manipulative construction, is nowadays easier than ever. To expand on Gomez Cruz and Thornham’s (2015, p.2) writing in regards to selfies, I find that this applies to the idea of self-branding and self-identity in our cybernetic environments too, that our social (media) actors ”resonate wider socio-cultural, political, and visual practices and how we approach them has political, ideological, and cultural significance.”

Selfies are a brilliant example of the commodification of the ”social” human of today, image objects self-consumable for self-affirmation. Lessig (1999) stated in that ”Code is law”, but in an increasingly mediated society, code is also our social front, (re-)defining our manners, appearances and our settings for all social performance, ultimately making ”sociality” more distributed, demanded, but controversially with regards to an all-individualised mentality of the self.

Through the re-setting of what is social, we find our disembodied mind, our social actors, as fantasy objects self-curated and highly manipulated. This is the new ”social”, one in which we indeed are ”alone together” (Turkle, 2012), but more importantly for the sake of our very self.

This is the very basis of which Davis and Turner find as the key in self-affirmation of one’s identity, pleasures and emotion, impulses. To view social media practice within the context of their ideology, selfies as an interface to narcissism seem to be a very efficient way to create consumables, which in turn are consumed for the sake of affirming identity. Nusselder (2009, p.14) argues that online virtual worlds are ”an expression of fantasy”, a statement which Turkle and Baudrillard would surely agree with. Offering a field for self-exploring and ”social” relations, the selfie-commodity proposes a post-humanistic movement of construction of oneself as (multi-)mediation. Gomez Cruz and Thorhnam (2015, p.2) share this line of thought as to the significance of selfies, and it has all the potential to – if it has not already – shift our social ontology and practices. Whatever social means in the modern context.


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  • 1 In Finnish the evolution of my thinking was: ”Kyberavaruus” – ”Kyberneettinen avaruus” – ”Kyberneettinen tila”
  • 2 ”There is no such thing as “the cloud,” it’s just somebody else’s computer”
  • 3 Scott DeLong, ViralNova
  • 4 100 out of 599 documented of additives ”have pharmacological actions that — could increase the addictiveness”
  • 5 From Thought Catalog