Weaving the Multi-Layered Web of (Digital) Power
The virtual sphere has started to permeate our daily lives with its seamless and agentless structure just as “locative art” marks reality in William Gibson’s Spook Country, prompting a character to say that cyberspace – the author’s very same brainchild of some years earlier—is turning inside out.William Gibson | Spook Country | 2007 As surrounded as we are of a thick mist of thoughts and ideas broadcast by voices that are nodes like us on the very same net, questions arise on how is power in the multilayered digital space constructed.
The mist of digital content seems faceless and aimless, contained in a networked world built by a digital stuccoJean Baudrillard | Simulations | 1983 | Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), pp. 85,88, 136; quoted in Digital Stucco: Convergent Media and Social Consensus in the Postmodern Condition, A Thesis, Hiram Enriquez, Georgia State University, Atlanta 2004 layer, constructing a version of “reality”. Baudrillard sets in the Renaissance the point of rupture of the feudal order under the weight of the emergent bourgeois values. He speaks of the “end of the obliged sign and [the emerging] reign of the emancipated sign, that [which] all classes partake from.” He presents it as an era giving way to an alternative cultural order and free production of signs, drifting slowly from the cult of the “originals,” first towards the counterfeit of “theater and stucco.”
Jean Baudrillard writes that “stucco exorcises the unlikely confusion of matter into a single new substance, a sort of general equivalent of all the others.” Later, through mass production after the industrial revolution, the sign finally reaches what he defines as the age of simulation “controlled by the code.” Stucco, as general equivalent of other discourses can adopt all forms and represent all materials and shapes, ending the dominance of the restrictive sign and opening symbolic production in concurrence with the values of the Renaissance.
The nature of the digital world as we experience it today may give the sign of an affection for originality that opposes its condition as just as model or pattern for infinite reproduction. Digital matter homogenizes but it also differentiates. It invites reproduction and alteration with equal emphasis. As the technological advances allow for ’cheaper’ and more ‘user-friendly’ means of producing signs, mass production (such as those of the traditional media outlets now on the Web) acquires the capability of delivering “personalized” versions. At the same time, massive products like media texts or popular music are broken and reconstructed by the individual user-formerly audience member, in the context of traditional mass communication.
In turn, almost anyone can make his/her own products (symbolic or otherwise) available to potentially massive audiences. The digital stucco becomes part of the process of the “emancipation of the sign”. It has departed from its ties to the referent of reality and it now has the ability to change the very notion of such referent. Symbolic consumers/ producers of a new kind push their individualities against the totality of the system, emerging in a multi-layered force that alters the ideas of what was considered relevant or elevated in modernist standards.
In this essay we would like to argue the mist, discourse or algorithm—whichever way you want to call it – is a form of agency, of political agency; and the digital stucco is the contemporary political arena, emancipated, free but not neutral, definitely not neutral.
Individuals and institutions speak to each other using the same channel, the digital discursive plane fusing mass communication and personal media both in production and consumption. For power structures to articulate attention is key; it can be engineered, manufactured, bought and hijacked but it can also be garnered through the digital network fluidity and creative force. Networks are multilayered, reflecting what Castells calls the portfolio of sociability, powered to reach critical masses, increasing effects across social and geographic barriers, reflecting the enunciations of those who are more powerful or those who scream louder.
President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter both to share his personal ideas and communicate his executive decisions is a good example of this fusion. Discursive communication controversies are rendering the US President’s mandate unstable and illegitimate at times. As a result, power becomes texturized and even more localized, not geographically but as a result of the digital stucco making the Trump reality ‘possible’.
Discursive bricks of political stucco amassing to ‘build a wall’ where reality and reason are moving apart at an alarming speed taking on the same fluidity and dynamism social media gather in seconds. Enunciations and announcements of a state’s man nature are enunciated as rogue street art painted over the stucco, eroding the meaning of the Presidential power and amassing enormous signification to the digital power to the Twitter State Announcement.
Likewise, on October 25th, 2016, more than a million people from all around the world used their social accounts to “check-in” at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation.„North Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Mass Facebook Check-In“ | theguardian.com | 2017 This action was enacted after a rumor circulated that the police was tracking protesters who joined the native people trying to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the account that it was disrupting sacred ground and posed severe threats to the ecosystem of the area. The Sheriff Department denied the allegations as a “hoax” but inadvertently, massive online movements gathered in solidarity with the cause and helped bring the issue to focus in the public arena. While mainstream media had largely ignored it amid the coverage of the electoral campaigns, the Dakota Access Pipeline erupted in the digital political plane.
Communication systems controlled by a handful of ideologues and biased editors cannot withhold discourses from digital spaces that were never able to surface into the ‘mainstream’. Amid so many voices with a platform to reach out, public discourse earns texture, angles, emerging free from the obscurity of the editorial selection, fresh and free content mist. In contrast, the networked individual has almost single-handedly relinquished the role of filtering and deciding on what’s important, what’s reliable. Digital spaces and networks contribute to the subject’s ability to navigate those uncharted waters. Flaubert called this phenomenon ‘l’embarrass du choix’, which translates as ‘you’re spoilt for choice. The only problem is choosing’; we have full digital freedoms; we are just not deciding what we consume digitally.
Poor outcomes in this front can lead to situations like the later-debunked conspiracy theory that came to be known as “Pizzagate,” involving stories about human trafficking, a child-sex ring in a series of restaurants in Washington DC members of the Democratic Party. While people ‘reasonably’ dismissed the story, it escalated to the point to fuel a man to fire several shots in a restaurant where he went to investigate the claim by himself—surrendering after finding “no evidence.” Ultimately, the truth may become less important than considering multiple angles of a situation. Collective or individual action would be better off and produce better outcomes when required by this digital self-regulating system. However, the system cannot and should not regulate itself. It is the subject ultimately who chooses to move into the analogue realm and fire a gun. The ‘look what you made me do’ line does not excuse the incapacity people have to weigh in what realities are portrayed by stucco on their home or portable screens.
In parallel, the Venezuelan opposition leaders recently rejecting the non-democratic Constitutional Assembly imposed by President Maduro’s regime have very few spaces to share their opinions, disagreement and regime critiques. Social media has become their escape valve, essential for people in and out of the country to be informed and to share ideas for what comes next for Venezuela.
Unfortunately, the same digital space is as or even more divided as the politics on the street holding reason ransom. Venezuela’s future depends on how its citizens can react and accept to the landscapes painted with Chavista or Anti-Chavez stucco.
Where is democracy left off then? What are we left to do? Power and participation rest in the community, whether it is digital or analogue, their pressure points are the same as the individuals are, they react in the same way as every subject does. Every digital and analogue person must be open to the possibility of being the creator of alternative narratives, of lives out of this planet, of democracies after dictatorships, of decontextualized gender, of free and fluid signification. People can build cohorts of collective consciences away from glorified individual digital identities and intervene the digital stucco to have it build experiences that are intense, rich and full or ‘authentic’ enunciations of life.
We have the power, we as emancipated people who still have the capacity to dream and feel, who are still able to discern between right and wrong, who can still see the stucco is human-made; hence it can be altered and amended, democratized. Our invitation is to learn to identify the limits and the fabric of the digital stucco. Learn what it is made off. And make some collectively, based on the social and respectful values we humans hold dear: human rights.Jacque Njeri is a 26-year-old artist from Kenya. In her latest project called #MaaSci she imagines what the Maasai people would look like in space. Here’s how the idea came about and what message she hopes to send. (Pictures: Jacque Njeri - on Instagram: fruit_junkie ) | „A Keynan Artist imagines what the Maasai people would look like in space“ | BBC | 2017