The once chaotic web of the 1990s has, since 2000, increasingly been converted into centralized platforms that either serve as gated communities with networks of ‘friends’ or commercial services that serve music, TV, videos, books, search results and software while containing and profiling the user. Consuming culture and contributing content means producing data in this new cultural metainterface industry. The concept of the metainterface industry suggests, on the one hand, that, by and large, mainstream user interface design targets cultural production and consumption. Digital devices that integrate hardware, software and commercial services have become popular as cultural platforms – as tablets, e-readers and smart phones, and other devices that in various ways are tethered and closed. On the other hand, this differs from the industry of mass media in that platform interfaces make media messy. They are not just media interfaces, but abstract interfaces to an incomprehensible integration of interfaces. This makes them appear at once generalized (in everything and everywhere), and abstract (nowhere in particular, or ‘in the cloud’).1
But how can users develop a better understanding of their own role as users in the metainterface industry? How can they perceive and critically understand the way content and interfaces are generated from captured data, and how this produces them as users and consumers of culture? Firstly, this article suggests that the problem can be addressed as a literary problem. The platform interface complicates the enunciative relation between emitter and receiver, interface and user. It is increasingly difficult to read a play or script that constantly changes to make the user feel as if she is the central character. Secondly, it suggests that such understandings, or literacies, can be supported by readings of ‘literary interfaces’. Meaning, it will bring forward a number of contemporary electronic literature, software- and net-based art works that seek to address who is writing and who is reading; who is being written, and who is being read in the metainterface industry.2 It will, in other words, seek to demonstrate the value of reflecting narratives and author-reader implications as outsets for a critical understanding of the metainterface. Thirdly, it will delve into how these works, in critical ways, suggest that the metainterface is the outset for a particular ‘zombification’ of the user. Or, put differently, that the metainterface as an industry produces zombies, converting living flesh into dead product.
Reading the metainterface
In one of the classics of electronic literature Espen Aarseth argued that cybertext, a term he introduced, should be seen as “a machine (…) for the production and consumption of verbal signs,” which includes the human operator3. Today, this textual machine is networked and centralized in cloud-based platforms. The interaction of the human operator is not only relevant for the configuration of the individual text (music, video, game, social network, search, etc.), but also for the production of data for the platform, used for profiling and often feeding into other platforms in the ecologies of the corporate Web. In this sense, contemporary cybertexts are typically integrated into larger corporate structures that share behavioural data, profiles and marketing in a giant cobweb that is the network behind the current internet.
From a literary perspective, it can be argued that users of this new type of cybertext increasingly take on the role of protagonists. Or, as Wendy Chun puts it, the tracking mechanisms of contemporary profiling and marketing “have turned once silent and private acts – such as reading a book – into noiselessly noisy ones, eroding the difference between reading, writing, and being written.” Readers commonly identify with the protagonist of a novel, but are always aware of the difference between themselves and the other, the reader and the character. However, in the metainterface industry it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the ontological difference between the two. Or, as Chun puts it (quoting D. A. Miller), “Readers, like literary creatures, are “conspicuously encased yet so transparent they are inside-out”; they are characters in a drama putatively called Big Data.”4
In other words, the metainterface industries of Google, Facebook and others read, write and ultimately encase users like literary characters. Users become central in an interactive narrative as a kind of pseudo-protagonist, but simultaneously they have become plotted and controlled – similarly to the tragic hero of a nineteenth century urban novel (by Balzac or Dickens); only in this text, the encasing mechanisms are both smarter and more extensive. The metainterface is an industry that not only produces literary experiences in the form of novels, but seeks to encompass life more generally. The melodrama has become naturalized, one could argue, as datafication of users is widespread and almost unnoticeable. For instance, the capture of users’ taste and preferences have become a central part of the business models of the metainterface industry, and computational models for measuring taste and predicting preferences seem to be central algorithmic products of the metainterface industry. In particular Spotify, Netflix and YouTube are the central laboratories for experiments with datafying consumer taste (playlists are always ready for every taste); but more generally, any ‘feed’ in the interface is the outcome of computational models for profiling. As literary creatures we often find this encasement exhilarating; but yet, in the end, also often annoying.
To put it in more theoretical terms: If the cybertext, besides giving the user interactive choices, configures its user as part of its mechanism (for example as an avatar in a game with a specific score and affordances based on behaviour), then the metainterface industry further instrumentalize and capitalize this profiling on a global scale, within and between the various platforms. Aarseth describes the cybertext as a machine with three elements: verbal sign, medium and operator. He also maintains that “it is within this triad that the text takes place” and that “each part can be defined only in terms of the other two.”5 Today, we never escape our avatar or profile, and the strategies that were once confined to games and other cybertexts under the pretence of interactivity, now follow us within and across connected networked platforms. If we believed in the fallacy that we were anonymous on the pre-millennium internet, the current internet never forgets us or the digital traces we leave behind. For illustration of this, note how advertisements track us across different platforms and websites, and never let us forget if we searched for shoes, are going on holiday, or have an interest in particular gadgets.
Ever since Amazon developed its recommender system in the 1990s, selling your profiled taste to advertisers has been an important part of a metainterface industry that entices you with more similar products – endlessly suggesting the next movie, song or book6. From being discussed as the result of (bourgeois) free play and reflective judgement in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, taste and affection has now become a main element of the internet and a market for big data. Greg Linden and Brent Smith from Amazon describe the result of the algorithm as a personalization of shopping: “Each person who comes to Amazon.com sees it differently, because it’s individually personalized based on their interests. It’s as if you walked into a store and the shelves started rearranging themselves […].” They end their article maintaining that “[E]very interaction should be a recommendation,” which is a different way of saying, that every interaction is integrated into recommendation, tracking and profiling algorithms. Furthermore, this tracking is generalized and all-encompassing: “Recommendations and personalization live in the sea of data we all create as we move through the world, including what we find, what we discover, and what we love.” In the future, shopping should be “as easy as a conversation,” “like talking with a friend who knows you, knows what you like, works with you at every step, and anticipates your needs.”7.
Linden is one of the developers of Amazon’s current recommendation algorithm from 1998. The algorithm builds on the principle of item-based collaborative filtering and has later been used widely by Netflix, YouTube and others. However, it is remarkable how this kind of rhetoric often disregards technology and interfaces, and instead talks about human and everyday affective relationships. Smith and Linden’s “friend” seems to be another word for profile; and it is obvious that recommendations, and the datafication of taste that form the basis of recommendations, is the general business model of the new and future shopping. Its interior layout or architecture, what you see and how you navigate is based on recommendation algorithms that are constantly becoming more ‘intelligent’. In other words, the promised easiness and friendliness also cover up the algorithmic strategies and their hidden ideology.
Another example of this cover-up can be found in Netflix’ experiments with improving recommendations. According to Yehuda Koren, a former winner of the Netflix Prize for best predictive algorithm, accurate prediction (i.e., when users actually choose to watch the movie that the systems suggests) is not only based on the individual user’s preferences (“latent factor models”), but also on interpretations of the user as an actor in a much larger statistical body (“neighborhood models”), which are based on an analysis of similarities between users or movies.8 As a user, you are, in other words, not only yourself, but always also encased in your neighbourhood or gated community only ever meeting your own mirror image: that which fits your profile. Though it pretends to, the metainterface never in fact suggests movies which are radically different, or would make the user feel uneasy. Any cultural predicament is to be avoided at all costs. Just like modernist urban renewal, predictive algorithms produce ghettoization and rule out mixed and inclusive neighbourhoods, which might work better on a societal scale, allowing for social mobility and heterogeneity.
In literary terms, the current metainterfaces with their insistence on friendships, tailored recommendations, and other types of affective relationships with and between users are taking advantage of the position of the implied author; an author who is largely invisible, but potentially powerful in the way it generates and controls the text and its contents. As this author, or narrator, is hidden, readers/users cannot read why and how they are encased nor can they judge if the narrator is truthful, but they may have an uncanny feeling of the way they have become characters in the big data drama. We will now turn to analyses of art works and electronic literature that explore the formal narrative dimensions of the metainterface and platforms, such as Facebook.
You like my like of your like of my status
The American artist, Benjamin Grosser has worked with the effects of datafication and the metainterface in a series of projects related to Facebook, Netflix and similar platforms and he often focuses on how datafication influences the interface, its technical aesthetic and rhetorical construction and reception or reading.9 The generative text and synthesized speech video installation You like my like of your like of my status (see illustration 1) is interesting as a critical exploration of the datafication of taste and how this is staged.10 The installation consists of three screens that each run cycles of ‘like’ sequences starting from “You like my status” and adding likes in a rudimentary dialogue between I and You: “I like your like of my status. You like my like of your like of my status…” The monologue continues until very long, nonsensical sentences are created and read by the synthesised voice with changes in pitch, time and rhythm influenced by the ‘like’ activity on Grosser’s own Facebook account.
Besides demonstrating the tireless, synthetic voice of the algorithmic narrator, the installation demonstrates the distance between the human and algorithmic understandings of “I”, “You” and ‘like’ that are at the centre of social networking sites. For a human being to ‘like’ indicates a central affective relation between an I and a You, which is also the main temptation of these platforms: humans tend to communicate, comment and like each other’s comments – it is a fundamental part of empathetic, social communication. However, this is also what makes it valuable data for the platform and extremely relevant for profiling and building data neighbourhoods towards the construction of “affective economies.”11 The installation’s nonsensical repetitions of absurdly long sentences, of instances of “I” liking instances of “you” liking, reduce the affective dimension to a quantifiable grammar or economy, keeping track of relations and numbers but reducing the (human, qualitative) meaning of liking. Likes becomes points in a game to create further likes and thus maximizing the economy. Facebook does not care what its users ‘like’, nor what their ‘likes’ might mean, as long as they repeatedly ‘like’ and their ‘likes’ generate more. In Grosser’s installation we never know the content of the status update that the “you” like, and it nevertheless would disappear in the Tower of Babel of ‘like’ and ‘like’ of ‘likes.’
A basic textual analysis shows that the installation demonstrates the working of metainterfaces like Facebook: to measure, monitor and quantify relations in an affective economy. Normally the “I” points to a narrator position in a text, which is the double articulation of the I witnessing the action and the implied narrator telling the story through a first-person perspective. Following this textual analytical logic, the “you” could be either another character in the plot, perhaps even a way of addressing the implied reader as in some novels.12 However, as previously discussed, the metainterface complicates the relation between character and reader (interface and user), and seeks to blur the ontological difference between the two. In Facebook, the I and You are both narrative characters in the datafied plot machine, and the affective dimension is reduced to quantitative I’s liking “your like of my status.” Furthermore, this machinery continues infinitely and the actual readers are increasingly encased and profiled by its economy. In fact, there is no text to read before the reader starts reading, interacting, writing and liking. In this way, You like my like of your like of my status is as close as we get to a way of reading the implied narrator of the big data plot machine.
Another project by Ben Grosser expands this experimental search for the narrative mechanisms of metainterfaces. When Facebook launched its “Reactions” as an extension of the like button in 2016, allowing users to react with six different reactions (‘like’, ‘love’, ‘haha’, ‘wow’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’) in order to “give people more ways to share their reaction to a post in a quick and easy way,” Benjamin Grosser developed the Go Rando browser extension (see illustration 2) that randomizes all reactions in order to obfuscate Facebook’s monitoring of emotions.13 Go Rando attacks one of Facebook’s central interface elements of affective monitoring apart from the user’s clicking, commenting and sharing activities. As in You like… it points to the affective economy and how it is tracked by the metainterface industry, but in this case, it interferes directly with the interface, randomizing all users’ reactions, if they install Grosser’s browser extension. This is obviously done to disturb Facebook, but it simultaneously also disturbs the user, since it is not only Facebook’s hidden tracking of the signal of the user choosing to add a sad emoji to one of my friends’ sad story that is changed randomly, but also the perceivable sign that the user leaves at their friend’s post that might be changed to a laughing emoji. One could consequently argue, that Go Rando might have been more effective in obfuscating Facebook’s data and signals, if it did not also obfuscate the signs users attach to each other’s comments. However, through its symmetrical randomization of both sign and signal, it nevertheless points directly at the metainterface’s translation of affective signs into quantifiable signals: Go Rando demonstrates how our affective social relations are tracked by Facebook and turned into an economy; and how we have no way to escape this instrumental exploitation of affect, if we do not also change our social semiotics, behaviour and language. In this way, Facebook’s reactions interface cleverly captures our social communicative reactions as data by setting up a multiple-choice template, and Grosser demonstrates how we are constantly ‘caught in their plot’ to use narratological terms.
In order to be harder for the machine to understand we need to avoid its templates, and when Facebook designs new ways for people to express themselves, they also – and primarily – design new templates for tracking and exploiting affective expressions. Go Rando demonstrates that the user needs to be unreadable to their friends – in some cases even by not responding affectively to their feelings – in order to avoid corporate capture. Ultimately, it shows how Facebook and other metainterface industries function as parasites on our language, social relations and affective behaviour. It shows how and why we are gridlocked by the commercial metainterface’s tracking, which of course also include many other templates such as the ‘friend’ networks, log-ins and tracking features and the way the templates limit and control the visibility of our reading and writing. But how does this templating construct its ‘ideal’ reader?
Zombification at the metainterface
Metainterfaces track us in order to profile us and thereby turn us into types or characters in a big data script that constantly adapts to the users, and makes them feel as if they are the central characters. What kind of subject does such networked profiling constitute? Sandy Baldwin in his book on the subject of electronic literature, which can compare to this, writes: “In this way, I fill the screen, pour myself into it. The network ‘beyond’ the screen is a way of producing a body (…), producing my body as passive zombied appendage.” Later he continues: “the body at the keyboard is no one, it is no subject, it is a zombie.”14
With the notion of the zombie, the metainterface industry subject becomes tied to the subject of capitalist production in a broader and historical sense. As Mark Fisher accurately puts it with a reference to Karl Marx’s notion of “dead labour”: “The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”15 In Marx’s terms, the value of a commodity, which in this context incudes the metainterface, is made up by the “living labour” that contributed to the construction of the platform (its code, its design, its datacentres, etc.), and the “dead labour” that is withheld, or crystalized, for instance in the raw materials or the instruments that have gone into production. The zombie is in this sense a Gothic term that indicates a capitalist strategy to make the user produce the raw material of the metainterface industry, an unconscious and enslaved ‘miner’ of a new industry.
The Hong Kong based artist and academic Daniel C. Howe’s animation and mixed-media installation Advertising Positions (see figure 3) can be seen as an artistic illustration of such a zombie, including its commercial outfit.16 The project exhibits three zombies: Nicole, Wilson and Bertha, describing their interests and personal qualities. The three zombies are designed as digitally animated human sculptures covered with ads generated from robots “trained to search the web as if they were human, following specific user-profiles they are assigned.” The ads are collected through navigating the web, liking sites and clicking on links during several weeks.17
Howe’s zombie sculptures demonstrate the zombification of the ideal reader through their alien, uncanny character. Human affection has been exchanged with ads that the model user/reader might like generated from their constantly developing profiles. Advertising Positions shows an estimate of how the metainterface industry sees the user and how it produces it as a fictional character; as a profile with exploitable interests auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder. The viewer of the artwork is even allowed to zoom in on the ads and explore how both the fairly intellectual Dutch female (Nicole), the Hong Kong female activist fashion designer (Bertha) or the more commercially oriented male (Wilson) are translated into shopping opportunities. If people once complained that our urban surroundings were turned into advertising spots, Advertising Positions shows that this has extended to our virtual bodies through profiling. Through the metainterface industry, we become zombie profiles or Advertising Positions, as pointed out by the title, and the work can be seen as contemporary sculptural portraits of the datafied consumer, the ideal reader of Google and Facebook. It demonstrates the process of commercial algorithmic individuation and exhibits it as a zombie.
An artistic project that aims to address another side of the networked zombie culture than our profiled identities is the artist and academic, Winnie Soon’s Hello Zombies which deals with the textual infrastructures of spam email.18 The project fetches spam email addresses and sends them prewritten spam poems composed from spam messages. Since there are usually nobody behind the spam email addresses, this mostly generates bounce emails that contribute to the enormous traffic of zombie messages on the internet. When exhibited (see figure 4), the project is installed with old computers and CRT screens, showing both the spam poems, the bounces and occasional answers and a projection of the endless flow of addresses. In this way Hello Zombies recreates the whole media ecology of the textual tidal wave created by networked automation, and it shows how textual traffic is produced far beyond the transmission of human messages. As Soon introduces the work through the voice of the zombies: “We are just the children of your economic and social system.”19
Whereas Advertising Positions shows the effects of profiling carried out by the masters and main platforms of the internet, Hello Zombie reflects the huge expulsion of poor outcasts and pariahs on their old computers trying to enter the rich world from the poor side of the border in order to get access to our money and attention, it shows the exiles of the information economy. Both artworks show the different zombification processes within the narrative mechanisms of the metainterface, they both show how zombies – or, in Fisher’s terms, Capital as zombie-maker – address the user as an asset to mine and exploit through persuasive and often exaggerated rhetoric that often aims to corner the user through more or less duplicitous business models and software.
However, the main difference is in the positions of power that organize the processes. If Advertising Positions explores the functionalities and economy of the metainterface industry, then Hello Zombies shows the tidal wave of spam that emerges from this networked traffic and its exiles. In Advertising Positions, it is big software corporations’ profiling and tracking, attaching slick logos. Advertising Positions demonstrates what could be described as the way the implied reader/user of the metainterface is produced: it shows how the metainterface platforms see us, as zombie figures to be commercially profiled. Hello Zombies instead shows the beggars and pariahs on old computers spamming and chasing with badly spelled allure. Spammers do not have the power to profile you, but just try to get you hooked. Instead of the relative precision of the big metainterface platforms, they operate by noise and chance. In this way, spammers might be characterized as unreliable narrators created by the discursive economy of the metainterface. Hello Zombies shows how some users, especially impoverished pariahs at the margins, desperately try to act as parasites to big software brands or take advantage of desires and greed. Still it is worth considering the extent to which the rhetoric and strategies mirror each other, even if the one uses big software to ensnare us and the other just tries to act as parasite.
Perhaps the spammers speak some truth after all? A good example of this mirroring effect between corporate strategies and spammers is a specific kind of spam-like advertisement strategy from Facebook that users are exposed to when their newsfeed shows that one or several of their friends ‘likes’ a specific restaurant or shop. With this strategy, Facebook takes advantage of its profiling and friend-structure by selling the option to promote a user’s particular friends’ ‘likes’ which for the user will look like an endorsement rather than the paid advertising it is in reality. For both the user and friend this is totally opaque. In this way, it becomes evident how Facebook is the sender of a kind of spam that misrepresents and manipulates users and their friends. For instance, users see their friends liking a vendor, but cannot see why they like this. Perhaps they just participated in a competition that required their ‘like’ and did not intend to make their liking a public statement of support. Consequently, their ‘like’ is misused for manipulation by both the vendor and Facebook. At other times, spam is spread by attacking your friend network directly through clicking on links in messages that then spread further as a virus. In both cases, the spam is inseparable from the tactics of Facebook, including the exploitation of both you, your profile and your network of Friends, and Facebook like a spammer becomes an unreliable narrator.
If metainterfaces turn the readers/users into characters in a script that constantly adapts and make them feel as if they are the central characters, it is noticable that this is what in literary theory is referred to as an ‘ideal reader’. A text without readers, or where readers are encapsulated in the text without the possibility of escape, interpretation or response is (as has also been addressed by so-called ‘reader-response theory’) a deadlock. As pointed out by, for instance, the German literary theorist Wolfgang Iser, all texts are always realised and made concrete in their reading. Or, to put it differently, the ‘ideal reader’ is implied; it is a construct that, in our case, will leave the profiled subject open for interpretation and response.20 Or, put differently, the scripting of the user that takes place in the metainterface industry, is a construct that, although it encapsulates the readers/users, also allows for affective or other responses. Therefore, in contemporary interface criticism, it is well-worth paying attention to popular and vernacular internet culture and how ‘zombification’ is met in our everyday-lives, and how these more functional uses of language also become the object of artistic reflection. If we collectively become zombified through profiling, tracing and targeting, what is the reaction? Do we just continue to consume mindlessly, or do other more reflective and perhaps critical responses develop? Currently, it seems that two opposite main directions can be observed: apathy, disengagement, waning of affect (as in not being too bothered and slightly shifting the engagement) and powerlessness which in some cases lead to the building of strong affects, division and segregation as seen politically and culturally in the USA, UK and other places.
If people do not, and in fact cannot, leave the metainterface platforms, one way to protest is by obfuscating one’s choices and interaction by acting randomly; in other words, by reacting to the zombification by actively incorporating zombie tactics in order to render the data useless, which Grosser’s Go Rando suggests. A parallel example that addresses the wider field of advertisement and tracking on the web is Daniel Howe, Mushon Zer-Aviv and Helen Nissenbaum’s AdNauseam, which is built atop of an adblocker, but quietly clicks every blocked ad, rendering user tracking futile by adding noise to the signal. In this sense AdNauseum installs a counter-profiling, automated user – a zombie tactically countering the zombification by the profiling.21 Both projects suggest that applying noise is a useful form of tactical resistance, and by this they also point to users’ lack of power in making any real change to the platforms that exploit their behaviour.22 A similar attitude is found in the various attempts to block ads, trackers, cookies, etc., which also seem to suggest that the user cannot change the system, only try to stay marginally hidden.
Another reaction is to engage less with the abundance of choices presented on social platforms. As Rasmus Fleischer argues in relation to music platforms, the “idea of infinite access has [also] led to concerns about a waning of affect.”23 We do not necessarily choose our music the way we did when we only had a limited collection, but we let it stream adopting to the choice of the machine through datafication and profiling. If choice and taste just become more quantified data, we might react by caring and engaging less, which is also suggested by the motley face of Go Rando.24 Similarly, as Fleisher also points out, contemporary cassette culture and other post-digital phenomena may be seen as a reaction to this. Cassette culture can be a way to “cultivate a kind of intimacy” and “a tactics to stimulate a thinking beyond ‘the individualized and anonymous’ tendency of the internet.”25
Although Fleisher does not address datafication, he does point to a post-digital sensibility that is present in a number of contemporary cultural phenomena. For instance, meme-culture might also be seen in this perspective; as a vernacular and creative reaction to the production of superabundance. As one might already know, meme culture is a popular (and sometimes populist) collaborative culture, where combinations of images and text are spread virally and anonymously. Found images are combined with text in order to create a comment from an often rather typecast and inferior or subordinate perspective, leading to humour, irony and absurd comments (which also, in the past years, have become an intrinsic part of the alt-right movement and various conspiracy campaigns).26
Meme culture can be seen as a kind of cultural production that takes advantage of the production of super-abundance, of the over-saturation of text and images, and is in this sense a cousin to spam: another way of virally and anonymously disrupting discourse. However, meme-culture itself, and the production of banalities and populisms that seem to follow from it, is also the object of artistic exploration. One example of this can be found in the work Digital Culture Lecture World Tour (@DigCultLectTour) by academic and writer Talan Memmott. Memmott does not address the political culture around memes in this project (which also predates the 2016 United States presidential election and the surge of alt-right memes), but rather how the abundance of content and meaning on the internet seems to spread into other areas of our lives, including academic life.
In the project, Talan Memmott applies his role as precarious academic and uses it to reflect on data culture. The work consists of a number of fictious memetic advertisements of the services of “Dr. T. Memmott”. They appear as a poster on a bus, as a sign post by a bus stop, as a billboard by the highway, or at the entry of a fast food chain; and are distributed by Dr. Memmott’s twitter account.27 Often, Dr. Memmott’s talks seem peculiarly misplaced, like the “Tactical Media Workshop” at Double Shot Liquor & Guns Drive Thru (8 May 2014) (see figure 5) with the comment “Thankfully, Bundy and his crowd didn’t show up for this talk!!!”, or sometimes they indicate an almost desperate attempt to sell digital culture lectures from a window at a drive thru restaurant (“Same lecture car after car. The problem with method is exhaust fumes”, 10 April 2014) with “½ off fries & shakes” (25 April 2014) or free “w lube & oil” at a car service centre (14 April 2014). The comparisons between academic work, digital culture and the capitalism of the American highway generate sardonic humoristic reflections on the state of academia and the marketization of the metainterface and the precarisation that happens with platform economies. The best example is the sign of The Pawn Shop – We Buy Scrap Gold adding “We buy old data – Free appraisal by Dr. Talan Memmott” (see figure 6). Memmott further comments that the scenario is “sort of like advising students, but the commission is better” (25 April 2014). Like the user of the metainterface platforms caught in the endless profiling and clickbait templates, the precarious academic strives in vain to obtain a place to speak and a public who cares to listen.
Attaching elements of vernacular digital culture to the commercial aesthetics of billboards can be seen as a kind of repetition of the tactics of Venturi, Scott Brown et al. in Learning from Las Vegas, where they pointed to the architecture and iconography of Las Vegas as a counterexample to purist, modernist architecture; as a semiotic architecture of bold communication over space relating to the infrastructure and movement of the highway over the high street.28 In similar ways, Memmott’s Digital Culture Lecture World Tour demonstrates how the metainterface industry’s accelerated speed, loss of authority and authenticity in the endless circulation of messages, text, and images influence networked semiotics and aesthetics.29 The point is that Memmott’s street signs and billboards are not ‘real’ but created in software and online meme generators, and that Memmott probably never visited most of these sites and signs. Furthermore, many of the signs are not contemporary and might not exist anymore, but point back to the 1960s and ‘70s when US highway culture thrived. In this sense, Memmott’s project also exemplifies how commercial infrastructure has changed from highway signs to networked metainterfaces, and the contemporary equivalent to the pawn shops trade “data” and not valuable goods.
The combination of old signs and memetic digital culture furthermore points to how capitalism relocates itself and develops in still tighter disruption cycles. On the internet, everything seems to be for free while the precarious academic lecturer explores all possibilities in vain to get decent pay. Towards the end of the series, the signs become explicitly designed as job advertisements starting from the large billboard “I spent my last bit of cultural capital on this billboard – please give me a job” (see figure 7). The project, and its many offers of free lecture and free delivery, ultimately point to the unstable economy of vernacular digital culture and the precariousness of its content creators, including Dr. T Memmott. The artist and researcher has in this sense become “the paradigmatic worker demonstrating the required attributes of precarity and flexibility in today’s capitalist production – and thus revealing this paradox of valorisation […] The most capitalist subject is the least capitalist subject at the same time.”30 Like contemporary musicians selling their music through advertising and sponsorships, Dr. T Memmott tries desperately and paradoxically to sell his content by adding it to other products and services. Both through his use of a meme re-appropriation of the American commercial highway infrastructure, Twitter as distribution channel, and through his portrait of a digital culture lecturer desperately trying to get a job, the @DigCultLectTour explores what Florian Cramer has defined as “crapularity aesthetics”. This, he also describes as a “zombie return” of immaterial understandings of contemporary art (from Lyotard to Osborne): “[T]he crapularity is a form of accumulation of capital. Since this capital consists of ‘rubbish’, the crapularity reenacts the subprime crisis and its financialization of worthless credit and junk assets.”31 Dr. T Memmott becomes the tragic intellectual character, whose skills are reduced to crapularity aesthetics documenting the subprime crisis of contemporary art.
However (since we are reflecting on narrative framing in relation to datafied platforms), it is important to distinguish between the artist Talan Memmott and his alter ego and implied author, Dr. T Memmott. Dr. T. Memmott’s often touching and pitiful attempts to promote his business in strip malls can be seen as part of a critical reflection on both meme humour and the mediascape and society it exists in. Instead of the light, ephemeral irony of most memes (including the manipulative, irresponsible irony of alt-right memes), the project develops a gallows humour version of a culture of data capitalism and its shallow promises to the desperate precarious worker, and it dresses this in the language of the old American culture of strips and highways that has largely been replaced by online shopping and streaming services. It points to how this precariousness has also become a condition for critical academics from the humanities and social sciences, that become part of the growing precariat trying to sell their work at by-passers in drive-thrus or in pawn shops, however the current drive-thrus and pawn shops are located on Twitter.
Dr. T. Memmott’s often touching and pitiful attempts to promote his business in strip malls is part of this critical reflection. Talan Memmott stages his own alter-ego as an implied author that generates the images, the posts and comments them as well. Furthermore, the project responds to the platform in a number of ways through both its generated memetic visuality and through its comments to big data, meme culture and social media. Especially in some of the later tweets, where Dr. T Memmott advertises seminars such as “The troll science of successful meme culture” (27 Jun 2014) or “The limits of troll science: Let Facebook determine your emotional well-being? I think NOT! (2 Jul 2014) this critical commenting becomes evident. As he comments over a bus stop shelter ad advertising Memmott’s Memes Internet Deli: “If you are interested in a franchise, retweet!” (see figure 8). Consequently, it can be seen as a project that during its unfolding from April to July 2014, becomes increasingly serious and critical, not only because Dr. T. does not find a job but also because he and the project becomes increasingly integrated into the aesthetics that it first playfully explores. Dr. T. gradually discovers how the “crapularity” also confines himself as a digital culture lecturer, but with this staging of Dr. T as his alter ego, Talan Memmott develops a character inhabiting datafied culture, aiming to spread his lectures with memes and fries, a persona incorporating zombie ideology.
This article began by highlighting how contemporary internet users have become datafied and profiled consumers, “conspicuously encased yet so transparent they are inside-out”, as D. A. Miller put it. This transparency does not mean that we as individuals are fully understood nor defined by datafication, but rather that the data economy works on us in ways that are both banal (always suggesting similar ads, news, music, text, images, etc.), and yet at the same time also difficult to fully grasp. This means that the metainterface industry encases us and makes us transparent, but not always to ourselves.32 Although the industry thrives on intimacies and harnessing the affective responses of users, the profiled user and the industry (the zombie slave and its master) also remain estranged to one-another. The profiling is incomprehensible in operation and scale; and yet, its banality also exemplifies that the profiled somehow remains opaque, undecidable, or ‘queer’. Or, as proposed by artist Zach Blas, “Informatic opacity might best be understood as a mutated queerness, brought to a global, technical scale, that strives to subvert identification standardization.”33 And, although the metainterface industry’s profiling in many ways annihilates our opacity as users, and encapsulates us as profiled characters in the drama of big data, opacity will withstand as an ethico-political challenge.
Conversely, the functionality of the metainterface should be assessed on similar terms; that is, not as user-friendliness (for instance), but as an ideological construct to which we as users can take an ethico-political stance. Wendy Chun also compares the functionality of social media and platforms to Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, quoting Althusser: “[I]deology requires a short circuit between the singular and the general so the reception of a representation becomes a sending back – a representation of a reception.”34 As consumers, we are happily producers of this ideological machine through interpellation while we are consuming: “through acts of friending, following, liking, and recommending, users register these receptions and they are also registered by others. Through these gestures, messages become both more directed and less general (better targeted) because users answer their friend’s eavesdropped calls because they care.”35 The ‘likes’ of the metainterface industry connect the reception of a representation to the representation of a reception, and produce their recommendation architecture as a kind of cybernetic motor that constantly refines its targets and recommendations.
As an ideology, zombification is intrinsically linked to a process of individuation, as also discussed by Bernard Stiegler. By “short-circuiting the protentional projections of psychic and collective noetic individuals” in a “computational nihilism,” the increasing speed and automatism risk making the production of profiles less visible and readable for critical reflection.36 However, as we have tried to outline in this article, the recommendation architecture can be seen as a narrative engine that can indeed be ‘read’ through art. As also Kathi Berens argues, in her discussion of Instagram poetry: “This is a new kind of “reader response,” where algorithms are agentic.”37 Thereby it also entails new literary reading strategies.
In this article, we have proposed the zombie as a kind of ‘conceptual persona’ that allows for a discussion of what it is that happens to readers and users in a process of dataficating and profiling. Olga Goriunova has proposed to use ‘the lurker’ to imagine an “Internet and computational infrastructure not only inhabited by users but also constructed by conceptual personae”. These personae allow for “the introduction of depth and multiplicity to this realm, to imagine and see it as governed by various and conflicting logics and operating under a multiplicity of powers and passions.” To Goriunova it is the systems of big data analytics that are lurking, and she concludes: “To trace and undo such systems, we need new forms of lurking.”38 Do we also need new forms of zombification? At least we need to understand the processes and narrative mechanisms of zombification in order to critically reflect and consider alternatives to them such as obfuscation and adding noise as suggested by the art projects by Grosser and Howe, Zer-Aviv and Nissenbaum. But as mentioned above in relation to Fleischer’s reflection and Memmott’s project, there are also a cultural and political dimension to the ever closer and closed datafication of the metainterface in the forms of post-digital and meme cultures.
If the profiling algorithms conduct the zombification mechanisms while staying invisible and hiding their forms of narration, then both the zombies, the narrators and the profiled users become reinstalled through art projects such as those of Talan Memmott, Ben Grosser, Daniel Howe and Winnie Soon presented here. Through this, we see the zombie as a conceptual persona, “a preconceptual (prephilosophical) figure that holds strongly enough by the aesthetic and technical wires composing it to be available as a performance, a mode of living on the networks.”39 What these art works propose is a reflection and performance of the zombie as an aesthetic and technical figure, as a mode of production of the metainterface industry, and as a mode of living. To understand the elements of this production is relevant in order to understand not just the technology and aesthetics of metainterfaces, but also the cultures, politics and forms of capitalism developing from them. If the narrative engine produces zombie-profiles, we need art to make us see and understand its rhetoric and aesthetics in order not to just become our profiles.
Thanks to the artists for allowing the reproduction of illustrations.
Søren Bro Pold is PhD and Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark. He has published on the arts of the interface in its various forms, e.g. on electronic literature, net art, software art, creative software, urban interfaces and digital culture. In relation to these research fields, he has been active in establishing interface criticism as a research perspective, which discusses the role and the development of the interface for art, aesthetics, culture and IT. He recently published “The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds” with Christian Ulrik Andersen.
Christian Ulrik Andersen is PhD and Associate Professor at Aarhus University. His research is on software and computer interfaces as a culture and a means of expression. He deals with topics such as e-readers, gaming, smart cities, digital innovation, cloud computing and more. His research is both analytical/theoretical and practical/experimental. He recently published “The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds” with Søren Bro Pold.
Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social text 22, no. 2 (2004)117-39.
Andersen, Christian Ulrik, and Geoff Cox. “Most and Least of Research Value/S “. APRJA 7, no. 1 (2018), https://tidsskrift.dk/APRJA/article/view/115055, 4-7.
Andersen, Christian Ulrik, and Søren Bro Pold. The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England: MIT Press, 2018.
Baldwin, Sandy. The Internet Unconscious : On the Subject of Electronic Literature. International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2015.
Balzac, Honoré de. Old Goriot. Penguin Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z, Essais. Paris, Éditions du Seuil/Tel Quel, 1970.
Berens, Kathi Inman. “E-Literature’s #1 Hit: Is Instagram Poetry E-Literature?”. Electronic Book Review 2019, no. 04-07 (2019), http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/e-lits-1-hit-is-instagram-poetry-e-literature/.
———. “Third Generation Electronic Literature and Artisanal Interfaces: Resistance in the Materials.” ebr [electronic book review] 2019, no. 5 May (2019), http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/third-generation-electronic-literature-and-artisanal-interfaces-resistance-in-the-materials/.
Blas, Zach. “Informatic Opacity,” The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest 2014, no. 1 (2014), http://joaap.org/issue9/zachblas.htm
Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack : On Software and Sovereignty. Software Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Updating to Remain the Same : Habitual New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2016.
Cramer, Florian. “Crapularity Aesthetics.” Making & Breaking 2019, no. 1 (2019), https://makingandbreaking.org/article/crapularity-aesthetics/.
Facebook. “Reactions.” https://en.facebookbrand.com/assets/reactions/.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism : Is There No Alternative? , Ropley: O Books, 2009.
Fleischer, Rasmus. “Towards a Postdigital Sensibility: How to Get Moved by Too Much Music.” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 7, no. 2 (2015)255-69.
Flores, Leonardo. “Third Generation Electronic Literature.” ebr [electronic book review] 2019, no. 7 April (2019), http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/third-generation-electronic-literature/.
Goriunova, Olga. “The Lurker and the Politics of Knowledge in Data Culture.” International Journal of Communication; Vol 11 (2017) (09/29/ 2017), http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/6203.
Goriunova, Olga. “The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, pp. 125-145, doi:10.1177/0263276419840409, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263276419840409.
Grosser, Benjamin, Go Rando, https://bengrosser.com/projects/go-rando/, 2017-.
———. “What Do Metrics Want? How Quantification Prescribes Social Interaction on Facebook.” Computational Culture, no. 4 (2014), http://computationalculture.net/article/what-do-metrics-want.
———, You Like My Like of Your Like of My Status https://bengrosser.com/projects/you-like-my-like-of-your-like-of-my-status/, 2016.
Howe, Daniel C., Advertising Positions, https://rednoise.org/daniel/adverpos/, 2017.
Iser, Wolfgang, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Martinez, Michael, and Lori Cameron. “Amazon: Jeff Bezos’ Juggernaut Began with a Recommender System That Launched a Thousand Algorithms.” IEEE Internet Computing, June 20 2017, https://www.computer.org/internet-computing/2017/06/20/amazon-jeff-bezos-juggernaut-began-with-a-recommender-system-that-launched-a-thousand-algorithms/.
Memmott, Talan, @Digcultlecttour, https://twitter.com/DigCultLectTour, 2014. Twitter.
Memmott, Talan, and Davin Heckman. “Rhizomes 32: Meme Culture, Alienation Capital and Gestic Play.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 32.
Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley ;: University of California Press, 1988.
Rettberg, Scott. Electronic Literature. Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA, USA Polity Press, 2019.
Smith, Brent, and Greg Linden. “Two Decades of Recommender Systems at Amazon.Com.” IEEE Internet Computing 21, no. 03 (May-June 2017), https://www.computer.org/cms/Computer.org/magazines/whats-new/2017/07/mic2017030012.pdf, 12-18.
Soon, Winnie. Executing Liveness – an Examination of the Live Dimension of Code Inter-Actions in Software (Art) Practice. Aarhus: Aarhus University, 2016.
———, Hello Zombies / 回轉喪屍, http://hellozombies.net/, 2014. Networked Installation.
———. “Zombification – the Living Dead in Spam.” APRJA 4, no. 1 (2015), https://tidsskrift.dk/APRJA/article/view/116106, 66-77.
Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image.” e-flux journal 10, no. 11 (2009), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.
Stiegler, Bernard. The Neganthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press, 2018.
Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas : The Forgotton Symbolism of Architectural Form. Rev. ed. ed. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1993.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
- See the chapter “The Metainterface Industry: New Platforms for Culture” in Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Pold, The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds (Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England: MIT Press, 2018). The concept of the metainterface has similarities to what others e.g. Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack : On Software and Sovereignty, Software Studies (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015) call the stack or platforms. In the field of electronic literature there are also discussions of third generation or post-web electronic literature and reading which, in her overview, Berens compares to metainterfaces in her argument for “cloud literacy”. Leonardo Flores, “Third Generation Electronic Literature,” ebr (electronic book review) 2019, no. 7 April (2019); Kathi Inman Berens, “Third Generation Electronic Literature and Artisanal Interfaces: Resistance in the Materials,” ibid., no. 5 May. ↩
- In many instances, electronic literature, software- and net-based art are art forms that overlap and most of the artists in this article, including Ben Grosser, Winnie Soon, Daniel Howe and Talan Memmott, have produced work in both electronic literature and software/net art fora. Often the art forms are distinguished by institutions such as specific museums, festivals and academic departments and traditions. We will not go deeper into the definitions and distinctions between the art forms here, but will argue and aim to demonstrate that literary approaches are relevant to all of these art forms and the way they explore the narratives of datafied platforms. For an overview of electronic literature, see Scott Rettberg, Electronic Literature (Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA, USA Polity Press, 2019). ↩
- Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 21. ↩
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same : Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2016), 94. Chun is quoting D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 208. ↩
- Aarseth, Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, 21. ↩
- Michael Martinez and Lori Cameron, “Amazon: Jeff Bezos’ Juggernaut Began with a Recommender System That Launched a Thousand Algorithms,” IEEE Internet Computing, June 20 2017. ↩
- Brent Smith and Greg Linden, “Two Decades of Recommender Systems at Amazon.Com,” ibid.21, no. 03: 12, 18, 17. ↩
- Yehuda Koren, “Factorization Meets the Neighbor-hood: A Multifaceted Collaborative Filtering Model” (paper presented at the fourteenth ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, Las Vegas, NV, August 24–27, 2008). ↩
- See Andersen and Pold, The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds on Facebook Demetricator and Touching Software. Grosser has written about Facebook metrics and the Facebook Demetricator in Benjamin Grosser, “What Do Metrics Want? How Quantification Prescribes Social Interaction on Facebook,” Computational Culture, no. 4 (2014). ↩
- You Like My Like of Your Like of My Status https://bengrosser.com/projects/you-like-my-like-of-your-like-of-my-status/, 2016. ↩
- Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social text 22, no. 2 (2004). ↩
- An example of this is Honoré de Balzac: Le Père Goriot, translated as Old Goriot, which also points to the fact that the idea of reading and encasing the reader is not an idea that has suddenly emerged with the metainterface: “And you will show the same insensibility as you hold this book in your white hand, lying back in a softly cushioned armchair, and saying to yourself, ‘Perhaps this one is amusing.’ When you have read of the secret sorrows of old Goriot you will dine with unimpaired appetite, blaming the author for your callousness, taxing him with exaggeration, accusing him of having given wings to his imagination.” Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot, Penguin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), 28. ↩
- Facebook, “Reactions,” https://en.facebookbrand.com/assets/reactions/; Benjamin Grosser, Go Rando, https://bengrosser.com/projects/go-rando/, 2017-. ↩
- Sandy Baldwin, The Internet Unconscious : On the Subject of Electronic Literature, International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2015), 10, 15. ↩
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism : Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: ZerO Books, 2009), 15. ↩
- Daniel C. Howe, Advertising Positions, https://rednoise.org/daniel/adverpos/, 2017. ↩
- As Howe explains: “The specific ads shown are determined by real-time auctions, which occur within the time it takes the page to load, in which the robot’s growing data profile is sold to the highest corporate bidder, who then injects one or more ads into the page content. The robot, rather than using these ads to make purchases, instead uses each as the texture for a single polygon on its virtual mesh body. The training period concludes when the robot’s new skin (…) is complete” ibid. ↩
- Winnie Soon, Hello Zombies / 回轉喪屍, http://hellozombies.net/, 2014. Networked Installation. ↩
- See http://siusoon.net/?p=112 and Executing Liveness – an Examination of the Live Dimension of Code Inter-Actions in Software (Art) Practice (Aarhus: Aarhus University, 2016); “Zombification – the Living Dead in Spam,” APRJA 4, no. 1 (2015). ↩
- For further examples of ‘reader-response- theory’, see e.g. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); or, Roland Barthes, S/Z, Essais. (Paris, Éditions du Seuil/Tel Quel, 1970) in which he also introduces the idea of a ‘writerly’ text. ↩
- See also how the constantly clicking user is portrayed as a zombie in the video presenting AdNauseum. ↩
- Both projects are of course artistic and should not just be measured on the functionality of resistance, but rather on their aesthetic dimensions and whether they lead to awareness raising or not. ↩
- Rasmus Fleischer, “Towards a Postdigital Sensibility: How to Get Moved by Too Much Music,” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 7, no. 2 (2015): 256. ↩
- ” Want to see what Facebook feels like when your emotions are obscured? Then Go Rando!” (http://bengrosser.com/projects/go-rando/). ↩
- Fleischer, “Towards a Postdigital Sensibility: How to Get Moved by Too Much Music,” 262, 63. ↩
- See the collectively written journal issue of Rhizomes edited by Talan Memmott and Davin Heckman from an UnderAcademy College course Talan Memmott and Davin Heckman, “Rhizomes 32: Meme Culture, Alienation Capital and Gestic Play,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 32. ↩
- Talan Memmott, @Digcultlecttour, https://twitter.com/DigCultLectTour, 2014. Twitter. ↩
- Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas : The Forgotton Symbolism of Architectural Form, Rev. ed. ed. (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1993). ↩
- Another useful reference that describes this is Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux journal 10, no. 11 (2009). ↩
- Christian Ulrik Andersen and Geoff Cox, “Most and Least of Research Value/S ” APRJA 7, no. 1 (2018). ↩
- Florian Cramer, “Crapularity Aesthetics,” Making & Breaking 2019, no. 1 (2019): 1. ↩
- See also Olga Goriunova’s article on “The Digital Subject” where she develops an understanding of digital subjects as networks of distance rather than identity and suggesting this as a space to explore: “Digital subjects are illusory subjects, imagined by networked machines as profiles, likelihoods, and probabilities. The non-coincidence of the digital subject, either with its data sources or with its actions, establishes the distance. Sometimes the distance is vast and at other times it collapses. Sometimes it is evidentiary and at other times it is purely speculative. It is misleading, and yet in this very fog lie the possible routes to escape.” Olga Goriunova. “The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, 137. ↩
- Zach Blas, “Informatic Opacity,” The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest 2014, no. 1 (2014). ↩
- Chun, Updating to Remain the Same : Habitual New Media, 123. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Bernard Stiegler, The Neganthropocene (London: Open Humanities Press, 2018), 48, 49. ↩
- Kathi Inman Berens, “E-Literature’s #1 Hit: Is Instagram Poetry E-Literature?,” Electronic Book Review 2019, no. 04-07 (2019). ↩
- Olga Goriunova, “The Lurker and the Politics of Knowledge in Data Culture,” International Journal of Communication; Vol 11 (2017) (2017): 3922, 20, 30. ↩
- Goriunova, “The Lurker and the Politics of Knowledge in Data Culture,” 3922. ↩