From Lists to Blogs: What is lost and what remains?

Lost in ‘Open Social Order’s Remains*
By Kenneth C. Werbin

Like the current discussion noted on the Corante weblog, I too am struck by ‘ranking lists’ in the blogosphere. But I would argue that the emergence of ‘ranking lists’ are merely a material reification of more disturbing trends that I associate with the complexities and ambiguities inherent in life in ‘open social order’. Indeed, there is little that is surprising in people’s inclination and fascination with measuring and competing in such ways, at least in western societies, where our earliest experiences in school and sport encourage things like ‘ranking’ from the get-go; ultimately preparing us for life in global capital competitive order, where quantitative effects-derived reductions, like ‘ranking lists’, are consistently privileged over qualitative affective ‘positions’ of ascribed human value(s).

What I have seen and experienced being subscribed to nettime for the last 6-7 years is that names/stars that are known and carry weight outside and/or through nettime have through time become the list’s ‘ranked posters’. It has even been suggested on nettime that such ‘invisible ranking’ intimidates and dissuades those without such status. So even though the playing field on a listserv, compared to blogs, is seemingly leveled–in terms of anyone subscribed to the list having the ability to post (moderation aside)–we have seen on nettime, that even in the absence of such measures, certain voices are clearly heard from far more than others. I contend that were nettime to re_imagine itself as blog, this ‘invisible’ hierarchy would quickly materialize as a ‘ranking list’ that saw the same people dominating airtime, only now with numbers attached to their names. Indeed, it is not the ‘ranking list’ that is of concern in current movements in/from listservs to blogs, or even the corporate co-optability of the blogosphere’s wide open order, rather it is what is being posted, said and done; an increasing emphasis on connection and forwarded FW:information over critically engaged writing.

It has been argued on nettime and beyond that just when people begin to critically say something on/about the listserv, discussion quickly gets shut down, generally through the invocation of ‘highbrow theory’ and/or ‘academic references’. And while this is true to a certain extent, people do hide behind references and theories, they are also increasingly inclined, in our ever expanding open social order, to hide behind FW:information; not taking a position one way or the other, just forwarding. And sadly for us, both on and off nettime, in a world that favors FW:information over personal positions, critical engagement will continue to wane and ultimately vanish, not just on listservs and blogs, but everywhere. These are the contradictions and ambiguities of living in a social order in which life is controlled through its very openness, discernible on nettime in the abundance of FW:information that has come to predominate the list over the last 5 years.

Indeed, in ‘open social order’ we are increasingly inclined to neither hate, nor love, just to open up more. With every passing moment, the diversity and variety of stories we tell and access about anything and everything are opening infinitely; forwarded in never-ending emails to never-ending lists, hyperlinked ad-infinitum in the blogosphere; and the more stories and information we are exposed to, the less inclined we are to take positions. How could we, knowing that there are so many different ways to view it? Open social order is marked by such fundamental contradiction; the deployment of content to ever-expanding feedback systems to the cause of an open society, but to the effect of a controlled one.

Today, we value information openings and fear closures against social noise; we fear the -isms they may produce. This is life in open social order, in open cybernetic society. And we are not here by chance. There is a legacy to this project, of which the internet is but one component. This legacy traces back to the mass adoption of cybernetic notions by social and hard scientists who came to see both humans and machines as ‘open information processing systems’ governed through mechanisms of feedback. Through a variety of mapping techniques, cybernetics seeks to model socio-technical organizations and environments in order to subject them to simulation and experimentation with the aim of predicting movement and behavior, and ultimately controlling it. While early adoption of such mathematical philosophy was exclusively military, such notions quickly extended to questions of social order, leading to a series of initiatives spearheaded by the US government since the mid-40s to ‘connect’ people globally in the hopes of eliminating what an Adorno study on ‘Racism in America’ called the ‘authoritarian personality’.

Simply put, the idea was that the more ‘open’ and ‘connected’ people are, the less inclined they will be to take extreme ‘authoritarian’ positions of hate. The gospel of cybernetics was evangelized to social and hard sciences at large through a series of initiatives including the Macy conferences in Chicago in the mid 1940s, which were attended by cybernetic and social science luminaries including Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, von Neumann, von Forester and Kurt Lewin, as well as the CIA. These conferences ultimately gave rise to a series of ‘open’ social experiments including the LSD experiments at Harvard, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and also ARPANET. Contrary to many accounts of the impetus for ARPANET, the idea of an ‘open social order’ to encourage a world without hate was the fundamental goal behind the advent of the internet’s predecessor, not fear of nuclear disaster.

And so where the above-linked discussion argues that:

“Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures. Is the weblog world such a system? Are there people who are as talented or deserving as the current stars, but who are not getting anything like the traffic? Doubtless. Will this problem get worse in the future? Yes.”

I too, agree that the ‘form’ is a problem, and it is certainly getting worse… But for me, the power law distribution that exists and is taking on a ‘great’ amount of homeostasis has little to do with who the current stars/names are, and whether or not those deserving are getting their ‘just’ attention, but rather with the inertia inherent in a social order that ranks ‘stars’ in general. Whether we are FW:forwarding what they have already said, or clicking-through to what they currently think, what is of great concern is the lack of critical engagement that goes along with such practices and ultimately how they work in favor of a controlled order. The blogosphere only further reveals such openings for control.

In this way I think of listservs and nettime as ‘good closures’ that should continue, but with less FW:information and more personal positions. If we understand the internet as cybernetics would have us–as a social experiment in controlled complexity–then we also understand that closings are as important as openings; and perhaps the closures associated with listservs, and more importantly, the filtering out of noise inherent in people taking positions, might very well be the only ways to ‘open up critical engagement’ in a society increasingly plagued by the inertia of information overload.

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