Current Affairs digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship

Howard Rheingold and the narratives of participation

Another video from the Internet as Playground and Factory conference: this time, Howard Rheingold. Rheingold's perspective is always interesting to me for because he's been at this a long time, so he has a depth, and he's on the periphery of academic discourse, so he connects in a different way. The first half of the video talks about the importance of students/youth developing what we would call a critical literacy regarding the web or what he terms "crap detection" here. That's fine. However I was more interested in the second part where he begins to talk about studying and telling "narratives of participation."

In this latter section, he picks up the conference thread regarding "playbor" and emphasizes the importance of "informed consent." That is, that end users should have an understanding (perhaps a return to critical literacy) about the ways in which their social media activities might be commodified. In short, are the services provided by Google or Facebook or YouTube worth the activity/labor we put into them? And I would think there are two ways to evaluate that. First, are they worth it to me as I would value my time/labor? Second, am I getting a fair return vis-a-vis the market value of the social media labor I am providing to these corporations? In terms of the first question, I imagine that either one would say "yes" or stop using that social media service. The second question is more difficult as it is hard to determine what the market value of my participation on Gmail (for example) might be.

So I can get on board with all this regarding social media (i.e. I'm happy to have this conversation), just as I might get on board with it in terms of print literacy and print media. Becoming a traditional reader/writer isn't some simple form of liberation or empowerment. It's also (perhaps mainly) about being plugged into a technological circuit that allows for new forms of labor extraction and ideological suasion. No doubt we can (and ought) to see social media in the same way. And obviously not just in terms of the content but in terms of the media themselves, which involve us in particular (though not "deterministic") mechanisms of subjectification. After all, this is what it means to be a subject, to be linked to a cognitive network of symbolic behavior and action.

I look at "narratives of participation" in a different way though. Conventionally, I think, participation begins with imagining the production of an immanent, self-present identity (the citizen, the author, the user, etc.) who must then protect hir interests (property/labor) and should participate ethically in relation to the commons and community. To participate means to have something in common with others. This is the problem that Nancy elucidates in the contradiction between immanence and community. To be immanent means not to participate. Agamben suggests a different notion of community that does not hinge on sharing characteristics. Deleuze offers a different philosophy of immanence where one is not immanent to the self but there is instead a plane of immanence (consistency) which maybe would offer up a kind of immanent community (though I don't think Deleuze would put it that way) and it wouldn't be one in which a subject would "participate." I have always liked Guattari's concept (which I first encountered in Chaosmosis)
that ethics are micropolitical and machinic, a recognition of
interconnectivity and interdependence on the plane of consistency.

Of course all of this is straying from Rheingold's audience and discourse. I'm not trying to suggest that in order to address the kinds of socio-political issues Rheingold (or this conference) raises that we need to deliver to FYC students (for example) a Deleuzian critical literacy or something. However, if we are going to tell stories about social media I think we need to rethink the actors on the network stage.

The Internet as Playground and Factory – Howard Rheingold from Voices from The Internet as Play on Vimeo.