Burlington Arcade, London c. 1925
A Stroll in the Postindustrial Arcades
The ‘Digital Window’ As Mode-of-Capture
These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.
Let us imagine our present-day or near-future online experience as if it were a sequence of vignettes, a streak of small displays nested within a longer, perhaps infinite set, (much like one might call to mind a string of shop-windows in the 19th Century Parisian arcades,) constructed within a postindustrial architecture which permits an endlessly unfolding arcade, like the bottomless Facebook news feed, and which frames me in the windows by enmeshing myself with my device. Add to this picture the manifold aesthetic sensibility that Walter Benjamin may have wielded as he strolled these ‘commercial breaks’ in the urban architecture, these looking glasses into the heart of modernism, and consider how an [emotional] raincloud might drive us into the [Postindustrial] Arcade to feel the warm glow of ‘civilisation’ again. Consider that the window-displays in the Postindustrial Arcades which are so interesting to you, dressed to be so grabbing of your particular attention, that it feels somehow unpleasant to have to turn away, to leave, say ‘no’ or otherwise disconnect from the arcade ‘feed’, anxious not to miss the next window, hypnotised by this fragmented, yet increasingly revealing self-image; the great paradox of the eye which «sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things» (Shakespeare, c. 1599: Act 1 Scene 2), aware that the amount of time spent looking at the window-displays is also time spent being looked at by said displays – a phenomenological window of sorts. Amazon learns about you so well it knows what you want and when, even before you do1 – and each quantifiable packet of data is fed back into the arcade so as to make it more responsive to you in particular, so much so that eventually, the inclination to ever leave the Postindustrial Arcades approaches nil, coaxed into the neurochemical opium dens of PornHub and iTunes. Thus the arcade becomes a promised land, a Land of the Lotus Eaters; ‘I am not leaving! Whatever for?’
Pleasure turns to anger swiftly, a response to the perceived d-anger; ‘Somebody is in control of me – I’ve lost my wits in sensuous stupefaction! My nervous system must be in the cloud, because I can’t look away. I have lost control.’ A sense of entrapment in the arcade arises, a flood of cortisol within the noble human metamorphosed into poultry animal, the feeling of the hunter caught in a trap, the useless anger at the self [and at the Other] for having been tricked, the blind rage of the disempowered in thrall to the sensuous energy of hatred – which is exactly what the windows now show. The arcade windows marvellously reflect my outrage, your outrage, our outrage: outrage perfectly timed and suited to me – and my sponsors – responsive to the here-and-now of my deepest, most ungovernable emotions! But what exactly changed my mood? Was the neurochemical response to danger my own, or was it a ‘sponsored’ thought, an Ad? Is this even my outrage?
The resulting helplessness in the face of our feelings, plugged-into the endless gilded cages of the Postindustrial Arcades, whose architecture is somehow pragmatic enough to accommodate functional tendencies from both Democracy and Fascism, could be called LiberFascism (i.e. a liberal technocracy of networked desire-slaves, imprisoned by technologically-augmented feelings in the data-mines of the new industrial workhouse – the Arcades – and governed by the evolutionary logic of chemical emotions.) Breitbart Media feeds you a story you literally cannot ignore, written as it was to provoke your particular anger. Truth is devalued only inasmuch as fake-news is worth more money. As Foucault famously speculated on how a people comes to desire its own repression (Deleuze, Guattari, 1972: 31; Deleuze, Foucault, 1972: 212), a good working answer might be to make the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ functionally harmonious, identical or otherwise meaningless. The chattels of 21st Century neocolonialism are the evolutionary hard-wired links of human feeling, the survival instincts which served us individually and in groups, turned [against?] us; the slaves feel good and would feel terrible to leave the mines. Freedom and slavery hereafter become atavisms of a networked consciousness…
But now consider this Postindustrial Arcade as NeoSelf, an augmented self, technologically extended self: I am in the internet and the internet is in me. Although the territory of the arcades is dominated by corporate giants – both visible and shadowy – if they are partly in me, I must also be partly in them. The arcade is filled with infinite digital ‘windows’ through which to see this augmented self that resides ‘there’ in some way, extended by the internet, and by looking at your open tabs right now, your browser history or cookies, you can see the most superficial evidence of this online self. The unhelimlich feeling encountered by this experience of looking at yourself as Other, as property, is the recognition that what is bought and sold in these pretty windows is your data, your NeoSelf – you. In this Arcade our personal data-flow becomes commodity-value, ‘neo-liberalised’ and transported to great offshore, unregulated data silos in which, perhaps most unsettlingly, the mind ceases to be a private domain, finds itself contracted to numerous data-mines (Facebook, Instagram, FitBit, Google, etc.,) which impose their usage, access or content restrictions on your ability to think, on your ‘yes’ and ‘no’, thus enforcing ownership over the NeoSelf.
The previously sacrosanct territory of the private mind, now digitally extruded into the net, trades privacy for interconnectedness. Privacy becomes a fetish or a dream, and in these digital dreams our unconscious data-flows shape the internet into grottoes of anxiety or denial; or into the sadistic, violent indifference of the dark web; or into forgotten forums filled with rotten, ancient resent; or into fantasies of self-help leading inevitably to labyrinthine failures; or exits which are fake or only painted-on, guarded by neo-nazi trolls of the external and internal variety. This quasi-experience, in the farmed ecstasies of the NeoSelf in which entire structures of the unconscious mind become connected to the economy directly for the first time, unconsciously becoming-cyborg and enmeshed [before we know] it in an accelerating and thrilling techno-social melee, revealing in real-time unseen vulnerabilities – as well as potentialities – in the technologically-augmented human.
Our concern is with these deterritorialisations: of the online unconscious, of the browser browsed, reversed by the digital window into a mirror-image or doppelgänger, a becoming-mineral (silicon) into which an accelerating self watches proudly at the spectacle of its own augmentation, enhancement, interconnectedness, furious penetration and domination, transfixed by the grandeur of the great human animal reduced to petty spectacle of disenfranchisement, a cash-crop consciousness, a warning against the neocolonial politics of personal transparency, giving our data freely in exchange for tiny, neurochemical hits.
I Am In The Arcades, & The Arcades Are In Me
Neocolonialism and LiberFascism
Polito’s Royal Menagerie, Exeter ‘Change, Strand, 1812
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
Rilke’s poem ‘Der Panther’ afford us a penetrating, reflective glimpse into the sadistic curiosity of the colonial mindset empowered by the tools and techniques of industrial modernism, in which the animal is separated from what it can do – its puissance – and the latter consequences for us as subjects of postindustrial humanity or of what might become of the noble animal ‘human’ once caged, domesticated and toothless. For this transformation to occur, the ‘Jardin des Plantes’ of Rilke’s panther – the simulated habitat for purposes of exhibition and sale – must be supplanted by the walled-garden of the new Postindustrial Arcades, an infinite pitcher plant drawing people in with the promise of rewards whilst retaining them for digestion. The operation that must occur is to hunt the hunter with the irresistibly coloured wobbling lures now available; tools that disarm, that turn instinct upon instinct, strength to weakness in a predictably corporate, neocolonial attitude to the connected members of the species via the exploitation of labour value, (i.e. the way in which Facebook rewards me with intelligently managed dopamine hits, not cash or credit,) and the tools for this unprecedented capture and retention of human interest are already in use.
The Postindustrial Arcades follow in the genealogy of the architectures of control, labour and correction, and the nearest equivalent is Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon, inasmuch as optics, flow and security are the principles around which the architectural features of the ‘perfect’ prison are organised. The prisoner’s cell faces a mirror behind which it is not known if a guard is watching, therefore the prisoner assumes that s/he is always being watched and alters their own behaviour towards conformity to rule. However, the logic of Bentham’s design was more cunning in theory than in punitive practice, and the Panopticon design failed to proliferate. The improvement to Bentham’s design found in the Postindustrial Arcades though is significant; AI, Big Data and the personal internet devices used to harvest it and in which our attention, (the NeoSelf,) is caught. No fallible human guard is needed behind the two-way mirror of the digital window – AI can watch 24/7 – and already is. How much behaviour has already been mediated by the tacit assumption that the digital window is a recording surface for AI/big-data trawlers which are always recording and analysing every available data point, all of which is backwards-searchable and growing in resolution? When I am driving, I always slow down for a speed camera even though I am told that not all of them have a camera behind the mirror, (and this story is partly why speed cameras work.) The assumption that one is always being watched is augmented subtly by the stories coming from Silicon Valley, coupled with paranoia-building stories from those such as Edward Snowden demonstrate apparently concrete knowledge that now you are always being watched – by your smart TV, your smart phone, your smart coffee machine, your smart dildo – even if it isn’t true. This ‘concrete awareness’ may again be an assumption, an easy story to believe, no doubt – but could also be a logical fallacy, a simple trick like that of the Panopticon – most likely nobody is watching! ‘How can I know what to think? I am occluded by my own data!’ A painful spectacle it is to watch the human animal confounded by instinct, like the panther, on display for cash.
As I look through the window of my screen, that same window opens into me – and leeches my data out where it is processed and added to the composition of my online self, my NeoSelf. Cortana, Windows’ onboard AI assistant is literally there to discover everything about its user, record everything performed in front of the window, and feed it back to Microsoft – passively, at first, agreed – but learning all the while – networked and aggregated learning – approaching an understanding of its users so complex and rich in data, at speeds and orders of magnitude far beyond the comprehension of the un-augmented human mind, and all within rapidly decreasing timescales. Add to this already massive tap of data the increasing flow – nay, torrent – of information spewing from the nascent Internet of Things, crunched and recirculated throughout the ecosystem of the Net and, eventually, back into the screen which gathered the data it now re-presents and in which I can see my digested self, a pastiche, and one quickly sees that the idea of biological, natural privacy is already compromised, must be redefined.
These four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good (…) for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed.
Augmented paranoia is a terrible rollercoaster which may never slow down: do parts of my nervous system already extend into the cloud, and does the private domain of my mind have a public IP? Will my thinking be economically viable without upgrading to a premium plan, or will my headspace forever be pimped-out to advertising placards, defaced by illegal political bill-posters, digital graffiti or hate-speech? Have the concepts ‘private space’ or ‘private self’ already been augmented so far that I am already aware that I exist in ever-diminishing degrees of self-autonomy and privacy? Further social engineering occurs. As I look again at the tabs open in my browser I see my digital workplace, high street, neighbourhood and community, all of which are subject to the divisive forces of gentrification, ghettoisation and policing. Within the the Postindustrial Arcades, these mind-malls, an interconnected isolation or separation from power within social media bubbles of the crypto-conscious mind becomes possible, the social divide widened perhaps permanently by genetic engineering and cyborg upgrades available only to the super-wealthy, or by dangerous imitations synthesised by hackers on the darknet. What’s left of your mind now resides in multiple corporate servers, (how much of it you will never know,) and is technically corporation property. It cannot be taken back.
Amazon is gathering such an incredible silo of personal data about each of its clients that, coupled with its AI systems, it will actually know what it’s customers are going to buy before they do, (and there will be no way to tell if the impulse to buy was a ‘sponsored thought’ or a naturally occurring one, whatever that may mean.) As facial-recognition technology proliferates and grows more sensitive, as human behaviours are made transparent by neural networks crunching through all the available data hoovered-up by the digital window, interpreting each tiny hesitation, each micro-expression of feeling against vast tranches of unconscious data points for the optimum understanding of you by corporate biometrics aggregators, it is you who become the arcade, the shop windows, the browsers, the products and the experience of all this. Alexa keeps me happy in lieu of pay on behalf of Amazon’s clients, dresses me up in my own shop window where I am helplessly trapped by narcissism in a perpetual act of self-display and courtship, where my goods – my data – is sold to prospective customers desiring access to my brain-stem. The first steps towards a cyborg, networked consciousness are faltering, hesitant; the instinct ‘…rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles, plunges into the heart and is gone.’
To have to fight the instincts – that is the definition of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.
(Nietzsche, 1990: #11)
That which could be said to be at the apex of right-wing fears – decadence, corruption, weakness, dispossession – are already part of the melee; fascism is the symptom of decline, the fear of its own tendencies, not the reinstatement of cultural authority. These powerful fears however already constitute a vast, distributed spectacle inside a changing news media, (such as ISIS, Trump, Brexit, etc.,) and are already marketed and sold alongside conspiracy and comment, are no less subject to the neurochemical promptings of the intelligent Postindustrial Arcades. What would a digital fascism look like, if such a thing is even conceivable? What re-action might be triggered from the growing sense of disempowerment caused by the awareness that our machines are making us ‘weaker’? The results of economic liberalism on the digital economy may spark the fear that genetic corruption, decadence of the will or some such weakening of the proud animal ‘human’ is the inevitable result of farming the human organism by digital means; if I can’t control my desires because half my nervous system is in the cloud, what sort of reactionary feelings might emerge from the perceived threat posed to the human animal? Will there be those who feel a need to toughen-up, unplug, or otherwise make something or other ‘great again’, feel as though they can take back control of their own psychological, social or physical borders? Will those on the frightened right react to their own inclinations, or those suggested by some right-wing social media bulldozer and its wholesale manufacture of relativistic, contingent and alternate realities?
For sure, whilst there are those in Silicon Valley who are developing the technological means to dismantle fascism permanently, there are of course those who seek the permanent end of democracy by technological means, and this may result in a pragmatic, working hybrid of the two tendencies. Breitbart Media’s fiction-production organs, coupled with the election-hacking capabilities of Cambridge Analytica produce an environment of relativistic data-nihilism; when personal outrage reaches the point whereby facts are replaced by CAPS-LOCK and alt-facts, when sponsored fake-news bots pay to access my personal ‘windows’ to deliver automatically generated stories which somehow always – always – flick my switch, push my buttons, raise my hackles, whatever – leave me outraged, disoriented and easily led. Biometrically measured weak spots and prejudices contained within my character profile convert the social media news feed in essence to an anti-social media – or even a National Socialist Media – due in part to the helpless outrage of paramilitary data-fascists, misogynists, racists; the troll populations lurking in the swamp of the comments sections, beneath internet superhighways and byways, a revolting hydra ready to defend the patriarchy by shitposting all over comments and forums when called-upon, permanently poised against the equally well-poised hydra of whatever headless network of terrorist cells with meaningless political affiliations is currently en vogue. And when my inclination to vote arrives in my head, does it comes via the sponsored tentacles of an invasive Lovecraftian domination-cult ‘guided’ by powerful yet insecure paranoiacs – people like Steve Bannon – already enslaved to each new conspiratorial fury or alt-fact circulating within the authoritarian right-wing?
The Unstitute and the Art of Escape
Avatars, Dissimulation, Burrows
Carceri Series, Plate XIV, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1745
In [Kafka’s] The Trial, it is once again a question of a determined machine like the single machine of justice; but its unity is so nebulous, an influence machine, a contamination, that there is no longer any difference between being outside or inside.
(Deleuze, Guattari, 1986)
The Unstitute-as-network retains an ambiguous appearance within a poetics of augmented space; it is a maze, a prison, a wreck, a facade – or at least looks partially like all of these. If we have conjured fantastical apparatus of capture and spaces of incarceration and correction within the confines of this article, it is perhaps less to do with accurate predictions of the future than it is to provoke these mental constructions of our trap – in order to imagine and build an approximation of that architecture online. Piranesi’s psychedelic prisons reveal the magic thinking of autocracy, of a perfect, absolute and overbearing incarceration no less than Bentham’s, and it is certainly interesting that the Panopticon enjoyed only limited success as an actual working prison2, but became an object of lasting theoretical concern primarily for philosophers, artists and others concerned by the relation between optics and power. Furthermore, the appearance of the Panopticon as the perfect prison is a valuable lesson for the artist; for style and appearance – cognitive dressing-up – have been cornerstones in the establishment of the anthropocene since the first jewellery made a person more attractive, the first music made an occasion more solemn, the first painting made images appear without dreams or drugs, or the first fiction enhanced the retelling of a memory3. The value of the artist, far from producing rarefied objects or political diatribes may eventually come to be recognised through the analogous function of camouflage or dissimulation.4 In order to protect Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project from invading nazi bibliophobes, George Bataille, librarian-surrealist and friend to Benjamin buried the manuscript in an ocean of information – inside the Bibliotheque Nationale. Mon dieu! To hide a subversive text in – the National Library!5
The Unstitute is proliferated by entrances and exits
We dig tunnels. We manufacture our selves and escape into them, through them, down them. There is no overarching plan to the networked superstructure of The Unstitute, but we know there must be enough ways for us to get out quickly when the need to escape arises. Sure, this edifice takes on all the characteristics of a labyrinth but this could simply be an appearance. To be sure, we are never satisfied that the labyrinth has reached a state of perfection, inasmuch as each new improvement reveals at least a dozen new weaknesses which must be counteracted on the instant; strategic alterations are hastily drawn-up; construction begins afresh; new weaknesses and blind spots are revealed; plans are abandoned – and yet oftentimes it is these unfinished avenues that constitutes the greatest confusion for the intruder and thus the greatest pleasure for us. Indeed, there is no way to achieve a full satisfaction that the perfect escape should be at all possible, for one can only know such things when a situation of escape is needful, and anyway, the escape itself is a by-product, an excuse for the architecture of escape.
Probably escape will never be needed – for who should assail us here? But such questions are irrelevant, for we are building upon the possibility of fallible design, and for this there is always much work to be done for the construction to be impregnable, or at least open to such a degree that manifold escape-routes meet the occasion or the nature of any intruder. Every escape we should ever need, every escape our cunning can decide, must be on hand – which predicates that also we ourselves must be in readiness to put this architecture to use without prior warning. Certainly this is not a home. The anxiety of the web, under presumption of being caught, is built into the superstructure itself and it is ambiguous whether the corridors, chambers or doorways constitute means-of-escape or modes-of-capture. What is trapped? The web and its dream-weavers produce innumerable sticky residues with which to tease and ensnare the nascent NeoSelf into a complex corporate mesh in which the recognition of self becomes increasingly identified with the networked nervous system, in which the sense of browsing becomes a sense of being groomed by Google. The Unstitute is a womb for the NeoSelf, a temporary, superficial buffer.
We work unceasingly on our traps, even if they are only painted-on, as in a cartoon, just a sequence of vignettes with a common emphasis upon the impression that there is no place here at all, just the appearance of a website, a derelict or useless space perhaps. An escape cannot be perfected, and thus neither can the architecture of escape. But above all, this escape is not towards freedom – for that is just a word – but to an exponential labour of movement through our selves; this Nomadology takes place within.
1 «Responsive retail has peaked, and we’re about to enter the era of predictive commerce. It’s time for retailers to help people find products in their precise moment of need — and perhaps before they even perceive that need — whether or not they’re logged in or ready to click a “buy” button on a screen. This shift will require designing experiences that merge an understanding of human behavior with large-scale automation and data integration». (Sharma, 2016)
2 «…there was an operational consequence [to the panopticon] that was much more serious, vividly described by a former Stateville inmate, Paul Warren. ‘They figured they were smart building them that way. They figured they could watch every inmate in the house with only one screw in the tower. What they didn’t figure is that the cons know all the time where the screw is…» (Warren,1953: 139)
3 «He [Merlin Donald] suggests that mimesis played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality among the immediate ancestors of Homo sapiens, just prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought» (Marder Kamhi, 2016)
4 «It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing the image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata — a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp». (Deleuze, Guattari, 1987)
5 «Intellectual despair results in neither weakness nor dreams, but in violence. It is only a matter of knowing how to give vent to one’s rage; whether one only wants to wander like madmen around prisons, or whether one wants to overturn them». (Bataille, 1929)
Arendt H., The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Bataille G., The Lugubrious Game, Documents, 1929
Benjamin W., The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2002
Deleuze G., Guattari F., “Anti Oedipus” Section 2.5 pp. 98, 105, University of Minnesota Press, 1972
Deleuze G, Guattari F., Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Deleuze G., Guattari F., A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Trans. Brian Massumi), Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1987
Marder Kamhi M., Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde reprinted in After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts, (Ed. Elizabeth Millán), Open Court, 2016
Nietzsche F., The Twilight of the Idols (Trans. R.J. Holingdale) Penguin Classics, 1990
Rilke R.M., The Panther, (Trans. Stephen Mitchell), 1902
Shakespeare W., Julius Caesar, Everyman Library, c. 1599
Sharma A., How Predictive AI Will Change Shopping, Harvard Business Review, November 2016
Warren P., Next Time is for Life, New York, 1953
Rilke R.M., The Panther, (Trans. Stephen Mitchell), 1902
Shakespeare W., Julius Caesar, Everyman Library, c. 1599
Sharma A., How Predictive AI Will Change Shopping, Harvard Business Review, November 2016
Warren P., Next Time is for Life, New York, 1953
Daniel O’Reilly is co-founder of The Unstitute: an online art lab for networked cultural research and radical collaboration operational since 2011. Personal projects take the form of Worlds; large, imaginary détournement through bubbles of alternate realities accessible via the browser window, plus numerous experimental works of video, fiction, philosophy and music accessible at The Unstitute. Collaborative works available on the site include The Projection Room, a monthly screening of videos chosen from open submission; UN[dis]criminate, a video refugee camp exploring shifting geopolitical landscapes; [dis]corporate bodies, a monthly series of curated online group exhibitions; #Strategies, artists’ texts published in our monthly ‘zine; Vidiot, an architecture of looking and seeing constructed from windows and eyes. He lives and works in Catalonia with artist and co-founder Marianna O’Reilly and their daughter.
Networked practices and virtual projects at The Unstitute include: