Entrepreneur or precarious worker? These are the terms of a cognitive dissonance that turns everyone’s life into a shaky project in perennial start-up phase. Silvio Lorusso guides us through the entreprecariat, a world where change is natural and healthy, whatever it may bring. A world populated by motivational posters, productivity tools, mobile offices and self-help techniques. A world in which a mix of entrepreneurial ideology and widespread precarity is what regulates professional social media, online marketplaces for self-employment and crowdfunding platforms for personal needs. The result? A life in permanent beta, with sometimes tragic implications.
“A compelling and relentless j’accuse: debunking the social and political myths that push an increasing number of persons to perform in the entrepreneurship circus — with no safety nets.”
— Antonio Casilli, author of En attendant les robots, 2019
With a foreword by Geert Lovink and an afterword by Raffaele Alberto Ventura.
Order the book on Onomatopee’s website.
Apple’s “revolutionary user interfaces”
In a previous post, I hypothesized that the evolution of web user interfaces can be understood as their progressive automation which, following the paradigm of industrialization, produces in turn a proletarization of the user. In this post I propose a tentative chronology of technical inventions as well as future forecasts, formulations of trends, and public admonishments that have contributed to and engaged with such transformation. The term proletarization is inspired by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. I do not use it in an accusatory or moralistic sense; by that I intend to simply point out that, by means of semi-automation first (infinite scroll), and full automation then (playlist, stories, etc.), the user is turned into a “hand” first and then into a machine operator, someone who supervises the machine pseudo-autonomous flow and regulates its modulations. Following Simondon, the machine replaces the tool-equipped individual (the worker).
There are four main intertwined threads in this chronology: the emergence of web apps, the invention of the infinite scroll, the appearance of syndication and aggregation, the introduction of smartphones and thus the swipe gesture.
As I’m sure I’m missing or misunderstanding some aspects of it, comments are very welcome. There is also a loong Mastodon thread about this. Let us begin.
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These are some notes related to a research project I just started at KABK. It’s entitled “The User Condition” and it follows Arendt’s tripartite model of vita activa to understand user activity and behavior. The initial intuition leading to my proposal was a blogpost in which I hypothesized that the contemporary web is characterized by a sort of ersatz praxis, aka political action, that replaced the fabrication dimension of the early days: whereas users were craftpeople at first, they later became political agents (in a very broad sense). I’m posting my note to self on a single thread on Mastodon, if you feel like following my convoluted thought process. If you like what you read invite me for a seminar / lecture / workshop, so I can keep developing this, or buy my book on the Entreprecariat.
If I were to intuitively point out a fundamental paradigm shift of user activity in terms of interaction, after the advent of the “corporate web” (this expression needs some clarification), I’d say that the user was reconfigured as a “hand”, understood both as a body component and as a someone who “engages in manual labor”.
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Some time ago, I was asked to answer some questions on automation and creative work for AIGA Eye on Design. I’m quite fond of this magazine, as it is deals with important topics such design education and it promotes laudable initiatives, such as a call for salary transparency. Fast forward one month and I find bits of the interview published on the Adobe blog (no one told me it was online). In the original inquiry there was no mention of a partnership with the company. If there were, I’d have declined the request, or at least I would have asked some money to be turned into Adobe infomercial (I’m a free software fan). Furthermore, the tiny bits extracted from the lenghty answers I gave are both misplaced and misquoted. The very text within quotes has been changed, and with that, its meaning. For someone who advocates the abandonment of any notion of quality (see answers below) the title “Why (good) designers are never going to be obsolete” sounds abhorrent.
As the about page of the magazine says, “AIGA Eye on Design covers the world’s most exciting designers—and the issues they care about”. Turns out I care about my time and ideas and who profits from them (whereas AIGA is a not-for-profit, Adobe is clearly not). This is why I’m disclosing this backstory and posting my answers in their entirety (I was quite happy with them anyway). Of course I’ll also ask the magazine to remove my name from the Adobe blog.
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Last week I attended the MoneyLab, now at its seventh iteration and dedicated to “feminist economics, social payments, corporate crime and the ‘blokechain’”. Some years have passed since I took part in this cycle of conferences, and I’m glad to see that there is both continuity (I recognized some familiar faces) and transformation (many new ones as well).
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Last week I had the chance to attend Reshaping Work, a 2-day conference on the future of work (this year specifically on the platform economy). I’ve been following the event from a distance (read Twitter) for the last two years and I’m glad that I could be there in person this time, as it made me change my mind about it: my first impression was that of a celebratory event in which the platforms could advertise their services without too much criticism. What gave me this impression was an interface issue: all the “research insights” were buried in the 2019 program under a drop-down menu. What I experienced was instead a diverse environment including academics, policy makers, platform-cooperativists, artists, unionists, activists, entrepreneurs, and pseudo-outsiders (like myself).
Meet the Platform Workers session.
In this post I’ll go through some of the talks, panels and installations that I attended and found interesting or useful. This doesn’t mean that this was all, just that for my work and perspective this is what left a mark, also because some sessions were happening at the same time.
I anticipate that this will be a long text so I’m dropping here some of the main keywords that I will touch upon below:
- algorithmic management
- recursive outsourcing
- competing narratives and self-narratives
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Cover image of “Humans of Flat Design” Twitter account
For an upcoming project, designer Annett Höland asked me to react to a passage taken from Vilém Flusser’s essay on “the Non-Thing” (part of The Shape of Things). As I’m very fond of Flusser’s work, I was very happy to do this. This is the passage I chose:
The new human being is not a man of action anymore but a player: homo ludens as opposed to homo faber. Life is no longer a drama for him but a performance. It is no longer a question of action but of sensation. The new human being does not wish to do or to have but to experience. He wishes to experience, to know and, above all, to enjoy.
And here’s my reaction:
If the new human being is a player, what is the game being played? If we consider the online world, we notice a giant effort to make our daily experience look playful. Playful is different from ludic, as it is only the semblance of a ludic experience. Think of cute animations on Facebook, of doodles, of all the badges and gamification strategies on social media and marketplaces. This orchestration of interfaces is driven by a single aim, that is, concealing the profound tedium that permeates today‘s “onlife”. Glimpses of this tedium and even dread are increasingly frequent. Suddenly, while scrolling Facebook, we realize how deeply bored we are. Boredom is the déjà vu of our Matrix. Boredom is not the opposite of experience but the product of its excess. Experience is the passivity we are left with when we are deprived of the capacity of doing and making. Generally speaking, today’s online world is not a place of making but one of experience. Making, craft in the broadest sense, was put aside in favor of convenience and immediacy. No gratification without craft. If we want to get rid of online boredom we have to curb our thirst for experience, we have to reclaim craft, we have to welcome back the homo faber.
Lately I’ve been giving some thought to the notion of autonomy, and in particular to its paradoxical relationship with dependence and interdependence. It looks that the closer you look at forms of autonomy, the more they appear as systems of interdependence. My thinking originates in the entrepreneurial instrumentalization of autonomy and freedom, which results in a more subtle form of subjugation; and is inspired by the work of Constant in bringing together a glossary of interdependencies.
We understand autonomy as “the condition of self-government”. This definition implies a corollary feature of autonomy, that is “freedom from external control or influence”. In this sense, we conceptualize autonomy as an antonym of dependence. Here, I would like to reinterpret autonomy as a peculiar form of dependence instead, a form of dependence that is relatively empowering, a dependence that grants agency. Thus, autonomy as empowering dependence or as “agential” dependence.
Let me explain what I mean by focusing on media in McLuhanian sense, that is, extensions of human faculties such as tools, instruments, technologies. We tend to consider walking an autonomous activity, a self-governed activity as it doesn’t depend on any external system or apparatus. But if we look at walking from the perspective of disability, we are inclined to see it as an activity dependent on a pair of functioning legs. We might say that a person constrained into a wheelchair is dependent on that wheelchair, but then we can say that same for the able-bodied person. If we ask the able-bodied person to use the wheelchair, they will find it disempowering, because it limits their self-governing capacity, whereas it is empowering for the disabled person as it enhance their agency, that is, their capacity to act. This example shows us that dependence is unavoidable, indelible and that autonomy is the spectrum of agency determined by such dependence.
Let’s extend the range of means of transportation. We might say that the car enhances one’s autonomy because it is faster than walking and it allows to cover longer distances. But if we consider that cars have themselves produced those longer distances in big cities, for example to go to work, we might say that our relationship with the car is not one of empowering dependence, because it limits our freedom to walk. Indeed, Wikipedia states that “Automobile dependency is the concept that some city layouts cause automobiles to be favored over alternate forms of transportation”. Furthermore, driving a car means limiting or even locking some other faculties, such as the use of arms and eyes. From this perspective the train is a more autonomous means of transportation.
I’m reposting here the introductory text to the Piet Zwart Instituut’s XPUB’s Special Issue #7, which I had the honor to guest-edit. I take this chance to thank the PZI for inviting me and the PZI students for their enthusiasm during the whole trimester. You can find out more about process, bibliography, and outcomes here.
While technology promises to speed up and simplify what we do, our workload increases and diversifies. Why is that? Is it because we are tirelessly entrepreneurial beings, so that as soon as a new horizon opens up, we can’t wait to move towards it? Or is it that the efficiency required by the systems we inhabit imposes the toll of adapting to them? Or rather is it their very inefficiency that we have to make for?
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Our goal here is to develop a framework that can encompass both the design of things and the design of beings. In order to do so, we need a working definition of design. For this purpose let us consider an unlikely source, Karl Marx’s Capital:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.
For Marx, the ability to imagine denotes a fundamental difference between man and animal: both fabricate more or less complex objects and structures, but only humans imagine, or more precisely prefigure, these structures before fabricating them. Here we understand design as prefiguration (therefore not the final output, which might differ) and the designer as the one who prefigures. The designer doesn’t need to be a human being since several machines, for instance, are capable of prefiguration. This coincides with Oxford Dictionary‘s definition of design, which is “the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made”. Imagination is the initial stage of a plan and uses the mind as a canvas, as an inscription device. Prefiguration can go from the stage of a mere mental image to the stage of a calculated and documented plan.
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